Our senses heightened when Sammy, David Galbreath’s 8-year-old English setter, locked on a point. Cole Johnson and I slowly advanced through the 10-foot-tall dogwood and alder thicket along the Allegheny Reservoir. A ruffed grouse thundered into the air as we closed in on Sammy — boom, boom — Johnson fired, but did not touch a feather. A second bird flushed and flew straight toward me and over my head. It was an impossible shot for me and — of course — I missed, too.
We put up a pair of woodcock from the same thicket and Johnson bagged one. About 30 minutes later, Sammy came on point again. It was a straight-ahead flush between a couple of white pines. My Ithaca 12-gauge barked, and I bagged my first bird of the hunt — a woodcock.
Last year at this time, I was one of 52 hunters participating in the Ruffed Grouse Society Upland Bird Hunt, held in northcentral and northwestern counties — the Pennsylvania Wilds. The hunt is a fundraising event for the RGS, pairing two hunters with an experienced huntsman and his dog.
Hunters from ten states arrived Thursday evening at the Red Fern Conference Center just south of St. Marys in Elk County. The hunters met their huntsmen and enjoyed hors d’oeuvres, drinks and fellowship. We also learned about hunt details, gun safety and how to deal with a dog caught in a leg-hold trap.
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Each huntsman had been assigned a territory that they scouted prior to the hunt. The territories were spread out over a six-county area.
On Friday, we hunted several covers in and near the Allegheny National Forest in northern Elk County, south of Kane. I was matched with hunter Ernie Szabo from Mount Holly Springs and experienced huntsman Russ Wood and his well-trained English pointer, Ghillie.
Wood was a super huntsman, and we zig-zagged through some great-looking grouse and woodcock habitat. If you are not familiar with ruffed grouse hunting, the sport requires a lot of walking through sometimes difficult terrain. The thicker the cover, the better. That day was no exception — we walked and walked — only flushing one grouse. The birds just were not there. It rained off and on for much of the day, and one could easily say that it was not a “fun” day to be in the woods. However, we had fun anyway. Grouse hunting is all about the thrill of the chase, rather than the number of birds bagged. Each new cover brought with it the promise of grouse and/or woodcock. The day ended with a roast beef buffet at the Red Fern and several raffles.
On day two, I was paired with Johnson, a wildlife artist from New York, and our huntsman, Galbreath. Our assigned territory was a large piece of Warren and McKean counties in the Allegheny National Forest south of the Kinzua Dam. Different day, different territory — but we again put a lot of miles on our hunting boots. The habitat looked no better than what I had hunted the day before, but on this day, we found birds. In total, we had three grouse and 12 woodcock flushes. Both Johnson and I had shooting and we each bagged woodcock — me one, Johnson two.
As for the ruffed grouse, Galbreath commented at the end of the day, “We just helped to redistribute the birds.”
Biological data and hunt statistics are both collected during the hunts. Pennsylvania Game Commission grouse biologist Lisa Williams was there to examine, age and sex the harvested birds. Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society regional biologist Linda Ordiway, who spoke at an evening gathering, compiles hunt statistics that help to track fluctuations in grouse and woodcock populations.
Data from that and previous hunts were shared with the hunters and huntsmen at Saturday’s banquet. Ruffed grouse populations are down all across their eastern range — with West Nile virus the likely culprit.
Hunters during the 2015 event flushed 253 grouse with an average flush rate over the two-day hunt of 0.89 flushes per hunter-hour. A total of 20 grouse were bagged, with a sex ratio of 14 males to 6 females. Eight of the birds were adults and 12 were juveniles. Ninety woodcock were also flushed, with a harvest of 14.
Longitudinal statistics provide evidence regarding how much the Keystone State ruffed grouse population has dropped. During the 2011 and 2012 RGS Upland Bird Hunts, the grouse flush rates were 1.7 flushes/hour and 1.74 flushes/hour, respectively. This was almost double as compared to the 2015 flush rate.
According to event coordinator Mary Hosmer, similar RGS hunts are also held in New York and Minnesota, and a woodcock-only event is held in Michigan. Pennsylvania’s eighth annual Upland Bird Hunt will be held November 3-5, this year. The hunt is very popular, and according to Hosmer, the 2016 hunt has been booked up for months, with a sizable waiting list.
As you might imagine, an event such as the Upland Bird Hunt requires dozens of volunteers, hundreds of man-hours, and a tremendous amount of planning and organization. As head huntsman for the past five years, Dave Grove fields questions from out-of-state hunters about Pennsylvania regulations and license requirements, as well as assigning huntsmen to their territories.
“I love doing this, but let me tell you, I buy a big bottle of aspirin before it starts,” Grove said with a laugh.
Everything ran smoothly in 2015, as I am sure it will this November. My hat is off to Hosmer, Grove and the other organizers, the volunteer huntsmen, their dogs and all of the hunters who contribute to the Ruffed Grouse Society by being a part of these events.
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.