Hunting small game in Alaska is becoming a favorite pastime of many folks, as an aside during the big game seasons and afterward as its own activity because of the long seasons and liberal bag limits most small game have. Spruce and ruffed grouse, ptarmigan, and snowshoe hares are the small game animals most people target, but furbearers like red squirrels, fox, lynx, and coyotes can also be encountered during a winter hunting trip. Check the current hunting regulations booklet for season lengths, license requirements, and bag limits.

Once snow has fallen in sufficient quantity to turn the outdoor landscape a solid white, you can cruise the woods more easily on your snowshoes looking for the small game of your preference to harvest for dinner. Once the snow depth is past a foot or so, walking in the woods becomes much easier on snowshoes. Don’t forget to have your current hunting license with you along with a supply of rimfire ammunition, shotgun shells, or arrows sufficient to cover your expectations of possible shots being offered.

The animals are where you find them but a good place to start looking for grouse and hares involves hunting stands of mixed species timber. A combination of birch or aspen and spruce growth with an undergrowth of willow and berry bushes is almost ideal for providing food and cover for both the birds and the hares. A covering of snow will also allow you to confirm the critters are present because of the tracks and other sign which will be obvious in the snow. The grouse will be easy to see against the white background, but the hares will be white. Learn to look for the black eye and their black ear tips.

Ptarmigan will usually be found near the edge of tree line or above and often in flocks of several birds. Grouse are generally in singles, but I have encountered an occasional family flock when winter hunting. If snowshoe hares are plentiful, you might find several in a relatively small area. I believe we’re coming down off the high point of the 10- to 12-year population cycle of hares, so they probably won’t be as plentiful, but you might find a pocket where the animals are thick.

Your hunting tool of choice can be almost anything. I’ve hunted both the birds and the hares with 22 rimfire rifles and handguns, shotguns, archery gear, muzzleloading revolvers, and pellet rifles. If possible, when using a rifle or handgun, you’ll want to head shoot the hares to keep them from running off. Shoot the birds through the wing butts or through the breast to anchor them. Point the shotgun at the center of mass of the animal. With archery gear, you’ll also want to hit the animal in the center of mass.

Accessing the hunting area on snowshoes is fun. Snowshoes (not the animal) come in various sizes and shapes. I learned to snowshoe using a long, narrower-width shoe style often referred to as the Alaskan model. A shorter and more oval shaped shoe is called the Michigan style. Both shoes have a “tail” on the back of the shoe. Yet another style is called the “bear paw” and is a wider, but shorter oval style with no tail. These models are commonly made with a wooden frame and using rawhide lacing to form the webbing which functions to support the wearer walking in snow. The modern style of snowshoe is basically a bear paw design made of aluminum tubing with plastic webbing. All the shoes use a harness assembly to attach the snowshoe to the wearer’s boot.

The Alaskan model makes a great shoe for walking across open terrain or along relatively brush-free trails. The bear paw model is easier to maneuver when walking through brushy areas. The Michigan model is a compromise between the two styles. I also like to use a pair of hiking poles to help steady myself and to maintain balance while snowshoeing.

Several years ago, a friend and I were hunting snowshoe hares with handguns in the Fairbanks area. The hares were plentiful, and we had no trouble locating all the animals we cared to harvest. I was hunting with my semi-auto Ruger pistol and Paul was using his Smith and Wesson model 17 revolver. Both guns were chambered in 22 rimfire. I was wearing my Alaskan model snowshoes because the snow was a few feet deep. Making my way through the brushy cover with those long shoes wasn’t easy.

I had stopped for a breather when I spotted a hare, or rather, the black eye of the hare, sitting broadside about ten yards away with a small snow-covered hill as a backdrop. I took careful aim at the black eye and fired. I saw the bullet hole appear in the snow just above the hare’s nose. I aimed and fired again. The short version had a perfect semi-circle of five bullet holes in the snow arranged around the top of the hare’s head from rhythmically firing at the animal. The animal never moved or even flinched.

I usually only load five rounds of ammo in a semi-auto magazine while hunting, so I removed the empty magazine and inserted a second, loaded one. On my seventh shot, I finally connected with the head and the hare flopped over dead. After a short pause of silence, I heard Paul calling over laughingly asking if I had finally hit the hare. I answered in the affirmative and went to pick up my kill.

More recently, I managed to hit a spruce grouse with a blunt arrow designed for small game hunting while hunting before the snows fell. Hunting for birds with a bow and arrow can be a lot of fun, but if your shooting abilities are like mine, have several arrows you don’t mind losing and something else thawed out for dinner.

Hunting for small game on a sunny winter day while walking on snowshoes can be a great physical activity for the whole family. The kids can learn about tracking and identifying the critters and get some exercise. You might even harvest dinner. Make sure everyone is dressed warmly and bring treats and something warm for the kids to drink. Don’t forget a camera too!



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