Autumn's Mixed Bag THE WEATHER MIGHT BE COLD, BUT THE HUNTING IS HOT

November is a gray month in the Northeast. Except for a few malingering oak trees and beeches, the showy foliage of last month is gone, producing better views of, but no better shots at, flushing ruffed grouse. The deer have their full winter coats on now, too--dark brown and gray fur that helps them disappear when they stand still among the hardwood trunks and evergreen shadows. Even the meadows and edge lands are drab, making the rise of a cock pheasant a startling surprise of motion, sound and color.

This pre-winter month, however, doesn't put a damper on our hunters' hearts. Quite the opposite. It's this month we've waited all year for, when we can traipse the coverts, flush the birds, find the deer sign, plot our deer stands and then hunt hard for a trophy.

My buddy Ed and I have developed a tradition over the years of getting into deer camp early. For a week we scout the bucks while we carry shotguns. Now and again, a late flight of woodcock alights in the young poplar groves. When one twitters up, we double-clutch the double 20-gauges, thinking grouse. Nowadays, we aren't as anxious for the shot, with woodcock numbers down as they are, and we'll just track the bird's flight with the barrel without firing.

Later, in the quiet of the woods, the chuga-chuga-chuga of a yearling bird as he practices his drumming a mile away helps explain how the roar of a nearby flush is so unsettling.

Ruffed grouse and deer share similar habitat. Edge lands around farm fields and meadows are ideal, but second-growth forests, abandoned farmland and forests that are selectively cut on a regular basis, leaving many small second-growth openings, all produce the superb mixed-growth habitat in which both birds and deer thrive. Put your finger down on a map almost anywhere in the Northeast and the nearest actively managed forest will hold good bird and deer numbers.

BIRDS AND BUCKS

Wildlife management areas (WMAs) in southern New England offer the best chances for both birds and deer--places like Massachusetts' Millers River WMA, Connecticut's Nipmuck State Forest and Rhode Island's Acadia WMA. In northern New England, find grouse in tracts of 5- to 15-year-old clear-cuts on the industrial forests that are now grown eye-high, and walk their edges for deer. Look to Caledonia County in Vermont's northeast (part of it in the Kingdom), to Maine's Rangeley Lakes Region forests and mountains and to New Hampshire's White Mountain National Forest foothills, particularly along the Connecticut River. In West Virginia, always look to the National Forests in the east, especially where there has been recent logging activity. Elsewhere in the state, find public hunting on many large WMAs like Elk River near Sutton or Fork Creek near Ridgeview and Nellis. New Jersey can boast good bird and deer hunting in the north in Hamburg Mountain WMA near Hamburg and in the south in Forked River Mountain WMA near Forked River. In Maryland, try the Green Ridge State Forest east of Flintstone.

Pheasants are a different story. With the exception of a few rare places, pheasant hunting in the Northeast is a put-and-take proposition. A few do survive our winters in the Lake Champlain valley, in the southern Connecticut River valley and on New York's southern Lake Ontario plain. But pheasant hunting here basically is limited to asking the particular state if they release pheasants and where.

The strongest programs are in Pennsylvania, which releases over 200,000 pheasants and annually harvests over 250,000 birds; in New Jersey, where over 55,000 birds are put out; in New York, where 25,000 mature birds are released during the season by the DEC and another 60,000 to 65,000 are raised and stocked on public lands by cooperators; and in Massachusetts, which releases 45,000 birds annually, mainly on wildlife management areas.

November is a drab month for the rest of the world, but we hunters know it as a time of anticipation and excitement, the highlight of the year for finding and harvesting wild birds and big game.

For more regional information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/regional