Understanding Alaska’s complicated regulations is an essential part of a successful hunt
Somehow, imperceptibly, dusk had settled upon us. We had been watching a moose for what seemed like hours, trying to decipher brow tine from tree limb, pondering what was to me an enormous animal, as it ducked in and out of the descending mist and thick alders. From a distance of nearly 100 yards, shielded by branches, weather and now the impending darkness, we continued to squint through the fogging eyepieces of our binoculars, trying to decide: Was this a legal bull? To qualify, it had to have a rack measuring 50 inches across or larger, or four brow tines on one side of its antlers.
“It must be big enough,” I thought to myself—but at that time, 20 years ago, just about any bull moose would have looked enormous to me. It wasn’t my shot, anyway. I was only there for my strong back and weak mind. I’d defer to my friend Miles’ experience.
“I’m sure it’s legal,” he whispered, not wanting to let days of hard hunting go to waste and knowing the animal might be gone by morning. Certainly neither of us wanted to do anything illegal or unethical. Still, here was our long-awaited chance at success and a full freezer.
“I’m certain it’s legal,” he repeated, finally raising his riflescope to his eye, taking a deep breath and steadying himself for his shot.
When we reached the downed animal, relief was evident in his voice as he confirmed the span of this animal’s antlers at more than 50 inches—51 to be exact.
Even for us, the most conscientious of hunters, it had been difficult to wait so long. We’d watched for hours, put off a shot in an effort to avoid what Sgt. Paul McConnell with the Alaska Wildlife Troopers maintains is the most common mistake when moose hunting: shooting a sublegal bull.
“It happens more than we’d like,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the end of an extended hunt and the hunter is tired and put in a lot of work, and they simply make a bad decision. Moose hang out together, and we’ve also had hunters see one go into the brush and then pull the trigger on a different animal that comes out.”
There’s a simple way to prevent that mistake, McConnell said: “If in doubt, don’t shoot.”
He also advises hunters to pick up a copy of the Alaska hunting regulations and read it thoroughly, long before going into the field. This is advice Larry Lewis, a technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife, echoes.
“That’s where it all starts,” he said.
Lewis, also an avid hunter and past president of the Kenai Peninsula chapter of the Safari Club, advises taking what he calls a stepped approach in planning a hunt. The first step is deciding what you want to hunt and what part of the state you want to hunt in. While considering this, it’s important to take into account how you might travel: Will you fly in, go by boat or raft, or drive the road system? Once these decisions are made, the next step is to get a regulation book and begin reading. Lewis said skipping this step is a mistake many hunters make. Even seasoned hunters, he said, can save a lot of time and hassle by doing a little homework.
“Sure, it sounds more like trip planning,” Lewis said, “but that’s what it should be. The book should just be considered part of that.”
He advises hunters to start with the how-to pages for a general overview, then go to the section that highlights the area of the state they have decided to hunt. Alaska is divided into 26 game management units, and the regulation book describes generally what is allowed in each. Many Alaska fishermen bemoan how convoluted the fishing regulations are sometimes. The hunting regulations, on the other hand, are pretty logical, and most outdoorsmen agree they are easier to follow.
“Learn all you can about the area you’ve chosen,” Lewis advises.
That includes thoroughly researching who owns the land where you plan to hunt. The state regulations cover general seasons and rules, such as bag limits within a game management unit, but there are often overlapping jurisdictions in popular hunting areas. Federal land, such as U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or national refuge lands, may have their own rules, and it is the hunter’s responsibility to be aware of them.
Also, Native corporations own large sections of land. Many of these corporations will grant a special permit for hunting on their property, but it is up to the hunter to gain that permission. There is a chart in the regulation book showing which corporation owns land in which units and how to contact them.
The Internet also makes researching ownership a little less daunting. Start with the borough in which you plan to hunt or the state Recorder’s Office or the Department of Natural Resources’ Alaska Mapper site: mapper.landrecords.info/
Once this step is complete, Lewis and McConnell encourage hunters to make a few phone calls. There are 23 regional ADF&G offices, and calling one or the wildlife trooper’s office nearest your hunting location is a great way to gather further information. They will be aware of special regulations or emergency orders within their region and likely able to share insight on terrain, land ownership and, if you are lucky, a bit of that all-important local knowledge.
“Alaska is a big state,” Lewis said. “One-third the size of the Lower 48. It’s so big and there are so many variables, there simply is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Hunting caribou in the Arctic is different than hunting mountain goats on Kodiak, and it’s extremely important to ‘know before you go.’”
That’s good advice even on a guided trip.
“In the end, whether guided or not, each hunter is responsible for their own actions,” Lewis said.
Which paperwork do I need?
A general season hunt is the least restrictive in Alaska and usually open to just about any hunter. In most game management units, a harvest ticket is required for a variety of species and is usually available free at license vendors and at any ADF&G office. A hunter must carry the ticket while hunting and, after a kill, must validate the ticket by cutting out the month and day of the harvest. Often a harvest report accompanies a harvest ticket, or is mailed to the hunter later and must be returned to ADF&G. It’s the hunter’s responsibility to file a harvest report, even if the hunt was unsuccessful. ADF&G will fine hunters who fail to file.
There are several types of permit hunts. One is a drawing hunt in which hunters apply online in November and December for a permit. Hunters pay a nonrefundable application fee to enter, and winners are selected at random. By examining the number of available permits and the number of hunters that typically apply, it is possible to approximate the odds of winning a permit.
Another type of permit hunt is a registration hunt. In this case, the number of hunters is usually not limited, but the hunt is closed by emergency order once a harvest quota is reached. In most instances, hunters apply for this in person, and hunts are often limited to specific areas. Some registration hunts are limited to Alaska residents only.
Big game tags are metal locking tags that must be purchased and attached to an animal’s hide or skull immediately after the kill. They are required by resident hunters in certain game management units when going after specific animals and for all nonresident big-game hunters. U.S. citizens who are not Alaska residents must be accompanied on hunts for sheep, mountain goat or brown bear by either a licensed Alaska guide or a close relative who is an Alaska resident (second degree of kindred is described in the regulation book). Nonresident hunters who also are not U.S. citizens must be accompanied into the field by an Alaska-licensed guide for any big game hunt.
What else do I need to know?
It is a good idea for any hunter heading into the Bush to carry a cell or satellite phone. Satellite phones are relatively inexpensive to rent and, in the case of an injury, are a very cheap insurance policy.
McConnell also advises hunters to call ADF&G right away if they take a sublegal animal.
“We understand that people make mistakes,” he said. “If they call and report it, they will usually be advised to harvest the meat and turn it in, and they will be dealt with much less harshly.”
Failure to be the first to call in often will result in the hunter being charged with unlawful possession or transportation, which means larger fines and, in some cases, loss of hunting privileges and forfeiture of the gear used in the hunt.
Lewis said phones also come in handy on fly-in hunts, “when you’ve been successful and the weather is changing or turning warm and you want to get your meat out.”
That’s when you can call the flight service and avoid the costly mistake of wasting meat. Wasting meat doesn’t just mean an empty freezer, it could also empty the hunter’s wallet. In Alaska, most hunts—with the exception of brown bear—require all meat to be salvaged or the hunter could face fines and penalties.
Mike Dinkel, an avid hunter and owner of American Trophy Taxidermy in Soldotna, prefers postponing a hunt until the weather cools.
“Summer hunting is the worst for preserving meat and makes taking care of a hide difficult as well,” he said.
Dinkel recommends skinning the meat and getting it away from body heat as soon as possible. Most hunters know it’s best to hang and air-dry meat in good-quality game bags but, when forced to, Dinkel has resorted to storing the dry meat in sealed plastic buckets in a creek.
While hunting regulations do not always require hunters to salvage hides, for those who wish to, it is important to keep them cool and dry as well.
“Ideally hunters should learn how to salt them down,” Dinkel said. “The most common mistake is thinking you can wash them later.”
Whether it’s the hide or meat, the best way to avoid waste and an ethical or legal blunder is to shoot no more than you can deal with at one time. Lewis and McConnell say that is most likely to occur with hunts such as caribou, where there are sometimes large herds and liberal bag limits.
“There’s simply no reason to waste meat, it’s a serious offense and it must be salvaged,” said Lewis, pointing out that if someone takes more than they need ADF&G and the Alaska State Troopers keep lists of charities that will accept the meat as a donation.
Another common mistake is not maintaining evidence of the sex of an animal when the hunt is restricted to one gender. In most cases that means leaving the sex organs attached to part of the rear quarter. With deer and Dall sheep, antlers or horns will suffice as evidence. And don’t forget: Antlers and horns may be transported from the field only after all the meat has been hauled from the kill site.
Failure to validate a harvest ticket is also a common mistake. In the heat of the moment, it is easy to forget to punch out the month and day on your ticket.
“A good way to remember is that the first cut you make should always be your harvest ticket,” Lewis said.
Hunters must also be aware of sealing rules, usually required for grizzly bears and, in some cases, for black bears and ram sheep. If this is required, the hunter must present the hide and skull to an ADF&G representative, who will place a seal on the remains and will usually also take data and biological samples from the animal.
Some hunts in Alaska—such as muzzle-loader and archery hunts—require the hunter to complete a weapons-specific safety course first. And a few hunts, usually within specific areas such as Anchorage’s Coastal Wildlife Refuge, require all participants to complete a basic hunter education class. McConnell recommends this class for all hunters.
“There are people who think it’s below them or something, but I’ve taken it myself and it’s a great refresher,” he said. “There’s always something to learn and anyone, of any level, can get something out of it.”
Tips for total success
Lewis has other common sense advice for hunters, garnered through years working for ADF&G and hunting throughout the state. In recent years he has become a fan of the electric bear fence as a way to deter bear visits to camp.
“On my last trip to Kodiak the alders were all torn up around the perimeter of my tent, but the tent and all my gear were intact,” he said.
Lewis advises anyone heading into the field to test fencing and all their gear before they go. Finding out raingear doesn’t work or a tent doesn’t hold up to Arctic winds can be a rude awakening in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. He also stresses the importance of always filing a trip plan with a friend or relative—who can contact authorities if you don’t show up when expected— and sticking to it.
Other good tips include dressing in layers—synthetics, no cotton—and bringing along a sharp knife and good-quality sharpener. And if you have two hunters in camp, Lewis says it is wise to have one handle the meat while the other handles the hide and antlers in order to avoid cross contamination. And finally, know your partner.
“If you haven’t spent a week together in close proximity under adverse conditions go camping together a few times under less severe situations first,” he said.
—Dave Atcheson lives on the Kenai Peninsula. He prepared the 2011 fishing forecast in the April issue.