Grouse Hunting in the Hawthorns

by Steve Galea | October 21, 2014

grouse hunting - in hawthorns
Hunting grouse in the hawthorns is like entering an upscale restaurant: you know you’re going to get a quality experience, but you wonder if the price is too high.

For those who go in unprepared, often the answer is “yes.”

While hawthorns provide great grouse and woodcock habitat, they’re also dangerous places if approached carelessly. I’ve witnessed dog and hunter impaled by those surprisingly sharp thorns and have personally had to end more than a hunt or 2 early because of injury.

A sensible person might ask, “Why hunt in hawthorns at all?”

The answer is easy: a hawthorn thicket is grouse heaven. It holds cover inhospitable to most ground and avian predators, and there is plenty of access to food. Aside from haw apples, these thickets are usually associated with a host of other grouse food.

Hunting through hawthorns doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Good gear and precautions can literally take the sting out of the experience.

Gear for Hunter and Dog
Protective shooting glasses are a must. I prefer a wrap-around style since they provide front and side protection.

A good pair of brush pants is also highly recommended; they keep your legs from being punctured. You’re paying for overall quality and the protective facing, which covers the front of your leg. Facing is generally made of cordura, cotton canvas, or waxed cotton. I know hunters who dislike cordura for use in haws, but I haven’t had an issue with it. Whatever pants and material you choose, make sure it’s tough enough to turn thorns.

A long-sleeved shirt made to bust briars, and a hat (ball caps are good, full brimmed hats are better) are mandatory. Be sure your vest isn’t too big or overloaded to avoid getting it snagged on every little branch.

Lastly, a haw thicket is no place for running shoes or clumsy rubber boots. Wear a good pair of upland or hiking-style hunting boots. These will protect your feet and ensure you don’t slip into a thorny branch.

There are also things you can do for your dog.

Fit it with dog boots and/or a protective vest. Failing this, the most practical thing to do is to check your dog frequently for thorns. When hunting, dogs will hide injury, such as hawthorns in their pad, so keep an eye out for changes in your dog’s gait, or if it’s favouring a paw. When you see either, do your best to alleviate the issue. This will prevent the injury from getting worse.

Best practices
Equipment aside, the smartest thing you can do when hunting grouse in the hawthorns is to proceed with caution.

When birds are flushing and things get exciting, it isn’t easy. But slow and steady wins the race in the haws. Pick your path carefully and you won’t be tangled up or punctured when that flush finally happens.

I follow the paths of least resistance and let my dog work the cover. Sometimes, when that cover deters even the dog, tossing a rock into it is all that’s required to get birds moving.

Don’t forget to use your ears as much as your eyes. Listen for flushes. You’ll likely hear them before seeing them. I’ve witnessed flushed grouse get caught up in the haw canopy and they make quite a commotion getting out.

Once that first shot happens, don’t let your guard down. Haws tend to concentrate birds; sometimes another flush follows the first. You’ve worked hard to get there. Maximize your opportunities.

The bottom line is, go slow, be careful, and enjoy the experience. If you choose carefully, the haws can actually be quite reasonable.

This article originally appeared in the 2000 Ontario OUT of DOORS Oct/Nov issue.

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