Grouse are a fall fowl sought after by many hunters, but there's only a few weeks left to hunt them while they are still eating green leaves, flowers and berries. Once the snow flies they will switch their diet to more course spruce needles, which some say makes their meat more gamy tasting.
From beneath an apple-red brow blaze, the dark eyes of a spruce grouse stare down intently at an approaching biped.
This creature may have two less legs than a lynx or coyote the grouse’s usual predators, yet the bird knows danger can also walk upright.
Rather than flying away like many birds might, the grouse remains motionless an evolutionary adaptation to danger that has allowed its species to survive and flourish over hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Instead of fleeing, the grouse relies on its almost perfectly camouflaged plumage. Its distinctive dusky color with white speckled sides so closely resemble the bark of the spruce tree trunk it’s sitting tight against that it is almost invisible to the untrained eye.
Unfortunately for this bird, the eyes looking up at it are trained. Larry Lewis, an avid hunter from Kasilof, has dropped his fair share of game, grouse not excluded. Lewis also is a wildlife technician for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but on this occasion was simply out enjoying the hunting.
Lewis raised the barrel of his 12-gauge shotgun and with a fiery blast let loose a flurry of size 7 pellets. At least a few found their mark, as the lifeless body of the bird thumped to the ground, followed seconds later by a few floating feathers cast off during the ammunition’s impact.
“I like to get out for grouse a couple of times a year. It’s a good opportunity to get out after moose hunting season and have some fun, run the dog and bring home a little meat,” he said.
Lewis said he frequently flushes a bird for a shot, but said since spruce grouse can be less flighty than their more Interior counterparts, he is not opposed to taking a still bird from time to time. In fact, he said this behavior can make it a great game animal to start young hunters on.
“They’re great for kids. Since spruce hens sit so still you can really teach kids how to make a good, clean shot,” he said.
While no hunter likes to come home empty-handed, young hunters are particularly susceptible to feeling down if they miss a shot, which is another reason why bagging birds can be better than trying for bulls or bucks when starting children out, according to Lewis.
“Even if they flush you can often find them again for another shot, so kids have a better chance of success. The meat is also a lot easier for them to pack out,” he said.
As opposed to hitting the hiking trails up and down mountains, Lewis said he frequently likes to hunt along lake shores when searching for grouse.
“There’s not as much competition and if you hit it just right, you can get a lot of birds,” he said.
Driving the back roads seems to be another popular option for bird hunters, particularly this time of year.
“It’s very common to see grouse on gravel roadsides right now because they’re trying to find stones for their crops,” said Liz Jozwiak, a wildlife biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Jozwiak said this is part of the birds’ annual preparation for winter. They must make the switch from eating green leaves, flowers and berries to more coarse spruce needles once the snow flies.
“They use the stones as a grinding mechanism for the needles,” she said.
Many hunters known this, which is why they drive along roads such as Mystery Creek, Swanson River, Marathon and Falls Creek. These spots are popular for grouse hunting and in the opinion of a few, becoming too popular.
“It’s pretty slim pickings,” said Dave Clare of Kenai, who drove out to Mystery Creek Road last weekend but found there to be more trucks of hunters than birds to be hunted.
Clare said he generally hunts in the Captain Cook State Park area, but the spots he likes to go are a little too wet this year with all the rain that’s been falling.
“It’s been a few years since I’ve hunted out here and it’s really crowded with people from Anchorage,” he said of Mystery Creek Road.
Knowing it’s crowded is one of the reasons the Alaska State Troopers Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement in Soldotna often have a presence in the area, and occasionally even put out decoy birds to ensure hunters are following the rules.
“We’ve been out and about,” said Steve Bear, a lieutenant with the Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement.
Bear said troopers are largely looking to ensure hunters are following the regulations that state not to shoot on, from or across the drivable surface of any constructed road or highway.
“Hunters should also remember that that portion of Skilak Loop Road that is open to hunting, is open to bow and arrow hunting only,” Bear said in regard to a nearby area that is also a bird hunting hot spot.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@ peninsulaclarion.com.
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