Mountain Grouse: Ghosts Of Craytonia
A high mountain community of Craytonia is gone. Sadly, grouse too are now mostly just a memory.
In the fall of 1999 I had a bad case of the melancholy. My up-and-coming grouse dog had died and had left me feeling down in the dumps. Little Mac, our young Brittany spaniel, had died from what was evidently a brain tumor. Little Mac started having seizures in his second year which progressively became worse and eventually had to be put down by the veterinarian. My wife, Nelle, and I named him Little Mac because as a puppy he looked so much like my first grouse dog Mac, from years ago.
I know it seems hard to believe today—with grouse now rare in the north Georgia mountains—but with Little Mac in his first grouse season we had 341 flushes on grouse. Hunting with my son Davy and Milton Bradley and Milton’s setter Lady, we killed 28 grouse that season.
The next season was almost as good with 238 flushes and 22 grouse killed.
Sadly grouse have now just about disappeared in northern Georgia. I am not sure if it is the West Nile Virus or the lack of suitable habitat that has caused the ruffed grouse population to plummet in the last few years.
A lack of timber management by the U. S. Forest Service is definitely one of the reasons for the decline of grouse in Georgia on National Forest lands. When the thick growth of the old clearcuts from the 1970s and 80s grew into pole-sized timber, they no longer provided the prime habitat that grouse needed to survive. If you don’t have the right habitat, which is thick young forest, the grouse can’t survive due to predation from hawks and owls. Then it seemed like the grouse just about disappeared from one season to the next about five or six years ago, which also leads one to believe that maybe disease also played a part in the grouse population decline.
After Little Mac’s death I was really feeling low. He had the makings of becoming one real fine grouse dog, and now he was gone. I didn’t feel like starting over with a new puppy at the time, but that was actually what I needed to do. About six weeks after Little Mac died, Milton called me to go grouse hunting with him and his setter, Lady. My heart wasn’t in it, but I decided to go along. Maybe it would help to get back in the grouse woods, see Lady working the covers and hearing that magical sound of a flushing grouse.
When I arrived at Milton’s house, I asked where we were going to hunt. His reply was “Craytonia.”
“Craytonia?” I said. “Where is Craytonia?”
I had never heard of this place. Milton and I both worked for the U.S. Forest Service at this time. He worked on the Toccoa Ranger District, and I worked on the Brasstown Ranger District. These two districts as well as the Chestatee District have now been combined to form the Blue Ridge Ranger District.
Craytonia, I learned, was located on the Toccoa District in Fannin County, and it was an area I had never heard of before.
We loaded Lady into the truck and headed to Fannin County. When we reached the Fannin and Union County line, we pulled over and parked on the side of the road. We had about a mile and half hike to reach Craytonia. After about a 40-minute hike, we reached the upper part of the valley of a tributary of Seabolt Creek which flows through Craytonia. As we headed down into the valley, Lady locked up on point at the edge of a mountain laurel thicket. Here in the mountains, mountain laurel is known as ivy by the local folks. We walked past Lady and a grouse flushed and flew just over the tops of the ivy. Milton snapped a quick shot at the fleeing grouse but missed. We hunted on in the general direction the grouse flew, and soon Lady pointed again. This time when the grouse flushed I had a clear shot with my Ruger 20 gauge Red Label and dropped the big rooster grouse. After admiring the big rooster grouse and praising Lady, we headed on down the valley.
Just below where I had killed the grouse we could see the remains of an old home site. This turned out to be the uppermost homestead in what was Craytonia. About all that remained of the old home site were the rock pillars the house had rested on and remnants of the chimney. In one corner of what had been the yard was an old snowball bush that still had dried blooms from the previous summer. Nearby lay an old metal axle that looked to have come off an old buggy. We took some pictures with the grouse and then hunted on down the valley.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Craytonia had been a thriving community located in this isolated high mountain valley. During this time the settlement had several families living there. Craytonia had a post office, a blacksmith shop and even a hotel which was located in the Payne House at the lower end of the valley. Farm fields and apple orchards had covered the valley floor years ago, but now the area has grown up into mature forest. The local inhabitants had sold their land to the U.S. Forest Service in the 1930s. The Forest Service had clearcut several areas on the upper slopes in the 1970s and 80s, creating excellent grouse habitat.
As Milton and I hunted on down the valley, we began to see signs of the other homes that had once stood in Craytonia. After the Forest Service purchased the land, the homes and other buildings were either torn down or just allowed to rot away. The rock walls that had once bordered garden plots now had trees growing out of them, and the chimneys of the other house sites were slowly crumbling away into just heaps of stones.
We almost forgot we were grouse hunting as we walked through the remains of this long-abandoned community. Of course Lady was still hunting, and it didn’t take much imagination to think the ringing of Lady’s bell in the distance could easily have been the sound of cowbells as the cows grazed on the slopes of Craytonia 75 to 100 years ago.
Soon though, the ringing of Lady’s bell stopped, and we knew she had another grouse pointed.
As we made our way toward her, we walked past the remains of the Payne House. This was the house that included the post office and hotel in Craytonia. There wasn’t much left of this once-dominant structure that was the center of activity in Craytonia.
Lady was pointed just below the remains of the old house. As we approached Lady, the grouse flushed and flew down the creek. I had a fairly open shot, but I missed as the grouse twisted through the trees and flew out of sight. The grouse flew down the stream that flows through the valley. Not too far below, the stream rapidly descends into a series of waterfalls and finally slows down when it hits the lower valley of Seabolt Creek.
At the lower end of the falls another stream flows into Seabolt Creek from the southwest. We decided to hunt up this drainage to try and find more grouse. Near the upper part of the drainage was another old clearcut that was just the right age to hold grouse. It was covered in grape vines which grouse love to hide in as well feed on the fallen grapes. It wasn’t long until Lady had the scent of a grouse and was locked into a point. The ground here was very steep. This area had been logged with an overhead logging system, and there weren’t any skid trails to walk along. As we were making our way up the steep slope to Lady, the grouse flushed and neither one of us had a chance for a shot. We had a couple of more flushes in this thick cover but no opportunities for shooting. By now it was getting late in the day, and we decided to start making the long hike back to the truck.
We headed back down the small stream and then climbed up over the cascades back into Craytonia. On our trek out we walked up part of the old wagon road that was the main route into Craytonia so many years ago. Alongside the road were the remains of an old rail fence that at one time kept the free-ranging livestock out of the fields and orchards of the community. Like most of the rest of Craytonia, these old fences were just about all rotted away.
On the walk out I realized it had been good to go grouse hunting again. The pain of losing Little Mac had been eased somewhat by the passing weeks and the joy of getting back to the grouse woods. Watching Lady work the scent of a grouse and the thrill of the ensuing flush and shot was just the medicine I needed to get over my melancholy mood. Hunting such an interesting and historical place as Craytonia just made my recovery all that much better. It wasn’t long afterward that I started looking for another puppy. Having and training another grouse dog was just the medicine I needed.
We made several trips back to Craytonia over the years. Sadly, as the years passed, the grouse population fell drastically. Grouse, just like the original inhabitants of Craytonia, are there now mostly in memories.
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