Monday, February 21, 2011

Winter Grouse, February in the Catskills.

     Neither the light snow, nor the below freezing temperature bothered me as I stood on the hotel balcony assessing the weather, but the wind was blowing a bit harder than I'd have preferred. I hadn't driven from Boston to the Catskills to be forced to sit around in a hotel lounge suffering the antics of the ski bunny set, but to take advantage of New York's long grouse season. My good friend, and frequent hunting partner Sterling often hunts grouse in the Catskills, and assured me he knows a few good coverts. I trust Sterling. Since a job transfer landed him in NYC, he's been making frequent day trips to the Catskill, and has shot as many grouse as anyone else in our little hunting syndicate. As a dog-less uplander Sterling has learned how to maximize any grouse cover he steps into, and he's got an eye for cover.

     Our first stop was a hillside of mixed age, and growth cover. The hillside featured a series of terraces festooned with abandoned apple trees, and patches of bramble. We'd hike up hill 30-40 yards, hunt from one end of a terrace to the other, then climb to the next terrace. The snow was barely ankle deep in most places so the walking and climbing was only hampered by a few icy spots. While the snow did little to slow us, it had knocked down a considerable amount of the cover. While the terraces where quite bare, it wasn't hard to imagine what they'd look like in October and November. Quite obviously a food cover, I would have loved to have run Austin, my late Setter, along these benches on a chilly November afternoon. As we neared the top of the hill we had our first grouse of the day flush. Probably on high alert due to the lack of cover caused by the snow, the grouse got out well ahead of Sterling. Not perfect, but a start.


     At the top of the hill we took a quick break, noted the increased wind velocity, and planned our descent. For our return trip, we hiked parallel the hillside to an area of tall pines on the lee of the hill. Out of the wind the temperature was at least 10 degrees, maybe closer to 20 degrees, warmer. This side of the hill held more soft wood shelter and escape cover, mixed with some young hardwoods and lots of bramble, the type that tests the limits of your chaps, and not only steals your hat, but is loathe to give it back. Amazingly, Sterling and I won the bramble battle, with not a drop of blood being drawn. We wouldn't, however, win the battle of the Ruffed Grouse.  We quickly put a grouse out of a high pine tree. The bird offered no shot, but seemed to not fly too far, so I climbed up a bit, looking for a re-flush that never came. Then, while making my way back down another flushed out of a tree, offering a quick shot opportunity I wasn't ready for before presenting Sterling with a fleeting glimpse. A third flush behind us about four minutes later, and the zig-zag tracks of what looked like an army of rabbits kept us on high alert as we hiked back to the car, but nothing more was produced.

     After a hurried lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches in the car, we drove to another area to continue our quest. It wasn't to be, as we abandoned our mission after hiking about 200 yards up the trail to the cover. The wind had become unmanageable, gusting up to around 40mph. Unless we found a sheltered cover we'd never find birds. The rest of the day was spent driving around, taking advantage of the extended visibility afforded us by the bare trees, scouting possible cover for the future. We think we found some, and two covers, in addition to the one we'd hunted, have me excited about returning in the fall.

     While my first winter grouse hunting trip yielded  neither birds, nor bunnies, for the pot it was quite enjoyable, and I classify it as a success. I'd never hunted grouse past December, nor had I ever hunted grouse without the aide of a dog, so this trip represented a first in two areas, and I'd seen enough birds to know now that it can be done. I'd also never seen a turkey flock of the magnitude we stumbled upon; fifty birds being no exaggeration. We saw a few deer too; something that's always nice. Best of all, however, was sharing a few laughs once again with a like minded sportsman, and friend over a couple drams of 18 year old Laphroaig, and some pheasant pate.

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