Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands Ruffed Grouse

Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands Ruffed Grouse

This rugged area contains some of the thickest habitat in the state, perfect for a November grouse hunt. Here's where to find these challenging upland birds on public land this month.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Each year, tens of thousands of visitors flock to Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands, the mountain region just over an hour east of Pittsburgh. Some of these visitors are looking for mountaintop views and fall foliage, but there is another visitor who heads to Pennsylvania's highest ridges with a pointing dog and a shotgun in tow for some of the best public land grouse hunting in southwestern Pennsylvania.

These mountainous sections of Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties are bounded roughly by state Route 119 on the west, the Conemaugh River on the north and the Somerset-Bedford county line on the east. This region includes 12 state game lands, seven state parks and 50,000-acre Forbes State Forest.



According to Merlin Benner, a Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources biologist, the reason for higher grouse numbers in the Laurel Highlands is simple -- there are more trees there.


"That's pretty much the largest single block of forested land in the southwestern part of the state," said Benner, noting that past damage from gypsy moths and subsequent salvage cuts have created a lot of regenerating forest in the region.


STATE GAME LANDS

Probably the most popular destination for Laurel Highlands grouse gunners is State Game Lands No. 51, which, at 15,505 acres, is the largest SGL in the region. It extends from the tiny village of Chalk Hill along U.S. Route 40 on the south and across the Youghiogheny River to South Connellsville on the north. It is indeed up on the mountain.


The eastern slope of Chestnut Ridge features rocky, steep hillsides covered with thick saplings, clinging grapevines and thorny greenbrier. A full day's hunt is an experience that your muscles will feel several days later!

One disadvantage of SGL 51 is hunting pressure, which can be extreme at times (notably weekends and holidays). With its proximity to Uniontown and Connellsville, two of the largest cities within the Highlands, and its reputation for producing high numbers of flushes, it's not unusual to see a half-dozen other parties in the area during the grouse season.

If you're looking for a game lands where you can escape the crowds and still find birds, an excellent recommendation is SGL 271 in the southwestern corner of Somerset County.

At 1,856 acres, SGL 271 is tiny in comparison to SGL 51, but the site contains what local folks call "The Big Cut," several hundred acres of regenerating clear-cut land north of Route 40 and east of state Route 523.

SGL 271 is just a 15-minute drive southeast of Confluence, where supplies and meals are available. From the peak of the ridge that runs through the SGL, hunters can take in the view of the fall foliage on Chestnut Ridge to the west or Mt. Davis, Pennsylvania's highest point (elevation 3,213 feet) to the east.

The Big Cut is characterized by thick stands of maple, sassafras and oak saplings, all draped with dense greenbrier vines. Grouse love these nearly impenetrable thickets and feed on the bluish purple berries of the greenbrier.

For the hunter who's willing to brave this difficult habitat, the reward is an escape from the hunting pressure and, often, two or three flushes per hour.

State Game Lands 111, a 10,520-acre tract midway between SGLs 51 and 271, has some grapevine tangles and mountain laurel thickets that make good fall grouse habitat as well.

The highlight here, however, is woodcock hunting, said Mark Banker, a Ruffed Grouse Society regional biologist, who recommended the alder thickets that surround Cranberry Lake at the northern end of SGL 111. On a hunt there last November, Banker claims his party flushed 15 woodcock and bagged five birds in just 45 minutes.

STATE PARKS

There are seven state parks within the Laurel Highlands, most of which are strung out along Laurel Ridge. While some of these parks, such as Kooser and Laurel Summit, are too small to offer good hunting opportunities, the larger parks, such as 1,183-acre Keystone State Park or 3,935-acre Laurel Hill State Park, offer pockets of habitat that will occasionally hold a grouse or two. However, the largest park in the region at 19,052 acres and the largest state park in Pennsylvania, Ohiopyle State Park can provide hunters with a full day behind a bird dog.

Situated along state Route 381, Ohiopyle is a focal point for much of the activity in the Laurel Highlands. It has world-class white water that attracts rafters and kayakers from all over the world to brave its Class III and IV rapids. In addition, the Youghiogheny River Trail, which cuts through the middle of the park parallel to the river, is one of the most popular "Rails-to-Trails" routes in the state.

Doug Hoehn, a retired Ohiopyle park manager, recommended "the old Mitchell area" near the canoe and raft takeout spot along the river, noting that "there are some old fields in there that are growing up," and that the Ruffed Grouse Society and Pheasants Forever have been working with the park on a cooperative habitat project in this area.

The other spot that Hoehn singled out is the steep ridge adjacent to the Youghiogheny River Trail. Although much of this hillside is covered with mature timber, there are numerous locations where thick grapevine tangles hold grouse. It's not unusual for bikers to have their ride interrupted by birds flying or walking across the trail. Intrepid hunters will strap their shotguns to their bikes in order to get to these areas, which are accessible via the bike trail.

FORBES STATE FOREST

The 20-plus tracts that make up Forbes State Forest stretch from the Mason-Dixon line on the south to north of the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Jennerstown. There are a number of locations within the forest that are good bets for grouse, including some of the steep ridges between state Route 31 and the turnpike, and some gypsy moth- and ice-damaged areas surrounding Mt. Davis.


The eastern slope of Chestnut Ridge features rocky, steep hillsides covered with thick saplings, clinging grapevines and thorny greenbrier. A full day's hunt is an experience that your muscles will feel several days later!
 

One notable hotspot for grouse is the area in and around the Q

uebec Run Natural Area on the southern edge of the forest west of Route 381. This is a different kind of grouse hunting from much of the rest of the Laurel Highlands. Rather than the typical stands of dense saplings and clawing briars, this section of woods has more mature trees with a dense understory of the mountain laurel that gave the region its name.

While this might seem like habitat more conducive to hunting squirrels or deer than grouse, this is the hidden secret of the Laurel Highlands.

In good mast years, there is plenty for the birds to eat because many of the mature trees along the ridges here are oaks that supply critical acorns for grouse. And the dense laurel thickets, the thickest of which are virtually impenetrable, provide the cover that grouse need to protect them from predators.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

There are a number of small sporting goods stores scattered across the Laurel Highlands, but the 50,000-square-foot Woodlands World adjacent to the Nemacolin Resort on Route 40 is a good source of supplies in the area.

For more information on Pennsylvania's grouse hunting seasons and regulations, contact the Southwest Region office of the Pennsylvania Game Commission at (877) 877-7137.

For information on food and lodging in the region, as well as maps of the state parks and state forest, call the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau at (724) 238-5661.

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