I'm not a big fan of winter. Never have been. But living in Pennsylvania and liking the outdoors, I've learned to live with it. I have all the necessary outerwear, boots, gloves and hats to deal with the gamut of weather conditions we can experience here in this part of the world, because simply staying in and counting the days to spring is not an option.
Fortunately, there are plenty of things to do in our region even in the winter season. Ice fishing is already a possibility since we've had several weeks of below-freezing weather that has iced-up most of the smaller lakes in the area. If the weather warms up a little, open-water fishing opportunities also exist for river walleyes or trout in some of the spring-fed limestone streams. And of course, there is always steelhead fishing in the Erie tributaries.
Late-season hunting opportunities also abound over the next few weeks. Archery and flintlock muzzleloader hunters will have three weeks to fill any of their remaining deer tags starting tomorrow. For varmint hunters, coyotes have not closed season, and foxes can be hunted until Feb. 19, including Sundays. Crows may be hunted on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until April 10.
Waterfowl hunters can hunt ducks in the South Zone until Jan. 17 and Canada geese in the Resident Canada Goose Zone until Feb. 19.
Of course, the late small-game seasons also begin tomorrow as well. Ruffed grouse can be hunted until Jan. 22, squirrels and pheasants until Feb. 5, and rabbits until Feb. 26.
If I decide to take my shotgun for a walk in the next few weeks, it will most likely be for grouse. During this past deer season, I saw more grouse than deer. Sadly, that is more of a testimonial on how dismal the deer situation has become in the areas where I hunt rather than how robust the grouse populations are in those same locations. In spite of that, however, the numbers of grouse I flushed while skulking around looking for deer were encouraging.
One snowy afternoon during the second week of deer season, I flew eight grouse in just over two hours while slowly still-hunting for deer. I'm most interested in returning there to see if I can find any of those birds on purpose.
Over the years, I've located several of my best late-season grouse spots during deer season. I believe that is because as fall turns to winter many once-abundant food sources have disappeared, grouse tend to congregate in smaller areas where both food and cover are most abundant. And once the birds find both those needs in one spot, they seem quite content to hang out there for the balance of the winter. It's a simple matter of survival for these resourceful birds, after all. Therefore, rather than marching around acres and acres of woodland hoping to flush a grouse or two, I prefer to hunt proven wintertime grouse havens, and hunt it carefully.
If you weren't lucky enough to find a grouse hotspot during deer season, it is still possible to locate one or two now. Good late-season grouse habitat tends to be on south-facing ridges or hillsides, places which get as much sun as possible this time of year. Another vital component is good cover that allows the birds to endure storms and other harsh winter weather. Stands of pine or other evergreen trees are grouse magnets this time of year. Dense patches of mountain laurel are also good places to find winter grouse.
If there is a little snow on the ground, be on the lookout for grouse tracks, even if they happen to be a few days old. As mentioned, grouse tend to stay in a relatively small area now if conditions there are favorable, so the bird that made those tracks is likely still around. If there is no snow to reveal telltale grouse tracks, look for thickets that seem to harbor numbers of chickadees, titmice, juncos and other snowbirds. These birds share some of the same winter food sources with grouse, so if they are hanging out at a given spot, grouse probably are too.
In the bare woods of winter, many shots at a flushing grouse tend to be a little more open than those experienced during the fall, but I am not about to say hitting these great game birds is any easier now. The ruffed grouse is a fast, agile flier with an uncanny ability to pick just the right escape route and one that usually offers us two-legged pursuers something less than a clear shot. But that special challenge is part of the appeal for those who truly enjoy hunting ruffed grouse.