Well, that’s a wrap.
The ptarmigan season in Alaska (well, at least in our part of Alaska) has closed, and with our 2018-2019 season has come to an end. It started up here in Anchorage AK, saw us drive back to our home haunts in Minnesota, take a journey back to Kansas, and then decide to throw down some roots back up here in the last frontier. The finale to our season was a pretty good one though, and a case example of why I moved us here.
Armed with the knowledge we had gained so far from our many days of fruitless snowshoeing and our one morning of brief success in harvesting our first ever ptarmigan, I went towards the mountains with a renewed vigor. I had finally gotten a glimpse into the exact habitat to find, when to be there, and what to look for when you are there. We had four mornings left to work with, and our first two had us leaving up the trail head just as the sun was coming up.
If I were to sum up my limited ptarmigan knowledge into one piece of advice it would this; Get higher and Go further. These birds migrate over vast regions within the state of Alaska, and they could be anywhere on the mountainside. Have no doubt, they are there, you just have to find them. With that in mind I decided Watson and I wold hunt them much in the way we hunt big pheasant fields when it’s just him and I. That amounts to letting him cut loose, and I act as a blocker, moving myself into shooting lanes and escape routes when he starts working scent. Ptarmigan are prone to running through whatever willow run they are hiding in and flushing out the back side, much like a pheasant slipping through the corn rows, and this approach worked well for us. On our first morning we left the mountain with a pair of willow ptarmigan. We repeated the same strategy in the same area the next morning and came away with another pair of willows, as well as a pair of white tailed ptarmigan, and some tired legs. We covered about 7 miles both days on snowshoes, and I was feeling it!
After a week of work or last and final ptarmigan hunting weekend was upon us. I’d had spent a lot of time over the week monitoring snow pack levels, avalanche forecasts, and other things not pertaining at all to the work I should have been doing, but work doesn’t find you birds and this was the last rodeo until August! I decided we would return to the area of the mountain where we harvested our first ptarmigan weeks prior. My though (or hope) was that the unseasonably warm and sunny weather we were having would have taken the snow level down on that mountain face, as it is entirely south-facing. You can also drive all the way to above tree line, which saves valuable field time not having to climb to birds. So at the crack of the morning, we loaded up and went up. We had a stow-away with us this time as well. Once again we were keeping Olive in order while her parents were out of town. My hope was that we’d be able to get her some bird contacts after we were done hunting, as she’s shown great promise, and is at the perfect age to start sniffing the real deal.
Up the mountain we went. We arrived in the little gravelly parking spot at about 8:00am, loaded up with as many shells as we could carry and set out. What unfolded over the next two hours for Watson and I was one of those perfect days you rarely get as a hunter. We were in the right spot, the birds where there, and my shooting was just good enough. I couldn’t tell you how many ptarmigan we moved over that mountain, but my best guess would be somewhere around 70. It was incredible. When the snow cleared and the sun was up, I had one shell left and a full limit of 10 birds in the vest. The willow ptarmigan were scattered about the entire slope, and we encountered two flocks of white tails that caught me off guard with there enormity. It was fantastic, and seeing as Watson and I usually don’t stack up limits on our outings, I let him revel in it.
Our season could have ended right then and I’d have been perfectly happy. There was one more morning though, and we spent it with a fellow upland hunter we had met the previous week. Naturally we came back to this same area, as surely there would be just as many birds this day. Well, there were birds, but not the vastness of riches as the day prior. It was good day out though. His dog, a GWP/GSP cross, had a couple of nice points, and Watson and I picked up one last bird the end our year.
What about Olive? Oh, she had a pretty awesome day too. On Saturday, one of the ptarmigan Watson and I got at the end of his run was wounded, but very much alive, so we hustled back to the truck to give Olive a proper “intro to birds” for a puppy. She loved and it showed everything you want to see in a young gun dog. So after Watson’s day was over, I let her out of her crate and took her for a run in hopes she could work some of the white tailed ptarmigan that we had encountered on the way back. The wind had died down, taking scenting conditions with it. Olive is a pretty bold little hound though, and she had no reservations about stretching her range in search of…whatever she though she was looking for.
Eventually we located a couple of birds, but in typical puppy fashion her mind was elsewhere. Should I get that stick? I’m going to point this rock. Maybe I’ll run over here, and the back and then over…you get the idea. I admittedly got a little frustrated with here when we had a sitting bird about 5 yards from her, bt with the lack of wind and her focus elsewhere she had no knowledge of it’s existence. If you look closely in the photo below you can find it tucked into the willows.
So walked her into it in hopes of re-focusing her intentions. It worked, almost too well. As soon as she saw that bird shuffle away and fly off, the day turned into and episode of “Olive vs. Ptarmigan Mountain”. She went absolutely insane albeit in a good way. She went from playing around with smells to stretching out 300 yards in search of those little white birds. She bumped about a dozen in her search, which only fueled the madness further.
Then, as if by the hands of the bird dog gods themselves it happened. After about twenty minutes her assault had worn down a bit, and she was now working within 100 yards of me. She had her face straight in to the wind, and as I watched her movements tighten up and her tail quiver I got my camera up just in the nick of time. She pointed her first ever bird, a wild Alaskan ptarmigan, and held that point for a solid five seconds. That’s not a rock-solid point by any means, but it’s a big step for a young dog. The bird eventually began to run and then flew off, which reignited her insanity, but after disappeared into the mountain she returned to us in due time.