By Jacob Lam
Photos by William Leaton
The past six months of my life have been perforated by days spent hiking, plodding, and sometimes crashing through the mountains of Virginia hunting ruffed grouse. Those days walking burned ridgelines, thinned mountain sides, and green briar-tangled stream bottoms feel like rays of light shining around the otherwise plain islands of days that I had to get through in order to get back to the mountains to search for grouse.
I know this sounds hyperbolic, but I also recognize that the few hundred miles that Annie, my shorthaired pointer, and I covered this past season are not far from obsessive. The most degrading part to admit is that all of this did not add a single grouse to the freezer. I know this might not surprise some folks. If you listen to the lamentations of some old timers, hunting grouse in Virginia’s mountains is about as worthwhile as hunting the bison that roamed the same mountains a few hundred years ago.
While I have no doubt that grouse hunting in the past was much better, I also do not have any comprehension of what that would be like. Since I have been grouse hunting for just over a year, my interpretation of hunting grouse in Virginia can only be viewed through the present. Being solely from present, I would like to take a moment to revel in the resource of grouse that we have now instead of long for the good old days.
I had high hopes for this grouse season in Virginia. Last year left me feeling like I dropped my watch in a lake and watched it slip through my fingers out of view. However, I knew this year I would finally get a few Virginia grouse. Annie was fresh from a trip to Maine where she had pointed and had her first few grouse shot over her. She was far from perfect, but I knew her progress would be the tool that I needed that was missing from last season. Thankfully, she did perform quite well most of the time.
Most of our hunts were short, but I could usually rely on her to find a couple grouse every hunt. Of course, not all these birds offered shots because they would flush wild. However, she pointed and held about a couple dozen birds that offered some good shots. Yet I missed every single one of them.
I admit this because I want to dispel the myth that chasing Virginia grouse is a worthless pursuit. Of course, numbers are not everything, but they are something, though. People do not want to go out hunting unless there is some hope of bringing back a bird to roast. I am not making an argument that grouse hunting in Virginia is a great way to feed your family, but I will defend the fact that there are birds to be taken. I also staunchly believe that the best way to continue to ensure there are birds to be taken in the future is to gain interest in them. This may seem counter-intuitive, but if there are more grouse hunters there will be more proponents for grouse habitat. None of this is new news, but it cannot be overstated.
Beyond numbers, there are a myriad of reasons to pursue grouse in Virginia. You could have your own reasons, I’m sure, but there is something special about looking for forest openings around a stream where wind has thrashed four-foot-wide sycamores and ancient hemlock into a pile of rubble for a Labrador to bust through and multiple grouse to erupt from. Or maybe your Brittany spaniel could be standing frozen under a cathedral of old growth chestnut oaks atop a ridge, waiting for a rust colored flurry to burst across a mountainside scoured by fire. Or maybe you choose to go solo and meet the grouse on his own terms, wading through tangles of laurel, waiting for a flush.
Then there are the long periods of solitude between flushes when your mind plays the symphony of your shorthair’s bell ringing through a grape vine-choked thinning that you wish would be interrupted by the staccato of a grouse’s wings. No matter what the reason, there is all of next fall and winter for the joy of Virginia grouse hunting to fill your hunting season.
Jacob Lam is a college student, substitute teacher, and houndsman. He lives in the Shendoah Valley where he has hunted and fished his whole life.