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, its rays creeping along the southern slopes of the ridges, sending warming thermals that melted the frost like a flame to a birthday candle.

Finding a familiar place on the shoulder of the road, I slid the truck into park, creaked open the door and was met headlong by 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 on Christmas morning waiting for permission to open presents.

"OK girl," I said, following with a soft whistle that gave her the permission she sought. 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 about 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 knows to eliminate all other odors and focus solely on the fragrance of royalty.

Unsheathing my 20-gauge Winchester double, 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. Walter and I were in the Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve in Greenville County, along the South Carolina-North Carolina border. The Watson-Cooper consists of 1,707 acres of pristine mountain land that few ever find or venture into. It is part of the Caesars Head Wildlife Management Area in Game Zone 1 and is open to hunting in accordance with WMA regulations; a WMA permit is required to hunt this and all Heritage preserves. South Carolina's grouse season is limited to Game Zone 1 and runs from Nov. 24 (Thanksgiving Day) through March 1, with a daily bag limit of three birds.

Mary Bunch, a biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, who oversees the Watson-Cooper along with 17 other Heritage Preserves in the Upstate and Piedmont. She's the go-to person when it comes to what the Watson-Cooper has to offer.

"While we don't manage for grouse specifically, they do benefit from our overall forest management practices," she said, explaining that 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." she said. "Couple this along with the thick rhododendron that is prevalent in the Watson-Cooper, and you will find likely grouse habitat."

South Carolina is at the southernmost range for the ruffed grouse. The terrain, along with the temperature, keeps grouse from gaining a strong foothold in the upstate.

"There really is no way to know what the grouse population is in the upstate," said Billy Dukes, small-game project director for SCDNR. "There just aren't any reliable methods to give an accurate count, and drumming counts are so inconsistent that they prove unreliable."

Dukes said this is partially true due to the population cycles grouse tend to have over a period of time. They can change drastically from year to year, but it doesn't prevent those of us who are captivated by this glorious game

bird from pursuing them. Whether following a furry friend whose nose is pinned to the ground as she tastes the air, or on a leisurely walk along the mountains without a dog, hunting grouse is as much about where you get to do it as it is the pursuit itself.

Walter and I were on our third trip here in as many years, and it is 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 working down a long-abandoned road, now used as an access for hunters and wildlife officers, as her bobbed tail wagged violently as her nose searched for fragrances of Mr. Grouse. We headed for the south-facing slopes, where the first rays of the daylight brought warmth to the forest. I knew if there were any grouse in the area, they would know this also. Staying high on the ridges, we searched the brambles and blowdowns 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, tasting 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 I needed a break, she sauntered over to me, and we sat down beside an old chestnut, long passed on. The winter sun was 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 signal to slow down. Her pace got more deliberate, nose held high, then low, I knew she was on to something. Closing the breech of my Winchester, 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 when the flush came, my Winchester came to my shoulder as smooth as a chocolate milkshake 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 the 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 the Winchester never 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 looked confused at first, then somehow I knew she realized as I had decades before. Hunting the king of gamebirds is not about adding to the weight in your vest. Hunting ruffed grouse is about being in the presence of royalty.

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE - Follow US 276 north five miles from the South Carolina/North Carolina state line to East Fork Rd. Turn left and go 1.4 miles to Happy Acres (a dirt and gravel road on the left). Turn left and follow the road 1.7 miles. The road will fork, with a private drive on the left and the road to the Heritage Preserve on the right. The road to the right reaches the preserve boundary in 0.2 miles. This road goes along the boundary and then enters the property at a sign that says "Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve."

WHEN TO GO - Grouse season is open only in Game Zone 1, from Nov. 24 through March 1. The daily bag limit is three birds.

INFORMATION - Mary Bunch, SCDNR, Clemson, 864-654-6738.

ACCOMMODATIONS - Table Rock State Park has camping and lodging available, 864-878-9813 or www.southcarolinaparks.com. Also Hotels are available in Travelers Rest, Pickens and Brevard, NC