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In search of the elusive ruffed grouse

A very good friend of mine, Andy Whitman, is a missionary currently serving stateside but about to go overseas again. He is also an avid hunter with a particular interest in birds. Andy loves to turkey hunt, and he also really enjoys the call of Mr. Bobwhite.

Additionally, the ruffed grouse has earned his interest since he was a young man stomping around the thick cover of north Stafford. He once flushed one while out hunting and has not forgotten it.

Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and the ruffed grouse bug is still biting Andy. He contacted me a few weeks ago to see if I would be interested in accompanying him to some public land to search for grouse, and maybe, just maybe, see one.

The ruffed grouse is not exactly common and is very rarely seen. They will gather in small flocks in the winter to feed, though. The male makes a drumming sound that sounds like an old tractor or truck at a distance, trying to fire up and turn over.

My interest was piqued, and I agreed if we could schedule it for a Saturday. Andy was totally agreeable and decided to go to some public land here in Virginia and do some scouting.

The day he was to go scout dawned bitterly cold with snow on the ground, probably more snow in the mountains where he went, and the wind was not still, either. I awaited his report that evening with anticipation.

When I opened my e-mail that evening, I saw a few pictures that had me very excited to go give it a try. It turns out that Andy had a rough go of it for the first half of the day. His pants were ripped up, he was very cold, and then he had not seen any birds. He willed himself to go back out after a quick lunch in the truck and try one more time.

One thing I have gotten to know about Andy is that he pays attention to the tiniest of details. While on his second jaunt on the mountainside, he began seeing bird tracks in the snow. They were the size of a small chicken. He knew pretty quick that he was looking at grouse tracks.

Then he found what they were eating and put it all together. Once he knew he was in grouse territory, he began stomping the brush and trying hard to see a bird. Grouse are the size of a small chicken, but they are incredibly secretive and quick to disappear.

As Andy puts it, “They are down on the same level as foxes, so they have to be able to hide and escape if they want to survive.”

Not long after he found the sign that grouse were in the area, he flushed one. He went on to flush birds five times, but got only a few shots off because of all the thick cover. He did put a grouse in his game vest, which means he got a booster shot of “grousitus” due to his success, so he was primed to go at it again. I was definitely on board, as well. 20140212out1

Ten days later, we headed back to the spot which was public land and immediately started wading through some of the nastiest cover I had seen in a long time. I was thankful I had some briar pants on, but they did not help my coat which suffered a nice-sized rip.

Not long after we started hunting, Andy commented he found  good sign. I stomped my way over to him to see exactly what grouse sign looked like. The droppings were just as Andy had told me; they were like miniature turkey droppings. The birds were definitely in the area and feeding on the tiny red berries or seeds that were common in this location. I could see the berries, the skins and droppings all over.

The sign kept us stomping all over the place in that cover. We rousted a rabbit and did not get a shot. We even saw some old deer carcasses and passed a few other hunters trying to take advantage of the last day of grouse season.

One pair of hunters had a four-legger with them. That is, they brought a German shorthaired pointer with them to help locate birds. We never saw them again, but we did see other hunters who told us they had encountered the same duo with their dog and watched them walk back down the mountain after hours of hunting without the dog getting birdy at all.

Andy and I kept at it, though. We were determined we would do our very best to try to roust a grouse. We even hiked to a clearcut that GoogleEarth showed to be a little over a mile away up the mountain. That clearcut was incredibly dense but appeared void of food for the grouse. There were plenty of rabbit cuttings, though. I have never seen so many rabbit cuttings in my life in one spot.

After trying the clearcut for a while, we headed back down the mountain to give the original spots one more shot.

We did give it an honest effort to no avail. Andy looked like he walked through a shredder. His shirt and pants were ripped all over. He had bloody hands and cuts on his face. I had not suffered as greatly, as my pants held up. I did have leather work gloves on to ward off some of the briars, but my face and ears did get a few thorns in them that I was still picking out later that evening.

My views on grouse hunting remain positive, despite not seeing any birds that day. Is grouse hunting for the lazy hunter? Absolutely not! Is it for someone willing to get off the trail, get some exercise and possibly see a bird? Yes. We covered a lot of terrain that day.

I learned an awful lot about grouse, mountain hunting for birds, and I also got one of the best nights of sleep I have gotten in a long time. I slept straight through the night, which is something I rarely do. The hunt was one to remember. I spent it with a great friend who was willing to do his very best to find the birds for us. I hope to get another chance to go grouse hunting next season. I appreciate Andy for introducing me to Mr. Ruffed Grouse!

 

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