Building a new reputation for the overlooked and underrated spruce grouse.
Spruce grouse are not often–if ever–regarded as the King of the Uplands. They suffer a perception forced upon them by those of us accustomed to pursuing ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, chukar, or any of the various quail species that inhabit our favorite countryside. They are renowned for their dim-wittedness, weak flush, and even poorer culinary aspects. They’ve even earned the nickname “Fool Hen,” a moniker that is both well-earned and undeserved.
In Alaska, spruce grouse are so prevalent that it can be easy to assume a person can simply go forth and get one. I know because I’ve set out with that mindset and returned with an empty game bag. They may not be the greatest challenge presented to an upland hunter, but if you don’t give them their due they can easily have you leaving the woods with spent shells and empty questions.
When you’re setting out in search of spruce grouse in Alaska, you need to change how you look at grouse cover in a drastic way. As upland hunters most of us know the world as grouse country and open country, and that gets us by just fine. Spruce grouse, as their name would imply, most often gravitate to the incredible expanse of black spruce trees in the Last Frontier. Alaska’s landscape is a vast one, and its abundance of habitat can also mean an over-abundance of habitat. Searching for proper spruce grouse habitat will quickly lead you to an impenetrable sea of black and white spruce, speckled with intermittent muskeg and clearings from past wildfires.
Rarely is there an old road or two-track to follow, and you’re left to hunt through the wilderness as it presents itself. It becomes imperative to follow the terrain that is given to you. Follow the water sources, the clearings, the natural tree lines and cover breaks, as those will bring you to where the birds want to be. All upland birds need a water source, and the clearings provide sunlight for warmth and food growth throughout the seasons. Spend the entire day busting through brush and you’re likely to end up tired, covered in thorns, and grumbling about how these birds are supposed to be easy.
When you do find them, don’t take the shot for granted. They are not as powerful a flyer as a ruffed grouse or pheasant, but the cover they are in protects them so effectively that they don’t need to be. They will often take to wing with the intent of getting into the canopy limbs of their boreal homes, and if they make it up there they might as well be ghosts.
On the wing they are the curve ball of upland birds. Like any forest dwelling grouse they have broad tail fans that allow them to change direction in an instant. They’ll fly, dodge, and twist through the conifers presenting only narrow windows for a shot as they make for the trees and settle into their hiding spots well out of reach. It’s common for broods to stay together well into the fall season, so any flush could also have you trying to sort out a target from a covey as they all disappear into the expanse that is the Alaskan wilderness.
The culinary perception of spruce grouse exists in a dichotomy similar to pursuing them. While some say that spruce grouse are outright inedible, others will claim that they are as enjoyable as any other upland game. In fact both are correct, and much depends on the time of year when you harvest one. In the summer and early fall spruce grouse feed heavily on flowers and green-leafed plants, and quickly transition to berries as they begin to emerge in early fall. A spruce grouse taken during this time is a fine bird for the table. A favorite zone of mine to hunt is a sub-alpine area that is thick with wild blueberries, and the birds that feed heavily on them exhibit a delightfully subtle berry overtone to the meat.
Once the snowfall in the later season removes this food source, the birds will quickly transition to spruce needles, and this is where their poor-eating reputation stems from. A bird that has been feeding on spruce needles will not be as universally delectable as a berry-fed bird, and will require a keener talent in the kitchen to be enjoyable.
Alaska exists in the upland hunter’s world as a land o’ plenty. It’s an incredibly long way away from the rest of the country, and many hunters wish to spend time in the last frontier reveling in its abundant public land, liberal limits, and the wide variety of species available. In fact those reasons are how I ended up here after two years of traveling and hunting across the country.
For the upland hunter with the ambition there are ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, sooty grouse, spruce grouse, willow ptarmigan, white tailed ptarmigan, rock ptarmigan, and even snipe (yes, there’s snipe in Alaska). You can’t find them all in one day, but you can certainly encounter two or three in a single outing. Amongst that list, the spruce grouse is burdened with the lowest esteem of them all, but should you make it to the last frontier don’t overlook them. They’re a fun bird to hunt, and they’ll likely give you more of a challenge than anticipated, even if they aren’t the King of the Uplands.
Scott Johnson is a first generation hunter with a lifelong passion for the outdoors. Originally a fisherman and grouse hunter from Norther Minnesota, he spends his seasons traveling across the country in search of upland birds and waterfowl with his beloved labrador Watson. He hunts and lives out of a converted van that he purpose built for his pursuits, and can be found anywhere from the Midwest to the deserts of Arizona, and as far north as Alaska.