December 10, 2012
Covey, my springer spaniel, bounds left to right and then right to left in easy shooting range, covering ground and getting a nose full. He is dwarfed by the understory of vegetation and he occasionally gets tangled in the berries and vines but largely dominates them with every leap and bound, ears flopping like wings in flight as all springers do.
Fortunately for me, he is predominately white with a few black spots and black ticking. He is my tracer bullet in the shadowed woods. My son John is only 30 yards to the right but I can hear what he and his chocolate Lab Roxy are doing better than I can see them. Even with John's fluorescent orange vest, I only capture fleeting glimpses of him through the dense vegetation, at the occasional clearing, or when he steps into the few rays of sunlight penetrating the canopy above. His chocolate Lab? Well, she is just a ghost in the forest.
Suddenly Covey's movements become quicker, more erratic and intense. The wag in his little black stub of a tail picks up a notch, from "easy listening" to "rock and roll." I alert John that Covey looks birdy.
"Is this the real thing or are we talking squirrel here?" John asks.
I'm not sure myself but I think, "Trust your dog, Mike. Pay attention when he's talking to you!"
Covey goes round and round a rotting birch log covered with fungus and moss as though there is something there, but I can see nothing. Then the forest floor erupts into pounding wings. Without thinking, the reflexive mechanisms within me command the Beretta to swing toward the sound and movement and I pull the trigger at the blurr of wings rising and fading fast away. I hear the spruce grouse collide with a tree and then just the drum of wings on a stationary body lying on the forest floor.
What an adrenaline rush! "Fetch it up," I tell Covey.
"Did you get it?" John queries from somewhere to my right.
Covey delivers the perfect bird to hand. I hold it up for John to see. It is a hen. She is lighter in color than the males. Her feathers are a blend of black, brown, grey and white that meld into perfect northern boreal camouflage. Her body is warm and heavy breasted. I nestle the bird to rest inside my vest and check to see that I have replaced a yellow shell in the magazine.
"Hunt 'em up," I give the signal and we continue our advance.
We can sense the dogs are happy and they are clearly working the cover with an obvious renewed enthusiasm. I am beside myself. My dog has a retrieve; I have a bird in my vest, and yes, a big smile on my face. Does it get any better than this? I will push on with my son and the dogs and enjoy whatever the rest of the day brings. Perhaps a shot for John and a retrieve for Roxy? But if we never see or shoot another bird, it will be OK. We are in a wonderful place, together, and that is all that is important.
Do you like to do your bird hunting in peace and quiet and solitude? Are you willing to hike and hunt for sometimes miles through mixed spruce and deciduous forests of Alaska that are so intoxicating with wild images, sounds and smells that for hours you forget to eat or drink? Do you appreciate not having to ask someone for permission to hunt on millions of acres of State and Federal lands teaming with gamebirds? Do you appreciate the fact that you don't have to own a Super Cub, riverboat or an ATV to access your quarry?
If so, there are hundreds of thousands of road-accessible acres of boreal forest in Alaska harboring a relatively untapped and underappreciated resource gem, the spruce grouse... or "spruce hen" as we Alaskans like to call them. All you have to do is to walk. How bad is that?
I can assure you, there is nothing more pleasurable and satisfying than hunting the boreal forests of God's country in September for grouse with your dog.
Go Get 'em
Spruce hens are forest dwellers and are found throughout most of Alaska along with ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, blue grouse and three species of ptarmigan, many of which can overlap in range and habitat. When I am hunting in interior Alaska near Fairbanks and Delta, it is not uncommon to bag "ruffies," sharptails and spruce hens all in the same area on the same day.
In the summer and fall spruce hens feed on insects, flowers, herbacious leaves, and berries, but in the winter their diet is composed almost exclusively of spruce needles. Spruce hens rely heavily on their natural camouflage and can remain motionless for long periods of time to protect them from predators. Spruce hens can also be found sitting along gravel roads and stream beds in the late summer and fall where they collect grit.
For these reasons, they are considered by some to be stupid and are thus sometimes referred to as "fool hens." To the contrary, their natural camouflage and behavior have served this species well in the evolutionary scheme of things. The joke is really on the myriads of hunters who have walked or driven by these birds unaware of their presence.
Spruce hens are a rocket in the woods and a hard bird to take on the wing in their habitat. Taking spruce hens on the fly rivals any ruffed grouse opportunities I have ever had over the last 50 years in Alaska. The cover is just as dense and fierce, their explosive flight is just as startling and heart stopping, and they are perfect for flushing and pointing dogs in the fall when they are spending a lot of time on the forest floor eating berries and insects.
I have hunted spruce hens over springer spaniels, German shorthaired pointers, black and chocolate Labs, golden retrievers and Boykin spaniels. I believe these grouse can be hunted successfully with just about any of the common hunting breeds used today.
They are the perfect bird for young hunters and young dogs as well. Any gauge shotgun will work, from a .410 to the 12-bore, but I recommend a 20- or 28-gauge improved cylinder with No. 5 or 6 shot. Long shots are not common unless hunting more open areas like the Kenai Peninsula, where logging and wildfires have significantly altered their habitat.
Most spruce grouse wing shooting is quick, reflexive and at close range. After exploding into flight, they are extremely uncanny at making themselves disappear, putting forest and vegetation between you and them in a heartbeat.
Spruce hens are also extremely good eating in the fall while still on a largely leaf and berry diet. They become a little less desirable table fare after winter sets in and spruce needles dominate their crops. I have a recipe for spruce hen that incorporates, among other things, 30 minutes of sautéing in cream of mushroom soup gravy. It is out of this world and called "no fail spruce hen." It has been a winner in my household for over a half-century.
On this day in September, the birch and aspen are giving up their yellow and scarlet leaves without a fight. They waft down through the cool forest air and settle to the ground like snowflakes in December. As I advance through the thickets, devil's club needles catch in my wind-block camo and prick the skin of my calves and thighs. They will remain lodged there till I pluck them out with tweezers tonight after a hot shower and a beer.
I ignore them. I know the black and brown bears love them and they are an important component of this biome. The irritation is a small price to pay for the "view." I see high bush blueberries all around but they have succumbed to recent frosts and want to stain my clothes as I constantly brush against them. Hard, turgid, red low bush cranberries form a red and green carpet below almost every large spruce tree I pass.
I thank the Lord my wife is not here to see this. She has been known to ruin a good day of bird hunting by marking me with a white plastic bucket and sentencing me to a day of berry picking so that cranberry muffins, apple/cranberry pie and cranberry sauce are a part of the Thanksgiving meal.
The air is strikingly poignant with the pungent smell of high bush cranberries, the hallmark that truly defines Alaska's fall. I step over the occasional moose "bed" and note the trails of matted grass that signal a black or brown bear has passed through. An occasional raven croaks from above. He is looking for any remaining spoils of the moose hunting season that closed only two days ago.I look for a place to rest but there is none to sit or kneel without soaking up the melting frost or crushing rotting mushrooms. This is no time to stop anyway. Covey has a new found energy and he will not have it.
Suddenly, a shotgun blast to my right interrupts my contemplation. Covey freezes and faces the sound of the shot. His body is tight like a spring, ready for action, ears erect and eyes intensely focused. I can see no one beyond the cloud of my own breath that precedes me with every exhale.
There is no second shot. There is no fetch command to Roxy, but only muffled expletives swallowed by the forest. I can't see John's sheepish grin but I can sense it. After awhile, I hear the scratch of Devil's clubs on his brush pants and I know it is time to move on. Does it get any better than this?
"Hunt 'em up, Cov!"