If you plan to hunt in Alaska, or are dreaming about the opportunity, this is what you need to know
Think hunting in Alaska, and you’d better think big. With 10 species of big game, more than 3 million lakes, 3,000 rivers and 365 million acres of real estate encompassing dizzying peaks, endless stands of forest, tundra, wetlands and various combinations thereof, the hunting opportunities are mind-boggling. So here’s some information to help you understand what’s out there, broken down by species, with highlights in specific game management units and comments and insights from game managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
With a statewide population of around 100,000, black bears live in habitat ranging from the rainforests of Southeast, to the forests of the Interior, to the beaches of the coastline and in the alpine slopes nearly everywhere. Prince of Wales Island (GMU 2) has been the subject many of the hunting shows aired on cable TV. But don’t let that brood false assumptions for this year’s hunt, said Boyd Porter, area management biologist with ADF&G in Ketchikan.
“Much of that information (on the bear hunting shows) is dated,” said Porter. “People see that and think, ‘This is the place to go,’ and, unfortunately, they’re watching stuff from the good old days,” he said.
Prince of Wales is appealing for those who like with hunting from the road system, but harvest rates climbed beyond sustainable levels in 2005.
“We reached almost 500 bears, and that’s too high,” said Porter.
Regulations that will take effect in the fall of 2012 will limit the black bear harvest to a drawing hunt for non-guided, non-resident hunters, and will restrict the take of bears among outfitters offering guided hunts. With historical data showing that up to 80 percent of the hunters have been non-residents, the new rules should hold the annual harvest to less than 300 bears.
This season, Alaska residents can take two bears on POW, of which one can be of a blue or glacier bear color phase, and non-residents can take one bear. The season runs from Sept. 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012.
The beauty of black bears is that, despite increasing popularity among hunters, bag limits remain liberal throughout most of the state. Road-accessible GMUs 13, 14B and 16 boast three per season while most of the Southeast Alaska coastline calls for bag limits of two. The GMU 6 portion of Prince William Sound, however, has a limit of one bear per year, as does GMU 14A, close to Anchorage. Check individual management units for seasons, as some allow year-round hunting, while others give bears the summer off.
With the prestige of downing the planet’s biggest bruins come ever tightening regulations in some areas. Hunts on Kodiak Island, some of the largest hides and the largest skulls, have been under the drawing permit system for years, which means that successful applicants for this season’s tags entered the drawing in November 2010.
But Kodiak is not the only option. In GMUs 1, 3, 4 and 5 (all in Southeast Alaska), hunters can take a brownie once every four regulatory years, and can get a tag online or in person at a local ADF&G office or other license vendor.
The one bear per four years model applies to most of the other GMUs, but Unit 9 on the Alaska Peninsula offers bear seasons in the fall of odd-numbered years and the spring of even-numbered years. Beyond the Peninsula lies Unimak Island, the first in the 1,200-mile string of Aleutian Islands. With a gap of less than a mile separating Unimak from the mainland, the island, which is designated part of GMU 10, has a healthy bear population but operates under the drawing process.
Lest brown bear hunting opportunities at this point sound discouraging consider a hunt in GMU 11, which includes a good portion of the Wrangell Mountains. Resident hunters can take a bear every regulatory year and need not possess the metal locking tag that normally costs $25. Business for bears operates under the same regulations in neighboring GMU 12, which includes the upper Tanana and White Rivers and in GMUs 13 and 16, which are accessible via the road system and within 100 miles of Anchorage. Other areas, such as GMU 17, near Bristol Bay and GMU 18 near the Yukon and Kuskokwim River deltas require the locking tag but offer a bear every regulatory year.
Introduced to the state in 1928, Alaska’s bison herd numbers about 900 animals with an annual harvest of about100. Bison are taken exclusively by drawing permit, and some 15,000 apply for a permit each year. The herd near Delta Junction is the most popular hunts because it is easily accessible by road.
With 32 herds adding up to around 950,000 animals, caribou comes in right behind moose as the staple crop among resident hunters, particularly in Alaska’s vast Interior and Arctic. Annual harvest among resident and non-resident hunters tallies up to about 22,000 per year. With seasons in some management units running from August to March, hunting conditions vary from sweltering hot days when the big bulls head high looking for a breeze to blow away the bugs, to hunts that can become a quest for survival in blizzard conditions on the windblown tundra.
Don Young, area management biologist with ADF&G in Fairbanks, said populations of caribou in his management area, which includes GMUs 20A, 20B, 20C, 20F and 25C, have been on the rise.
“In general everything is good,” he said of the population and habitat conditions in Interior.
Thanks to fly-in accessibility and chances of combining a caribou hunt with salmon and trophy rainbow fishing, GMU 9 on the Alaska Peninsula remains a favorite among many hunters. The unit has been managed so that a hunter can take one bull between Aug. 1 and Jan. 31, then another from Feb. 1 to Mar. 15. The rules are the same in GMU 17, which runs north of the Peninsula at Bristol Bay and northeast toward Lake Clark, and in GMU 18, which encompasses the western part of the state from the Lower Yukon River and includes the Yukon and Kuskokwim river deltas.
Resident hunters can take a bull caribou in GMU 12, which sometimes offers road access to good hunting when the herd is west of the Glenn Highway and south of the Alaska Highway in the eastern Interior. GMU 16, north of Anchorage, offers a season for a bull from Aug. 10 to Sept. 20 in subarea 16A, and Aug. 10 to Sept. 30 in subarea 16B.
GMU 20 in the central and north of the Alaska Range offers a variety of regular harvest ticket and registration hunts. Some hunts are available to residents only. Similar restrictions apply to some sub areas of GMU 21, which includes a vast stretch of real estate north and south of the middle Yukon River.
Bag limits of up to five caribou per day begin with GMU 22, the Seward Peninsula and southern Norton Sound, and in GMU 23 near Kotzebue. Check the regulations for stipulations applying to resident and non-resident hunts in the various subareas before planning your hunt.
Those wanting a combination of the ultimate road hunt and a butt-busting trek across the tundra continue to migrate up the Dalton Highway (also known as the Haul Road) each fall in pursuit of caribou in GMUs 24A, 25A and 26B. Weapons restrictions limit hunters to archery gear only within a 5-mile corridor on each side the highway. Some hunters drive the road, stopping to glass for bulls, then make the extra effort to pack in beyond the corridor boundaries where they can hunt with rifles and handguns, while others stay within the corridor and put in a lot of tummy time stalking the ungulates with their bows.
From the deep rainforest of Southeast to the high country barrens of Kodiak Island, Sitka blacktails—one of 11 subspecies of mule deer—offer a variety of hunting experiences. In the early season, go light and pack high into the alpine country. Some hunters favor the rut, which usually begins in late October and stretches through November. Bucks tend to congregate at any altitude during the rut, and hunters have had great success calling them in. Late season hunters who prefer to hunt the beaches typically concentrate their efforts around Thanksgiving or later.
On Kodiak, 25 blacktails were transplanted between 1923 and 1934 and grew to a herd of around 60,000 by the mid 1980s. Since then, snowy years have taken their toll, and some areas have suffered significant winter kill. ADF&G hasn’t posted an estimate on the size of the statewide herd, but the annual harvest in recent years has hovered around 12,000.
Bag limits vary among management units, but GMUs 1, 2, 3 and 4 in Southeast offer two bucks in some subareas and four in others, depending on the date. GMU 5, around Yakutat, allows for one buck this year, while GMU 6, in Prince William Sound, offers Alaska residents a total of five deer and non-residents a total of four deer. The buck season runs from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, and hunters can take any deer from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31.
Kodiak Island, GMU 8, offers a total of three deer, but the buck season along the road system runs from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31 and allows one buck, while the remainder of the island allows for three bucks from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30 and a total of three deer, bucks or does, from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31.
In Southeast, the deer population appears stable, according to Porter, the Ketchikan-based ADF&G bioogist.
“Persistent late snow can affect that,” he said.
Porter said that folks tend to pack in to remote areas in GMUs 1 and 2.
“You don’t see as much boat-based hunting farther north, up by Sitka,” he said.
Alaska is home to harvestable populations of Roosevelt elk in GMUs 3 and 8. Elk were introduced to several islands beginning in 1928, and for the most part, are taken via permit drawing hunts. Approximately 700 tags are awarded to successful drawing applicants in the two units each year, but hunters who missed out on the drawing can apply in person for over-the-counter registration hunt tags for Zarembo Island, south of Petersburg (GMU3), to hunt between Nov. 15 and 30.
Among popular drawing hunts is an archery-only drawing hunt from Sept. 1 to 30 on Etolin Island, the next island south of Zarembo. The drawing hunts there run in three seasons: from Sept. 1 to 30; from Oct. 1 to 15; and from Oct. 16 to 31.
Afognak and Raspberry Islands, in the Kodiak Archipeligoare popular for their drawing hunt opportunities. Bull permits for Raspberry Island attracted a field of more than 900 applicants last year and 16 lucky hunters won drawing hunts, for a 2-percent success rate.
Hunters wanting to combine multiple challenges of hunting and mountaineering skills need look no further than an Alaska goat hunt. While the species distribution is quite wide—from Southeast northward along the coast to Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island and inland populations in the Wrangell and Talkeetna Mountains—their favorite haunts during the hunting season are among the most inaccessible crags that the state has to offer.
In Alaska, non-resident hunters must have a guide, but there are plenty of options available. ADF&G reported 158 successful non-resident goat hunters in 2010, while 360 resident hunters were successful. As for the options, there are registration permit hunts galore, with over-the-counter opportunities offered in GMUs 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11 and 13. Drawing hunts for goats take place in GMUs 1, 7, 8, 14 and 15.
The trick to a successful goat hunt in many instances lies in gaining access to the remote bays or other areas where you can begin your climb into their havens. Then again, the success of most hunts hangs in the throes of favorable weather windows. Talk to seasoned goat hunters and you’ll hear sentences peppered with words like scuzz, scud and socked in—all descriptions of low lying clouds that either hampered their efforts to fly into the drop-off area or kept them from spotting goats once they’d made the climb into the country. In the latter predicament, it often doesn’t pay to stray very far from the tent for reasons of personal safety or spooking goats in the fog. Bring plenty of food, some reading material and plan on returning home with stories that only a serious alpinist could relish.
As for the health of the herd, Ketchikan’s Porter said winter conditions have been favorable for goats in GMU 1.
“Goats are doing well,” he said. “But hunters will find challenging access to them.”
With harvests ranging from 6,000 to 8,000 moose annually, ADF&G estimates that hunters each year pack out around 3.5 million pounds of meat. As for range and distribution across the state’s 26 GMUs, moose come close to black bears as the most ubiquitous of critters to hunt. That means a myriad of hunting opportunities for resident and non-resident hunters. There are more than 110 drawing hunt opportunities, and registration hunts abound in many GMUs, with the exceptions of 2, 4, 8 10 and portions of 26, where there aren’t harvestable populations.
“There is an incredible amount of opportunity for resident hunters in area 20A and B,” said Fairbanks biologist Young, “particularly when it comes to antlerless moose.”
Though the anterless permits for the 2011-2012 season were awarded in February as a result of drawing hunt applications in November 2010, Young said that there will be plenty of registration hunting opportunities this season as fall rolls into winter.
As many residents will attest, hunting pressure in particular areas increases exponentially with proximity to road access or areas to park and launch ATVs. GMUs 13, 14, 16 and 20 have been managed to capitalize on hunting opportunity yet maintain healthy populations. That means antler restrictions in many of these GMUs and their subareas.
The antler restrictions of spike, fork or bulls with antler widths of 50 inches began appearing in GMUs closest to Anchorage in 1993. Some areas have begun to limit the harvest by adding that antlers have at least four brow tines on at least one side. For handy explanations and accurate diagrams of antler restrictions, refer to the ADF&G regulation booklet.
Moose hunting brings with it the adventure of packing. Nearly every year, stories circulate about moose wasted after hunters discover that they misjudged their physical stamina and the distance back to their vehicles. They make their first trip with a hindquarter, drive for home and leave the rest to rot. In preparation, some hunters strengthen their backs and condition themselves during summer. A sense of distance from your vehicle and knowledge of the terrain and your physical abilities goes a long way. Others opt for horses or arrange to hunt in the experience of outfitters, guides and packers.
Alaska’s other white, high-country critter has often been dubbed the ultimate among many hunters in terms of challenge, the trophy and the flavor of the meat. Sheep inhabit the high crags of southcentral Alaska and are found in abundance within the Chugach, Talkeetna and Wrangell Mountains and in the Alaska and Brooks Ranges. GMUs with sheep seasons include 7, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 20, some areas of 23, 24, 25 and 26.
Non-residents need to be accompanied by a guide or close relative who is a resident. According to data last year, non-resident hunters harvested 403 rams, while residents harvested 503.
The trick to taking sheep is getting in shape well before the season, which in many GMUs opens on Aug. 10 and runs for a month. Hunters in the areas closer to the coastline can expect rugged climbs with timber and underbrush (mainly devil’s club) on the way to the alpine haunts of the rams, while hunts in the Wrangell Mountains and Alaska and Brooks Ranges involve plenty of climbing but also long hikes between drainages that hold the rams.
Areas close to access by road have seen increased hunting pressure in recent years, which forced managers to implement the drawing permit system to maintain healthy ram populations. Portions of GMU 14 have evolved to drawing hunts after post-season surveys several years ago found that hunters were taking too many rams under a general harvest ticket hunt.
“There were very few full-curl rams after a season,” said Tony Kavalok, area management biologist with ADF&G in Palmer. The numbers of harvestable rams seem to be on the rise after implementing the drawing hunt system and limiting the number of permits to less than a dozen in some subareas of GMU 14.
“We’re seeing some recovery in the ram component of the population,” he said.
These shaggy critters inhabiting GMU’s 18, 22 and 23 in Alaska’s extreme northwest coastal areas are considered elite by many and, depending upon the timing of your hunt, can test a hunter’s mettle in high-arctic winter conditions.
Resident tags, for hunters successful in the drawing hunt process, sell for $500 while non-residents pay $1,100. Many musk ox are taken by either local resident hunters living on Nelson or Nunivak Islands, or on the northwest mainland in a non-trophy subsistence hunt, but registration hunting opportunities are popular, too. About 190 musk ox were taken in 2009, according to most recent data from ADF&G, with a success rate of 100 percent in some areas.
The trick to a successful hunt, according to Tony Gorn, area management biologist with ADF&G in Nome, is to study the quarry.
“Hunters should really take some time to educate themselves on musk oxen,” said Gorn. “The perception is that they’re really easy to hunt, but they are a true herd animal, not like a caribou.”
The animals form a tight group with the approach of a hunter then mill about in confusing circles after the first shot. Gorn said that determining subtle differences between mature bulls and mature cows, which have similar horn bosses takes patience. To help hunters become more familiar with musk oxen, ADF&G has published a helpful booklet, available at local offices.
Another ingredient to success lies in choosing an outfitter. Though there is nothing that would prevent the do-it-yourselfers from orchestrating their own hunts, logistics associated with the remote locales of the shaggy beasts can prove daunting.
“The people who win drawing permits usually get an outfitter to be successful,” said Gorn.
—Charlie Ess lives in Palmer. He wrote about trappers that spent a winter in double-lined tent in the September 2010 issue.
Go to alaskamagazine.com for a list of 10 essentials for a successful hunt.