July 29, 2011
I had been climbing for two hours when I spotted the antler tip. A thousand feet below, in the opposite direction, I could still see the tiny yellow dots of our backpack tents. It was wild, steep, and beautiful deer country.
The buck was bedded 30 yards ahead, just below a grass-covered bench. I nocked an arrow, took a rangefinder reading on the fuzzy rack, and tiptoed forward in a crouch. The wind was in my face, and the deer faced directly away. Perfect.
At 20 yards, I dropped to my knees and scooted ahead a few extra feet. Now the buck's velvet antlers were completely exposed -- a large 2x2 with normal brow tines plus three funky extra points sprouting at odd angles near the base. I relaxed and slipped out my pocket camera. The buck might barely make the Pope and Young minimum of 75, but I doubted it -- too many nontypical tines.
After bouncing the deer from his bed and snapping some pictures, I watched him lazily lope down the mountainside. Like every Sitka blacktail I had seen so far, he was rolling with summer fat and not too concerned about me. Alaskan deer do not see many predators in their high-country habitat, and the younger ones tend to be casual when they encounter a man.
The day before, my hunting partner Doyle Shipp and I had flown from Kodiak, Alaska, to a rough and remote chunk of coastal terrain. Dean Andrew side-slipped the floatplane above an oceanside lake and touched down like a feather despite the fierce crosswind. I have been flying into Sitka deer country with Dean for 25 years, and he is the best pilot I have ever seen.
Kodiak country is heaven and hell rolled into one. I was reminded of this as Doyle and I off-loaded our food, camping gear, and archery equipment. I craned my neck to peer upward at towering peaks all around us, knowing full well that the hell part always came before the heaven part.
As Dean Andrew took off with a roostertail of spray and wagged his wings good-bye, I remembered my first massive climb for Sitka bucks in the mid-1980's. It was also my first flight with Dean, and he had recommended one of his hard-to-reach honeyholes for deer.
After nine brutal hours of climbing from the ocean through alder brush dense enough to choke a chipmunk, I reached the 2,000-foot elevation contour on my topo map. As if on cue, heavy brush gave way to wide-open deer habitat. I set up a tiny one-man tent, wolfed down a granola bar, and started glassing for animals. In less than one hour, I had spotted over 300 Sitka blacktails, including more than 100 branch-antlered bucks.
During the next two days, I had the incredible good fortune to break the Pope and Young World Record twice with 5x5 bucks that later officially scored 1076„8 and 1084„8. It was heaven hunting the high slopes, but then the hell began again. More than 12 hours after I had started, I staggered into base camp with over 100 pounds of boneless Sitka deer meat on my back.
That trip cemented my relationship with Dean Andrew and my love for bowhunting Sitka blacktail deer. Dean knew Kodiak Island better than anyone else, including sweet spots where bucks spent their summer months. I have flown with Dean many times since my world-record trip, and I have had the good luck to shoot more than three-dozen Sitka blacktail bucks.
As Doyle and I set up camp, a rainstorm swept down the valley. Within minutes, clammy fog closed its fist around us. We rolled our duffel bags in tarps and dove inside our tents.
Kodiak is a damp place. Without rainproof clothing and gear, we would have been wishing we had never seen the island. I always figure that one third of any Sitka deer adventure will be spent with a good book inside a dome tent. When mist and rain roll in, the only view you are likely to have is your feet crossed in front of you.
Like most summertime Sitka spots, this one was going to require some serious hiking. I prefer to hunt Alaskan blacktails in late August and early September, because deer are high and most brown bears are far below on salmon streams. Sitka bucks shed their antler velvet in late August, which I prefer, and I've never seen another deer hunter at that time of year. Mosquitoes and black flies can be a pain in the summer, and you are forced to climb after animals. Meat salvage can be tricky -- long backpacks and warmish weather -- but these things can be handled if your bush pilot flies by every three or four days to haul critters back to cold storage in town.
By comparison, bowhunting Sitka deer in October and November is better from a deer access standpoint. Bucks migrate downward to rut. Temperatures drop, and deer meat keeps better. Bugs disappear. But you are likely to see other hunters and hungry brown bears in mid to late fall.
Alaska's deer season runs from August until January. You can legally bowhunt deer without a guide, although plenty of deer outfitters are available during the easy-access October/November deer rut.
I prefer the solitude and freedom of do-it-yourself summer hunts. To each his own.
Summer days in Alaska are long, but dense fog hovered around Doyle and me until after dark. We put together our daypacks, relaxed, and finally hit the sack.
Next morning, the sun climbed into a perfectly clear sky. Doyle and I were off within minutes, hiking in opposite directions toward lofty peaks. That's where the deer were, and we had 16 hours of daylight to find them before hoofing it back to camp.
By midmorning, I had seen two-dozen does, fawns, and smallish bucks. Then I crawled up on the large 2x2 with the oddball extra points. Not the one I wanted, but I was having fun.
The slope flattened at 1,500 feet, and knife ridges ran off to the left and right. I turned right and picked my way along the crumbling granite spine. There were deer everywhere -- six does here, three small 2x2 bucks there, a 3x3 bedded alone. Summer Sitka deer usually feed and bed in the open where they can be spotted all day long. You can pack a lot of enjoyment into a few days of hunting.
Planting my fanny on a high point, I glassed distant slopes with my 10X binoculars. There were deer as far as the eye could see -- reddish-brown dots against a sea of lush summer green.
This bowhunt in 2010 was not the golden opportunity of the 1980's, when Sitka blacktail herds were incredibly large. But hunting was still good. When deer populations peaked some 25 years ago, the Sitka limit was five bucks per year in Alaska. It was nothing to see 500 deer per day, 100 to 150 of them bucks. One game biologist summed up the situation in 1986 -- the year I shot my world-record deer. I'll never forget what he told me on the telephone.
"If every deer on Kodiak ran to one end, the island would tip up and sink!" the guy chuckled.
A series of bad winters ended the best deer hunting I have ever seen, and Sitka populations have never completely bounced back. But the buck limit on Kodiak is still three per year, and there are still a few big ones in hard-to-reach parts of the island.
I was content to glass deer and wait for a whopper to show up. Sitka blacktails have small antlers compared to whitetails or mule deer, but a mature summer buck can weigh up to 200 pounds on the hoof. With base camp several miles behind me, I had no desire to debone a so-so animal and grunt out 50 to 60 pounds of edible meat plus cape and antlers. For me, it had to be a really good one or nothing at all.
The sun was dipping low when I trudged into camp. Doyle was already back€¦and he had a tired grin on his face. I was happy to see a white plastic sack attached to a rope just below the surface of the lake -- a cool, bear-safe way to store deer meat until Dean came back in a couple of days. But the antlers in front of Doyle's tent made me more than happy. My eyes bugged and my jaw dropped.
"I hiked about four miles north," my pal told me as I boiled water for a freeze-dried meal on our Coleman camp stove.
"Suddenly, this set of horns popped over a ridge. I crouched and shot the instant that buck fed into sight. Do you think he's big enough?"
We both knew the answer to that. Even without measuring the rack, I was certain it would gross-score over 120. A few minutes later, I realized I had been wrong. The buck was a severely nontypical oddball, with two main beams on one side, multiple brow tines, and antler bases over eight inches around. Careful measurements with my quarter-inch steel tape put the gross green score a bit above 135!
The Pope and Young Club does not recognize nontypical Sitka blacktails because they are rare. This one was so uneven that it would not have net-scored well anyway. From the look on Doyle's face, it was obvious he did not care. This was a super-special buck.
Next morning, Doyle was stripping velvet from those gnarly antlers as I hustled along the lake, dropped to a nearby ocean beach, and hiked past crashing waves toward another set of peaks. This was a fascinating walk. Shed deer antlers and whale bones littered the shore, along with old fishing floats and tangled piles of ropes and nets. In one place, a cut bank above high tide showed fire-blackened rocks, crumbling fish skeletons, and mammal bones where ancient Indians had once made their camps.
Soon I was climbing hand over hand toward a peak nearly 2,000 feet above me. I doubted that anyone else had tortured himself on this slope in modern times. Most hunters would not think a deer was worth it -- even one with a record-breaking rack.
Things sometimes happen fast. I crossed a ridge below the main peak, glanced to my right, and dropped to my belly like a heart-shot duck. There, less than 200 yards below me, was a massive-antlered buck!
A quick peek through the binoculars confirmed my initial impression. The deer was feeding away, which always makes antlers look bigger. But the 4x5 rack was heavy with decent brow tines and long main beams. Even minus one point on the left, I figured this buck would still net-score above 100 record-book points. That's a nice Sitka.
When the buck vanished in a little ravine, I was up and running instantly. I galloped across a draw, climbed a hill, and eased over a ridge. Less than 50 yards below, the brown, recently stripped 4x5 rack appeared above a bush.
I whipped out my Bushnell ARC rangefinder, thankful for its angle-compensating design. I guessed the real distance at 45 yards, but the slope was at least 25 degrees. My rangefinder read 34 yards. I dropped to one knee, nocked an arrow, and watched the antlers bobbing up and down.
Finally, the buck's burly ribcage appeared between alder clumps, a perfect broadside shot. The 40-yard sight pin settled low behind the shoulder, and my arrow flickered in the golden morning light. A split-instant later, the Rage 2-Blade broadhead smashed home with a hollow thud. The buck whirled, staggered across the ravine, and pitched on his nose.
Never mind the butchering chore that followed in a sudden rainstorm, and never mind the muscle-wrenching backpack across slippery and near-vertical slopes. My 2010 Sitka blacktail green-scored 106 record-book points -- one of my best bucks ever.
Once again, climbing high paid off with a great Alaskan deer and memories to last a lifetime!
Author's Notes: On my Kodiak hunt I used a Hoyt Montega set at 75 lbs., Easton Super Slam Digital 2317 arrows, TruGlo Super Slam bowsight, Rage 2-Blade broadheads, Bushnell Chuck Adams Edition 10X binoculars and ARC rangefinder, and Cabela's Super Slam clothing. For help with a DIY Sitka blacktail hunt, contact Dean Andrew at Andrew Airways by calling (907) 487-2566 or visit www.andrewairways.com. I can highly recommend Dean's air taxi service.