Each season has its attributes for the outdoors person: Spring’s reawakening, ushering in a host of opportunities from trout fishing to gobbler hunting; Warm summer evenings spent on a largemouth bass lake; Fall’s rapid transition, from downright hot early-season bow hunts to post-Thanksgiving stints on the deer stand that test the insulating qualities of the best of boots.
For the winter grouse hunter, perhaps the greatest quality is revisiting fall covers and seeing them in an entirely different light. In many cases, snow has crushed down much of the underbrush, making it easier to navigate thickets. The rose bushes still shred, and the laurel still grabs, but there’s a marked increase in visibility.
Old haul roads stand out, their narrow open corridors being the first to shed a light snow blanket during warm-ups. Akin to reading a stream or river during lower flows, interpreting the food and cover qualities of a grouse cover can be easier when things are more exposed.
This isn’t to say hunting the birds is any easier. I tend to measure the success of my hunts by grouse moved. If I were to use birds-on-the-ground as a gauge, I would have given up years ago.
And admittedly, my flush rate drops during the late season. Perhaps this is due in part to fewer birds, their numbers reduced by avian and four-footed predators, and hunters that shoot better than me. But it’s more likely a case of simply not adjusting to the food sources the birds are using at this point in the year; still pounding away at places that held grouse during the fall hunt.
Take for instance last Saturday, when my friend Art Hamley and I shared a day in the uplands.
The forecast called for a high in the low 40s with clear skies. Following a period of snow and cold, we hoped the birds would be active, out feeding following a stint of relative idleness.
There would still be snow cover on ridges and plateaus above the Allegheny River, in northeastern Armstrong County, where we planned on spending the day, enough of a covering to show where grouse had been feeding.
We hit the first spot at midmorning, having given the grouse plenty of time to leave their roosts. Despite our well-laid plan — but in keeping with the pattern of many a late-season hunt —we didn’t flush a grouse. The snow showed plenty of deer movement, but nary a grouse track.
To us, the food sources looked abundant — lots of rose hips along with crab apples, with plenty of ground greenery exposed where numerous spring seeps kept the forest floor open.
The place attracted birds in the early season, but apparently they weren’t using it now.
The lunch break found us pondering options. One of our best spots — a cut- over thick with young aspen — was posted by a new landowner prior to deer season. It wasn’t an option, not until I could hopefully get permission to hunt. I recalled a thicket I’d marked on my GPS over a year ago while cruising the back roads during late summer. It was only a few miles away. We drove over and decided to give it a kick.
Within a few minutes, Art located some fresh grouse tracks. Our confidence lifted, we continued on to an area that while open, held patches of grape vines intermixed with rose and barberry bushes.
Though most of the wild grape vines in my area have been void of fruit this year, the spots still provide cover, and food in this case with the presence of hips and barberry.
Behind us we heard a grouse flush wild. Then, as we approached a rose/ grape tangle, a bird flushed in front of Art, giving him a decent opportunity. While it appeared to be a clear miss, we searched the area for 15 minutes to be sure.
During the next hour and a half, we continued to work the tangles while learning a new cover.
We put up another grouse or two, identified an area that looked like it would hold woodcock next fall, and just generally enjoyed being out during an extremely pleasant, sunny late December afternoon.
By late afternoon we were driving back to my place, the setting sun in our eyes, content in the knowledge that we still have four Saturdays before the season closes.