Ptarmigan And Rainbow Trout combine for a most memorable outing
Walking across the tundra in search of ptarmigan was a challenge.
When most outdoor lovers think about Alaska, they envision the outstanding fishing and big-game hunting, as well as the untapped, pristine beauty of our 49th state. However, as I discovered, Alaska also offers great opportunities for upland bird hunting and gun dogs. In addition, the upland seasons typically start long before those in the lower 48 states and the limits are generous.
I made this discovery when visiting Bear Bay Lodge. The lodge is located near the town of Dillingham, which is about 350 miles southwest of Anchorage. Bear Bay was offering a special "cast and blast" week of combined fishing and upland bird hunting. Several avid bird hunters, including me, took advantage of this opportunity and made the trip.
A number of airlines offer regularly scheduled flights into Dillingham from Anchorage, so Anchorage became the rendezvous point for the members of our group. The ensuing flight from Anchorage to Dillingham lasted only about an hour, but we flew over some of the most breathtaking scenery in all of Alaska.
At the Dillingham airport we were met by Bear Bay Lodge co-owner Ty Johnson, who promptly helped us get our bags into a van for the trip to the lodge. Since Dillingham is only accessible by air or water, our route to the lodge took us on the longest road out of Dillingham, a 27-mile stretch of two-lane blacktop that ended at the small village of Aleknagik, which is on the shore of Lake Aleknagik. From there we boarded a boat for the short ride on the lake over to the lodge.
In spite of the remote location, the accommodations at Bear Bay Lodge are first rate. We arrived late in the afternoon so our group spent the rest of the first day getting unpacked and exploring the area around the lodge. Then, after an evening meal in the lodge's main building, we met the rest of the staff and were briefed on the plans for our first full day at the lodge.
Ptarmigan hunters unload the floatplane in preparation for the hunt.
For my first day, I was assigned to a group that would be fly-fishing for rainbow trout. After a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast, our group boarded the lodge's floatplane for a 20- minute flight to our fishing destination. Upon our arrival, we got into boats and spent a productive day catching rainbow trout on fly rods. Most of the rainbows were at least 20 inches long and we landed a few that topped the two-foot mark.
While I enjoyed the outstanding fishing, I was still looking forward to the bird hunting so after supper I was delighted to learn that the next morning our group was going to head out in search of willow ptarmigan.
Hunters take shots at a group of ptarmigan flushed by Gander the Lab.
The willow ptarmigan, a member of the grouse family, is a bird of the far north, living throughout Alaska and the Canadian Artic. Adults are 15 to 17 inches long and weigh about a pound and a half. During the summer the ptarmigan has a chestnut-colored head and back with white wings and belly and its feet are covered with small hair-like feathers. Like other ptarmigan, the willow's plumage changes to all white, except for a black tail, during the winter.
Ptarmigan will hold for pointing dogs but flushers work equally well. We would be hunting with a black Lab named Gander belonging to Bill Shanks, our guide for the ptarmigan hunt. Although we used Bill's Lab, Bear Bay also allows and, in fact, encourages hunters to bring their own dogs.
Yes, there were bears around! Fortunately for us, they were more interested in the fish.
I'd never even seen, much less hunted, willow ptarmigan, and so with an air of excitement, my partners and I, along with Bill and Gander, boarded the floatplane the next morning. We flew north from the lodge and the 40-minute flight took us over some beautiful mountain scenery until we reached our destination, a large glacier lake with a mirror-like, turquoise-colored surface.
Several other fishing groups had flown out on the floatplane ahead of us, so our bird-hunting group didn't arrive at our destination until late morning. The floatplane touched down on the lake and taxied over to the shore. We got out and waded to the bank where we quickly changed from waders to hunting boots. It was almost noon, so we decided to eat the lunches the lodge had packed for us before setting out after the ptarmigan.
Besides ptarmigan our group had excellent luck on rainbow trout.
While we were eating, Bill let Gander roam around nearby. Suddenly, the air was full of squawks as Gander flushed about a dozen ptarmigan from a nearby willow thicket. We quickly gulped down the rest of our lunches, got our guns loaded and headed out in pursuit of the ptarmigan.
Bill said that the ptarmigan were usually found higher up from the lake, but it was a fairly warm day and we felt that perhaps the birds had come down the lake's edge to get water or gravel from the bank. In any case, we stayed near the lakeshore and found several groups of ptarmigan. Gander did his part by putting the birds he found into the air and retrieving those that we shot.
The ptarmigan were not too difficult to bring down and generally stayed put where they fell. Most of our shots were less than 30 yards and the 20-gauge loads of No. 6 or 7 1/2 shot we all used seemed to do the trick.
It appeared that the ptarmigan were eating some of the small red and blue berries that grew in the area. When we approached ptarmigan that were feeding on these berries
out in the open, they quickly moved into the willow thickets that surrounded the lake. It was here that Gander showed his stuff. Rushing into the thickets, he flushed the birds out to where we were waiting to take our shots.
This is where I think we were lucky to be hunting with a flushing dog. It was very difficult to walk into the willow thickets and once inside it was virtually impossible to shoot. A pointing dog would have pinned the ptarmigan in the thickets but one of us would have had go in to flush them out, which would have been tough. In addition, Bill cautioned us that bears were occasionally encountered in the thickets, and we had no desire to meet one of them while carrying only 20-gauge guns loaded with bird shot.
Gander the Lab searches for ptarmigan while hunters follow.
We slowly worked our way around the lake. When we'd encounter ptarmigan we'd spread out and work the singles much like quail singles after a covey flush. The big difference between working the ptarmigan and quail was walking on the tundra. I've hunted on lots of tough ground but the tundra has to be right up there near the top of the list. It has a very irregular surface and it made no difference if you tried to take small steps or large ones; your feet were always going up and down. Fortunately for us the tundra in this area was pretty firm, although we learned that in some areas it could be soggy as well.
We ended up with 10 birds before the tundra and heat took its toll on the hunters as well as Gander. We took a quick break on the shore before again donning our waders and reboarding the floatplane for the trip back to the lodge.
Tired but happy, the hunters and Gander show off their success on the plentiful ptarmigan.
The rest of our week followed the same pattern. Several members tried for ptarmigan again while others chased trout and silver salmon, which were making their usual August run. By the end of the week, we were tired but happy. We bid one another a fond farewell as we left to return to home, but all of us will never forget our "Cast and Blast" week at Bear Bay Lodge.
Editor's Note: Upland bird seasons in Alaska generally start in August; this is also the month when the silver salmon run. Hunting and fishing licenses are available at the lodge. For more information, contact Bear Bay Lodge, 22708 SE Naomi Dr. Boring, OR 97009, (866) 232-7229); e-mail the lodge at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the lodge Web site at www.bearbaylodge.com.