6 Best-Bet Picks For Grouse
September 29, 2010
Though ruffed grouse hunting is not what it used to be, there are still select areas of our state where good wingshooting is still possible. Here are six to consider! (November 2007)
Doug Fala with Logger, an English setter, and a nice brace of ruffed grouse taken from Tucker County.
Photo by Bob Fala.
Over the past two to three seasons, grouse hunting in the Mountain State has become somewhat of an exercise in futility. However, we are now starting to see a minor rebound in grouse populations in several areas around West Virginia. This trend could be improved substantially by a dry late spring/early summer brood season, which we have not had over the past couple of years.
There are a number of wildlife management areas (WMAs) that can and do provide some decent grouse hunting. Up in the northern end of the state the first place I would consider would be Pleasant Creek WMA, which has 3,373 acres of area and has had some habitat development work ongoing for the past decade. The habitat work, which is being done in conjunction with the Ruffed Grouse Society, is in the form of small clearcuts, 4 to 15 acres in size that are in various stages of regeneration. Gary Foster, District 1 game biologist, said that they were hoping to continue their program of putting an additional two or three small clearcuts in every other year for the near future in order to favor grouse and early successional stage wildlife.
Foster stressed that the habitat work that had been done to date covers approximately 100 acres in a patchwork design on this public-hunting area. In addition, he said that so far the bulk of even aged management, which was started in 1992, had been well received by hunters who had been using these areas. Foster went on to state they had done some additional firewood type cuts on some smaller areas. In these areas, managers are trying to increase and accentuate their edge effect on a smaller scale where a timber sale wasn't feasible. The Ruffed Grouse Society had put up a little seed money for the chainsaw thinning work that had been carried out.
Pleasant Creek WMA is approximately eight miles south of Grafton, off U.S. Route 119/250 south. This WMA borders the southwest corner of Tygart Lake.
There is a substantial amount of old fields that are converting from old pasture fields back into sapling size hardwood stands and hawthorn thickets. The grouse hunting has been spotty here the past couple of seasons. However, cover habitat is coming on strong here and all that is needed is a decent hatch. The area is mostly rolling hills with a few steeper finger ridges.
An added bonus of this area is that you can easily mix in a little fishing or waterfowl hunting at nearby Tygart Lake. Personally, I prefer this area later in the season, as it does not have the deep snows associated with my home county. This area gets a fair amount of bowhunting activity in October/November, so be mindful of this when making plans for a hunt here.
Short Mountain is much like Sleepy Creek, as it usually stays somewhat warmer and drier than areas just half an hour west of here.
SLEEPY CREEK WMA
Another area that does not get much exposure since it is over in the Eastern Panhandle is Sleepy Creek WMA. This WMA contains 22,928 acres and is located about six miles west of Martinsburg. If you are coming from the west, you can access the area off U.S. Route 552 south and then use county Route 13. Coming in from the east, you will have to use either state Route 9 or county Route 7/13. Sleepy Creek has also had some extensive habitat management ongoing on approximately 2,000 acres, which is focused primarily on increasing grouse numbers.
A few years ago, a hunting associate called me one night somewhat unexpectedly. We had been finding sporadic hunting for grouse in my home coverts in and around Monongalia, Preston and Taylor counties. He related some news about a foray he had made over to Sleepy Creek late in January when we had 10 to 12 inches of snow in our area. While he did not jump a large number of birds, he did put up about 12 to 13 grouse in a little less than four hours of hunting. Not spectacular hunting, but given the general scarcity of birds around the state, this was an encouraging report.
Sleepy Creek is mostly made up of ridge and valley terrain from Third Hill Mountain and Sleepy Creek Mountain, which run parallel to one another. The terrain is rolling and not overly steep. There are over 100 acres of clearings maintained primarily for turkey brood habitat. Lodging is readily available at Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs. The superintendent's office is at the entrance of the WMA from the east on county Route 7/9; or call (304) 754-3855 for more information.
STONEWALL JACKSON & STONECOAL WMAs
Two other areas that I will group together because of the proximity of one to the other are the Stonewall Jackson and Stonecoal WMAs. These two WMAs are almost dead center in our state, and between them, there are 21,289 acres available to the enterprising bird hunter. I have hunted both of these areas extensively and up to the early 1990s, they afforded good to spectacular grouse hunting.
Unfortunately, like many of other areas, these WMAs have experienced some rather drastic grouse population declines over the past few years. However, there has been a smattering of reports coming in that both of these areas are now starting to come back around. The hunting areas that surround both of these impoundments are primarily a framework of small finger ridges coming off a primary ridge. While these locations are not overly high in elevation, some of these smaller satellite ridges are steep!
Much of this region consists of old fields with extensive pockets of autumn olive and multiflora rose bushes. Most of the roads are gated, so access to both of these areas is limited. You will have to hike in or as a few energetic souls do, use a boat to access one of the numerous fingers of either of the lakes.
The only drawback to this approach is there are a somewhat limited number of spots to disembark from a boat to the shore. And there's the likelihood you'll have to work your way uphill to get into the better pockets of cover. In addition, the logistics of dragging a boat along is often more than what many of us want to consider when we are headed out to grouse hunt for a couple of hours. Lodging, restaurants and groceries are readily available in Weston, off Interstate 79.
One of the great things about these two WMAs is that you could spend the better part of several days hunting the various prongs of these two sizeable hunting areas and never cover the same ground. In addition, the fishing is fantastic at both places at this time of the year.
Finally, another good potential public hunting a
rea that avid grouse hunters may want to check out is the Allegheny WMA, which lies near Elk Garden.
SHORT MOUNTAIN WMA
Another area that has had a considerable amount of timber management focused on creating edge type areas is Short Mountain WMA, which is an 8,005-acre tract. This WMA lies between the towns of Kirby and Rio in Hampshire County. Grouse can be found here in pockets. As the cover of this WMA ages, the hunting should improve.
Short Mountain is much like Sleepy Creek, as it usually stays somewhat warmer and drier than areas just half an hour west of here. The country at Short Mountain has many oak-hickory hardwoods with a little Virginia pine mixed in for good measure. This area can be accessed by state Route 29, which runs north to south from Hanging Rock to Rio.
Something else that's an added bonus is that you are just a short drive from the bulk of the George Washington National Forest holdings, which lay mostly south and east of Wardensville. This is another 50,852 acres that has some grouse but in varied numbers. A few of my hunting contacts have started hunting some of the 8- to 12-year-old cuts and most reiterated that all that's needed is a decent brood season or two coming on the heels of a good mast season. There has been some intensive timber management on the Lee District of the George Washington, but as of present, most of the potential from these activities is five to 10 years down the road.
Finally, another good potential public hunting area that avid grouse hunters may want to check out is the Allegheny WMA, which lies near Elk Garden. This 6,000-acre WMA already has decent grouse populations in a variety of spots scattered across its varied expanse. Most of this area was timbered in the late 1980s and 1990s. Subsequently, much of its regeneration is in the ideal age-classes that are perfect for grouse. A great deal of this terrain is steep, rocky and thickly vegetated. In other words, it is good to great grouse habitat!
I recently had an opportunity to talk to Travis Metcalf, the wildlife biologist responsible for this WMA; he mentioned that if we had a decent brood season on this area last spring, the grouse hunting could shape up to be better than average on a good portion of this public hunting area. Metcalf went on to say that overall, there's a fair number of spots on this WMA that hold grouse and woodcock and that the successional stages should be good for the next couple of years.
While at a recent Jake's Day event for the National Wild Turkey Federation in Romney, I had an opportunity to talk to Bob Smith, the former manager of the Allegheny WMA. Smith is an avid grouse hunter and bird dog aficionado. He reiterated much of what Travis Metcalf had mentioned but went on a little further adding, "If you get over and scout this area prior to the opening of the hunting season, you can save yourself a lot of unproductive time just trying to find the better patches of grouse cover."
He said that the hunting the last two seasons was off a little from what it had been, but that it was still better than what many hunters have experienced throughout the state in other areas.
The WMA has gained some additional acreage just recently, so it would be wise to obtain an updated map from the Wildlife Resources Division office in Romney. There are a number of ways to access this public hunting area, but the easiest is to come in from Elk Garden or from Beryl utilizing state Route 46.
This is an area (once you get off the top of the mountain) where you probably can hunt over the course of an average winter. Be advised, though, much of this region can be devilishly steep along with the ever-present rock escarpments, so if you are not in top physical condition, I would not consider this as a possibility.
There are a number of other public hunting areas that were considered for this article; however, because of present hunting conditions, I've selected six that would be more representative of decent places hunters could consider if grouse were their primary focus. Some of the others worthy of mention include: Pedlar WMA near Core, Briery Mountain outside of Kingwood, the Kumbrabow State Forest outside of Monterville, the George Washington National Forest and the Dry River Ranger District outside of Brandywine.
Overall, we have plenty of prime grouse cover coming on in the state. The key is catching some brood weather that is dry and not too cool. The early portion of last spring was dry -- and that's a good thing, as bad weather during spring has been a major negative factor for the past two to three years.
I am keeping my fingers crossed that grouse finally caught a break and have a better than normal brood season. When planning a trip to any of these areas, it would be wise to check with the biologists who are responsible for these wildlife management areas. They can provide a significant amount of invaluable information and help pave the way for a trip that we hope will put you into several grouse each time out this season.