It Never Would Have Happened Without the Boys and the Dogs II

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Author: Jim Julson (Colman, SD)

You may recall about one year ago I wrote a prior article detailing our experience hunting quail in Texas and the Southwest. That was the first time I had ever hunted birds of any type outside of South Dakota. After that experience I thought it would be a long time before I had another hunting adventure like that one, especially with my Sons and our Small Munsterlanders.

Little did I ever dream what was to unfold less than six months later.

Once again without those SM’s none of this would have ever happened!

In April Dan, one of my twins, was informed he had been selected for a summer internship working for the US Indian Health Service. He was to be on the job, based in Anchorage, Alaska, by May 19th. The moment I learned he was headed for Anchorage my mind began to explore all the possibilities. Since his internship lasted just the summer and he would be back to begin classes for the fall semester the first part of September I began to explore the upland bird seasons in Alaska. I found they opened August 10th. It seemed most people went to Alaska to hunt big game or fish so I reasoned the upland bird hunting might be petty good. A little more research revealed they have several species of ptarmigan, ruffed grouse, sharp-tail grouse, spruce grouse and blue grouse. Blue grouse only inhabit south east Alaska, an area I would not be visiting. Upland bird hunting pressure is minimal. As a bonus I also learned if you went far enough north it is possible to hunt caribou as early as late July.

I contacted Leola Rutherford, a relatively new SM owner and club member. Leola was a great help and suggested I contact Roger Hull the President of the Greatland NAVHDA Chapter in Anchorage. He was also very helpful and offered to take us ptarmigan hunting if his schedule allowed. I also came across a book authored by Jim McCann titled Upland Hunting in Alaska, The Bird Hunter’s Guide. One evening after reading his book for a while as I climbed into bed I thought, “it would be nice if he were still alive I would ask him some questions.” I jumped back out of bed, looked in the front of his book and found no date listed after his birth date. I googled up his address and sent him a letter along with our website address. A few days later I received an email from Jim, “he would be more than happy to answer my questions.”

As it turned out Jim knew not only about upland bird hunting but also about the area we would be doing a fly in “drop camp” caribou hunt. We exchanged numerous emails regarding the caribou hunt, including what the terrain was like, equipment needs and he even volunteered to be the person with whom we could leave our drop camp trip itinerary. So if we did not contact him within reasonable time of when we were supposed to return he could call in the search and rescue. He also volunteered to take me upland bird hunting when I was in the Fairbanks area. Things were beginning to fall into place!

The Small Munsterlander Alaska Adventure Begins

Drop Camp Caribou Hunt

I left home July 26th with our 2 female SMs and most of the gear to camp and hunt upland birds and caribou as well as fish and drove to meet my twin Sons, Adam and Dan in Fairbanks, Alaska, August 2nd. Adam flew in from Grand Forks, ND and Dan drove up from Anchorage.

Muda and Oz enjoyed the cool water
A rest stop along the Alaska Highway. Muda and Oz enjoyed the cool water

The three of us drove the Dalton Highway (locally referred to as “the Haul Road”) to Prudhoe Bay where an air taxi flew us out, and landed us on a gravel bar at the base of the Brooks Mountains on the North Slope to hunt caribou. This did not unfold as smoothly as it sounds but that is a story for another time.

While we hunted caribou our SMs stayed just north of Fairbanks at the Northern Pet Care Kennel owned and operated by Bob & Sharon Sjordal. Jim McCann had suggested them. They took excellent care of our girls. They are avid upland bird hunters, hunting primarily with English Pointers and German Shorthairs for ruffed grouse and spruce grouse and when they get the opportunity, sharp-tail grouse.

Ptarmigan Hunting

When Adam and I picked up the dogs from Bob and Sharon’s they invited us in for coffee and we had a nice visit. As it turned out Bob grew up in North Dakota. Bob suggested a couple spots on the Denali Highway he had been successful hunting ptarmigan. So we left Fairbanks for the area Bob had suggested early the next morning. The terrain and cover was challenging, as the pictures illustrate. Most of the low brush you see in the pictures are willows. The “willow” ptarmigan use them both for cover and food. The grassy area is tundra. Walking on tundra is like walking on an uneven sponge. It is a work out! The girls adapted very easily to the terrain. There was water everywhere and the dogs loved it. It was very easy for them to stay hydrated, wet and cool. They were a bit taken back at the first ptarmigan they encountered. They knew it was a bird but didn’t know for sure if they were supposed to be hunting it. It flushed early, I shot it, Oz retrieved it, the light bulbs went on and they were off---ranging well and expanding their search. Adam and I successfully harvested 5 their first day. When I had a chance to hunt this same area in September caribou were moving through this area. So as we hunted ptarmigan small groups of caribou could continually be seen in the distance. By this time more ptarmigan had migrated into the area and they were spookier. Ptarmigan can run ahead of a dog as well as any South Dakota rooster! In one instance Oz was tracking, coming toward me. The ptarmigan she was on came out of the willows running toward me, saw me crouched down then decided to flush. Ptarmigan make mighty fine table fair!

Adam and Oz search for ptarmigan in the tundra and willows
Adam and Oz search for ptarmigan in the tundra and willows, August 11th

Adam and the girls first day of ptarmigan hunting in Alaska
Adam and the girls first day of ptarmigan hunting in Alaska. (L to R) Oz, Adam, Muda

 Seasons change at warp speed
The same area hunted in the Aug. 11th pictures but now it is September 6th. Seasons change at warp speed. (L to R) Oz , Muda

Oz with a September harvested ptarmigan
Oz with a September harvested ptarmigan. Notice the increased white coloring. Winter was just around the corner at the higher elevations of the Denali Highway

Spruce & Ruffed Grouse Hunting

In mid August while exploring ptarmigan hunting spots along the Elliott and Steese Highways north of Fairbanks I had several opportunities to stop and try to hunt ruffed grouse. I really did not know what I was doing, having never hunted upland birds in heavy woods. My SMs had never hunted this type of cover either. The first time we stepped into the woods the girls knew we were hunting something since I had my shotgun, but they didn’t know what. They wasted no time getting after it. The first spruce grouse was again a learning experience. It flushed and landed in a tree. The dogs just kind of looked at it not knowing what to expect. As I walked toward the tree, two spruce grouse flushed out of the tree a few seconds apart. I was fortunate to harvest both and each dog retrieved their first spruce grouse. From that experience the girls learned quickly to not only search on the ground but occasionally look up in the trees. The ruffed grouse numbers were way down and it was early enough, as you can see, most of the leaves where still on the trees. We did not see a ruff that day.

Spruce grouse harvested along the Elliott Highway
Spruce grouse harvested along the Elliott Highway. (L to R) Oz, Muda

The second week of September, when more of the leaves where off the trees, Jim McCann was good enough to take me out and show me how and where to hunt ruffed grouse. The struggle hunting ruffs during this time was moose season had opened and every Alaskan worth his salt was trying to put a moose in the freezer for the winter. If you saw the meat prices in the grocery stores you would understand why! As a result much of the better ruffed grouse habitat was also occupied by moose hunters. Unfortunately we were unable to locate any ruffs that day. The population cycle peaked in 2005 and had been on a steady decline. But I did learn how and the type of habitat to hunt and I was fortunate enough to put up a few as I hunted my way out of the state, on the way home. I now understand ruffed grouse hunters’ frustrations. The dogs and I put up some of the ruffs twice and I still only had one shot and it was not a decent one. One second is not enough time for this “old man” to mount, swing and fire and expect to hit anything! “Thanks Jim for the help and education!!”

Muda in the front and Oz in ruffed grouse cover
Muda in the front and Oz in ruffed grouse cover

There are literally millions of acres like this to hunt
What I was told is anywhere you see yellow leaves is ruff grouse hunting territory. This is just on stop on the highway. There are literally millions of acres like this to hunt.

Sharp-tail Grouse

As a result of my interaction with Jim McCann, during Dan’s and my time in Alaska, I had the opportunity to hunt sharp-tail grouse with Jim, Lee Payne and Bob Sjordal on Lee’s hunting lease just outside Delta Junction. This is an agricultural crop area. In the 1980’s the trees had been cleared and pushed into windrows at periodic locations across the field. Then those windrows were burned. Over the years those windrow area regrew. The fields we hunted were in the CRP program so they were not actively being cropped. What we hunted were CRP fields divided by strips of trees and brush that ranged from 10 to approximately 30 yards wide. Bob brought two of his English Pointers and Jim had two of his Brittneys along. One was an 8 month old pup, Charlie, he had recently shipped in from California. Charlie is definitely a keeper! The sharp tails would stay in the trees windrows or strips and move into the CRP fields to feed. Once flushed they usually headed for the nearest tree cover. I never in my wildest dreams would have guessed I would be hunting sharp-tail grouse in Alaska. We even pushed a cow moose out of one of the tree windrows we hunted. My SMs have hunted sharp-tails in western South Dakota and by this time they had hunted all types of cover. They easily adapted to this situation and covered the open fields and tree windrows equally well. The one unfortunate incident we encountered was a porcupine. All three of the dogs we had down at the time ended up with quills in them. Fortunately we were able to pull most of them out and continue hunting. Bob’s pointer, Belle, had a quill in her leg that had broken off. Bob had to make a small cut to remove it after he arrived home. None of the dogs that I am aware of had side effects from this encounter.

Taking a break
Taking a break. (L to R) Jim Julson, Oz, Bob Sjordal, Belle, Jim McCann, Charlie

Discussing strategy
Discussing strategy. (L to R) Bob Sjordal, Sue, Lee Payne, Oz. Notice the snow covered mountains in the background.

Point!!! Sharps!!! Bob and Belle
Point!!! Sharps!!! Bob and Belle

Examining the harvest
Examining the harvest. (L to R) Bob Sjordal, Jim McCann, Jim Julson

We could have done without this!!! Removing porcupine quills!
We could have done without this!!! Removing porcupine quills!

Oz was one patient SM as I pulled numerous quills from her muzzle
Oz was one patient SM as I pulled numerous quills from her muzzle. It was like she knew they had to come out

End of a great day
The end of a great day!! (L to R) Bob Sjordal, Sue, Belle, Muda, Lee Payne, Charlie, Jim McCann

The pictures of the sharp-tail hunt were taken by Lee. Lee recently retired his Lewellen setter, Lady, and he opted to take pictures that day. I am very appreciative he did. “Thanks Lee!”

Lee, Jim and Bob all have standing invitations to hunt pheasants in South Dakota. As it turned out Lee’s in-laws live in northeast Iowa and he and his wife fly into Sioux Falls, just 30 miles south of my home, when they come for a visit, usually around Thanksgiving. Bob still has family in North Dakota and I would like to see how Charlie does on South Dakota pheasants.

Berry Picking

I had the opportunity to accompany Steve Bolean and his 12 year old son Logan on a fishing fly out drop camp excursion for northern pike. We fished over the Labor Day weekend through the following Wednesday. Steve had needed another adult to accompany him and Logan and had been unable to locate anyone who could fit their time schedule. Marti, Steve’s wife offered to take care of my dogs. So the decision to accompany them was not hard. Logan missed a couple days of school, but since this was his first fly out his folks agreed it was worth the sacrifice. Plus he collected his assignments ahead of time so he was doing math problems whenever he got a chance. Steve was my son Dan’s supervisor during his summer internship. We fished the Yukon River delta region north and west of Bethel, Alaska. Upon our return I found out Marti was looking for someone to help her pick wild blueberries. Locations of berry picking areas are protected with as much secrecy as favorite fishing and hunting spots. I had nothing planned at the time so I was more than happy to go with her. Plus it would give me an opportunity to get the dogs out and let them run. We drove northwest of Anchorage for about an hour and a half then turned down a dirt road that made the Dalton Highway look like an interstate highway. After traveling about 5 more miles we parked and hiked down a trail for about 2 miles to the picking area. It rained most of the day but we were dressed accordingly. The dogs had a blast exploring and swimming while Marti and I picked 15 gallons of blue berries. The most they had ever harvested in one outing. Then we had to pack them out! But it was all worth it, the scenery was breath taking and the dogs got all the exercise they needed. The best part was the next day I had a chance to enjoy homemade blue berry muffins. When you’re along ways away from home, there are not too many things better than home cooking!

The girls had a blast exploring
The girls had a blast exploring. That is the berry picking apparatus and those are blue berries just to the right of Oz. (L to R) Muda, Oz

I took a break from picking berries and took a couple pictures of the girls. This gives you an idea of the area we picked blue berries in. (L to R) Muda, Oz

Small Munsterlander Owners We Met

Dan and I had the opportunity to meet 2 of the 3 SM owners living in Alaska. They are a special bunch and are all very excited to own and hunt with their SMs. I would like to introduce you to them!

The Rutherford's

Dan and I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Leola and her three children at their lake cabin north of Anchorage. Barron was on the North Slope working. Their SM “River” was born at Lynn Arne's kennel in South Dakota. River is developing nicely and they had hunted snow shoe hares with her prior to spring at 12 weeks of age, grouse at 16 weeks and ducks with her at 9 months this fall. She is a retrieving machine. River even pulls Leola skijoring. Leola has trained and trialed Labradors and they are all happy to have River as part of their family. Leola is a 5th generation Alaskan and she and her family were very helpful during our initial planning. “Thanks again Leola for the help and hospitality!!”

The Rutherfords
Terek, Tristin, Barron, Leola, Garrett & River Rutherford: Girdwood, AK

The Sarvis's

One afternoon in September as I exercised my dogs at a dog park in Anchorage a gentlemen walked up to me and asked if my dogs were Small Munsterlanders. Not many people know of SMs and I only knew of two in Alaska. I had met one, Leola's family, and the other was in south east Alaska. Well I found out there are three. It was John Sarvis who asked. He and his wife Kathy had just purchased JayDee from Steve Enberg the prior April. We had a very nice visit. Time and schedules did not allow us to get together again, this trip. They regularly travel to Montana to bow hunt big game and this year they took JayDee along to do some upland bird hunting. They shot sharp-tails and sage grouse in Montana, ptarmigans in Alaska and on a deer hunt to Kodiak Island JayDee retrieved the dozen Sea Ducks John shot. They are very happy with how JayDee is developing. Arizona is the next stop for JayDee. Mearn's quail are on the agenda to help solidify her point. We may have an opportunity to get together with them the next time they are in Montana and hunt western South Dakota. “Those SM get around don’t they!”

The Sarvis
Kathy and John Sarvis, JayDee,: Anchorage, AK

The Summer

I left home at 8:30am on July 26th and arrived back home midnight September 14th. After 51 days, 12780 miles, and 80 pound of dog food the dogs and I returned home with 250 pounds of caribou, 60 pounds of fish a few birds ( I ate most of then as I traveled). We made some great friends and met people I never imagined I would meet. Great people, good dogs, “BIG BEAUTIFUL” country and birds. What more could you ask for!! Once again the most important part was being able to share the experiences. I would love to return their hospitality and share bird hunting adventures with them all in South Dakota.

This was one of the coolest and wettest summers on record in Alaska. The highest temperature Anchorage reached, all summer was 77 deg F. Most days it rained at least sometime during the day. We learned to dress accordingly. This is the reason many of the pictures have wet Small Munsterlanders in them.