Written by Pro-Staffer, Jon Adsem
As I arrive into Juneau, AK in April of 2015, it was a bit of a bumpy approach into the Juneau International Airport. As you may know, or not, Juneau is land locked. The only way in or out of this beautiful SE Alaskan city is via plane or boat. So planes landing at this airport are dealing with winds coming off the ocean on one side and a mountain range on the other.
I’m in Juneau to attend an annual TWS-AK chapter meeting. The Wildlife Society is a global network of biologists, conservationists, and policy makers. This meeting just so happened to be limited to professionals from the Alaska Chapter. I attend this meeting every year, and enjoy it immensely. This is a group of people ranging in age and backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common, the love for the outdoors and managing our wildlife.
I have to admit, it doesn’t suck having to come to Alaska 3 or 4 times a year. I fall in love with this place a little more every time I arrive. SE Alaska is becoming my favorite part of the state to visit. It is green and lush, has many terrestrial animal species to hunt, and the ocean has more than its share to offer. This particular trip, along with attending the meeting, I will be hunting sooty grouse high in the alpine, and doing some crabbing. I have hunted ptarmigan in Alaska, which is in the grouse family, but I have never had the opportunity to hunt any of the grouse. I hear that the sooty grouse, or blue grouse, is extremely big. Well, at least for a grouse. This time of year, early spring, the male sootys(locals call them hooters) can be found high up in the alpine, perched high in the trees, making territory calls. These territory calls are why the locals call them “hooters”. The males call sounds sort of like an owl, hence the nick name.
The meeting will last 3 days, starting around 8am every day and usually wrapping up around 6pm. There are usually social events or just a group meeting up for drinks/dinner. I always try to engage in these sort of events as it allows me to build relationships with current customers as well as potential customers. Conversations are always intriguing and involving species that I know little about. I tend to learn a lot more from these conversations then I would from a book or classroom.
As the meeting wraps up for the last afternoon, I get a call from one of my customers. He is a fish biologist doing some work on the Taku and Stikine Rivers, radio tagging chinook salmon on their spawning run up river. He lives “up the road” from Juneau, about a 30 minute drive. He says the weather is clearing up and we should be able to get out on the water and do some crabbing. Of course I drop what I was doing and immediately head out to his house. We pack up his boat and head down to the boat launch. As we begin our journey on the water, he begins to fill me in on how we are going to go about catching the crab. He has a half a dozen different “ring” set ups, and two “pots”. There are rules and regulations to this type of personal crabbing/fishing, and there are specific rules and regulations to an “out of stater” like me. A non-resident is allowed to only harvest 3 crab in one day. An Alaskan resident can harvest 50 crab in one day. I don’t argue with the rules, I just follow them. The interesting part is that the “resident” has to follow the “non-resident” regulations. This forces my customer/friend to only harvesting 3 crab. Unfortunate, but still, we are crabbing.
The boat trip didn’t take long, 15-20 minutes, and we were at the “spot”. We had picked up a very large box of frozen salmon carcasses from one of the local fish processors in town. This will be our bait. We load up the center pouches in the rings and begin to throw them overboard. I ask how deep these will go and the response was, “we are in 120 ft right now”. I giggle, and then it dawns on me that I have to pull these things back up. Have you ever tried to pull a door up off the bottom of the ocean by hand with only a rope? Well, that’s what it is like. Hand over hand, hand over hand, all the while keeping the ascent evenly paced. If you stop with the pulling up for even a second, it gives the crab sitting on top of the ring net the opportunity to scurry off. Trust me, you don’t want that ring net to be empty when it comes up. The amount of effort that goes into one of these deployments can be exhausting. We had also loaded a pot and deployed that as well. These pots can “soak” for a lot longer as the crab can’t escape once inside the pot.
We tried different depths until we zeroed in on what seemed to be the bulk of crab, and lucky for me, it was in 40-50 ft of water. After a couple of hours on the water, we had pulled well over 300 crab off the bottom. You can only harvest males, and they have to meet size restrictions. But we had our limit and were ready to head back to the launch. As we began getting the boat ready for the short trip back, we had another boat off in the distance that seemed to be heading towards us. A short while later, we were tied up to the coast guard. The coast guard is responsible for checking licenses and the harvest in the boat. They were extremely polite officers, welcomed me to Alaska, and they were on their way. This experience is one of the reasons why I always buy a license, and I always follow the laws and regulations.
As we finish our day back at the house, cooking crab, playing fetch with the yellow lab, and enjoying good conversation, I fall in love with place a little more.
The next morning I woke up early, really early, to meet up with three more customers for the sooty grouse hunt. We traveled over to Douglas Island, and parked at the base of Eaglecrest Ski Area. There was very little snow at the lower elevation so our climb up was a bit easier. We used the snow cat roads to make our way up. It would have been a lot easier to have paid someone to start one of the lifts up, but apparently the climb was going to give me “character”. As we reach the top of the tree line it begins to rain/snow, typical weather in SE Alaska. As we catch our breath following the hour or so hike up the mountain, we begin to listen for the male sooty call. Within a minute we heard our first victim. The funny, or not so funny, thing about hearing noises in the mountains, is that the sounds can seem deceptively close. Echoes and sound bouncing can trick a guy into thinking that the animal is “right over there”, and after walking and scouting for 30+ minutes, you find yourself ¼ mile from where you started and the sound sounds still sounds like it is “right over there”. These male sooty have staked out a territory at this time of year, and these territories can be anywhere from 200 meters to 1000+ meters apart from each other. This makes for a slow hunt. It takes time to hear the call, it takes time to locate the general area of where the bird is, then it takes time to locate the tree the bird is in, and it takes time to actually spot the bird in the tree that you have identified that the bird is in.
We did find our first male sooty high up in a spruce tree, and I was given the honor to take the first shot. We were all carrying our own firearm. I brought along a .17 rifle, while I believe the other three guys had .22 riffles. Being from Minnesota, my first thought was to bring a shotgun of sorts, but after seeing how you hunt these birds, a small caliber rifle is the way to go. They are much lighter than a shotgun, and it tests your proficiency and accuracy getting only “one shot”. I found the right perspective of the bird that gave me the best un-obscured shot, found a “Y” in a tree that I could rest the barrel of the riffle on, put the grouse in the cross hairs, and pulled the trigger. One shot and the bird came down. My first, and to this point, my only Alaskan grouse.
After some photos and high-fives, we began our search for the next bird. Throughout the rest of the morning, there was a lot of hiking, stopping and listening, and then more hiking. We did end up going 3 for 3 on the day, until our fourth bird and shooter. Two shots my friend had at his target, and two shots did not find the mark. The bird few away and way out of reach, high up the mountain side. Of course we had to give my friend a hard time, and explain to him that the rest of us had no issues with taking our birds. We did end up trying to locate another bird for our partner to “redeem” himself, but unfortunately as the morning moves into afternoon, the male sooty becomes less active and less vocal. Unfortunately our group had to move down the mountain with 3 birds in hand instead of 4.
Once we reached the base of the mountain, released ourselves from the wet clothes and boots, I received a phone call from my customer who I went crabbing with the day before. He invited all of us to head out on the water to do some more crabbing. All four of us were eager and headed straight to the boat launch. Now, the great thing about this situation is that I could “non-assist” and the 4 Alaskan residents could now take their daily limit of (50) each. For 3 hours we, actually they, pulled rings and pots, accumulating the deliciousness of Alaskan Dungeness crab. I don’t recall the total number of crab harvested that day, but I can tell you that they donated roughly 6 pounds of it to me to take home to my wife and family.
With bounty from land and sea, I boarded my flight home to Minnesota with a gigantic smile on my face.
This was a great trip to Alaska.