An Overlooked Bounty

Alaska’s small game hunting varieties

It is certainly true that when it comes to hunting in Alaska, most people think of big game. We have some of the most interesting and sought after big game species in the United States. The Alaska/Yukon moose and plains bison are among the largest game animals hunted in this hemisphere. We have three species of bears, Sitka black-tailed deer, and caribou. Not to mention Dall sheep and mountain goat, which draw people from around the world. As good as our big game seasons are, our small game seasons might be even better. Small game populations are numerous enough that a small game hunter can, quite literally, hunt something 365 days a year.

I haven’t written much about small game hunting in the past, and upon reflection that really isn’t fair. I hunt small game more than I do large game and even on big game hunts I will take small game as targets of opportunity. So what I’ve decided to do is to produce something of a small game primer for the Greatland.

Method of take here isn’t regulated in most places with the exception of waterfowl. Upland game can be hunted with shotguns, rifles, air guns, and archery tackle. If you’re a shotgunning purist, you’re welcome to it but the law does not mandate it. There are certain zones limited to shotguns, air rifles or archery due to safety concerns, but they are fairly limited areas.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game has three classes of “Not Big Game.” They are “fur animals,” allowed to be taken on a small game license by residents, and include squirrels, beaver, coyote, fox, and lynx … think of them as animals not generally eaten (although beaver isn’t bad and lynx is positively delicious). The second class is “small game,” which I discuss below in detail. The last class is “unclassified game and deleterious exotic” wildlife and includes such oddities as porcupine, cormorant, as well as feral domestic animals. Below is what is generally considered “upland game.”

Grouse

I am something of a grouse junkie and we have four species here. I can hunt three in my immediate area and I do so as often as I can.

Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse
Credit: NPS / Bryan Petrtylflickr.com/photos/wrst/

Spruce Grouse are a large grouse that dwells in mature boreal spruce forests. They are often called “stupid chickens” given their propensity to simply hang tight in cover and rely on their camouflage to protect them. Most spruce grouse flush only when approached very closely and sound like a helicopter taking off. Having one explode out of cover a few feet away is often a heart stopping experience. I’ve taken spruce grouse with a shotgun, .22 rifles, and a recurve bow of all things. They are not particularly good eating after their diet turns to spruce tips so I largely ignore them once the berries vanish. My favorite way to hunt them is with a .22 rifle, they flush so close and tend to be in such thick spruce forest canopy that shooting on the wing is generally unproductive.

Sharp Tailed Grouse

Sharp-Tailed Grouse
Credit: Alan Schmierer | flickr.com/photos/sloalan/

Sharp-Tailed Grouse are another large grouse that tends to inhabit grassland and broken prairie habitat. I live near some of the best sharp-tail country in the state and I love hunting these birds. They are great fun to hunt with a shotgun in the early season—very much like you would hunt pheasant in the lower-48. In the later season hunting with a .22 is more productive. I tend to limit myself to the shotgun on these birds lately and simply love long hikes in sharp-tail country with my dog. Flavor on these tends to be very good and in tacos reminds me of pork. These are the birds that made me a bird hunter.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse
Credit: David A. Mitchell | flickr.com/photos/firstmac/

Ruffed Grouse are slightly smaller than spruce or sharp-tails and inhabit stands of re-growth poplars and aspen trees. They are easily my favorite grouse to eat, being much lighter in flavor and color than other grouse species. Flavor is very similar to free range chicken, not the Styrofoam protein substitute that’s more widely available at the grocery. I’ve taken ruffed grouse with virtually everything and my favorite method currently is the air rifle. Much like spruce grouse, their habitat doesn’t favor novice wing-shooting. These grouse, like most game birds, have highly cyclical populations. On a low cycle, I might go two or three years without seeing more than a handful per season.

Sooty Grouse

Sooty Grouse
Credit: Malcom Slaney | flickr.com/photos/malcolmslaney

Sooty Grouse are one of the species I’ve not yet taken. These inhabit Southeast Alaska on the coastal mountain ranges and are similar to the dusky grouse found in the Rocky Mountains. These birds live in coastal, old growth rainforest. The typical hunting method is “hear and stalk.” The general idea is to hear the male mating call that gives the species its nickname, the “hooter.” Once located, you then stalk to the large tree it’s living in and you glass the bird in the branches with binoculars. Sniping them with a scoped .22 is the common method once spotted. These are likely the most specialized and difficult of the Alaskan grouse species to hunt due to the difficult terrain and peculiar nature of the birds.

Ptarmigan

Alaska has all three species of ptarmigan scattered throughout the state and I’ve taken all three. A member of the grouse family, they inhabit open mountain country and are wonderful and charismatic birds that make a roosting cry that sounds like “O-O-O…Ohio.” All three species are seasonally camouflaged in white plumage in winter and mottled brown in summer.

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan
Credit: NPS / Katie Thoresen | flickr.com/photos/denalinps/

Willow Ptarmigan are easily the most plentiful and widely distributed throughout the state and inhabit the willow flats found along glacial streams, rivers, and low-lying tundra. In fall they are found in small family groups but in winter can flock up in the hundreds. Wing shooting can be very effective when approached like pheasant; a covey can often be jumped several times in succession. The meat is dark purple and they have a strong, liverish quality that is complex in flavor.

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock Ptarmigan
Credit: Alan Schmierer | flickr.com/photos/sloalan/

Rock Ptarmigan are very similar in appearance to willow ptarmigan. In fact, many people can’t tell the difference except by the terrain they inhabit. Rock ptarmigan inhabit higher country, much more open areas, with lower vegetation growth, and tend to be harder to approach within shotgun range. Wing shooting “rocks” can be challenging and I love to pursue them on Nordic skis in the winter. In the pot, they are indistinguishable from willow or white-tailed ptarmigan.

White Tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan
Credit: Ron Knight | flickr.com/photos/sussexbirder/

White-tailed Ptarmigan are smaller in body and less prolific than rocks or willows. Whitetails are found exclusively in the alpine zone and coveys tend to be smaller and less densely populated than other ptarmigan species. These are readily identified by their white tails and a white tail band is present year round. I have only taken whitetails with a .22 as a target of opportunity while pursuing early season caribou high in the Alaska Range. Wing shooting could be possible for the specialist in a fashion similar to chukars. High climbs in rocky, exposed country are the norm for these birds.

Hares

Alaska contains two species of hare, the snowshoe and the Alaska hare. I have only pursued snowshoes to date.

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare
Credit: NPS / Tim Rains | flickr.com/photos/denalinps/

Snowshoe hares are a small to medium hare species widely distributed throughout Alaska, Canada, and the Rocky Mountains. They are seasonally camouflaged, all white in winter, and a typical brown in summer. Average weights are 3-4 pounds. Hare populations are highly cyclical and on up years can be unbelievably prolific. They can be quite good eating in given preparations, but prior to hunting hares the reader is encouraged to research tularemia which can be harmful to humans. I use safeguards when butchering hares year round to be on the safe side.

Alaska Hare

Alaska Hare
Credit: Robb Hannawacker | flickr.com/photos/39422575@N02/

Alaska hares are much larger than snowshoe hares and only found on the Western coast of Alaska and the Alaska Peninsula. Typical weights are around 11 pounds but individuals up to 15 pounds have been recorded. It is among the largest living lagomorphs worldwide. They are typically hunted with small-bore center-fire rifles or caught in nets during drives. I have spent very little time hunting on the Western coast and I hope to eventually get one. They are reportedly much better flavored than snowshoe hares.

So there you have it—a brief primer on most of the small game species in the state. For the non-resident it is quite the bargain for the meager cost of a non-resident small game license and enough to interest even the specialist small game enthusiast. While big game gets the lion’s share of the press and attention, it is really a shame that the small game species don’t get the limelight they deserve.

by Michael Rogers

Michael Rogers is an Alaskan hunter, a lover of old shotguns, yellow Labradors, and an unrepentant grouse junkie. Fall finds him roaming the Interior looking for birds among the yellow leaves and blueberry bushes.

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