In Pursuit of Alaska Sharptails
April 11, 2018
The pursuit of grouse on the last frontier is a most worthy upland endeavor.
A short time after the last public hanging in downtown Fairbanks in 1929, University of Alaska scholars Otto W. "William" Geist and Ivar Skarland would walk down from the campus and saunter along the railroad tracks that are still present today and run parallel to four busy lanes of traffic on Geist Road. The pair of scientists would often walk for a mile or so along the railroad tracks and discuss, among other things, I am sure, the hundreds of sharp-tailed grouse they would see and flush along the way.
Having done a lot of dog training, walking and riding my horse in the fields and woods adjacent those same railroad tracks over the last few decades, I must report never having seen a single sharp-tailed grouse. But along a separate set of railroad tracks lying south of downtown Fairbanks near the Tanana River I trained pointing dogs and hunted sharptails until about 10 years ago. One might now occasionally find a pair of sharptails along those tracks, but with the encroachment of man, the large coveys are gone and hunting is no longer allowed.
Loss of habitat, the same reason given by hunters and wildlife professionals all across North America for vanishing populations of sharp-tailed grouse â€“ and sage grouse and prairie chickens in other parts of the country â€“ has occurred in some areas of Alaska as well. We keep building, paving, planting and putting out wildfires and yet some still wonder why these fabulous gamebirds seem to be disappearing. Discouraging news indeed, but not quite so much for Alaska bird hunters.
In terms of bird numbers, the Last Frontier state might not be what it once was near our cities, towns and villages. But with most of the state still consisting of true wilderness that includes thousands of miles of remote, meandering rivers with adjacent grass and open shrub forest habitat, small pocket areas of commercial farming, expansive grassy muskeg bogs, and the building of railroad, pipeline and power right-of-ways â€“ again with the resultant grass and open shrub forest connected with those openings â€“ there is plenty of habitat available for sharptails. Add to all of that the tens of thousands of wilderness acres consumed by wildfire each season that result in prime sharptail habitat just a few years later, and the Alaska subspecies of sharp-tailed grouse seem to have a bright future.
Sharptails are found predominantly in Alaska's vast interior region with pockets of birds also found in parts of the upper south-central region as well. Recent reports indicate flocks of birds are now being seen north of the Arctic Circle, especially in areas where huge wildfires occurred a couple of years ago. With all of this wilderness perhaps it will be a very long time until we mess it all up and cover the area in asphalt and build more cities and chase the sharptails and other wildlife away.
A lot of sharptail hunters in Alaska have directed their efforts at hunting these grouse on the barley and hay farms found in the interior region, and for good reason. There are a lot of sharptails found in and along mile-long farm windrows and out in the Conservation Reserve Program fields of grass and shrubs. But these same sharptails are in trouble of being over hunted, and farmers are quite tired of the considerable trespassing and poaching that goes on and are becoming very reluctant to let hunters come onto their property. Another complication for these grouse arises from farmers trying to make some money at a very tough business in a bad economy by eliminating those windrows so vital to grouse and planting more crops. Hunters might want to concentrate their efforts elsewhere, and in Alaska there certainly is a lot of elsewhere.
Two of my Brittanys were working over a 250-acre section of prime ruffed grouse aspen woods last September just a couple of hours out of Fairbanks, where I've lived the past 40 years. With two ruffs already in the game pocket of my vest I urged the dogs to head toward an area within this woods that is much more open, what I would describe as park-like, and an area where both kinnikinnick and blueberries thrive. It is also a spot where over the past decade my dogs and I have enjoyed many a skirmish with sharp-tailed grouse â€“ lots of them!
Rusty was the senior dog on the team, having learned his trade on countless ruffed, spruce and sharp-tailed grouse and ptarmigan during the last 10 years of his life, and he knew this cover well. Three-year-old Charlie had already been to this spot twice in his short life, and like Rusty, he also recognized the place and went into super stealth mode. Pushing through the last of the thick brush and young aspen I simply stood at the edge of the huge park and let the dogs do what they do best.
It didn't take long for Rusty to find a gentle breeze and work it to his advantage. A few minutes later the heavily ticked dog locked up tight in a blueberry patch, his body stiff but his nostrils quivering as he drank in as much heavenly grouse scent as he possibly could. Charlie honored the point and I negotiated some blown down aspen and brush as I moved as quickly and quietly as I could toward the scene.
I came in wide off to Rusty's right side, gun at the ready, and when the birds came up out of the brush I took one sharptail climbing more or less straight away, and then swung left to easily take another bird. If these had been a dozen ruffed grouse instead, I might not have even gotten off a single shot, but these Alaska sharp-tailed grouse must climb up out of the brush and through the trees to get above the canopy, unlike the ruffed grouse that is quite adept at speedy horizontal flight and able to dodge trees and other obstacles as it escapes through the woods.
After a double retrieve I offered each dog some water and stopped to survey the area and make some plans. Of course my plans meant little as the dogs soon darted off to work their own plans and find more birds for us. That worked for me, so I headed off behind them.
Not much further on I found both dogs staunchly pointing and I moved in to make the flush, but this time the birds were on the run. Three times I moved forward but no birds flushed and I had to release the dogs to see if they could loop around and somehow pin these track stars for me. When they next pointed I went out wide to the right again and that's about the time the brush up ahead exploded with sharptails flushing and cackling but offering me no shots, having run far ahead of me before flushing.
Knowing how often there is a straggler that for some strange reason decides not to flush with the rest of the bunch, I moved ahead quickly. Sure enough, a lone sharptail exploded into flight just a few yards ahead of me, and as the bird climbed up through the aspen I swung on it and dropped it.
The dogs and I moved on in an attempt to find the same covey of birds not too far off in the distance. Unlike their prairie cousins to the south that will flush from one zip code and land in another, our Alaska sharp-tailed grouse will often put down again just several hundred yards from the scene of the initial flush. Not always, but enough times that my spirits were high and I gripped my gun a bit tighter as the dogs and I moved off in what we thought might be the right direction while expecting imminent action.
Quickly I lost sight of my dogs but soon heard their beepers alerting me to a point up ahead and not where I figured the other covey had gone. A bit more brazen then the previous bunch, this group of four grouse allowed me to walk ahead of the dogs and draw near to them before erupting into flight. For a lifelong ruffed grouse hunter used to fleeting glimpses of a single grouse flushing through really thick woods, this small covey of sharp-tailed grouse offered some fair and challenging shots, but nothing really hard for even an average game shot like me, and another plump bird fell from the sky.
If forking out just $25 for a non-resident Alaska small game license and using some of your airline miles to come up to Alaska to hunt sharp-tailed grouse isn't enough motivation to get you here, remember that Alaska also has great ruffed and spruce grouse hunting as well as fantastic high-country ptarmigan hunting. The Last Frontier state awaits you, and the farthest north sharptails of Alaska surely won't disappoint.