A cold front blew through the mountain forest, rippling the saplings in the old hardwood clearcut and shearing the last of summer’s leaves from the trees. On the other side of the ridge, just out of sight, Buck searched the wind for scents, his collar bell jingling closer as he nosed sticky blackberry thickets and oak stumps rising defiantly from the wet ground.
Wildlife artist and wingshooter Broderick Crawford gave two sharp blasts on his whistle to bring the big English setter back around, but Buck seemed to have something else on his mind.
“He’s acting awfully birdy all of a sudden,” whispered Broderick almost to himself.
Buck emerged like a hurricane of brown ears and white fur with his nose raised to the gusts. He seemed to be translating some cryptic message delivered on the breeze. Dropping his snout, he quartered a wedge of scent back and forth around a dank blowdown of brambles and old slash. Broderick eased his Beretta from its resting position on his forearm. Buck was stretching into a point now, staring intently at the tangle of brush.
It was like watching a huge fire- cracker whose fuse had sizzled out. Would it explode or was it a dud? Was there a grouse in that thicket waiting to blow up into the big blue sky beyond the trees? Broderick eased closer with his .28 gauge at the ready.
“Sometimes, even with a dog, you’ve got to get right on top of them before they flush,” said Broderick.
Buck was still holding his point, and tiny drops of blood blossomed on his lips and tongue courtesy of the blackberry tangles. There’s just some- thing about watching a good bird dog do what it was born to do that makes the imagination kick into gear. I could almost visualize an explosion of feathers flying. But as Broderick moved slowly toward the brush it became apparent that the grouse family had already made its escape. Buck’s point melted back into a searching run, and the hunt continued up the mountain. As we crunched through the leaves, Broderick confided that the wind was probably going to be working against us. By that time, we were con- tending with 20-mph gusts, which probably had the birds lying low.
“I like a cool, overcast foggy day with temperatures just above freezing,” he said. “That’s my favorite weather to hunt.”
I asked him what made a grouse flush so legendary, and his eyes brightened with memories.
“They’re just like a rocket, just like they’re shot out of a slingshot,” he said. “I’ve noticed they have a tendency to flush toward the sun. I’ve had them put a tree between us. They’ll do whatever it takes to get away from you fast. In most instances, they’ll startle people so bad that by the time they get their composure back, the grouse is already far out of range.”
It was late November, and we were hunting national-forest lands near Lake Burton WMA in Rabun County. During the early 1990s the area saw consider- able logging activity, and now the old clearcuts are growing into thick stands of mixed second-growth with most trees between 8 and 12 feet tall. On the edges of the stands grow mountain laurel and rhododendron, crucial ever- green shrubbery providing grouse with essential food and cover. Small streams are interspersed in the gaps, and recent rains kept the fallen leaves damp.
There were still a lot of acorns on the ground, and the birds were likely scattered and feeding throughout the forest. Our plan was to canvas as much land as possible before dark hoping to catch some birds at a white-oak acorn buffet. We continued up the steep ridge, watching with racing hearts as Buck sniffed and searched. He made a couple more points, and there were a few more exciting moments, but the heavy wind seemed to have the grouse pinned down that day. We returned to the truck with empty bird bags and tired legs, but the views of Lake Burton and the mountains beyond had been worth the trip.
By January and February, most grouse have hunkered down for the winter, subsisting primarily on evergreen vegetation. Young-of-the-year birds have dispersed from the brood, and most winter flushes produce only individual birds. Sometimes a lucky hunter will happen upon an area particularly rich in foods such as late-season acorns or wild grapes that may hold several birds, but grouse are generally solitary by nature.
The trick to triggering winter flushes is to get into the heart of the habitat. Ruffed grouse depend on periodic forest upheaval such as wildfire or logging to create vital edge zones and mixed-growth hardwood stands. The perimeter of a 10- to 12-year-old hardwood clearcut that harbors patches of evergreen vegetation and a few mature trees to produce hard mast is an ideal north Georgia grouse haven.
Monte Seehorn is the habitat chairman of the Ruffed Grouse Society of Georgia and has been hunting grouse in north Georgia for nearly four decades. He has researched the bird’s winter diet and said that during winter months, it’s primarily made up of evergreen plants such as mountain laurel, Christmas fern and foam flower. As temperatures drop below freezing, birds move down from the ridges in search of water and succulent plants.
“When you have the first really cold spell, they tend to come down to the creeks,” Monte said. “Just go to where there’s some cover. If you’ve got rhododendron or laurel, there’ll be some birds there. That late, they’ll be looking for something green to eat.”
Ideal winter grouse cover will provide flowing water, sufficient green vegetation and protection from predators such as hawks, owls and coyotes. Edges of older clearcuts are still prime habitat during January and February, but try to find areas of dense growth combining mountain laurel, rhododendron, ferns and water. Monte suggested using a logging map to plan the day’s hunt. Maps of the Chattahoochee National Forest showing where clearcuts are located can be obtained from the USFS. Paired with a complete administrative map, it can be a handy tool in anticipating where birds may be holed up.
Grouse hunting with dogs can increase the number of flushes in a day, but many successful outings are had simply by walking old logging roads in the morning and evening. The roads often crisscross through clearcuts, and they provide birds with grit, which aids in digestion.
A big challenge for wingshooters is catching up with a grouse after it flushes, and long shots of 30 yards or more are rare. So use an open choke such as a cylinder bore and No. 7 1/2 or 8 shot to throw a wide pattern. Broderick prefers Hi- brass shells to blast through thick cover.
“Grouse kill easy,” said Broderick. “One little old pellet will bring them down.”
Monte suggested using a shotgun that is comfortable for the shooter, but he cautioned that a 12-gauge can gain weight as the day goes on.
“If you walk five hours a day, a pound will feel much more than that,” said Monte.
Lightweight clothing and equipment are essential when spending a day hiking and hunting through the mountains. Dress in warm layers with comfortable but light boots. Bring plenty of water especially if working with dogs because high-country streams can sometimes be tough to come by with the ongoing drought.
Grouse populations are limited by elevation, and they typically don’t exist at less than 1,000 feet, so only Georgia’s most northern counties hold birds. Public lands tend to be more productive than private tracts because of previous logging activity.
“North Georgia has a tremendous amount of public lands,” said Broderick. “If you learn them, you can find grouse and scout for deer and turkeys. You can do a little trout fishing. It’s a pretty unique and beautiful area.”
Blue Ridge WMA, 10 miles north of Dahlonega, offers 38,900 acres with two creek drainages that yield birds each season. Monte suggested walking gated logging roads near Rock Creek and Noontootla Creek.
“The best thing to do is find the cuts,” said Monte. “You’ve got a lot of rhododendron on both sides. It’s tough getting shots, but the birds like that. Overall, the north side of the mountain is better than the south.”
The 25,000-acre Chestatee WMA near Cleveland is also a good spot to scout. Significant damage from recent tornadoes has created some fine grouse habitat near a clearcut on the lower end of the WMA. Find places where the trees have been removed and replaced with new growth.
In Rabun County, Lake Burton WMA combines great habitat with beautiful mountain vistas.
“You can spend a whole season hunting in there and not cover it all,” Broderick said. “There are lots of food plots, a few cuts and a lot of water. There are a lot of access points and logging roads. It’s just a pretty place to be in.”
Swallow Creek WMA adjoins Burton WMA and features more north- facing slopes, which tend to be grouse hotspots.
“It’s very similar to Lake Burton,” said Broderick. “It’s the north side of that mountain range. It’s got streams and cuts and mixed forest.”
For those looking to enjoy a full day of hiking and hunting, try the 15,800-acre Warwoman WMA located 5 miles east of Clayton. It is closed to small-game hunting Jan. 8-11.
“Warwoman is a big tract that expands all the way out with lots of streams and good cuts,” said Broderick. “You can go in one end and come out the other. You’ll get good views, trout streams and food plots. You can see any kind of wildlife along with grouse. You can camp and hunt. A lot of people do that. If you want to make a weekend of it, it’s a very easy thing to do.”
And now for a reality check. Grouse numbers in the southern Appalachians are not what they used to be. A breeding survey cited in 2007 by the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources showed that during the mid- 1980s, 1 1/2 flushes per hour was a good day of hunting. Today, that average has dropped to about 3/4 of a flush per hour.
“When the hunting was really good, I would expect 12 to 15 flushes a day and not be surprised if I had 20 flushes,” Monte said. “If I go out now, I’d be lucky to have four flushes.”
No one knows exactly what has caused the population decline, but Monte said logging restrictions on pub- lic lands during the past two decades have seriously limited grouse habitat.
“There is no question that lack of timber harvesting and regeneration type harvesting — not thinning or selection — in particular is the primary factor in declining populations,” said Monte.
Another factor that Monte and some other hunters feel is contributing to the population decline in grouse is the increase in wild turkey populations and the resulting competition for habitat, which is exacerbated by the loss of habitat diversity caused by logging restrictions.
The good news is that grouse populations tend to be cyclical, often waxing and waning every seven to 10 years, and Broderick said that this year seems to be on the upside so far.
“From local hunters I’ve talked to, the numbers appear to be a little bit higher this season,” he said.
By January, some hunters might be getting a little stir crazy from sitting in the deer stand, and the mountains of north Georgia offer a sure cure. Hiking through chilled high-country forests with a shotgun over the arm can be good for the soul, and grilled breast of ruffed grouse is definitely good for the taste buds. Get a little exercise, breathe some clean mountain air and maybe jump a few birds at the same time. What could be better?
“To me, it’s another form of hiking,” Broderick said. “You’re out there in the mountains getting good exercise with cool breezes blowing. If the grouse hunting is slow, you can grab you trout rod and do some fishing. It sure beats the mall.”