Note: The following story appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
By Dennis Musgraves
Alaska announces a “last call” for migrating salmon every season near summer’s end. Inevitably, the fish stop entering fresh water. It’s annoying for many sport fishermen, including this self-diagnosed fishaholic.
I am among a group of relentless anglers who pursue salmon until the unwelcome finale, and September normally marks my last chance to break out my rod and reel. As nature’s clock ticks down to closing time I begin thinking about additional outdoor activities to help fill the impending void.
Developing a condition which I refer to as “bird brain” during this transitional period is not uncommon. The seasonal changes and dwindling opportunities chasing wild salmon invoke a desire in me to experience adventures found in Alaska with upland bird hunting.
The thrill of flushing grouse and the challenge of shooting them in flight are compulsive and consuming. Aside from plotting dates for a final bent rod with a salmon, I simply can’t keep my thoughts away from wingshooting in the fall.
Casting and blasting
Fortunately, a window of opportunity exists between September and October, when Interior Alaska outdoorsmen can find good bird hunting and salmon fishing in the day. Unlike hunting for big game, I can accomplish a grouse hunt in a few hours, harvest a meal, and have the enjoyment of being in the outdoors with a shooting sport. Such a combo satisfies both outdoor afflictions in a simple day trip. A special “cast and blast” trip is achieved for me and a good friend, Jeff Beyer.
Small game hunting opportunities in Alaska are plentiful. Nearly every region has good populations of upland bird species, which include three species of ptarmigan and four types of grouse.
Sharp-tailed grouse are exclusively found in the central portion of the state, specifically in the interior valleys and foothills of Alaska’s Game Management Unit (GMU) 20. Sharp-tails thrive in the vicinity of Delta Junction because of an ideal supporting habitat.
The grouse are medium- to large-size birds with an almost chicken-like appearance. Spotted colors of brown and white cover their feathers. Their distinct short-pointed tail feathers allow for an easy identification in the field. Male birds display bright yellow-colored, eyebrow-like bands (called combs) above each eye.
The pointy-tailed game birds can be found in low-lying areas of muskeg, brushlands and near shrub-spruce treelines located along the Richardson Highway and Alaska Highway. Sharpies will also favorite recently burned out areas and agricultural plots. The agricultural areas located east of Delta Junction host plentiful numbers of birds, but most of the area is private property.
My approach to hunting these tasty game birds is not complex. Public hunting areas in GMU 20D can be accessed by several unimproved roads and trails that lead off from the highways. I normally trailer my ATV so I can ride farther away from the road before stalking the dirt trails, low grass-brush line or wood line, trying to flush or spot birds perched directly atop spruce trees.
The fertile grouse hunting grounds are in close proximity to Delta Clearwater River. A short drive of less than 15 miles from either highway system allows easy access to the state recreational site and boat launch. The distance is perfect for a combo hunting and fishing trip during the short fall season.
Coho final run
Delta Clearwater River happens to host the largest congregation of returning coho, or silver, salmon from the Yukon River drainage. Coho begin entering the DCW in September, which coincides with the sharp-tails presence in the area brushlands. The fish have traveled over 1,000 miles from the ocean up the mighty Yukon River and through the silt-laden Tanana River before reaching the final tributary. The salmon are no longer mint bright silver. Their sides are now colored a vibrant brick red and male fish display large pronounced black kypes.
Although these salmon do not have the typical appearance of saltwater-caught table fare, fish are often harvested by locals. Since the flesh is firm and acceptable for consumption, it’s not uncommon to see a limit on a stringer near the campground. Current fishing regulations allow anglers to retain three coho per day from Delta Clearwater.
Coho fishing on this river system is normally a catch-and-release event for me (although I have harvested fish in the past for a meal on the grill or so I can put a wood smoker to them). Some anglers may thumb their nose at the outward appearance; however, I am no salmon snob. I find the Clearwater coho taste just fine and actually hold a certain majestic look in their spawning phase coloration.
The blushed salmon can be caught using a 6-7 weight fly rod by drifting streamers and leech patterns in the current close to the bottom. The fishery provides an excellent amount of action for anglers at varying skill levels. Having a boat will enable anglers to find deep holes that hold large groups of salmon. But access by boat is not required in order to achieve success; casting from the riverbank or wading in the current near the state campground will also produce hookups with passing fish.
Combining two loves
The idea of a “blast and cast” was co-conspired between Jeff and me a couple years ago. We found ourselves in a dilemma over planning a quick one-day outing, which had to be relatively close to our homes in the Tanana Valley. Deliberations seemed to be in a deadlock with Jeff wanting to get his jet boat wet for coho and my ideas leaning towards feeling the recoil of a shotgun on a sharp-tail shoot. Our discussion was inclusive, and did not take long for an obvious question to arise. “Why not do both?” we concluded. Merging both events would be doubling the fun. So it was decided to make a go for feathers and fish in one day.
We planned on dividing the day equally to allow appropriate time for each activity. Bird hunting would be first, in the early morning when sharp-tails seem to be most active. Setting a four-hour cutoff time for bird hunting ensured good time management and allowed sufficient amount of remaining sunlight in the day to make the switch for fly fishing coho during the late afternoon.
I prefer to carry a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, using 2¾-inch shells in a number 6 shot count. Choosing a firearm for grouse hunting varies between hunters and is a personal choice.
Most use lighter shotguns in 20 or 28 gauges. Some grouse hunters choose to target the grouse with a .22-caliber rifle since it helps prevent numerous pellets in the meat and allows for increased precision while making a distant shot.
Locating game birds is not difficult if they are present. Most of the time you can find them perched like a Christmas tree ornament on the top of spruce trees, or in a small covey just shy of a tall grass line along a dirt trail. Unlike their close relatives, docile spruce grouse, the birds spook quickly and flush easily when within range of a good shot.
Last year Jeff and I were able to kick up several large coveys of birds, harvesting a total of five between us in fewer than three hours of hunting.
Onto the salmon
The intermission between acts is short. Moving down the road and dropping a boat into the Clearwater takes only minutes. The fishing is neither technical nor difficult. Catching coho has an almost consistent predictable conclusion in September. Locating groups of bold red-colored salmon swimming in the clear-running river can be done with little effort. It’s not the challenge of finding and catching the fish that draws me; it’s the ability to catch oodles of fish.
Fly fishermen will find fish very responsive, almost automatic with any type of bright-colored streamer. I prefer drifting a purple Egg-sucking Leech close to the river bottom. Fishermen casting hardware will find large spinners also work very well using a slow-and-low retrieve method. In addition, resident Arctic grayling are among the salmon and found in good numbers.
During peak timing of the salmon run, catching and releasing a dozen fish in one hour is representative for most anglers.
Fishing typically ends because of dropping daytime temperatures and diminishing light. It’s cold enough on some days is to lock up fishing reels and smother line guides with ice. Moisture dripping off the fly line or fishing line from repeated casting accumulates quickly and hardens like concrete. The frustrating frozen water in the line guides prevents casting and requires constant cleaning to keep the spaces open to allow fishing line to pass through.
But at the end of the day, the pesky cold is easily overlooked in the entire scheme of a completed blast-and-cast outing. The productive salmon waters and generous numbers of grouse found in this game management unit keep me coming back for the combo event every season.
The experience leaves me satisfied yet exhausted at the end of a day, providing a short-term escape and temporary relief to my outdoor addiction urges. Even better is the opportunity for friends to share time in the field and on an open river once more before the harsh winter arrives.
I also really appreciate tasty bacon-wrapped sharp-tail grouse breast fresh off the grill. ASJ
Editor’s note: Author Dennis Musgraves sportfishes all over Alaska 100-plus days of the year and is a member of the “Alaskan Salmon Slayers.” Read more about them at alaskansalmonslayers.com.