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Poor conditions make for a difficult grouse hunting day

February 7, 2009

With snow blanketing my favorite grouse coverts in the mountains, I thought I would try hunting Pleasant Creek Wildlife Management Area on Tygart Lake, where the snow would not be as deep and I could let my pointer hunt some new terrain.

There are numerous Wildlife Management Areas located around the state providing public hunting and fishing opportunities for a variety of fish and game. Pleasant Creek is just north of Philippi on the Barbour and Taylor County border around the southern tip of the lake.

After hunting deer there a couple times, I knew it had good cover for grouse, with many grapevine, greenbrier, hawthorn, and berry thickets providing food and protection. Actually the whole area looks good with clear cuts here and there providing the regenerative young forest habitat important for grouse and many other species of wildlife.

There were a couple inches of crusty snow on the ground when I arrived with Brandy, and with the forecast calling for some sun, I hoped the warm rays would come out and soften the snow a bit to make the scenting conditions better for the dog - but that never happened.

The temperatures remained in the upper twenties with a variable wind, not the best of conditions for a dog that relies on its nose to find birds. Nevertheless, Brandy was anxious to get out there and hunt so we took off trying to find a consistent wind where we could work through some of the greenbrier tangles with grapevines hanging from the trees.

We found a large flat where we could hunt into the wind that was covered with all sorts of nasty and prickly looking thickets, bordered with some spruce trees - a perfect grouse habitat.

I could tell from the dog's body language there were birds there or had been, she was shaking and wagging her tail desperately trying to find the source of that scent, but she just could not pinpoint it. The swirling winds confused her and she had a couple false points where she thought she had it and then no bird. The wind swept the scent from her and she would move on. She got to the end of whatever trail she was following on the wind currents and went on a solid point staring intently into a copse of greenbrier and grapevine where the trail ended with soft imprints of wings in the snow where a grouse had flown before we caught up. That's the trouble with birds, when you reach the end of their trail they can always fly away.

The rest of the morning proved to be unproductive, I saw a few tracks in the snow but we didn't move a single bird, so after lunch we tried another area where a couple grouse scared me half to death flushing from about five feet to my side while I was hunting deer.

As it turned out, I would have my best chance at a bird not a hundred yards from the truck as we were going back into the woods. We had just crossed a creek following a trail that would take us onto a brushy knoll that faced the south, taking advantage of what little sun was out hoping the warm rays had softened the snow a little making conditions better for the dog. I had just loaded the shotgun and had not even turned the dog's beeper on when I noticed her standing rigid twenty feet to my right, pointing into an alder clump at the base of the hill. About that time, a grouse exploded fifteen feet in front of me and by the time I figured out what was happening, made a feeble attempt at the bird crossing in front of me but never ruffled a feather before the bird disappeared behind a curtain of alder and willow.

We hunted the various cover around this end of the lake and jumped three more grouse, with Brandy bumping two of the birds without pointing. Watching her, I could tell she was frustrated and having trouble smelling the birds, she had never hunted in these conditions before. The crusty snow and changing winds must have made scenting difficult as several times she went on a false point where she was locked up solid pointing to a spot in the snow and sure enough, I would find tracks but no bird.

The two grouse she flushed without pointing she just stumbled on, as if she did not know they where there. I started to get angry with her but reminded myself that she is still learning and at nineteen months and still a puppy, making mistakes is part of the process.

Then again maybe she was punishing me for not being ready for an easy shot she had pointed beautifully just after lunch.



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