This trip began with a simple question from my wife: “Now what are you hunting?” The answer was white-tailed ptarmigan. Her response: “What are those?”
The white-tailed ptarmigan is a bird that lives in the Uinta Mountains above timberline. To put it simply, they’re the epitome of an upland game hunting adventure!
I’ve always wanted to hunt white-tailed ptarmigan in the Uinta Mountains, and when I explained my excitement to my brother Justin, he was just as hyped as I was. You see, we’re both avid, lifelong hunters and we love any chance to get out and hunt upland game with our bird dogs.
In addition to the adventure of the experience, it’s been a goal of mine to harvest every species of upland game I manage in the Upland Game Program. Going into the 2013 season, I had one species left: the elusive white-tailed ptarmigan. The hunt was on!
White-tailed ptarmigan are one of three species of ptarmigan, and the only one south of Canada. Native to the alpine tundra of Colorado, 57 were introduced into the Uinta Mountains in 1976 by UDWR. The birds have done very well since that original release. These birds live their entire life in the alpine tundra — for Utah, this means staying above 11,000 feet elevation.
Preparation for the hunt began with the assembly of gear. Our hunt took place in the Henry’s Fork drainage with King’s Peak as the backdrop, not far from the original release location of the first birds. It takes a lot of gear to make a successful hunt. We were nine miles from the nearest vehicle, and many more miles from the nearest town.
I took my two dogs: Gauge, a 2.5-year-old yellow lab that’s spent his entire life hunting upland game, and Trigger, my 7-month-old Brittany. This was Trigger’s first hunt. My brother Justin brought his 14-month-old Brittany, Scout. Both Brittanys had GPS collars so we could track them through the mountains. This became very critical for locating Trigger (more on that later). Scout and Gauge had dog packs with their food and supplies. Justin and I left the Henry’s Fork trailhead with 57-pound packs, headed for timberline.
We made it to our base camp at 11,250 feet elevation, the last patch of trees. We rested that afternoon with high hopes of finding ptarmigan in the morning. The next day was clear and cool: perfect for locating a feathered needle in a rocky haystack. What a beautiful place to go hunting!
We focused our hunting efforts in rocky boulder fields with lots of forbs and willows below — this is the habitat our research told us to focus on (always above 11,300 feet). We had all three dogs searching for the cryptic birds.
Four and a half hours later, my GPS said Trigger was over a mile away. He had wandered away from the pack. Apparently he had his own agenda that day. Luckily I found him an hour later.
While I was searching for Trigger, Justin and Scout made their way through a boulder field on the edge of an alpine lake: elevation 11,485 feet. All at once a ptarmigan flushed in front of Justin, the 20 gauge side by side fired and hit true. I heard the shot and started towards Justin. Before I got to him, two more shots were fired. When I finally met up with Justin and Scout, they had bagged three ptarmigan.
Hoping to get in on the action, Gauge and I started to work the boulder field. Scout went on point, so I hurried over and allowed Gauge to go in and flush the bird. One shot later, I had collected my very first white-tailed ptarmigan! We did it! We harvested ptarmigan on our first day of hunting. (I attribute our success to the research we did prior to the hunt.)
Justin, Scout, Trigger, Gauge and I covered many miles to harvest these birds. Trigger and Scout each covered 24 miles, and Gauge covered 13 miles. Justin and I each hiked 26 total miles in three days. This was truly the ultimate Utah upland game hunting experience, and we can’t wait to do it again.