BEYOND ADVENTURE – ALASKA SITKA BLACKTAIL HUNT
As I meticulously managed my last few steps around the final alder patch I found myself face to face with the heavy framed blacktail buck. Binoculars were useless at a distance of 7 feet as I hurriedly counted points and came up with a rough score of 90 inches. The rut does funny things to the different deer species and this stocky tank of a Sitka blacktail was not all that convinced I wasn’t there to steal his doe. His defensive posturing towards me was fun to watch at that close range and I questioned my sanity during the three bluff charges he made at me during those 9 minutes we both shared his 10 square yard dominant buck lair.
Last summer, a fellow Boone & Crockett measurer, Gerry Rightmeyer had booked a great adventure hunt on Kodiak Island for Sitka Blacktail deer and sea ducks for his TV show Forever Wild Outdoors – Adrenaline Adventures, and was looking for 2 other hunters to fill the extra spots. I called Gerry and discussed the hunt dates and details and immediately booked the spots for my dad and I. The trip sounded great, lodging was comfortable, deer seemed plentiful, and sea ducks were a great add on to the adventure. My dad and I were looking into a Kodiak trip for November anyway and it seemed to be a perfect fit. Mid November couldn’t get here soon enough, I had multiple calls to Gerry in-between his and my fall hunts, and a couple of solid calls with Jeff Maier, owner of Uganik Bay Adventures. To say we were all excited for this trip would be an understatement.
After a long connection of flights from DFW to Kodiak Island, Alaska, dad and I finally met up with Gerry and Steve Doudt on November 14th. We got our Alaska duck stamps and ammo, including the muzzleloader powder and primers I had on reserve at the local sporting good store. This was our last stop before heading to Andrews Airways for our final flight to the NW side of the island and our home for the next 6 days, Bear Paw Lodge. After a very snug ride in the DeHaviland Beaver over the tops of the majestic snowcapped peaks of Kodiak Island we made a few circles and landed on the calm water of an isolated bay. Jayson Cottle, lodge owner, met us planeside in his aluminum skiff and we proceed to transfer all of our gear and guns from the plane to the boat for the short ride to shore. Upon arrival we were shown to our rooms and cabins and unpacked, Sighting in guns was #1 priority at the lodge so we all made our way to the end of the dock and bench shot to make sure our weapons were shooting spot on at the 130 yard target. Jeff Maier poignantly said “We have a few hours until dark, I’d like you guys to split into pairs and hike up the mountain to get a feel for the terrain and help you to understand something very important about Kodiak Island, WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT WHAT YOU GET”. I’m always one for a challenge so I eyed the top of that 2100 foot peak behind the lodge thinking, “A few hours is plenty of time to run up and back”. Never have I been so wrong. The yellow grass that appears shin high from the sea shore is actually 4-6 feet tall and usually chock full of rose bushes, devils club, and thorns. After a couple hours of fighting brush and slowly gaining altitude I pulled out my GPS to see that we were not quite halfway. Temporarily defeated, we headed back down to shower and grab dinner at the main lodge. This was a good humbling lesson and helped to mentally prepare us for the challenge we would have covering great distances on this hunt like we are used to in the mountain west. Gerry & Steve were also a bit shell shocked at dinner that evening with how challenging it is to cover ground in the mountains surrounding Uganik Bay.
The first full day found my dad and I dropped off by skiff at the mouth of a creek that ran into Uganik Bay. Three hours into the hike we finally broke free of the rose bushes, towering yellow grass, devils club and alder jungles. After fighting so hard to gain this elevation our plan was to not lose any and sidehill deeper into this far valley. Deer sightings became frequent every time we sat behind the 15X56 binoculars. The difficult part was field judging the bucks, as a trophy blacktail will only possess a rack with tines 6”-8” tall and 14”-15” wide. Most of our sightings were 1000-2000 yards away so details were hard to pinpoint beyond the frame. Close to the beaver dam, a couple of miles up the valley, a heavy framed buck caught my attention and we decided he was worth a close up look. It took well over an hour to cut the distance down however the buck stayed in sight guarding his doe and running off numerous lesser bucks that dared to come their way. After my face to face encounter with him I decided he wasn’t a first day buck so I took some great close photos with my cell phone and allowed him to disappear into the alders with his doe. The days are incredibly short this time of year in Alaska so we quickly humped the couple of miles back to our pick up spot on the beach knowing we wanted to make the sketchy creek crossing before it was too dark to see.
Back at camp we were able to celebrate Steve’s success on his first blacktail from that morning. The weather had been great that day and morale was high. Jeff cooked a dinner fit for kings and after eating we all sat around sharing stories of past adventures. Out of the four hunters I had the shortest big game hunting history spanning just 30 years, so the stories were plentiful. I shared the iPhone photos I took of the buck from that day and the general consensus from camp was that I’d just had an intense stare down with a true monarch and an old buck worthy of my tag even though he carried a crown of only 5 total points on his head. I had actually talked myself out of shooting him three different times during my encounter, however I decided that night if I was blessed enough to cross his path again the outcome would be different.
Friday morning dad and I were up hours before daylight and anxious to go far back in the valley to see if the beaver pond buck was still around. After a few close encounters with young bucks and does on our long hike in, I finally laid eyes on the massive 5 point by the beaver ponds. We closed the distance until we were directly above the alder patched he disappeared in, this was semi easy as the wind was howling 25-35 MPH with gusts in the 50 MPH range. We didn’t dare get closer until we could pinpoint his whereabouts so it was a hurry up and wait game. It didn’t take too long for a nice mature buck to come sniffing along looking for a receptive doe and as we knew, Mr. Big would promptly enter stage left exposing his hiding spot. The plan was working perfect, as the bucks postured and challenged one another, Dad and I dropped the 800 vertical feet down to the bucks level on either side of his alder fortress. I would have first shot at the buck, however if he tried to slip out the back side of those alders dad had his escape covered with free reign to take the shot. Either way, Mr. Big was getting a backpack ride to the beach if all went well. As I cleared the last alder I could see the buck and doe nervously looking around, my scent had swirled on the wind and they were aware danger was close. I quickly shouldered my muzzleloader and touched off the charge accurately delivering a bullet high shoulder into the buck a stood a mere 7 feet from the day before. Dad and I met down at my buck and celebrated our success and admiring this tank of a blacktail. Green score puts the buck close to 90 inches and will easily make top 25 in the Longhunter muzzleloader record book.
Now the work started, It was 2pm and we quickly took pictures and meticulously removed every ounce of meat (as per state of Alaska regulations) and placed it in game bags. Once the pack was fully loaded with the meat, cape, and rack I slowly hiked the 100lb load back up the mountain above the alders where we could catch a horizontal deer trail that avoided the tall grass and alders until we got closer to the treacherous creek crossing. As the last sliver of daylight disappeared we found ourselves still 2 hours from the beach landing. After dark nothing ever looks the same, due to being physically and mentally depleted from the haul we made multiple wrong turns and found ourselves turned around in brown bear country with a fresh deer on our backs. The devils club slashed at our hands and bodies as we eagerly searched for our safe creek crossing. We had to turn back twice due to running into impassable waterfalls but finally were able to cross at a low spot by pulling ourselves across an alder branch. Once at the beach we radioed camp so Jayson would bring the skiff to pick us up. Jayson and Jeff were relieved to hear from us as our safety was a concern being that late to the beach.
The temperatures had dropped considerably as the storm rolled in and being wet and exhausted I was a perfect candidate for hypothermia. The incoming tide was bucking against nearly gale force winds causing huge waves to crash into the boulder strewn shoreline, we knew this adventure was about to take a turn for the worst. Jayson guided the skiff to the beach and as we tried to quickly jump in between waves we were all caught by a large rogue wave the threw me into the boat face first with 100lbs of deer crashing into my skull and almost launching Jayson out into the sea. In a heartbeat the skiff was turned at a steep angle on the rocks and taking on more water with each wave. We all began bailing water as fast as we could while standing knee deep in water inside the boat. Many times it seemed futile as it was filling back up with every wave. Following Jayson’s commands, he and I jumped out of the boat into the waist deep sea and attempted to right the skiff. We had to make things happen or risk exposure and potential injury, or worse. It took every ounce of energy we had to fight the heavy skiff at each wave but after 35-40 minutes we had the bow pointed back away from shore. This allowed dad to bail the water out without the skiff filling back up. I held the skiff steady while taking wave after wave to the face and Jayson got the prop and motor out of the rocks to prevent further damage. We dove back into the boat and with a full thrust of the outboard motor we were out of imminent danger. It amazes me that when we are in peril we can still notice details around us. As I stood in the water getting thrashed by the waves and the boat I noticed a plethora of bio luminescent plankton seeming providing us a path to safety, their glow was mesmerizing. The boat ride back to camp was fairly quiet as we all realized the severity of the situation we’d just narrowly escaped. Dinner that night was a celebration of more than just Gerry’s and my bucks, we celebrated the fact we were all back in camp safely.
Saturday the weather was amazing however we stayed in camp cleaning our guns, gear and clothes that had been soaked in salt water. It was a beautiful day and provided crisp blue skies however getting gear and clothes back in good condition was the main priority. We talked strategy for our last few days on the mountain that night as we ate another hearty meal.
The next morning dad and I were up early and ready to go, dad was quite hesitant to get back into the skiff so we ended up adding quite a few miles to our hike and left on foot from camp and hunted all day. Deer were plentiful however nothing in that 90+ range showed itself during our hike. We did get a glimpse of a true monster brown bear who happened to be eating the scraps from my deer kill. He looked like a bus on feet as he lumbered away with a full belly. The storms blew in hard and we came off the mountains in a 50 MPH snow squall that had all of our exposed skin burning. The warmth of the cabin and dinner were very appreciated after our long day out.
The amazing trip wrapped up with some fresh Halibut from the bay and some fantastic sea duck hunting with our group. We all added some great specimens to our collections and knocked a few things of the bucket list this trip. As I always say, Life without ADVENTURE is no life at all so live it to the fullest no matter what it throws at you!
The pieces of gear that absolutely saved my life on this trip were my merino wool layers and my Ptarmigan 850 Ultra Down jacket. No matter how cold and wet I was, those pieces of gear kept me dry and the Ultra Down kept my body heat working for me. Make sure to grab some for yourself!