Spruce Grouse in the Itcha Mountains

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs West of Quesnel, between the Fraser River and the Pacific, the foothills of the Itcha Range rise gently from the arid steppe.

Heaped like slag on the horizon, the Nechakos stand black and white in the distance. Nearer, the forest resolves into greens and yellows: spruce and jack pine, willows and summer's grass.

Moose haunt the tree-topped ridges and feed in wide meadows linked like beads on a chain. Mountain caribou slip like ghosts through the forest. This is big game country, but it is home to spruce grouse, blue grouse, ruffed grouse, sharptails and ptarmigan. 

When we hunted moose in British Columbia last October, we saw dozens of spruce grouse. It was common to see six or eight in the morning and again in the evening.

Stewart Fraser, owner of Itcha Mountain Outfitters, has lived and hunted in the region for 50 years. A student of the wildlife, he watches the bird populations go through cycles.

"It was a good year last year because we had a dry spring. In years where you have a dry spring you have a better crop of birds. We saw a lot of young birds in the fall because we had a second hatch. In years where we have a wet spring, the recruitment isn't as good."

Fraser outfits for big game, but his camps are open to the traveling bird hunter. Depending on the weather, a wing shooter can expect to see between 15 and 50 grouse per day.

One morning we hunted grouse and took several spruce and ruffeds back to camp for dinner. We found our birds on the edges of heavy timber. I asked if that was typical.

"You find them on the older roads, the wagon roads, heavy timber, heavy pine stands with the spruce mixed in, where you see the knik-knik berries. They need lots of shade. You won't find them in the open," Fraser said. 

One of the exciting things about hunting here is the chance to take multiple species.

Fraser finds sharptails in the logging slash and in the huge meadows where they prospect for willow buds. Ptarmigan can be found at higher elevations.

Weather will dictate how and where to hunt. A common technique is to spot birds on roads and trails in the early morning and afternoon, then flush them into the timber and turn loose a pointer or flushing dog.

"When we get a heavy snow you won't see the grouse on the roads where they come to get gravel. Instead, you'll find them under the trees. But as the traffic beats up the frozen gravel they'll come back out and you'll see them again."

The grouse are often found in groups of two to eight. They hold better for a gun dog or a walking hunter than most upland game and are apt to flush toward the thickest timber.

We encountered few hunters, all in pursuit of moose. On the first day, we picked up a hunter and transported him back to town. His truck had burned at the end of a remote road. By the time we found him, he had already walked seven miles, leaving his family by a fire with a little food. It was a reminder about how a little preparedness can be a lifesaver in lonely country. 

Make sure there is air in the spare tire. Bring extra fuel. A chainsaw or an axe could come in handy to remove a tree from the road.

Here, the logging companies operate during the winter and the roads are built to handle heavy loads when the road bed is frozen solid. When the road was frozen, it was passable. Thawed, it turned to muck. Bring a winch or a come-along to pull a vehicle through a tough patch.

Roads are well-signed, even in the backcountry, but a good map is a must. Maps can be purchased in Quesnel.

Weather will play a major role in the hunt. Come prepared for shirtsleeve days or bitter cold.

"Expect freezing temperatures in September with frosty mornings which are good for seeing grouse," Fraser said. By the middle of the day, the temps will be up in the mid-60s."

October days will be colder with temperatures in the 20s at night and into the high 40s or 50s by day. By November there will be snow. Temperatures could drop to 0 degrees Fahrenheit after dark and rise into the 30s and 40s by day.

Itcha Mountain Outfitters operates from a home base in Nazko, a community of about 250 people. They hunt from the main camp or from backcountry camps, depending on the season.

Fraser charges $150 per night for lodging and three meals a day. A guide can be arranged for an extra fee if a bird hunter is so inclined, but a hunter should bring a pointing or flushing dog.

Accommodations consist of newly built one-room cabins that sleep two people. Groups up to six can be housed in a larger cabin. Bring a sleeping bag and pillow. A common shower house and restrooms are a short walk from the cabin.

Breakfasts are hearty with plenty of bacon or sausages, eggs and pancakes after the morning hunt. A sack lunch suffices during the middle of the day and a big dinner with generous helpings of meat, breads, vegetables and dessert is served after dark. We ate prime rib, steaks, lasagna and grouse followed by chocolate cake, apple pie or cobbler.

Across the road from camp, a small convenience store/café/fuel station serves the community. Don't expect much more than a dried out, over-cooked sandwich if you order from that menu.

Blue, ruffed and spruce grouse hunting in the Cariboo (Region 5) runs September 10 through November 30, with a daily aggregate limit of ten per day. The possession limit is 30 birds.

Sharptail hunting is permitted in areas 5-2 to 5-6, 5-10 to 5-14 and the season runs September 10 through November 30. There is a daily limit of five with ten in possession.

Ptarmigan may be hunted from September 1 through November 1 in areas 5-3 to 5-6, 5-10, to 5-12 and 5-15. The daily limit is five, with 15 in possession.

A non-resident alien hunting license costs $180. An upland bird stamp costs $50. For more information, visit this site.

To cross the border, bring a passport. Shotguns and rifles are allowed, handguns are not permitted. To bring a shotgun, the hunter must be at least 18-years-old and declare the firearm at the first point of entry. A firearm declaration form is required. Fill the paperwork out in advance and leave it unsigned. Forms can be obtained by calling 1-800-731-4000. There is a $25 processing fee, which must be paid in Canadian funds. 

With millions of hectares of Crown land, there is a lot of territory for the traveling hunter to cover. With a few days to hunt, a visitor will find wing shooting action in stands of spruce, jack pine and willow in the Canadian wilderness.

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