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Alaska Ptarmigan Hunting -- Pyrodex or Triple Se7en

posted Aug 22, 2011, 1:36 PM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Apr 3, 2012, 1:26 PM ]
    The primary activity for this year's trip to Alaska will be  Ptarmigan hunting.  Stories abound about the outstanding wing shooting which Alaska Ptarmigan can provide.  So far, my experience with Ptarmigan hunting has been entirely different.  During the last two trips to Alaska the primary quarry was Caribou. Each evening at sunset, we heard moderate numbers of Ptarmigan calling around the camp.  Encouraged by the calling birds, I spent many hours walking around the tundra near the Caribou camp with my Pedersoli SxS.   However, the hours of walking in the boggy tundra has yet to produce a ptarmigan in the bag. The few birds which manage to find generally flushed well out of range of my Pedersoli muzzle loader. 

Hopefully, things will be different this year as we will be hunting with bird dogs.  My red setter will be making the trip to Alaska and my brother, who lives in Anchorage, will have his pointer.  (The two dogs are pictured above in their kennels.) The plan is to spend a week camping on Alaska's Denali Highway.  The Denali Highway (Alaska Route 8) is a lightly traveled, mostly gravel highway which runs the 135 miles from Paxson to Cantwell, Alaska.  This will put us in the interior of Alaska where ptarmigan populations exhibit large fluctuations. Adverse weather or high predator numbers during a few years can reduce chick production and overwinter survival, resulting in rapid and substantial declines.  However, if environmental conditions are favorable, ptarmigan can respond quickly and become plentiful.  Hopefully, this year’s hatch will produce a large number of birds.

     There are three kinds of ptarmigan in Alaska - the willow ptarmigan and rock ptarmigan, and white-tailed ptarmigan.  On this trip we are likely to encounter only willow and rock ptarmigan. While these birds are similar in appearance, they occupy very different habitats. 

    Willow Ptarmigan. The willow ptarmigan has an appropriate name. The willow ptarmigan favors willow-lined waterways, either on the coastal plains of western and northern Alaska or in subalpine areas throughout the rest of the state.   They nest in willow-lined waterways area sparsely timbered or treeless areas during the summer.  In winter, willow ptarmigan remain close to shrubby slopes and valleys, but they seek out areas at lower altitudes than what they use during the breeding season.

    Most Alaskan ptarmigan chicks hatch in late June and early July.  Families of willow ptarmigan join to form flocks in September. The ptarmigan then begin to move around more than in the nesting season. Females and males tend to separate in late September and October; the females, usually in small groups, seek food and shelter at lower elevations.

     In most parts of Alaska these movements to and from summer ranges encompass only a few miles. In other parts of the state good wintering places are far from the breeding grounds. For example, hens that nest or were reared on the north slope of the Brooks Range move up to 100 miles southward in late fall, wintering on the south side of the Brooks Range in the low hills and wooded valleys north of the Yukon River in the east, or in the valleys of the Noatak and Kobuk Rivers to the west.

     Along the Denali Highway, the Ptarmigan hunting will consist primarily of  running the dogs in promising cover along the willow lined waterways.

    Rock Ptarmigan. Rock ptarmigan breed on hilly or mountainous tundra throughout Alaska. They prefer slopes and high valleys where shin-high shrubs form a patchy pattern with low herbs and grasses. The summer range of rock ptarmigan often abuts willow ptarmigan range, with rock ptarmigan breeding on higher, drier, rockier ground. In winter most male rock ptarmigan are at the lower edge of their breeding range. The hens move to the hills fringing large valleys, where they spend the winter in shrubby, open habitat.

     Hens erratically lead their broods from one good location to another, usually staying within one-half mile of the nest. Chicks normally stay with their parent until late August. Throughout September flocks of rock ptarmigan numbering from 20 to over 250 birds gather and move from place to place. At the end of this period, in which various local populations mix, flocks of mostly females move to their low-elevation wintering areas.

     Hunting rock ptarmigan is generally accomplished by glassing the high open areas with binoculars in an attempt locate some birds.  Once the birds are located, it is a matter of hoofing it up the hill in an attempt to get within range.

    Ptarmigan Loads for the Muzzle Loader. 

     Ptarmigan are an arctic grouse. They are medium sizes birds weighing about one pound each. Heavy loads are not required for a clean kill.  My preferred load for an upland bird of this size is a shot cartridge, with one ounce of shot with 3 1/4 drams of real black powder.

    Under current TSA rules, taking real black powder on the plane is not an option.  The powder to be used on this trip would have to be purchased on arrival in Anchorage.  A quick call to the Anchorage Sportman's Warehouse confirmed that they did not carry real black powder, but they had a variety of black powder substitutes in stock. While I have patterned my shot cartridges on several occasions, my testing  has been with real black powder rather than a black powder substitute.  To be on the safe side, I decided to make sure that the shot cartridges would produce good patterns with a black powder substitute.  I had a batch of cartridges loaded up with Number Four shot left over from last pheasant season which I decided to use for patterning. (The Number 4 shot is probably a little course for ptarmigan and I will use Number 6 shot in the batch of cartridges which I load up for the trip.)

    The patterning tests were conducted with Pryodex, Triple Se7en and Schutzen Reenactor black powder.  The real black powder loads were intended only to serve only as a point of comparison.  However, the patterning results from the real black powder loads proved very surprising.    All testing was done with a Pedersoli SxS shotgun at 30 yards using Pedersoli modified choke tubes.  A volumetric load of 3.25 drams was used with the Prodex and Schutzen Reenactor powders.    A volumetric load of 2.75 drams (approximately a 15% reduction) was used with the Triple Se7en powder. 

    I have a strong preference for real black powder and particularly like the Schutzen Reenactor powder on the skeet range.  However, based on these tests, both black powder substitutes produced significantly denser patterns than real black powder.   Here are the patterns.


 Pellet Counts

Inner 10  -- 50
10 to 20  -- 52

20 to 30  -- 7

Total    --109
 Pellet Counts

Inner 10  -- 63
10 to 20  -- 41

20 to 30  -- 6

Total    --
Inner 10  -- 32
10 to 20  -- 57

20 to 30  -- 13

Total    -  102
Inner 10  -- 45
10 to 20  -- 46

20 to 30  -- 2

Total    --95
 Averages for Pyrodex patternsInner 10  -- 47
10 to 20  -- 49
20 to 30  -- 7
Total    --103

Triple Se7en

 Pellet Counts

Inner 10  -- 45
10 to 20  -- 42

20 to 30  -- 7

Total    --94

 Pellet Counts

Inner 10  -- 54
10 to 20  -- 82

20 to 30  -- 20

Total    --  156
Inner 10  -- 49
10 to 20  -- 43

20 to 30  -- 11

Total    --103
Inner 10  -- 57
10 to 20  -- 42

20 to 30  -- 5

Total    --104
Averages for Triple Se7en patterns
Inner 10  -- 51
10 to 20  -- 52
20 to 30  -- 11
Total    --  114

Schutzen Reenactor

 Pellet Counts

Inner 10' -- 27
10 to 20 -- 55

20 to 30 -- 42

Total  --    124
 Pellet Counts

Inner 10' -- 22
10 to 20 -- 58

20 to 30 -- 21

Total  -- 102   
Inner 10' -- 24
10 to 20 -- 47

20 to 30 -- 23

Total  --   94

Inner 10' -- 35
10 to 20 -- 41

20 to 30 -- 27

Total  --    103
Averages for real black powder patterns Inner 10' --  27
10 to 20 --  50
20 to 30 -- 28
Total  --   105

Pellet Counts
10 ' core 10-20 20-30 total in 30 inch circle
at 30 yards
Black powder 27 50 28 106
Pyrodex 48 49 7 104
Triple Se7en 51 52 11 114

   I am not sure what to make of these results. Some of the variability in the total number of pellets is due to the inconsistency of the payloads in my hand made cartridges.    However, the two black powder substitutes produced significantly tighter patterns as compared to the real black powder, particularly in the core of the pattern.  Either of substitutes will be more than adequate for the grouse hunting expedition and these results certainly raise some questions about the effect which the type of powder has on pattern density.

    Hopefully, I will have some pictures of ptarmigan to post when I get back from Alaska.

The Hunting Results


(clip on picture to enlarge -- the view from our camp)

    I grew up in Colorado and am used to specular mountain scenery.  However, the views along the Denali Highway put the Colorado mountains to shame.  The weather in early September was in the mid-40s with a little bit of rain. The surrounding mountains were receiving snow, which made for outstanding views of snow capped peaks. The willows and other bushes had turned from green to various shades of yellow, gold and red. Regardless of whether or not we bagged any game, I would have considered this trip to the Denali Highway as great success. 

    The birds were not a plentiful as I might have hoped, but I did bag my first ptarmigan with the muzzleloader.  We spent the first two days along the Denali Highway hunting along the willow lined creeks without seeing a bird. However, we ran into several moose hunters who had bagged ptarmigan along the road. 

    On the third day, we decided to hunt a little higher country.  Almost immediately, the dogs started to find birds.  The birds were generally in flocks of 6-10 birds and most of the birds were hiding in the heavy willows.  This made for some interesting shooting and some difficult retrieves for the dogs.   After missing a couple of easy shots, we started to connect and bagged a number of birds.  We only found Willow Ptarmigan; all of which were in the process of changing from the brown plumage to their white plumage.


    Ptarmigan breast is dark red in color and tastes a little like beef.  I fried the breast of first birds in bacon fat and served them on hard rolls with bacon and American cheese.  They made an excellent lunch back at camp.  For desert, we had home made Blue Berry Pie which we had purchased at the Gracious House along the Denali Highway. 

    We spent the final two days of the trip hunting in the higher country.  The dogs continued to find a number of Willow Ptarmigan in the creek bottoms, but the heavy brush made it difficult to get shots off, particularly with my muzzleloader.  We did get a couple of more birds and were sorry to leave this beautiful country when it was time to go home.