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Schandelmeier: Fall colors signal hunting season along Denali Highway

DENALI HIGHWAY -- There is more than a tinge of red on the hills. Recreation vehicles towing multiple ATVs are on the roadway. These signs of fall follow a relatively cold summer. Spring came early, but fall has been hanging on since late July. Cold and wet weather have had a big effect on the local flora and fauna.

Blueberries were late. Paxson has better berries than usual, though they are spotty. Tangle Lakes is good. The Maclaren Valley is great as usual, though extremely slow in ripening. If you are coming to the Denali to pick berries, prepare for rainy days. Knee boots and good rain gear are a must.

On the up side, there has been no frost and the berries are still solid. In spite of the inclement summer, the ptarmigan had a successful hatch. The broods are large and the young ones are already full size. Vegetation likes rain, which made the willows very thick. An aggressive bird dog will be a definite plus.

Water and ducks go hand in hand. The east end of the Denali at Tangle Lakes has big local flocks of pintails and widgeons. So does the Maclaren drainage. Monahan Flats, though harder to access, has excellent birds. Most of the lakes are a foot or so above normal levels and have water and ducks in the grass.

High water in lakes and on the creeks makes fishing difficult. Most of the grayling have headed for the main rivers by late August. Lake trout are beginning to get active in shallow water, but the plethora of feed washing into the larger lakes causes them to be a bit picky. Slow-moving chartreuse lures should yield the best results.

Lure of caribou

But fish, birds and berries are not the reason for all of those four-wheelers, something many caribou hunters think are necessary. The trouble with the Paxson end of the Denali is that there are relatively few off-road trails -- and the trails are busier than the main road. Caribou are sporadically taken on these trails, either singles or traveling in small groups. But the animals are staying high, out of the wet swamps.

Walk-in hunters are having excellent success this season, working just off the Denali Highway. Hunters without off-road transportation generally favor Tangle Lakes and the Maclaren/Clearwater area. The lack of trees is a plus for caribou hunting, but no spruce trees make many people nervous, and that keeps the first 60 miles of the highway much quieter.

A year ago, there were almost 14,000 caribou permits in the area and most of the hunters also hunted moose in Unit 13. This season, there are only a third of that number. There have been quite a few mornings since the beginning of hunting season when the first vehicle isn't rolling until 9 a.m. Maybe the moose hunters will get up earlier?

Few signs of grizzlies, wolves

Normally the moose are hanging out in valleys in mid-to-late August feeding on pondweed. In this wet hunting season, there are a lot more ponds to choose from. Look higher up and think smaller. Moose calf survival seems normal, though admittedly I see a relatively small portion of Unit 13. Anecdotal evidence suggests the bear population in the Upper Susitna drainage is high. Tangle Lakes, the Maclaren, and the Clearwater have a normal to low population. I have not seen a fresh grizzly track on the Maclaren in all of August.

No wolf tracks either. Nor have there been many fox around. This area used to support a very healthy fox population, but since wolf control, it has dropped to an all-time low. Hunters are the only predators in the area whose numbers are increasing.

This past weekend, the coffee marauders were the most numerous. Pouring rain on Sunday and Monday kept folks in their trucks. There have been quite a number of caribou taken, some quite large. The last really wet August we had was followed by a great September. Frosty nights and sunny days were the rule. That's what this portion of the fauna is holding out for.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

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