Upland Hunting in Alaska; The Bird Hunter's Guide Jim McCann
Finally, the book for about the upland birds in Alaska. Written by a dedicated bird hunter with over twenty years experience as a writer, and a lifetime of upland hunting. Learn how to find birds depending on what species of grouse or ptarmigan you are hunting. Go along with Jim McCann as he hunts his team of dogs for ruffed grouse, sharptails, or one of the other seven species of upland birds in Alaska. Live the excitement of working with an experienced dog who is into the hunt as much as you are. Hunters from Alaska and the world over will find what they have been looking for–finally in print. This is the first, and ultimate, manual from the expert on Alaska’s upland game. 312 pages, 129 photos and illustrations,
The Upland Almanac - Upland Publishing, Inc. - John Gosselin-Publisher
"Jim McCann's passion for upland hunting jumps out at you from nearly every page in this wonderful book. If anything exceeds his admiration for the grouse and ptarmigan he pursues, it is his eagerness to share the excitement of memorable hunts. And if anything could exceed that, it would be McCann's exuberance over his Brittanys' talents."
PART I - THE BEGINNINGS
Chapter 1 - A Grouse Hunter is Born
Like a lot of other kids back in the early 60s, I somehow talked my folks into allowing me to have a BB gun — a lever action Daisy Red Rider — a very cool gun then and now. My neighborhood pals and I would while away the entire summer shooting targets and eventually finding a place we simply called, "The Woods," where we could learn to hunt. You see, I was one of those kids who came from a non-hunting family in upstate New York, so whatever would turn me towards hunting and fishing would come from other influences.
Some of those early influences were not exactly good ones, and looking back I’m not at all proud of what we kids did with those BB guns. We were quick to turn our BB guns on the many songbirds that lived in the woods. A real trophy was to bag a red cardinal — or some other brightly colored bird — and then we would practice what we thought were good and proper taxidermy practices upon those few birds we did manage to take.
It didn’t take long for each of us to catch the hunting fever, and soon our BB guns were considered "not enough gun" for our newly intended quarry of cottontail rabbits and gray squirrels. No sir, we needed much more powerful pellet guns, and after saving money from my paper route, I once again strong-armed my folks into allowing me to buy a .22 caliber Crossman single-shot pump pellet rifle. Armed with that pellet gun and the stalking skill of a young kid with time on his hands, I started to occasionally pot a rabbit or a squirrel. Then something happened the fall of my 12th year that would change my life forever. No, it wasn’t the experience of a first kiss. It was even better than that. It was the year I became a grouse hunter!
It was a Saturday morning, and I was once again sneaking around in our little section of woods with my pellet rifle, looking for something to shoot. I knew nothing of game birds, although, I had heard adult hunters talk fondly about a bird they called "pa’tridge." In our little woods, we had "Big Birds" that would occasionally scare the bejeebers out of us when one would blast off from somewhere in the "thick stuff," but none of us kids had actually seen one up close. We didn’t really know what they were, but we sure were keen on shooting one.
Separated from the other kid along with me that day, I was sneaking around in the thick stuff, or what I would today refer to as one helluva nice grouse thicket, when I heard the dry leaves rustle. Turning to see what had made the noise, fully expecting to see a squirrel or rabbit, my young eyes focused on one of those Big Birds as it took a few steps and stopped to gawk at me. Without so much as a thought upon the matter, I recall slipping the safety off and instinctively bringing the pellet rifle quickly to my shoulder. Over 40 years later now, I seem to recall the bird beginning to flush as I slapped the trigger and sent the pellet on its way, but it’s likely the bird was standing when the soft-lead projectile hit him. Ten years from now I may recall that same bird in full flight. Memory plays tricks like that when you get "older."
Dashing toward the bird that now lay with wings flailing in the leaves and making a ruckus, I stood over the bird – pondering the situation. I was afraid to try and pick it up, fearing the bird would seek revenge and peck at my hands, or try for an eye or something. And I had absolutely no idea what I would have done to finish the bird off anyhow. Thankfully, the bird helped me out by soon lying quietly, and very much dead. My buddy ran over to see what was going on, and we stood there amazed as I held the bird up high by one leg, turning it around and around, scrutinizing each feather, in awe at its size and beauty, spreading the fantail of this glorious gray bird and "oohing" and "ahhing" over it – all the while wondering just what the hell kind of bird it was.
I carried the bird home and sought out an adult in the neighborhood who I knew to be an occasional hunter, so I could ask him what kind of bird I’d shot. Andy took one look at the bird I held in my hand and said, "Where did you get that partridge?" So that answered that question. But then came many questions from Andy wanting to know exactly where I’d bagged the bird, which left me puzzled over why he showed so much interest in my hunting spot. It wasn’t until a bit later in life — when I came to find out about those places called "coverts," and how partridge hunters should keep those places secret — that I understood. But I told Andy where I got him, and he told me how to pluck and clean the bird. Mom cooked the bird for me that very evening.
Now I was hooked and needed to know more about these beautiful birds. I’d been given some outdoor magazines, and my mom helped me out by buying me subscriptions to each of the "Big Three" outdoor magazines — Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, and Field & Stream — if I did my chores and stayed out of trouble. It was through vicarious experience gleaned from the pages of these magazines, and my own adventures in the woods and along the streams, that I developed a lifelong desire to hunt and fish. And it was through those same magazines I formed much of my early hunting ethics, which meant the immediate end to shooting non-game species.
No more songbirds for this kid. I was a grouse hunter! While other boys my age coveted "girlie" magazines (and don’t feel sorry for me, ‘cause my pals always had a few of those around our ramshackle clubhouse), I read my outdoor magazines from cover to cover many times, soaking up as much information as I could about my favorite subjects. My mother would catch me reading those magazines under the covers at night with the aid of my Cub Scout flashlight, and complain to my dad that hunting and fishing was all I ever thought about. (At least I didn’t ask for a bird dog, because I knew it just wasn’t in the cards for me because of where we lived.)
Through my reading, I also learned about Alaska, and I vowed to someday visit the 49th state to fish and hunt the last great wilderness area of the United States. Little did I know, someday I would not only visit Alaska, but I would make my home there. I’ve lived in Alaska for over thirty years now. I still covet outdoor magazines and books as much as I did in my youth, and my home reveals considerable collections of them. I not only read a lot of outdoor magazines, but during the early 1980s, I began writing for them. But I digress.
Prior to turning thirteen, I was already tormented over which shotgun to buy as my first gun. My older brother, Chuck, had taken a liking to bird hunting for a short while and convinced Dad to buy him his first shotgun. But it was me that Dad took to the Sears & Roebuck store to help make the right choice for Chuck’s first gun. As I’ve said, I’d been doing a lot of reading on this subject by now, and I’d learned much more than just the fact that "pa’tridge" or "partridge" is what many hunters call ruffed grouse, but ruffed grouse aren’t technically a partridge. I’d learned all sorts of valuable information and skills from my reading, and it made the choice easy in picking out Chuck’s gun.
Perusing the gun rack at Sears, I concerned myself with brands and gauges while Dad worried over price tags. In the end I told him, "Dad, if you were buying a gun for me, I’d want that Browning!" Dad was not happy over my choosing the most expensive gun on the rack, but he ended up buying Chuck a Browning Belgium-made "Sweet Sixteen," a semi-auto 16-gauge shotgun. Was I a cool brother, or what? And how about that way-cool Dad!
When it came my turn for a first shotgun on my 13th birthday, I did not send Chuck with Dad to pick out my gun – although Chuck was no slouch when it came to gun savvy. He soon tired of the Browning 16 and bought a Beretta 20-gauge gun that was much lighter than the humpbacked Browning, and in a gauge that was all the rage in the outdoor media at the time. This made things just grand for me, because I was torn between a side by side and a Browning auto like Chuck’s. So when I found myself standing there at the Sears’ gun rack with Dad, I selected a J.C. Higgins 20-gauge side by side with 28-inch barrels and double triggers. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. My clever logic worked just fine, too – in no time, I had a choice between my double 20 and Chuck’s semi-auto 16 to hunt with. It was like I had two guns of my own.
Seldom would my swarm of shot meet with a grouse or a woodcock in those days, but the fire raged within me, and I continued to hunt gamebirds with earnest. I didn’t pay much attention to chokes back then, and I recall a fondness for the new plastic-hull Super-X 6s and used them exclusively. I knew nothing about the techniques of shooting flying birds. Reflecting upon all this and again holding the old J.C. Higgins shotgun with chokes that can only be described as tight and tighter, it’s little wonder I rarely had the satisfaction of putting a bird in the game bag. But I kept going back to the New England woods each October with as much excitement as I felt on that Saturday morning when I bagged that first-ever ruffed grouse with my pellet gun.
All through high school, I carried my shotgun in the trunk of my car (sadly considered illegal these days) every day during the autumn upland hunting season, and right after school was out, I was on my way to the woods in search of grouse. My childhood sweetheart would grumble about my hunting and fishing obsessions, but she understood and never said a whole lot about it, even when I left her standing outside of school or on her front porch while other kids were hanging out together somewhere else. She’s still putting up with me and my never-ending passion for the outdoors after more than 30 years of marriage.
My only experience with pheasant hunting beyond the stories I’d read or overheard from the conversations of other hunters, was in October 1965. My pals and I had previously hunted a few areas along farm edges where we knew pheasants might be found, but I’d never flushed a pheasant — wild or otherwise — until one Saturday morning in mid-October at the age of 16. Eddy and I had been hunting my favorite and most productive ruffed grouse covert with little success. Sure, we’d put some birds up, but neither of us had connected. I was carrying my brother’s Browning Sweet 16, a gun I shot quite well, but those ruffs were jumpy and hanging in the thickest cover available.
We’d just broken out of the heavy thickets along a side hill and up on a small shelf that was more open with young sprouts and wild grasses, and neither of us were expecting any birds to flush. We knew where to find ruffs, in the thickest "jungles" around, so we now carried our guns over one shoulder as we headed for other grouse thickets. The big rooster chose that moment to burst from the grass almost at our feet. I’d never seen or heard any such thing ever before in my life. Acting on instinct alone, I brought up the Browning and fired a load of 6s at the obnoxious-looking, and sounding, bird. To my utter amazement, the pheasant fell to the ground.
To say I was a happy young hunter would be a gross understatement. I couldn’t bring myself to place that heavy bird in my game vest, but chose to carry it by one leg all the way back to my car, admiring the bird and reliving the experience over and over again. Eddy and I eventually drove off to hunt another area I’d scouted and thought to be good grouse habitat. And it was good habitat with thickets of wild grape and multi-flora rose and such, but it also had a very steep hillside we would have to climb. Because of my luck with the pheasant, my hunting senses were now sharp and focused on the thickets and the possibility of the next flush, and the next shot. I wish now my attention had been on the hillside and the slippery rock I stepped on with my right leg as I traversed a very steep section of the hill. If it had been, perhaps my knee wouldn’t be arthritic and on the verge of needing replacement at this present stage of my life. I felt my leg go out from under me, and I felt instant pain like no other I’d felt thus far in my young life. I hit the ground hard and felt my knee joint painfully move back into place. I thought I’d broken the leg.
I ended up slowly straightening my leg (which left me lying in the leaves on that hillside more than a little bit dizzy and in minor shock) and then crawling all the way back to the car. Eddy had eventually grabbed up the Browning for me, and in shock and confusion had run off for the road, leaving me to fend for myself. I was the only one with a driver’s license, but I convinced Eddy to drive my car to the hospital. Eddy took the pheasant home with him. I lay in the emergency room until my folks could make arrangements to get my car and me home. I had shot my first and only wild pheasant, and ended up with a bad knee that has plagued me all my adult life. I think I’m ready to seek out Mr. Ringneck to try my hand once again.
My life as a bird hunter changed drastically not long out of high school. Because of what people were referring to as a "conflict" in Vietnam, I had to postpone my bird hunting for a while, swapping the side-by for an M-16, but as luck would have it, the US Army eventually sent me to Alaska – where I’ve made my home ever since.
I hired on with the Alaska State Troopers at the tender age of 22, and that career kept me quite busy for the next 28 years, until retirement in 1999. Throughout my career I had wanted a bird dog, but knew I wouldn’t have the time to train the dog properly or get out hunting nearly enough to make it fair for the dog. I stayed very busy as the state’s senior criminal investigator, chasing murderers all over Alaska, and the nation, and the more successful I was, the more my time was taken up with trials and such. I did my share of bird hunting during that time, but none of it seems to matter now that pointing dogs have entered my life. Anticipating my retirement, and no longer able to fight off the urge to have a bird dog, my first Brittany puppy, Buddy, came to live with my family in 1997 and begin his Alaska upland hunting career. Rusty, another orange and white Brittany, came along in 2000, and in 2004, a little bundle of liver-and-white, Brittany-pointing-dog joy called Rudy has laid claim to another special place deep within this hunter’s heart.
If you please, come along as Buddy and his kennelmate, Rusty, and I hunt the long Alaska upland seasons in search of grouse and ptarmigan in some of the last great wilderness in the USA, and as I enjoy the most fabulous and unforgettable times of my outdoor life.
Your books are a must read for anyone even tinkering with the idea of sheep hunting in Alaska.
Rick French, Wasilla AK January 2006