Finding West Virginia Winter Grouse

Finding West Virginia Winter Grouse

Brisk days in rugged ruffed grouse cover can lead to a warm heart and even a brace of birds for the Christmas table. Here are some thoughts on the subject to ponder. (December 2008)

December's winter kickoff and yuletide cheer are its better-known aspects. But don't forget the one gift under the holiday tree that's hard to put a wrap on. That is grouse hunting during one of the best months of the year to do just that!

Boone County is where this late-season grouse was bagged. The hunt took place along the perimeter of a surface coal mine reclaim that's growing into prime cover. Photo by Bob Fala.

Call them Christmas grouse if you will, as does current Division of Natural Resources Director Frank Jezioro, who slips off for that traditional morning hunt after humbly getting permission from his wife. What's more, even the busiest of working folks get a few days off here and there to do likewise while the holiday spirits are high.

What better way to enjoy the great outdoors and to get some good exercise to boot than to traipse the varying slopes and weather conditions of a wild and wonderful West Virginia winter? With coverts now amply tamed by leaf fall and multiple frosts, the birds should be more concentrated at select thickets, blowdowns and tangles. You may actually get to see one as it thunders off. Better yet, you might actually get a decent shot or even bag a bird during these leaner population times.

A trout fishing buddy has just told of his first brood encounter, a hissing hen willing to drive three grown men away from her tiny chicks just out of the egg! With that kind of zest for life it's hard not being optimistic.

Our current grouse population problems are mostly the result of statewide landscape habitat conditions. This simply means that the West Virginia mountains are draped predominantly by middle to mature-aged hardwood stands. Grouse like the younger stands, which are rather limited within the big picture right now.

Nevertheless, with the leaves now down, the grouse-loving coverts will be easier to spot. So, do so in your travels or other hunting ventures as for squirrel, deer or whatever. Always ask your deer hunting companions how many grouse they've seen or heard. The more eyes and ears the merrier.

It's amazing how helpful most folks are when asked. It's equally amazing at how much help a hunting dog can be. According to one fellow, the dog for hunting is the syrup on the pancakes. As to just where to go, a dose of humility for the Mountain State topography must be accepted.

You can't climb up and down all day long. Look for the stuff along the levels, contours or benches. Mine benches, perimeters, logging trams and, oh yes, the newest kid on the block for grouse access are ATV trails which have laced the state landscape in the past score of years. Hiking trails are also great options.

Lower elevation drainages often support the shrubbery such as mountain laurel and rhododendron that grouse like. Mid-elevation slopes and coves could harbor grapes, sumac and other goodies. Ridgetops get the lion's share of sunlight and can be grouse magnets. They also feature the hottest forest fires along with the upper south- and west-facing slopes.

No, we're not advocating forest fires here. But if they do occur, make a mental note and try them a few years after. It's logging and surface coal mining that provide the best opportunities for the creation of new coverts. It takes time. As some coverts grow into prime places to hunt, others are growing out, becoming too mature.

So, go where the most intensive logging is. Keep an eye on the mining and forest fires, too. Also, look out for the heath-like rhododendron and laurel thickets that maintain their low-profile, high-stem density.

Gas and power line right-of-ways are great linear hunts, if they are more bench-like without too much up-and-down gradient. Linear hunts like that can be made with a buddy. For the steeper ones, drop one vehicle off on the downhill side, and then hunt to it from above.

As for winter foods and cover, they are oft one and the same at this time of year. Though many of the soft fruits, such as hawthorn and autumn olive, may be freshly gone, wizened grapes may still be lingering. Both grape and greenbrier tangles epitomize excellent quality winter food and cover.

Not only do grouse use the thorny greenbrier vines for cover, they partake the somewhat leathery leaves, as well as the bluish pea-sized berries with the waxy surface. I remember a little tip that now-retired DNR grouse researcher Tom Allen gave me. He kept some subject grouse in captivity and stated that they wouldn't eat greenbrier berries until softened up a bit by multiple frosts.

That seems logical, as nature's way of not only assuring seed distribution through the partaking bird's digestive tract, but by rationing them and the other food sources in a sequential manner so as to prevent starvation. As one food source is gone, another becomes available. Another thing that Allen told me is that grouse loved fresh as in store-bought lettuce at all times.

And yes, don't underestimate that fact. Ardent grouser himself, Director Jezioro repeatedly tells of his grouse crops most always full or with some amount of "grouse lettuce" albeit the wild kind. I can loudly second that observation.

In addition to greenbrier leaves, grouse will consume the foliage of cross vine, multi-flora rose and a common forb of the forest floor called ragwort. It stays green all winter unlike many other long dormant species. Grouse savor beechnuts and white oak acorns, if you can find them near decent cover.

The mini-red rose hips of multi-flora rose are an excellent winter food source as well. Though listed as a noxious, exotic species where it can be quite invasive in old fields, when spotted here and there in the woods, it is a grouse hunter's favorite. Just like greenbrier, its leaves and fruit provide sustenance, while the thorny shrub provides cover. That, my friends, is like comfortably living in your own well-stocked kitchen. Another winter food and at least a good indicator of decent grouse cover is the sumac or "shumate" as many Mountaineers call it. The fruiting red heads or "candles" start to drop their individual fuzzy seeds a little at a time in fulfillment of that rationing mode.

You can sometimes follow grouse tracks in the snow to confirm their feeding on these seeds that literally pepper the snow. As for snow, it can be helpful to show some tracks or ground roosts. However, the lack of tracks with decent flushes or an abundance of tracks with nary a flush can surely bedazzle you.

Not only do grouse use the thorny greenbrier vines for cover, they partake the somewhat leathery leaves as well as the bluish pea-sized berries with the waxy surface.

No one ever said that grouse weren't enigmatic. Along those lines, you can see that grouse can be just about anywhere on the mountain from top to bottom. They also have that wide range of favorite foods, and we didn't even mention a host of twig ends and buds. That conveniently brings us to the next point.

There may not be many grouse, but they can be at many different places! You therefore must put plenty of miles in with dogs, pals or by your lonesome in the quest for flushes.

Now here are a few public grouse options to get your feet on the ground. These are kind of sleepers and shouldn't be too awfully crowded with other bird hunters.

Lincoln County's Big Ugly WMA has seen quite a bit of logging in the recent past. Some of its 6,000 acres should now be sporting a bird or two. It's accessible off state Route 7 near the town of Leet.

The 9,000-acre Morris Creek WMA in Kanawha and Clay counties is another option that should hold some grouse in its thicker portions. Both of these areas are part of District 5. New district biologist Gary Sharp is actually an old hand there. Call the district headquarters at (304) 675-0871.

More famous for its new lake of the same name, Wallback WMA has some grouse-holding pockets along its scattered holdings on both sides of Interstate 79 near exit 34. Look for the reverting farm portions, old road fill perimeters and the brushy highway edges that also sport some grape tangles. Call the district office at (304) 924-6211 for local conditions.

Grouse gunning is certainly not about weighty game bags and limits. It's most definitely one of classic sport for an even classier game bird. Take lightly from any given covert and you'll be amply rewarded at the next one. It's in finding that next new covert or explosive flush that's really the kicker. And we hope a Christmas grouse or two is under a tree out there waiting just for you!

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