Grouse hunt

As another year passes and winter sets in, it’s time to get the shotgun out and follow the dogs to the grouse woods. Although grouse populations aren’t as high as they use to be there are a few still around, especially in the higher elevations of the mountain counties. Most hunters have left the woods vacant now and I enjoy the solitude while walking along in the snow-covered landscape if nothing else.

Grouse hunting nowadays requires a lot of walking to find the birds. I don’t mind it, but it always reminds me of how out of shape I’m in and that I ate way too much over the holidays every year. With the last deer cut up and put in the freezer, I called my buddy Sammy and plans were set for the first grouse hunt of the new year.

On Jan. 5, I drove back home to Nicholas County to hunt an area I use to roam several years ago during my teenage years. I used to see several grouse in this particular area, but that was almost 20 years ago. Man, I’m getting old.

Upon meeting up with Sammy the thermometer in my truck read 13 degrees. It made it up to a refreshing 23 degrees by the time we started hunting. While driving to our destination Sammy looked at me and said, “Well I just hope Jack doesn’t have a stroke on us, he’s 12 years old now.” Jack is Sammy’s English Setter and a fine grouse dog to hunt behind. He also brought a 10-month-old pup that’s Jack’s daughter.

I asked Sammy her name a couple times but he never really answered me. I told Sammy that we would take it easy on Jack and hunt downhill and then up the creek bottom. There was still a good 4 inches of leftover snow on the ground, which had a crunchy top due to the cold temperatures.

After we let Jack out of the box, ha, I followed slowly behind in the truck until we made it to the bottom of the mountain. There were a couple of hollows choked with rhododendron and hemlock where I use to always see grouse. It’s funny after all those years I still remembered the area although it looked different in places where they had logged since way back yonder.

As we neared one of those hollows, Sammy motioned that Jack was on point. I put the truck in park and quickly caught up with them. As we eased into Jack’s point I heard the faint sound of wings beating as the grouse flushed out in front of us. We continued down to the bottom of the hill with Jack going on point two more times but the grouse flushed before we got there.

Sammy saw several tracks and one place where they burrowed under a broken off hemlock top from the storm. With both the derecho and Hurricane Sandy, there’s plenty of cover for grouse in the woods now. Once we made it to the bottom, Sammy got the pup out to join in on the action. We walked up the creek bottom in prime looking grouse habitat but didn’t find any.

It was nearing noon and I suggested that we load up and drive to another nearby location. It also looked the same as I remembered although when we got to the top of the ridge there was another newly timbered area. It had been logged in the last 5 years or so and had started growing up with briars, saplings and most importantly, sumac. Grouse like sumac and greenbriers and this area had plenty.

We let both dogs out and started walking around the road. It didn’t take long to find the first set of grouse tracks. Both dogs were hunting good and working out in front of us. We cut another set of tracks and decided to drop down into the timbered area to the next logging road down.

It had finally warmed up to 32 degrees and the sun was out, which helped to slowly start melting the snow pack. With the snow on the ground, the grouse didn’t want to be out milling around because they would be sitting ducks to the hawks circling the sky above us. I really think that’s why we didn’t flush any in this location as the habitat was perfect and there were plenty of tracks.

Sammy said we should come back and try both places again when the snow was off and we would do a lot better. We walked up out of the cut over back into the road. The bank above the road had completely melted out and Sammy said that’s where you’ll usually find the grouse in these conditions.

Sure enough as we stood there I looked and a grouse took off running around the bank and then hit the air. I shouldered my shotgun and tried to get on the grouse but it flushed right toward the dogs. I wasn’t 100-percent sure where the dogs were so I opted not to shoot. I didn’t have a very good shot anyway because the grouse was gliding through the saplings by the time I found it.

That grouse let the dogs run past it and they didn’t smell it until they were above it because that’s the way the wind was blowing. It all happens so fast when grouse hunting. They really are a neat bird. Sammy said it best, “You know when you think about grouse it’s amazing they can even survive. Can you imagine being a wild chicken walking around in the woods where everything wants to eat you?”

Even though we only saw the one grouse it was a good hunt and we gained some valuable information. I was just glad to see that the grouse were still there. We not only saw plenty of grouse tracks but several turkey tracks as well. I’ll remember that come the end of April when spring gobbler season comes in. Grouse season in West Virginia runs until Feb. 28 so there’s still time for hopefully a few more hunts if the snow doesn’t pile up too deep.

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