Peter Brookes: Busting brush for birds in Pennsylvania

Peter Brookes

Last fall, I mentioned to a hunting buddy here in the Old Dominion that I was packing up and heading for the north Pennsylvania woods for the weekend to hunt up some ruffed grouse.

His reply to my hopeful declaration was: “Ooooooh … ruffed grouse in the woods … that’s a tough bird … I hear that the first time you go hunting for “ruffies,” it’s for fun – and the second time you go, it’s for revenge.”

At that time, I had no idea that perhaps truer upland bird words had ever been spoken.

Now, I’ve done my fair share of bird hunting — and I have to say that from the hiking to the shooting, chasing ruffed grouse in the forest is one of the toughest bird hunts I’ve ever been on. In basketball terms, we’re talking 3-point shots here – not layups.

That said: it’s still great hunting.

As you know, you can take ruffies in all sorts of cover – even on the grasslands of the Midwest in places like North Dakota  – but the hardest habitat I think is young growth forests, which is where they seem to hide and thrive.

Since the hunting can be hard – to put it mildly – I decided that there’s probably no better way to go about it than to do it with the folks who know a ton about the “king of the forest,” as some have dubbed the ruffed grouse.

For me, that meant pairing up with the Ruffed Grouse Society (ruffedgrousesociety.org) for its annual Upland Bird Hunt (UBH) in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest, supported by its helpful and energetic staff (including a biologist) and an army of assistants.

Taking place in early November every year, the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) brings together hard working (volunteer!) “huntmasters” with their able grouse dogs – ranging from Brittany Spaniels to Llewellin setters – with eager guns.

Even better, the quarry during the two-day hunt isn’t limited to ruffies as the local area also has its share of America’s oddest-looking upland game bird, the migratory woodcock (aka timberdoodle).

In fact, the RGS recently created the American Woodcock Society (AWS) as a sister organization to improve “woodie” (aka “doodle”) habitat.

A typical RGS UBH finds you spending the day seeking “birdy spots” in fields, on hillsides, along logging roads and streams or in stands of young saplings in search of what can be elusive bird flushes.

Indeed, one of my great RGS UBH hunting guides last fall told me that according to the numerous buzzing, beeping electronic gizmos hanging around his neck that we’d walked about 8 miles that day.

In other words, don’t worry about over doing it a little at the breakfast or dinner buffets put on by the RGS at the lodge during the hunt, you’ll easily work it off in the field.

When I groaned about the boot leather that I, a workweek “desk jockey,” had worn through that day, the guide was quick to point out that his German shorthaired pointers had scampered about 24 miles each–with their only complaint being wanting to hunt more.

I didn’t whine after that – much anyway.

After two years of doing the RGS UBH, my modest hunting record stands at one grouse and one woodcock – on different years.

For the grouse, a Llewellin setter went on a statue-like point in a stand of saplings as darkness approached. The grouse held as I came up behind the dog at the ready. From behind a log, the ruffie exploded into the air, fortunately climbing out straight in front of me.

I still don’t know how the 20 gauge #7.5 shot got through the thick growth of young trees to drop the bird.

The woodcock took wing in a wild flush out of a covert in an old, abandoned apple orchard and – like woodies tend to do – flew straight up to get out of the thicket before pushing its prominent beak over to level flight. I caught it with a spreader load of 20 gauge #7.5 shot.

That sounds like a lot of work for two birds in two years, but we pushed lots of ruffies and woodies into the air over those two days, probably averaging about 10-plus birds per day per two-person hunting group during the 2015 UBH.

Taking into account heart-stopping, wild flushes and lots of tough shots taken amongst (and often between) trees as the brown birds bolted, you can see what I mean about “revenge” – something I’m really looking forward to getting more of next year.

Dr. Peter Brookes has a Fort Valley home and writes about the great outdoors here whenever he can. Email: brookesoutdoors@gmail.com