Also gone are the distant crack of the deer hunter’s rifle and the baying of the bear hound as he drives old bruin across the swamps and around the mountain. When all of us deer hunters and bear hunters were in the woods there appeared to be more of a frantic atmosphere as we rushed around at dawn and dusk in search of a trophy buck or big bear. All of that is past now. The rifles are cleaned and put away for another year and the dogs are licking their sore paws and letting all their tiny nicks and scrapes heal. It is a time of reflection for the hunters, and who knows, maybe also for the hounds.
But for the grouse hunter, it is a prime time to be out in the mountains searching for the king of game birds, the ruffed grouse. In our mountains he may be called a “pheasant, the drummer or even thunder chicken” but to those of us with bird dogs he is simply grouse. January is an excellent month to hunt as the leaves are off and the understory of the forest is down, all of which makes for much easier going as we weave our way through the cover. The more sophisticated might call them “coverts,” but to most of us they are simply grouse covers.
A New Year, a Fresh Hunting Attitude
Even though the air is cold, it has a freshness about it and the dogs are whining in anticipation of the hunt. At this time of year, the birds will be found concentrated around areas where a food source is close by and that produce good cover and protection from the predators, both avian and ground. Favored areas will be where you have tangles of greenbrier and multiflora rose. Both provide dense cover that restricts the approach of predators while furnishing a handy, close-by food source. With the cold weather and the openness of the cover, not having to move great distances is important to the birds. They can conserve energy and have less exposure to the predators.
Finally, I had the bell on the dog, the camera around my neck, the 28 gauge uncased and a few shells tucked in the pocket of the hunting vest. It wouldn’t take many shells as, even if I encountered more birds than I expected, I normally limit myself to two grouse per cover this time of the year. Scenting conditions appeared to be good as there was a dampness in the air signaling a coming snow and just enough breeze to carry the scent across the ground to the nose of the English pointer I was hunting with this day. We crossed what was left of a rusted old barbed wire fence and headed up the draw.
Where the Birds Are
The first part of this cover is a tangle of hardwoods and older alder stands. Earlier in the year this is where we shot two woodcock that had found the soft, rich earth below the alders. Now it may have been too open as an earlier snow had mashed down what ground cover there had been around the alders. We pushed through this section and came out into a grownup field with both greenbrier and scattered hawthorn trees. Some of the trees had a few of the tiny red and yellow fruit still clinging to the limbs but most had already fallen, providing food for all the forest creatures, including the grouse.
Deuce was on my left at the edge of the big timber where the hawthorn bordered the hardwoods. A previous timber cut here had left several tree tops that were now laced with greenbrier. I started toward him and a grouse flushed wild about 50 yards ahead of us. I think the crunch crunch of my footsteps across the frozen leaves was more than the bird could stand. But he went up the draw where the dog and I were headed. Deuce continued along the edge, crossing back and forth into the wind for another 50 yards or so. Just before we came into a more open grown up field the dog froze on point, gaze fixed on a tangle where the greenbrier had sewn itself around a standing dead tree trunk.
The intensity of the dog told me the bird was there and I started to circle to the left to approach from the side. This I hoped would force the grouse into a more open area at the flush and give a better shot. At any second I expected the bird to explode from the tangle, but I moved closer and closer with no sign of the bird. Then when I was only about five yards from the tangle I herd the tell-tale “peeping’ of a nervous grouse just before it rockets in the air. At the same instant I saw a flash of movement as the grouse took a step and went into the air. Instinct took over and the gun came to my shoulder while I was tacking the grouse with my eyes.
When the gun barrels and the grouse lined up I pulled the trigger and saw the bird cartwheel in a puff of feathers. Deuce had been tracking the bird also and in a second was on the flopping bird. He scooped it up and made a fast retrieve to my hand.
Assessing the Hunt
The taking of any grouse is a time for reflection and appreciation. I told Deuce what a great dog he was as we took a moment to sit at an old log landing and survey the rest of the cover. If I never saw another grouse that it day it had already been a very successful hunt. But Deuce doesn’t quite understand this feeling and in a few minutes I was following him again toward the top of the mountain. January is truly the month of the grouse hunter and a great time to be out.
Note: The ruffed grouse season in West Virginia runs from the third Saturday in October until February 28 of the following year.