Bucks From a Boat: Hunting Blacktail Deer on Kodiak Island

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Ever want to hunt Alaska by yourself? Then board a boat off Kodiak Island and fight your way through alder thickets for big Sitka blacktail bucks. Your reward is solitude, breathtaking scenery and all the snow crab you can eat, caught hours earlier in the cold water of Uyak Bay. I just returned from a cold, windy, spectacular hunt on Kodiak. Here are some images from my experience.
Most Alaska adventures begin and end in a small plane. We flew this little Piper Lance from Kodiak to the little fishing village of Larson Bay on Kodiak Island's northwest shore. When we emerged from the turbulent, terrifying flight, the pilot described it as "sporty."
My home for a week was this 50-foot boat, the "Sundy." She sleeps six in below-deck berths, sports a serviceable galley and has plenty of room on the afterdeck for staging gear and cleaning deer.
The other boat in our little fleet is the "Arctic Endeavor," a 42-footer that sleeps the other half of our crew. We are eight hunters, plus the two captains and their first mates. Twelve in all. The boats are part of the fleet owned by Ninilchik Charters, which specializes in "transporter" service for hunters. The arrangement provides transportation, food and lodging for hunters, but no guiding or other help spotting, guiding, dragging or butchering animals. The transporter boat is a great, inexpensive base for a DIY hunt in Alaska.
We tie the boats together at night, a sort of North Seas party barge.
Both boats have a Zodiac raft tethered behind them. We'll board the Zodiacs to boat to shore for our daily hunts. It's fun to say "Zodiacs on Kodiak."
We generally motor together to evening anchorages in protected bays, located within an easy skiff ride to accessible shorelines.
We leave Larson Bay and its red-roofed canneries far behind and motor down the numerous fjords and islands of Kodiak.
I'm not quite prepared for the scale of the country. Kodiak's highest peaks soar to nearly 4,500 feet above the briny water at their bases. We spot dozens of mountain goats on the high, snow-clad ridges.
But we're not just sightseeing. We have deer to hunt. Kodiak Island's lower elevations are thick with the small, shy Sitka blacktails that somehow survive long winters and the island's notorious predacious brown bears. We make long hikes to get into prime blacktail habitat.
I'm pretty good at glassing wildlife, but these diminutive deer have a way of hiding in plain sight. There's a forkhorn Sitka in this photo, inside 100 yards of me. Now imagine trying to find a deer 400 yards away in thicker cover. I'm sure I missed more deer than I spotted in the jungle of alder and thorn thicket.
Even stream crossings here are opportunities for disaster. Here, my hunting companion, Cabela's Joe Arterburn, wades a swift-moving creek.
But the views from the high country are worth the climb.
We hunted hard from first light to last. We aimed to return to the beach by dark, then called the boat on a radio and asked for the skiff to pick us up.
Here, we prepare to load on a skiff at the end of a rare half-day hunt.
We got frequent reminders that we weren't the only hunters in the neighborhood. One evening, I had to hike about a half mile of beach to reach a protected bay where the skiff could pick me up. As I walked along with my headlamp, I noticed a significant pile of dung on the beach. "I didn't know there were horses on Kodiak," I remarked to my hunting companion, Cabela's Joe Arterburn. "There aren't," he deadpanned. Then I looked closer. It was the poop of brown bear, not horses.
While most of my companions filled their first tags--we each had two deer tags--with younger deer close to the beach, I was determined to hold out for an older buck. At night, Joe and I pored over maps of the island.
We took a break one day to pull crab pots. Al Henderson, our captain, had baited three pots a few days earlier. If we wanted a crab dinner, he said, he'd need help pulling pots. We were only too glad to help out.
We pulled nearly 80 crabs from those three pots, mainly tanner crabs, though the remainders were fat Dungeness crabs. Here, Mike Stock of Winchester Ammunition shows off a dandy tanner crab.
And Frank Devlin of Otis Technologies hoists a representative tanner, marketed in the Lower 48 as a snow crab. That night we ate crab until we foundered.
Then it was back to deer hunting. On a rare bluebird day, Mike Stock and I decided to hike high in hopes of encountering a bigger buck.
The plan worked like it was scripted. We spent a solid hour at the base of the mountain, glassing open slopes just below snowline. Then we started climbing. Some pitches were so steep the only way to keep from falling was to pull yourself up with rotten alder limbs. But within minutes of reaching the upper meadows, we spotted this great buck.
I killed him with a nearly straight-uphill shot. As we were climbing up to my buck, Mike spotted a second buck. We reviewed Kodiak veteran Joe Arterburn's advice--"Never shoot two bucks in one day"--just before Mike dumped his deer.
Now we had two deer down. Double the gut piles and double the hassle of dealing with a single deer. Double the neck-breaking drag nearly straight downhill through tangles of alder. But Mike and I agreed we wouldn't have traded the experience for anything. Though we were both pretty edgy about dragging fresh meat through Kodiak bear country.
Part way down the mountain, with the deer carcasses getting heavier and our energy waning, we started to regret our double-down-deer decision.
I was never so happy to see the beach. We called two skiffs to pick up our ungulate passengers.
My buck in the foreground and some handsome country in the background. I shot the deer just below snowline on the distant slope.
Meanwhile Mike and his first mate skippered back in their Zodiac. As we looked back at the slope, we spotted a huge brown bear vectoring in on our gut piles. We shut down the skiff motors and watched the bear zero in on the spot we had been standing two hours earlier. "Look where that bear's approaching," said Mike. "If we had been there, we wouldn't have seen him until he was right in our laps." Comforting thought.
Before we could return to the Sundy, we got a call from another pair of hunters, Matt Coffey and Doug Jeanneret from the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance. They had a buck down and needed our help getting it to the mother ship.
Finally, our bucks get the chance to join the other deer on the back deck of the Sundy. Later, we'll process them where they hang. The Sundy has a vacuum packer and a grinder so we can transform the Sitka into ready-to-ship venison in a single evening.
But before we butcher, we have ducks to hunt. Kodiak Island is rich with sea ducks--including plenty of goldeneyes, mergansers, buffleheads and a few oldsquaws. But I'm interested in hunting harlequin ducks.
Our first mate, Zane, takes the Zodiac to a protected bay after dropping us ducks hunters off and setting out decoys. I get three shots at harlequins, and shoot behind on each shot. My first "harley" will have to wait for a return to Kodiak.
Meanwhile, the weather turns predictably rough. We motor through heavy seas to protected bays for our last evening.
We butcher deer, gorge on crab and prepare for the next day's long pull back to Larson Bay and the arrival of our plane to Kodiak city.
Another bumpy ride puts us back in Kodiak, where we'll take scheduled aircraft back to Anchorage and then the Lower 48. I'm worn out and ready to sleep in a bed that doesn't pitch and roll with the waves. But I'm equally ready for an eventual return to Kodiak.

If you want to take a buck on Kodiak Island, you're going to have to deal with thick alders, big brown bears and steep mountains. Here's how Hunting Editor Andrew McKean did it.