How to Hunt the Sitka Blacktail

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What You Need To Know About Hunting This Elusive Animal

 

Joe Bell poses with a Sitka black-tailed deer. (Joe Bell photo)

In the fall of 2005, my dream of hunting Alaska’s black-tailed deer became reality. I was revved up for what was about to be the ultimate bowhunting experience of my life. It was mid-November, and the blacktail rut was in full charge. I could see does traipsing along the ocean’s shoreline. I hiked upward from the beach.

Moments later, I spotted a 3x3 rack with eye guards that would certainly break Pope and Young’s minimum score. He was in perfect position for a stalk. I visually sketched out my route and put my feet to work.

Before I knew it, I was 50 yards from the deer. A few knee crawls later, and I was in position for a 43-yard shot. As a nearby doe busted me, the buck stood, and that’s when I brought my bow to full draw. The razor-tipped arrow blasted all the way through, and disappeared into thin Alaskan air. He bolted and I ran passed a knoll, hoping to keep track of his whereabouts. He stood there looking over at me. I quickly guessed the distance—around 35 yards—and sent an insurance arrow, anchoring the deer.

I couldn’t believe my fortune—a big Sitka buck down, and only a few hours into the hunt. As I went to work on the buck, de-boning meat and loading up my battered Badlands pack, I was in awe of the wildness of this place. Around me were giant piles of fresh bear scat, and I mean piles of it. This was untamed wilderness at its finest.

CHECK PAST-WINTER FORECASTS

Step number-one in planning any Kodiak deer trip is to make sure the herd wasn’t negatively affected by a past winter. A single, harsh winter can drastically impact hunting success. If you’re after big bucks (4-year-olds and up), look back at the history of winters during a multiple-year stretch.

Under Armour cold gear jacket

The Under Armour Scent Control ColdGear Infrared Softershell Jacket is designed to handle the Alaskan climate.

Mature bucks are well-versed in rough weather, but after a hard rutting season and long winter, they seldom regain strength and eventually fall victim to malnutrition and/or hungry brown bears. Contact the Alaska Game & Fish Department, along with air-charter service providers and hunting outfitters, and ask about the past winter(s) on Kodiak. Other islands, such as Prince of Wales (POW), also hold a lot of Sitka blacktails, with most of them experiencing less die-offs on a harsh winter compared to Kodiak.

HUNT EARLY OR LATE?

I’ve done both, and each provides a completely different experience. Most guys enjoy chartered vessel “boat” hunts during late-October through November when Sitka deer are rutting. On these hunts, you enjoy the modern comforts of a warm bed, great food and the safety of sleeping on the boat at night.

Good deer hunting is also more accessible. Deer are usually found in lower valleys and foothills—all closer to beaches—and bucks are preoccupied with does. Stalking and intercepting bucks is effective. Rattling and grunt calling can also be effective. Also, if one area isn’t producing, a “quality” vessel outfit will simply move the ship to a different cove and hunting area, making sure you’re hunting pressure-free bucks.

The problem I’ve found after doing a boat hunt is the notoriously “iffy” weather and the short daily hunting time you’ll face. November on Kodiak, the peak rutting month, is routinely cold, windy, rainy, snowy and/or foggy. On a six or seven-day hunt, you may end up with only two legitimate hunting days.

Like any hunt, scouting is a priority. (Joe Bell photo)In late fall, dawn comes around 8:30 to 9 a.m. and dusk around 6 p.m. With the skiff dropping off hunters ashore no earlier than 9:30 a.m., and pickups usually coming no later than 5 p.m., there’s simply not much time to locate an animal, stalk it and then make a clean shot, and then butcher and pack out meat and antlers, all before the shoreline pickup arrives. If you don’t have a buck down by early afternoon, you’re out of luck.

The other option is going early, from the August 1 opener through mid-September. This kind of hunt is primarily a do-it-yourself venture, where you hire an air-charter provider to drop you and your gear off at a promising, remote location, then from there, you’re totally on your own. Chartered bush plane flights cost about $800 to $1,000 one way, which can be split among two to four hunters, depending on size of plane (usually a Cessna or slightly larger Beaver plane).

Early in the year, the majority of Sitka deer are found along high-alpine ridges, where cool weather prevails and nagging bugs swarm in less supply. To reach deer, you must go deeper into the backcountry. Though weather can be lousy at this time of year, the days are much, much longer and bowhunters find themselves with more than enough time to effectively fill two or three deer tags during an eight to 10-day hunt. It doesn’t get dark until 11 p.m. in late summer, and daylight shines again by 6 a.m. the next morning—so you have 16- to 18-hour days.

Early hunts require a lot of work. The job of fixing meals, filtering water, meat care and keeping a clean camp become your responsibility. Remember, you’re living amongst the bears, and pesky gray foxes, which will nearly always raid your camp. Fortunately, the majority of the bears are in lower country feeding on spawning salmon. No matter, you’re always in bear country wherever you go in Kodiak, and you’ll see them routinely, and there’s always a chance for a potential run-in. The bugs can get bad on Kodiak, as well. So, between long climbs, plentiful black flies and mosquitoes, big bears, and rustic camping conditions, the downsides of hunting early on are obviously there.

BE IN SHAPE

Whether you go early or late, do your best to get in shape. Kodiak has some mean vertical country, and you must be able to get around quite easily in order to effectively stalk deer.

Early hunts require even better conditioning since you’ll face steeper, more brutal alpine country, and you’ll have to pack-out meat from these same elevations and back to a lower valley or lake. The best way to preserve and keep meat cool, and to hide the smell from a bear’s nose, is to properly bag and seal it. Then completely submerge the meat in a cold lake or river until your flight provider comes in for a “meat run,” or until you leave.

There are two ways to hunt during the early-season—you can hunt daily from a base camp, or use your base camp as a “supply center” and go out for two to four days at a time, sleeping and hunting where deer live.

To stay in legitimate wilderness shape, it’s best to adjust your lifestyle by incorporating exercise into a year-round schedule. Eating healthy has the most benefit.

APPROPRIATE GEAR

For late-fall rut hunts, I prefer knee-high rubber boots. You’ll face super-wet conditions, with many creeks to walk through, so tall, rubber-type waterproof boots are the way to go.

Having the right gear is crucial, especially when hunting in rugged terrain. (Joe Bell photo)Early alpine hunts take place on higher, drier ground where ankle support is crucial. I prefer non-insulated to lightly-insulated boots. Take two sets of boots. One will likely become water-logged and need time to dry. Don’t go with boots that are too heavy, either. They only get heavier once leather gets wet.

Two sets of high-quality raingear are required for all Kodiak hunts. For late hunts, I prefer two sets of wool or fleece outer-garments, along with long underwear. Rely on a lot of layers this time of year. Bring two or three sets of wool gloves, and wear warm stocking caps and waterproof ball caps with ear shields. On early hunts, I like to take two or three sets of lightweight garments, along with two lightweight fleece pullovers or jackets. Bring a lot of high-quality wool socks and sock liners no matter the season.

DON’T GO IT ALONE

If you’re planning on an early, do-it-yourself hunt, be sure to choose at least one partner to enjoy the adventure with. This is not an option, but a necessity. Alaska’s wilderness is cold, wet, dangerously steep and chock-full of bears—a good partner provides peace of mind and help in difficult situations.

Also, be sure this partner shares in your hunting values and goals. His physical conditioning should also be similar to yours, particularly if you plan on hunting together. Just keep in mind, living conditions in the wilderness are harsh and physically tough, and personality conflicts can easily ruin a hunt if someone’s not happy. Simply put, the Alaskan bush is no place to size up a guy’s personality and skills as a woodsman.

Also, these days, a satellite phone is a must, not only for safety but also for convenience sake, as you can reschedule bush flights (for meat pick-ups, to move locations, etc.) and access weather conditions. You can rent one beforehand or as you arrive in Kodiak. They cost about $50 to $75 a week, talk time additional.

CARING FOR MEAT

Alaska law requires hunters to take all edible portions of deer meat, which includes neck and rib scraps. And all meat must come out before antlers, or you can take it all in one trip.

Muck Boot hunting boot

The Pursuit Shadow Tall by Muck Boot is a great choice for extreme hunts.

Whether you go early or late, strip all meat from bones to reduce weight, and use strong, high-quality game bags. A mature Sitka buck weighs around 175 to 200 pounds on the hoof, which equates to about 60 to 80 pounds of meat, antlers and possibly a cape.

On early hunts, meat spoilage can become a huge issue. When stored in a cold lake or river water, meat will keep for about four 24-hour days before spoilage becomes an issue. I use Seal Line dry bags to pack meat in, which are watertight. Plastic trash bags and big Ziploc sacks pierce easily. At the very least, use contractor-grade trash bags and seal using zip-ties.

In any case, you’ll have to arrange a “meat pickup” with your air-service provider mid-way through the hunt. Such flights cost $300 to $500, given a pilot is flying nearby and can conveniently make the pickup. In any case, you don’t have a choice but to pay for a meat run, as they commonly call them. Wanton waste of meat is against the law.

THE PRICE TAG

Bowhunting Sitka blacktail deer in Alaska makes for an unbelievable dream adventure. Don’t keep putting it off. Plan your trip now. Boat trips run around $3,500 for a week-long hunt, minus airfare to Kodiak and license fees, while summertime do-it-yourself hunts run around $3,000, including airfare, charter flights, food and license fees. The do-it-yourself option is the best hunt going for hardcore wilderness hunters. It’s expensive. But if it’s your dream, save up for this trip. You’re sure to have a blast.

Editor's note: The author is a well-known bowhunting writer and the executive director of the Pope and Young Club. To learn more about fair-chase hunting, or to sign up for the Club's free E-newsletter, please visit Pope-Young.org.