Alaska grouse - the good, the bad, and the ugly...

To quote a famous opening line, “it’s been the best of times, it’s been the worst of times…”  Well, OK, not the worst of times since I am on a great adventure, but you’ll see what I mean.

In the week since I sat down to compile my last post, I experienced an epic day of fly-out ptarmigan hunting, and also endured a painful (to me and to Gypsy) drive and fruitless hunting along the very inappropriately named Denali “Highway” in search of DIY ptarmigan.  A few details. 

First the good. On September 1, I experienced a solo fly-out ptarmigan hunt which I booked through Bob Ledda at All Alaska Outdoors.  Yep, same outfit that took the family on our Ultimate Alaska Adventure.  Jay was once again the pilot and guide.   The weather cooperated wonderfully – clear skies, high around 60, and enough breeze to give the dogs something to work with and keep the bugs at bay.  We loaded gear and dogs into Bob’s Super Cub and flew across the Cook Inlet and set down on a lake in the foothills of the Alaska Range.  We could see Denali just off the starboard bow for pretty much the entire flight, and most of the time we were hunting as well.  A grander backdrop for bird hunting you couldn’t ask for!

It was really a great hunt.  We found more than enough birds to collect a limit of ten, and for the most part, they held well.  Early in the day we seemed to find birds in the lower brush, but as the day wore on, most seemed to move into the taller vegetation of the willow thickets which made it tough to get them up and/or to be in the right place when they did flush.  Perhaps because he’d done this before, Dory found far more birds than Timber, and pointed more of those he found.  And in an odd twist of roles, Timber wound up doing most of the retrieving while Dory did most of the bird finding.  To the point that he actually refused to let go of a bird that he’d brought to hand.  A bit of a surprise coming from a dog that was no better than 50/50 on retrieves until this summer.  It was gratifying to see the trained retrieving program we endured this summer transfer so well to the field.

After roughly 4 hours of walking the hills, I had my limit and the dogs were pretty beat.  Given the warm conditions, tough cover, and how early in the season we are, this was pretty tough duty for them. All told, between the scenery, the flight in the cub, and the number of bird contacts, it was an awesome experience.  It doesn’t hurt at all that the birds themselves, dressed as they are in their contrasting rust and white plumage, are beautiful and exotic.  Not to mention excellent table fare.

Me with a limit of birds in front of the Super Cub.  The cover in the background shows some of the easiest walking you could ask for in ptarmigan hunting.

Me with a limit of birds in front of the Super Cub. The cover in the background shows some of the easiest walking you could ask for in ptarmigan hunting.

Abstract art: a limit of fall ptarmigan in the field.

Abstract art: a limit of fall ptarmigan in the field.

Between that hunt and my ill-fated excursion across the Denali Hwy, I hunted spruce grouse a couple of times, one of which was a really great morning with Dory finding and pointing lots of birds while Timber recovered from an injury.  But on to the DIY ptarmigan trip.  Let me first explain (in my defense) that this was a hastily contrived plan in response to learning that the area I had been planning to hunt next in central BC was on fire and the air was reportedly extremely smokey. A quick review of the Upland Journal forum reminded me of what I’d read some years ago – the best bet for DIY ptarmigan is reportedly to drive the Denali Highway between Cantwell and Paxson and hunt pretty much anywhere it “looks grousey.” Sounded easy enough. 

But here’s the thing.  During the moose/caribou season which runs from Sept 1 – 20, the road and surrounding hills are pretty well covered up in camo-clad big game hunters on 4 wheelers.  And forget finding a place to park a rig and trailer.  The big game crowd has staked out every flat piece of ground including the road shoulders and pullouts.  Just about every time I’d start to eye a piece of ground with the thought of hunting it, I’d come around a corner and find a camper city set up.  Mind you I did get out at several places over the course of the 2 days it took to drive the 135 miles of “highway”, but I didn’t move a single bird.  And the rain was steady…

Hunt’s end tailgating - a hen and cock spruce grouse and a Denali Brewing Chuli Stout to cap the day.

Hunt’s end tailgating - a hen and cock spruce grouse and a Denali Brewing Chuli Stout to cap the day.

But hey.  Ever the optimist, I decided I’d just move on to Delta Junction and hunt grouse there.  After all, my quick and dirty research also mentioned that anywhere within 100 miles of Delta Junction is great hunting for ruffed, spruce, and sharp tail grouse.  I’m all in!  So, with a little first-hand intelligence in hand, I set up camp a bit south of Delta Junction (in the rain) and next morning I get up early and head down the dirt road near my camp.  And run into a family group of ruffed grouse almost immediately.  This is more like it!  Now without dwelling on exactly how I came up empty on that encounter, let’s move on to the fact that it was all down hill from there.  Have I yet mentioned the moose hunters? 

After a good deal of scouting without finding much ground that one could expect to reasonably hunt on foot as opposed to from a vehicle, I stopped by the AK G&F office in Delta Junction.  A very helpful woman there laid out a map of the area and, like a doctor delivering bad news, proceeded to inform me that a) grouse numbers were down this year and b) so far as she’d heard, no one was seeing many birds. Then she piled it on.   She mentioned that the best hunting for ruffed and spruce grouse in the area was on the military reservation which she pointed out on the map.  “Great,” I said.  “It would be,” said she,  “except the whole place is closed to hunting this week due to maneuvers.”  Hmmm. “The next best place is probably this Management Area,” pointing at the map again.  “Except that it is moose season and today’s Friday so they’ll be coming out it force for the weekend.”  Not looking good for the home team.  But just to give me a final twist of hope, she added “But the south half of the Management Area is only open for scheduled youth hunts.  But the next starts today and runs through the weekend.  There will be a lot fewer hunters out in that area…  On the other hand, they will all be teenagers with loaded rifles…”  

Keith Marcott