buy timberland Bow hunting small game is far from easy
Zac grew up in North Pole and got his first bow as a teenager. He’s been talking about letting me come along on a bird hunt for a few years. We both had some time last Friday morning and decided to go up to Murphy Dome. Learning to hunt and cook grouse or ptarmigan is on my winter to do list this year, so I really wanted to be successful.
I can’t yet check it off yet, despite my best efforts and Zac’s patient coaching, but the trip did hook me on the idea of bow hunting. I hope to get my own equipment and spend some time at the range to succeed next time.
Zac had a new bow to try out this year. He recently upgraded to a compound bow a powerful modern bow with pulleys on the top and bottom.
He used it last month to pass the shooting test for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game certification, a certification needed for restricted archery only hunts and (starting in 2016) for all big game archery hunts.
For small game like bird and rabbits, hunters don’t need a special certification, just a normal hunting license. But I needed an archery refresher to have any chance of hitting a bird. On our way to Murphy Dome, we stopped by the new public archery range at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Zac loaned me a nice recurve bow, a simple but aesthetically pleasing bow that requires about 40 pounds of force to pull back. With some practice, I was able to inconsistently hit a postage stamp sized target at 10 yards.
In the field, Zac carried arrows with spring loaded claws called judo tips. He loaned me arrows with wire hoops on the tips, big wide hoops, so I was basically hurling a projectile as wide as a softball.
On top of Murphy Dome, it was about zero degrees and windy. We spent about two hours walking on snowmachine trails and sometimes post holing through snow that’s considerably deeper than the snow in Fairbanks.
We saw ptarmigan, but only from a distance. We watched a flock of more than a dozen snow white birds flush from a hidden clearing behind some alders and fly away to a distant hillside.
We were just resigning ourselves to an unsuccessful hunt on the way back to town when the grouse crossed the road ahead of us.
I got out of the car and walked along the shoulder towards the speckled brown and gray bird. I notched an arrow but felt clumsier with the bow than I had at the range.
As Zac had suggested, I walked purposefully past the bird, not looking at it to avoid arousing its suspicion. Perhaps too purposefully. When I turned to make my shot, the speckled bird wasn’t where I thought it would be. It blended perfectly into the birch forest beyond the edge of the road.
I stopped and stared at the area for a long time until Zac got out of the car to see what was taking me so long. His experienced eyes quickly spotted the bird, a ways from where I’d last seen it.
The bird was already headed into the cover of the tree line. Zac got a shot off, but it missed and the grouse kept walking into the woods.
I never had a good enough shot to release an arrow, so I walked directly into the woods after the bird, which spooked the it enough for it to take flight.
I spotted it one more time deeper in the woods, but this time it flew away for good when it saw me. I went home without a grouse dinner.
A popular pursuit
Before I go out again, I need to get my own equipment and practice. But to really hedge my bets, I’ve also been hassling other bow hunters for tips this week.
Bob Hunter, a hunter information training coordinator for fish and game wasn’t surprised to hear I’d struck out on Murphy Dome.
The grouse and ptarmigan in the Murphy Dome area are used to being shot at with firearms, so they have a reputation for being jumpy, he said. That can make it harder to get within archery range.
Hunter said small game bow hunters with a bit more time like to look for birds off the Dalton Highway, where bow hunting is allowed, but firearm hunting is prohibited within five miles of the highway.
Hunters pursue ptarmigan through the winter, but after snowfall, most try to avoid one particular grouse species, the spruce grouse, which eat spruce tips and take on an unappetizing “turpentine like” flavor, he said.
The grouse we pursued could have been a spruce, sharp tailed or ruffed grouse, he said. Zac suspects it was probably a spruce grouse.
Hunter recommends ptarmigan hunters in alpine terrain carry binoculars so they can spot the prey at a distance. He said newer bow hunters also often carry more of a bow than they need; a 20 pound draw weight bow is plenty to kill a ptarmigan.