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Chasing Royalty

The tires of my old truck echoed through the hollows and valleys as we inched our way along the gravel road. It was early January; the cold air of the night lingered on these peaks like a teenager tempting curfew. The sun was rising slowly, shining her rays along the southern slopes of these ridges. Sending warming thermals that melted the frost like a flame to a birthday candle.

Finding a familiar place, I slid the truck into park, creaked open the door and was met head long with the bite of a winter’s morning. I stood there for a minute, door open, coat laying on the torn vinyl seat, getting acclimated to the conditions. Taking in a chest full of cool morning air; I thought to myself “nothing says grouse season like a good January cold spell.”

Grabbing my faded Filson coat, dotted with small wet drops of drool from Walter, my female Boykin spaniel, I slid into its familiar surroundings to stave off the chill. Walter sat in the passenger seat, panting, and squirming like a child at Christmas morning waiting for permission to open their present.

“OK girl” I said followed by a soft whistle that gave her the permission she sought. And with that, she leapt out of the truck and began her ritual of sniffing the surroundings, filling her nostrils with the fragrances of the area. Raccoon tracks caught her attention, and I called her back. Giving her a small lecture in what we were after on this day. For Walter all that was needed was a mere mention of the quarry. No feathers, or fur to initiate the nostrils, just say “Grouse” and she knew to eliminate all other odors of the forest and focus her attention solely on the fragrance of royalty.

Unsheathing my Winchester double in 20 gauge, the sound reminded me of briar britches sliding through blackberry bushes. I looked her over and gently opened the breech and lay it across my forearm. Today Walter and I were in the Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve in Greenville county along the border of South Carolina and North Carolina. The Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve consists of 1,707 acres of pristine mountain land that few ever find or venture into. The Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve is part of the Caesars Head Wildlife Management Area in Game Zone 1, and is open to hunting in accordance with WMA regulations and a WMA permit is necessary to hunt this and all Heritage preserves. Currently, the grouse season in South Carolina is limited to Game zone 1 and runs from November 24 (Thanksgiving Day)-March 1 with a daily bag limit of three birds.

Mary Bunch, Biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the person who oversees the Watson-Cooper along with seventeen other Heritage Preserves in the upstate and piedmont is the go-to person when it comes to what the Watson-Cooper has to offer. Ms. Bunch states that “while we don’t manage for grouse specifically, they do benefit from our overall forest management practices.” Grouse need cover; they need cover for protection from avian predators, as well as for nesting and food.  “Open areas where the forest has been harvested recently also known as ‘cuts’ will generate a lot of cover for grouse and this is where you can find them.” Ms. Bunch said. “Couple this along with the thick rhododendron that is prevalent in the Watson-Cooper and you will find likely grouse habitat.” She added.

South Carolina is at the southernmost range for the Ruffed Grouse, the terrain; along with the temperature keep the grouse from gaining a strong foothold in the upstate. In fact, Billy Dukes, Small Game project director for the Department of Natural Resources says “there really is no way to know what the grouse population is in the upstate.” When asked about this he says simply, “there just aren’t any reliable methods to give an accurate count, and drumming counts are so inconsistent that they prove unreliable.” This is partially true due to the population cycles Grouse tend to have over a period of time. These population cycles can change drastically from year to year.

But this doesn’t prevent those of us who are captivated by this glorious game bird to keep us from pursuing them. Whether following a furry friend whose nose is pinned to the ground as she taste the air, or on a leisurely walk along the mountains of South Carolina without a dog, hunting grouse is as much about where you get to do it as it is the pursuit itself.

This was our third trip here in as many years and it was fast becoming one of our favorite places to pursue grouse. The southern slopes of these hills are pristine for the pursuit of grouse.

Walter and I began down a long abandoned road, now used as an access for hunters and wildlife officers. Her bobbed tail wagging violently as her nose searched for fragrances of Mr. Grouse. We headed for the south facing slopes, where the first rays of the day brought warmth to the forest and I knew that if there were any grouse in the area, they would know this also. Staying high on the ridges we searched brambles and blow-downs that these birds call home.

In a sport where successes are often measured by full game bags and punched tags, hunting grouse is different. Walking winter ridges and listening to the wind blow through barren trees. Watching as your well trained dog circles back and forth as she tastes the air for the pleasant fragrance of royalty. The weight of your trusted double, breech open, folded across your arm. Hunting Ruffed Grouse is about being there, seeing the sights, inhaling the aroma, hearing the sounds and realizing that it just can’t be any better than it is right now.

Walter and I moved from ridge to ridge looking, smelling and just enjoying the day. When she sensed that I needed a break, she sauntered over to me and we sat down beside an old chestnut, long passed on. The winter sun getting high in the sky, warming this bastion of paradise the two of us enjoyed. I poured Walter a drink of water, and I pulled from my vest a thermos of hot coffee, poured a cup and sat there, with Walter’s head on my leg, drinking in the warm coffee, and knowing that this moment right here, right now, is why I hunt grouse.

We had a few more ridges to go to complete our circle and I wanted to go by the ole chimney before we headed back. For three years running I’d flushed a grouse beside the old chimney. Now only a few feet tall, this chimney is slowly being reclaimed by the mountain that once was home to a distant family, long forgotten except for some lonely grouse hunter who pauses to remember.

I gently whistled to Walter, her queue to slow down. Her pace got more deliberate, nose held high then low, I knew she was on to something. Closing the breech of myWinchester, I made my way to the chimney; Walter came to a screeching halt beside the yucca plant that marked his hiding place. Easing in I noticed Walter’s tail was solid still, and just as immediate the flush came, myWinchestercame to my shoulder as smooth as a chocolate milk shake on a summer afternoon. My cheek found its familiar place and in an instant it was over……Walter made a valiant retrieve. Petting her on her head, we sat, backs against the crumpled chimney and paid respect to the family whose names are eroded with time, but whose home is special once again.

The walk back to the truck brought two more flushes, but theWinchesternever made its way to my shoulder. On one occasion, I stood and watched as a radiant bird flew to a faraway ridge, seeming to look back and wonder. Walter too looked confused at first, then somehow I knew she realized as I had decades before. Hunting the King of Game birds is not about adding to the weight in your vest. Hunting ruffed grouse is about being in the presence of royalty.