With deer season now over, it's time to turn to grouse and other small game to finish out the hunting agenda for the year. It's true grouse populations aren't at the levels they were 30 years ago. But there are definitely enough of these beautiful brown and russet birds to make hunting them a worthwhile endeavor.
Before heading out, though, make sure you're in shape and ready for the physical challenge these birds present. Grouse hunting is a sport for those with a strong set of lungs and sturdy legs. Often long days of hiking through thick, elevated terrain are required to find and flush the quarry.
Even middle-aged and older hunters can enjoy the challenge this wary bird offers, though, if they go at it carefully by pausing often and not hunting too frenetically. Also keep outings on the short side, say 3-4 hours at a time instead of grueling dawn-to-dusk days.
While deer and turkey hunting are better earlier in the fall, grouse hunting in the Shenandoah Valley area gets better in the late winter. With a dedicated effort, several short trips should yield at least an opportunity to put a bird or two in the game pouch. You'll have until Feb. 8 to try. That's the date the season closes.
The bag limit is three grouse per day. To harvest that many grouse would be unusual. Most hunters consider it a success if they down one bird on every second or third trip.
You can go after grouse either by jump shooting or by following a pointer, setter or Brittany spaniel. I've done it both ways, and while I enjoy the dog work, you'll generally get a chance to shoot at about the same number of birds with or without a canine companion.
The very best dogs are ones that hunt slowly. Often they are older animals. You want them to hunt close and not bump too many birds out of range.
When searching for grouse without a dog, the key to success is recognizing what kind of cover the birds like and then using the "sudden pause" technique to flush them. Grouse would rather skulk in heavy brush and let you walk right past. But if you stop abruptly, they'll sense they've been spotted and flush to escape. That gives you the opportunity for a shot.
Examine the cover ahead as you walk and plan your pauses so they take place when you're in a good spot to shoot and close enough to the cover that the grouse will be in range when it flushes with a loud roar of wings.
As you look for grouse, you'll soon realize there are essentially two main types of cover. One is open and airy and looks like it would be a good place to take a stroll. You can see for long distances and there's little ground cover. Trees present are mostly mature hardwoods. That's not the kind of habitat where you'll find grouse.
The second type of habitat is thick and tangled. Patches of greenbrier, grapevines, honeysuckle, crab apple and dogwood predominate. Tree growth consists mostly of saplings. This is the type of habitat where you'll flush late season grouse in northwestern Virginia. There's lots of cover for security from predators and food is present in the form of grapes, berries, seed-bearing plants, ferns, forbs and buds.
When hunting grouse in late season, don't be surprised to find several birds in a group. Cover is concentrated and food supplies have dwindled, so the birds flock together during winter. You're just as likely to flush three birds out of a deadfall or grapevine thicket as one.
If you connect with a bird, mark where it fell in your mind and then be ready for a second flush. If you miss, just get ready and try to do better on the second or third chance. That could come within seconds after the first bird rockets out of the cover.
When choosing a shotgun make sure it has a skeet or improved cylinder choke in a single barrel, improved cylinder and modified in a double. Shot size can be either 6's or 7½'s. Wear rugged canvas-faced brush pants and a blaze orange vest or coat with large pockets for your lunch and extra shells, as well as a game pouch for any grouse you might be fortunate enough to bag.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.