They call him King Ruff

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

almost irresistible invitation to chase it down or flush it wild. A good grouse dog freezes at the first whiff and doesn't move until it is sure where the bird lies.

Cooper uses a Brittany and doesn't hunt her on anything but grouse. He hunts every weekend of the season, both on private and public land, and logs perhaps seven hours daily. He figures it takes about 10 hours of hunting per grouse bagged.

Burton Spiller, the patriarch of grouse writers, was a pointer man, but generally pointers range too widely for grouse. Many use English setters, but Brittanies, German shorthairs and other versatile breeds are becoming more popular. Some hunters use retrievers, especially Labradors, and keep the dog close, watching it for signs that a bird is near.

Usually the bird will flush within range, and the retriever will find the downed bird.

A dogless hunter is at the mercy of chance. He can find birds, but not as well as a dog, and he may walk past a bird that stays put or flushes behind the hunter, giving an almost impossible shot.

Grouse hunters don't measure a hunt's success by the heft of the game bag. Muskellunge anglers count follows instead of strikes, and grouse hunters count flushes, not connects. A 20-flush day is a good one (in peak years, hunters in prime habitat might move 60-100 birds a day). Cooper figures he'll flush about 16-17 grouse in a good day.

Like most grouse hunters, he keeps a meticulous log of his hunting, registering location, flushes, what the birds were feeding on, weather and other information that not only recalls the hunt, but also is a database for future hunts.

It all depends on circumstance, of course, but 20 flushes might result in two birds in the bag. Perhaps half the flushes will be sound only, the muffled thunder of an unseen bird. Half of the birds seen will be glimpses, a flash of feathers gone before you can mount the gun.

That leaves about five decent shots to bag two birds. Considering that the birds are twisting among trees or are rising in thick brush, two connects in five shots is good shooting.

Grouse are masters at flushing when a hunter is off-balance, looking the wrong way, thinking about taxes, God or baseball, scratching an itch, in mid-step, talking to a hunting buddy, reloading, or caught up in a briar patch so thick and stickery he can't move the gun.

A good grouse hunter disciplines himself to carry the gun ready at port arms every moment he's hunting. It's not easy. You must convince yourself that a grouse is going to flush one second from now! And do it for six or seven hours.

Grouse hunters need brush pants or chaps to turn stobs and briars, a good pair of thin gloves to protect hands and, above all, plenty of hunter orange and eye protection.

Hunter orange is vital. All hunters must know where everyone else is. Never shoot at birds on the ground or low flying birds when hunting with anyone else, even if you think you know where they are. A dead grouse isn't worth a dead or injured buddy.

Eye protection is vital in the sprouty growth where grouse flourish. Wear shooting glasses, not cheap sunglasses. Shooting glasses are tempered to resist the impact of stray pellets, as well as stobs and vegetative whips.

And yellow-tinted glasses sharpen vision in dim light conditions (they don't actually increase light, but that is the apparent effect).

Most hunters use lightweight shotguns, usually improved cylinder/modified for double barrels, improved cylinder for a single barrel. Cooper uses an over/under 12 gauge with light loads of No. 8 shot.

It doesn't take much to bring a grouse down, and the hunter's axiom is that if you can see a grouse you can kill it. Hunters often shoot as the bird vanishes into the brush and listen for the "thump" of a downed grouse. Wounded grouse don't tend to run like a pheasant or quail, but a dog is indispensable to find them.

Flushed grouse seldom fly more than 100 yards and almost always in a straight line, so a hunter should try to get a good line of flight on the bird and follow it.

Grouse hunters are notorious for keeping their coverts secret. Names like The Wagonwheel and Byron's Demise and the Tripwire Cover have no meaning except to the few who are in on the code.

But Ted Cooper doesn't mind sharing his secrets, since his only secret is to hunt good cover where there are grouse in open season and walk until it gets dark. As more than 2,000 would-be grouse hunters decided after Missouri's first season, that's just too darn much work.

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