Choke & Shot Preference
As a wing-shooting guide, specifically in Ruffed Grouse & Woodcock, clients are always asking me what size choke and shot they should use. I usually tell them it’s a personal preference. In the wing-shooting world you need to adjust your shotgun to the birds you’ll be hunting. For example, wing shooting for pheasant requires different chokes & loads as opposed to Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock. You can use a 12 gauge for either game, but a #5 - 1 ¼ load with a modified or full choke is going to be too much for grouse and woodcock. In the grouse covers, most of your shots are going to be 25 to 35 yards, usually with a lot of obstructions, like those pesky alders. Let’s say you’re using a double barrel shotgun, in the grouse & woodcock covers. You will be lucky to get off two shots in such close quarters, particularly with grouse. What I use in my double barrel is the first barrel a skeet choke, and improved cylinder in the second barrel. That way my first shot, skeet, will deliver 40 percent of its shot load within a 30 inch circle at 40 yards. My second shot, Improved cylinder will deliver a 50 percent of its shot load within a 30 inch circle at 40 yards. But 40 yards in the grouse covers is slim to none. Usually after 35 yards you’ll have imbedded the majority of your shot in a tree, as a grouse will put a tree between you and your shot pattern quicker than you can blink!
Now, when it comes to shot size, that too is a personal preference. Let’s use the 12 gauge for an example. Some beginners would presume that a #9 shot is right for woodcock. They think that because a #9 shot is smaller than a #5 it won’t rip the bird apart. In some ways that’s true but you have to take into consideration your shot load and choke. Let’s break it down to a single barrel. If you’re using a 12 gauge 1 ⅛ oz # 9 shot with a full choke, not only will it be a tighter pattern, it will deliver 70 percent of its shot load within a 30 inch circle at 40 yards. So, if a 7 ounce woodcock comes in your line of fire at 35 yards and you connect, there won’t be much left of him, but feathers. If you use a lighter load, ⅞ oz. # 8 shot with a wide spread choke like skeet and hit a little woodcock at 25 or 35 yards, he won’t be demolished. If you’re going to use a 12 gauge for woodcock, I would use an open choke like, cylinder or skeet with a # 7 ½ or 8 shot, with ⅞ or 1oz loads. That way if you shoot at 25 to 35 yards, you’ll have woodcock for dinner, instead of feathers for tying flies.
One of the biggest problems people come across, especially beginners, is they look at only the shot number on the shot shell and nothing else. Yes, it is important to use the correct shot number, but you also have to look at the shot weight. You don’t want to use #8 shot with 1 ½ oz. load on a little woodcock or quail. The 1 ½ oz load is the weight in ounces of pellets loaded in the shell. 1 ½ oz. would consist of 615 pellets. That’s a lot of pellets going into a little bird! On the other hand, if you use a #8 ⅞ oz. load, that’s 359 pellets. The same would be reversed for pheasant, you’d want not only a bigger shot, but more pellets. Consider using a #5 1 ⅝ oz load, consisting of 276 ounces of pellets. A bigger bird at a greater distance requires a heavier load.
The same goes for ruffed grouse. Even though a grouse is significantly bigger than a woodcock, you still want to use similar loads and chokes. Primarily because they both occupy similar covers, with shots still maintaining 25 to 35 yards. It doesn’t take a lot of pellets to bring down either bird. But as I mentioned earlier, you have to match your loads and chokes to your game.
Once the leaves have fallen off the trees, grouse will become more skittish. When this occurs, they’ll be flushing at a greater distance. This too will require choke & load adjustment. One reason is the majority of their cover is exposed. Primarily, the lack of foliage and ground floral to conceal themselves. Every grouse hunter has had a grouse flush moments after you pass. The loud beating wings flushing will throw your concentration off for a few seconds, which is plenty of time for a grouse to disappear, and leave your heart pumping with adrenaline.
I typically use an improved cylinder in my first barrel and a modified in my second. I reversed the improved cylinder to my first shot, and changed my second to modified. With the modified delivering, a 40 inch spread at 35 yards. That way I can reach grouse at a further distance. Now, as I said before, it doesn’t take much to bring down a grouse. But their feathers become thicker in the late fall into the winter months. So between a greater flushing distance and a greater plumage of feathers, you’ll need a little more knock down power. I would recommend a # 5 or 6 - 1 ⅛ oz shot.
These are the loads and chokes I use for grouse & woodcock. They have worked well for me. As I stated earlier, it’s personal preference, to a certain degree. If you’re using loads and chokes that are working for you and the distance your birds are flushing, by all means use what works for you.