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Late-season hunting is nothing to grouse about

January 21, 2007|by BILL ANDERSON

It finally felt like January last week, creating some excellent opportunities for waterfowl hunters. Unfortunately for me, the one morning I had to hunt happened to be the morning when the geese did not come to this particular cornfield. We did get some early morning action on ducks and we were nearly overrun by doves. Of course, the late segment of the West Virginia dove season ended on Jan. 6.

It figures.

Both Maryland and Pennsylvania offer late season grouse hunting. For example, the Maryland grouse season will stay open until Jan. 31. But West Virginia offers the latest smallgame and bird hunting in this part of the country, with rabbit and grouse seasons open until the end of February.

Many bird hunters will tell you that this is the time of year they always look forward to. The various deer seasons are over and if the weather cooperates, the hunting can be very productive. The key for all game animals is finding food in the tough part of winter. As a result, they often spend much of every day looking for food.

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West Virginia's Allegany Mountain range has a history as one of the classic grouse hunting areas in the country. Grouse are noted for going through population cycles and the hunting can vary a great deal from year to year.

In addition, West Virginia has designated some very large tracts of state land to improve grouse and turkey habitat. The result is some very good grouse hunting, even in the late part of the season.

I have been concentrating on waterfowl the past few weeks, but several friends who are very active grouse hunters said it has been a tough season so far. That is in line with reports from the West Virginia DNR, which had reported a poor brood crop this spring - blamed mostly on cool, wet weather during the spring nesting period.

As you might expect, the key to late season hunting is to find the food sources they are hitting. Some of the favorite foods, like wild grapes or berries, are consistent year to year. Other foods might be less obvious.

One tip that has worked for me is to move to the lower elevations as the winter progresses. Nearly 20 years ago, Walt Lesser, one of West Virginia's top grouse hunters, and a retired wildlife biologist, told me about spots that he called "salad bowls" - lower elevation spots on south facing slopes. Most often, they are wet areas from natural, wet-weather seeps. These spots have green vegetation in even the coldest weather. The grouse take advantage of this food source, particularly when things get really tough in mid-winter.

Bill Anderson writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Mail.

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