Hunting The Sitka Black-tailed Deer On Kodiak Island

Deer aren’t animals that hunters in the “Lower 48” think of when they think of Alaska.  For sure they weren’t the animals I was thinking of when I arrived back in the 60’S.  I didn’t give them a thought until the early 2000’s, but after hunting them over the last ten years I find that hunting deer on Kodiak is a blast.  Many thanks to Paul Chervenak and Dana Bertolini for getting me fired up over these little guys.  Also to Rolan and Jo of Sea Hawk Air for the great flying service they have always provided over the last nine years.  You can also go to my hunting video page and watch the deer hunting video for more detailed photos of the hunts.  Follow along with me, my family and my friends on some special deer hunts.

Rolan in the Sea Hawk Air beaver.

Rolan in the Sea Hawk Air beaver.

As an Alaskan hunting guide I spent about 100 days a year in the field.  That didn’t allow me to do much hunting for myself.  I usually got back into town mid to late October.  I often thought about going deer hunting but just couldn’t bring myself to leave just a week or so after getting home.  I had many things to catch up on both for the business and my home life.

After I retired from guiding that all changed.  In prior discussions with our guides, EJ Hiett and Paul Chervenak, I found out their preferences on hunting the Sitka Black-tailed deer such as, the best ways and the best areas to hunt.  Paul lived and guided for deer on Kodiak Island, so naturally that was his first choice.  The small Sitka Black-tailed deer were transplanted to Kodiak back in 1924 through 1934 and now have a good population.  I had also talked to my good friend Dana Bertolini.  Dana had hunted deer on Kodiak for close to 20 years.  With their input I was now ready to plan my first deer hunt on Kodiak.

I contacted my oldest hunting buddy Ron Watts to see if he would like to go with me.  He jumped at the chance.  I told him I would look into the best place to go and would take care of all the arrangements.  At that time I was still on the APHA Board of Directors and at one of our board meetings I was talking about going on a deer hunt.  Rob Holt, guide and board member, offered to drop us off with a small skiff out of Old Harbor.  Old Harbor is a small fishing community on Kodiak Island.  Rob had been raised there.  That meant tent camping in November.  I was up for that, but when I gave Paul Chervenak a call he said I was welcome to use his cabin in Zachar Bay.  Well, tent camp or cabin, go figure.  We chose the cabin and I made plans to fly into the town of Kodiak, then on to Zacher Bay with Island Air, a small flying service on Kodiak.

Ron with our first Sitka Black-tailed deer in Zacher Bay.

Ron with our first Sitka Black-tailed deer in Zacher Bay.

When we arrived in Kodiak Paul met us at Island Air with three sets of antlers.  He wanted to show us what to look for when judging deer.  He also wanted to tell us that he had some other friends using his cabins that may or may not be hunting.  There was a main cabin with all the comforts of home and two or three small cabins for sleeping.   I told him we had brought everything we would need except a tent so just staying in one of the small cabins would be great. 

When we arrived we met his other guests.  They said they were just there hanging out and we were welcome to stay in the main cabin.  One of the guys was a chef that worked in Anchorage.  He told us he   had brought enough food for an army and invited us to eat with them.  I told them that we might take them up on that every now and then but would just stay in one of the small cabins.  That evening another friend of Paul’s from Kodiak showed up in his own plane to work on his cabin across the bay.  He offered to drop us off at the head of the bay using a small skiff the next morning.  That night we ate roasted pork loin with all the trimmings with the gang.  It couldn’t get any better than that. 

The next morning we got dropped off right about dawn.  It was low tide and we were walking up the tide affected creek bottom and spotted a nice buck.  We looked him over.  He was a wide 3x3 with good G-4s.  I told Ron I thought he should take him.  He was less than 200 yards away and the 180 grain bullet from Ron’s .300 Weatherby put him down.  He turned out to be a really nice deer, the best we saw the whole week.  We hunted hard the rest of that day and the rest of the week.  We didn’t see another buck until the last hunting day.  We climbed about 2000 feet through the alder and raspberry bushes into a large snow covered valley.  There we spotted about ten bucks and I shot the largest one in the group.  He wasn’t even close to the size of Ron’s.  We had a great time on that hunt and really enjoyed the cabin but knew we had to do something different if we were going to kill some big deer.

That was a real learning experience for both Ron and me.  The main problem was that year was a low deer population year.  I know now that you need at least three mild winters to have a good chance at a big buck.  When the island gets the deep snows, sometimes over 75% of the deer population starve to death.  It is a real sad deal.

After I got back, I had lunch with Dana and he confirmed the fact about “at least three mild winters.”  I knew the previous winter had been mild, so if I skipped next year’s hunt and the winter is mild we would have a good chance at some big bucks.  He also gave me a new location which he said was his second choice of all the areas on Kodiak.  He of course was hunting his first choice.

In 2006 Ron and I decided we would take his 12 year son, Philip, and my soon to be 12 year old grandson, Jared, and make it a family hunt.  I think the boys were really looking forward to the hunt.  I knew Ron and I were.  We scheduled the flight out of Kodiak to the south end of the island with Sea Hawk Air.  I found them to be the best flying service in Kodiak and have used them ever since.  It is a family owned business with Rolan Ruoss, the owner, being the only pilot.  As a pilot myself I always feel better personally knowing the pilot that is flying me around.

Rolan dropped us off at a perfect camp location on a small lake.  Before we even got the plane unloaded we spotted a small buck right above camp.  I loved the setting with a small creek running off the mountain about 30 yards from the tent site.  Excitement was in the air!

The first morning we awoke to passing rain showers.  We climbed about half way up the mountain behind camp to get high enough so we could spot.  The rain stopped around eleven and it was blue bird weather for the next eight days.  I don’t think I have ever been on a fall hunt with that nice of weather.

Jared, age 12, with his super 96 point B&C deer.

Jared, age 12, with his super 96 point B&C deer.

Jared getting his award for his 1st Place deer.

Jared getting his award for his 1st Place deer.

We ended up seeing over a 100 bucks.  Lots of forked horns, in fact I remember Jared looking through the spotting scope, saying over and over just another forked horn.  Philip shot a nice 3x3 the next day about a mile from camp.

Ron and Philip with their biggest deer scoring 91 B&C points.

Ron and Philip with their biggest deer scoring 91 B&C points.

I had decided I wasn’t going to shoot anything less than a 4x4 with eye-guards.  It was day four and Ron and Philip were going to hunt to the beach and back.  Jared and I were walking around the lake and I spotted a good deer on top of the mountain behind camp.  After looking at him in the spotting scope I could see that he was at least a 4x3 so we took off to see if we could get this guy.  If both G-2s were split I was going to shoot him, if not then Jared would shoot.  It took us about an hour to reach the top but once there we didn’t see the deer.  The top had some open areas with scattered patches of alder.  We spotted a few smaller bucks feeding around a larger alder patch, and then they laid down in the brush.  Jared and I found a nice little mound to block some of the wind that was blowing into our faces.  The wind was perfect if he was in the big alder patch.  After about an hour of waiting a few bucks and some does got up and started feeding.  Then a couple of the bucks started chasing the does around.  All of sudden the big buck jumped up from his alder bed to see what was going on.  He was 250 yards from us so I got a good look at him and could see he was only split on one side so I whispered to Jared to get ready.  He was going to be the shooter.  The big buck came out of the alder and started chasing some of the bucks away from the does.  They all started coming our way.  We were lying down and were about two thirds covered by the small mound that we were behind.  I said, “Get ready, he’s coming.”  As Jared was looking, a small 3x3 almost ran over top of us.  Jared thought that was the one he was to shoot, I said, “no, the big guy is coming below us following a doe.”  Once he was about 75 yards from us I whispered to Jared, “anytime you‘re ready.”  The 110 grain Nosler Partition bullet from the Winchester .243 did the job.  That was the sixth animal that my grandkids had taken with that rifle.  I had the stock cut down so it was a perfect fit for the kids.  Jared knew this was the biggest deer we had spotted and he said, “Now why did I shoot this deer.”  I told him again, “Because he was only split on one side.”  He was a beautiful deer that scored 96 B&C points.  Jared ended up taking first place in the youth category of Boondock’s Sporting Goods Big Buck contest.  He won a six hundred dollar digital camera.

Jared and me at camp with his fox skin and deer antlers.

Jared and me at camp with his fox skin and deer antlers.

I ended up shooting a very small 4x4 with eye-guards that scored 83 B&C points.  Ron and Philip shot another good 4x3 that scored 91 B&C points.  Jared also took a fox and I shot another small deer.

Ron, Jared, Philip and myself after our great hunt.

Ron, Jared, Philip and myself after our great hunt.

With the cold clear weather the lake was freezing up so we had to be picked up a day early.  Rolan had to break up the ice with his floats to get us.  What a wonderful hunt this was with great weather, good friends and my grandson.  It is one of my favorites.

Greg with his dandy deer that scored 101 B&C points,

Greg with his dandy deer that scored 101 B&C points,

What a difference a year makes.  It had been a bad winter and I changed my hunting area to be closer to where Dana was hunting.  It rained and/or snowed every day for seven days.   We only spotted one doe the first three days and then on day four during a rain storm I spotted a big buck.  My oldest grandson Greg took that deer.  It was a beautiful 4x3 that scored over 100 B&C points.  He won sixth place in Boondock’s Big Buck contest.  The prize was a $900 pistol, but they let him trade it for a Sako Tikka T3 Stainless .300 Winchester Magnum.  Another proud moment for this old grandpa.  We ended up seeing a few more bucks but nothing of any size.  Weather wise and deer numbers it was my worst deer hunt to date.

(L to R) Dan, myself and Earl with his nice buck.

(L to R) Dan, myself and Earl with his nice buck.

Over the next three years I hunted with my friends Dan and Earl twice and once with Dan and his son Jake.  Earl took a good 3x3 that scored over 90 B&C points and Jake took a good 3x3 that scored in the mid 80’s.  We had some really good hunts with some special moments but I still hadn’t seen that special deer.  It had been five years since I had killed my last deer.

Jake, Dan and myself with Jake's beautiful buck.

Jake, Dan and myself with Jake's beautiful buck.

In 2014 my son-in-law Sagen and grandson Nathan finally made it.  I was looking forward to another family hunt and I knew Sagan would have a blast.  When we arrived at Kodiak, Rolan told me the Koniag Native Corporation had just finalized their new land use policy and I couldn’t hunt the area that I had hunted the last four seasons.  He told me he knew of an area that I might like.  I panicked!  When it comes to hunts, I hate changes that I don’t make and especially changing the area that I had planned to hunt.  That is the most important part of planning a hunt.  At this time I really didn’t have a choice so we went with Rolan’s recommendation.  It was a beautiful little lake and we made a great camp spot in the alder.  After getting camp set up we still had daylight left so I thought we would look around to see if we could spot anything.  Unlike other big game species it is legal to hunt deer in Alaska the same day you fly.

My buck of a life time. Gross green score 107 5/8 B&C points.

My buck of a life time. Gross green score 107 5/8 B&C points.

There were lots of alder and we only spotted one doe.  I began to doubt this choice.  Early the next morning before dawn we were climbing a small hill behind camp and as we broke the ridge line a small forked horn was standing in the trail looking at us from 10 yards.  The next hour we saw at least 10 bucks and jumped one big guy.  We had made it to a small knoll and set the packs down.  I started glassing the surrounding area and all of a sudden a buck stepped out of the brush at 225 yards.  As my eyes settled on the buck’s antlers I immediately said, “I’m shooting this buck!!  Sagen said, “What!”  I said, “I’m shooting this buck.”  I laid my gun across my pack and squeezed the trigger.  It was a good hit and as he ran toward me I hit him again and he rolled into the draw.  Sagen was used to me saying who is going to shoot, and was surprised when I said I was going to shoot this buck.

Nathan with his super buck.  What a beautiful day.

Nathan with his super buck.  What a beautiful day.

When we found the deer the first thing I said was, “he is the prettiest deer I had ever seen and if I never shoot another one, I will die happy!”   He was a perfect 4x4 with eye-guards or as we say back east a “10 pointer.”  He gross scored 107 5/8 B&C points and netted 103.  Boone and Crockett minimum is 108.  I won second place in Boondock’s Big Buck contest.  After pictures, skinning and butchering we went back to the knob for lunch.  During lunch we spotted another nice buck about a half mile from us.  We left the first deer and spare gear by the knob and took off.   Nathan was now our shooter.  We stalked to within 275 yards but couldn’t get any closer because he was on an open hillside.  We set up my Bog Pod (commercial tri-pod) for Nathan to shoot off of.  With a slow squeeze of the trigger the deer instantly went down.  Nathan was using my .257 Ackley Improved Brown Precision rifle with a 120 grain Nosler Partition bullet.  I had been given that rifle as a tip while guiding.

Sagen with his nice 3x3.

Sagen with his nice 3x3.

When we arrived at the spot where the deer had dropped he was nowhere to be found.  As we were looking around for blood we saw him going through the brush toward the other hillside.  We spread out fighting through the alder.  I had made it through and was on the right side of Nathan and could see the deer moving across the hillside. I took a couple of off-hand shots, missing I think.  I yelled to Nathan who was now going up the hill.  Nathan found him and as the deer turned toward Nathan he finished him off.  Nathan was really excited and told us that this was really a rush.  I guess Nathan’s bullet had hit him in the spine but only paralyzed him temporarily.  He was a real heavy 4x3 that scored over 90 points.  What a wonderful memory for my grandson and especially me.  What a first day!!  Two down and one to go.  A couple days later Sagen killed a nice 3x3 and we were finished.  Another wonderful family hunt.  I will never forget it.  I can’t express enough, how much I love hunting with my grandchildren.

Another great hunt comes to an end.

Another great hunt comes to an end.

I hunted this area two more times.  In 2015 I hunted with Dan and his future son-in-law, Jonathan DiDonato.  Jonathan shot a nice 4x4 and believe it or not I shot another super deer that grossed 108 B&C but only netted 102 because of a short G-4.  He would have made the record book if the G-4 would have matched.  I had tried to get Dan to shoot it but he declined.

(L to R) Dan, Jonathan and myself with Jonathan's beautiful deer.

(L to R) Dan, Jonathan and myself with Jonathan's beautiful deer.

My second big deer.  You can see the short G-4 on the right side.

My second big deer.  You can see the short G-4 on the right side.

This year Dan went down with Jake and Jonathan a few days before we got there.  Earl and his son Brian when down with me and we all camped in the same area.  Jake and Jonathan both killed really nice bucks that scored around 90 points and Brian took a nice 4x3.  None of us old men pulled a trigger.

A first for us was we had placed Brian’s antlers in a tree, and the wind came up and blew them out of the tree and a fox carried them off.  We looked for three different days and never found them.  What a bummer.  Lots of fun times with friends and family and a hunt an old man can enjoy.  If you haven’t tried Sitka deer hunting you should give it a try.  You will have a blast, if the weather cooperates.

(L to R) Brian, Earl and myself with Brian's 4x3.  These are the antlers the fox dragged off.

(L to R) Brian, Earl and myself with Brian's 4x3.  These are the antlers the fox dragged off.