Alaska has the international reputation for being one of the premier big game hunting places in the world. Another hunting option exists here which is often overlooked by visiting nimrods and many locals alike. That option is small game hunting.
Most of us cut our hunting teeth on small game. My first kill was a cottontail rabbit with a bow and arrow. I quickly graduated to pheasants with a shotgun and both gray and fox squirrels with a 22 rifle. I had several years of small game hunting experience in the Midwest while growing up before I ever harvested my first big game animal.
In fact, if I were ever limited to only hunting one species of game animal with one type of firearm, I would pick gray squirrels with a rimfire rifle. I’m finding the 17 Mach 2 rimfire caliber to be even better than the 22-longrifle. That’s how much I enjoy hunting small game.
So, since none of the critters mentioned above are naturally occurring in Alaska, just what are the available options for a small game hunter here? There are several types of small game available to the serious hunter, but for most of the species, timing is critical to achieve success.
Alaska generally has some of the best waterfowl hunting along the Western Flyway, if you’re in the flight path of the birds as they migrate south. Opening day of the duck season in either Goose Bay or the Palmer Hay Flats usually results in some significant harvests of birds, but that also means there are many hunters to compete with as well. If you are willing to “beat the bushes” for some lesser known spots, you can still do well without the crowds.
If you are a canine person, waterfowl hunting is custom-made for a hunting dog, particularly a good retriever. If you prefer firm, dry ground under your feet when hunting with your best friend, then perhaps chasing some of our “upland” species would be of more interest.
A bird often overlooked by hunters is the spruce grouse. Bag limits are generous, and seasons are long, but few hunters target this species. I have taken grouse while moose hunting, but I have also gone hunting specifically for the birds. It’s true – they aren’t the Einstein’s of the bird world, but that’s usually because the birds have no experience being hunted. If you tangle with a spruce grouse that has been shot at and missed a time or two, your opinion of its intelligence will change.
Ruffed grouse are an introduced species into the Valley, being native to Alaska’s Interior. Because the birds are still becoming established here, Fish and Game has mandated a conservative daily bag and possession limit, but the season length is similar to spruce grouse. The ruffed grouse has the reputation for having one of the higher IQ’s in the game bird world.
Another oftentimes forgotten bird is the ptarmigan. Depending on where you hunt, you could encounter any of three species; the willow, rock or white-tailed ptarmigan. They occupy differing habitats throughout Alaska. These birds tend to be found in flocks as opposed to the singles often encountered with grouse. Be prepared to put in some miles while looking for these, at times, elusive birds.
If your preferences tend toward a rifle rather than a shotgun for small game, then the snowshoe hare is made for you. Like ptarmigan, these animals are notoriously cyclic in abundance, but when you find a concentration of “bunnies” you can, in many game management units, harvest as many as you want to carry back to your vehicle.
Check the current hunting regulations book for the season and daily bag limits in the game management unit where you are hunting snowshoe hares. Some units have no closed season or bag limit while others do. Unit 14C has special restrictions, so be sure to read before you go.
While most folks don’t hunt the flying birds with a bow and arrow, taking a shot at a grouse sitting in a tree can be a challenging affair if you’re hunting in one of the archery-only or weapons-restricted areas becoming more common in our urbanizing of Alaska. If you use a firearm, be mindful of your backstop and what lies behind your quarry. The nice thing about hunting small game is that you usually have several shot opportunities during each hunt. Take the safe shots and leave the others alone. You’ll still enjoy your day and we’ll all be safer.