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My favorite deer: this Alaskan hunting veteran reveals all for planning a guaranteed Sitka blacktail hunt.

IF YOU WERE TO shoot a quiver full of flaming arrows in my direction to make me choose only one big game species to bowhunt for the rest of my life, I'd select Alaska's Sitka blacktail -- before I ever got singed.

I could give many reasons for that, but among them would be the Sitka's wild and beautiful habitat, the ever-changing climate, the varied tactics involved in hunting these deer, generous bag limits, and great eating. And a high success rate doesn't hurt either. Success is almost guaranteed if you have a solid plan. Having hunted Sitka deer many times over the past 20 years, I hereby offer my best advice for forming a solid plan for Sitka blacktails.

Hunting Early

Sitka blacktail season opens in August. At this time of year the orange-colored deer are lounging in the lush emerald alpine where they stand out like fresh carrot sticks on a bed of lettuce. Think of an August Sitka excursion as a blue-collar sheep hunt. It's a high mountain, spot-and-stalk affair. Yet, you don't have to hire a guide.

Also, August is downtime for many other species, so an early Sitka hunt may not compete with your favorite species. The weather is generally milder in August, too, although rain can fall for 2 weeks nonstop in August anywhere Sitkas live.

August hunts in the alpine usually require an arduous ascent to get above treeline, normally by backpacking. The deer aren't overly spooky because they haven't been hunted since the previous fall, and the meat is excellent. Finally, most bears are down low on salmon streams, so bumping into meat-thieving bruins is less likely. All of these things combined make late August one of my two favorite times to hunt Sitka deer.

My most bittersweet Sitka hunt occurred on Prince of Wales (POW) Island in August of '98. Sweat poured off our beads as South Cox and I thrashed through near-vertical rainforest all clay. Once we got to the rolling alpine, the hiking was easier, the hunting awesome. We glassed 50 deer on the first day, 30 of them bucks!

With his usual stealth, South slithered in on an unsuspecting buck. Moments later he was tagging his first Pope and Young Sitka blacktail. While helping butcher this deer, I stood to stretch my aching back -- and noticed another buck, a big 4x4. He seemed curious about our activity. Shortly, he lost interest and fed over a hill. With just minutes of daylight left, I hastily donned fleece slippers over my boots, dropped into a fold in the tundra, and scurried his way. When I peeked over the rise, the deer was only 20 yards away, and as I drew my bow, the buck walked closer. Curiosity doesn't kill just cats.

The next day, we each lugged 100 pounds of deer meat and gear off the mountain, happy with our success -- until I slipped and hyperextended my knee. My leg budded and, screaming in pain, I clutched my knee. It had finally happened. I'd blown out my knee in a wilderness setting. Fortunately, we had a handheld aircraft radio and called for help. South lugged both his pack and then mine down the mountain to our floatplane rescue locale as I hobbled down through the jungle for 6 hours. My knee collapsed five more times. Later, I had surgery to replace the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee. That's another story. But there's no denying the hunting was great.

Midseason Hunts

Mid-September to late October can be hit or miss, and success depends on terrain, vegetation, and weather. Two years ago I had a bust of a hunt on Prince of Wales during October. Because hard frosts had killed the forage up high, the deer had moved down out of the alpine, yet the weather had not been severe enough to concentrate them on their wintering grounds near the ocean. In short, the deer were scattered throughout the dense rainforests and were nearly impossible to find. We saw only a few deer the entire week.

Here's one other possible drawback: At this time of year, bears are roaming everywhere and gorging before hibernation. Thus, bear encounters could be more likely during midseason.

On the other hand, I've had great October Sitka hunts on the open tundra of Kodiak Island. Just last fall I killed my second largest Sitka during a mid-October adventure. I'd jumped this big buck on two previous days. Not rutting yet, he was extremely wary. I spent 5 hours sneaking, crawling, and climbing cliffs to remain undetected. Finally, my perseverance paid off. I was hiding in chest-deep grass at 40 yards when the buck finally let down his guard. He sauntered by at a mere 9 paces. When the buck dropped his head below the grass line, I drew and shot. Upon recovery, I found a 210-pound buck that gross-scored 100 7/8 inches.

Weather in Alaska during September and October can vary dramatically. It can be 70 degrees F. and sunny, or it can be zero degrees with blizzard-like conditions. On the above-mentioned hunt on Kodiak, I spent 8 out of 12 days tent-bound due to weather. There were documented, sustained winds of 55 mph and gusts to more than 70, and these were accompanied by rain and snow. The poles on my tent broke, and my companion and I nearly ran out of food before a plane arrived.

On any Sitka hunt, thoroughly research where the deer are at that exact timeframe. And, be prepared for the range of weather scenarios.

Hunting The Rut

The first two weeks of November is my other favorite time to hunt. Sitka blacktails usually begin rutting by November 1, and breeding peaks by midmonth. (However, I have killed rutting bucks after Thanksgiving.) The weather at this time of year can be deadly. Quality wilderness gear and physical and mental preparation are critical. If the thought of being stranded a few extra days makes you antsy, don't schedule a rut hunt. I've never gotten into or out of the field as scheduled on any of my late season Sitka hunts. Also, during November, you still need to be bear aware.

When hunting in an area with a good deer population during the rut, action can be nearly nonstop. One day in early November I saw 75 deer, 38 of them bucks, and I passed up eight shots on Pope and Youngclass bucks at less than 30 yards. I Finally nailed a 90-inch trophy just before dark.

During the rut, Sitkas are vulnerable to calling and rat ding. Go light on the rattling and adjust your whitetail grunt call so it's not too deep and raspy. Because they're distracted pursuing does, bucks can be easy to approach. I've had a few blacktails walk closer to me after catching my scent. It seems these bucks were so desperate to breed they'd approach any potential mate! I've killed most of my Pope and Young Sitkas during the rut. I have noticed a slightly rutty scent/taste to the meat, but it's mild, and none of my dinner guests has ever complained.

On one November trip to Kodiak, I hunted during a torrential downpour. The hurricane-like weather didn't discourage the thick-necked, steel gray bucks from rutting. I stalked within, 20 yards of two bucks locking antlers in an alder thicket. After thoroughly judging their mahogany colored racks, I walked away. Shortly, I intercepted a doe-chasing buck and sent an arrow over his back. I hadn't even found my arrow when a whopper buck wandered by. I missed him, too.

I almost tossed my bow down the mountain in disgust.

These had been slamdunk shots. Instead of heaving my bow, I hiked farther into the wilderness, too bullheaded to quit. By late afternoon, I was at least 5 miles from camp. Of course, I jumped the buck of a lifetime. He and three other bucks were hounding a doe in heat. A fight broke out. The two biggest bucks attacked each other with vicious thrusts. The stronger deer knocked the other buck off his feet and jousted his foe as he tumbled down the mountain. Meanwhile, I sprinted down the tawny grass-covered hillside to close the gap. At about 100 yards I stopped. Two challenging grunts from my call brought the big boy on the run. He stopped broadside at 13 yards. Even I couldn't miss that shot! This 5x5 gross-scored 104 7/8 inches -- my biggest Sitka to date.

I shot a couple of photos as night swallowed the rain-soaked canyon. It took me 6 hours to butcher and pack the buck over a mountain and back to camp. Each windblown raindrop stung like a snap from a thick rubber band. Twice I stopped to pour rainwater out of my boots. When the clouds finally broke and a yellow moon painted an eerie sheen on the ocean near camp, I knew I would survive.

Late Season Hunting

In December you can hunt Sitkas as they concentrate near the beach. This is probably the least physically demanding time to hunt. Lots of folks use boats, or they land planes on the beach near concentrations of deer. When snow is deep, Sitkas are forced to live near shoreline and eat kelp to survive. This type of hunt can be easy pickings -- if you can handle the brutal weather. However, Sitkas start dropping their antlers by December 10, almost like clockwork, So, if a record-book buck is important to you, hunt before the second week of December. The good thing about a late season hunt is that most bruins are snoozing by then.

Kodiak or Prince of Wales?

I've hunted both islands several times. Normally, both have good to excellent deer populations. Either can produce trophy bucks. My gut sense is you stand a better chance of killing a true whopper on Prince of Wales. That's partly because winters aren't as deadly for the deer in Southeast Alaska as they are in the Kodial Archipelago. Plus the jungle-like vegetation in Southeast Alaska is a nightmare to traverse. I loathe the rainforest. It's wet, thick, exhausting to walk through, and you don't see many deer. On an average day on POW during an early alpine hunt, you should see 20 to 30 deer. During the rut, you might only see one or two deer, perhaps a handful, due to the thick forest environment. These factors can rapidly squelch enthusiasm. Perhaps this combination is why the bucks get bigger "down south." One advantage to POW is that the only bears there are black bears. Everywhere else, Sitkas share their territory with brown bears.

Due to the open terrain in many parts of Kodiak, you're likely to see more deer, which keeps enthusiasm high. You can find plenty of places to hunt where the cover isn't molasses thick, yet there's enough brush to obscure a bowhunter's approach. I doubt anyone knows accurate deer-per-square-mile data. I just know I see more deer while hunting on Kodiak. It's reasonable to spot 30 to 80 deer per day on an early or late season hunt on Kodiak.

Other Hunting Locales

Sitka blacktail range extends from mid-British Columbia northward, taking in most near-shore islands and the mainland north to the Kodiak Archipelago. There have been a few deer sightings as far north as the Kenai Peninsula. But, every time the deer get a foothold in South-central Alaska, a bad winter knocks them back.

When selecting a Sitka hunting spot, don't have tunnel vision. Investigate islands surrounding Kodiak and POW. Sitkas are Olympic-class swimmers. Islands 15 or 20 miles offshore are worth researching. I've hunted islands neighboring both the big islands with grand success. Also, check out the mainland between Juneau and Ketchikan. Regardless of where you hunt there's one axiom that has worked for me: The more costly and physically challenging the spot, the more likely you are to find few hunters and big bucks.

Trophy Potential

Sitkas don't grow antlers to compare with whitetails or mule deer. Pope and Young minimum for this species is 75 inches, while Boone and Crockett requires 100 inches for its 3-year awards book, and 108 for the all-time book. An average mature Sitka buck will likely sport big forks with eye guards and score in the low to mid 80s. Symmetry is uncommon. Many have missing or broken tines. In 17 years of living in Alaska, I never saw a Sitka buck I thought would score 108 inches. I've seen only four 5x5s, and I killed two of those.

Three of the top bucks in Pope and Young come from POW, but a majority of entries come from Kodiak. A 100-inch buck ranks in the top 35 ever taken. B&C lists only 57 bucks total, taken from areas scattered across Southeast Alaska. A mature Sitka buck weighs between 150 and 250 pounds. Count on lugging out 50-80 pounds of boneless meat.

Keeping a Pulse On the Population

The population of Sitka blacktails in any specific location is volatile. If you charted the estimated deer numbers on Kodiak, the graph would look like a jagged mountain range. Just a few years ago, the very healthy herd on Kodiak experienced a 70 to 90 percent die-off (depending on specific locations). Just four years later, the deer had bounced back quite well. The point is, traditionally good hunting spots may crash at any given time. Talk to local biologists to evaluate CURRENT deer numbers, or you might be disappointed.

Modes of Transportation

You can drive a vehicle to Sitka habitat in a few places. However, for the best hunting, I recommend flying in or backpacking. One option you shouldn't overlook is hiring a fishing vessel to access remote bays. Here, you motor ashore each day via skiff. At night you sleep in a warm bunk onboard the "SS Big Buck" and eat crab and halibut for dinner. If motion sickness concerns you, don't go this route. The same nasty weather that keeps planes grounded can make boat hunting an upchucking experience! Also, I've made successful rafting trips into untouched deer country.

Things To Consider

Sitka blacktail deer tags are sold over the counter. Bag limits vary from one to five deer depending on the unit and resident status. The season ranges from August 1 to December 31 depending on the unit. Tags cost $150 each for nonresidents, and a hunting license is $85. Figure on spending between $1,000 and $3,000 total for a quality hunt.

Regardless of where you hunt Sitka blacktails, you will be in bear country. Carry a firearm or pepper spray, and keep it ready for quick use. A .44 mag buried in your pack is useless when a bear charges. Keeping a clean, low-scent camp and knowing bear behavior is paramount to avoiding trouble. Bears normally lumber away at the first hint of human presence, and during the rare confrontation, bluff charges are more likely than an all-out attack. I look at potential bear problems like airplane crashes. They occur -- rarely. But when they do, they make the news, which gives a false and inflated perspective of these events. If you are afraid of bears, or can't handle foul weather, stay home. If you have a healthy respect for bears and can deal with nasty weather, head for Sitka blacktail country and have the hunt of your life.

RELATED ARTICLE: CHECK THIS GRAVEL PILE DEER

Jack Elbert

LAST NOVEMBER MY FRIEND Kraig Weider and I tried a brand new place for Sitka blacktail deer -- Sitkinak Island, located in the Trinity Island Group just south of Kodiak Island, Alaska. According to Bob Mudd and his son, Nathan, the only human inhabitants on the island, deer have been present on Sitkinak only a few years. Apparently they initially swam over from nearby Kodiak Island.

From personal experience, I would say that most of these deer have never seen a human being. Add to that the fact that no other predators live on the island and you have some pretty mellow deer. The only other large mammals on the island are Bob's cattle, plus foxes, river otters, and beavers.

Sitkinak, owned by the State of Alaska, is basically a 70,000-acre gravel pile. Kraig and I never saw a rock we couldn't pick up in one hand. The flora consists of grass, moss, and forbs. There are exactly 13 Sitka spruce trees on the island, and they are in one clump about 10 yards across. Clusters of stunted alders are scattered in some of the draws.

Hunting is purely spot-and-stalk. We arrived during the rut, hoping to call in bucks, but that wasn't necessary. Every buck we shot at was bedded, and I bagged mine at 5 yards.

There are no facilities on the island except for an old Coast Guard airstrip and abandoned barracks and shops. Many of the buildings have fallen down, but the concrete barracks still stands up to the winds -- which often reach 100 miles an hour.

For a great Sitka bowhunt, contact: Bob Mudd, 2164 Island Circle #2, Kodiak,AK 99615; (907) 4863905. Bob is moving his family to Sitkinak in the spring of 2003, so he might be hard to reach.

Most charter services in Kodiak service Sitkinak. We used Island Air Service, 2191 Mill Bay Road, P.O. Box 125, Kodiak,AK 99615; 1-800-478-6196; e-mail islair@eagle.pti.net. Four hunters chartered a small, four-engine wheeled plane for the trip Out for about $1,200. Kraig and I came back on a Piper Cherokee for about $750.

As always in this region, prepare for rain and winds. Temperatures will generally be moderate during deer season, but foul weather is more normal than sunshine. Also, be flexible in arrival and departure times from the island.

Jack Elbert writes a regular outdoor column for the daily Herald and News in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

MAKING CONTACT

Both state and federal biologists are good sources. Don't forget local old-timers, lumberjacks, and commercial fishermen. Also, do a thorough Internet search for charter services, commercial sea-going vessels, and cabin rentals. Here are some good places to start research:

* ALASKA DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME, DIVISION OF WILDLIFE CONSERVATION, 211 Mission Rd., Kodiak, AK 99615-6399; (907) 486-1880 (for hunting Kodiak and surrounding islands).

* KODIAK NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, 1390 Buskin River Road, Kodiak, AK 99615; (907) 487-2600 (for printed listing of Kodiak services and accommodations including hotel/motel, remote lodges, remote cabins, air charter services, car rentals, vessel charter services, etc.).

* ALASKA DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME, DIVISION OF WILDLIFE CONSERVATION, 2030 Sealevel Drive, Suite 205, Ketchikan, AK 99901; (907) 225-2475 (for hunting in Southeast Alaska).

* DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, DIVISION OF OCCUPATIONAL LICENSING BIG GAME COMMERCIAL SERVICES BOARD, Box D-LIC, Juneau, AK 99811; (907) 465-2534 (for a current list of guides/outfitters and general information, cost is $5).

* U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY, 4230 University Drive, Anchorage, AK 99508; (907) 561-5555 (for topographical maps).

Lon Lauber has tagged 20 Sitka bucks. Seventeen of those are recorded in the Pope and Young record book.

EDITOR'S NOTE

For tips on backcountry clothing and gear, see The Art of Packing Light," by Lon E. Lauber in Bowhunter's Big Game Special 2003.
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Author:Lauber, Lon E.
Publication:Bowhunter
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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