Bowhunting Sitka Blacktail Deer
October 28, 2010
With 100 pounds of gear and deer meat on my back, Kodiak Island's tundra-covered hillsides were too steep to climb, and the jungle-like alders were too thick to walk through. So, I splashed along the shallows of a lake in knee-high rubber boots, stumbling over ice-covered boulders. Roaring, 50-mile-per-hour winds propelled sleet and whitecap spray against my face and hands. Each drop of moisture stung like being shot with a BB gun!
This was the first of two Pope and Young Sitka blacktail bucks Lon Lauber was able to kill during his Kodiak hunt. After spending five hours trying to stalk within bow range, Lon actually had this buck get up out of its bed and wander past at just eight yards.
The heavy pack made my movements awkward. One step it provided ballast, the next step the meat-laden pack acted like a sail against the blustery gusts. On the bright side, the exertion of carrying the load in that hellish weather kept me plenty warm. If I could make it the three miles to my tent camp and some dry clothes before dark, I just might survive. Despite the conditions, a broad smile beamed from within my frost-frozen beard because the bowhunting was heavenly. I was carrying the second largest Sitka blacktail buck I'd ever killed!
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
Instead of dwelling on the devilish weather, I reminisced about the angelic hunting I had just experienced in tagging this trophy. I'd seen this buck on two other occasions. Both times, he was too wary to kill with a bow and arrow. A few days later, upon the third encounter with this tall-tined buck, I pulled off one of my best stalks ever.
This buck was lying with his back to the wind, protected by a thick alder patch. I knew I couldn't stalk him there, but I needed to get closer and wait for him to make a mistake. I dropped behind a gully out of the deer's line of sight, scurrying toward the ocean. The terrain was so open that even at a half mile I chose not to expose myself to the buck's vision. I strapped my bow onto my backpack and crawled about 100 yards across a nearly vertical ledge of rocks and tundra. At times I was dangling 60 feet above the ocean. If the grass tussocks I was clinging to gave way, I'd fall to serious injury or death.
Finally, I made it past the cliffs and into a steep stream drainage that snaked back up the valley toward the buck's location. I slithered over the ridge and glassed the buck from about 200 yards away.
There was no cover between us. So, I rested my bow in my lap and scooted on my rear just a few inches at a time; glass, scoot, glass, scoot. After more than an hour and two rainsqualls, I had cut the gap in half.
Just 100 yards away now, the buck stood and surveyed his domain for several minutes before walking to a 20-foot high tundra mound and lying down again. His back was to the wind. He could smell any predator approaching from behind and he had a commanding view of everywhere he couldn't smell. I remember thinking, This is gonna be a tough stalk! Wait him out.
After several hours of me sneaking around, unsuccessfully trying to get within bow range, the buck stood up and surveyed his domain. It was one of the most majestic acts of nature I've ever seen. He stood there like a monarch for 20 minutes without moving; just watching, listening and smelling for danger.
Finally, his mood changed from wary to relaxed. He must have felt safe and was apparently hungry. He walked down off the mound and meandered right past me! When his head bobbed down into the tall grass, I drew my bow. The buck paused, sensing something was awry, but it was too late. At just eight yards, I zipped an arrow through his chest and watched him sprint down the ridge. Five hours after the stalk began, but just a few minutes after the shot, I walked up to a buck that grossed 100'‰7â„8 inches, just a few inches shy of Boone and Crockett requirements. Shortly after shooting photos, caping and butchering the deer, the hellish weather described earlier set in. Wet and exhausted, I made it back to camp in one piece. Then, the weather took a turn for the worse!
It's times like this when picking your hunting partner carefully becomes so crucial. Spending day after day in a small tent waiting out lethal weather wears your nerves raw. To my good fortune, I was with my good friend Bob Ameen. He's as easy going during foul weather as you can find.
We lay there on our camp cots, tucked into our sleeping bags, and listened to the wind howl and the rain pelt our tent -- for days. Sleeping, eating, reading and re-reading the contents of a tube of toothpaste made for looooooong days and nights. We spent eight and half days tent bound and only three and half days hunting! At one point, the wind was so fierce it snapped a tent pole. Bob and I had no choice but take down the other three poles and let the nylon tent material flap in our face for more than 24 hours!
Finally, the wind calmed down enough for us to repair the pole with duct tape and an alder wood splint. We had to cut holes in the tent's rain fly and used 17 guy wires to securely anchor the tent.
At times, the temperature plummeted into the single digits and we'd wake up to snow covering everything. Bu
t within hours it warmed up and turned to rain -- with more wind. Most of the time, the thought of accurately shooting an arrow was absurd. Regardless, we hunted in the least nasty weather and stayed holed up in the tent the majority of the trip.
On one wet, windy night, I heard something trip over one of the tent's guy ropes. It sounded like strumming a guitar string. Then I heard another twang and another. Next, I heard heavy breathing and realized a brown bear was tripping over tent ropes and circling our camp -- within a few inches of me!
"Bob, Bob, wake up!" I said urgently. "There's a bear right next to our tent!" We grabbed flashlights and handguns then unzipped the tent. Apparently our commotion made the bear wander off a bit. Just as we peeked out of the tent, we could see the bear's broad hind end shedding water as it ambled away in the dim yellow beams of our flashlights. As we crawled back into our bags, Bob grumbled, "Next time don't wake me up. I can't get scared if I don't know he's there!"
INTO THE STORM
Bob was bolder than me and tried hunting in extremely bad weather. Each time, he'd return with some wild story of seeing big bucks but just not being able to close the deal due to the horrific weather. I tried picking my opportunities based on winds of less than 25 mph, when I might be able to shoot an arrow from the lee side of a hill. That's exactly what I did on one clear, cold day.
After several days of high winds, mixed snow and rain pelting our tent, the weather "broke," allowing us to hunt one day. The north wind gusted with a bitter edge as sharp as a Ginsu knife. The deer would be tucked out of the wind on the "calm" side of steep hills.
Sitka blacktail deer are fairly plentiful on Alaska's Kodiak Island, which is why in some years hunters — both gun and bow combined — can post an overall success rate in the neighborhood of 80 percent.
In the bright October sunlight, the buck's glossy coat and antlers reflected a sheen that stood out at nearly a mile away. Ah, there's a buck, I thought as I traded binos for a spotting scope. The wind made the scope shudder like a quaking aspen, but during the lulls I could tell this buck sported large forks and decent eye guards. He was a mature buck and would easily make Pope and Young. More important than his antlers was his bedding location with a crosswind and a steep bank just a few yards behind him. I just might be able to sneak in for a close shot.
With the buck nearly a mile away, I eased away from his line of sight and then took off at a trot, using the terrain to keep from being seen. It didn't take long to move in. The wind was noisy and the tundra damp and quiet -- like walking on a giant wet sponge. In less than a half hour, I was slipping off my boots and tiptoeing closer to the buck's last known bed.
As I eased over the ridge, my eyes nearly bugged out. The buck was less than 25 yards away, lying down broadside to me but with his head turned away! I was still exposed to the wind on the ridge top, making a shot from here too chancy. I decided to move in as close as possible and sneak down the hill and out of the wind.
Step by step, inch by inch, I crept closer to the totally relaxed deer. At 12 paces, I slowly drew my bow, picked a spot and released a lethal arrow. The buck jumped to his feet, sprinted in a very short half circle and expired just a few yards from his bed.
I'd now killed two P&Y bucks in just three and half days of hunting. But it took 12 days to eke out those three and half days of "decent" weather to hunt. Bob never did tag a buck on this trip. On most Sitka blacktail hunts, regardless of weather, Bob kills two or three P&Y bucks.
Not surprisingly, the trip was extended due to more hellish weather. We had to stay two extra days before a bush plane could safely land for our departure. Good thing the hunting was from heaven -- at least for me!
PLANNING YOUR SITKA BLACKTAIL HUNT
In Alaska, deer season usually runs from August to January. There are no special archery-only hunts due to the vast area, long seasons and liberal bag limits. A hunter may take between one and four deer per year, depending on the specific area hunted and residency status. Please check the state regulations carefully for exact dates, bag limits and license costs.
Non-residents are not required to have a guide to hunt deer in Alaska. However, transportation to and from the hunting area and adequate lodging (two primary services of a guide) are the most difficult and expensive parts of deer hunting here. If you don't feel comfortable researching, nor have time to find your own hunting spot, there are numerous guides, outfitters and transporters available. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, keep in mind the extra cost of shipping all your camping gear from the lower 48.
Having a cabin or large wall tent with a heater can sure make the difference between fun and misery, especially during late-season hunts. Nonetheless, staying in an established camp/cabin will likely mean the immediate area has been hunted hard. Putting out extra effort by hiking higher and farther, as well as staying in a remote camp, will increase your odds of tagging more deer and bigger bucks. When I say bigger bucks, please realize this is relative to Sitka blacktails, not their larger-antlered cousins. A big Sitka buck weighs 150-200 pounds and will sport antlers measuring 75-100 inches. High-quality binoculars and spotting scope are essential to pick out and discern a trophy.
Sitka blacktails are not big deer. However, they are as tenacious about survival as any animal I've hunted. Due to their relatively small vitals, pinpoint accuracy is paramount. I opt for a flat-shooting compound bow. Others prefer the quickness of a recurve or longbow for the close-range, brush country they inhabit.
According to a harvest report survey, about two-thirds of all the deer taken on Kodiak Island were killed in October and November. Overall hunter success was about 80 percent (including rifle and bowhunters). Boats and planes were the most widely used modes of transportation. Plan your vacation with ample time for travel, weather delays and at least five to seven days of hunting.
When calling the game department, ask for a listing of services and accommodations in the area available to hunters and ask to speak directly to the area deer biologist. Have a list of questions prepared prior to calling. Don't expect a biologist to give you an exact hunting location. However, he should be able to provide general
areas or confirm the productivity of a specific area you have in mind.