If you have spent most of your life hunting deer where there are more hunters than racked bucks, consider this: Wide-open spaces of public land as far as the eye can see. Alpine bowls and basins with deer in just about every one of them, some of them holding as many as a dozen antlered bucks, and often one or two approaching record-book size. A limit of four bucks apiece, and a season that lasts for nearly five months. And best of all not another hunter as far as the eye can see.
This hunting isn't found only in your dreams. It is found on Kodiak Island, Alaska, a huge expanse of land that is home to the state's largest population of Sitka blacktail deer, a blocky-bodied critter with relatively short, heavy mule deer-like antlers. Mature bucks weigh over 200 pounds on the hoof, and provide some of the finest eating venison I've ever tasted.
When To Hunt Kodiak's Deer
Deer season on the Island can be broken down into three main periods. In August and September, the days are long and the weather generally mild. The best bucks are as high as they can climb, living in dense alder thickets and feeding in the alpine bowls and basins. During the transition season, from late September through early October, the deer begin to move out of the highest alpine stands down towards the beaches, spending most of their time in the thickets, where the alders haven't yet dropped all of their leaves. The late season, from mid-October through November, features short days and tough weather, but the bucks are beginning to rut and move a lot.
Of the three, I avoid the transition period completely. It's tough hunting, and the deer are hard to find. I prefer the late season, and like hunting most between October 15 and November 20. Wait any longer and the days become short and the weather can be horrible. I also like the early season, when daylight is almost unlimited, and the alpine country is as beautiful as any place I have ever hunted deer.
How To Hunt
Spot and Stalk hunting is the primary method of bowhunting here. There are no trees to speak of large enough to support a tree stand. During the rut, rattling and calling can also work with varing degrees of success.
I like to leave my camp just before light, hiking a short distance in the dark, then working my way into a good vantage point from which I can glass the bowls and basins when the sun illuminates them.
If you are using a boat as a camp, you have to climb above the alder line to find the better bucks, a climb that often means 1,000 to 2,000 vertical feet and can take a couple of hours.
Spot and Stalk hunting is the primary method of bowhunting here.
After an hour or so, if I haven't seen anything that interests me, I'll begin what I call "sneak and peek" hunting. This entails hiking along, peeking over the edges down into the pockets in search of deer. When I reach a new vantage point offering a good view of lots of promising country, I'll spend some more time glassing. It is a fun, relaxing way to hunt - and highly effective.
Trophy Judging Sitka Blacktail
While they don't grow on trees, the best bucks have typical mule deer antlers with a 4x4 configuration, relatively short tines, and two eye guards. Most mature bucks are 3x3, with some 3x4's. Heavy antlers are about five inches wide at the base and a good spread is 16 inches - about the width of the deer's ears.
To qualify for Boone and Crockett record book, the buck must score 108 points. The Pope and Young record book minimum is only 65 points, which is really a pretty small buck. On Kodiak, you should be able to locate a 3x3 buck scoring over 80 points relatively easily. The key to finding a buck that scores well by record book criteria, is to locate one with long tines, which can be tough.
Archery Tackle And Other Gear
Archery tackle for blacktails should be the same as for whitetails and mule deer. Bows in the 60 to 70-pound range are ideal, with arrows that weigh between 400-500 grains. Like all biggame species, razor sharp broadheads are a must.
Because of the presence of brown (grizzly) bears, a heavy-duty firearm of at least .338 Win. Mag., or a 12-gauge shotgun with solid slugs, is necessary in camp. I never head afield without a firearm, even when bowhunting. You need the firearm for bear protection in case a chance encounter turns nasty, a rare occurance but one that happens every year with a handful of hunters. Never pack meat without a firearm.
I never head afield without a firearm, even when bowhunting.
One quick word on bears - you'll see them, and they will get in your camp if you leave it messy or store deer meat in camp. They may steal one of the bucks you've shot - it happened to me once. But while the big bears must be respected and precautions taken, dangerous encounters are extremely rare.
In terms of clothing, you'll need the best rain suit you can buy (I like packable GORE-TEX® rain suits), GORE-TEX® hiking boots, hip boots and warm clothing that includes a glove and a cap. Bring lots of extra socks. In addition to regular insulated socks, GORE-TEX® socks can be a life-saver here in this wet environment. By wearing them you will have dry feet even if your boots are soaked inside and out.
A pack frame and bag for carrying hunting gear and boned-out meat, knife and stone, flourescent flagging, parachute cord, first aid kit, and your other usualu hunting gear should come along. Binoculars in the 8X-10X class, and a spotting scope with a top-end power of 45X to 60X, are required too. A space blanket and a space bag are great survival gear should you be stuck out away from camp overnight.
If you're on a boat or lodge hunt, they'll provide bedding, shelter, and meals. Do-it-yourselfers will need top-quality tents that can take extremely high winds (it blows over 50 mph on Kodiak often), a warm ground pad, and a sleeping bag with synthetic insulation that will continue to keep you warm even if it gets wet.
I like to keep cooking to minimum, both to save valuable hunting time and avoid creating smells that might attract bears. A small backpacker-type stove, aluminum cooking pot, and freeze dried dinners provide hot food with little hassle after a tough day's hunting. For breakfast, instant oatmeal is excellent, as are a granola bar or two. Lunches while hunting for me consist of granola bars, jerky, hard cheese and gorp. For snacking, more granola bars and miniature candy bars are great. It ain't fancy, but it maximizes hunting time, and saves both weight and bulk.
Setting Up The Hunt
Most hunters fly into the town of Kodiak, then either charter an air taxi service or large boat to take them to the hunting area. This is true even when hunting from a lodge. Boat hunts allow you to sleep dry and warm, which is an advantage later in the year. Fly-in hunts are more expensive, but they permit hunting remote areas where the biggest bucks live. Both are quality experiences. Fully-guided hunts are also available, and usually cost about $3,500 for a week's hunt that allows you to take two bucks.
Blacktails are a joy to hunt whereever they are found, but when they are hunted with a bow on Kodiak Island, Alaska, the true meaning of adventure, quality and solitude is revealed.