November Grouse Hotspots

November Grouse Hotspots

Excellent upland hunting awaits sportsmen on New York's well-managed public hunting grounds, where the ruffed grouse still reigns as the king of game birds.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"Partridge keep bankers' hours," is the old saw recited by upland bird hunters as they head out on frosty mornings at this time of year.

Waiting until grouse fly down from their roosts and begin foraging on the ground is still good advice, as it's nearly impossible to get a bead on birds flushed from trees in the early morning hours.

While some tactics remain the same, others have changed, namely, searching farther and wider for ever-smaller stands of prime bird cover. Modern farm operations and the reforestation of large areas of the state in recent decades have diminished grouse habitat, forcing hunters to travel more while searching for a few acres of brushy cover around the edges of wood lots and pastures.

Grouse hunting hits its peak in November after the colorful hardwood leaves have fallen and cooler temperatures make hunting more enjoyable for hunters and dogs.

The fun continues until the snow gets too deep or the season winds down in February. Keep in mind that the Southern Zone regular firearms deer season opens later this month and the woods fill with hunters.

Public hunting areas are good bets in the search for grouse covers, as many are specifically managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation for woodland wildlife, with grouse heading the list. State forests are also recommended, as periodic cuttings in stands of native hardwoods and conifer plantations create the brushy openings with leafy vegetation that are necessary for grouse habitat.

Western New York and the Finger Lakes region are loaded with public

hunting opportunities, and the following are among the best.


Hunters across the country heard about Connecticut Hill WMA many years ago, as this was the site of the first extensive study of ruffed grouse biology and behavior, a landmark project that set the standards for modern wildlife management practices.

Covering 11,045 acres, the "Hill" is the largest WMA in the state and remains a favorite of bird hunters today. Located in the Appalachian Highlands south of Ithaca, this steep hill country with infertile soil and harsh climate had been abandoned by farmers and was acquired by the state as an early game refuge.

Diverse habitats maintained here are attractive to various wildlife species, but favor grouse, turkeys and deer. The most mature forests consist of beech, birch, maple and hemlock with areas of oak and pine comprising what is called a sub-climax forest. Open fields, brushy areas and conifers are maintained throughout the property.

Connecticut Hill is well supplied with seasonal roads and trails (the Finger Lakes Trail crosses the property) providing access for hunters. Beating through grouse covers will require a lot of uphill and downhill hiking, however, over steep terrain. The WMA is west of state Route 13 in Tompkins and Schuyler counties, approximately 16 miles southwest of Ithaca, and about the same distance north of Elmira. Several local roads off Route 13 lead to Connecticut Hill, including Boylan Hill, Slovsky Hill and Carter Creek. Swan Hill Road from the hamlet of Alpine provides access from the south end of the property.

Grouse hunting is not permitted in the 300 acres around the archery courses. Motorized vehicles are restricted to roads, and camping is allowed with permits. For more information, write to the Regional Wildlife Manager, Box 1169, Cortland, NY 13045.


Happy Valley is another area that has attracted the attention of wildlife researchers, and several studies of grouse productivity and habitat requirements have been carried out in recent years by the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The result has been a long-term grouse habitat improvement program on the property.

Happy Valley is different from Connecticut Hill, however, for the terrain is generally flat with areas of poor drainage. Seven waterfowl marshes have been developed on the property. The majority of the WMA is classified as upland, however, ranging between 600 and 700 feet above sea level, with the topography characterized by numerous sandy knolls. Located between Lake Ontario and the uplands of Tug Hill, this area receives plenty of precipitation, especially snow.

Wildlife management practices here include old-field maintenance, mowing, prescribed burning, creation of green border strips and tree and shrub cuttings to encourage new growth. Timber stand improvement cuttings are carried out on the areas of native hardwoods and conifer plantations.

Happy Valley's 8,645 acres are north of Syracuse in eastern Oswego County. Take Interstate Route 81 for approximately 23 miles to Exit 34, and then turn east on Route 104 for about four miles to the WMA. Route 104 runs along the northern border of the property, with county Route 62 defining the southern boundary.

Town roads and some maintenance roads, which are seasonal, along with hiking trails, provide access for hunters. Motorized vehicles are restricted to town and county roads.


Littlejohn WMA might be considered a twin to Happy Valley in that its location, size and terrain are nearly identical.

Littlejohn has not received the more intensive grouse habitat improvement work carried out at Happy Valley, but it receives less hunting pressure and that is considered a plus these days. Consequently, Littlejohn is more heavily forested, with fewer roads and trails.

This WMA offers 8,020 acres of public hunting approximately 45 miles north of Syracuse and 25 miles south of Watertown, in Oswego and Jefferson counties. Take Exit 38 (Lacona-Sandy Creek) off I-81, turn east on county Route 15 and travel for about eight miles, and then north on county Route 17, which hits the western edges of the property. (Route 17 changes to Route 92 in Jefferson County.)

Littlejohn Road off Route 17 provides access to the southern end of the property, and Blounts Mills Road, also off Route 17, leads to the interior of the WMA. County Route 95 in Jefferson County crosses the northern sector, which is interspersed with some private in-holdings, which means a scouting trip or two will be necessary to hunt Littlejohn effectively.


Although it's in the Southern Tier hill country, Rattlesnake Hill's terrain is not typically rugged and steep but is more rolling as the landscape trends toward the agricultural lands of the

Finger Lakes region. Two-thirds of the WMA's 5,100 acres are in southern Livingston County, with the remainder in Allegany County. Ossian State Forest, with 1,303 acres, adjoins Rattlesnake Hill on the southeast corner, and just a couple of long grouse flushes to the east, Canaseraga State Forest provides another 1,287 acres of public hunting coverts.

As is the case with most WMAs, the DEC's upland land managers strive to provide a varied habitat for as many wildlife species as possible, and at Rattlesnake Hill hunters will find an interesting blend of mature woodlands, overgrown fields, conifer plantations, old apple orchards and open meadows.

Management is not so intensive on the Ossian and Canaseraga state forests, but regular thinning operations and timber harvesting do create various stages of growth.

Rattlesnake Hill is south of Rochester about eight miles west of Dansville. Take Exit 5 from I-390 and from Route 436, turn southwesterly on Route 9, which leads to the property. Route 70, south from the village of Dalton, clips the southwest corner of the WMA, and Ebert Road and Dannack Hill Road cut across the property.

To reach the two state forests, take Scott Road, Bonner Road or Scoville Road south from Route 9.


Popular with hunters from the Buffalo and Rochester metro areas, High Tor offers a cluster of three tracts totaling 6,100 acres at the south end of Canandaigua Lake. The marsh property, with 1,700 acres bordered by routes 21 and 245, contains the meandering Naples Creek and is of little interest to grouse hunters. The real High Tor tract (meaning the high, rocky hill) is east of the village of Naples, with approximately 3,400 acres of typical Southern Tier grouse country. As elsewhere, management operations are aimed at maintaining a variety of habitat.

As the name implies, hunters can expect some rugged hiking here, but roads and trails provide good access into the property.

The third tract, known as South Hill, is essentially a steep 1,000-acre hillside overlooking the lake that nearly meets the marshy parcel of state land at the bottom. South Hill is largely wooded, but also has overgrown fields, which will harbor some birds at various times of the year.

All of the High Tor tracts are on the outskirts of Naples, a popular stop on the Finger Lakes vineyard trail, which can be reached via scenic drives from any direction. Local roads from the village provide access, including Barrett Road, Donley Road and Shay Road, which have small parking lots at convenient locations.


The Erwin Mountain State Forest is attached to the southern end of Erwin WMA, and the two parcels total 2,997 acres of public hunting lands west of Corning in Steuben County. Both properties are mainly covered with second-growth hardwoods and mature conifer plantings, although wildlife habitat improvement projects have created a more diversified environment on the WMA. Openings on the forest are dependent upon logging operations and occasional thinnings for timber stand improvements.

Grouse hunting hits its peak in November after the colorful hardwood leaves have fallen and cooler temperatures make hunting more enjoyable for hunters and dogs.

These properties are on the tops of two hills and a small valley, with the Cohocton River on the north, and Tioga River to the east. The terrain is typical of the Southern Tier, hilly and steep, although maintenance roads and trails make the going a little less difficult.

The Erwin properties are about five miles west of Corning off state Route 17. Take the Coopers Plains exit and Smith Hill Road to the north end of the WMA. Hunters arriving from the east should exit Route 15 at Gang Mills, turning onto Beartown Road for about 2 1/2 miles to a Y in the road and then bear right on Weaver Hollow Road, which enters the WMA and continues through the interior to hook up with Smith Hill Road.

Continuing on Beartown Road for about a half-mile beyond the Y, hunters will see the southern portion of the WMA on the left, and they will need to hike south through this parcel to reach the state forest.


State wildlife biologists have been managing Hanging Bog WMA for public hunting and other outdoor recreational purposes since 1962, when the land was transferred to the DEC from the federal government. Additionally, Crab Hollow State Forest, with 1,154 acres, is attached to the west side of Hanging Bog, and Rush Creek State Forest adjoins the northeast corner, adding another 1,404 acres of land for a grand total of 7,129 acres at this location. Habitat improvements on Hanging Bog under state ownership have included conifer plantings, clear cutting and selective thinning of hardwoods, leasing crop fields to farmers, planting wildlife food and cover shrubs, and developing a small marsh and ponds.

Hunters can expect the usual hill-and-valley landscape of the Appalachian Plateau that extends across so much of New York. Hunting conditions are similar to those described above for Rattlesnake Hill.

Hanging Bog and the associated state forests are north of Cuba in western Allegany County. Approaching from Cuba, take Route 305, and at the hamlet of Lyons Corners, hunters will find the first of several unpaved roads that lead to these properties. The first is Crab Hollow Road, which leads fairly straight into the western sector of the WMA. By following Crab Hollow, where it forks left, you will be able to drive through the interior of Crab Hollow State Forest. The next two roads going north from Route 305 are New Hudson and Brown, and both lead into Hanging Bog. Farther along 305, Cloverleaf Road winds its way to the northeast corner of the WMA and Rush Creek State Forest. Hunters approaching from the north should reverse these directions, using Route 305 south from the village of Belfast.


Although Tioughnioga is an old favorite of those who tramp the uplands for grouse in western and central New York, it has earned its place as a public hunting area that's good for grouse. It is about six miles southeast of Cazenovia in Madison County, along a row of hills that are the drainage divide between the St. Lawrence and Susquehanna rivers. Even at an elevation of 2,000 feet, these might be classified as rolling hills and, for a change, beating through the brushy covers here is not as difficult as several of the areas listed in this article.

Tioughnioga WMA covers a total of 3,605 acres, and a recent inventory revealed a pattern of 38 percent old or brushy fields, 37 percent hardwood forest, 20 percent conifer plantations, and 5 percent miscellaneous. Maintenance of the area and continued habitat improvement operations are financed not only by license sales, but also from some federal funding and sale of forest products.

Access from Cazenovia and state Route 20 is by way of Route 13 south to the village of New Woodstock, then east on county Route 52 (Damon Road), which runs through the center of Tioughnioga to the h

amlet of Erieville.

Hunters arriving on Route 20 from the east should turn south at Morrisville on Eaton Street and then branch right on Eagleville Road to West Eaton, where they may use Eaton Brook Road to Erieville, and Damon Road to access the property. County Route 60 (Dugway Road) from Erieville crosses the southern portion of Tioughnioga, and local roads provide additional access.


The gently sloping landscape of northern Chenango County is the location of Pharsalia's 4,625 acres, which were once intensively farmed but for many decades have been managed for wildlife habitat. In fact, Pharsalia was the state's first game refuge, purchased in 1926 with money from hunting and fishing licenses. This was another site where early ruffed grouse studies were carried out on the bird then known as the "king of upland game birds" before the widespread stocking of pheasants began and decades before wild turkeys were reintroduced.

As refuge policies were eventually changed over to multipurpose management, Pharsalia became the model for the others to follow. Current operations on the area are aimed at improving habitat for various species but particularly deer, turkeys and grouse.

Pharsalia is about 10 miles northwest of Norwich and an equal distance southwest of Sherburne, with state Route 23 bordering portions of the area's west and south sides. Various local roads provide additional access, including Johnson Street, Elmer Jackson Road and Pigeon Hill Road. The Finger Lakes Trail also runs through the property.

The DEC's regional offices can supply more information on these and other public hunting areas and frequently offer free leaflets with maps. For more information on western New York's November grouse hunting, call the Cortland office at (607) 753-3095, Ext. 247, the Avon office at (585) 226-5380, or the Allegany office at (716) 372-0645.

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