Best Kept Secret
We were here to take deer, but our attention turned quickly to the monster that was barreling down on us from a half mile away. With each stride you could see the big muscles rolling underneath his brown hide and we began to wonder if he was going to stop.
Once we stepped off the skiff and climbed the steep mud bank you could see for miles. The brown sea grass lead to barren ground, which eventually turned into mountains covered with snow, it was breathtaking. We were here to take deer, but our attention turned quickly to the monster that was barreling down on us from a half mile away. With each stride you could see the big muscles rolling underneath his brown hide and we began to wonder if he was going to stop.
Deer and Alaska are two words you don’t usually see in the same sentence. Alaska is better known for their gigantic moose, monster brown bears, sheep, goats and the nomadic caribou herds that roam throughout the land. Hunters come from all over the world come to pursue these animals in one type of an adventure or another, but hunting deer is usually not one of them.
Alaska is better known for their gigantic moose, monster brown bears, sheep, goats and the nomadic caribou herds that roam throughout the land.
Coming to Alaska to hunt Sitka Black tail is one of the most overlooked and underrated opportunities for hunters today. With the high cost of tags and licenses and the shear pain of filling out application after application for an animal that you may never draw a tag for can be frustrating, but a Black tail adventure is cheap and easy compared to most hunts in North America. Traveling to one of the islands to pursue these deer is worth the price of admission alone and whether you like to use a rifle or chase them with a bow it is about as much fun as you can have next to going to Africa for safari.
Black tails are native to the wet coastal rainforest of Southeast Alaska, but have expanded to Kodiak and Afognak Islands, Yakutat and Prince William Sound. Black tails are smaller in stature compared to their cousins to the south and antler growth is similar to the Coues deer found in the southwest. The Boone and Crockett club’s minimum entry for a Sitka Black tail is 100 inches and to harvest a deer of this caliber is quite a feat.
Black tails are numerous throughout their range, but are greatly influenced by the severity of winter. If the previous winter was mild deer numbers will be significant and in a typical day you might see upwards of 75 to 100 deer. During the late season, which usually runs November and December, deer will tend to concentrate at the lower elevations due to the deep snow. The deer will herd up and the sheer numbers are sometimes staggering. On a trip to the south end of Kodiak for instance I’ve actually seen as many as 200 deer per day with at least half being bucks, a pretty phenomenal scene to say the least. You literally couldn’t look through your binoculars and not see a deer. It’s similar to Africa in terms of numbers and a hunter’s paradise given the fact that you can pretty much pick and choose the buck you want to hunt.
Deer hunting techniques will differ greatly depending on where you decide to go. In a few units where there are towns and roads, you can actually drive to an area and begin hunting, similar to chasing whitetails in the lower 48, but when it comes to pursuing Black tails on Kodiak or one of the other island areas you basically have two options.
One is to book a hunt with an outfitter. These hunts are usually unguided and the outfitter is more of a transporter who provides access to an area.They usually run for 7 days and are conducted from a large boat, usually a fishing vessel with sleeping quarters, a shower and a few hot meals. Hunters pretty much eat and sleep on the boat and then each morning are loaded onto a skiff to go ashore and hunt a specific area. It’s not uncommon to see deer feeding on kelp along the shore with some pretty big brown bears for company. Hunters are usually given a radio and told what time to meet the skiff that evening, usually in the late afternoon.
This technique is very successful barring bad weather doesn’t move in. A few years ago a couple of us were dropped off on a perfect morning only to have a blinding snowstorm move in that afternoon and just about wipe us out. Weather is always a consideration, so be prepared for it.
This option is more expensive with costs running $3000-$3500 dollars depending on the outfit The second option is to book a ride to an area, either by boat or plane and camp in the area you plan to hunt. These hunts are a lot less expensive other than the transportation costs. This option is great for the do it yourselfer, but requires the hunter to have a full regiment of gear to get it done. Besides their actual hunting gear, hunters will need to bring a long a tent, food, and a good set of nerves. Bears are notorious in deer country and the rumors you’ve heard are quite true. Bears are smart and react to rifle shots and in my experience to humans in general. Even as a bow hunter I’ve had bears wonder over to see what I was strapping to my pack and take me totally by surprise. If you do plan a do it yourselfer make sure your prepared and bring plenty of bear protection. Having a rifle is a given, but pepper spray, a bear fence and hunting with a friend is a great idea. Never ever hunt alone in brown bear country.
Depending on the area Alaska’s deer season and harvest limits vary. Early season usually starts August 1st and the late season runs until the end of December. Harvest limits vary too. In some areas close to towns the limit is one deer and can be sex specific. Other more rural areas like Kodiak the harvest limit is quite liberal especially during the late season where a hunter can take three deer total. If you’re planning a deer hunt to Alaska be sure to check the regulations to find what works for you.
For me personally, I’ve had great success over the years hunting Sitka black tail and to be honest, it actually reminds me a lot of Africa. It’s fun more than anything else and if the previous winter was a mild one, then the amount of deer you will see and can chase, is similar to the numbers of let’s say, wildebeest you might hunt in Africa. I love hunting deer on Kodiak Island, especially the south end with it’s windswept hillsides, snow caped peaks and monstrous seaside bluffs. It’s surrounded by ocean too, making it one of the most beautiful places on earth in my opinion. But all that fun and beauty does have a downside, it’s dangerous, as dangerous as anywhere you will ever spend time, especially if you’re a hunter. You have to be prepared, continuously watching the weather and for bears. Kodiak is not for the weak or out of shape and if you’re afraid of big brown bears, then this might not be for you.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the brown object that was coming our way was at least ten feet tall, full of teeth and claws and had no intention of stopping. It was at this point my buddy and I became officially concerned or maybe scared is a better way to put it, I don’t know. With safeties off and preparing for the worst, we braced ourselves for what was getting ready to happen, the bear kept coming, but luckily stopped 30-yards from where we stood and just watched us. Ten-foot brown bears are big and at 30 yards they look even bigger. It was almost like he was sizing us up.
After what seemed like forever, he decided we were not important enough to waste anymore time on and wondered off.
And even though we found ourselves looking over our shoulders the rest of the day, it was enjoyable. We even were able to take two super nice bucks almost back to back at the end of it. However, on the way back to the boat, with backpacks full of meat we noticed it. There on the beach below us, there he stood waiting on us, but that story is for another day.
Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer from Kotzebue, AK. He’s written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and fishing in North America, and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic.
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