The autumn woods, alive with kaleidoscopic colors, and the moist earthy smells of composting leaves, religiously draw sportsmen, and their dogs to impenetrable tangles of thorn, and boot swallowing bramble in search of grouse and woodcock every year. Many of them, like myself, are prone to temporary bouts of amnesia, forgetting birthdays, names, and the where-a-bouts of the honey do list, as the humidity of summer passes, and the temperature slowly falls. It's a time of the year when a gundogs place in the family pecking order quickly rises, while shotguns of every imaginable configuration are cleaned, inspected, and cleaned again. Familiar grouse coverts, and tote roads worn with boot traffic bring a sense of relief like no easy chair and tumbler has ever provided during the off season. While the pleasure of watching ones dog course the woods in search of grouse scent is held in higher esteem than a first class upgrade, and the intensity of a bird well pointed holds more excitement than a Stanley Cup over-time game, the end result sometimes fizzles, rather than pops, because no extra hours on the sporting clays course, nor weekends working with dog trainers can take the survival instinct out of the grouse.
Pointing dogs, being the choice of most grouse hunters, can reveal the location of quite a few grouse in their life time, but making the most of the situation requires more than just a heads up dog, and a keen shooting eye. The Ruffed Grouse's compulsion to run requires dog and handler to form a partnership to put birds before the gun. Countless water-colors depict the lone hunter and his staunch dog, locked onto a grouse flushing straight away from the base of a tree in a long abandoned orchard, but it seldom happens this way. The idea of strolling behind your dog, and sauntering up to his point for a shot may work on plantations lousy with quail, but in the grouse woods, especially when hunting solo, it's better to be proactive. Not only will a little forward thinking put more birds in your bag, but it'll greatly improve the bond between man and dog. Here are a few tips that will help you and your dog to enjoy more grouse hunting success, no matter how you define it.
Trust your dogs nose- For the most part, the upland hunter uses a dog because it's olfactory system has the ability to detect and decipher the tasty smells of nature. As the scent moves from the dogs nose to it's brain, the dog communicates to us it's excitement through subtle changes in body movement. How we react to that movement can either break or seal a deal. While a dog should hunt for the handler, rather than going where, and doing what it pleases, it should be given some latitude. A dog that lifts it's head, and looks in a direction other than that being traveled might be telling you something, and encouraged to investigate. The same with a dog who, while running a beat, circles back and double checks an area behind you. Grouse are cunning, and will circle around on occasion. Though we'd like to think we're pressuring a bird, and moving it ahead, that's not always the case. A dog that checks it's back trail could well end up pointing a bird behind you.
Resist stopping the dog- The Whoa command is a great command. It ensures steadiness in a young dog, can re-enforce manners when running multiple dogs, and can be a great safety tool when near roadways. Used too often, it can give a running grouse a head start every time you use it. Once a dog has become grouse wise, and knows not to crowd birds, the whoa command should be used sparingly. Allowing your dog to reposition as the grouse moves on keeps both you, and the dog closer to the bird as it try's to make it's escape. A dog with good grouse sense will expertly handle all the repositioning on it's own, until pinning the bird. To build this grouse sense in your dog you've got trust him. Laying off the whoa command allow this to happen, and strengthens the bond you two share, as well as increase your enjoyment afield together. Refraining from using the command also keeps you from having to walk over and release the dog after it has complied with the command.
Get Ahead- Hand in hand with allowing your dog to reposition, and probably the biggest piece of the partnership puzzle, is knowing when to get ahead of your dog. I'm not talking about moving in on a point, but hustling well ahead and letting the dog work towards you. Once a dog has become birdy, and it is clear it's working the hot scent of a runner, make a big loop forward so as to end up between 30 to 50 yards ahead of him. Then either start working back towards him slowly, or move back and forth perpendicular to his path, as he herds the running grouse forward. Once the bird realizes it's between the two of you it'll find a hide out, and be pointed. This tactic is easy if you hunting along a tote, or a gated road, as you can get on the road and quickly move ahead. A word of caution, however. This tactic is for the solo hunter. When hunting with others safety is paramount; always know where your shooting partners are. It is best, if hunting with a group, to refrain from having someone circle ahead, but rather have two flankers, designated as shooters, move forward quickly, parallel to the track of the dog. This will cause a grouse to either hold until it can be pointed, or come unglued.
Silence is golden- keeping voice communications to a minimum will leave the wary grouse guessing as to your where-a-bouts until it's too late. When your dog is pushing a running grouse, your dog represents the imminent threat to the bird, and it's only thinking about escaping the dog. When you begin pushing in on a point, the threat changes, and you become the imminent threat. The bird is now focused of you. Why alert the grouse to your presents before it's absolutely necessary by giving commands, or encouragement? Letting your presence be a surprise might just be the thing needed to force the grouse to make a mistake in choosing it's escape path, putting right in front of your muzzles.
Know your coverts- Grouse can be predictable. If you are familiar with your cover, you'll have a better understanding of how the grouse move about in that cover. Some smaller covers will allow you to predict with stunning accuracy where, and which direction a grouse will flush. When this happens you can begin to dissect the cover by casting your dog in a direction you know will influence a birds behavior on the ground. By paying attention to the features In coverts you're intimately familiar with, you will begin to see similar feature in new coverts, and can adapt a strategy for you and the dog based experience elsewhere. Speeding up, or slowing down, based on experience elsewhere may well have you and your dog pinning birds quicker and easier.
Double the dog- Not only is it exciting watching two dogs working in tandem, but it's double the scenting power. Should you be lucky enough to have two pointing dogs this maybe something you want to try. Naturally, the dogs should hunt independently, and have different ranges. The wider, bigger running dog has as much chance of pressuring a bird to move towards you, as it comes around on it's beat, as it does away. When it does, the bird will find itself between the two dogs. You'll find this represents a different kind of threat to the grouse, causing them to hold sooner, ground routes cut off.
Next time you're in the woods, just you and the dog, think about these tips, and give one, or all of them a try. I think they'll help you get productive points quicker. Your dog works hard for you, and you should work just as hard for him. After all, your relationship is real a partnership, and the success of the solo wingshooter depends on the success of the dog, so help him out. You're game bag will appreciate it.
**This is a piece I wrote back in June and shopped around to some outdoor publications. While I recieved good feed back from editors who liked the idea, none wanted to spend money on it. Seems budgets are tight in the periodical world right now. Anyway, here it is now for your enjoyment.