Outdoors/Adventure

When birds are sparse, being grateful for the little progress can sometimes make for a successful hunt

The day that forever changed our perception

“Finally smells like fall,” Christine said when we started up a trail that would end at the tree line, where our day would start.

“Hugo thinks so,” I replied as the beautiful setter launched into the high country. His enthusiasm was reminiscent of his papa Winchester, now sidelined from the toll taken over years of mountain running, toward the same distant, brain-freeze cold mountain streams beside which “his” birds make their living.

A downdraft from the surrounding mountains filled the air with brilliant gold-colored leaves, and the semi-sour-sweet scent signaling the arrival of pumpkin spice and Oktoberfest celebrations. The skiff of snow on the near peaks harbored the promise that fall can never be just a date on the calendar.

“Everything points to today being the day, don’t you think?” Christine asked.

“Up to the orange belt on setter and nature,” I said.

“What, you think Rigby has no say,” she laughed.

Despite the opposing mission of their bloodlines, Hugo’s to find birds, Rigby’s to retrieve them, they had grown to be a good team. Hugo set the stage, and Rigby typically paced Hugo from 20 yards back and off to either side. Rigby’s enormous size and Labrador’s propensity to flush birds at first scent would not normally make a good match for a blue-blood pointing dog.

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We call them the odd couple. Rigby’s rumpled face is a comedy with the looks he gives Hugo when he sprints up a mountain. But Rigby charges right after him. His athleticism developed over many climbs into the high country, he looks like an Interior grizzly running up a hillside effortlessly.

Midway through their second summer running the mountains, with no credit to anything we did, when Hugo stops, for whatever reason, Rigby stops behind him. We did not know what Rigby would do if Hugo pointed whitetail ptarmigan, his birds.

The absence of even moderate numbers of whitetails for the past three years has haunted Christine and me to the point of distraction.

Perhaps because we spend so much time in the high country where they live and have interacted with them for so many years, we feel a bond with them.

Young whitetails don’t go far when flushed, and honestly, it would be easy to shoot every member of a covey in the early part of the season. That is one reason not to kill them too early. The other is that they are half-grown.

Little is known about whitetail ptarmigan. There hasn’t been any significant research done, mainly because they live out their lives in the alpine, where access to them is difficult at best. So hunters have to learn on their own.

What sealed our relationship with them came early in Winchester’s magnificent career, when we were all still trying to figure out what makes them tick.

Rigby showing Hugo he, too is a mountain dog, during a hunt

Winchester had gone on point well above us and out of sight on the August morning. As we climbed over the ridgeline, and he came into view, he was in a staunch point, head down, tail high and stiff as a board. Gray shale interspersed with lichen, near a steep rushing mountain stream, hid the birds well.

Walking in behind him to flush the bird a whitetail moved out away from Winchester’s staunch nose. As we approached, the ptarmigan didn’t flush. Christine kneeled down when she realized what was happening.

“She has chicks nearby,” Christine said.

“I’ll circle in front of her and try to get her to go back to them,” I replied.

As I climbed above the hen, Christine said, “Turn around and look by my legs.”

There were two ptarmigan chicks so close to her, she could have picked them up. I imagine some folks would not be derailed by such an event. We are not among them. Pulling Winchester away, we continued climbing, where he repeated the performance with two more coveys.

That day began a new way of hunting for us. We didn’t shoot any, and yet, it was a wonderful experience, certainly one of the best. The love affair with these birds intensified that day, and we’ve never looked back.

When the population spiraled downward, we were at a loss. Possibly they had been hunted out, which is often said not to matter for birds in terms of setting seasons and bag limits. The rationalization that big bag limits, and hunter opportunity are critical in Alaska, and hunting is never going to hurt the overall population of a bird species.

That may be true, but it does not mean an area cannot be over-harvested.

The other possibility we considered was that more encroachment by folks enjoying backcountry. But that didn’t make too much sense for our concerns. Rarely do we ever see another person roaming around these places, even in summer when folks are most active.

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Avian flu might be another possible answer. A year ago, before hunting season started, we found a dead whitetail that displayed no evident trauma. We figured it was just the way of things in the natural world, as it often is. Then, during the season, we found another. At the time, we didn’t think about the flu, but maybe.

Nevertheless, the pleasure of being in these places is enough and we approached our day with Hugo and Rigby with hope.

After three hours of climbing, near a place where we had found many birds in the past, but not for three years, we watched in nervous anticipation as Hugo worked through the shale and boulders.

When Hugo slammed on point, tail rigid, a locked-on stare, Christine and I looked at each other grinning like the village idiots. We knew.

Twenty-three climbs into the valleys we have hunted for many years, and a couple of new spots, since July had produced one lone male whitetail the second week of September.

With the intensity of Hugo’s point, and the way his body trembled, we knew there were multiple birds and moved in.

The impact of seeing four birds, a whitetail hen and three chicks cannot be put in words. After the sixth trip into the mountains during hunting season, with no birds located, we stopped carrying guns. This day was our 13th trip. We made photos and flushed the birds for Hugo. They didn’t go far, and we called the boys off, with a sigh of relief.

The places hunters live their hunting lives are not composed of data, and statistics, they cannot be governed by committee. Every valley, stream and forest, composes a microenvironment.

Some say for the overcrowding of parks and such that “we are loving them too much.” True enough. For our part, we cannot let the regulations be the sole source of guidance as we develop our love affair with nature. For us, after many years, that means that even when the limit is 10 birds a day in lean years, we are grateful to see a bird and respect the time of replenishment.

Steve Meyer | Alaska outdoors

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting.

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