Island Hopping For Kodiak Blacktails

The following appears in the March issue of Alaska Sporting Journal: 

BY LOUIS CUSACK 

Toward the end of October, when many folks are picking out a pumpkin to carve for Halloween and buying candy to hand out to the trick-or-treaters, my wife Ruth and I are usually packing for Kodiak Island in preparation for our blacktail deer hunt.

This is a special trip for us because it’s usually our last hunt of the season. It takes place primarily from a single base location, with enough gear to make for a big cozy camp. No freeze-dried meals or spike camps on this hunt! No sir; we bring plenty of food and gear.

There had been three mild winters in a row on Kodiak Island, and the reports we were getting was that there were plenty of deer around and lots of good mature bucks being brought in. So we were especially excited about this year’s hunt and anticipated a great adventure.

With gear shipped and staged, we jumped a flight to Kodiak, where we were greeted by a typical fall morning, which on this island means a big easterly wind that blew 35 mph with sideways rain. Our transporter met us at the terminal for a quick trip to the store and a stop at their hangar for the bulk of our gear. From there, it was over to the office for an update on our departure to the field, which was looking good since the weather reports were pretty decent out toward our hunting area.

Flight schedules and routes on Kodiak are dictated by the weather, and weather patterns on an island this size can be very different from one location to the next. We were also informed that the fall salmon run was pretty weak, thus the bears were hungry and deer hunters were seeing a significant increase in the number of problems with bruins. That meant it was time to double-check the bear fence and throw in an extra can of bear spray.

THE FLIGHT INTO THE field went off like clockwork, and about halfway to our destination we broke through the rain and arrived at our hunting area in the sunshine. There are few things that Ruth and I hate worse than setting up and breaking down camp in the rain, but that wasn’t the case today, so we hit the ground running in hopes of getting camp set up with time left over for a few hours of hunting.

Unlike most big game hunting in Alaska, deer hunting does not fall under the same-day airborne regulation, which requires that you to wait until 3 a.m. the day following the one you are flown in to begin hunting (2016-2017 Alaska Hunting Regulations, Page 19).

After setting up camp, we managed to get in a couple of hours of hunting and spotted several deer, but none that we were interested in taking on our first day afield.

During this time of the year there is roughly a nine-hour period between sunrise and sunset, with a little over 10 hours of useable light from dark to really dark. This meant we had plenty of time to enjoy a great meal in camp, spin a few tall tales from previous hunts and get a decent night’s sleep before it was time to start hunting the following morning.

We were up and out of camp early, catching a few smaller bucks and does down pretty low on our way up to hunt in higher elevation, which on Kodiak is where the more mature bucks like to live. The way we prefer to hunt is to climb up the mountain above the heavier cover, work our way around on a well-used game trail, and glass and scout patches of alders that blacktail will often bed down in.

Our first few days were warm and windy. We saw a lot of deer and a ton of sign, fresh tracks, rubs and scraps all over the mountain. Just about every tree next to a game trail held a fresh rub, but the bigger bucks were not out chasing does as heavily as we would have expected. 

Ruth spotted our first shooter, a really nice buck way toward the top of the mountain in a steep drainage that was surrounded by alders and a lot of heavy brush. We took advantage of the cover and it was not long before she was in position to make a great shot and punch her first tag. 

Did I mention that this drainage was steep? It was really steep! In fact, it would have been a waterfall if there had been any water in it! Taking a deer down a steep drainage has its advantages, but it can be dangerous if you are not careful. I use a piece of 1-inch webbing strap about 6 feet long. This lets me control the deer while coming down and makes it easier to step out of the line of fire if the deer starts tumbling down the chute. If you’ve ever been tangled up with a deer, goat or sheep, then you know what I’m talking about – it’s not fun. 

We were able to get Ruth’s deer down the chute to an open area to clean and dress him for packing out. I like to put some space between the brush and myself just in case an old mama bear decides she wants our deer more than we do. We passed on several more animals and hoped for another good buck as we returned to camp that evening to celebrate with fresh deer tenderloins for dinner.

THE WEATHER WAS STILL not as cold as what we had hoped for, and that night the wind really picked up. This might explain why we never heard that bear come into our meat tree. Ruth thought she heard something at about 2 a.m., but with the noise from the wind and the surf she wasn’t certain. The next morning when I went to check on our meat, it was gone – all of it except for the blackstrap we had in our ice chest. Judging from the tracks and the way he was able to get up to our meat, he looked to have been a smaller bear. Nonetheless, he had wreaked havoc on our meat tree, tearing off limbs and leaving empty game bags scattered up to 300 yards down the trail. I guess that dang bear had to eat too!

There wasn’t much we could do about the bear taking our meat, so we cleaned up the mess he left, loaded our packs and headed out hunting. We had not gone very far before Ruth spotted a really nice buck. He was standing on the skyline just above a bowl that was plastered into the side of the mountain with a steep ridgeback we later named the stairway to heaven, which ran straight up to him.

We climbed up the backside of the ridge, using the ridge line for cover and side-hilling just below the rim into the bottom of the bowl. Once we got a look into the bowl, we saw six deer: five bucks and a single doe that must have been in “season,” since she sure seemed to be getting a lot of attention.

It was my turn to shoot and the buck I wanted was standing at the head of the bowl with the doe. We were stopped cold in front of six sets of eyes and over 600 yards between him and us. After watching them for a bit, I decided to try and circle around them and left Ruth at the bottom of the bowl in hopes that at least one of us would get a decent shot. I had just started making my ascent when that buck turned and walked right into the center of the bowl. I was not in a good position, but Ruth had a perfect shot opportunity and we still were within each other’s line of sight, so I gave her the hand signal to take him.

She made an excellent shot, dropping him instantly to again put us in the process of skinning deer and looking forward to more tenderloins for dinner. We were still not in any hurry to fill tags and it was pretty entertaining to watch those four bucks try to work that doe, but she wasn’t having any of it! Ruth’s shot did not seem to bother them at all. Hmm, maybe they had something else on their mind!

That night the weather broke, the wind died down, a bright moon rose up over the mountain and the temperature dropped well below freezing. This is notable because blacktail deer are not very big; adult does average about 80 pounds and bucks are around 120 pounds. I’ve always been told that during cold temperatures an animal this size has to get up and eat to stay warm. There must be some truth to that, because the next morning there were deer up and moving about every place we looked. We were out of camp for no more than an hour before we spotted two nice bucks and a doe. Ruth and I each took one, both of them really nice mature bucks.

Both deer were dragged down to a flat clearing where they could both be skinned and we could keep a sharp look out for bears. There was already one bear problem and we were being pretty wary, considering we’d spotted a small boar near our location just the day before. As quickly as we could, we got both deer cleaned and bagged, then loaded up most of the meat for our hike back to camp. 

All we had left in the field for our second pack-out were antlers, two front shoulders, a small bag of neck meat and a little gear. We made it back to camp, hung our deer and grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading back for our second load. We had only been gone a couple of hours, but when we returned the bears had already gotten to our deer. The place was practically wiped clean. From what we could tell by the tracks, it looked like it was a sow with cubs. They ate or carried off almost everything. They even chewed the rubber handle off my saw and crushed a metal water bottle we had left for our return. It still held water, but for some reason I could not seem to convince Ruth to drink any of it! 

Back at camp that evening, we hung our meat until we were ready to call it a night, but we cleaned out a couple of Action Packers, packed meat in them and placed them behind the bear fence for the night. This started a daily cycle of hanging in the evening and storing our meat at night that we would continue for the remainder of our hunt. I am not sure if it was just luck or if this simply worked, but either way we did not have any further bear problems.

I’m never one to be short on words, and I could likely write a novel about the weather we experienced toward the end of our hunt. It was perfect hunting weather, with clear cold nights, and near the tail end of the hunt the waxing gibbous moon lit the place up like it was daytime. 

We also experienced crisp, sunny days with little to no wind. It was coming toward a full moon, which I usually try to plan our hunts around; I believe that deer tend to go nocturnal during this period, and this trip was no different. I had even swapped a few workdays, so that we could finish our hunt before the moon was completely full. I’m not sure if this is real or superstition, but with the weather we were having the moon just didn’t seem to matter. The hunting and the weather was great and the forecast was calling for a whole lot more of the same, so Ruth and I decided to stay. 

In the past, we’ve been weathered in a lot and had to stay several extra days a number of times because of snow, rain, flooding, wind or mechanical problems. Once a long time ago, I even had a pilot simply forgot to pick me up. However, this situation was a first for us. 

We were weathered in simply because it was just too nice to leave, which is kind of like calling in well instead of calling in sick. I actually did that once: The powder was deep, my snowmachine was running like hell, the weather was perfect and I just felt too dang good to go to work. My poor boss didn’t quite seem to know how to take that, but that’s another story. 

THE NEXT MORNING I set up the spotting scope and managed to find a really good buck feeding between two alder patches about a mile from camp. Ruth was already tagged out but I still had two to fill, so we loaded up and headed after him. I figured we could relocate him if nothing spooked him or a hot doe didn’t pull him away before we got there. I managed to find him again once we were there; he was lying down in the clearing right at the edge of an alder patch. He was a very good buck and I was really looking forward to getting a crack at him, but just as I was setting up for the shot a brown bear stood up on his hind legs. He was in an alder patch just to his left and about 75 yards from him. 

The bear didn’t seem to be bothering our buck any, but he had dropped back down on all fours and we couldn’t see him. Having already had two bear encounters, neither resulting in anything other than hurt feelings and lost meat, and not wanting the third time to be the charm, I decided not to shoot. We had tried waiting him out, but we never saw that bear again. There were just too many deer around to take a chance on creating an incident, and hopefully that buck will be even bigger next season. I shot a decent buck on our way back to camp that evening and we ended the day with only one more deer tag to fill.

We woke up our last morning of hunting to another perfect day; we had just started making our way up the ridge when I spotted a little buck walking almost beside us. I did not want to take him, so Ruth and I just walked right up that ridge with him walking just alongside of us. It was a really cool encounter. The three of us walked right into another buck with a doe, and we just sat down and watched them. Later that morning, we worked our way over to the same drainage that Ruth took her first deer in. After another steep climb and a quick shot filling our last tag, we were once again taking a deer down the chute and hoping it wasn’t going to take us down first!

With the deer back to camp and with all of our tags filled, it was time to fire up the satellite phone and call for a ride home. We had a great time that night, eating a good dinner, prepping/packing gear and reflecting back on our hunt.

KODIAK ISLAND IS A MAGICAL place, with many different hunting options to choose from. You can use a transporter to fly in for a remote do-it-yourself hunt or pick one of the many outfitters that provide lodging and field transportation from either a boat or land based camp. Or you can even take a fully guided hunt that provides everything you need except for your personal gear and a hunting license. Last but not least is the option to simply go to Kodiak and hunt off the road system. Hunting the road system is my least favorite option, considering that the season is shorter, the limit is only one buck per season, and with the ease of hunting access you can expect this area to get a lot more hunting pressure than most. 

Whatever option you choose, hunting Kodiak Island for blacktail deer is a great way to introduce a new hunter to hunting. The deer are plentiful, fairly easy to hunt and with a liberal bag limit of three per season on most of the island, it’s a great way to keep it exciting for hunters both young and old alike. I know we look forward to every season. Heck, Ruth and I were ready to go back before we even left the island! ASJ

Editor’s note: For more on the “The Rajun Cajun,” Louis Cusack and his wife, Ruth, like and follow them at facebook.com/
AdventuresofLouisandRuthCusack.

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