Words by Danny Rinella
The first ptarmigan I ever shot was on an icy mountainside on Kodiak Island. I was new to Alaska and had lucked into a month of fall fieldwork on the island, which included some free time for hunting and fishing.
I was hiking up the creek behind the ranch where I was staying and, as I crossed the base of a scree slope that ran a thousand feet up the mountainside, I could hear croaking noises coming from the rocks above. It sounded more like a bullfrog than anything else, but couldn’t be that.
I scanned the scree slope with my binoculars and saw, a couple hundred yards above, a dozen plump, white birds staring down at me through black masks. Rock ptarmigan! These masks, streaks of black on the male’s winter plumage that connect the black bill to the black eye , were what caught my attention in the first place and, in the years since, have betrayed otherwise camouflaged birds several times.
The ptarmigan were nestled into some treacherous terrain. A steep band of jagged scree about 100 yards wide with a couple inches of snow on top, all glazed over by freezing rain that blew in from the Gulf of Alaska a few days before. I could safely climb to the birds’ elevation in a band of alder that fringed the scree, but stepping out into that scree to shoot or retrieve a bird would be suicidal.
But I realized that if I could connect with a long shot, the dead bird would probably slide down the mountain anyway. I scrambled up through the alder band and found that I could get within about 40 yards of the birds, who were totally unconcerned by the presence of an out-of-breath guy fumbling with a side-by-side 20-gauge.
I pointed at the nearest bird and fired the full choke barrel, this was my first shot at a ptarmigan and I wasn’t about to be ‘sporting’ and flush the birds before shooting. The shot connected and the bird whizzed down the mountainside, coming to rest right where I’d been standing when I spotted them.
The remaining birds stood but didn’t fly. I reloaded the full choke barrel and again fired at the nearest bird, which in about 3 seconds was lying next to his flock-mate down in the creek bottom. The remaining birds flushed at the second shot so I slowly, but excitedly, picked my way down through the alder patch to claim my first two ptarmigan.
Ptarmigan had been on my mind for a long time before this. When I was a kid I spent a lot of time nosing through the color plates in my dad’s old field guide to the birds. The plates with game birds were especially intriguing, and I’d imagine tromping through wide-open Western country with a shotgun and a dog, scouring prairie or tundra for sporty birds never found in my native habitat, Michigan scrub oak.
Of these so-called chicken-like birds, none worked my imagination like the ptarmigan, three species that turned snow-white in winter and lived in the continent’s wildest and wooliest country. These birds helped feed my childhood fascination with Alaska the willow ptarmigan is, after all, the state bird and, when I moved to Anchorage in my late 20s, hunting these birds was high on my long to-do list.
My pursuit has led me to the alpine valleys and windswept arctic tundra where these birds live. Willow ptarmigan, the largest and apparently most abundant of the three, are indeed found mostly in patches of shrub willow, typically on or near the valley floor. From my experience, creek bottoms lined with felt-leaf and other tall shrub willow are especially productive.
Rock ptarmigan, true to their name, are usually found above the valley floor on rocky slopes and benches, just like I had found them on Kodiak. White-tailed, the smallest and apparently rarest of the ptarmigan, tend to be found higher than the others, in craggy bolder fields and often near snowfields or glaciers. Friends and I once bagged all three, the ptarmigan grand slam, in a small alpine valley above Anchorage by hunting from the valley floor all the way up to the craggy ridgeline.
Alaska’s hunting regulations, which, incidentally, are bewilderingly complex by Midwestern standards, hint at the abundance of ptarmigan in the vast expanses. The season runs most of the year and hunters are allowed 10 birds a day around Anchorage and up to 50 birds a day, 100 in possession, in other areas. It’s even legal to use traps or snares.
These permissive regulations might lead one expect a ptarmigan behind every bush, but it didn’t take long to discover that this wasn’t necessarily the case. Their distribution is patchy and, even when populations are large, hours of bird-less hiking are not unusual. In addition, bird numbers seem to fluctuate a lot from year to year and some years even the most reliable spots are slim picking.
For example, my friend Matt Carlson was caribou hunting on the Kenai Peninsula and discovered an alpine valley that was holding hundreds, maybe thousands, of ptarmigan. We hiked the 8 miles into that valley the following September and for three Septembers after that to find a staggering number of willow ptarmigan; so many that the din of their “go-back-go-back-go-back” calls could be heard for the last half mile of the hike. Over the past few years, though, this valley has been devoid of ptarmigan.
I do most of my ptarmigan hunting during winter in the mountains above Anchorage. Winter can be a good time to hunt because snow buries a lot of the available cover, concentrate the birds in whatever cover remains exposed. On skis with climbing skins, we travel alpine valleys with our shotguns disassembled and tucked in our packs until we find some promising sign.
Ptarmigan can leave a lot of sign. Flocks of them crisscross the valleys, often in the pre-dawn hours, leaving feathery snow-shoe tracks that zig zag between patches of cover and piles of droppings that could easily pass for All-Bran cereal. Sign can be everywhere but birds may or may not be anywhere nearby.
Binoculars can be helpful for spotting distant sign or exposed birds, and the strange pink tint that they sometimes get during the late winter makes them easier to spot. Once a flock of ptarmigan is located and flushed, they may only fly a couple hundred yards or to the nearest patch of cover before landing again, giving hunters multiple opportunities for shots. Sometimes, however, they decide to leave the valley before a single shot is fired.
When I skinned that first ptarmigan back on Kodiak, I was surprised at the darkness of the flesh, which was closer in color and flavor to wild duck than I’d expected. Also like duck, ptarmigan breast meat is darker than leg meat due to their physiological adaptation for sustained flight.
Some friends say that ptarmigan meat is best in the fall but that it takes on a liver flavor as the winter winds on. Others I know think it tastes like liver all the time. My favorite ptarmigan meals have been those shared with my brothers on Dall sheep hunts. Some fresh meat, salted with leftover Ramen Noodle flavoring and fried in oil, is heavenly after days of mountain hiking and freeze-dried dinners.