March 04, 2013
For anyone chasing the Deer Slam, the Sitka blacktail may be the hardest leg, simply because of the logistics and expense involved. For hunting Sitka deer, you have to travel to Alaska or British Columbia, destinations that can stretch the budget and imagination.
At the same time, if you crave a do-it-yourself Alaskan hunt but can't afford moose or caribou, Sitka deer may be the answer. By Alaskan standards, the cost is reasonable, you can bag multiple deer, and the animals are small enough that you can pack the meat without killing yourself.
Now is the time to think about planning. While I'm no authority on Sitka deer, I have hunted them in several regions with reasonable success. Here are my thoughts on adding the Sitka deer to your Deer Slam dreams.
As a subspecies of mule deer, Sitka deer have forked main beams like mule deer, although much smaller. The Pope and Young minimum for Sitka deer is 75, for mule deer 145; Boone and Crockett 108 and 195, respectively. Average mature Sitka bucks have three antler points on the main beams, exceptional bucks four. Antlers may or may not have brow tines.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) says average live weights are 80 pounds for does, 120 pounds for bucks. I've never weighed any whole deer, but of the eight boned-out bucks I weighed on Kodiak Island, the largest boned out at 70 pounds, the smallest 60. Figuring that boned meat equals roughly 40 percent of whole weight, those bucks would have weighed 150 to 175 pounds on the hoof.
The P&Y and B&C record books define the range of Sitka deer as Southeast Alaska (Game Management Units 1-8), plus the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia. At these northern latitudes, populations fluctuate radically in response to winter weather. For example, hunters in the know tell me that recent hard winters have reduced deer numbers on Kodiak Island by as much as 80 percent. A recent e-mail to me from Bowhunter Editor Curt Wells reflects the results: "In six days of hunting€¦we spotted exactly zero bucks. Saw maybe 15 does and fawns€¦ Met Frank Noska at airport and he hunted a week and didn't see a single deer of any gender€¦"
In short, before packing your bags, do your research and schedule your hunt after a couple of mild winters when deer numbers are high and bucks have survived to two or three years of age.
No doubt Kodiak ranks as the No. 1 destination, partly because the south half of the island is virtually treeless. On good years you can see two-dozen or more bucks a day, and you generally don't have to fight jungles of brush as you often do in Southeast Alaska.
The two most popular timeframes are August and November. In August, velvet-antlered bucks with brown summer coats are easy to spot on the higher slopes of the numerous small mountain ranges, setting up ideal spot-and-stalk hunting. In early November you can stalk or ambush rutting bucks, and you also can pull them within bow range with decoys and calling. My friend Bob Ameen introduced me to the decoy hat, a baseball cap with ears and eyes like a doe deer. It works amazingly well to pull rutting bucks within range.
To hunt Kodiak Island, you fly from Anchorage to the town of Kodiak, and from there you take a bush flight to your destination. That could be a large fishing vessel parked on a remote bay. On boat hunts, you eat and sleep on the boat at night, and then go ashore each day to hunt. The obvious benefits are comfortable sleeping quarters, good meals, and meat storage offshore, away from bears. On the downside, boats key on certain areas, and the deer can get hit pretty hard around these focal points. You may have to do some serious hiking to find good bucks.
Another option is to fly to a river or lake. In 2006, Alaska resident Roy Roth and I flew to a river on the south end of the island, where we set up a base camp and then hiked to surrounding mountain ranges to hunt each day. Starting on October 28, we saw rutting bucks every day for two weeks, and by stalking and using decoy hats we killed eight bucks. I killed my limit of three, and Roy filled his own three tags plus two proxy tags for his neighbor.
A third option is to hunt out of a lodge. Several lodges operate on Kodiak Island, and you can either hunt directly from the lodge or boat to outlying areas.
Severe weather and brown bears present the biggest challenges on Kodiak. You must prepare with indestructible four-season gear, and you must learn — and practice — the principles of hunting safely among giant bears. Your life depends on it.
Some of the biggest bucks come from the Prince of Wales (POW) archipelago, where most bowhunters hunt during August in alpine terrain. In some areas, you can drive to or near the alpine and then backpack from the end of the road, or you can fly to a high lake and hunt out from there.
Or, as Bob Ameen and I did a few years ago, you can boat to an isolated beach and then hike 1,000 vertical feet through ferns, alders, devil's club, and big timber to reach timberline. Bob has a cabin on POW Island and a boat we used to reach our destination, but you also can rent boats and cars on the island. Bob killed a beautiful 106-inch 4x4 buck, and I killed a small buck. We worked hard for those deer, because we not only had to pack our camp to the top of the mountain but pack our deer meat back to the beach. But in the long run it was worth the effort for a true Alaskan adventure.
Black bears are numerous on POW and neighboring islands, so you must take precautions to protect meat from bears. However, these islands have no brown bears, which makes the atmosphere a little more relaxed than on Kodiak and many Southeast Alaska islands such as Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof that are crawling with brown bears.
Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia
These islands lie just south of POW Island. I have not hunted the Queen Charlottes, so I talked with Neil Summers, owner of Bowhunting Safari Consultants. As Summers explained, "The Queen Charlottes are entirely forested, so you can't hunt in the alpine as you would on POW. We hunted primarily by spotting and stalking in logging blocks that we accessed by driving logging roads. Fortunately, we hunted in November during the rut. In the thick vegetation, it would be very hard to hunt if the deer were not actively moving around.
"My partner Tom Vanasche and I shot two bucks each. We saw lots of deer but no big ones. You would have to look over a lot of deer to see a Pope and Young buck there," Summers said. "I would define the hunting as high density but low trophy quality."
The Sitka Deer Range
To hunt Sitka deer, you have to travel to Alaska or British Colombia, destinations that can stretch the budget and the imagination. At the same time, if you crave a do-it-yourself Alaskan hunt but can't afford moose or caribou, Sitka deer may be the perfect answer for you.
A Trip Worth the Prize
The average mature Sitka buck has three points on the main beams and short eye-guards. This buck, which author Dwight Schuh shot on Kodiak Island in early November, measures about 85 P&Y inches.
A Northern Adventure
Hunting Sitka deer in Alaska is a great adventure. If you're hunting Kodiak Island, you fly from Anchorage to the town of Kodiak, and from there you take a bush flight to your destination.
The south end of Kodiak Island is relatively open, making it ideal for spot-and-stalk hunting throughout the long season. From the town of Kodiak, author Dwight Schuh's partner Roy Roth and he flew by bush plane to a river and hiked from their base camp to neighboring mountain ranges.
Queen Charlotte Islands
These Queen Charlotte Islands are heavily timbered from beach to mountaintop, so most hunting takes place in logging blocks. There is no alpine hunting as there is on most Alaskan islands (photo courtesy of Neil Summers).
Raft Right In
Most boat operators and bush pilots are transporters, not outfitters, meaning they can only place you in good areas. They cannot legally guide you, give you advice on where or how to hunt, or help you pack or butcher game. If you need more support, you can book guided hunts throughout most of the Sitka deer range.
Two for the Road
Author Dwight Schuh made the trip with his partner, Roy Roth, who also had success tracking down a Sitka deer. The adventure is always more enjoyable if you have someone else to share it with.