The following appears in the December issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY RANDY KING
It would have been an idyllic place to camp, I figured, if not for the Kodiak brown bear tracks in the sand. They dwarfed my size 11 boot by nearly 5 inches.
Whatever bruin it belonged to was huge, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I was here on a mission: shoot a blacktail off Kodiak Island’s road system while hunting solo. And I wasn’t about to let a real-life monster scare me.
THE GROUND WAS FROST-COVERED this past late September as I made my way off the tarmac at the airport terminal. Kodiak holds a certain mystique for those of us from the Lower 48. Make no mistake: I am a seasoned outdoorsman; that said, there’s something about an island with only 70 miles of highway and which features resident bears the size of Volkswagens that made it more extreme than my usual Idaho hunting grounds.
I arrived on a Thursday morning with only three days to hunt and was a nervous wreck. An advance guard, consisting of my father and uncle, was supposed to have already been on the island for three days. My hope was that they would have cased the joint by now and had some valuable tips about how to hunt Kodiak. Problem was, they’d canceled on the adventure a week out.
At some point my stubbornness kicked in and I tossed my good judgment to the wind. To hell with it; I am hunting Kodiak alone.
My plans had to adapt to this new reality. No longer was I trekking into the hills with a backpack and a bear fence to camp among the stars. Instead, I was sleeping in the front seat of a rented Chevy Silverado. I had to condense my entire adventure into one suitcase, a cooler and backpack.
BLACKTAILS ON KODIAK are divided into different types: road system deer and nonroad system deer. That classification is important for two reasons. First, it dictates the number and type of deer a hunter is allowed to shoot. From the road system a hunter is allowed doe or buck and multiple tags per year. But on the road system, hunters are only allowed one buck tag per year.
Because of the road system’s proximity to the island’s population center, namely the town of Kodiak, and ease of access, it needs to be hunted differently than other parts of Kodiak. Basically, the road system is hunted harder than other areas on the island. When planning a Kodiak road system hunt, take that into account. If it is an easily accessed location, people are already hunting it, which is not unlike the Lower 48.
DAY 1: THE LONG WALK
At about 11 a.m., I started my blacktail hunt. I had picked the end of the road, literally, as my starting point. True story: Kodiak has a commercial satellite launch pad. Near it I ran into a maintenance guy named Derek. Being a social fellow I asked him what he thought of my hunting plans.
“Heading into that area sounds like a great idea,” he said. “No one ever really goes back there since it’s such a pain to get to. That said, since there is so little traffic, watch out for bears down low.”
Near the launch pad is a place called Barry Lagoon and I parked near there. Pack loaded with the necessities (a satellite phone is a must), I began my walk to the Sacramento River, about 4 miles away, according to my map, and a two-hour walk, I figured.
In my research, I’d found a map that noted a trail parallel to the beach headed right to the river. I set out to find the trail, bust butt and scope some country.
No matter how much time I spend on hunting forums or stare at Google Earth, actually arriving at a hunting location and seeing the territory is gut-wrenching. The peaks are taller, the hills steeper and what you thought was an afternoon jaunt is more like a death trek through impenetrable devil’s club. Basically, a new hunting spot is never what you think it will be. This was exactly the case on Kodiak.
To be clear, there is no trail to the Sacramento River. There is a beach and high tide, lots of brown bear tracks and no trail. Four and a half hours later I set foot into the valley that holds the river. I had seen exactly one doe in my travels.
I cut across what I thought would be the happy hunting grounds without seeing so much as a turd from my quarry. That is, until I came close to the river itself. There, I heard the distinct sound of a deer crashing through brush, and when I rounded a section of alders I caught sight of a nice track in the sand that was so fresh the edges were still getting wet when I arrived.
I had a feeling it was a buck – no fawn tracks with it, and it was alone – so I followed the track onto the river bottom (the Sacramento is nothing like its Lower 48 counterpart, more like a small creek, honestly).
Soon I was walking the sandy gravel bars down the middle of the river. A salmon darted from a small pool in front of me. The edges of the river bottom slowly closed around me, the alder getting thicker and thicker. I tracked the deer for a few hundred yards downstream this way.
When I heard the splash about 40 yards in front of me I was hopeful, briefly, that it was a deer. It wasn’t. Instead, I was graced with a Kodiak brown bear, ungracefully trying to climb a riverbank and falling back into the water. I about soiled my pants since I literally had nowhere to run: The alders were so thick on either side of the creek I would have been lunch before I cleared them. So I did the only thing I could think of: I racked a round into my .270 and yelled, “Hey, bear!” Drenched, the bear shook like a dog and sauntered off into the brush, headed upstream but disappeared in mere footsteps.
After a brief “thank you” prayer and a change of undershorts, I continued downriver, figuring the upriver was now claimed property of Yogi.
I could hear the ocean at this point and knew I was close to being in open country. I only had one direction to go, and this time I was much more diligent and focused. Only about 200 yards downstream I saw a second bear crossing the river. He was calmly walking from one side to the other when he noticed me and stood up on two legs. I was running out of shorts at this point. Luckily, this bear wanted nothing to do with me; it turned tail and ran.
It became clear that I needed to get off the riverbed badly. I found a bend that opened into conifers and climbed my way out. I followed the sound of the ocean to the mouth of the river.
When I arrived I quickly found out why the bears were there. Silver salmon by the dozens were running upstream. Basically, I had been walking down the middle of the bears’ food source. No one has ever called me smart, and this instance solidified that argument.
I fished briefly and unsuccessfully for the silvers. Across the river from me was a herd of feral bison feeding and not really caring that I was there. A bald eagle came down and grabbed a salmon. This was why I was in Alaska, deer or no deer.
When out scouting new country it is always best to set a firm “turnaround” time. While seeing new country is cool, getting back to camp safely is even better. My time had come, so I began to head down the beach back to my U-Haul. It was on the beach that I encountered perhaps the most dangerous situation yet. It was a set of bear tracks. Smaller than others I had seen, they were also paralleled by two additional sets of even smaller tracks. A sow and two cubs had passed this direction. Luckily, I had missed them.
On the way out I stopped and glassed the peaks from the beach. At the very top, just like I had been warned, were deer. I could make out antlers on one, but he was miles off, completely off limits until morning. I picked a landmark, a large tree on a cliff face, as my goal for the morning. A red fox came out of a hollow log a few feet from me, sniffed the air and wandered off. I just smiled and stared. I now had a plan.
DAY TWO: DEER SPOTTED
It was still very dark when I awoke in the cab of my truck. The sleeping part was easy, the waking part was not. Frost covered the ground as I packed my bag and ate a cold breakfast. I had my location picked out and I made a straight shot for it.
As the sun rose off the ocean, I climbed and climbed in the wet grass and weaved my way through alders and marshy meadows on my way to the chosen tree. I caught site of five blacktail does on my way up. No matter how hard I tried I could not make them magically grow horns.
It would not be easy for me. Articles I’d read online often noted that Kodiak was not for the out of shape – it would test you to your limits. They were right.
It was 11 a.m. before I reached my tree, which the deer apparently liked as well. Sign was thick and I smelled musk. I knew I was close but had not spotted anything for an hour. I felt defeated as I sat on a cliff edge to glass and eat a snack. This was supposed to be the happy hunting grounds.
Then, nature provided just enough to keep me motivated. A doe and two fawns were feeding away from me when my stank wafted over to them. Three heads snapped back in my direction. Tails went into the air and I heard the momma snort. I watched as she led them from one high pass to the next in mere moments.
I smiled and shouldered my pack. The odds of seeing a buck were starting to stack in my favor. I climbed past the cliff faces to a small saddle between peaks and I found myself sitting in a patch of barren dirt that was either a buffalo bed or a bear bed. I told myself it was a buffalo bed.
From this point I glassed the spines of rocks and shrubs that lined the north side of the peak. I spotted a doe, then another, and then … holy crap – horns! Instantly, my binoculars started to shake uncontrollably in my hands. I was short of breath and tried not to laugh out loud. I’m 35 years old and was getting buck fever like a 12-year-old. It was awesome.
I positioned my pack frame and tried to steady myself for the shot. The forked buck was at about 200 yards. With the shaking continuing I needed to calm the hell down, so I dropped off from the buffalo bed and used a small ridgeline for cover to cut 100 yards off the shot. That little bit of stalking and exertion leveled me off. Back on the ridgeline I lay down, put the crosshairs behind his shoulder and let lead fly.
The buck crumpled and thankfully slid into a bush. Blacktail down! Time to go to work.
The hillside was so steep that when I tried to gut the buck I could not keep him from sliding down the hill. Eventually, I tied his horns off on a small tree, used the heel of my boots to dig footholds in the grass and started the evisceration process. I kept an active eye over my shoulder for bears. I’d heard the rumors that gunshots sound like dinner bells to Kodiak bruins and wanted no more of those in my life. Quartered and in my pack, I had to now get him off the hill.
I sat down on the slick grass, set the pack on my lap and placed my gun on top of it. I crossed my legs and began to slide down the mountain. I went for nearly 500 yards on the dewy grass, with only one rock finding solid placement on butt-cheek.
I slid into a different ravine with a small stream. At the bottom I found an opening in the river bed and ate lunch.
For the first time in my life I actually muttered to myself, “God, I hope I don’t see any salmon.” ASJ
Editor’s note: Idaho resident, author and chef Randy King also writes regularly for ASJ’s brother magazine, Northwest Sportsman. For more on Randy, check out chefrandyking.com.
KICK UP YOUR GROUND VENISON MEAT
Like most big game hunters, I am faced with the “grind” problem regularly. I have, on good years, a lot of ground meat and a family that will only eat so many tacos and bowls of spaghetti. To solve this problem, I often opt for meat pucks, also known as meatballs. This is my Thai-style red curry meatballs recipe, with white rice, green beans and basil. For more recipes on wild game visit my website, chefrandyking.com.
1 pound ground venison
Four garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 inch ginger, peeled and
Handful of Thai basil, chopped
1 tablespoon fish sauce (optional – it
really stinks but offers up great flavor)
½ small red onion
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste
½ cup panko or breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper
CURRY SAUCE AND GREEN BEANS
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 red onion, chopped
1 inch ginger, peeled and minced
Two garlic cloves, minced
½ pound green beans, sliced into
One can coconut milk
¼ cup Thai red curry paste
Salt and pepper
3 cups jasmine rice, cooked and hot
Thai basil, chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the ingredients listed for the meatballs together in a medium-sized bowl. Place 1-ounce meatballs on a tin foil-lined cookie sheet about an inch apart from one another. Bake meatballs for 20 minutes or until they reach 135 degrees on the inside.
While the meatballs are cooking, add the sesame oil to a medium-sized sauté pan. Heat on medium for two minutes, add the red onion and cook until soft. Next, add the ginger and garlic. Cook until fragrant, about a minute. Add the green beans, coconut milk and red curry paste. Bring all to a boil. Taste and adjust as needed with salt, pepper or maybe even more curry paste. When it boils and the paste is incorporated, the sauce is done.
Serve meatballs on a bed of white rice, topped with the curry and green beans. Garnish with Thai basil. RK
SIX THINGS I LEARNED
1) A whole Sitka blacktail fits in a hotel mini fridge, FYI.
2) If you line a hotel ironing board with towels and plastic wrap, you can make a decent cutting board for deboning a deer.
3) The area I hunted is overrun with feral bison, which are ranched on the island. It’s both cool and a little scary since they are roughly the same size/color as a brown bear. When you see one in the distance, it makes your gut drop until you realize it’s just a super-deadly bison capable of stomping you into a puddle. But, hey, it’s not a bear, which would only slurp your remains out of said puddle.
4) Unlike Idaho and most of the Lower 48, you can keep Dolly Varden here. They are delish on your plate.
5) Don’t think you can build a cooking fire easily with driftwood. The island is so wet that not much that is openly exposed to the sky will burn.
6) In a cooler, my buck weighed in at 49½ pounds. Keep that in mind for planning purposes. RK