Don't be fooled into thinking that hunting for fool hens will be easy. These picks, though, are excellent areas for bagging your limits of ruffed grouse this season.
Hunting with dogs is always the best way to seek grouse, though sportsmen sans dogs can still find their share. Photo by Steve Carpenteri
By Bruce Ingram
The ruffed grouse was only doing what comes natural to this upland game bird - quickly taking to the air in fear at the approach of a potential predator - me. The fool hen had been placidly feeding along an old logging road that winds through the Neola Wildlife Management Area (WMA) when I happened upon it. Although the grouse had startled me (so much so that I had not even attempted a shot), it had also sharpened my senses and reflexes.
I slowed my pace even more, inching along the tote road meandering across the mountain. About 20 minutes later, I rounded a bend in the road where mountain laurel grew in great profusion. When a grouse loomed before me this time, I was a bit better prepared, and the scattergun came to my shoulder much more swiftly than it did on the previous flush. Luckily, I downed the ruff, making my entire outing a success.
Circumstances, such as one child in college and another on his way toward higher education, prevent me from owning a bird dog. But I am not going to forsake grouse hunting in West Virginia for a "technicality" such as that. I relish going afield with Mountain State sportsmen who own a Brittany, English setter, German pointer or some other breed of bird dog, but I also enjoy going out on my own to pursue grouse. For both the hunter without a dog - and the individual with one - here are some quality destinations, as well as some tips for hunting grouse solo.
POTTS CREEK WMA I have hunted the Potts Creek WMA (18,526 acres) in Monroe County for nearly 15 years, and enjoy going there so much that five years ago I purchased land that borders the public land. Then last year, I purchased another tract that also lies adjacent to the public land and to my other property. The Potts Creek WMA, which is part of the Jefferson National Forest, consists of overwhelmingly mountainous terrain and ranges in elevation from 2,000 to 3,600 feet.
Several strategies exist for pursuing grouse in this WMA. First, upland bird enthusiasts can hunt along the many highland streams that course down Potts and Peters mountains. Interestingly, these creeks are all tributaries of the James River, a rarity for West Virginia waterways. The major stream for the WMA is its namesake Potts Creek, which runs through the bottomlands of the property. Tributaries of Potts worth checking out include the North Fork of Potts, South Fork of Potts, Crosier Branch and Wilson Branch. There are many more very tiny rills that also flow down the two mountains, some so small that they are not even named on maps.
Regardless of their size, all of these stream areas have the potential to harbor grouse. Rhododendron and mountain laurel often grow in dense thickets along these waterways, and those locales are where you are most likely to jump a bird. At this point, I must add that the Potts Creek WMA is not a place where you are likely to bump two or three birds at a time. I have done so, but such occasions have been rare. This is a public land where you have to hunt hard to flush a bird or two an hour. But come to think of it, isn't that what grouse hunting is all about?
A second strategy for hunting the WMA is to walk along the many old logging roads that crisscross the property. I know of one particular place, and forgive me if I don't divulge where it is, that features a long stretch of summer grapes along the road to the left and a tributary of Potts Creek down over the side of the road to the right. This locale is a good place to flush birds from October through February, especially during years when the hard mast crop in the mountains has been poor.
Potts Creek offers some land that has been timbered in recent years, but as a whole, there is not a great deal of this type of activity on the WMA. This public land can be accessed via SRs 15, 17 or 20; no camping sites are available. For more information, contact the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest home office in Roanoke, VA at (540) 265-5100; Web site: www.southernregion.fs.fed.us./gwj/.
THE GEORGE WASHINGTON NATIONAL FOREST Two tracts within the George Washington National Forest exist in West Virginia: the Shenandoah WMA (49,106 acres) in Pendleton County and the Wardensville WMA (55,327 acres) in Hampshire and Hardy counties. The Shenandoah WMA features elevations between 1,250 and 4,397 feet. Don't be misled by the former figure; the latter elevation more accurately depicts much of the altitudes that you will have to deal with while hunting this unit of the Washington. The sister public land, the Wardensville WMA, offers similar highland terrain. Both locales are covered with oak-hickory forests for the most part.
John Bellemore, forest ecology group leader for the national forest, relates that a number of habitat enhancement projects are going on in the George Washington, several of which are of interest to upland bird enthusiasts. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is the fact that the forest service is moving away from creating and maintaining food plots. Bellemore said that food plots are very expensive to establish and to keep up.
Instead, national forest personnel are putting their time and energy to enhancing habitat along the many tote roads that wind their way through the public land. The forest ecology leader informs that orchard grass and various legumes have been planted along these roads and that game of all kinds - from deer to turkey to grouse - and non-game, such as towhees, worm-eating warblers and other songbirds - have become very much attracted to these roads. For the grouse hunter without a dog, or for the individual with one, this is certainly good news, as following these old tote roads could lead to a bird or two being deposited in your game bag.
Another very positive development is the stepping up of the prescribed burning program in the George Washington National Forest.
"The drought that had been occurring in the region for the past few years really put a damper on the Forest Service carrying out the prescribed burns that it wanted to," says Bellemore. "But with the snow and rain that fell during the winter of 2002-03, the drought situation was greatly improved. Then, we had a wet March and April. This past April, for example, the Forest Service was able to carry out a number of prescribed burning projects.
"Whenever burning takes place in the spring, look for an explosion of new growth to happen immediately afterward and during the summer. Prescribed burning can also take pl
ace in the fall, weather conditions permitting, but wildlife usually benefits most when it occurs in the spring."
Bellemore relates that local ranger district offices can tell sportsmen where prescribed burning operations have been carried out. The numbers for those ranger districts can be found by calling the main office in Roanoke or by accessing the Web site, both of which were listed earlier.
Another activity that ruff enthusiasts should learn about is clearcutting. As is commonly known, there has not been a great deal of timbering in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest the past few years. According to Bellemore, there were 2,000 to 2,500 acres cut in 2002; obviously at this time, the final figures for this year were not available. Given the fact that the Washington and Jefferson together cover 1.8 million acres in the two Virginias, the amount of land cut is not great. However, learning where clearcuts have taken place over the past five to 15 years could be very beneficial to the perspective grouse hunter. Again, local ranger district offices can supply that information.
The Shenandoah WMA can be reached via SRs 21, 30 and 3. Camping is available at Brandywine Lake and Camp Run. The Wardensville WMA can be accessed by means of SRs 59, 23/10, 5/1 and 16. Camping is available at Trout Pond, Rock Cliff Lake, Wolf Gap and Hawk recreation areas.
SLEEPY CREEK WMA The Sleepy Creek WMA (22,928 acres) in Berkeley and Morgan counties is one of the better public land grouse destinations for those upland game bird devotees in the eastern part of the Mountain State. The standard Virginia pine, red oak-type forest covers the majority of this state WMA, but a substantial number of oak-hickory stands also thrive.
On my last visit to Sleepy Creek, the number of trees that had died because of the gypsy moth infestation surprised me. Actually, in terms of grouse hunting, the opening up of the forest floor because of the tree loss is probably a good thing. Another reason to visit this public land concerns the fact that approximately 2,000 acres have been managed for the benefit of Old Ruff. These activities include timber harvests, wildlife plantings, clearings created, tote roads seeding, etc.
Although Sleepy Creek contains a number of mountain ranges, generally they are not as steep or as high as those in the central and southern portions of West Virginia. For example, I have hunted to the summit of Hedges Mountain, which tops out at "only" 1,250 feet. Other high points include Short Mountain at 1,390 feet and Pinkerton Knob at 1,800 feet.
Another possible way to go about pursuing grouse on Sleepy Creek is to look for copses along the numerous streams that flow through the WMA. Meadow Branch, Roaring Run and Little Brush Creek are the three main streams, and many of the laurel thickets along these creeks possess a ruff or two.
This public land offers 75 campsites, and a reasonable camping fee exists. Sleepy Creek is located near Berkeley Springs, and Martinsburg and is accessible via SRs 8/2 and 13/5 and 7/9. For more information, contact the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) District II office at Romney by calling (304) 822-3551.
NEOLA WMA In some states, the Neola WMA (97,928 acres) in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties would be such a large chunk of public land that just by itself it could be called a national forest. Actually, this WMA is a part of the Monongahela National Forest. Since this WMA is relatively close to my home, it is on my "possible public land destinations" wish list every year.
One autumn, for example, friends and I flushed birds while ambling along the North Fork of Anthony Creek. Then we put up more grouse when we sneak-hunted along one of the many old logging roads that traverse the WMA. To be sure, searching for grouse in the creek bottoms (besides the North Fork, Meadow Creek and Laurel Run are other options) is a sound gambit as is traveling from place to place via the tote roads.
Oak-hickory and oak-pine forests dominate the Neola, as they result in about 90 percent of this highland WMA. So unless upland bird hunters are in the know, they will probably move through long sections that likely hold few grouse. To be in the know, be sure to contact the forest supervisor's office of the Monongahela National Forest in Elkins at (304) 636-1800. Ask about recent timber cutting and tote road seeding activities. The Neola WMA is accessible via SRs 92, 28, 84 and 39. Camping is available at the Lake Sherwood recreation complex and the Blue Bend Recreation area.
WALKING UP GROUSE TACTICS To be sure, I want to emphasize that grouse hunting sans canine - at least from my experience - is very challenging. There is no way that the individual who pursues ruffs in this manner will be as successful as those sportsmen who are accompanied by well-trained bird-dogs. I have had the fortune to hunt behind some truly remarkable West Virginia upland gunners and their dogs. Watching these men and their very responsive animals team up is a joy to behold. The phrase "poetry in motion" comes to mind.
Nevertheless, I can't continually bother my contacts every time I want to go bird hunting and beg to be taken along on excursions. That's why hunting without a dog gives me a chance to enjoy the outdoors more and to occasionally bag a bird.
This leads to the relative points of the lone individual chasing after fool hens. First, the second time you flush a bird is when you probably have the best chance to down it - again, from my experience. Remember, when hunting by yourself you won't have a dog to point a hidden bird. And no matter how many times a grouse has flown up in front of you, it is still almost always a nerve-fraying event.
After I blunder across a bird and flush it, I often try to follow it through the air until it lands, instead of trying to shoulder my 20-gauge autoloader. My theory is that grouse hold better the second time you come across them than they did on the first. As I come ever nearer to where I think a bird has touched down, I slow my pace even more - my arm muscles tensed and ready to shoulder the shotgun.
On rare occasions have I been able to flush a bird three times, but when I have, the birds have seemed to remain stationary even longer still. However, given the uneven terrain of West Virginia's mountains, don't expect to be able to mark birds more than once.
Second, I believe that it is crucial for lone sportsmen to recognize upcoming grouse habitat well in advance. Your eyes must be constantly scanning the forest road before you or the bends of the creek you are perambulating along. Look for little "islands" of habitat: a patch of grape vines, a stand of sumac trees, a copse of mountain laurel, a cluster of downed trees, for example. Any of these type locales may contain a ruffed grouse.
Third, a solo hunter after grouse cannot move too slowly. I have often read about the importance of people inching along when they are still-hunting for whitetails. And a similar pace is needed for those people
who want the challenge of still-hunting for fool hens. Whenever I encounter habitat like that mentioned above, my rate of progress slows even more.
And last, learn to recognize grouse among the duff on the forest floor. The light brown camouflage that a ruffed grouse possesses in the form of its plumage blends in so nicely with the woods that I am surprised some camo company has not made a pattern based on this bird's feather hues and color combinations. On many occasions, I have had ruffs not flush until I had walked past them. Sometimes, a grouse's best survival plan is not to flush at all, but allow a moving predator to stroll past it.
West Virginia offers quality public-land hunting for both the hunter with dogs and the individual without dogs. Oftentimes a bulging game bag comes for both categories of sportsmen who have put forth the time and effort to be successful.
IF YOU GO The tentative dates for the grouse season this year are Oct. 13 through Feb. 28. The daily bag limit is four, and there is no season limit.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to West Virginia Game & Fish