Spring grouse

After asking some 10 of my so called friends to go hooter hunting with no takers, I headed off to Admiralty Island myself. I left for our cabin late in the day, and when I awoke early the next morning, the hooters were booming across the channel from Admiralty. The male blue grouse get high up in the evergreen trees, and make a hooting sound from a highly flexible sac in their throat – hence their local name “hooter”.

Low tide wasn’t till 230 pm, so I spent the morning splitting firewood to get a good dry on the wood to replenish what we burned over the winter.

I headed over to Admiralty about 1230 in the afternoon. I anchored out the the boat downwind from a point, shouldered my pack, put the side-by-side 12 gauge across the crook of my elbow, and headed across the tide flat. I entered the rainforest and headed up the hill in the general direction of the closest bird hooting. I could tell the birds on this stretch of the beach were higher up the hill, so up I went. Most all the skunk cabbage had been nipped off by blacktail deer, and there was deer scat everywhere I went. So much so I found it hard to believe the only deer I saw all day was one I jumped right next to my cabin.

When I finally got up to the level of the mountain the birds were at, my legs were stinging and tired. I hadn’t worked out much this last hitch on the north slope as we worked many 16.5 hour days, so I chose sleep over exercise. But hooter hunting is a funny thing. It’s not like other hunting where you head out hoping to cross paths with your game. When you hear a bird hooting, you know you are heading to a sure thing.

Birds in trees on level ground are easier to get to, but harder to see. You get a sore neck by the end of the day craning to see up them up high, trying to find windows of clear sight between the branches of the tree the birds are in and the neighboring tree’s branches. I’ve given up on a bird or two in the past because I just could never see them, even though I could hear them hooting directly above me.

Birds higher up the hill are higher to get to but easier to see, since you can climb uphill from the trees the birds are in, and therefore get up to almost their level.

I’ve learned, too, that patience pays off. Sometimes, the birds will hoot and hoot, and then go silent feeding on spruce or hemlock needles. When they do this, they may shake the branch they are feeding on, giving their location away. Other times, the birds will move out the branch they are on, or change position on the branch they’re on, putting them into a position you can see them.

Then, it’s a matter of picking out the head and the tail, and then taking the shot. Many hunt with a 22, but I only carry a 12 gauge shot gun when I hunt alone. Brown bears are out of their dens now, and I did see a lone print in the snow up the hill. I carry a slug in one barrel, and buckshot in the other, until I get to the tree the bird is in. I switch out to bird shot once I see the bird.

I got four birds by the end of the day. My pack was heavy. The birds themselves are chicken sized, and I pack snow around each one in a plastic bag to cool them down. I was wishing I’d taken my pack frame, as well as not forgot my gloves, since my hands were now full of devils club.

I helped an older friend move a welder the next day, and he was happy to take one of the cleaned birds off my hands. He said the birds hooting behind his house drive him nuts knowing he’s not going to be able to go hunting for them.

The birds are hard to cook and not be dry. I learned a good way last year to overcome this by carving all the meat off the breast and legs, cutting it into pieces,marinating it in soy sauce/beer or wine/olive oil, then stringing the meat on skewers for shish kabob. I put the meat sticks on a hot grill, and don’t leave them long on either side. Easy and they taste great.

It’s taken about 2 days to recover from the hooter hunt. I realized I probably push myself further hooter hunting than I do some days deer hunting because you know you are headed to what you know will be a bird up the tree. It’s easy to go from one to the next since they call you right to them. And, you know you’re only taking males, so I don’t worry about denting the population. After a year or two of what seemed like lower numbers, last year and this year seemed to be a plentiful year for the big grouse.

Mark Stopha
Alaska Wild Salmon Company
4455 N. Douglas Hwy
Juneau, AK 99801

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