When I moved to Washington it took weeks before I figured out the quickest route between home and work.
In the interim I wasted some time and energy but I learned a little bit about the city and made some discoveries, too. One of the benefits of stumbling on to something worthwhile.
So it is with the forest. The last thing in the world most folks expect to stumble on in the woods in this area is a ruffed grouse. These wonderful birds are supposed to be denizens of the north woods -- Vermont and Minnesota and Wisconsin. You almost never hear about down-home grouse.
One West Virginian said he considers grouse "a bonus bird. They aren't around in sufficient numbers to hunt, I don't think, but there's a long season for them and you frequently get a chance at one when you're out after something else."
But there are other views. A Virginian was a positive grouse fanatic until he flipped over deer hunting. He learned grouse hunting the hard way, by trial and error, until he had reached the point where he expected to flush three or four birds in an afternoon hunt.
That is good hunting even by Minnesota standards, where a flush rate of two an hour is considered excellent.
Grouse hunters hereabouts obviously are not meat hunters. The season limit in Virginia, for example, is 10 birds. Only the very expert are likely to fill that quota.
But what grouse lack in numbers they make up for in sport. No bird is more wary, more defensive, more devoted to a habitat of the deepest cover and more likely to boom off through the woods at the slightest indication of danger.
This fall I have found myself developing into a grouse nut, and it has all been by accident.
Last spring I was lucky enough to hear my first grouse while checking out a trout stream. The bird was "drumming," an incredible deep tom-tom-tomming noise the males make during mating season. It was hard to imagine that anything that small (grouse generally weigh a little over a pound) could make that loud and wild and resonant a sound.
The dogs flushed four grouse during a later turkey hunt in West Virginia, one of which blasted out of a thicket and, in its concern to escape the dog, flew directly past me about 30 yards away. I had an easy shot but missed by a mile.
Through chance meetings like this I have begun to understand grouse a little bit. The more I learn the more I want to know.
To picture grouse habitat you have to think small. They are not wideranging birds. A good grouse covert is likely to be a little plot in the woods perhaps 50 or 100 yards wide.
Like the rabbit's lair, it will always be the thickest place around.
As a result, it is impossible to point to a big area and say it is good grouse cover. There are wonderful bits of grouse cover within the George Washington National Forest and near Deep Creek Lake in Maryland, but every hunter has to find his own little spots.
What to do when you have found a likely spot is another matter. Last weekend I learned a lot about that when I took a couple of hours and perused a hillside in Virginia, for the first time ever looking specifically for grouse.
My theory was to find areas of thick cover, preferably with blown-down trees and greenbriars and ferns and berries around, and plough through the middle of it, making a big racket to scare the birds into flight.
It didn't work.
There was some terrific-looking cover and the time of day was right -- late afternoon, when grouse are thought to feed. But nothing flew.
As it started getting dark I stopped this noisy assault and turned to look for my partner, who was up the hill a little way.
I spun on my heel, just in time to catch a glimpse of the grouse as it quit its furious wingbeats and glided through the trees to the other side of a little stream.
"Of course," said an adviser later that night. "When you stop, that's what spooks them and that's when they're going to flush."
Sometimes grouse travel in pairs, so we tramped through the first bird's departure point but nothing was there. Then we went across the creek and tried to flush the first bird again. It was either long gone or too smart.
"I consider that a great success," said my partner, who had been through this before. "You went grouse hunting for two hours and you actually saw one."
Grouse season closes in Maryland and Virginia Jan. 31, there is two-bird-a-day limit in these states. In West Virginia the season goes on until Feb. 29 and the limit is four a day. Unlike many game birds, grouse seem to be more accessible later in the season, so this is prime time.