Old Duck Hunter: Spruce grouse on wing: Who’s stupid now?

By Steve Meyer, for the Redoubt Reporter

Stupid chicken, fool’s hen and gravel eater are a few of the names with which Alaskans have saddled Falcipennis Canadensis, otherwise known as the spruce grouse. These not-so-flattering names are arrived at by the behavior of this game bird, that oftentimes seems stupid in the extreme. So much so that in some areas, where they have no real experience with humans, the birds can be approached and literally beat with a stick.

Driving gravel roads in the fall in Alaska’s boreal forests will provide easy sightings of these gorgeous birds, sitting along the road, picking gravel. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to suggest that 99 percent of spruce grouse harvested in Alaska are taken along a gravel road.

It also wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that many of them are taken illegally — that is, the person harvesting takes them from the road, while the birds are on the road. Given that method of harvest, the spruce grouse is not much of a challenge. But head into the places they live, and it is practically an entirely different species, and one of the most challenging wing-shooting game birds out there.

But first a word on the birds’ supposed lack of intellect. As with most wild creatures, spruce grouse are driven more by instinct than intellect. What is mistaken for stupidity is really the natural way spruce grouse survive in the wild. They are very well-camouflaged, oftentimes even difficult to see sitting on the side of the road. Their natural camouflage has instinctually made them sit in place, not moving, lest they expose themselves to whatever predators happen along. This is particularly critical for avoiding birds of prey.

Unfortunately for the spruce grouse, humans, with their ability to engage at distance, are easily able to harvest these unsuspecting birds as they sit, believing they are hidden. Thus, the opinion they are “stupid.”

When other species are pressured from encroachment of civilization their numbers drop and regulation comes into play. Not so with the spruce grouse. This “stupid” bird flourishes throughout Alaska even with the pressures it encounters. That’s not the case with the ruffed grouse, a much more respected member of the grouse family.

Even when flushed from the roadside and followed after landing in a nearby spruce tree, they are fairly easy picking for a decent shot wielding a scoped .22 rimfire. They typically flush and land not too far away on a tree branch, and again will hold in place, believing they are not seen. This is fine and legal and will put spruce grouse on the table for supper, but it is hardly a challenge.

Change the method to hunting them where they live and shooting with a shotgun only when the birds are on wing and all of sudden you have a very challenging game bird that will make you the “stupid” one, more often than not.

The choice to hunt this bird like any other upland bird and, I might add, with the respect it deserves, opens an entire new book to your hunting season. Now, instead of worrying about being on the road early enough to beat the next guy to the birds lined up, you can hunt them any time and at your leisure. All one need do is pick likely cover and head into the brush and you’ll find them.

Think in terms of “edges” when hunting spruce grouse in the field — edges of seismic trails, four-wheeler trails, lakes, swamps and clearings. Stands of alder and willow in close proximity to spruce growth and an abundance of berries on the forest floor are key things to look for.

Move through these places and you will flush some birds. This is where the challenge really starts. A flush can oftentimes mean the sound of beating wings and nothing more. Spruce grouse are very adept at flushing and keeping trees and brush between themselves and predators, making seeing them, much less getting a shot, difficult.

My dog and I recently put up nine grouse. I had two legitimate shots and brought home two birds. And that is how it goes — lots of flushes, lots of frustration and, most important, the birds have the advantage so one is never going to believe they are master of this activity.

Upland hunting differs a bit from other types of hunting. For example, the classic upland hunter uses a double gun. That is a side-by-side or over/under shotgun. One of those beautiful balanced fowling pieces that maybe you have thought about all of your life and could never quite justify. Well here you are, the perfect excuse to have one.

A 20-gauge or 28-gauge is fine for the experienced wing shooter and makes for a great gun to carry all day. For the less experienced, a 12-bore is just fine. Light loads with relatively small shot like No. 6 or No. 7.5 is just fine. The same gun works great for the other upland bird we have, the ptarmigan.

But the very best part about becoming a true upland hunter is the dog. Having been a diehard waterfowler all my life, I have always had

Photo courtesy of Steve Meyer. Winchester, a 6-month-old English setter, stands watch over four spruce grouse shot on wing in the birds’ natural habitat. Though they have a reputation of stupidity when found on roads, grouse are challenging quarry when hunted on wing.

retrievers, mostly Labs. These guys work great for flushing and retrieving, and one would certainly not feel handicapped with them. But a true upland dog is a pointer, one that alerts you to the presence of the bird and allows the setup and flush for the shot.

Few things in the outdoor world of dogs can match this experience. I don’t know who first said it, but someone pointed out a long time ago that you spend a whole lot more time looking at your dog than you do shooting over it, so why not get the best-looking dog for the job? Thus, after deciding I had gotten old enough to give up some of my waterfowling time for upland hunting, I realized a lifelong dream of having an English setter.

The setters, be it English, Irish or Gordon, are in a class of their own for upland hunting, and they do it with more style and grace than any other breed out there. Not to take away from the English pointers and the German shorthairs, which are great bird hunters, and of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My eye just happens to think the setters are the best of the lot.

In spite of their good looks, they are hard chargers that cover more ground than the best of them. Keeping up with them is the challenge. And so, I am in the process of learning how to hunt birds with my now 6-month-old English setter. He is as good in the field as he is beautiful, and being out in the upland field with him makes every hunt memorable and leaves you wanting for more.

Winchester and I are learning how to hunt together as we go. He comes from a line of hunting-only setters in North Dakota, and it shows. He is a delight to watch in the field and we are slowly but surely coming to terms as to how he is going to hunt for me. Make no mistake, he is going to have a huge impact on the successes we have and, most important, like my Labs in the duck blind, he makes the endeavor so much richer for his presence that I cannot now imagine going without him.

So there you go. Take up spruce grouse hunting in the old tradition of upland hunting, get a new gun, a new dog, and pay homage to a truly great game bird.

Steve Meyer has been a central peninsula resident since 1971 and is an avid hunter, fisherman and trapper. He can be reached at oldduckhunter@gci.net.

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