Zero In On West Virginia's Brown Bombers

Here's where you're likely to find today's finest grouse hunting in our state. Locating these fast-flyers is one thing, but hitting your legal limit is all up to you! (December 2005)

Frank Jezioro and his dog take a moment to admire one of several ruffed grouse that the duo worked together to bag in the hills of West Virginia.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt

For such a lean overall grouse situation, last December's encounter with old ruffed grouse seemed just too good to be true. A scant 15 minutes out of the truck, and Logger, the 6-year-old male English setter was staunchly pointing. What's more, the covert was fairly open, a hardwood swag with just a wee bit of log slash. I moved in anxiously, port arms, eyes straight in measured steps.

We were just above a fairly well-traveled mining bench, so common in the coalfields of southern West Virginia. Some minimum diameter (high-grade) timber cuts had been made here and nearly everywhere else in these parts over the past decade or so.

Just adjacent was a 10-year-old underground coal mine reclaim lined with autumn olive plantings. Some older thickets of multiflora rose draped the steep, rock-laden down slope of the road below. The treasured olives all being gone by now, it was no doubt the mini-apple, rose hips were the closest grouse-attracting victual.

Had I not missed a bird or two in the general area on previous hunts, this open wood lot point may have been discounted altogether. I could hear the echoing voice of the late, great grouse fanatic and West Virginia author George "Bird" Evans as I began to get skeptical: "When will we learn to always trust our dog's nose?"

A little closer now and this was to be one of those times that I could see the bird crouched in the open brown leaf litter just 10 yards ahead of Logger's nose. The bird was looking away but on a slight angle, so perfectly camouflaged yet exposed at the same time.

Evans also spoke of ingloriously missing such oddly pinned birds, especially if he had looked them in the eye. Luckily for me, this bird's eye view was averted. It was having no more of these nostalgic shenanigans as it rocketed from its crouch of reality in a slightly rising, right quartering angle.

The stock-scarred and bluing-rubbed vintage Ruger Red Label 12-gauge over-and-under barked crisply from its fixed (prior to choke tube) improved cylinder barrel. The feather poof, bird fall and the dog being upon it seemed almost instantaneous.

No need for retrieving, since I joined the celebration just as fast. That's rationalizing a bit, since Logger is a little slack on the retrieving end sometimes. But it doesn't get any better than this. A first-shot hit. A bird in the bag, and what a beautiful male of the species with one of the longest and widest tail fans ever!

Taking any grouse in the lean years of late is a very special moment. Some good old grouse days of just a few years back could mean hunting without dogs and oft the inability to stuff enough shotshells in your pockets! Of late, it's been a grouse of a different color.

One advantage, however, is that you don't encounter nearly so many hunters in the winter woods. This is particularly true in late December, January and February when the best hunting conditions often prevail. On several occasions, I've run into folks who ask me what I am hunting and what season is open.

This lamenting for the Appalachian grouse has not gone unnoticed. And the problem is not only apparent in West Virginia. Our DNR and Natural Resources Commission share the same concerns for the species as its hunters. Senior DNR Commissioner and grouse fan Carl Gainer has been particularly concerned over grouse.

It should come as no surprise then that West Virginia joined in a multi-state effort to study the grouse's decline. Our DNR threw in labor and funding along with the Ruffed Grouse Society and a host of others. Mead-Westvaco graciously allowed its lands here to be used as part of the study area for this massive research effort.

As perhaps the largest grouse project ever undertaken, the Appalachian Cooperative Grouse Research Project (ACGRP) was born. Final project reports were produced just last year and distributed at a likely get-together location. You guessed right if you chose West Virginia. Also, in response to the DNR Commission's requests for grouse guidance, in-state staff provided their own grouse recommendations just last year. They relied heavily on the ACGRP study in doing so.

The DNR's now-retired Tom Allen did a lot of the in-state fieldwork, along with other biologists like Bill Igo and so many others, a list too lengthy to print. However, there are some common themes that came out of this monumental effort. We hope we can do it some justice here.

Before you shun this information, bear in mind that it was based upon 3,118 grouse captured from 12 sites in eight states over six years! That's thousands of radio-located nesting hens to provide the backbone of the big study.

The forces of nature, particularly cold, wet springs during the early brood-rearing period of late May and early June, have wreaked havoc on grouse populations. Cold, wet, chick-killing spring rains also affect acorns and other masts important to grouse.

Present hunting seasons and limits on grouse pale in comparison to these stated forces of nature. That is, they do not appear to be limiting grouse. In other words, further limiting of hunting is not likely to cause an increase in the population.

The solution and thus recovery in the Appalachian grouse population can thus be as simple as being dealt a few weather aces by Mother Nature. One or two springs that allow for both better mast and chick survival may already have been dealt. The late May and early June weather of 2005 was warm and relatively dry. Halleluiah!

Those key ingredients, plus the fact that things apparently just can't get much worse, are certainly a turnaround from the past few years. The brood counts data and local forecasts should reflect some positive change. Deer hunters are usually a good source for local updates. Most of them have laid down their arms by now.

The DNR's new director and passionate grouse hunter himself, Frank Jezioro, is savvy to the situation and is hoping for the best with the rest of us. He is looking for bright spots wherever he can find them. And he has several sources.

Statewide brood count data is being collected. Flushing rates are monitored by a group of volunteer hunters. Spring gobbler hunter survey participants count grouse drumming and flushing rates. Jezioro advised that the

mountain or national forest counties have been looking good.

These mountain counties were some of the only bright spots during the 2004 brood counts. Early results from the spring 2005 gobbler hunters also confirmed some decent drumming rates, according to Jezioro. This means that some of the most famous counties of the state should be boasting decent grouse numbers, too. The national forest favorites like Randolph, Tucker, Pocahontas, Preston, Greenbrier, Pendleton and Monroe are ones to look at for starters.

The advantages of this mountain county grouse connection is that there are so many places to try in the public domain, but you'd need several lifetimes to do it.

The Monongahela National Forest provides over 900,000 acres alone. In the past decade or so, the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the Canaan Valley Institute have acquired nearly 20,000 additional Tucker County acres.

Director Jezioro advised that the vast Dolly Sods segment of the Monongahela always carries a few grouse and may be underestimated for its migrant woodcock potential earlier in the season. Equally vast is the rhododendron cover of the Canaan Mountain Loop Road, one mountain range to the east of the Canaan Valley itself.

A sampling of these coverts, even if for just one hunt, puts you in the footsteps of George "Bird" Evans. He penned many books on his grouse ventures there.

Both the Sods and Loop roads are accessible from state Route (SR) 32 through Canaan Valley. For assistance, drop by the Canaan Valley Store, which is a DNR game check station and license vendor as well. They also carry a nice stash of local USGS topographical maps if you need one. The Sods is also accessible from the east along SR 28.


These mountain counties were some of the only bright spots during the 2004 brood counts. Early results from the spring 2005 gobbler hunters also confirmed some decent drumming rates, according to Jezioro.
 

If you become snowed out of this high-elevation terrain, you can drop down a notch to the previously mentioned wildlife refuge. More famous for its woodcock, the refuge edge country and aspen copses still carry a bird or two. In addition, most of its upland northern hardwood turf was logged heavily prior to the acquisitions of the last decade or so. Hawthorn, wild raisin and alder patches lace the wetlands.

To hunt the refuge, a free permit is required. You can get one by calling (304) 866-3858 or stopping by the main headquarters along SR 32 just up the road north from the Canaan Valley State Resort Park entrance.

The Canaan Valley Institute does not require a permit. But you can pick up a free map at kiosks along SR 32 just south and around the town of Davis; or stop by at their local headquarters a couple more miles north at Thomas.

For another slightly lower elevation yet venturesome national forest trek, try the Middle Mountain Road. This road extends from the tiny town of Wymer along SR 55 in Tucker County southward some 30 miles to Thornwood in Pocahontas County. Be sure to check local weather conditions first.

The U.S. Forest Service's Monongahela National Forest headquarters is located at Elkins, a major hub to this high country. You can pick up some nice general maps of the forest, as well as more specific USGS maps with forest ownership emphasized. The Elkins office is just to the north of the horsebacked Henry Gassaway Davis statue in town along SR 55.

You can call the Monongahela headquarters for local weather conditions or other info at (304) 636-1800. The DeLorme gazetteer is always a big plus for the in-between USGS, general forest service and state road maps. These road atlases of West Virginia are available at many sporting goods outlets and can be ordered through

www.mapstore.delorme.com.

Another option in the non-national forest category along this recovering grouse and eastern spine or front is Mead-Westvaco land. Note that some parcels are already leased and thus not available. However, they still maintain some general hunting areas two-year permits, which are processed out of the Rupert office. For a long-term lease or two-year permit info, contact that office at (304) 392-6373.

Just last year, The Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) cooperated with Mead-Westvaco on a special late-season (January-February) grouse-hunting lease announcement close to Elkins. With logging the ultimate key to grouse and other early successional species, this is only logical. What's more, it's always nice to hunt an area deemed good enough to be part of a study.

To keep abreast of grouse-hunting possibilities, consider joining the RGS, which is located out of Coraopolis, Pennsylvania; call (412) 262-4044 to reach Mark Banker. Banker is a regional official who has actively promoted grouse habitat on the Monongahela. As a member, you could get official notice of such special leases and other information. They'll even add you to an e-mail list upon request.

For another grouse hunting option down along the southeastern spine of the state, there's the 5,130-acre Greenbrier State Forest (SF). This state forest is in Greenbrier County just south of the White Sulphur Springs exit off Interstate 64.

Again, the past logging activities at Greenbrier SF are just the ticket. And some of it is or may be growing into prime grouse habitat. The Greenbrier SF's hiking trails could be just for you come December. For a trail map and local conditions, call the Caldwell office of the forest at (304) 536-1944.

For some coalfields action in the southwestern segment, where grouse numbers had really plummeted, there's still the advantage of much unposted private land and public lands. Large landholding companies have generally been gracious. However, leasing is growing fast, particularly in the bowhunting-only deer counties such as Logan.


Again, the past logging activities at Greenbrier SF are just the ticket. And some of it is or may be growing into prime grouse habitat.
 

Logan-area bird dog breeder and trainer Jared Justice is longing for good grouse hunting just like the rest of us. As the local pre-1977 old strip- mine benches grow out of their prime into pole timber, Jared has resorted to hunting the perimeters of the post-1977 coal strip mine.

Before 1977, shoot-and-shove surface coal mining along the contour left quite a bit of erosion as well as hundreds of miles of unreclaimed highwalls. These reverted into easily walked contour bench grouse hotspots in their prime years of the 1980s and 1990s. Many of these ridges have been mined again to get the leftover coal.

Prime

southwestern coalfield counties include the likes of Fayette, Raleigh, Kanawha, Boone, Lincoln, Logan, Mingo, Wyoming and McDowell, to name a few. If the local grouse situation is still a bust, look yet to another hunting companion for assistance.

Rabbit hunters are a great source of quail information. Bobwhites can still be found here and there and may be on a bit of a Mountain State recovery. With the season open through early January, there's always a covey or two to be found. Mingo, Lincoln and Wayne counties offer some decent bobwhite quail prospects.

Jared Justice states that his quail opportunities rival those of grouse during the recent down years. Some reclaimed coal strip complexes are boasting a few decent coveys. The DNR's Director Jezioro adds that both Eastern and Northern panhandle farms still carry some quail and ring-necked pheasants to boot.

Access can be difficult, however, and hunters must be reminded that trespassing is not only unethical but also illegal in West Virginia. On the other hand, after deer season, permission to hunt may be as easy as asking. Whether or not the grouse are up or down in your area could be just a matter of legwork and dog work, so to speak. So get out there and give it a try. The grouse or native pheasant season gives you the entire months of January and February to take advantage of wing-shooting opportunities.

As the down years for grouse may be ending, we hope that folks are donning silly grins and muttering under their breath that ruffed grouse are back! We look forward to their return.

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