The year 2020 hasn’t contained much good news to date, so why should West Virginia’s grouse hunters expect any better?
Long story short: They shouldn’t.
“I think realistically, grouse hunters can expect opportunity roughly equal to last year’s, if not a little lower,” said Linda Ordiway, small-game biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources.
“Last spring, we had heavy icing and late frosts. Plants that produce soft mast got hit pretty hard, and they didn’t produce well at all. Soft mast is very spotty.”
Soft mast items, such as grapes, black cherries and hawthorn berries, are all grouse favorites. None of them did well in 2020. Hawthorn is 49% less abundant than average, grapes 45% and black cherry 33%.
“There is some hunting opportunity in areas where beech has hit,” Ordiway said. “Same with black cherry. People need to focus on where the food is; chances are, that’s where the birds will be.”
Ordiway, who grouse hunts behind a brace of Weimaraners, said she has “had some success finding some birds” in advance of the Oct. 17 season opener.
“I haven’t found any broods, where six or seven birds go up in a single flush, but I’ve found some individuals,” she said.
Hunters’ best chances for success appear to exist in the state’s high mountains.
“The most likely area to find birds is in the northern mountains, but the higher elevations in the southern part of the state have some birds, too,” she said.
The days when hunters could put up a dozen or more grouse in a day seem long gone.
“For me and for most of our grouse hunters, having a bird in the hand isn’t the measure of a successful hunt anymore,” she said.
“Having bird contact with our dogs is enough. There’s nothing wrong with following a bird dog around in the woods, carrying a shotgun on a nice fall day.”
Hunters who do manage to bag a bird or two, she added, should celebrate: “Nowadays, having a bird in hand is like bagging a 200-class buck.”
The primary focus of Ordiway’s job is to try to improve grouse habitat throughout the Mountain State.
After spending nine years as a regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, she came to the DNR earlier this year. She said she’d like to hear from grouse hunters regardless how much or how little success they have.
“Even if they don’t find birds, I’m interested in hearing about it,” she said. “To make any kind of judgment based on science, we need information.”
To get more data, DNR officials have recruited a cadre of “grouse cooperators,” hunters willing to report any birds they see or hear in the woods. Ordiway would like to have more of them.
“Anybody who wants to be one of our grouse cooperators should contact me [at the Elkins Operations Center] and provide me with their name, mailing address, email address and phone number,” she said.
The grouse season is one of West Virginia’s longest, extending from mid-October through the end of February. The bag limit is four birds a day.