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Bird Hunting State Spotlight: Alaska

Wingshooting the 49th State is an adventure of a lifetime—and here's how to do it.

Bird Hunting State Spotlight: Alaska

Some of the best wingshooting available anywhere is now just a “frequent flier” ticket away. (Photo By: Jim McCann)

Alaska has long been thought of as an “exotic destination” where only those with a lot of money went hunting for big game like brown bears, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep, but not to hunt upland birds or waterfowl. But that's all changed, and the secret is out.

Ptarmigan hunting seems to be at the top of most traveling hunters’ “bucket list.” And since only white-tailed ptarmigan are found in just a couple of Lower 48 states and are high up in the Rocky Mountains, the allure of hunting ptarmigan in wild Alaska has filled the dreams of many bird hunters.  

However, Alaska has even more to offer the visiting upland hunter than just ptarmigan hunting. In addition to ptarmigan, for decades, my pointing dogs and I have enjoyed world-class hunting for ruffed, spruce, and sharptailed grouse, right here in the Interior region. And we've done so without crowds of other bird hunters and in coverts as large as some counties in other states.

interior alaska landscape
The Interior of Alaska abounds with upland bird hunting opportunities. (Photo By: Jim McCann)

Preparation

Alaska's 663,000 square miles are larger than Texas, Montana, and California. There are three ptarmigan species and three main grouse species (I've excluded the hard-to-find dusky grouse found only in the deep forests of southeast Alaska). The State is divided into 26 Game Management Areas with different bag limits and regulations. You'll have to do some research on your own, but it's not as complex as it might seem.  

Alaska Airlines has always taken excellent care of my dogs and friends’ dogs. Many dogs travel on Alaska Airlines each season, and I'm personally not aware of any significant problems experienced by travelers. Be sure to check with the airline about their requirements long before traveling, and make sure to consider dog food availability at your destination. You don't want to change a dog's food on your trip. Make sure you carry a “Vet Kit” because veterinarians are hard to find once you leave the large cities and towns.


Depending upon what species you most want to hunt, you might fly into Anchorage or Fairbanks, Alaska’s two largest commercial airports and where cars, vans, trucks, or RVs are available to rent. You probably won't need a 4-wheel drive vehicle during September, the absolute best time of year for upland hunting, but that’s your call.

If you plan on poking around on gnarly two-tracks you might find along the way, then 4WD is a good idea. Some folks might even consider renting a van with enough room for your dog crate, all your hunting gear, and even enough room to roll out a pad and sleeping bag. One rental outfit in Anchorage (Alaska Overlander) advertises 4WD trucks with rooftop tents that are pretty handy. My truck has had a rooftop tent mounted over the bed for at least a dozen years now, and I love it. Stop anywhere, and in 15 minutes, the tent is open and ready for me to climb up and sleep on a comfortable mattress with a flannel-lined sleeping bag and full-sized pillow.

alaska overlander 4wd truck rental
Save time and money by sleeping where you hunt with a 4WD truck rental. (Photo By: Jim McCann)

There aren't that many highways in Alaska, and some have long stretches surrounded by wilderness, which means no gas stations, food, or services along the way—just the way I like it! My advice to travelers is to carry lots of gear, food, and water, and if you can get gas, get it even if your tank is half full. And make sure you have a spare tire and a jack.

Cell phone coverage in remote areas of Alaska is either spotty or non-existent. My recommendation is to have along a Garmin inReach so you can stay in touch via satellite. With the inReach connected to my smartphone, I can tap out text messages from anywhere in Alaska. It also has an SOS button to bring rescuers to your location if you get hurt.

Many bird hunters wishing to travel to Alaska with a bird dog might not be interested in hunting for forest grouse or sharptails, having hunted them at home or on other trips in the Lower 48 states. Often the target species is willow ptarmigan, and the good news is that they are found all over Alaska. I've hunted willow ptarmigan from the southernmost tip of the Alaska Peninsula and up into the Arctic but spend most of my time hunting them right here in the Interior region where I live.

Daily bag limits are too generous, in my opinion. In most areas, the daily limit of grouse is 10 birds, and an additional 10 ptarmigan are allowed. I don't think any of us needs more than five birds each day, especially if hunting off the highway system.

hunting for willow ptarmigan in alaska
The author targets ruffed, spruce, and sharp-tailed grouse and willow ptarmigan throughout Alaska's Interior region. (Photo By: Jim McCann)

Ptarmigan Hunting in Alaska

There are several ways a person can hunt ptarmigan in Alaska—let's explore a few of them. If visiting a remote fishing lodge in September, you might inquire of your guide/outfitter if there are ptarmigan available to hunt during those times when you grow weary of catching fat-bellied rainbow trout or 15-pound hard fighting silver salmon. Granted, this might mean hunting without a dog or over a lodge owner’s dog, trained or not, but it's also possible to bring your bird dog along.

Any hunter not wanting to spend a lot of time, money, and effort trying to locate ptarmigan might consider treating yourself and your dog to a fly-out hunt. My recommendation is a visit to All Alaska Outdoors Lodge in Soldotna. You can fly into Soldotna or enjoy a gorgeous drive out of Anchorage. At the lodge, owner Dr. Bob Ledda will fly you and your dog up into the beautiful and remote Kenai Mountains, where you will land on a lake and then hunt the surrounding area. He and his guides know where to find willow, rock, and white-tailed ptarmigan. Visitors can also arrange for a fly-out fishing trip. This kind of adventure is the best way to go unless you absolutely must do it all independently.


Hunters who also enjoy gunning for waterfowl might consider visiting Cold Bay, Alaska, and spending a week with guide/outfitter Jeff Wasley at his Four Flyways Outfitters Lodge. I once spent a week hunting geese, black brant, and ducks over decoys with Jeff, and my hunting pal and I also enjoyed a delightful day of hunting willow ptarmigan over one of his English setters that made the trip with us. September and early October are the best times to hunt Cold Bay for waterfowl, but Jeff tells me he's now offering ptarmigan hunting and silver salmon fishing packages during late August.

 If it’s a DIY road trip you’re interested in doing, and you are leaving out of Anchorage and willing to do some hiking, you can find ptarmigan in the Chugach State Park, a short drive north out of the big city. Another option is to drive north out of Anchorage to Palmer and take the Fishhook Road up into the sub-alpine area of Hatcher Pass. The mainly gravel road cuts through the Talkeetna Mountains for 60 miles from Palmer to the town of Willow along the Parks Highway. But know that you'll likely see lots of other folks enjoying the area as well.

During September, the most popular destination to hunt ptarmigan is along the mostly gravel 135-mile-long Denali Highway that connects the north/south Richardson and Parks Highways as it cuts through some of Alaska's most gorgeous wilderness scenery. Driving north on the Parks Highway, you'll find the beginning of the Denali Highway at Milepost 210 at Cantwell. But know that the area has suffered poor spring chick survival in recent years, and hunting has been relatively poor. If you are interested in driving through the scenic wilderness area and camping along the way with the possibility of taking just a couple of willow ptarmigan and doing some dry fly fishing for arctic grayling, then perhaps this trip is for you.

Expect to find a great many caribou hunters along the Denali Highway in September. There are a couple of rustic lodges where you might find fuel and a hamburger and fries, and most of the streams along the road have arctic grayling in them. Bring your fly-fishing gear! If you chose to camp and hunt along the Denali Highway and weren’t satisfied with the ptarmigan hunting, then turn left onto the Richardson Highway at the other end of the Denali Highway and head north. You will find willow ptarmigan in the sub-alpine areas along much of the 80-mile drive to Delta Junction.

american brittany carrying a ptarmigan
Ptarmigan move around a lot, and you and your dog might have to cover a lot of rugged terrain to find birds, but then again, you might just hit the "mother lode" and find birds everywhere you hunt. (Photo By: Jim McCann)

Mixed Bag Bird Hunting Opportunities in Alaska

Around the Delta Junction area, you will encounter ruffed, spruce, and sharptailed grouse. After all of this driving, you and the dog may want to stretch your legs at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Delta Bison Management Area about 20 miles east of Delta Junction to hunt sharptailed grouse. If you don't find what you're looking for there, you might continue east on the Alaska Highway to the town of Tok. There's a fair amount of private land around Tok, but just 12 miles southeast on the Alaska Highway, you’ll find the Taylor Highway, where you'll also discover many miles of open hunting area where the dog could smell out ruffed, spruce, and sharptailed grouse in wild surroundings.

upland bird hunter with american brittany bird dog
A bounty of birds awaits anyone ready to put in the time and effort to travel to Alaska to hunt them. (Photo By: Jim McCann)

If you’re hunting along the Taylor Highway and you still have your heart set on hunting ptarmigan, I’d suggest you stop at Milepost 14 and stare in awe at Mt. Fairplay in the distance. Hunt for ptarmigan there.

Driving further along on the Taylor Highway you can find gas and food at the “town” of Chicken, population 12, at milepost 66. Early settlers during the gold rush days couldn’t spell ptarmigan so they named the place Chicken. Now there’s a good hint.

If your travels take you out of Delta Junction toward Fairbanks, you'll be driving through some excellent ruffed and spruce grouse habitat. Some may be private, and most of it will be steep, but the grouse will be there.

North of Fairbanks, a hunter wanting to find some ptarmigan may get lucky with rock ptarmigan in some of the higher sub-alpine areas along the Steese Highway. This remote two-lane road ends at the tiny town of Circle at Milepost 160 along the banks of the Yukon River. Hunt any of the high and primarily treeless areas for rock ptarmigan but wear broke-in hunting boots because you'll be covering some ground to find birds. They are scattered about during the fall season.

If your adventure will end in Anchorage, the first 100 miles you cover driving south on the Parks Highway out of Fairbanks is again good grouse cover. Just know how the covers go on for hundreds of miles, so be careful to keep your bearings.

You can find scattered state campgrounds along our highways, but you can also pitch a tent or sleep in the back of a truck just about anywhere. There are also many comfortable B&Bs spread all over the place.

If you're worried about encounters with grizzly bears, you should purchase bear spray before leaving one of the larger towns or cities.

We’ve been on a whirlwind wingshooting trip across the 49th state, and I've barely touched upon all that is available to visiting hunters and their dogs. But know this: Once you come here to see and hunt Alaska, you'll be back again

ptarmigan flying
Ptarmigan are often the most sought-after upland bird species in Alaska. (Photo By: Jim McCann)

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