Shotguns, Bows & Fool Hens

by E. Donnall Thomas Jr.

Although the termination dust had yet to fall, it was the kind of September day that demands the acknowledgement of the seasons’ passage. Although fresh silvers were still entering the streams, the heart of the fishing season lay behind me. Bull moose were starting to round up their cows, and lines of migrating geese undulated against the crisp, azure sky. 

Since I’d been in Alaska long enough to know what lay just around the corner, I felt determined to wring as much experience as possible from the outdoors before the sun disappeared and winter seized the North Country in its icy grip. And on that particular day, I meant to do it with my shotgun.

If I had nothing else with me as I walked out the door of our remote Kenai Peninsula home, I certainly enjoyed plenty of confidence in my dog. I regarded Skykomish as the best hunting Lab I’ve ever owned, and the passage of three more decades—and a number of very good retrievers—has yet to alter that opinion. Sky had certainly enjoyed plenty of experience with Alaska waterfowl since our move north the year before, but he’d been raised and trained as a flushing retriever on the game-rich plains of central Montana we’d left behind, and I knew he missed hitting the upland cover as much as I did. He’d enjoyed a fair amount of experience with ptarmigan by that point, but the nearest of their kind lay at least a modest expedition’s length away. That afternoon we were going to have to try for something closer to home… and more imaginative.

The woods around our house teemed with spruce grouse, but it had taken me a season to figure out how to capitalize on them in sporting fashion with a shotgun. As subsistence fare, spruce grouse are hard to beat, but the same naivety that makes them so appealing to hungry moose hunters at the end of a long day also nearly ruins them as a serious wing-shooting quarry. I know, I know: when in Rome… But for better or worse I was raised to regard shooting a sitting grouse with a shotgun as a crime against nature. Fortunately, Sky’s enthusiasm and a bit of imagination on my own part had finally revealed a solution to the dilemma.

A hundred yard hike down the gravel road leading to our house brought me to an intersection with an old, abandoned seismographic trail. With Sky fixed firmly at heel, I dropped a pair of shells into my shotgun and stepped off the road and into the big woods…

On paper, Alaska offers a moderate variety of game birds to choose from above and beyond its widespread and justifiably esteemed ptarmigan. Trouble is, with one notable exception, the state’s other four grouse species occupy limited ranges. Blues are largely confined to the coastal rainforests and sharptails to some open terrain in the central interior, with ruffs occupying limited habitat in Southcentral (although their range is expanding courtesy of deliberate transplants). Well and good if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, but rarely enough to satisfy those who enjoy hunting upland birds as much as waterfowl and big game.

That leaves the spruce grouse as the only reliable alternative to ptarmigan throughout much of the state.  In terms of numbers and wide distribution, Falcipennis canadensis certainly fulfills the criteria as a major Alaska game bird species. Although they’re uncommon in many parts of Southeast, they’re plentiful throughout most of the forested terrain in the rest of the state. The brown band on the tips of their tail feathers readily distinguishes them from the sharptail and ruffed grouse. (The “Franklin” grouse farther south lacks this field mark; although formerly regarded as a separate species, it is now considered a subspecies of the spruce grouse.)  In areas where their ranges overlap, spruce grouse can be distinguished from the far larger blue by the mottled appearance of their breast feathers. 

The problem, from the pure wing-shooter’s perspective, isn’t the bird—a small, attractive grouse that can explode off the ground when it wants to and actually provides fine table fare—but its habits. Spruce grouse are more likely to rely on their excellent natural camouflage than their speed on the wing. And since most of the threats to their survival come from ground-based predators, they’re usually content to flutter up into the nearest tree and wait for danger to pass when they’re alarmed. While that’s a logical defense against foxes and lynx, it doesn’t offer much challenge to a shotgun.

The behaviors that make the spruce grouse the definitive fool hen certainly aren’t all bad from the human hunter’s point of view.  As survival fare, they’re hard to beat. Cut up and stewed with rice or noodles, they have provided a welcome respite from canned or freeze-dried food on countless wilderness big-game hunts. Friends regularly carry .22 pistols into the bush for just that purpose (although rocks will do the trick in a real emergency). But for those of us who choose to hunt big game with bows and arrows, producing a fool hen dinner at the end of a long day in search of moose or caribou can become a legitimate sporting exercise in its own right.

The prohibitions against shooting sitting grouse that my father beat into my head when I was a kid certainly don’t apply when I’m armed with my longbow. In fact, a grouse twenty feet up in a spruce tree and partially concealed by overhanging branches can make a very challenging archery target. Furthermore, an errant shot may well result in a lost arrow a long way from the nearest replacement. I’ve certainly spent plenty of time kicking through the brush looking for lost arrows, often with the grouse that offered the original target already in my backpack after a clean pass-through. When space and weight constraints allow, I pack along an extra dozen relatively expendable “grouse arrows” for just this purpose when I’m hunting big game.

Experienced Alaska bowhunters hold a variety of opinions about the optimal head to use on spruce grouse. Rubber blunts, Judo points, old .38 caliber shell casings, and the specialized small-game heads offered by some broadhead manufacturers all have their advocates. But I learned a long time ago that if you really want to kill something with a bow, you better shoot it with a cutting broadhead, and I keep a supply of old, non-replaceable blade heads that are a bit too beaten up to use on big game for just that purpose. Of course that has obligated me to some tree-climbing gymnastics when I’ve left a head stuck in a spruce trunk, with or without a grouse skewered on the shaft, but that seems a small price to pay for a clean kill and a grouse dinner. I never cease to be amazed at the way a grouse can sometimes absorb a solid hit from a rubber blunt shot from a heavy bow and fly off apparently unscathed.

Autumn float trips for big game—or fish, for that matter—offer particularly abundant spruce grouse opportunities in suitable terrain because of the birds’ seasonal habits. At that time of year, grouse are eager to fill their gizzards with gravel ahead of the impending winter, and they often appear on stream banks in considerable numbers early in the morning and late in the evening for just that purpose. One advantage of the bow in this situation is that the hunter can quietly pick off enough birds for a real feast without spooking whatever big game might be in the area. 

Spruce grouse meat is dark but generally delicious in the fall, although it can taste strong in the winter when the birds are surviving on spruce needles. Cooked in a real kitchen with a range of supplemental ingredients available, they can provide the core of a terrific wild game dinner. However, the vast majority of spruce grouse I’ve eaten have been prepared in the field over an open fire, often at the end of a long day that left me too tired to worry about imaginative cooking. My standard wilderness spruce grouse recipe is about as simple as camp cookery can get. Bone and dice the bird. Poach lightly for 15 minutes, using a bit more than one cup of water per grouse. Add one packet of Ramen noodles per bird and simmer for five more minutes. Wolf it down, crawl into your sleeping bag, and get ready for another day.

As gratifying as I found this utilitarian approach to spruce grouse and their pursuit, it did nothing to address the need to enjoy some real wing-shooting that I experienced so acutely after moving from Montana to Alaska. That, after some experimentation, was where the dog finally came into play, as illustrated by events on that long ago September afternoon.

Once we were safely away from the road, I released Sky from heel and watched him disappear into the woods. A flushing dog that is out of control does no good in heavy cover, but, guided only by an occasional trill from my whistle, Sky tacked steadily back and forth across the old cut without ever getting out of shotgun range. Suddenly the explosive sound of wings erupted from the trees to my left, and by the time the bird roared across the cut I was ready for him. The quick shot that followed reminded me of classical New England ruffed grouse hunting. As a handful of feathers drifted slowly down to earth, Sky appeared from the trees to do what retrievers do best.  That bird was the first of three our team picked up during an hour’s hike through the cover, enough for a meal for my family… and more than enough to make me feel like a real bird hunter again.

Operating in their fool hen mode, spruce grouse will never rival ptarmigan as Alaska’s premier wing-shooting quarry. But whether they’re providing an emergency source of excitement for your shotgun and dog or a memorable meal around a wilderness campfire, they always seem to find a way to remind us of the North’s vast outdoor bounty.

A former Kenai Peninsula resident, Don Thomas and his wife Lori now divide their time between homes in rural Montana and coastal Alaska. Don has just finished his 16th book on outdoor subjects, a review of sportsmen’s contributions to the conservation movement. His books are available through the website www.donthomasbooks.com.

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