When I was twelve, I joined an outdoor book club. I cherished those books, savoring stories of exotic places like Africa and the Yukon. For a kid growing up in Nebraska, even stories from Montana seemed a world away. But no stories touched a chord like those from Alaska, particularly Kodiak Island, which conjured images of giant bears and giant fish.
After reading those books I dreamed often of Kodiak–of furry, beach-combing, mega-clawed monsters ready to prove to any corner their rightful rank in the food chain. I dreamed of moose, halibut, and salmon. I have to admit I never dreamed of Sitka blacktail deer. That is until the opportunity came to finally experience Kodiak Island for me, to bring the frayed pages of those old books to life and pursue this mysterious resident of coastal Alaska.
Small Deer on Big Island
Sitka blacktails are an interesting lot. Some would say they resemble small mule deer. Others would say their striking double throat patch mimics a whitetail. To me, Sitkas are the most handsome of any deer species. They resemble them deer in some ways–the namesake tail, dark face, and antlers–but they have their own distinct features that make them unmistakably different than their larger western cousin.
Sitkas have a short, almost fawnlike snout with a black crown that stands out in the brush. The double throat patch is distinct, and the chocolate antlers never reach the height, width, or mass of mule deer or even Columbian blacktails. The world-record Sitka was taken nearly forty years ago–a monster for the species scoring in the 130s. That’s hardly enough antler to make a trophy whitetail hunter raise an eyebrow. Mature Sitka bucks are often fork horns with brow tines, their racks barely as wide as their ears. But this isn’t a deer you hunt for inches of antler. This is a deer you hunt because it lives on Kodiak Island.
Most nonresident hunters visiting Kodiak for blacktails opt for boat-based hunts out of Larsen Bay on the west side of the island. We chose something different. Our adventure was based out of Old Harbor, a fishing village on the southeast coast of Kodiak Island.
Here we met Jeff Peterson of Kodiak Combos. A native resident of Old Harbor, Jeff is a transporter and fishing guide. Transporters are allowed by law only to pick you up and drop you off at designated hunting locations. They cannot guide or assist in the hunt. Hunting for Sitka blacktails with Peterson means a do-it-yourself hunt.
The accommodations in Old Harbor were first-class–we stayed in a fishing lodge and had the entire place to ourselves. Since our hunt took place outside the “tourist” fishing season, the lodge was our private estate for a week. We had a cook prepare dinner each night while we cooked our own breakfast and prepared lunch for the field. It was an ideal setup.
The event marked the beginning of Russian dominance over the native people of the area. In 1964, the village was destroyed by the tsunamis created during the Great Alaskan Earthquake–the only thing left standing was the Three Saints Russian Orthodox Church. It still stands today, with its distinct Three Saints crosses.
Sitkalidak Island is considered part of Kodiak Island proper, although it is large enough to be a named island. In addition to the history of Refuge Rock, what makes Sitkalidak Island unique is the fact that it is owned by the Old Harbor Native Corporation. There is no development on the island. It is, in essence, a 77,000-acre private refuge. To hunt Sitkalidak Island, you must have permission from the village. Jeff Peterson is a member of the native corporation, and he secured permission for us to hunt Sitkalidak Island.
Our first morning, we met Peterson at the docks aboard his boat–the 26-foot Refuge Rock. We left the safety of Old Harbor and motored across the strait and around Sitkalidak Island, our destination an unnamed bay where Peterson was to drop our party for the day. There were two hunters in our group plus a videographer. I was anxious to take my first step onto the black sand, to start my first Kodiak hunt. But there were wonders to absorb on the boat ride.
Schools of humpback whales were blowing, jumping, and rolling all around us, some disconcertingly close. Peterson maneuvered the Refuge Rock through the whales, staying as close to shore as safe passage allowed. He explained the whales were a constant presence. It was a glorious morning.
We cruised slowly around a point and entered a huge bay with a large valley at the mouth, surrounded by unforgiving hills. I mentally prepared myself to step from the sanctuary of the Refuge Rock onto this island to look for a deer I’d never seen on the hoof. We anchored offshore and Peterson shuttled our party to shore, one by one, in a small Zodiac. He’d return before dark to pick us up. On our boat ride in, he explained he’d always wanted to hunt this particular bay and valley, but had never done it. In fact, he didn’t think anyone from the village had done it as long as he’d lived in Old Harbor. Residents of town don’t have to go far from the village to hunt, fish, and gather food. Bears often roam through town, and deer are plentiful within a short hike from anyone’s house.
It dawned on me that we were about to step onto land where quite possibly no tourist hunters had ever gone. Then it hit me–if Peterson never hunted here and no one from the village had, then the blacktails we’d come so far to pursue likely were never hunted at all, at least by two-legged predators.
I watched my boot sink into the fine, black sand on the beach–the footprint I’d waited a long time to make. I scanned for other footprints on the beach, pie-plate tracks with distinct claw marks, but there were none. It was late in the year, mid-November, the feeder streams in the valley were already frozen, and there was patchy snow, so I hoped the bears were thinking about denying. Despite the date, the annual blacktail rut was in high gear, and we wanted to attempt to call in a buck to camera and gun range.
We gained a little elevation of the beach and looked for the best way to travel through the valley, a mixture of alders, tall grass, and potholes. It quickly became obvious that to move around in the tangle of grass and alders, the abundant game trails offered the easiest walking.
After a short hike to distance ourselves from the beach and move inland, we set up a spotting scope and almost immediately spotted deer. We saw bucks tending does, bucks chasing does, does and fawns running away from groups of bucks, bucks fighting and taking antlers on older limbs. The valley was crawling with deer. We also spotted deer up high, silhouetted on the skyline some 1,500 feet above us. We agreed to hunt in the valley. Why climb more than a thousand feet with full packs and camera gear when deer were within easy hunting range of the beach?
After glassing for about an hour, we moved farther inland and set up again on a high bank overlooking a dry streambed. Eagles and ravens seemed to inhabit every tree. I was convinced a brown bear would step out at any moment, but as yet, we hadn’t seen a track. The high bank was an ideal setup–good visibility from all directions and good cover to hide us and the cameras.
I began doe bleating and almost immediately there was movement in front of us. A small fork horn appeared and walked within fifteen yards. More movement to our left: A pair of spikes came directly to us, the larger of the two coming back every time I made a beat. I could only compare this to rattling whitetails in Texas when it’s working perfectly and deer are coming in every time you click the antlers.
We glassed two mature bucks in the valley, slowly working their way to our position. They stopped frequently in the thick alders to rake their antlers and mark territory. We only got glimpses of body parts from time to time. After nearly an hour, both bucks were within rifle range, but the brush was so thick there was no way to get a shot. More calling, more waiting.
One of the bucks finally stepped out of the brush and into the streambed less than 100 yards from our position. He was a perfect 3×3, a large fork with brow tines and his antlers stretched to nearly the width of his ears. The chocolate antlers looked spectacular in the riflescope and when the buck turned broadside, I knew I’d soon get my hands on my first Sitka blacktail deer. His neck was thick and he reeked of rutting activity.
The pack out to the beach was uneventful, but once you have blood on your hands and clothes and you’re toting bags of freshly butchered deer on your back, ghosts of Kodiak Island bear stories fire every synapse in your brain. On this day, the ghosts remained undisturbed and we celebrated success with cigars and a toast aboard the Refuge Rock.
More Days, More Deer
We hunted the unnamed bay each day until each of us had filled our two buck tags. There were so many deer we couldn’t make ourselves move to another location. There may have been bigger bucks somewhere else on the island, but with the rut in full swing and the doe bleat call working so well we were simply having too much fun in “our” valley. The videographer loved the up-close hunting action, but I loved the fact we were hunting an unmolested deer herd, likely the only time in my life I will experience anything like it.
In the end, every deer we shot was taken within 300 yards of where the first one fell. We inspected our kill sites each day–expecting, even secretly hoping for a bear encounter. But the ravens and eagles left nothing for larger predators to claim and the only bear sightings happened when we were safe aboard the Refuge Rock.
One of the best things about hunting out of Old Harbor–and coastal Alaska in general–is the variety of things you can experience. You can hunt sea ducks. You can fish. You can watch hundreds of whales each day. You can roam the docks where crab pots are stacked awaiting another season and where fishing-boat relics lie on their sides–victims of time and salty air.
Once the hunt was over, we spent some time on board the Refuge Rock, where we each caught our first halibut. Then a second, then more. We landed king salmon, cod, and rockfish. The bounty of the Alaskan wilds seemed endless, and I understood after only a week why people like Jeff Peterson call Old Harbor home.
I also learned you don’t have to hunt high-dollar species like moose, bear, or sheep to get the unmatched experience and adventure that is hunting in Alaska. On a do-it-yourself blacktail hunt, you have the best of both worlds–access to outstanding hunting areas, and the experience of being on your own in the Alaskan wilderness. As for myself, I know I won’t wait another forty years to bring the pages of those old books to life with another Kodiak Island adventure.
Gear for the Island
As with most Alaskan hunts you have to be prepared for bear encounters, so I carried a Remington 700 XCR in .300 RUM. More than enough gun for blacktails, but large enough to handle a bear encounter, if necessary. The XCR was topped with a Swarovski 3-9 riflescope. I carried Swarovski EL 10×32 binoculars, and we set up a Nikon Earth and Sky Spotting Scope for glassing.
The mid-November temperatures varied from high teens to around freezing during the day, but the winds off the sea made it feel colder. My clothing and boots were all Cabela’s brand. I used their MTP Compression Skinz base layer, followed by Microtex pants, shirt, and jacket in Outfitter Camo. When weather dictated, I wore Cabela’s MTO50 Rain Equipment. For an added upper-body wind layer I carried a Cabela’s Legacy Fleece Windshear pullover. Good-quality, waterproof, insulated big-game hunting boots with some insulation will work fine for this hunt. I wore Cabela’sPerfekt Hunters.
This is a do-it-yourself hunt, so you need to carry butchering and meat-handling gear in your pack. I found a daypack attached to a pack frame worked well. I prefer the Cabela’s Extreme Alaskan Outfitter Frame Pack. I used this frame on a previous do-it- yourself caribou hunt and it performed flawlessly. Plus it’s comfortable enough to wear all day without being cumbersome.
Your favorite whitetail doe bleat call will work great to call in curious blacktails. According to Peterson, calls work well throughout the blacktail season, which lasts for several months on Kodiak Island.–M.N.