Monday, December 28, 2015

Small Game...Overlooked Bounty

         It is certainly true that when it comes to Alaska, most people think of big game hunting. We have some of the most interesting big game species in the United States. The Alaska/Yukon moose and plains bison are among the largest game animals hunted in this hemisphere, we have three species of bears, and we have Sitka deer and caribou not to mention sheep and mountain goat. As good as our big game seasons are, our small game seasons are even better. Small game is numerous enough that a small game hunter can, literally, hunt 365 days a year. Where moose season might only be a couple of weeks to a month long- hares and squirrels can be hunted year round and in most places grouse and ptarmigan can be hunted from August through the end of March. Even our waterfowl season lasts until December.

            I haven’t written much about small game hunting in the past, but upon reflection that really isn’t fair. I hunt small game more than I do large game and even on big game hunts I will take small game as targets of opportunity. So what I’ve decided to do is to produce something of a small game primer for the Greatland. I’m actually only a couple species away from my “Small Critter Alaska Slam”. That is a term I just made up on the spot…but you get the idea. Method of take here isn’t regulated in most places with the exception of waterfowl. Upland game can be hunted with shotguns, rifles, air guns, archery and in many cases, trapped. There are certain zones limited to shotguns or archery due to safety concerns, but they are really fairly limited when compared to the rest of the state.

            Alaska Department of Fish and Game have three classes of “Not Big Game”.  They are Fur Animals, allowed to be taken on a small game license by residents and include squirrels, beaver, coyote, fox and lynx...think of them as animals not generally eaten (although beaver isn't bad and lynx is delicious). Small Game, which I discuss below in detail and include grouse, ptarmigan and hare and are allowed to be taken by both residents and non-residents alike. The last classes are Unclassified Game and Deleterious Exotic wildlife and include such oddities as porcupine, cormorant, as well as feral domestic animals. Waterfowl are managed under separate regulations. Below are what is generally considered "Upland Game".

            I am something of a grouse junkie and we have four species here. I can hunt three in my immediate area and I do so, often, with relish.

            Spruce Grouse are a large grouse that dwells in mature boreal spruce forests. They are often called “stupid chickens” or “fool’s hens” given their propensity to simply hang tight in cover and rely on their (very good) camouflage to protect them from predators. Most spruce grouse flush only when approached very closely and sound like a helicopter taking off. When you’re sneaking through a thicket, having one explode out of cover a few feet away is often a heart stopping experience. That said, I’ve taken spruce grouse with a shotgun, .22 rifles, and a bow of all things. They are not particularly good eating, so I largely ignore them these days. Some people love the flavor, but they tend to be meaty, dark and have a flavor like spruce tips, which is their preferred winter food source. My favorite way to hunt them is “spot and stalk” with a .22 rifle, they flush so close and tend to be in such thick spruce forest canopy that shooting on the wing is generally unproductive.

            Sharp-Tailed Grouse are another large grouse that tends to inhabit grassland and broken prairie habitat. I live near some of the best sharp-tail country in the state and I love hunting these birds. They are great fun to hunt with a shotgun in the early season- much like you would hunt pheasant in the lower-48. After the season wears on, the birds get nervous and tend to simply run away or flush from well outside of shotgun range. In the later season or in pressured areas, hunting with a .22 is more productive. I tend to limit myself to the shotgun on these birds lately and simply love long hikes in sharp-tail country with my Benelli and my dog. Flavor on these tends to be very good and in tacos reminds me of dark meat pork. These are the birds that made me a bird hunter.

            Ruffed Grouse are slightly smaller that Spruce or Sharp-tails and inhabit stands of re-growth poplars and aspen trees. They are easily my favorite grouse to eat, being much lighter in flavor and color than other grouse species. They are a suitable substitute for white meat chicken in most dishes and in many ways, are what all chicken should be. Flavor is very similar to free range chicken, not the Styrofoam protein substitute that’s more widely available at the grocery.  They are, in every sense of the term, the “chicken of the woods”. I’ve taken ruffed grouse with shotguns, .22s, head shot them with a center-fire, and my favorite method is currently the air rifle. Much like spruce grouse, their habitat doesn’t favor wing-shooting. I love the air rifle since approaching ruffed grouse isn’t terribly difficult and the single pellet doesn’t damage meat. Shooting delicate birds with a shotgun tends to destroy too much of the delicious meat of these birds for my taste. These grouse (like most game birds) have highly cyclical populations. I love it when they are up cycle and eat them at every opportunity. On a low cycle, I might go two or three years without seeing more than a handful.

            Sooty Grouse are one of the species I’ve not yet taken. These inhabit Southeast Alaska on the Coastal mountain ranges and are similar to the Blue Grouse found in the Rocky Mountains. These birds live in coastal, old growth rain forest. The typical hunting method is “hear and stalk” and was featured on a recent episode of Steven Rinella’s  “Meateater”. The general idea is to hear the male mating call that gives the species its nickname, the hooter. Once located, you then stalk to the large tree its living in and you glass the bird in the branches. Sniping them with a scoped .22 is the “go-to” method. These are most likely the most specialized and difficult of all the grouse species to hunt due to the difficult terrain and peculiar nature of the birds. It sounds easy on paper, but is reportedly far more difficult in practice.


            Alaska has all three species of ptarmigan (Lagopus) scattered throughout the state and I’ve taken all three. A member of the grouse family, they inhabit open mountain country and are wonderful and charismatic birds that make a roosting cry that sounds like “O-O-O...Ohio”. All three species are seasonally camouflaged in white plumage in winter and mottled brown in summer.

            Willow Ptarmigan are easily the most plentiful and widely distributed throughout the state and inhabit the willow flats found along glacial streams and rivers low lying tundra. In fall they are found in small family groups but in winter can flock up in the hundreds. I’ve taken these with both .22s and shotguns. Wing shooting can be very effective when approached like pheasant; a covey can often be jumped several times in succession. The meat is dark purple and they have a strong, liverish quality that some people don’t like. It is unlike other game birds and is complex in flavor. Ptarmigan is featured heavily in Icelandic and some Scottish cooking and is on the menu of Arctic dwellers everywhere.

            Rock Ptarmigan are very similar in appearance to Willow Ptarmigan. In fact, many people can’t tell the difference except by the terrain they inhabit. From a practical perspective, the terrain difference in enough to cause a slightly different hunting tactic. Rock Ptarmigan inhabit higher country, much more open, with lower vegetation growth and tend to be harder to approach within shotgun range. Wing shooting "rocks" can be challenging and I love to pursue them on Nordic skis in the winter. I will also typically have a .22 in camp for shooting rocks in caribou camp for a source of camp meat. In the pot, they are indistinguishable from willow or white-tailed ptarmigan.

            White-tailed Ptarmigan are smaller in body and less prolific than Rocks or Willows. The species is also the sole year-round alpine dwelling bird in all of N. America. White-tails are found exclusively in the alpine zone and coveys tend to be smaller and less densely populated than other ptarmigan species. They aren’t as widely distributed as well. These are readily indentified by their all-white tails (present year round) unlike Willows and Rocks which have a black band on the tail. I have only taken White-tails with a .22 as a target of opportunity while pursuing sheep and early season caribou high in the Alaska Range, but wing shooting could be possible for the specialist, in a fashion similar to chukars. High climbs in rocky, exposed country are the norm for these birds.

            Alaska contains two species of hare, the snowshoe and the Alaska hare. I have only pursued snowshoes to date.

            Snowshoe hares are a small to medium hare species widely distributed throughout Alaska, Canada and the Rocky Mountains. They are seasonally camouflaged, all white in winter and a typical brown in summer. Average weights are 3-4 pounds. Hare populations are highly cyclical and on up years can be unbelievably prolific. I’ve taken hares with .22s and shotguns in both summer and winter. They can be quite good eating in given preparations but prior to hunting hares the reader is encouraged to research tularemia which is present in Alaska populations and can be harmful to humans. My preference is to hunt them in winter in conjunction with sharp-tails. A piece of Alaska lore is to only hunt hares in months with an "R" (presumably for Rabbit) to protect against tularemia risks. While it precludes hunting hares in the warmest months of summer when infection rates are highest, I use safeguards when butchering hares year round to be on the safe side. Hares are also commonly taken in snares in winter.

            Alaska hares are much larger than snowshoe hares and only found on the Western coast of Alaska and the Alaska Peninsula. Typical weights are around 11 pounds but individuals up to 15 pounds have been recorded. It is a relative of the Canadian Arctic Hare and among the largest living lagomorphs world wide. They are typically hunted with small bore center-fire rifles that the indigenous inhabitants of the area favor as well as caught in nets during drives or snared. I have spent very little time hunting on the Western coast and Peninsula. Most of my time there has been in pursuit of work duties rather than hunting. Alaska Hares are impressive and I hope to eventually get one. They are reportedly much better flavored than snowshoe hares.

            So there you have it- a brief primer on all the small game species in the state. For the non-resident it is quite the bargain for the meager cost of a non-resident small game license and enough to interest even the specialist small game enthusiast. I must admit that I love chasing the small game species enough to do so frequently. While big game gets the lion's shares of the press and attention, it is really a shame that the small game species aren't more appreciated.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Survival...the .223 Cartridge.

I occasionally get some interesting mail. A few weeks back, I wrote about the .223 Remington cartridge and espoused my opinion that it makes a pretty poor big game rifle when one considers the available options.

A few days ago I received an email asking me my opinion on what I thought about the .223 as a "survival cartridge". Well, that's an awfully big subject. "Survival" could be anything from being stuck on your own in a wilderness setting awaiting rescue for a few days to a full blown, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario.

Since the author of the email didn't specify- I'll choose the practical more than the fanciful. Let's say you're on your own at a remote cabin and your float plane is delayed for a few days due to foul weather. It's not an imaginary situation- it happens every year here to at least a few hundred people. Combined with a freak accident in which your food supplies went over the bow of the canoe and down the rapids would leave you in a precarious sort of situation. In such a circumstance, any sort of device to procure some grub would be a welcome addition, a .223 included. I'm something of a minority when it comes to "survival rifles"- most are such a collection of compromises that they give up much utility. I've got a normal, light, scoped, bolt action rifle in .223 and it'd be fine in such a scenario.

Consider that I know many Native people out and about in Bush Alaska who rely on the .223 nearly exclusively for food procurement. I think you'd do just fine with the .223. In my travels I've been to several villages where the only discernible high powered rifles were Ruger Mini-14s firing ball ammunition. I've even seen a photograph of a young girl who'd just decked a rather large polar bear at close range. While such things show you what's possible with the .223, it's highly unadvisable.

Most of my Inupiat friends shoot the .223 and they shoot seals, hares, ptarmigan and the occasional caribou and manage to do quite alright with it. While I do believe the .223 lacks a lot to be desired in a big game cartridge, it is nearly ideal for head shooting seals. I've never shot a seal (I'm prohibited by law from doing so) but I've seen Native friends do it. It typically is a close range shot, from a good rest and very, very deliberate. Such shooting is perfect for an accurate, low recoil cartridge and Canadian Inuits have used the .222 Remington for years in a similar fashion. Shooting caribou in winter on barren ground makes for easy tracking in snow.

My Inupiat friends also shoot small game like hares and ptarmigan with the .223 and it does fine. Meat damage isn't as bad as you'd think. This last weekend I shot several ptarmigan with my .223 while predator hunting at about 100 yards or so with no meat damage at all. I've done much worse with a shotgun. Hares are often shot in open country at longer range as well and generally aren't approachable to within shotgun or .22 range when winter hits.

One thing to consider is that most Native folks aren't going to carry a bunch of different guns- they're going to carry one and a light .223 fits the bill perfectly. In that vein, the .223 works but I still can't see it as a weapon of choice for the big game hunter who is purposely pursuing larger game. As a survival rifle it would fit the bill and extend your range quite a lot on small game over a .22LR or shotgun and still be in the realm of possible should a larger animal present an opportunity. In times of desperation, you make do with what you have.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Heather's Choice!

As frequent readers of this blog know. I view most of the common freeze dried backpacking chow as one of the seven levels of hell. I've been known to chop up a ptarmigan into one, or more frequently just go hungry rather than choke one down. In a heavier camp, I'll drag around cast iron and a cooler and real eggs.

But that's not always possible when you're backpacking or rafting.

Enter one Heather Kelly of Heather's Choice. She started in her Anchorage home in 2014, providing meals on a pretty limited basis. Since then, her chow has found it's way to Everest- and into my camp.

Here's an excerpt:
"Originally created for those who rely on lots of calories to fuel them in the backcountry, our meals provide healthy, lightweight, sustainably sourced food without sacrificing taste. What we've come to find out is that people from all walks have recognized the importance of our meals; sailors, pilots, military personnel, and those who value emergency preparedness.
We use the highest quality proteins to create balanced, satisfying meals. Our current menu includes smoked wild caught Alaskan sockeye salmon, 100% grass-fed bison, 100% grass-fed elk, as well as humanely harvested venison, antelope and quail. These proteins not only provide you with high-quality nutrition, but are also sourced in a way that's environmentally friendly."
She had me at salmon, bison and elk...
Now she's looking to grow and funding it through a Kickstarter campaign....a concept I'm not sure I understand, but then again- I'm an old guy.
But this old guy is putting his money where his mouth is...and thinks you should too.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Everyman Rifle Project....or A Bang Stick for Everyone Pt. 1

It's the onset of Middle Winter, in the lower latitudes they have 4 seasons and so do we...but we have early, middle and late winter making up three of them. Middle winter is the time of short daylight hours, frigid cold temps and long periods indoors. 

In short- the perfect time for a writing project. 

In looking back over the analytics and correspondence, many folks were interested in my last multi-part project on the .30-06 and several more have expressed a lot of interest in "budget" rifles like the Ruger American and Savage Youth Combo that I've reviewed over the last couple of years. Such writing is always fun even if it does take me a little while to finish it. I must admit, I've never been particularly impressed with the way most gun magazines test rifles. For one, they get a gun from a vendor- it may be cherry picked for accuracy or it may be a random selection from a bin, no one knows. Second, they always take the gun and shoot it with a variety of loads or even tailored handloads until they get something that shoots a "sub MOA" group. Third, rarely are any problems reported on the rifle and if they are, it's minimized.

The bottom line is that gun tests in magazines and blogs very rarely match the way rifles are used in the real world. For instance, I saw a test reporting "outstanding accuracy!" on a budget gun by shooting $85 a box ammunition through a bench clamp. While the test is valid, it ignores the fact most folks shooting $300 rifles are never going to spend $85.00 on a box of ammo or ever shoot the rifle from such a device. With that in mind, what I'm proposing is to do something a little more real world and in order to keep myself on the intellectual straight and narrow, we have to devise some rules. 

So here they are:
1. Budget Rifle- must be a rifle marketed toward the entry market. For instance, the Ruger American, the Savage Axis, The Savage 11, The Remington 783, The Winchester XPR and the like. We will be somewhat limited on the variety based on what we can scrounge up for test. This is largely driven by Rule #2. An MSRP of approximately $500 for a bare rifle will be the cut off point. There is some discretion on this point driven by the local market being somewhat higher than the Lower 48 and some makers having grossly inflated MSRPs (I'm looking at you Ruger) over what you typically find them for at retail.

2. Test Rifle- must be a privately owned rifle acquired through normal retail channels. None of these rifles will be acquired from a distributor or manufacturer. These are all the personal property of someone, some of them are mine, some of them belong to friends of mine borrowed for the testing. In short, these are a representative sample of what commonly hits the marketplace.

3. Ammunition- we will select 2 varieties of hunting ammunition per cartridge out of the readily available box store stock sticking to major makers' lower priced offerings. Federal "Blue Box", Remington Core Lokt , Winchester Power Point and similar. No match ammo or "Premium" makers will be involved in the test. Real world buyers of these rifles don't buy 12 boxes hunting for optimum loads and they don't spend double the cost of the rifle on a few boxes of shells. 

4. Shooting- the rifles will be fired for three shot groups, 3 times by two shooters...or 18 rounds per ammunition type at 100yds. The shooting will occur over an improvised rest, consisting of a folding table, chair, and a backpack (the way guys with $300 rifles do it!). No ransom rest or bull bags. Results will be reported in a table with no "Do-overs", "Mulligans" or "Called Flyers". The 12 groups will be averaged and reported as the definitive "Accuracy" of the rifle. I fully realize that we could squeeze a bit more accuracy out of them by using a concrete bench and bull bags but here's the reason- the same two guys are going to shoot every rifle- which statistically levels the field and the nearest concrete shooting bench is a hundred miles away.

5. The "Good, Bad, Ugly" Report- the rifle will receive a score on objective criteria such as "Feeds from magazine" as well as some subjective criteria such as "Fit and Finish". I'm still thinking about the best way to this but it will likely look like a value added analysis ( I may be overthinking this a little). It's hard to score rifles on things like stock fit and balance and so forth so we'll try to steer clear  of elements without a firm metric. We'll report such things as a "Notes" entry.

There's the criteria and at this point, I'll invite readers to suggest edits to the rules. I'm very much open to suggestions on this but I need to nail it down before the shooting starts. So please make your suggestion in the comments of via email.