Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
September 2011

Hunting Small Game in Alaska
Birds and Bunnies - where, how and when to go hunt

By Ken Marsh
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Waterfowl hunting on the Mendenhall refuge in Juneau

When you have shot one bird flying you have shot all birds flying. They are all different and they fly in different ways but the sensation is the same and the last one is as good as the first. – Ernest Hemingway

You’re marching under a late-September sun, shotgun over your shoulder glinting, the day bright and cold and marked by the sounds of your footsteps crunching over puddles brittle with new ice. You may be working a bench of willows for ptarmigan, or following your setter through a second-growth thicket for ruffed grouse. Or perhaps you’re crossing a wide-open coastal marsh for mallards or geese. Really, the venue and its particular birds are beside the point since, in the end, the rush you’re seeking is always the same. When the ptarmigan burst from the willows cackling, or the ducks tear by with jet speed, something in your heart takes wing, too. To know this feeling is to love it, and hunters near and far have discovered that few better places exist to find it than in the forests, tundras and wetlands of Alaska.

Home to ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, spruce grouse, blue grouse and three ptarmigan species – willow, rock and whitetail – Alaska’s upland wing-shooting opportunities span every region of the state. Waterfowl hunting, too, is excellent and widespread as expansive river deltas, coastal and Interior marshes, potholes and muskegs provide habitat for huge numbers of ducks, geese and cranes.

That’s the good news. Hunters should know, however, that as superb as the shooting here can be, finding the hotspots requires a knowledge of the state and of the species you intend to hunt. Wing-shooters new to Alaska are frequently struck by the state’s enormous size; every region – Southcentral, Southeast, Southwest, Interior and Arctic – offers its own unique climates, habitats and hunting opportunities. To get started hunting here, you must first define the object (or objects) of your wing-shooting passion and choose the region and locale best suited for your hunt.

Often, timing is key, especially when hunting migratory waterfowl that may swarm through an area one week and be gone the next. Upland hunters, too, must remember that ptarmigan, sharp-tailed grouse, and ruffed grouse are subject to population swings, the result of natural cycles that can make one year’s highly productive hunting spot all but empty of birds the next.

Guides and Gun Dogs

To maximize your chances of finding birds – and minimize the possibilities of getting lost or running into bears in this big, wilderness state – new Alaskans and visiting hunters should consider hiring a guide. An Internet search will turn up the names, contact information and locations of many local guides who specialize in ptarmigan, grouse and waterfowl hunting. Talk with some of these operators and ask about their services and prices. Request references – and follow up to learn what past clients have to say. Some guides provide trained bird dogs while others encourage hunters to bring their own. Reputable guides and hunting lodges offer an intimate knowledge of their areas, the birds you’ll hunt and, in the end, will ensure optimal hunting and a safe, comfortable trip.

Whether or not you choose hunt with a guide, well-trained gun dogs are unquestionable assets for finding and retrieving grouse, ptarmigan and waterfowl. Flushing and retrieving breeds such as springer spaniels and Labradors are popular with many hunters, especially waterfowlers. Pointers, like Brittanys, English setters and German shorthairs are particularly effective for hunting Alaska’s upland birds.

Clothing, Footwear and Equipment

The gear bird hunters require is both simple and critical. Hiking is a part of the sport, so quality boots are a must. Some upland hunters prefer quality rubber knee boots, such as XtraTufs by B.F. Goodrich, because they are light, durable and waterproof. Others prefer more traditional leather hiking boots with Vibram soles for solid ankle support and firm traction, particularly when hunting mountainsides for ptarmigan.

Waterfowl hunters in most situations will need hip boots or chest waders. Rubber or light Gore-tex hip boots can be preferable for longer hikes across shallow marshes and mud flats. Chest waders, made of Gore-tex or neoprene, are a bit heavier, but keep hunters dry around bogs, lakes and wetter situations. Neoprene waders, especially, provide added insulation on cold days.

For navigating thick willow, wild rose and devil’s club cover, many grouse and ptarmigan hunters wear chaps specially designed for bird hunting and available through sporting goods retailers. Shooting vests are handy, providing pockets for shotgun shells and game pouches for carrying birds. Flare-orange colors aren’t required for Alaska upland hunters, but are a good idea for gunners working thick brush with others nearby. Waterfowl hunters will prefer camouflage and muted color tones.

Rain gear, warm jackets and vests, and long underwear are essential clothing for autumn in all parts of Alaska. Depending upon when and where you’re hunting, be prepared for damp weather and temperatures that may range from 60 degrees F to 15 degrees F.

Guns and Loads

Grouse and ptarmigan are light-boned and well suited for hunting with lighter shotguns – 20 gauges, 28 gauges, and even the diminutive .410 work well. Light lead shot, with some variation, is the rule. Early in the season, grouse and ptarmigan hunters shooting over younger birds will choose Nos. 7 ½, 8 or even 9 lead shot. The thinking is that these smaller birds are less heavily feathered and easier to knock down. They also tend to flush at closer ranges.

Later in the fall and winter, as birds mature and feather out, hunters frequently switch to heavier No. 6 shot. Sparser cover this time of year often spurs birds to flush at greater distances, so hotter field loads are often preferred. Some hunters also believe larger shot better penetrates heavier winter plumage.

Modified or improved-cylinder chokes are popular among gunners hunting forest grouse species in thick cover, where close, quick snap-shooting is required. Full chokes can be more appropriate for ptarmigan or sharp-tailed grouse in open country.

Waterfowl hunters normally choose heavier guns, since the birds they pursue are larger and often taken at longer ranges. Most prefer 12 gauge shotguns, though a few go with trusty old 16 gauges, or big-bored 10 gauges. Lead shot is prohibited for waterfowl hunting in Alaska, making steel or bismuth shot and modified chokes the rule. Duck hunters generally choose Nos. 1-3 steel shot, while goose hunters often find heavier BB shot or BBB most effective.

Alaska’s Upland Birds

Knowing the birds you intend to hunt — their feeding habits, cover requirements and general geographic distribution — is key to finding good wing-shooting. Use the following highlights to get started:

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Hunting on the Palmer Hay Flats

Ruffed grouse – Ruffed grouse prefer thick cover featuring second-growth aspen and high-bush cranberries, rosehips or soap berries. Aspens provide food and cover year-round. A few spruce trees mixed in provide additional cover and roosting opportunities that protect ruffed grouse from raptors and other predators. Ruffed grouse are notorious runners, but hold well for pointing dogs. Hunters who shoot over pointers or close-working flushing breeds will find many more ruffed grouse than dogless hunters.

Spruce grouse – Mixed spruce and birch forests are prime habitat for spruce grouse; however, you may find these ubiquitous birds anywhere from sea-level muskegs to sub-alpine spruce thickets. In the fall, spruce grouse are especially drawn to high-bush cranberries and blueberries. Most other types of berries and wild rosehips are also eaten in the fall, as are all types of insects. Spruce grouse eat spruce needles in the winter, which gives their flesh a pungent, sprucey flavor late in the season; birds taken before October are the best eating. Spruce grouse hold well for pointing dogs and are easily worked with flushers.

Sooty grouse – Southeast’s sooty grouse (formerly called blue grouse) can be hunted in subalpine, timber-line areas around Petersburg and the mainland south of Gustavus. Oddly, these big upland game birds — the state’s largest grouse, weighing up to 3 1/2 pounds — are not found on Prince of Wales Island. Alaska's blue grouse were officially renamed sooty grouse in 2010, and the closely related subspecies found outside Alaska was designated as dusky grouse. Regionally called “hooters,” sooty grouse are often stalked in the spring by hunters who follow the hooting sounds made by male grouse to attract mates.

Sharp-tailed grouse – Sharp-tailed grouse are found in Interior Alaska in the Yukon, upper Koyukuk, upper Kuskokwim, Tanana and Copper River valleys. They’re generally found in more open country – burns, barley fields, and open taiga. Burns and fields created by farming, such as those in the Delta area, are good places to find them. Sharptails feed on insects until frosts make them unavailable later in the season, and berries throughout the fall. They also feed on the buds of willow and aspen in the winter. Hunters can cover a lot of ground searching for sharp-tailed grouse; a good dog can save hunters a significant amount of time and effort.

Ptarmigan – Look for ptarmigan in alpine and tundra regions throughout the state. Like most other species, these grouse are prone to boom-and-bust years, but with a little legwork, a few birds can almost always be found. Some air-taxi services in Seward, Anchorage and Kenai offer ptarmigan hunting packages in local mountain ranges. Most drop hunters on remote alpine lakes and pick them up at the end of the day. Willow ptarmigan are the largest of Alaska’s three species, weighing up to 2 pounds. In a typical alpine valley, these birds will be found in the lower, willow-choked reaches. Like all of Alaska's grouse, they feed heavily on berries in the fall. They also eat willow leaves, and willow patches provide preferred cover. Rock ptarmigan are roughly one-third smaller than willow ptarmigan and are usually found farther up the mountainside. Look for them in places where the willows give way to shale slides, rock outcroppings and upended carpets of alpine heather. White-tailed ptarmigan are North America’s smallest grouse, weighing 10 to 12 ounces. Named for their solid-white tail fans (willow and rock ptarmigan tails are bordered by black feathers), white-tailed ptarmigan frequent the highest, most rugged ridges and saddles.

Regional Roundup: Hunting opportunities at a glance

Southcentral. The boreal forests of this highly accessible, widely settled region offer good hunting for ruffed and spruce grouse, while the more far-flung alpine tundras of the surrounding Chugach, Kenai, Talkeetna and Alaska ranges harbor all three ptarmigan species. From the regional hub of Anchorage, bird hunters can drive or fly to excellent hunting areas in all directions.

• Ptarmigan – Ptarmigan hunters can get into good hunting south of Anchorage in the Kenai Mountains by driving south on the Seward Highway. Ptarmigan are generally found above tree line, and reaching good hunting from the road usually requires challenging uphill climbs. Area trail systems can provide easier access into ptarmigan country. For easy, and often fast, entry to good ptarmigan hunting, book a floatplane charter into one of the high-country lakes of the Kenai, Alaska, or Talkeetna ranges. Charters can be found in Anchorage, Kenai, Willow, Talkeetna and Seward.

• Ruffed Grouse – Ruffed grouse, indigenous to the Interior, were introduced in the 1980s to the Matanuska and Susitna valleys north of Anchorage, and later to the south on the Kenai Peninsula. The Mat-Su birds have flourished and provide good wing-shooting for hunters who know where to look. In Southcentral, some of the better habitat is found along the Glenn Highway from Palmer north to Sheep Mountain. North and west of Wasilla and along the Parks Highway south of the Alaska Range, look for pockets of birds in second growth areas of old homesteads and burns and among willow flats on river bars.

• Spruce Grouse – These birds are indigenous to Southcentral and plentiful in both the Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su areas. Many hunters look for them pecking gravel along rural dirt roads and trails on frosty late-September mornings and evenings. Others use dogs to work the forests and berry patches.

• Waterfowl – Hunting for ducks, geese and sandhill cranes is excellent in Southcentral, but timing is key. The shooting is especially fast on opening day, September 1, for local birds. After that, hunting tends to be spotty until southbound “northerners” begin migrating through in mid-September through around the first week of October. Popular road accessible hunting area include the marshes of the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge north of Anchorage and the Portage Flats to the south. Hunters can also arrange short plane charters from Anchorage to the Susitna Flats across Cook Inlet. Chickaloon Flats is popular among Kenai Peninsula waterfowl hunters. Good hunting is also found outside of Cordova, accessible by commercial jet or state ferry, on the Copper River Flats east of town.

Southwest. Isolated from Alaska’s central road system, this far-flung region promises fantastic wing-shooting and sees relatively few hunters. Regional hubs with regular commercial jet service include Dillingham, King Salmon, Kodiak and, far out on the Alaska Peninsula, Cold Bay. Hunting lodges and air and riverboat charters are available in all three communities. Do-it-yourself hunts are possible in this big, largely roadless wilderness region, but your chances of enjoying a comfortable, safe trip and finding hot wing-shooting for local ptarmigan and waterfowl are best with a guide.

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Dogs are welcome companions for bird hunters, but it's possible to hunt many birds without the help of a dog to point or retrieve birds.

• Ptarmigan and Grouse – Spruce grouse can be found along the short road systems outside of Dillingham and King Salmon, though the region is far better known for excellent ptarmigan hunting in surrounding areas accessible by plane or boat. Do-it-yourself hunters can do well hunting ptarmigan via rental car out of Cold Bay.

• Waterfowl – Southwest Alaska offers some of the best hunting in the world for ducks, geese and brant. Pilot Point and the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge out of Cold Bay are popular for Canada geese and ducks. Sea duck hunters flock to Kodiak for guided late-season hunts on saltwater decoy spreads. Area guides and lodges are hunters’ best bets for service, lodging and learning when and where to expect the best hunting for the species you wish to hunt. Interior.

The Interior, Alaska’s heartland, is known for its variety of habitats and upland bird species. Fairbanks is the regional hub and road-accessible hunting can be found along the Parks, Alaska, Richardson and Steese highways.

• Sharp-tailed grouse – The best hunting occurs in the vicinity of Delta and west to Fairbanks. Some Delta area lodges, such as the Silver Fox Inn, cater to bird hunters in the fall, though rooms and cabins must be booked early. Some of the best hunting is found on private land, and hunters can occasionally gain permission by contacting landowners.

• Ruffed and Spruce Grouse – Miles of potential hunting opportunities for ruffed an spruce grouse are available in the Interior. Look for birds in second-growth aspen and berry cover near logging roads and trails in the Tanana Valley State Forest off the Parks Highway outside of Fairbanks, forested areas west of Delta, and the lands around Anderson.

• Ptarmigan – Some of this region’s best, most accessible ptarmigan huntng can be found along the Denali Highway, a rugged largely gravel road connecting the Richardson Highway fuel stop of Paxson to the Parks Highway community of Cantwell. Murphy Dome outside Fairbanks is also popular.

• Waterfowl – Hunting for Canada geese and sandhill cranes is outstanding in the barley fields near Delta, and local guides offer hunts complete with decoys and blinds. Duck hunting is good in the Minto Flats about 35 miles west of Fairbanks.

Arctic With more accessible areas to choose from, few hunters visit this largely remote region for small game. Hunters driving north from Fairbanks can take the scenic Dalton Highway into the Brooks Range and beyond for ptarmigan and waterfowl, however, hunting with shotguns and rifles is not permitted within five miles of the highway right of way. Air charters out of Fairbanks or Barrow are another possibility for hunters interested in first researching hunting areas and regulations in this faraway region.

Southeast In Southeast, blue grouse are added to the mix of spruce grouse and a few isolated pockets of ruffed grouse. Ptarmigan, widespread throughout the state, can be hunted up in the region’s high country. Regional hubs include Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell, Ketchikan and Sitka.

• Grouse and Ptarmigan – Local road systems, although abbreviated outside most communities, can place hunters within range of blue grouse and spruce grouse. Hiking trails leading into high country areas where ptarmigan can be hunted are available outside many communities.

• Waterfowl: Hunting for ducks, geese and cranes can be especially good on major river deltas along the mainland. The river deltas and flats outside of Haines and Gustavus provide good hunting for geese and cranes from late September through early October. The Stikine delta, reachable by boat or plane from Petersburg or Wrangell, is also good for geese, cranes and ducks. The Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge located near Juneau is popular for ducks and geese.

Alaska’s Other Small Game -Snowshoe Hares

Southcentral hare numbers were high and hunting for them had been fantastic, especially after the leaves had wilted and fallen with late September’s hard frosts. A friend and I found them one day off the Glenn Highway north of Palmer, huddled among the naked willows of the long, narrow valley that separates the Chugach Range from the Talkeetna Mountains. We drove northeast up the highway toward Eureka, watching for slash heaps, second growth and other likely warrens, stopping at places that looked good and walking off the road to hunt.

Snowshoe hares reflect the seasons with their changeable coats and already their long ears, bellies and feet had turned white as the snow-powdered mountaintops. Those white highlights, striking against the season’s earthy browns and grays, made them easy to see and from each stop we returned to the road loaded with hares.

By the end of the day, our treks through the alder ravines and forests of aspen and spruce yielded all the hares we needed, plus a brace of incidental spruce grouse and one ruffed grouse. The ruffed grouse with its delicately flavored white breast meat would be hung outside the shed back home to age for a day or two, then it would be cleaned and sautéed in butter and tarragon and served with a chilled chardonnay. The hares would be prepared any number of ways, though the standard slow-cook method with onions, garlic, and a can of mushroom soup always sounds good when you’re hungry and hiking on a cold day. Bag enough hares, and some local meat processors will make them into tasty sausage.

Snowshoe hares, which during peak cycles can be profoundly abundant, provide good sport and great eating for hunters young and old. Population spikes, loosely based on 7- to 10-year cycles, are followed by sudden, catastrophic crashes brought on by disease or starvation. When abundant hares have widely girdled the bark from area willow, birch and aspen saplings, hunters can figure a crash is imminent.

Hares can be hunted year-round in most regions of Alaska, though hunters frequently prefer late fall and winter, when bunny-hiding leaves and grasses have fallen or died down. Light shotguns, such as .410, 28 gauge or 20 gauge loaded with Nos. 6 or 7½ shot work well. Many hunters use .22 caliber rifles.

Look for good hare hunting along the Richardson Highway between Sourdough and Delta, along the Chitna-McCarthy Road, and the Parks Highway north of the Alaska Range. In Southcentral, snowshoe numbers appear strong on the Kenai Peninsula around Sterling, and north of Palmer along the Glenn Highway north to Lake Louise.

Ken Marsh is a hunter, angler and outdoorsman living in Anchorage. He is an outdoor writer and editor and works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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