How to venture north for willow ptarmigan—some of the best wingshooting in Canada
It was February, and my hunting buddy and I were after willow ptarmigan in the endless wilderness of northeastern Manitoba. We’d spent several hours inspecting small, interconnected lakes by snowmobile when we crossed paths with several fresh strings of ptarmigan tracks standing out in the otherwise uninterrupted blanket of snow.
Nearly all the tracks were concentrated around tall stands of willow and alder along the lake’s shore, moving east. We continued in that direction and our sleds soon flushed the first covey. Had the birds kept still, we would never have spotted them. Instead, they burst from their near-invisible hideout, only to perch conspicuously on exposed branches farther down along the frozen shoreline.
Parking our snowmobiles, we planned our approach on foot and snuck into range without too much difficulty. Our humble old 20-gauge and .410 shotguns soon sounded off, rewarding us with five birds—an excellent first volley to start the day.
It’s hard not to have a soft spot for willow ptarmigan. They’re beautiful, delicious, locally plentiful and, in a way, exotic—most Canadians aren’t familiar with these birds, let alone the exceptional wingshooting opportunities they offer each winter across the vast North. Indeed, willow ptarmigan might very well be Canada’s best-kept secret in upland bird hunting. Long seasons, generous bag limits, no real need for a gun dog, excellent table quality and the chance for an exciting northern adventure—these are just some of the reasons ptarmigan hunting is such a blast. Here’s how to get in on the action.
Understand their behaviour
Well known for their impressive moults, ptarmigan seasonally transform from their mottled summer plumage to stark white winter camouflage. Provided they remain motionless, these birds can disappear into their snowy surroundings almost perfectly, becoming nearly undetectable. That said, any capable hunter can be successful if good numbers of the birds are present.
Willow ptarmigan are members of the Galliformes order of chicken-like birds, such as grouse, pheasant and turkeys. Unlike others in the order, however, they have seasonal migration patterns. During summer and early fall while rearing their young, willow ptarmigan spread out in lower population densities across the tundra. As winter approaches, they begin to congregate into larger overwintering flocks and hopscotch their way south into the shelter of old-growth boreal forests.
Why do they migrate? During the dead of winter, the tundra’s stunted willow shrubs are buried, and the barren landscape offers no shelter from the relentless icy winds. Based on the severity of the winter, the birds will migrate as far south into the boreal forest as needed to find better food, shelter and overwintering habitat.
Because it’s based on need, the willow ptarmigan migration is not as well defined as that of waterfowl or shorebirds. For instance, populations at the southern extent of the species’ range may not move from summering to wintering habitats, because they already have what they need to survive the winter.
Bring the right gear
Hunting for willow ptarmigan doesn’t require any specialized equipment. All you really need is a reliable snowmobile, helmet, shotgun and ammunition, appropriate cold-weather clothing and boots and, if required by local regulations, a hunter-safety orange vest.
In remote locations, you should also tow a toboggan with essential survival gear. Along with a survival kit, bring an axe, rope, snowshoes, fire starter, spare snowmobile parts and extra fuel. I also throw my GPS in my backpack to keep track of my route while stalking ptarmigan across the near endless northern landscape.
Go at the right time
Some of the best hunting occurs in mid- to late winter once the majority of local ptarmigan populations have assembled into their boreal overwintering grounds. Once out of tundra ecosystems, the birds become more concentrated and accessible to hunters. Since they receive almost no hunting pressure, ptarmigan are not particularly wary of humans, so it’s usually not hard to get within shotgun range.
The hard part is searching for them. At that time of year, temperatures can plummet and snow depths are often above the knee or even at the waist. This makes travel by snowmobile the only effective way to cover ground to find birds. It’s often a matter of simply recognizing their preferred wintering habitat, then conducting daily milk runs through the area to maximize your time.
Target the trees
Denali National Park and Preserve
During mid-winter ptarmigan hunts in Labrador and northern Manitoba, I found that willow-choked shorelines out-produced all other habitat types. Think of prime moose country: Look for clusters of small lakes with expansive willow and alder bushes growing along the shorelines, as well as low-lying marshy river segments that back onto old-growth conifers stands. Throw in some patchy burns or exposed rocky ledges for grit, and wintering ptarmigan have everything they could possibly want.
You’ll find the birds are very conspicuous as they perch on willow bushes, whether sunning themselves or feeding on buds and catkins. Likewise when they take shelter in stands of black spruce—they stick out like sore thumbs, despite feeling safe in their perches several feet above the ground. Such scenarios conveniently allow hunters to spot the birds early, then plan a stalk into shooting range.
Stalk the snow
Spotting willow ptarmigan in the snow is much more of a challenge, as you typically only see them once they flush. However, fresh sign can lead you directly to a flock—despite their superb winter camouflage, ptarmigan still leave tracks in the snow. Follow those while scanning ahead, and you’ll likely see a flicker of movement revealing a loose covey of birds.
Move cautiously so you can get close and pick out an individual bird; its black eyes, beak or tail feathers will give it away against the brilliant white backdrop. Note that inexperienced ptarmigan can at times be reluctant to flush, even after a volley of shots have been fired. So be prepared for follow-up shot opportunities and unexpected late-flushing birds. This is particularly true of larger groups of ptarmigan feeding or loafing in brushy cover during a sunny midday.
When I’m stalking ptarmigan on foot, I’ve typically already seen them and I’m merely trying to close the distance. If I spot or flush birds while on my snowmobile, I’ll stop and make a mental note of where they flew to. But before following them, I’ll first walk into the area they flushed from—often, half the flock will still be there and I’ll get in some shots. Then I’ll return to my sled and go after the flushed birds—and round two of some wild winter wingshooting.
Hunting guide Adrian Skok spends a lot of time in Canada’s north country.
Where exactly do willow ptarmigan range in Canada? See www.outdoorcanada.ca/ptarmiganrange.