Few things instill such excitement in me, or make my heart skip a beat, like the sudden roar of the beating wings of a grouse flushed unexpectedly. For that reason, grouse hunting ranks number one on my list of autumn hunting outings.
No matter how many times I've heard it before, the exact moment of the flush is always a thrilling surprise. It can startle even the most experienced bird chaser.
Once flushed, you've got about a two second window to make sure no one (human or dog) is in the line of fire, point the gun and squeeze off a shot before the bird is out of range.
The whoosh from the wings as a bird takes flight, accompanied by the glimpse of a brownish-gray blur flying away at high speed, is all that an unprepared hunter may ever see.
Now it's undoubtable that at least a few hunters are reading this and saying, "Grouse are the easiest game animal there is to hunt." Some people even call grouse the "fool hen" and claim them to be too tame or too stupid to be worth hunting.
These hunters mistake the grouse's evolutionary adaptation for dealing with predators by remaining motionless as a sign of stupidity, when in fact the birds are relying on an almost perfectly camouflaged plumage that has allowed them to survive and flourish into incredibly abundant populations.
Chasing birds just like hunting any animal is often what you make of it. In regard to excitement, how an animal is hunted, is often just as important as what is being hunted.
For those hunters that drive the roads looking to blast birds on the ground, as opposed to busting the brush of wooded hillsides, of course they're going to say grouse hunting isn't a challenge because they're missing out on any real sport.
I, like any grouse hunting enthusiasts, don't look for the easiest way to bag birds, I relish in my love for the chase. I'll trudge miles a day, taking pride in the sweat dripping from my brow and wear the scrapes and scratches from wading through dense brush like a badge of honor.
Chasing birds builds character and requires skill, patience and at times a good sense of humor.
Hunting grouse can be an exercise in futility, often burning more calories than it produces especially at this time of year, because once the snow flies and the snowshoes come out, even the most toughened bird chasers will feel the burn.
In my experience, it's not uncommon to hunt over several miles one day and see next to nothing, and the very next day flush more than a dozen birds walking the same exact area. This uncertainty of finding grouse adds to the challenge of the hunt, and flushing even one or two an hour often means I'm doing great.
Also, seeing grouse doesn't necessarily mean being able to shoot one. Don't be tempted to shoot at a bird sitting idly in the trail. Show some character, flush the bird and feel the thrill of trying to take it on the fly.
Flushing birds often necessitates fast shots at close range. Otherwise, they can move through dense timber with lighting speed for 30 to 40 yards, at which point they usually land tight against the trunk of a spruce tree, becoming invisible to the untrained eye.
Stalking and shot placement are key components to success at grouse hunting. Burning half a box of shells and still coming home empty handed is a reality from time to time.
Of course the decision on which guns, gauges, chokes and loads to use requires careful consideration in itself. Opinions vary on what is the best gun and ammo for grouse, but hunters should always pick a combination that will present a challenge.
However, remember the golden rule. Whatever choice is made should be powerful enough to deliver a quick, clean kill, but also not so powerful that the bird explodes into a mess of feathers.
Grouse are plump birds that make good table fare and with generous daily bag limits it's easy to stash away enough in the freezer to last through the winter.
The succulent meat of grouse is dark compared to the white flesh of some other game birds, but many hunters would agree it's still better than grocery store chicken. As fall moves to winter, grouse switch from eating berries to dining on spruce needles as a staple of their diet, and this can impart a somewhat less desirable taste to the meat.
Also, with their distinctive dusky color, white speckled sides, gold tipped tale and red patch over the eyes of males, spruce grouse are gorgeous animals that make beautiful mounts.
So I've found that whether for food, fun, or a fantastic trophy, grouse can be suitable game. They make for a challenging and worthwhile hunt if they are hunted sportingly.
This column is the opinion of Peninsula Clarion reporter Joseph Robertia. Comments can be e-mailed to clarion@ alaska.net.
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