Alaska DIY Adventure: Bowhunting Sitka Blacktails

A DIY Alaskan trip for Sitka blacktails provides a love/hate relationship.

Alaska DIY Adventure: Bowhunting Sitka Blacktails

“This weather sucks!” my hunting partner Ron Niziolek yelled from his backpack tent.

Ron was tucked in a sleeping bag barely four feet from my own little tent, yet normal conversation was impossible in this storm. Rain pounded down in buckets, and the latest weather report from our In-Reach satellite device put sustained winds at 65 mph with gusts even higher. We could barely hear ourselves think, let alone talk between the tents. Unfortunately, it was an ordinary November day on Kodiak Island, Alaska.

I should know. This bowhunt in the fall of 2019 was my 16th do-it-yourself deer hunt in Alaska, and my fourth with my friend Ron. We both knew the drill — days of hellish weather interspersed with calm and perfect hunting conditions. If you don’t plan to sit in your tent nearly half the time on a hunt for Sitka blacktail deer, you’ve made a serious miscalculation.

A two-week outing might yield less than one week of hiking, hunting, and backpacking meat. Even if you have proper rain gear, it makes no sense to flounder around the countryside when fog and rain make seeing beyond your nose nearly impossible. Sitka deer hunting is primarily spot-and-stalk across vast stretches of terrain. If you cannot see several miles, it’s better to hunker down and wait.

A Sitka deer is a compact animal with a relatively small rack and a distinctively short, black tail.
A Sitka deer is a compact animal with a relatively small rack and a distinctively short, black tail.

Besides four-season camping equipment, backpack gear, good optics and standard archery stuff, items on such a trip should include several fat novels to read in your tent and lots of flashlight batteries to continue reading during exceptionally long autumn nights. If you have the time, three weeks in the field makes more sense than two — especially if you purchase the full yearly allowance of three buck tags for Kodiak Island, or four tags for various deer units farther to the south.

And then there are the bears. In most Sitka deer areas, massive Alaska brown bears roam in abundance. A few great trophy Sitka islands like Prince of Wales harbor only black bears — a blessing you will appreciate if you’ve ever had a brownie raid your camp or pounce on the buck you just shot. However, dangerous bears can be coped with if you keep a clean camp, de-bone and pack out meat the same day, and always keep your eyes peeled to prevent close, accidental encounters. A canister of bear spray on your belt is a must, and a powerful handgun is advisable. Life-threatening rodeos with brown bears are rare, and I’ve never had to use pepper spray or my short-barreled .454 Casull hand cannon in self-defense. However, a shot or two into the ground might sometimes be necessary to push nearby bruins farther from camp.

Most of my DIY Sitka bowhunts have occurred after a bush plane flight to a remote lake or ocean bay. Another common form of deer hunting transport is a commercial boat. Both types of “hunting taxis” can be found in the Yellow Pages for a place like Kodiak, by calling the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Anchorage, or by looking online or at hunting service ads in magazines such as Bowhunting World.

Transporting Meat and Gear

Once you bag a buck, there are two standard ways to protect the meat and keep your campsite odor-free from bears. If you hunt from a lake, meat can be submerged in air-tight plastic bags for up to three days without the risk of spoilage. Along the ocean, trees grow sporadically and often allow you to hang meat high above the ground. The long, blunt claws of brown bears do not let them climb smooth-trunked trees, but they will investigate the smell of high-hanging deer meat. It’s a mistake to hang meat closer than ¼-mile from your camp. To save the meat, you must contact your air taxi or boat operator by satellite phone or In-Reach device for quick pick up and transport back to cold storage.

To prevent surprises, be sure to research the total cost of transport for hunters and meat before you commit to such a trip. For safety, it is wise to bowhunt Sitka deer with one or two dependable companions. A do-it-yourself Alaskan hunt is much cheaper than hiring a full-blown outfitter. Still, the total cost of air or boat transport, deer tags and hunting license, and necessary remote country items can easily top $2,000 or more per hunter. I’ve found the most cost-effective way to gear up is taking basic camping and hunting equipment with you from home, then purchasing items like food, camp stove, shovel and axe, and waterproof tarps at a local store once you reach Alaska. Otherwise, excess baggage fees on Delta, Alaska Airlines, United, or other carriers might be a wallet-killer.

My latest bowhunt with Ron began the day before the big storm hit. Our bush pilot landed on a small, deep lake between steep mountain slopes, helped us off-load our gear, and roared out of sight. Dean Andrew is a veteran floatplane jockey with more than 25,000 hours of flying around Kodiak. He’s a legend on the island and knows where deer hang out. He had highly recommended this lake, and after more than 30 years of flying with him, I trusted his judgment.

 

Seasons and Weather

It was drizzling rain as Ron and I set up our tents in a brush-rimmed hollow just downwind from the lake. We rolled our Coleman cookstove, duffel bags of lightweight food, extra clothes, hunting backpacks, propane tent heaters, and other essentials in a big poly tarp, and then crawled in our tents just before dark. There was no snow in the forecast, which meant most of the deer would be 1,000 feet or more above us on hills covered with matted yellow grass and scattered clumps of brush. The stiff climb to those deer might fall in the “hell” category, but once on top, the hunting promised to be heaven.

Ridgelines on Kodiak Island often meander for miles with excellent fair-weather views. There are no trees up high, and shrubbery gives way to tundra above 1,800 feet. You can see a lot of deer in a day, including many branch-antlered bucks.

There are two distinctly different times to bowhunt Sitka blacktail deer in Alaska.

Deer season opens on August 1, and bucks shed their velvet later that same month. If you plan a trip in August or early September, deer will be hanging on mountaintops to enjoy cooler air and fewer biting insects. The climbs are higher, intermediate foliage thicker, and meat packs longer. Summer bugs such as mosquitoes, blackflies, and no-see- ‘ums can be thick, and 60- to 80-degree temperatures can make meat salvage tricky. The good news is most big brown bears are eating salmon at lower elevations.

A majority of Alaskan hunters opt for a late-October or November deer hunt for practical reasons. Weather is cool, deer are lower on the slopes, and the bugs are gone — mostly. Bears are hungry and preparing for winter, so sightings and encounters are more common. But meat cooling is not a problem, and hiking is more pleasant. Bucks sport gorgeous deep-brown antlers and handsome gray-brown fall capes.

In 2019, Ron and I tried both varieties of DIY Alaskan bowhunting. We chased bucks on Kodiak in mid-August, and I managed to nail a nice record-book 4x4. But last summer was one of the hottest and driest on record in Alaska. We decided meat salvage and bug-dodging were too problematic, so we bailed early on that hunt and returned to Kodiak in late October. It was 40 degrees cooler, insects gone, grass dead and flattened, and leaves off the brush. We knew deer spotting would be easier once the weather cleared up and we could leave our tents.

We holed up for two full days before the storm broke. Day number three dawned cold, clear and calm. Ron and I shouldered our packs at daylight and headed in opposite directions. We both cover too much ground to hunt the same range of hills.

Half of an Alaskan deer hunt is often spent inside a tent. You need snack food, a warm sleeping bag and a good book to read.
Half of an Alaskan deer hunt is often spent inside a tent. You need snack food, a warm sleeping bag and a good book to read.

Pope and Young Bucks

I had barely topped the nearest peak when I spotted deer. A dozen were milling on a side hill 300 yards away, and I could see antlers even without my 10X binocular. Our two-tent camp was a tiny speck far below.

The rut was just beginning, and three bucks were bird-dogging several does all over the slope. All were solid Pope and Young contenders, with heavy 3x3 antlers plus brow tines. The P&Y record book minimum is 75, which tells you how small these trophies are compared to whitetails and muleys. The whitetail minimum is 125, the mule deer minimum 145. A Sitka buck’s body is actually quite massive; it sometimes tops 200 pounds to combat severe northern winters, but the rack is compact with relatively short tines.

I watched the bucks for half an hour, admiring their sleek fall coats and distinctive black tails. Sitka deer make up for their small antlers with sheer abundance of animals and magnificent, remote mountain habitat. With two tags in my pocket and a cloudless day to hunt, this was as close to heaven as it gets for a bowhunter.

None of the bucks was large enough to warrant butchering and backpacking chores. A Sitka deer yields 50 to 60 pounds of boneless, edible meat, plus head and cape. Alaska law requires you to salvage all the meat, including lower leg shanks, neck, and even strips between the ribs. Fortunately, it’s the single tastiest deer meat I’ve ever eaten. I was just not ready to shoulder a heavy pack across five miles or more of rugged terrain unless the antlers were extra-large. I was having a lot of fun, and I had decided that only a deer scoring 90 P&Y points, or more would be worth the chores that followed.

A stout backpack like Ron Niziolek’s is essential for carrying survival gear, food, optics, and other day-use items. You’ll also need it to transport up to 60 pounds of deer meat back to camp.
A stout backpack like Ron Niziolek’s is essential for carrying survival gear, food, optics, and other day-use items. You’ll also need it to transport up to 60 pounds of deer meat back to camp.

Bag a Buck

I eased along ridges for two more hours, glassing deer all the way. Once in a while, I’d unfurl my backpack spotting scope and lightweight tripod to size up a distant buck. I looked at more than 100 deer that morning, including a dozen record-book contenders.

Deer numbers in Alaska fluctuate depending on the severity of winter weather. But there are always a lot to choose from. A game department official once told me if every deer on Kodiak ran to one end, the island would probably tip up and sink! With multiple tags in your pocket, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.

The open country, abundance of deer, and necessity of foot hunting in places like Kodiak Island can present a shooting challenge for anyone accustomed to hunting from a treestand in dense woods. Similar to official mule deer statistics from the Pope and Young Club, an average Sitka blacktail is probably taken at twice the range of a whitetail deer. Shots of 35 to 45 yards are routine. You should never shoot beyond your personal sure-kill maximum, but be advised that pre-season practice at longer ranges will help you prepare for the reality of trying to bag an Alaskan deer.

At 1 p.m., I saw a deer I wanted. The 4x5 had heavy, evenly matched tines and decent brow tines. A small back fork on one side did not enhance the score, but it did add character. The buck bird-dogged a doe across a small ridge and disappeared. I dropped my pack and hustled closer on the downwind side.

At 3:30, I was still standing in the same spot where I’d been the past two hours. The buck was bedded on a tundra hump 150 yards away, the doe grazing 25 yards closer. There was no cover in between. Sooner or later, I knew the buck would get up to feed and move to a different position. I was hoping for sooner because I was pinned, and my legs were beginning to cramp.

At 4 p.m., the buck finally stood and moseyed toward the doe. The doe skittered across a ridge and vanished. The buck was hot on her tail.

I trotted ahead, nocked an arrow, and peeked beyond the ridge. Wow! The buck was broadside about 40 yards below me, looking straight away at the doe. I snapped a distance reading with my rangefinder, drew the Easton shaft, and sent a G5 Striker V2 broadhead on its way. The dull thud of my Hoyt bow was followed by a hollow thump as the projectile sliced through the chest.

In open Sitka terrain, it’s usually easy to keep track of arrow-hit deer. The buck kicked like a bronco, staggered less than 100 yards, and flipped upside-down. I had a big grin on my face as I pulled out my knife to gut and butcher the prize.

Never mind the race against darkness as I de-boned the deer, removed the cape and head, and headed back to camp with my pack stuffed to the top. Between meat, head, and necessary survival things like rain gear, trail mix, bear spray, handgun, and compact satellite phone, the load was over 80 pounds. But that hard work still seemed worth it, even during the last two miles of downhill hell by flashlight.

The author took this record-book buck on an October 2019 DIY Kodiak bowhunt. The animal required a steep climb and difficult meat pack back to the lakeshore camp.
The author took this record-book buck on an October 2019 DIY Kodiak bowhunt. The animal required a steep climb and difficult meat pack back to the lakeshore camp.

Things got much better at camp when I saw Ron’s own 4x5 deer rack beside his tent. Both bucks later scored around the 100-inch mark, placing them high in the P&Y book. It had been a fantastic do-it-yourself day on Kodiak Island.

Photos by Chuck Adams



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