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BY GREG LABONTE
Ruffed grouse are a familiar bird to almost any Maine hunter. The plump brown birds are relatively easy to find and harvest in Northern or Western Maine, drawing hunters of all ages to partake in the hunt. Most hunters will harvest the breast meat and leave the bird “for the coyotes”. I am not a believer in leaving anything for the coyotes anymore. If you are to harvest an animal, please use as much of the animal as possible or give the parts you won’t be using to somebody who will.
Ruffed Grouse capes can be quite pricey, upwards of $50 for a platinum grade (if you’re lucky enough to find one), but they make some of the most beautiful flies on the planet. Rather than spending the money, if you’re already going to shoot them, why not make your own? Here, I will provide step by step detailed instructions on how to make your own ruffed grouse cape, from start to finish.
1: I use three tools – a pair of game scissors, cutting pliers, and a sharp blade.
2: Start by making an initial cut along the breast plate in the middle of the bird. The skin of the bird is quite thin, do not apply a lot of pressure. A small 1” incision is all that is needed to start the process.
3: After the 1” incision, continue cutting in a straight line to the throat/crop and down to the anus. From here, you can use your hands to peel the skin away from the meat. Work the skin around the back of the bird and down to the legs. AT NO TIME SHOULD YOU APPLY OR EXERT A GREAT AMOUNT OF FORCE. The skin is very thin and delicate, if you apply a great amount of force, you will rip the skin, which you do not want.
4: After working the skin around the back and down to the legs, begin working the skin down each leg of the grouse. Remember to bring the skin down around the whole leg and not just one side. Once you have reached the ankle of the grouse you can either cut the skin using a blade or scissors to completely detach the skin from the leg. Do this to both legs before moving onto the next step.
5: After successfully removing the skin from each leag, begin working the skin backwards till it is completely detached from the spine. Continue detaching as much of the skin up and down the spine as possible. You should be able to detach all the way up to the shoulder and as far down as the rump of the bird, just behind the legs.
6: *This is the easiest step to mess up* If you want the tail connected to the cape, you need to locate the anus by lifting up the tail feathers. You will make your cut at the midway point between the anus and the base of the tail feathers.
Draw an imaginary line between the midway point that you’ve established between the tail feathers and anus and the point where your skin is currently removed to on the spine. You want to make a cut to connect these points, which will keep the tail attached to the skin after you’ve made the cut. I use shear scissors to make the cut, but a longer sharp knife would also suffice
*If you want to skip this step, you can simply cut the skin at the rump, successfully detaching it from the bird and remove the tail separately.
8: Once the tail and skin have been removed together, begin peeling the skin upwards toward the wings/neck. Again, do not use excessive force, this will be easy. Once the skin has reached the wing, stop pulling the skin back and begin working the skin down the wing.
9: Begin working the skin down to the elbow of each wing. You will not be able to go much further than the elbow, which is fine. The amount of soft tissue in the wing is minimal and will dehydrate sufficiently during the drying process.
Once you have successfully reached the elbow. Use the cutting pliers to detach the wing from the body.
10: Once both of the wings have been detached, cut the skin up the throat of the bird in a vertical line. Be very careful here, the skin is easily ripped around the neck. Work your way up to the chin of the bird.
11: Slowly begin pulling the skin up towards the head. You may need to help it along around the neck as there are several stringy tendon-like structures holding it in place. Continue to pull the skin to the top of the head and use your scissors to cut the final attachment point.
12: Once your skin is removed, there will be some pieces of flesh or fat, do your best to remove all fleshy tissue. Then turn the skin over and pin down the skin on a board, piece of cardboard, or something similar. Try and stretch the skin as best you can, this will ensure the skin completely dries.
*IMPORTANT: HOW YOU PIN THE SKIN IS EXACTLY HOW IT WILL DRY, SO IF YOU WANT THE WINGS FLARED OUT OR TAIL FLARED OUT, PIN IT IN THAT FASHION.
13. There are several ways to dry out a skin, I find the best is to cover the skin in a thick coat of Borax and placed in a dry cool area. I put mine in a cooler and put it out in my shed. If you put the skin in an enclosed container, make sure to “burp” the cooler every couple days. I let the skin dry for 2-3 weeks, checking in on them every few days. You can allow the skin to dry up to a month if you want to be overly cautious
Anddddd your final product looks something like this. A full cape, ready to be used to tie up your favorite nymphs, soft hackles, or dry flies! There are many different styled feathers on the bird and spend some time going through each kind, seeing what kind of feather might be best for what type of fly!