The thunder of wings erupted from a wall of grapevines just 10 feet to my left. I spun, raised my shotgun, and scrambled to find the grouse that was heading up the steep mountain.
It was the eighth bird I flushed on this mild January day, but I had yet to fire a shot. I had no room to complain. That’s the way it is with southern Appalachian grouse hunting. Some days, the birds fly straight away through open trees, but most days they know exactly how to avoid a load of No. 8 shot. They twist and turn through thickets and put the only big tree in the forest between you and them as they scramble out of range. It’s frustrating, exciting, rewarding and exhausting all at once. And that is exactly why chasing ruffs through the mountains is so fun.
Appalachian grouse hunting opportunities extend as far south as Georgia where isolated pockets of cover in the mountains hold enough birds to justify a day in the woods. Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia and Maryland all have good numbers of grouse, as well, along with good public hunting opportunities. However, don’t expect to kill a limit anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Some spots do hold plenty of grouse, but the best cover is so thick, getting a shot is a cause for celebration. In fact, dedicated grouse hunters measure a day’s success not by how many birds they brought to hand, but by how many they jumped. Still, it’s not impossible to drop a grouse or two if you know where to look and if you can make each of those rare shots count.
The best shotgun is the one you can carry up and down steep mountains for hours on end, raise in a flash and swing on a crossing bird through thick cover. Many dedicated grouse fanatics like double-barrel, 20- or 28-guage smoothbores with 26-inch barrels. Others use a 12-gauge autoloader with a 28-inch barrel because that’s what they shoot best. Whatever you shotgun choose, fit it with an improved cylinder choke and load it with either No. 7 ½ or No. 8 shot. Grouse aren’t particularly difficult to bring down, they are just hard to hit.
So where do you look? Head for the thick stuff. Prime grouse habitat is a jungle of saplings, grape and greenbrier vines, and tangles of blackberry thickets. If it looks too thick to walk through, then it’s probably a good place to hunt. Grouse not only eat soft mast like grapes and greenbrier berries, they eat a wide variety of leafy greens, as well as acorns. However, you might find a bird in open, mature oaks, but you won’t find many. Grouse need that thick cover not only because it is loaded with food, but because it provides overhead cover from hawks and owls, their major predators. That prime cover is usually found in regenerated clear-cuts anywhere from 10 to 30 years old.
Unfortunately, quality grouse habitat in the form of clear-cuts is becoming harder to find these days, at least on national forest land. Thanks largely to pressure from misguided environmentalists, timber management on federal land in the Appalachian Mountains has been drastically reduced. And that means there is less grouse habitat. Still, it’s not all gone and with a little effort, you can find a few places to make a day of it.
A great way to narrow down your search is to contact regional national forest service offices and talk to the local biologist or forester. They can point you toward prime clear-cuts that contain the right mix of habitat. Of course, don’t expect them to give away their own favorite hillsides.