Advice for hunters seeking ruffed grouse in Maryland can be summed up in two words - Go West.
Grouse are found in a number of Maryland counties but the promised land is Garrett County, a triangular shaped chunk of the Appalachian range offering over 75,000 acres of prime public hunting lands and often referred to as "Maryland's Best Kept Secret".
The public relations types probably weren't thinking about grouse when they came up with that slogan, although it certainly applies. The wonders of Deep Creek Lake or the fine winter skiing really aren't much of a secret these days but the possibilities for ruffed grouse remain somewhat obscure to all but the avid hunter.
Marylanders are offered a fairly long grouse season, typically from early October through January. The western mountains are beautiful during the early part of the season but the colorful foliage can make hunting difficult. January usually brings plummeting temperatures and heavy snow fall. I usually take to Garrett County's woods in December, just after the firearm deer season, although November also offers good hunting. October is the most beautiful time to be in the woods, if not always the most productive.
My first exposure to Garrett County's ruffed grouse came some years ago under the guidance of Tom Thayer and Ted Lascaris, a couple of local businessmen who would rather be in the woods than behind a desk. To be honest, we didn't kill a grouse but with over twenty flushes, including one bird that made a real fool of me, we had only ourselves to blame.
Most of those flushes came in heavy cover. In every instance we were winded after hiking a stretch of difficult terrain. And we were hunting without a dog. So much for the excuses. By mid-afternoon we were three frustrated hunters.
"I've got one more spot in mind," Thayer declared. "An abandoned apple orchard. As close to a sure thing as you can get in grouse hunting." During the short drive to the "secret" spot Thayer continued to whet my appetite. By the time we started into the overgrown orchard, I was expecting to flush a grouse with every step. Three hundred steps later the only sound we had heard was the crunching of dry, brown leaves under our boots.
We came on an area just recently cleared by a surveying crew, a strip about five feet wide by 100 yards in length. "Looks like a good spot to take a break," I suggested. There was no disagreement from my partners.
We sat there for nearly ten minutes, enjoying the welcome warmth of the sun on an unusually mild December afternoon. I polished off an orange, then smoked a cigarette. "Let's get after 'em," I said, getting to my feet and dropping two shells into the 20 gauge side-by-side.
As I closed the action a grouse flushed from a tangle of brush not five feet from where I had been sitting and headed directly down the cleared alley. Startled, I snapped off the first shot like a rookie. The second was more controlled, but still a miss and the three of us watched the bird sail to the far end of the narrow strip before disappearing into the woods.
There was to be no grouse dinner that evening but I was convinced the woods of Garrett County did indeed hold promise for the future. Over the years that promise has been fulfilled. Marylanders need not travel to other states to find good ruffed grouse hunting.
Savage River State Forest, at 53,000 acres, is the largest area open to public hunting in Maryland. Other areas worth investigating are the 12,400 acre Potomac State Forest and the somewhat smaller Garrett State Forest. The Mt. Nebo Wildlife Management Area covers only 1791 acres, but is a sleeper for hunting ruffed grouse.
Complete information about public hunting grounds, seasons and bag limits, accomodations, etc. may be obtained from the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, 15 Visitors Center Drive, McHenry, MD 21541, telephone 301.387.4386. The Chamber's web site is at http://www.garrettchamber.com