Ignoring the trees is easier said than done but a cornerstone to good wingshooting in thick cover
Like many grouse hunters out there, I often suffer from a shy trigger finger. Even last fall, I was walking along a wide open trail when I flushed a ruffed grouse in the young aspens alongside me. I could clearly see the grouse weaving its way through the trunks, but I thought I would wait until it entered the trail for a clean shot. Unfortunately by the time it did so, it was another 15 yards further away than it had been when I first spotted it. Caught up in the moment, I took a shot anyway and only winged it. Had it not been for a very lucky follow-up shot down the trail, I might have easily lost that bird.
In that humbling moment, some advice my father had told me as a kid echoed in my mind: “Take the first shot you get.”
Unfortunately, deciding which moment is your first ethical shot isn’t always a clear-cut decision. Grouse, like many other upland birds, are predictable only in their unpredictability. They will bob and weave and usually take the least hospitable route through the brush to avoid you. So that means you need to get comfortable with uncomfortable shots in both woodcock and ruffed grouse hunting.
Remember Safety and Ethics First
But first, please realize that safety and ethics are still critical here. If a bird flushes behind some thick spruce trees and you can only see the branches, you should pass on the shot. One, you have absolutely no idea where the bird is and the spruce boughs are just too dense to ethically pull the trigger. Two, you have no clue what’s beyond the trees. At best, you cleanly miss the bird and maim a spruce tree. At worst, you could shoot someone standing behind the trees that you had no clue was there. It’s not worth the risk.
But when a grouse flies behind some alder or dogwood limbs or even some aspen trees and you can still its outline or a glimpse of feathers, don’t wait for a clearing. This is true especially early in the season when the leaves are still up. It may never come. Shotguns are, after all, designed for this situation. After firing hundreds of size 8 pellets downrange, some are usually going to make their way through the branches and find their mark.
How to Develop This Shooting Skill
The key is continuing to follow the bird’s flight path the whole time. Even if it passes behind some limbs, you should follow its movement and lead it appropriately. Sounds easy enough, right?
It’s usually not.
It all happens so fast that it’s hard to practice this skill consciously. The trick with this style of shooting is making a mental shift and putting yourself in these situations often. Start by visualizing the process as you’re walking along. If it’s at the forefront of your mind, you’re more likely to act it out when the time comes. Also, try pausing in an opening where you can swing your gun in any direction, particularly if it’s near a good grouse covert. If a grouse erupts from the understory, they will probably veer for the thickest cover they can find. Pay attention to how you react. Do you panic and try to pull off a shot before they get there or do you look for the next opening?
Historically, when I watched a grouse fly behind cover, I noticed myself giving up and glancing ahead to the next opening instead of following through and shooting. Rather than taking a reasonable shot through the brush, I waited for something that might never come. And more often than not, I went home empty-handed because of it.
Since the battle for the Stanley Cup is on right now, Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Turns out it’s as true with a shotgun and blaze orange vest as it is with a hockey stick and skates. You just need to learn to recognize the right shots.
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.