HUNTING FOR HARE, BIRDS A GREAT FAMILY OPTION By Paul
D. Atkins As we pushed our way through the waist-deep snow, the big snowshoe hare just sat there and waited. His “white” camouflage blended perfectly with the snow, but not quite good enough to keep my 8-year-old son, Eli, and I from pushing forward. With each step I figured he would bolt; he didn’t so we decided to keep moving towards him. I slowly raised the BowTech bow and settled the pin.
In most states, hunting small game usually takes a back seat to hunting big game, especially in Alaska. With moose, caribou and sheep practically around every corner, most people forget that the state also harbors some of the finest small game pursuits in the country.
As hunters we all live for the fall, and rightly so. Bears, sheep and goats are constantly on our minds, and we absolutely cannot wait until the season opens. Like most people who chase animals either with a bow, rifle or shotgun, it becomes a total obsession that drives us not only throughout the year, but also throughout our lives. Some of that year can feel empty though, but there are solutions.
ABUNDANT GAME In the unforgiving Arctic, winter can be a long time going. It starts pretty much after the seasons for big game are over and extends all the way through late April when the bears have decided enough is enough and exit their dens. During this time, usually starting in March, life for a hunter can really start to heat up, literally. Bright, sunny days with 14 hours of daylight combined with good snow, frozen ground and a good cabin or tent to hang out in can be as grand as any moose camp, especially if a group is involved.
The author and son Eli, 8, revel in the harvest of small game in Alaska. Taking your kids on a small game hunt is an ideal way to introduce them to not only the outdoors, but also conversation, shooting and so many aspects of the hunting life. (PAUL D. ATKINS)
It’s during this time that small game in Alaska run abundant: everything from ptarmigan to the big snowshoe hare and a list of predators a mile long that roam the frozen tundra. The opportunities are endless, and being able to get out and chase these critters with your family is priceless.
Ptarmigan and Arctic hare, for example, are formidable targets with a bow. Their white fur and plumage are perfect camouflage against what Mother Nature has left us, and getting to them can be a very tough challenge. For the most part you will miss more than you will hit, but it provides some of the greatest times a family outing can provide.
FAMILY AFFAIR Last spring, my family and I loaded up our snow machines and went north, crossing 13 miles of frozen ocean. The trail was good, and within the hour we pulled into camp along a winding creek that was pretty much frozen solid. The bright sunshine was a blessing and the break from windy conditions provided by the tall spruce made things quite comfortable.
Crossing the frozen Arctic Ocean via snow machine is safe given the sea is frozen solid with anywhere from 6 to 8 feet of ice. (PAUL D. ATKINS)
After unloading our gear, guns, bows, arrows, and packs, we set up our tent. There’s always something special about taking your kids outdoors; I can think of nothing better than a day spent hunting small game. I wish all parents would do more of this.
After a quick warming up in our Arctic Oven and downing some hot chocolate, we began our hunt along the narrow creek, carefully eyeing the banks and adjacent willow flats for any kind of movement.
It was great fun. The first rabbit we saw was a bust, but we didn’t have to go far when suddenly something white flashed in the willows. We trudged through the alder in snow that was up to my waist and Eli’s shoulders and we quickly climbed the bank. I told Eli to try and walk on top of the willows and keep above of the snow; it worked somewhat, but the snowshoes I left at home would have been a blessing.
We could see the big rabbit in front of us when it finally came to a stop. We weren’t in range and had to get closer.
I figured like the first rabbit, he would break and run but did not. It has been my experience that snowshoe hares will actually stop and hope that the snow will camouflage them and blind their enemies to their presence.
A rabbit’s den in winter; snowshoe hare tend to run in cycles in the Arctic. For a couple of years they will be abundant, then taper off for several years. Years when numbers are high hunters will see a huge increase in predators, such as lynx, fox and wolverine, which can also be hunted. (PAUL D. ATKINS)
This rabbit, however, made the mistake of stopping on a small snow pile. With Eli right on my heels, I got the bow up and drew, placing my 20-yard pin on his head. It was awesome; we had our first rabbit and I don’t know who was more excited – Eli or me.
After gathering our kill we walked on down the creek, only to take another big rabbit not too far from where we took the first one. It was a great time, with not only hunting but also being able to identify the many tracks that lined the creek. Everything from lynx to moose to wolf were there, and the ability to share those with my son was priceless. I have hunted all over the world, taking hundreds of big game animals, but this was by far the best experience of my life.
We continued down the frozen creek, only to spot a third rabbit in the willows. Like most of my rabbit hunts I only wanted to take three or four, enough for a good meal, and with any luck this would be our third. (Rabbit, if cooked right, is some of the finest meat available to man, rivaling venison in my opinion.)
The third rabbit ran into a hole beneath some overgrown willows. I pointed him out to Eli and we slowly began our stalk. Eli was excited when I handed him the .22 and told him that this one was his. Thinking he was safe the rabbit stayed in place only to have Eli bear down on him and squeeze the trigger. The rabbit didn’t move. I was so proud of my son, and even more when he trudged on ahead to claim his trophy. He reached in, grabbed the big snowshoe by his hind legs and exclaimed this was the greatest day of his life. I quietly said it was mine too.
In addition to rabbits, ptarmigan provide good winter hunting for Alaskans. (PAUL D. ATKINS)
YEAR-ROUND FUN As far as small game goes, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game list three species of small game in the regulation manual: grouse (spruce, sooty, ruffed and sharp-tail), rabbits (snowshoe and Arctic hare) and ptarmigan (willow, rock and white-tail). All can be found in different parts of the state and can be hunted at different times throughout the year, depending on the unit you choose to hunt. Some units are closed to certain species; others are open all year. Bag limits are pretty liberal, but most have a possession limit. Check the ADFG website (adfg.alaska.gov) for more information.
Personally, I like to hunt in winter. The snow pack in and around willow thickets are a prime location for the bird hunter while the alder-choked riverbanks provide excellent cover for the big snowshoe hare. Hunting small game this season can be very challenging. All are camouflaged in their winter apparel and can be tough to locate, but with a little practice you will quickly pick up on an eye here or an eye there, or a slight shifting in the snow.
Shotgunning for ptarmigan is also a very popular sport in the Arctic. Like snowshoe hare, they can be found about anywhere, and being able to pick out the white bird is tough, but provides some great excitement. I use a 12-gauge shotgun with No. 4 steel shot. Getting in close and flushing the covey is a rush and you usually get your limit pretty quickly.
For small game, the author replaces broadheads with rubber blunts or judo points. (PAUL D. ATKINS)
If you plan to bowhunt any of the small-game species, there are many options, from traditional archery to compounds and they will all work as long as you don’t mind losing a few arrows. Less heavy bows work best, as it doesn’t take much knockdown power to kill a rabbit or a ptarmigan. I set my bow as low as possible and use arrows tipped with rubber blunts; they fly great and prove to be a killing combination.
Chasing Alaska’s small game can be big fun, no matter your weapon of choice. All are great eating and don’t require much in terms of expense. Whether you pursue ptarmigan, grouse or the big snowshoe hare, they all provide that much needed break after a cold, dark winter and will fill the freezer with something besides moose and caribou. ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and a contributing writer for Alaska Sporting Journal. He has written hundreds of articles on hunting big game throughout North America and Africa. Paul lives in Kotzebue, Alaska.