Once we stepped off the skiff and climbed the steep mud bank we could see for miles. The brown sea grass led to barren tundra, which eventually turned into mountains covered with snow. It was breathtaking. We were there to take deer, but our attention turned quickly to the monster brown bear that was barreling down on us from a half-mile away. With each stride I could see the big muscles rolling underneath his brown hide and we began to wonder if he was going to stop.
Deer and Alaska are two words you don’t usually see in the same sentence. Alaska is better known for gigantic moose, monster brown bears, sheep, goats and the nomadic caribou herds that roam throughout the land. Hunters come from all over the world to pursue these animals in one type of an adventure or another, but hunting deer is usually not one of them.
Coming to Alaska to hunt Sitka blacktails is one of the most overlooked and underrated opportunities for hunters today. With the high cost of tags and licenses and the shear pain of filling out application after application for an animal that you may never draw a tag for can be frustrating, but a blacktail adventure is cheap and easy compared to most hunts in North America. Traveling to one of the islands to pursue these deer is worth the price of admission alone and whether you like to use a rifle or chase them with a bow, it is about as much fun as you can have next to going to Africa for safari.
Blacktails are native to the wet coastal rainforest of southeast Alaska, but have expanded to Kodiak and Afognak Islands, Yakutat and Prince William Sound. Blacktails are smaller, compared to their cousins to the south, and antler growth is similar to the Coues deer found in the southwest.
Blacktails are numerous throughout their range, but are greatly influenced by the severity of winter. If the previous winter is mild, deer numbers are significant. During a typical day you might see upwards of 75 to 100 deer. During the late season, which usually runs November and December, deer tend to concentrate at the lower elevations, due to the deep snow. The deer herd-up and the sheer numbers are sometimes staggering. On a trip to the south end of Kodiak, for instance, I’ve actually seen as many as 200 deer per day, with at least half being bucks — a pretty phenomenal scene, to say the least. You literally can’t look through your binoculars and not see a deer. It’s similar to Africa in terms of numbers, and a hunter’s paradise given the fact that you can pretty much pick and choose the buck you want to hunt.
Deer hunting techniques differ greatly depending on where you decide to go. In a few units where there are towns and roads, you can actually drive to an area and begin hunting in a way similar to chasing whitetails in the lower 48, but when it comes to pursuing blacktails on Kodiak or one of the other island areas, you basically have two options.
One is to book a hunt with an outfitter. These hunts are usually unguided and the outfitter is more of a transporter who provides access to an area. They usually run for seven days and are conducted from a large boat, usually a fishing vessel with sleeping quarters, a shower and a few hot meals. Hunters pretty much eat and sleep on the boat and then each morning load onto a skiff to go ashore and hunt a specific area. It’s not uncommon to see deer feeding on kelp along the shore, along with some pretty big brown bears. Hunters are usually given a radio and told what time to meet the skiff, usually in the late afternoon.
The second option is to book a ride to an area, either by boat or plane, and camp where you plan to hunt. This option is great for the do-it-yourselfer, but requires the hunter to have a full complement of gear to get it done. In addition to their actual hunting gear, hunters need to bring a long a tent, food and a good set of nerves. Bears are notorious in deer country and the rumors you’ve heard are quite true. Bears are smart and react to rifle shots and, in my experience, to humans in general. Even as a bowhunter, I’ve had bears wander over to see what I was strapping to my pack and take me totally by surprise. If you do plan a do-it-yourselfer, make sure you’re prepared, and bring plenty of bear protection. Having a rifle is a given, but pepper spray, a bear fence and hunting with a friend is a great idea. Never, ever hunt alone in brown bear country.
The ten-foot brown bear kept coming toward us with no intention of stopping. At this point, we became officially quite concerned. But at 30 yards he decided that was far enough and just stood there, looking at us. Ten-foot brown bears are big, and at 30 yards they look even bigger. Eventually he decided we were not important and wandered off. We had a great hunt, taking several nice deer.
I have been to Kodiak several times to pursue blacktails and it has been by far one of the best hunts I have ever been on. Whichever option you choose, you will have the adventure of a lifetime.– Paul D. Atkins