5 Great Public Land Grouse Picks in West Virginia

5 Great Public Land Grouse Picks in West Virginia

From Beech Fork to Beury Mountain -- plus three other top choices -- here's where you'll find ruffed grouse shooting right now in our state!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

by Bruce Ingram

I knew that I was about to come into ruffed grouse country while following the winding old logging road in the mountains of Fayette County. For 30 minutes or so, I had strolled along the path as it meandered through a mixed stand of oaks and pines, but as the road progressively became more overgrown and then dipped into a rhododendron thicket, I slowed my pace.

Old Ruff was liable to explode upward at any second, and I knew that I would have to expect that moment, shoulder and swing my 20 gauge in a fluid motion, and have the presence of mind to pull the trigger. As I was concentrating on what to do, a bird did erupt from the thicket before me. Even though I had been single mindedly waiting for that very moment, I was still startled and was a fraction of a second slow in steadying myself. Then I was another small part of a second slow in raising the gun.

The delayed reaction time was of no importance anyway because as I was shouldering the scattergun, it struck a tree limb between the rapidly rising ruff and me. The bird careened across the thicket and then dipped over the rim of the bench to the steep mountainside below.

Even when I am trying to do everything in my power to keep fool hens from humiliating me, they still regularly do so. What is it about these creatures that makes them so maddeningly frustrating to hunt, yet the more insanity they create among the bird hunting fraternity, the more we want to pursue them?

Perhaps a poet or a sage has the answer to the above question; I certainly do not. However, I do know, and West Virginia upland enthusiasts should be aware of, that the state does have some intriguing wildlife management areas (WMAs) where wingshooters can chase after ruffs.

Tom Allen is the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) biologist most responsible for keeping tabs on ruffed grouse population. From the Elkins office, Allen is also in charge of the Appalachian Cooperative Grouse Research Project (ACGRP) and as such has been doing a comprehensive study of the birds.

"The project has three goals or objectives. The first is to study the population dynamics of the Appalachian grouse. In other words, to look at the life history of grouse in this region, such as their survival rates, what kinds of predators affect grouse and in what seasons. Also, we want to learn what kind of production we are getting from the Appalachian grouse and how does it compare to birds elsewhere," Allen said.

"The second objective deals with the grouse's habitat selection, the type of habitat used in each season and the age class of the birds in that habitat. This objective includes defining brood habitat. The third objective deals with hunting, and the impacts of hunting on grouse mortality and ultimately on the population itself."

Allen adds that he does not know whether or not the research project will improve grouse hunting in any measurable way. But he also relates that the research will give biologists and sportsmen insight into the region's grouse and their requirements.

"The only way we can improve grouse hunting is to be able to increase the survival rate. Doing that may be a difficult task given that grouse are dependent upon many factors for survival. A major problem appears to be the poor survival of chicks, especially in their first week of life," he said.

"We are conducting some studies now on chick survival to try to figure out what is happening. The final analysis may show a number of factors affecting the survival of chicks. Those factors include weather, predation, and perhaps the condition of the hen going into the nesting season. Another possibility is the structure of brood habitat. Some of these things have not been proven yet, and the jury is still out on them."

Biologist Tom Allen lists the Beech Fork Lake WMA (7,531 acres) as being one of the state's best grouse hunting destinations. Located in Cabell and Wayne counties, the WMA receives its name from the nearby Beech Fork Lake, a 720-acre impoundment. Beech Fork State Park (3,981 acres) lies on the upper end of the body of water. Park superintendent Debbie Keener says grouse hunters should enjoy a visit to the WMA.

"The Beech Fork WMA is a really pretty area with a lot of oak-hickory stands and some pine stands," she said. "Hunters can walk along some ridgetops for several miles and see some impressive country. I would also want them to know that much of the terrain is quite steep. There are also quite a few trails and old access roads that serve as travel ways through the WMA."

Keener relates that timbering has not taken place on the WMA in recent years as far as she knows. Thus, wingshooters will have to seek out mountain hollows that feature bold streams, rhododendron thickets and sheltered areas. Keener says Beech Fork Road and Fisher-Bowen Road provide access to the WMA. She adds that sportsmen may want to consider a sojourn at the state park. Old Orchard Campground is open year-round as are the park's cabins.

Some individuals also may want to consider bringing along their fishing rod, especially early in the season before winter sets in. Beech Fork Lake is known for its bass and bluegill angling, and Keener relates that several citation largemouths have recently been caught from the impoundment.

The lake is drawn down in early November and is usually down to winter pool by mid-December. Finally, Keener informs that if hunters should decide to pursue grouse in the morning and bass in the afternoon that they should unload and case their shotguns while within the confines of the state park. For more information on Beech Fork Lake State Park, call the park at (304) 528-5794.

One of my favorite WMAs to hunt is the Sleepy Creek WMA (22,928 acres) in Berkeley and Morgan counties. This District II WMA is especially convenient to those sportsmen living near Martinsburg, which is just six miles away. Several management activities have taken place on Sleepy Creek that make it a prime destination for grouse hunters.

Some 2,000 acres of the public land has been intensively managed for ruffed grouse. These activities involve such habitat manipulation as timber cutting, planting of foods, creating wildlife clearings, and making edge habitat. Also, some 100 acres scattered throughout the WMA are maintained as clearings, and the valuable edge habitat that forms serves as a real magnet for grouse. Tom Allen comments

on management activities.

"The Sleepy Creek WMA has some active grouse management projects taking place on the area. These types of projects typically include such activities as timber cutting or plantings such as hawthorn."

One possible strategy for hunting the WMA is to explore the hollows that extend down from Sleepy Creek and Third Hill mountains. Another gambit is to explore the thickets that lie along Meadow Branch, Roaring Run, and Little Brush Run. I like moving along the old tote roads in the Sleepy Creek WMA and seeing what pops up. Since I do much of my grouse hunting without a dog, this is a viable option for those hunters with similar constraints.

As is true at the Beech Fork WMA, visitors to the Sleepy Creek WMA might want to consider doing some fishing later during an outing. The 205-acre Sleepy Creek Lake is close by. The impoundment is also known as one of the premier largemouth bass hotspots in the Mountain State. The lake receives little fishing pressure in late fall and early winter.

The WMA offers 75 camping sites. Access is available via state Routes (SRs) 8/2, 13/5 and 7/9. For more information, contact the District II DNR office in Romney at (304) 822-3551.

Located in Hampshire County 12 miles south of Romney, the Nathaniel Mountain WMA (8,875 acres) is another one of the public lands that biologist Tom Allen lists for wingshooters to consider. Interestingly, Nathaniel Mountain has been a beacon for sportsmen since 1939 when the state was able to purchase it with funds through the famous Pittman-Robertson Act.

In those days, the public land suffered from overgrazing by sheep, intensive cultivation, and the occasional wildfire. Now, however, the forests have been growing back for over 60 years, and the WMA is heavily wooded with white and red oaks, hickories, and pines. Red, sugar, and striped maples also thrive there, the latter two in the higher altitudes. The elevation varies from 1,000 to 3,500 feet.

Nathaniel, Piney and Little Mountains control the skyline on the WMA, and numerous drafts run down the mountain from the ridgetops. Hunters and their dogs may want to follow those hollows, especially the ones with upland rills, in their search for grouse.

A major stream that courses through the WMA is Mill Run. The stream is known for its steep descent of some 200 feet per mile and its "congested nature." Downed trees, brier patches, rhododendron thickets, and mountain laurel copses characterize portions of the creek, which runs for some seven miles. Mill Run covers a large portion of the WMA, beginning at 2,200 feet and coursing down the mountain to 700 feet where it commingles with the South Branch of the Potomac. Obviously, this is a mountain stream that grouse hunters might want to check out.

Also worthy of notice are Stoney, Little Devil Hole runs, and the tributaries of Devil Hole and Buffalo runs. All of these upland streams have the potential to harbor grouse, drawn by the cool, shady nooks that exist. Primitive camping is available at the Nathaniel Mountain WMA, which can be reached via SR 29 and county Route 10 (Grassy Lick Road). For more information on this District II public land, contact the DNR office in Romney at the number listed earlier.

One of the jewels of District V is East Lynn Lake WMA (22,928 acres) in Wayne County. Biologist Tom Allen rates this public land as one of the top ones for those grouse hunters living in the southwestern section of the state. Actually, East Lynn contains topographical features more like those found in southern West Virginia and in the central mountain counties such as Randolph.

Some 90 percent of the WMA is covered with oak-hickory forest, so wildlife clearings and edge habitat is at a premium. Lycans Ridge, Fork Ridge, Mathis Ridge and Crackersneck Ridge are some of upper altitude grouse haunts that wingshooters may want to explore.

Numerous mountain streams also run through the WMA, among them Geiger Branch, Brush Creek, Stone Coal Branch, Laurel Branch, and the East Fork of Twelvepole Creek. All of these upland streams have the potential to host grouse in their hollows.

Sportsmen can take advantage of the largemouth and spotted bass fishery available at East Lynn Lake, which the WMA adjoins. A U.S. Corps of Engineers (COE) campground exists on the lake and makes for a convenient place to spend the night. For more information, contact the COE resource manager at (304) 849-2355. For more information on the East Lynn WMA, contact the DNR District V office at (304) 675-0871. The community of Wayne is 15 miles from the WMA and access is available via SRs 37 and 152.

One of the newest public lands in the Mountain State is the Beury Mountain WMA (3,061 acres) in Fayette County. The property was purchased with funds from the Conservation Stamp that each West Virginia sportsman is required to buy each year. I know of no other money that is as well spent as the $3 we plunk down to purchase this stamp. In future years while hunters and fishermen in neighboring states will bemoan the lack of public land, those of us who hunt West Virginia will be assured of having a place to go afield - thanks in part to the Conservation Stamp.

Although I have not yet hunted Beury Mountain, I have hiked in the region. Numerous mountain rills course through this area, and for the most part, the terrain is very steep. As is typical of southern West Virginia, mixed hardwoods predominate, especially white and red oaks and hickories. Some old clearcuts dot this WMA and offer wingshooting opportunities. Another strategy would involve moving along the creeks that run down from the WMA into the New River.

Biologist Allen offers these how-to tips that apply not only to Beury Mountain but also to all of the WMAs mentioned.

"Grouse are for the most parts vegetarians and eat many plants found in the woods. They depend on mast crops in the fall, which may be berries or fruits, and beech or other hard mast later on. In the winter, they feed on a number of tree buds," Allen said.

"Generally, these WMAs are in regions where we have some good grouse hunting. What makes one area better than another for grouse hunting is whether there is some timber cutting going on there. Grouse need cutover areas from six to 18 years or so. The optimum age of a clearcut I would guess is from 10 to 12 years."

One of the neat things about Beury Mountain WMA is that it adjoins the southern border of Babcock State Park. Babcock is one of my favorite state parks in West Virginia, and it is a delightful place to stay any time during the year. Although camping is prohibited on the Beury Mountain WMA, Babcock offers cabins and campsites. For more information, call the state park at 800-CALL-WVA.

Wingshooters can reach the Beury Mountain WMA by taking U.S. Route 60 east to Lookout, then SR 41 south to Landisburg. From that community, follow county Route 19/33 thr

ee miles to the public land. For more information on hunting Beury Mountain, contact the District IV office at Beckley (304) 256-6947.

What happened after I blew my opportunity to down the ruffed grouse mentioned at the beginning of this story? The bird that made a mad flight down the mountain had a companion feeding along the logging road that I was traversing. Some 100 yards worth of walking later, I came across the fellow fool hen, and this time I was ready - or so I thought. Another bird was not going to elude me by disappearing over the side of a flat.

When the second grouse flushed, it indeed did not fly down the mountain, instead veering upward into a tangle of grapevines above me. The ruff's ascent was at such a sharp rate and behind me as well, that I had no chance to even shoulder the autoloader this time. In retrospect, I probably would have missed the bird anyway. But don't you miss out on the exciting public hunting opportunities available for grouse during the late fall and winter.

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