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27
Feather fans HUNTING GUIDE
Plentiful ptarmigan, grouse offer Alaska upland bird hunters several options

By KEN MARSH
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: July 4, 2004)

It is true that the best bird hunters, like the finest pointing dogs, are born, not made. We are a dedicated bunch, willing to hike for miles over rough country for one good flush. Our hearts take off with every covey rise, and each shot taken is a climax that punctuates every step and thought that led to that moment.

More than anything though, bird hunters are students of the fall. As we walk among the scarlet leaves of high-bush cranberries or the yellow tundra willows, we learn about the country, the birds and the nuances of our sport. We discover that on windy days, forest grouse hold tight, while birds of the open country grow skittish and difficult to approach. We learn that a spruce grouse flushed from a tree is among the most difficult targets on wings and that a place must have berries as well as cover to produce many ruffed grouse.

Alaskans are fortunate to have a broad spectrum of upland game bird species to choose from. Our three species of ptarmigan, spruce grouse, ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and blue grouse promise wing-shooting sport for nearly every region of the state. The key to good hunting is knowing the birds' habits, their preferred cover and the native foods each species requires.

A word of caution to would-be upland gunners: Regional grouse and ptarmigan populations tend to be cyclic. Years of abundance can be followed by several seasons of scarcity. No one seems to know exactly what causes these peaks and valleys, though weather is likely one key factor. Difficult winters may result in poor overall survival, while overly dry or wet springs and summers might be partly to blame for poor hatches and chick survival.

Still, even if numbers are down in one region, chances are good that other areas will provide good hunting. In any case, it is wise to check in with regional game biologists and local lodges to get a pre-hunt idea of what to expect.

The following is an introduction to Alaska's upland game birds; remember that there's no substitute for a good bird dog. And perseverance and observation are the keys to good hunting.

RUFFED GROUSE

Ruffed grouse are indigenous to the Interior, where miles of second-growth aspen, the product of frequent burns, creates favored habitat. Birds from the Gerstle River area southeast of Delta were introduced to Southcentral in the 1980s, and good hunting is now found in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys by hunters who know where to look. In fact, the Valley project proved so successful that subsequent introductions have occurred on the Kenai Peninsula where populations are reportedly starting to build.

The ideal place to find ruffed grouse in Alaska would be a hillside with southern exposure featuring second-growth aspen, a few spruce trees and plenty of high-bush cranberries, rosehips or knickinick berries.

The sunlight available on south-facing slopes seems important to these birds, particularly in the winter when they can be found soaking up the weak rays of the season. Aspens provide both food and cover year-round; the birds feed on buds in winter and the leaves in summer. A few spruce trees mixed in with the aspen provide additional cover and roosting opportunities that protect ruffed grouse from raptors and other predators.

High-bush cranberries and knickinick berries (also called soap berries) are favorite foods in the fall. The birds also eat rosehips and insects. In the Interior you may find areas that offer plenty of sunlight, aspen and even spruce cover but few berries. Wonderful as these places appear at first glance, they generally have few grouse -- that's how important berries are to ruffed grouse in the fall.

Some great places to look for ruffed grouse in the Interior include the hills of the Tanana Valley State Forest northwest of Big Delta on the Richardson Highway, the Gerstle River area southeast of Delta Junction on the Alaska Highway and the hills of the Tanana Valley State Forest southwest of Fairbanks on the George Parks Highway. The Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks also offers pockets of good hunting.

In Southcentral, look for good habitat and pockets of birds along the Glenn Highway from Palmer north to Sheep Mountain. North and west of Wasilla and along the Parks Highway south of the Alaska Range, look for birds in second growth areas of old homesteads and burns and among willow flats on river bars.

Ruffed grouse are notorious runners but generally hold well for pointing dogs. Hunters who shoot over good pointers or close-working flushing breeds will have much more success with ruffed grouse than dogless hunters.

SPRUCE GROUSE

Sometimes called fool hens or spruce chickens, these underrated game birds are found throughout Alaska's forested regions. Mixed spruce and birch forests are prime habitat; however, you may find these ubiquitous grouse anywhere from sea-level muskegs to sub-Alpine spruce thickets.

In the fall, spruce grouse are particularly drawn to high-bush cranberries and blueberries, though if a patch of each were located side by side, look for them in the blueberries first. Most other types of berries and wild rosehips are also eaten in the fall, as are all types of insects. They eat spruce needles in the winter (which gives their flesh a strong, sprucey flavor that time of year) and depend on these trees year-round to provide cover and roosts.

Spruce grouse have long been maligned by hunters for their reluctance to flush, thus the fool-hen label. The reason for this is that these lightly hunted birds have evolved to rely on two easier and quite effective sources of preservation: their camouflage and spruce trees. These grouse tend to blend well into their habitats, and hunters without dogs frequently walk right by them. When forced to fly, short trips to the nearest spruce have for eons provided safety from most predators.

Fortunately for hunters, spruce grouse hold well for pointing dogs and are easily worked with flushers. Flushes over dogs can be surprisingly challenging, but the ultimate in sport is the thundering, if somewhat awkward tree flush. Once a bird has lit in a tree, one hunter often has to resort to shaking the tree or throwing a stick at the bird to get it to fly -- that's the awkward part -- while the other stands ready to shoot. But when the bird does flush, it will often dive to gain air speed before rocketing on a winding course through the forest. It's a tough shot and an acquired taste. But for Alaska rough-shooters, it's great sport.

Southcentral's Susitna Valley provides hundreds of square miles of excellent spruce grouse habitat. Look for them off the Parks Highway from Willow Creek north to Cantwell. The Kenai Peninsula also offers good gunning for spruce grouse; look for places off the Resurrection Trail or Mystery Creek Road and on south to Oil Well Road near Homer.

In the Interior, hunters will find plenty of grouse along the Dalton Highway from Livengood north to the Yukon River crossing and beyond. The Tanana Valley State Forest northwest of Big Delta on the Richardson Highway and the Gerstle River area southeast of Delta Junction are also good places to hunt.

Southwest Alaska also offers good hunting for spruce grouse, though the region is remote. The road to Aleknagik out of Dillingham is one local hot spot in years when bird numbers are high, but few hunters spend the money to fly there when equally good hunting can be found in more accessible parts of the state.

SHARP-TAILED GROUSE

Often associated with the northern prairies of the Lower 48 and Canada, sharptails in Alaska are holdovers of the Pleistocene when much of the state was composed of arid grasslands called steppes. These steppes extended into today's prairie states and although this ecosystem is no longer part of Alaska, sharp-tailed grouse have adapted and managed to hold on.

Alaska sharptails are found exclusively in the Interior in the Yukon, upper Koyukuk, upper Kuskokwim, Tanana and Copper River valleys. These birds thrive in relatively open country. Burns and fields created by farming, such as those in the Delta area, are good places to find them. Sharptails are fond of various ground berries and feed heavily on insects until frosts make them unavailable later in the fall. They also feed on the buds of willow and aspen in the winter.

Hunters can cover a lot of ground searching for sharptails and dogs can be a definite asset. Although a few birds can sometimes be found around Lake Louise south of Glennallen and in the region near Sourdough on the Richardson Highway, the best hunting occurs in the vicinity of Delta and west to Fairbanks. Some Delta area lodges, such as the Silver Fox Inn, cater to bird hunters in the fall, and rooms must be booked early. Some of the best hunting is found on private land, and hunters can occasionally gain permission by knocking on doors and asking landowners.

BLUE GROUSE

These grouse of Alaska's temperate coastal rain forests are the largest upland game birds in the state, with males weighing as much as 31/2 pounds. Also called hooters, for their prominent springtime mating call, blue grouse are found strictly in Southeast, ranging from Glacier Bay south. One major exception to their range is Prince of Wales Island, where these birds are mysteriously absent.

Southeast hunters often stalk blue grouse in the spring, when males "hooting" for mates can be heard from great distances. The sound is similar to someone blowing into a bottle or jug, and sometimes dozens of the birds can be heard calling at once. Springtime hooter hunters follow the calls of individual grouse and try to isolate the sounds to the tree where the bird is perched. Southeast spruce trees are often 60 feet tall or more and that, combined with the blue grouse's gift of ventriloquism makes finding them a challenge. Usually, these hunts end with a well-placed .22 bullet.

In the fall, blue grouse often frequent muskegs and alpine areas where they feed on various berries and insects. Wing-shooters this time of year can find them near timberline among dwarfed Alpine firs.

Kupreanof and Mitkof islands near Petersburg and Wrangell Island out of Wrangell offer good hunting opportunities for blue grouse. Local logging roads provide access to the best country, and cars can be rented in Wrangell and Petersburg and other Southeast communities where blue grouse are found.

PTARMIGAN

Depending upon where you hunt, wing-shooters may choose among all three North American ptarmigan species, including willow, rock and white-tailed. These birds are distinctive among other grouse species for their heavily feathered feet and for their seasonal color changes that allow them to blend into their sometimes stark winter environments. The species are separated largely by the habitats each prefers, though all are generally found in open tundra or high-country settings.

Willow ptarmigan, Alaska's state bird, are the largest of the three, weighing up to 2 pounds. In a typical alpine valley, these birds will be found in the lower, willow-choked reaches. Like all of Alaska's grouse, they feed heavily on berries in the fall, with blueberries being favored fare. They also eat willow leaves, and willow patches provide preferred cover.

Rock ptarmigan are roughly one-third smaller than willow ptarmigan and will usually be found farther up the mountainside. Look for them in places where the willows give way to shale slides, rock outcroppings and upended carpets of alpine heather.

White-tailed ptarmigan are North America's smallest grouse, weighing around 10 to 12 ounces. Named for their solid-white tail fans (willow and rock ptarmigan tails are bordered by black feathers), white-tailed ptarmigan frequent the highest, most rugged ridges and saddles.

Ptarmigan are widespread in Alaska, from the rolling tundra of the Alaska Peninsula to the high country of Southcentral and the Interior. Like most other species, these grouse are prone to boom-and-bust years, but with a little legwork, a few birds can almost always be found. The Denali Highway near Paxson has become a popular destination for ptarmigan hunters, though populations in recent years have been on a downward trend. Meanwhile, ptarmigan numbers in the Kenai and Talkeetna ranges seem to be strong. Some air-taxi services in Seward, Anchorage and Kenai offer ptarmigan hunting packages in local mountain ranges. Most drop hunters on remote alpine lakes and pick them up at the end of the day.

Southwestern Alaska offers thousands of square miles of excellent ptarmigan hunting, with areas out of Dillingham and Cold Bay being particularly productive. For more information on regional hunting opportunities, contact local air taxi operators or Division of Wildlife Conservation offices.

Ken Marsh lives and writes in Anchorage.

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