Hunting Grouse with a Pointing Labrador
by Dwight Erickson (Doc E)

Grouse !  Grouse season is the first of the many hunting seasons that we have here in the Pacific Northwest.  In Washington state, our Grouse season opens on September 1 and continues until the end of the year. In our area, we have three species of Grouse, which include Ruffed, Franklin (or Spruce) and the big ones, the Blue Grouse.   

Most Grouse hunters prefer to use  traditional Grouse dogs ( Setters), for this "gentleman's sport". The reason that Grouse hunting is called a Gentleman's Sport is because you don't have to get up and start hunting before sunrise. Grouse are most active between two hours after sunrise until sunset.  Numerous people do not think that a Pointing Labrador can do an adequate job as a Grouse Dog, but from my experience of hunting Grouse for over 20 years, over many different breeds of dogs, I can tell you that the PL is a top-notch Grouse dog that rivals any of the traditional Grouse Breeds.  

Here in the Pacific Northwest,  Grouse are primarily found in the mountain forests, which are thickly covered  with many different kinds of Pine Trees, with  frequent patches of Aspen and Birch, with Willows that grow in the wetter areas. In the winter, Grouse burrow under the snow and come out in the daytime for a meal of "buds" from the trees. During the late summer and early fall, the Ruffed and Blue Grouse feed on the many different kinds of berries that we have here in addition to rose hips, and are often found along jeep trails or logging roads in order to get their grit. The Spruce Grouse are more like Pheasants, in that their late summer diet is composed mostly of seeds and pine nuts. 

Conditioning of a good grouse dog begins in the Springtime, because the dog is going to run and hunt for many miles each time you go out. I "road" my PL, Casey, for a minimum of 12 miles two or three times a week from March through August.  I drive behind him on logging roads as he runs and quarters along the road. By the time grouse season opens, he will run and hunt at a speed of 8 to 12 miles an hour for 4 to 5 miles at a time before he needs a 10 minute break, and he can hunt like this for 4 or 5 hours a day, three or four days a week. It is often quite warm in the daytime here during September, so in order to keep Casey cooled down, I take a "Garden Sprayer" along which is filled with water. Anytime that Casey needs to take a break or cool off, I spray his whole body down with cool water from the sprayer. It is also important to bring along plenty of drinking water for both your dog as well as yourself. 

Because it's likely that other hunters will be out and about, I also like to have Casey wear a "hunter orange" vest to reduce the likelihood of him being accidentally shot. Another item that I especially like to have Casey wear is a bell on his collar. There are many times that he will be out quartering through the woods, and the bell helps me identify where he is and the area that he is hunting. When the bell stops ringing, I know that he is on point and that I should find him and get ready to shoot. 

Grouse like "edges".....Edges of timber that has been logged, edges of grasslands at the edge of forest land, edges of roads.... Grouse just plain like edges. We (my son and I. or my wife and I, or all three of us) will hunt grouse areas on foot and then as we drive from one grouse area to the next, Casey will run down the road in front of us hunting the edges of the road, and quarter back into the trees and shrubs along the sides of the road. "Road Hunters" and "ground sluicers" or "tree sluicers" are highly frowned upon here, but our road hunting is entirely different than that.  As Casey quarters the road, and picks up on the scent of a grouse, he will go on point. He will hold that point long enough for us to get out of the rig, load up, and walk to where he is pointing. Whether the hunter makes the flush or whether Casey is allowed to make the flush depends on the terrain and  on the amount of cover that the grouse is as well as what kind of cover the grouse is going to be flying through. The vegetation is often so thick that a human would be unable to both flush and be in a good position to be able to shoot, so the flush is often Casey's job.

The distance that a Pointing Lab will go on point usually depends upon the air conditions at the time. Grouse are usually very spooky birds, and will flush if crowded. It is usually hot and dry here during the first two or three weeks of Grouse season and we have very little wind, so a dog needs a good nose to find the Grouse and point from a distance that won't cause the grouse to flush. Giving your dog a drink of water just prior to him using his nose is always a good idea.  About the closest that a dog can get to a Grouse, without causing it to flush  is about 10 yards if the bird is in heavy cover. If the Grouse is out in the open, the point will need to be farther. When Grouse flush, they will usually fly in a zig zag pattern between the trees and disappear, but sometimes they will just fly to a nearby tree, light on a limb and freeze in position (which makes them become virtually invisible). Frequently, when a Grouse is along the edge of a logging road, instead of flying,  they will just run a few feet back into the vegetation and when this happens, it's usually best to wait five minutes or so to let a scent cone form before you have your dog locate it for you. You just never can be sure what a Grouse is going to do or how it is going to react to a particular situation, and this is one of the things that makes Grouse hunting so enjoyable. One favorite trick that grouse use is to become totally motionless. This will make them look like a rock or a piece of broken tree limb. I have had other Grouse hunters tell me that they thought they were "ground sluicing" a grouse, only to find out that what they really killed was a rock or a limb. Sometimes a person will pass up what looks like a rock or tree limb, only to realize (too late) that it was actually a Grouse. They can be experts of camouflage and deception.  

Oftentimes, more than one bird is shot at a time, the dog must be able to be handled on blind retrieves.  Because of the thick vegetation, many of the grouse that are shot will fall in areas where they can't be seen, or if they are only winged, they will run, so a dog that can trail the scent of a wounded running bird is a must. Sometimes a wounded grouse will land in a tree, so the dog must quarter and be patient enough  to allow the scent to drift down from the tree so he can "air scent" in addition to being able to follow  "ground scent". We experienced a good example of this last season, when we were foot hunting. Casey went on point, and I flushed and shot the Ruffed Grouse that he was pointing. As I shot the Ruffed, which fell in the open at about 40 yards, two big Blues also went up. I shot one which went down dead, back in very thick forest and shrubs, which was up an extremely steep mountainside. I shot the third grouse which although hit, lit in a tree about 60 yards out, also up the same steep mountain side.

Casey marked the fall of the first bird down and also saw the general area of the fall of the second bird. However he didn't see that the third bird had lit in a tree. I sent him for the close bird retrieve first, then he was sent for the second bird down. Both of these birds were retrieved to hand in the proper Labrador Retriever fashion.  When I looked back at the tree where the third bird had lit, it was no longer on the limb -- it had flown down out of the tree and had started running. To get this bird, it took a combination of "blind retrieve" signals followed by "trailing a scent". I sent Casey to the area of the tree as though he was on a blind retrieve, and when he got to the area, I gave him a "find the bird" command. He quartered around the tree and picked up on the scent of the running grouse and trailed it nearly 80 yards back into the forest. The vegetation was so thick that I couldn't see him the majority of the time, but I could hear the bell on his collar. Soon, the bell stopped ringing for a couple seconds, then the bell started ringing again, and the sound of the bell came closer. A few seconds later Casey appeared from the woods with another beautiful Blue Grouse. A Grouse Hunter couldn't have asked for anything better. A great dog finding and pointing, three birds up, three birds down, one easy retrieve, one difficult retrieve and one blind retrieve that required trailing.

Does a Pointing Labrador make a good Grouse dog? Yes - in fact they make a great Grouse dog, and are definitely as good or better than any traditional Grouse Dog that I have ever hunted over.


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