Monday, December 28, 2015

Small Game...Overlooked Bounty

         It is certainly true that when it comes to Alaska, most people think of big game hunting. We have some of the most interesting big game species in the United States. The Alaska/Yukon moose and plains bison are among the largest game animals hunted in this hemisphere, we have three species of bears, and we have Sitka deer and caribou not to mention sheep and mountain goat. As good as our big game seasons are, our small game seasons are even better. Small game is numerous enough that a small game hunter can, literally, hunt 365 days a year. Where moose season might only be a couple of weeks to a month long- hares and squirrels can be hunted year round and in most places grouse and ptarmigan can be hunted from August through the end of March. Even our waterfowl season lasts until December.

            I haven’t written much about small game hunting in the past, but upon reflection that really isn’t fair. I hunt small game more than I do large game and even on big game hunts I will take small game as targets of opportunity. So what I’ve decided to do is to produce something of a small game primer for the Greatland. I’m actually only a couple species away from my “Small Critter Alaska Slam”. That is a term I just made up on the spot…but you get the idea. Method of take here isn’t regulated in most places with the exception of waterfowl. Upland game can be hunted with shotguns, rifles, air guns, archery and in many cases, trapped. There are certain zones limited to shotguns or archery due to safety concerns, but they are really fairly limited when compared to the rest of the state.

            Alaska Department of Fish and Game have three classes of “Not Big Game”.  They are Fur Animals, allowed to be taken on a small game license by residents and include squirrels, beaver, coyote, fox and lynx...think of them as animals not generally eaten (although beaver isn't bad and lynx is delicious). Small Game, which I discuss below in detail and include grouse, ptarmigan and hare and are allowed to be taken by both residents and non-residents alike. The last classes are Unclassified Game and Deleterious Exotic wildlife and include such oddities as porcupine, cormorant, as well as feral domestic animals. Waterfowl are managed under separate regulations. Below are what is generally considered "Upland Game".

            I am something of a grouse junkie and we have four species here. I can hunt three in my immediate area and I do so, often, with relish.

            Spruce Grouse are a large grouse that dwells in mature boreal spruce forests. They are often called “stupid chickens” or “fool’s hens” given their propensity to simply hang tight in cover and rely on their (very good) camouflage to protect them from predators. Most spruce grouse flush only when approached very closely and sound like a helicopter taking off. When you’re sneaking through a thicket, having one explode out of cover a few feet away is often a heart stopping experience. That said, I’ve taken spruce grouse with a shotgun, .22 rifles, and a bow of all things. They are not particularly good eating, so I largely ignore them these days. Some people love the flavor, but they tend to be meaty, dark and have a flavor like spruce tips, which is their preferred winter food source. My favorite way to hunt them is “spot and stalk” with a .22 rifle, they flush so close and tend to be in such thick spruce forest canopy that shooting on the wing is generally unproductive.

            Sharp-Tailed Grouse are another large grouse that tends to inhabit grassland and broken prairie habitat. I live near some of the best sharp-tail country in the state and I love hunting these birds. They are great fun to hunt with a shotgun in the early season- much like you would hunt pheasant in the lower-48. After the season wears on, the birds get nervous and tend to simply run away or flush from well outside of shotgun range. In the later season or in pressured areas, hunting with a .22 is more productive. I tend to limit myself to the shotgun on these birds lately and simply love long hikes in sharp-tail country with my Benelli and my dog. Flavor on these tends to be very good and in tacos reminds me of dark meat pork. These are the birds that made me a bird hunter.

            Ruffed Grouse are slightly smaller that Spruce or Sharp-tails and inhabit stands of re-growth poplars and aspen trees. They are easily my favorite grouse to eat, being much lighter in flavor and color than other grouse species. They are a suitable substitute for white meat chicken in most dishes and in many ways, are what all chicken should be. Flavor is very similar to free range chicken, not the Styrofoam protein substitute that’s more widely available at the grocery.  They are, in every sense of the term, the “chicken of the woods”. I’ve taken ruffed grouse with shotguns, .22s, head shot them with a center-fire, and my favorite method is currently the air rifle. Much like spruce grouse, their habitat doesn’t favor wing-shooting. I love the air rifle since approaching ruffed grouse isn’t terribly difficult and the single pellet doesn’t damage meat. Shooting delicate birds with a shotgun tends to destroy too much of the delicious meat of these birds for my taste. These grouse (like most game birds) have highly cyclical populations. I love it when they are up cycle and eat them at every opportunity. On a low cycle, I might go two or three years without seeing more than a handful.

            Sooty Grouse are one of the species I’ve not yet taken. These inhabit Southeast Alaska on the Coastal mountain ranges and are similar to the Blue Grouse found in the Rocky Mountains. These birds live in coastal, old growth rain forest. The typical hunting method is “hear and stalk” and was featured on a recent episode of Steven Rinella’s  “Meateater”. The general idea is to hear the male mating call that gives the species its nickname, the hooter. Once located, you then stalk to the large tree its living in and you glass the bird in the branches. Sniping them with a scoped .22 is the “go-to” method. These are most likely the most specialized and difficult of all the grouse species to hunt due to the difficult terrain and peculiar nature of the birds. It sounds easy on paper, but is reportedly far more difficult in practice.


            Alaska has all three species of ptarmigan (Lagopus) scattered throughout the state and I’ve taken all three. A member of the grouse family, they inhabit open mountain country and are wonderful and charismatic birds that make a roosting cry that sounds like “O-O-O...Ohio”. All three species are seasonally camouflaged in white plumage in winter and mottled brown in summer.

            Willow Ptarmigan are easily the most plentiful and widely distributed throughout the state and inhabit the willow flats found along glacial streams and rivers low lying tundra. In fall they are found in small family groups but in winter can flock up in the hundreds. I’ve taken these with both .22s and shotguns. Wing shooting can be very effective when approached like pheasant; a covey can often be jumped several times in succession. The meat is dark purple and they have a strong, liverish quality that some people don’t like. It is unlike other game birds and is complex in flavor. Ptarmigan is featured heavily in Icelandic and some Scottish cooking and is on the menu of Arctic dwellers everywhere.

            Rock Ptarmigan are very similar in appearance to Willow Ptarmigan. In fact, many people can’t tell the difference except by the terrain they inhabit. From a practical perspective, the terrain difference in enough to cause a slightly different hunting tactic. Rock Ptarmigan inhabit higher country, much more open, with lower vegetation growth and tend to be harder to approach within shotgun range. Wing shooting "rocks" can be challenging and I love to pursue them on Nordic skis in the winter. I will also typically have a .22 in camp for shooting rocks in caribou camp for a source of camp meat. In the pot, they are indistinguishable from willow or white-tailed ptarmigan.

            White-tailed Ptarmigan are smaller in body and less prolific than Rocks or Willows. The species is also the sole year-round alpine dwelling bird in all of N. America. White-tails are found exclusively in the alpine zone and coveys tend to be smaller and less densely populated than other ptarmigan species. They aren’t as widely distributed as well. These are readily indentified by their all-white tails (present year round) unlike Willows and Rocks which have a black band on the tail. I have only taken White-tails with a .22 as a target of opportunity while pursuing sheep and early season caribou high in the Alaska Range, but wing shooting could be possible for the specialist, in a fashion similar to chukars. High climbs in rocky, exposed country are the norm for these birds.

            Alaska contains two species of hare, the snowshoe and the Alaska hare. I have only pursued snowshoes to date.

            Snowshoe hares are a small to medium hare species widely distributed throughout Alaska, Canada and the Rocky Mountains. They are seasonally camouflaged, all white in winter and a typical brown in summer. Average weights are 3-4 pounds. Hare populations are highly cyclical and on up years can be unbelievably prolific. I’ve taken hares with .22s and shotguns in both summer and winter. They can be quite good eating in given preparations but prior to hunting hares the reader is encouraged to research tularemia which is present in Alaska populations and can be harmful to humans. My preference is to hunt them in winter in conjunction with sharp-tails. A piece of Alaska lore is to only hunt hares in months with an "R" (presumably for Rabbit) to protect against tularemia risks. While it precludes hunting hares in the warmest months of summer when infection rates are highest, I use safeguards when butchering hares year round to be on the safe side. Hares are also commonly taken in snares in winter.

            Alaska hares are much larger than snowshoe hares and only found on the Western coast of Alaska and the Alaska Peninsula. Typical weights are around 11 pounds but individuals up to 15 pounds have been recorded. It is a relative of the Canadian Arctic Hare and among the largest living lagomorphs world wide. They are typically hunted with small bore center-fire rifles that the indigenous inhabitants of the area favor as well as caught in nets during drives or snared. I have spent very little time hunting on the Western coast and Peninsula. Most of my time there has been in pursuit of work duties rather than hunting. Alaska Hares are impressive and I hope to eventually get one. They are reportedly much better flavored than snowshoe hares.

            So there you have it- a brief primer on all the small game species in the state. For the non-resident it is quite the bargain for the meager cost of a non-resident small game license and enough to interest even the specialist small game enthusiast. I must admit that I love chasing the small game species enough to do so frequently. While big game gets the lion's shares of the press and attention, it is really a shame that the small game species aren't more appreciated.

1 comment:

Should Fish More said...

Nice post. I remember from my years up there that the spruce hens were damn easy to get, I once got within a few feet of one low in a tree and the muzzle blast from a .338 took it's head off without the bullet touching.
Hope your winter is going well up there, here in Montana it's finally started snowing with a vengeance.