Alaska Hunt Planning: The Timeline

If you live in a remote Alaska village, it's conceivable that you could load your rifle onto your ATV, snowmachine or pickup and be glassing a herd of caribou within the hour. But for most of us, planning an Alaska big-game hunt involves much more planning than that.

 

hunters looking at Alaska river map

A good plan for hunting big-game in Alaska usually involves months of research followed by detailed logistical planning with an eye to critical details that, if overlooked, could break your hunt. Let's look at those details.

Hunt Planning Timeline

Before we get started, let's lay out the main components of a typical hunt and get them on the calendar so we don't forget anything. Here's a quick-reference chart covering the main points.

Date Task
1-2 years out
  • Identify hunt location
  • Identify air charter
  • Air charter reservations
8-12 months prior
  • Preliminary raft rental arrangements (float hunts)
  • Preliminary satphone rental arrangements
  • Commercial flight arrangements
  • Hotel and rental car arrangements
Eight months prior
  • Confirm raft rental, pay deposit (float hunts)
  • Confirm satphone rental, pay deposit
  • Gear selection, gear purchases
  • Start physical conditioning
Six months prior
  • Confirm air charter arrangements (drop-off and take-out for float hunts, drop location for drop camps, hunting pressure, etc.)
Four weeks prior
  • Purchase remaining gear
  • Purchase dry foods that can be shipped
  • Confirm rental raft / gear shipping dates, get tracking numbers
  • Shakedown cruise (float hunts)
  • Pack
2-3 weeks prior
  • Ship food and gear to air service
  • Confirm air charter arrangements, including final confirmation of drop and pick-up locations.
Departure day
  • Call air service to confirm itinerary and drop location
  • Confirm raft delivery to air service (float hunts)

Do You Need Help?

Putting an Alaska hunt together involves knowing where to go for information and what to do with the information you receive. If you need help with any of that, by all means consider our Hunt Planning Service. We've helped thousands of hunters and we can help you put your dream hunt together. CLICK HERE for more information.

Hunt Planning Resources

Putting together a successful Alaska hunt starts with good research, and knowing where to get your information is as important as knowing which questions to ask. Please review our Hunt Planning Resources page for specific details on where to obtain information and what kinds of questions to ask.

Perishable versus Non-Perishable Information

The information you collect falls into one of two general categories. Knowing this at the beginning will help you organize your time and come up with a workflow that fits your schedule, while allowing you to gather everything you need.

Non-Perishable Information

Non-perishable information consists of information that doesn't change much (or at all) from year to year. Generally this kind of information needs to be gathered only once. Information like this can be collected and stored in books or on computer systems where it retains it's value for many years. Here are some examples:

Land Ownership

Most private property in Alaska is neither fenced or posted, yet it is the hunter's responsibility to know who owns the land and whether or not they are allowed to hunt it. The safest bet (especially on the road system) is to assume the land is private unless your research shows differently.

The single best resource for determining land ownership and boundaries of private lands is the Bureau Of Land Management's Public Lands Information Office in Anchorage or Fairbanks.

Subsistence Activity

Local hunters and fishermen in rural Alaska count on an annual harvest of fish and game to sustain or augment their annual food supplies. Determine where the locals are hunting and avoid those areas. The best way to do this is to contact the local Area Biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. They live and work in the area and can tell you which areas to avoid.

Guide Activity

It's important to know if there are any commercial operators working the area you plan to hunt; the last thing you want to do is to end up hunting on top of someone else, ruining both their hunt and yours. The State of Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development regulates guide activity throughout the state; one of their requirements is that guides must register thier camps no less than 30 days prior to any scheduled hunts. This means that it's possible to contact the state of Alaska to determine not only if guides are working the area, but exactly where they are. This allows you to adjust your hunt plans to avoid conflict.

Access Points

Road-based hunts require careful research and clever thinking to locate access points that are not commonly known. Go with online maps such as Google Earth for the most current road locations.

Most remote hunts in Alaska involve flying out in small aircraft, but access points are limited to certain gravel bars, level benches, and lakes or rivers with stretches of flat water long enough to allow both take-off and landing.

Terrain

The structure of the land itself has immense value to hunters. Flat, timbered country requires entirely different hunting tactics than sparsely-treed alpine country. Knowing what the terrain and vegetation are like in advance of your hunt will help drive the tactics you learn in order to hunt the area effectively. Areas with available high ground offer the opportunity to glass; a huge advantage to the hunter as it's much easier to see a moving animal at a distance when you are sitting still. A spotting scope and a good binocular are essential tools on a hunt like this.

Vegetation

It's important to identify vegetation types because some species prefer certain plants for both cover and feeding. Moose, for example, prefer willow as a forage plant over alder or spruce (though they will eat both), and are therefore unlikely to be found in open country. Caribou prefer lichen that's found out on the open tundra. Bears eat grass and other emerging vegetation in the spring, and berries in the fall. It's important to note that vegetation emerges in the warmer valleys first in the spring, drawing bears into these areas. But fall bears are often found on mountainsides, where berry patches are found. But not just any mountain sides; south-facing slopes receive more sunlight and therefore generally produce better berry crops. That's where the bears will be.

River Information

Most river data is non-perishable and can be used without fresh research for many years. Items such as mileage, gradient, whitewater rating, known hazards, recommended experience level, recommended boats, land managers and available species need only be collected once to be of use for several hunts.

Perishable Information

Perishable information consists of details with a relatively short shelf-life of anywhere from four or five years to a couple of weeks. Books that include this information make the classic mistake of publishing information that's obsolete in a few seasons. Perishable information, unlike non-perishable details, must be researched for every hunt. Here's a breakdown.

Density

"Density" refers to how many of a given species are found in an area. It's usually expressed in how many animals are found in a square mile. For example, and area might have an avearage of 5 moose per square mile. When looking at this number, remember that it represents an average over a relatively large area such as an entire Game Management Unit or subunit. There are large areas within each unit where, for various reasons, game will not be found. In the case of moose, for example, you won't find many out on the treeless tundra. If a particular unit consists of mostly poor moose habitat it might show a density as low as 1/4 moose per square mile. Such low densities are not a deal-breaker, however, because moose will be located in the limited patches of good habitat. These areas, by the way, are typically located in riparian zones (near the rivers). The greatest challenge in low density areas is usually access. But if you can get to the prime habitat areas, you could find a lot of moose there.

Bull / Cow Ratio

Bull-to-cow ratios, often indicators of the overall health of a given population, are managed by wildlife biologists for maximum sustained yield of the target species. Management typically consists of adjusting hunting seasons, bag limits, and related restrictions to enhance the ratio and increase the population of harvestable animals. Note that the optimal ratio in one area might differ from another area, and that optimal ratios differ from species to species. From a hunter's perspective, the bull / cow ratio is used nearly exclusively to gain a sense of the stability and general health of the population in the target area.

Population Trends

Game populations are in a constant state of flux in Alaska. Before you commit to a location you need to know what's going on with the species you intend to hunt, in the location you plan to hunt. Is the herd stable or are there downward trends you should be concerned about? What are the causes of the population change? Common causes of game population decreases are increased predation, hunting pressure, habitat degradation through fires or over-browsing, and disease. Populations don't generally drop off in a season or two; it takes a few years.

Predation

As the population of prey species fluxuates, so does the predator population. Common predators of big-game species in Alaska are bears, wolves and coyotes. In some areas Dall sheep populations have been seen significant effects of predation on lambs by golden eagles. It takes a few seasons for predators to increase to a point that may threaten ungulate populations such as moose, caribou and Dall sheep, but you need to know the predator situation in your hunt area.

Habitat Quality / Location

Two known causes of habitat degradation are over-browse and plant succession. But there's a third cause that happens suddenly, and can reduce prime habitat to bare dirt in one season-- wildfires. This is particularly an issue in the Interior (Region 3), where lightening-caused fires may consume thousands of acres of wildlife habitat in a given year. In most cases these fires are allowed to burn unchecked, with intervention happening mostly in the case of threats to homes or other property. The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center is tasked with tracking Alaska's wildfires and coordinating control efforts. Their website provides data pertaining to the locations of wildfires across the state.

Hunting Pressure

An oft-circulated myth about Alaska hunting is that the state is becoming overcrowded. While this can be true of a given location in a given year, it's not the case in most of the state. The remote nature of most of Alaska (a function of the limited road system), combined with the expense of accessing the Alaska bush, tends to spread hunters out over large areas. Over-crowding most often occurs at well-known roadside areas and a handful of flyout destinations that are openly discussed in Internet forums. The key to avoiding pressured areas is to do good homework. On the other hand, there are tactics that work very well in areas where you might see other hunters. The educated hunter always has an advantage over the one who goes in blind, having done no advance research.

Guide Activity

It's important to know if there are any commercial operators working the area you plan to hunt; the last thing you want to do is to end up hunting on top of someone else, ruining both their hunt and yours. The State of Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development regulates guide activity throughout the state; one of their requirements is that guides must register thier camps no less than 30 days prior to any scheduled hunts. This means that it's possible to contact the state of Alaska to determine not only if guides are working the area, but exactly where they are. This allows you to adjust your hunt plans to avoid conflict.

River Conditions

While much river information is non-perishable in nature, some things require fresh research for every hunt. Water level is an example. Rivers are typically at or near their lowest levels of the year during the fall hunting season. But water levels can fluxuate rapidly as a result of fall storms moving through the area. In much of the Interior and in the Arctic, these weather patterns typically start during August and continue off and on into October.

Area Selection

Choosing a place to hunt is arguably the most critical aspect of hunt planning.

Color Infrared (CIR) Images

The Bureau of Land Management has color infrared photos of the entire state of Alaska. Taken from high-altitude aircraft, the image quality of these photos is so good you can see individual trees. Use these images to identify prime habitat areas, migration corridors, confluence streams, campsite locations and much more.

Learning to interpret the colors and textures on a CIR image is a skill acquired through practice. The best way to get started is to work with someone who works in one of the BLM offices in Alaska (the Anchorage and Fairbanks offices are located on our CIR page.

color infrared map for hunting in Alaska

The CIR image to the left shows some of the features hunters should look for. To begin with, notice the details that are visible on this image. Individual trees can be seen, tributary streams, cut banks along the river, meadows, small lakes, openings in the brush or timber, gravel bars, gullies and more can be seen on this image. Much of this information is not available on a topographic map, so unless your research consisted of something more than a map study, you're headed to the field with incomplete information. Note the larger river running across the top of the photograph; water on a CIR image almost always appears as black. You can see this same color on the tributary coming in from the south, and on the small lakes toward the bottom of the photo. Look where the tributary comes in to the main river; a gravel bar is there, a short distance from the confluence, and an inlet exists at the river mouth. This could be a great spot to camp, because you're off the main current and you have a flat campsite that's located close to the high bluff that runs along the south side of the main river and along the tributary stream. This bluff is readily seen by the shadow it casts to the north. This shadow is a result of the photo being shot later in the day as the sun was setting on the horizon to the south. This bluff is an ideal perch from which to glass the confluence where bears will emerge in the early and late hours to feed on salmon congregating near the little bay. It's also a great place from which to glass the tributary itself, which looks like good moose habitat. The tributary is bordered by willows and grass, with scattered trees here and there, but the vegetation is too thick to see through horizontally. So the elevated ground to the south provides an ideal place from which to glass down into the brush for moose or other game.

View our Color Infrared Images page for more details on where to find them, how to use them and how to transfer the data to your paper maps.

 


What's next in Alaska hunt planning?

Okay, so you're getting a pretty good idea of the workflow and what you need to do. Where do you go from here?

Getting Started

Start at the beginning with an orientation to the planning process, using one of three different planning methodologies. Refer to our Hunt Planning Menu on the left, for links to other related pages.

Hunt Planning Services

Do you need help planning your hunt? If so, check out our Hunt Planning Services. We offer complete top-to-bottom assistance with all aspects of your float, drop, or road-based hunt.

Choosing a Hunt Location

A critical aspect of planning your hunt is choosing the right location. This section walks you through the entire process of area selection, starting with understanding the regions of the state and breaking it down into smaller pieces to help you decide the best place for your hunt. Check out our Hunt Locations page for more information.

Resources

We've listed some books and DVDs for you on this page, but at some point you need to do some research with real people. Who do you talk to? What kinds of questions do you ask? How can you avoid time-wasting mistakes. We explore all that and more in our Hunt Planning Resources section.

Color Infrared Photos

Maps play a critical role in hunt planning. One of the most useful tools out there are the color infrared photos available in Anchorage and Fairbanks. We discuss those maps and how to use them for hunt planning purposes in our Color Infrared Photos section.

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