The following appears in the January issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
The short day made it tough, especially in the dim, almost white light that peered through the Arctic sky. Three hours of daylight isn’t much to work with, but we finally had enough of the white stuff to break out the snowmachines for a short ride across the tundra.
“What do you think we’ll see?’ I asked Lew Pagel, as we packed our sleds and checked our gear.
“Probably nothing,” he said, “but let’s take a shotgun and a .22 just in case.”
Winter arrives early here in Northwest Alaska, and with it goes the dwindling light. Cold temperatures are usually the norm, and in most cases we literally get a “ton” of snow across the region. When the ocean freezes, even though the trail markers haven’t been placed yet, quick trips across Kotzebue Sound are manageable on at least 2 feet of ice.
This winter has been great so far, especially considering the last two, when rain pounded the landscape in November and December, making travel dangerous. Riding a sno-go became a very uncomfortable if not impossible experience.
But this season we’ve been lucky. Below-zero weather combined with a couple of extensive blizzards have made things perfect for getting out for that first run. But getting out is about all you can do this time of year. There is very little hunting in terms of big game and most trips out of town consist of just enjoying Alaska’s winter wonderland. You can do a little ice fishing if you like, even though catching a sheefish is iffy at best now; plus, fishing in the dark isn’t meant for everybody.
Or you can do what has become one of the more popular hunting adventures: chasing ptarmigan.
PTARMIGAN ARE NOT only a lot of fun, but for some of us are the pinnacle of the Alaskan experience. Much like pheasant, quail and chukar for dedicated wingshooters in the Lower 48, ptarmigan are held in the same high regard by both Alaskans and non-Alaskans alike.
These birds are beautiful in their appearance and can be as formidable a target as any big game. Whether you search for them in the fall or, like us in the Arctic, the winter months, they provide not only a challenge but are one of the best eating birds in these parts.
We are very fortunate in Alaska to have such an abundant and wide variety of small game species to hunt. Besides three types of ptarmigan – the willow, rock and whitetail species – there are four species of grouse and two of hare to pursue. But in this part of the world, the willow ptarmigan is king.
The birds get their name from exactly that – the willow tree or bush. They like to hang out in sparsely timbered or treeless areas, favoring willow-lined waterways and river drainages in the summer and fall.
Arctic areas like this are common. They not only provide cover but also work as nesting sites, allowing birds to burrow in and lay their eggs in the tangled willows. The willows also serve as a primary food source – their leaves and small berries are consumed throughout the year. If you’re looking for ptarmigan, these areas are your best bet!
When winter arrives, the willow ptarmigan – much like the snowshoe hare – changes from its brown chestnut color to a wintry white, which is commonly presented as camouflage to the untrained eye.
This usually starts as early as late August, with the change complete by October. These white ghosts can still be found close to shrubby slopes and valleys during the winter, but they will also venture out onto the tundra during the coldest days. For a bird hunter, this is prime time to fill your bag limit.
Willow ptarmigan have the widest range in Alaska of any upland game bird, although rock ptarmigan are a close second. The only big areas without willow ptarmigan are in the broad, forested valleys of the Interior (even there you can sometimes find willow ptarmigan in winter), the thick woods of Southeast Alaska and the Aleutians west of Unimak Island. Willow ptarmigan also live in Canada, Scotland, Scandinavia and Russia.
The willow is also the state bird of Alaska, making it one of the most popular and most numerous. Hunting these great birds is open to both residents and nonresidents alike, and there’s a very generous season.
Some units close after specific dates, while others are open all year. Bag limits are pretty liberal but most have a possession limit. Be sure to check regulations at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website (adfg.alaska.gov).
Hunting methods vary, as does the weapon of choice. Most popular is the shotgun – either 20- or 12-gauge – using size 4- to 6-shot loads. Both work fine, but you’ll find yourself having to get somewhat close to get a decent shot. This can be a tough challenge in the deep snow along willow thickets, but it makes for adventure against such a fast bird.
The .22 is also a popular choice and is one of my favorites, especially if topped with a good scope that has been sighted in to shoot tacks. I personally use the popular Ruger 10-22 with a fixed 4-power Leupold scope. The small rifle is a lot of fun and makes for easy quick shots in the waist-deep snow. Getting a good rest and stopping a bird in its tracks is not only a great satisfaction, but proper shot placement wastes very little meat.
Another option is to use archery equipment. Arrows tipped with blunts work great and provide a lot of excitement and stealth. A heavy bow is not needed. Lightweight bows, whether traditional or compound, can be used with reasonable accuracy on the unsuspecting birds. You’ll probably lose some arrows and miss more times than you hit, but it’s all great fun.
IT WAS A a good day for Lew and I. We had gone out with no expectations except to hopefully find a few ptarmigan, if we were lucky, and check out the snow and trail conditions. The day had been short, and as the sun disappeared into the frozen Bering and Chukchi Seas, the air became clearly colder.
Beaver hats and mittens quickly replaced shooting gloves and baseball caps, and our guns were cleared of ammo for the short ride home. It had been a great day, though. The cold willow flats and creek drainages behind town had proven productive. With ptarmigan seemingly around every corner, we filled our packs to the rim.
As I raced back all I could think about was firing up the grill! ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles hunting big game throughout North America and Africa, plus his exploits in the Alaskan Arctic. Paul is a regular contributor for Alaska Sporting Journal. For more adventures check him out on Facebook and Instagram.