Ptarmigan

Willow ptarmigan, summer plumage. David Mintz photo.

It happened again!

The opening of ptarmigan season slipped right past me. It opened almost two weeks ago on Aug. 10, and my mind was off on pink salmon or some such. And I love to hunt ptarmigan.

With the season extending all the way through April 30 and a daily bag limit of 20 birds and a possession limit of 40, that’s a whole lot of hunting.

How in the world could a dedicated upland bird hunter like me forget such a momentous season opener?

Actually it’s pretty easy on Kodiak.

For one thing, there’s so much going on. Deer season opens Aug. 1, and most years we’re being overrun by pink salmon even as the silvers are showing up in good numbers offshore and peeking into rivers. And, of course, August is prime time for halibut.

There’s another explanation on the Kodiak road system, however.

We almost never see ptarmigan without first investing a lot of effort.

That’s because both our rock ptarmigan and our willow ptarmigan live at higher elevations. You have to do a lot of climbing to have any hope at all of seeing them. While on the southern portion of Kodiak willow ptarmigan in particular can be found all the way down to sea level, they just prefer the conditions up high on this end of the island.

Even knowing they’re up high, climbing for ptarmigan along the road system is not a sure thing. The flocks are highly mobile, and on any given day they’re not necessarily going to be on the mountain you’ve chosen to climb.

Successful ptarmigan hunting on the Kodiak road system translates into a mix of strategy, equipment, effort and luck.

You need to be in the right place at the right time. You have to carry the right gear so you can adjust your methods and location based on what you discover once you reach their chosen terrain. You simply have to climb hard for an hour or more before you can start to hunt. And of course, it pays to be lucky.

While there’s a good chance for ptarmigan on isolated peaks, I seldom hunt them. That’s because after all the effort of climbing, a single peak can be bare of ptarmigan, or at best offer limited hunting areas.

I prefer to hunt long ridge lines. If I don’t find ptarmigan when I first break into the tundra above the brush line, miles of tundra extend before me for additional hunting terrain. For the most part, walking in Kodiak’s high tundra is easy. Once you get there, of course.

Easy walking and lots of it vastly increases your chances of intercepting flocks of ptarmigan.

Specifically because you can walk so far in the high country, you have to be prepared. Weather can change quickly, and in the high country that can mean wind, rain and fog. It might be sunny down by the ocean, but those clouds that settle suddenly on mountaintops are filled with wind and rain many times.

Add a good set of raingear, a fleece coat, warm hat and gloves to your pack even on sunny days.

But there’s another aspect of the high country that cries for attention on long walks.

The high tundra is often very dry, with long walks between water sources. Often your only source of water is far back down the mountain.

I carry water and lots of it on my ptarmigan hunts, and I carry a purification pump so I can replenish my water supply any time I come across a watercourse.

Choice of equipment is a special consideration when you’re carrying a shotgun and enough ammo to fill a 20-bird limit on good hunting days.

I can’t say about your own shooting, but my 20-bird limits often translate into at last two boxes of shells for the day.

If you’re packing your favorite 12-gauge duck gun, you’re probably talking about a minimum of eight pounds of gun, and likely more. Add the weight of a couple of boxes of shells, and you can easily have close to 20 pounds tied up.

There are days when you’ll be proud of all that weight, specifically when it’s windy and the birds are flushing wild. Every inch of range you can add will bring more birds to hand.

But I hate the extra weight. My “all-around” shotgun for ptarmigan is a 20-gauge chambered for 3-inch shells. Mine is a lightweight at something under seven pounds, and the ammo seems to weigh about half that of its larger 12-gauge cousin. I add a handful of 3-inch shells in case of long shooting, but mostly I’m carrying 7/8-ounce field loads.

Once I’m familiar with an area and how the birds are behaving for a season, I pick wind-free days and carry an even lighter 28-gauge and its lighter ammo without penalty in terms of effective range. But I get fooled by the wind a little too often to be completely comfortable with that lighter outfit for everyday hunts.

If you’re determined to get some shooting as well as have a nice day in the high country, it pays to start your climb prepared for a whole lot of walking along those ridges. Ptarmigan move a lot when it’s windy, in addition to flushing wild as you approach them.

Just make up your mind that you could be walking for six or eight miles over the course of a day, and set off prepared for it. Wear comfortable boots and carry a change of socks for the ultimate luxury along with your midday lunch.

But most of all, pick a very comfortable and roomy pack for your day. Along with your ammo and lunch, a couple of liters of water can drag the scale down toward 30 pounds of standard equipment.

But don’t forget those ptarmigan!

I’ve never weighed one, but I’m not far off in guessing that rock ptarmigan weigh close to a pound each and willow ptarmigan can top that. I’ll leave the math to you, but it’s easy to see that you will need a comfortable pack for ptarmigan hunts.

There’s another piece of priceless gear in my array.

I add a sling to my shotgun. It’s a slip-on version that’s easy to add or remove without sling swivels. I don’t like a sling while shooting, but hanging your shotgun across your back is a priceless option when climbing steep hillsides on your way to and from ptarmigan country.

Once you break into the tundra, you’ll be amazed and thrilled with the scenery. The problem is, there’s a whole lot of it, and until they develop their winter white feathers in September, ptarmigan can be awfully hard to spot.

Their wings are white and easily visible in flight, but until they extend their wings they’re almost invisible. I’ve learned to improve my chances with ptarmigan by being selective about where I look for them.

Willow ptarmigan will be the first you encounter, as their usual habitat extends from the low willows along the edge of the brush line up through the grassy meadows, and especially into exposed areas with lots of berries.

Rock ptarmigan earned their name, and they tend to be higher up on the mountains, in and around the very rocky areas. They enjoy their berries, too, but I’ve learned they like ripe grass seeds even more.

Pay special attention to all the little narrow draws leading up through the rocky outcroppings, especially those with ripe grass and visible dry seeds.

You’re likely to see deer up there, too, but I’ll leave it up to you whether or not to complicate your day by also carrying a firearm suitable for deer, as well as the extra effort required if you take one.

I’m plenty satisfied to come off the mountain with enough ptarmigan for a single sumptuous dinner, or on good days with enough birds to assure fine dining this winter.

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