Live Hunt Alaska: Blacktail Hunting on Afognak Island

I've heard a lot of people say that they live in a sportsman's paradise, but if I were a betting man I would say they have never been to Afognak Island. Part of the Kodiak Islands, Afognak is just northeast of Kodiak itself, and is one of the coolest places in Alaska. I headed out to spend Thanksgiving week with my buddies Luke and Josh Randall who run Afognak Wilderness Lodge, and it was one for the books.
As is usually the case, the action started as soon as I arrived. Right after getting unpacked, we took a cruise around the bay while waiting to pick up a couple guests who had been dropped off in the morning to hunt deer. I spotted this red fox on one of the first beaches we checked out.
As we pulled up towards the beach and cut the motor, the fox sat down at the edge of the woods, giving us the look over. We drifted in on the tide towards the beach, and when I was sure of my shot, I squeezed off the trigger of the .17HMR. He rocked, then took off through the trees and Luke hammered him again.
We couldn't find my bullet hole until we opened his mouth. Apparently my shot had somehow managed to hit him right in the kisser. This was a beautiful fox, and a huge one by most standards--he weighed 21pounds! The largest one anybody could remember taking was a 31-pound silver fox that one of the lodge employees, Garret, caught last year. The foxes here have a pretty good life, with a seemingly unlimited food supply.
Cruising back by the lodge, we spotted another gorgeous red on a small island right next to the lodge. This fox was off-limits, however. It is one of two "pet" foxes that have amnesty at the lodge and are a welcome sight. They live on this island and swim across the channel every day to pick through the beaches for food.
We soon located his mate, Foxy, in the trees above the beach. She's a beautiful cross fox. The foxed on Afognak and Kodiak are descended from fur farm foxes that were turned loose years back when the market crashed. Cross and silver fox are much more common here than in the rest of Alaska.
During my trip to the island over the Fourth of July, we were feeding Foxy marshmallows by hand. Garret told us that recently he was squatting down setting an otter trap, and when he turned around Foxy was sitting 10 feet behind him just watching contently.
The next morning we were out on the prowl for deer, and as we rode into a small bay, glassing the beaches, we saw a huge brown bear. As soon as he saw us, he was out of there, and we cruised over to see just how big he was. By the size of his tracks, he looked to be about 9'6" and he looked like a Volkswagen with legs!
We soon saw that the bucks were rutting hard. This large buck was hounding the heck out of this doe. He was oblivious as we closed the distance and one of the guests at the lodge, Kevin, got his rifle ready on the bow.
As we shut off the motors and drifted into the beach, the buck was completely preoccupied with chasing the doe around in circles. Both deer then left the beach, climbing up the hill directly behind them in this picture. Kevin has some trouble finding the deer in his scope as he walked through the trees, but once he did he put the hammer down and had a beautiful blacktail.
This was a dandy buck. Many Sitka blacktail deer only develop 3 x 3 antlers like this. Occasionally you'll find one with back forks like a mule deer, but this one is hard to beat.
We spent most of the week hunting out of the Vantage. If you read or watched the accounts of my trip to Afognak this summer, you saw that this thing is a killer fishing boat. It's also a landing craft, and a total hunting machine. Luke and Josh helped build this boat to perfectly suit their style of hunting on Afognak. It's very comfortable, and the ramp makes beach drop offs a breeze.
With more than a foot of fresh snow, the foxes were out in force, and I was able to take this awesome bright red fox while he was picking for food along another beach. The foxes down here have thick, almost wooly hides that are very full with great color. Our interior foxes aren't nearly as big and have finer hair. With all of the food they have to eat, these buggers are much more of an ordeal to flesh.
Later that evening while we were glassing for deer, we spotted this awesome cross fox in some rocks along the surf. Luke's buddy Josh Tobey got out and hammered him with the .223. He was shooting 50-grain Barnes Varmint Grenades and hit him right in the throat. The cross dropped like a sack of rocks and there was no nasty exit wound--all in all a perfect hide. When Josh and Luke jumped out to go pick him up they neglected to bring a rifle, and a beautiful silver fox popped out just 20 yards from them!
Although I never got time to do any trapping myself, Garret had some sets out already and caught this river otter. Afognak is a paradise for both foxes and otters, and like everything else they get much bigger here than they do in most places. This one was a medium-size male, but way bigger than most otters in interior Alaska.
Yet another awesome hunting opportunity on Afognak is sea ducks. Every day we would see tons of them. Here, a flock of goldeneyes spooked as we came around a corner while glassing for deer.
We found the best way to hunt the ducks was to sit in a narrow channel and wait while Luke pulled the boat around to the other side. The birds would flush and come zooming right past us. As usual, I blasted more holes in the sky than ducks, but we had a lot of fun.
Here is Josh T. with an awesome goldeneye, perfect for mounting.
I did manage to get a few ducks, including this gorgeous harlequin. We were also able to take quite a few buffleheads and old squaws, which look like a smaller, more colorful pintail.
Believe it or not, we did quite a bit of deer hunting as well. The Sitka blacktail deer is, in my opinion, the prettiest of the North American deer species. Big bucks weigh between 130 and 200 pounds, but are shorter and stockier than whitetails, almost like a miniature mule deer. They have a double white throat patch, and the bucks have a dark forehead and white down the muzzle.
On Thanksgiving day, the wind was too nasty to get to a lot of the beaches with the boat, so we hunted the woods in a secluded bay near the lodge. This is my favorite type of hunting on Afognak, and with the snow pushing deer to the lower elevations, we were sure to run into some good bucks.
This year I brought along this call in hopes that it would work on the blacktails. I remember using them with my dad for mule deer when I was a kid, and they worked like a charm, so I was optimistic. At the first spot where Josh T. and I stopped and called, we were standing on either side of a big spruce tree and within two minutes, a nice forked-horn buck came trotting in. He hung up at about 40 yards and circled downwind. I was hunting with my recurve, so I wasn't quite comfortable with the shot, and he got away unscathed. The second spot, I set up 50 yards downwind, and Josh did the calling. After about 15 minutes, a nice 3x3 came walking up the ridge right at me. He went behind some trees 10 yards away and closing, so I tried to time my draw to shoot him right after he stepped out. I was half a second too slow, though, and he busted me at 8 yards and took off.
Only about an hour later, I spotted this little forked-horned buck bedded down in a draw. I figured there was no way on Earth I would be able to sneak up on him, but Josh suggested I try, so I slowly made my way down the slippery hill through the snow. I had somehow managed to get within 20 yards, when the buck got up and started feeding. I had no shot through the brush and he busted me. Josh stopped him for a second with the call, but once again I was too slow. He took off as I loosed my arrow and it nicked his hind leg (you can see it in the picture). I made my way after him and soon saw he was acting totally normal and not spooked too badly. I got to 25 yards, and again as I shot he started moving, and I hit him in the guts. It was completely frustrating, but we were able to track him down in the snow and finish him off with the .270.
That evening, the lodge cook, Brian Cameron, had an amazing feast ready for us. All of his meals are fantastic, but this one was probably the best Thanksgiving dinner I've ever had. I have a chronic Thanksgiving habit of eating until I'm about to explode, and I'm still getting over the food coma from this meal!
The next morning we were back on the deer, and the weather had finally cleared enough for us to get into some untapped country. The hunting here is nothing short of phenomenal. I had been waiting to hit it like this for years. With a load of fresh snow, all of the bucks from the tall surrounding mountains were pushed down towards the beach, and thanks in part to the rut, they weren't nearly as spooky as normal. Our basic method was to spot bucks from a long ways out, then drift in to the beach. Two guests who were both hunting with rifles could shoot the bucks from the boat once it was no longer under power from the motors. Many of these deer rarely if ever see people, so they would often just go about their business, not knowing we posed any threat.
Although I've been down to Afognak several times, I still can't get over the overwhelming beauty of this place. This is the backside of a grassy peninsula where a brown bear chased a nice buck to us last year. There were quite a few deer on it this time, but no shooters, so we kept looking.
We soon spotted a really nice buck on one of the beaches, and one of the guests, Zeev, was first up on the trigger. Like we'd seen before, this buck was much too busy hounding a doe to pay us much attention.
As we closed in, the buck followed the doe out of the trees, and Zeev put a solid shot on him.
The buck stumbled and went down hard in the fresh snow.
This was a trophy buck, and a heck of a first Sitka for Zeev. After a few pictures, we dragged him into the boat, and headed back out to glass more beaches.
Before long we spotted another nice buck up on a hillside, and it was Zeev's buddy Wayne's turn. We pulled up and jumped out on the beach while the buck was behind some trees.
While Wayne was having trouble getting a solid rest on an awkward rock, the buck was working his way toward the trees. Just before he disappeared, I yanked that deer call out of my pocket and gave a few bleats. It turned out there was a smaller buck with the big one and they both came down the hill like they were on a string, giving Wayne time to adjust his rest and get a shot off.
We weren't sure how he hit the deer, so we charged up into the woods in case it was wounded. Wayne had made a great shot on him, though, and he was down in the first clump of trees he had run into, about 50 yards up from the beach.
This was also Wayne's first Sitka blacktail, and a fine specimen at that.
Shortly after loading Wayne's buck, we were cruising along and Josh spotted a fox. We cruised over and drifted in towards where the fox was, but he was goofing around behind a big rock. Trying to get him to stick his nose out, I started blowing on the deer bleat. I was focused on the fox, but a huge buck had run out of the woods, and Zeev wouldn't let this one go. He put the deer down with one shot.
This buck was even better than his first one, with a nice long basket of tines.
Right after Zeev dropped his buck, we were also able to get on the fox, another nice red, before he got away.
Just a couple beaches farther up the bay, Luke spotted this huge 3x2. I was up to the plate this time, and hopped off the ramp and onto the beach while the buck had his head down.
As I tried to make my way closer to the buck, he got wise and headed up the steep draw behind him. I really didn't' feel comfortable taking that shot, so I had to let him slip away. A short while later, we spotted a smaller forked buck and I tried again. I got to about 15 yards from that buck before he spotted me, but before he gave me a good shot he took off up a similar draw. I drew and was able to stop him, but I was already rattled, and whiffed the shot, shooting right under him.
I was feeling pretty dejected on the ride home. After making a bad shot on the first buck, and whiffing on this one, I was really beating myself up. When hunting with traditional bows, absolute focus and confidence is necessary, and mine was questionable to say the least. After a good night's sleep, I got up early to fling some arrows and reassure myself that I could actually shoot.
That morning we headed back into the area that we had just made it into the evening before, and there were deer everywhere! We soon spotted a really nice buck keeping watch over his harem of does. We drifted in on him, and before he was wise Wayne cracked off a shot. He hammered the deer, but he also unintentionally shot right through this log, which happened to be right over the deer's heart.
Wayne and Zeev had each gotten their two trophy deer in less than two days of hunting and couldn't have been happier with them. The day was still young, though, so back in the boat we went.
It wasn't 20 minutes before we spotted this huge buck on another beach. Once again, I hopped off the boat with my recurve. I didn't make it very far before the buck started working his way up the hill. He was about 30 yards away, but I felt confident.
Luke blew the deer call and stopped him. I made a smooth draw, focused on a spot on the buck's shoulder, and loosed the arrow.
My arrow flew perfectly and struck him perfectly. I knew the deal was done when I saw the arrow disappear into the buck's shoulder. He took off up the hill, but soon piled up, rolling down into a creek. This was the biggest blacktail I've ever killed, and to get it done with my recurve was even more special. He should easily make Pope & Young, and was one of the biggest deer of the week. A huge wave of relief hit me as we dragged the deer up onto the ramp. I had finally gotten it right, and just when it mattered the most. Hunting these deer with my recurve was a huge confidence builder. Anyone who has done it knows that it is a much different game shooting at real animals than at a target, and there's only one way to get that practice!
About a mile up the bay, we spotted this nice sow brown bear and her cub working the beach in search of deer to get them ready for hibernation.
The bears worked up to the end of the beach, and we could see that there was a doe with two fawns bedded down on the next beach, right where they were headed. They look like they are having a mama-bear-baby-bear moment, but the sow was on the hunt. She continued up the hill around some bluffs that separated the two beaches.
As she started coming down towards the beach, the deer must have heard her because they shot out of there like they were on fire. It's interesting that the deer seem stupid with people around, but they definitely know what bears are. I would guess that it's probably because these deer only see people a few times a year at most, but the bears are always after them.
At the head of the bay we spotted this nice red fox. Wayne wanted a red pretty bad, so we cruised up, and the fox was too busy digging in the rocks to notice us. We got to about 30 yards, and Wayne hammered him.
I can't get over how awesome this country is, and some of the coolest features of the scenery are the rock arches, which are pretty common. In fact, the largest rock arch in the state is only about a mile away from this one.
Another cool thing is the abundance of sea otters in the area. They came back from being hunted to near extinction in the early 1900s and now they're everywhere.
On my last full day at the lodge we were cruising around sightseeing and looking for ducks when we saw three deer jump in the water to swim back from a small island.
It's pretty common for the deer to swim between islands, but this was the first time I'd actually seen it. The doe had a fawn that was lagging behind a bit, and the self-assured buck was hot on her tail.
Unfortunately for the rut-crazed buck, Luke and Josh's nephew Kyle was needing another buck for meat, so as soon as he got out of the water, he was on his way to the freezer.
As always, my week on Afognak came to an end much too early, but it's one I'll always remember. We got about a dozen deer while I was there, including these six trophy bucks. I couldn't ask for much more in a hunt: lots of critters, and a great week with my buddies. If you're interested in quality hunting for blacktail, brown bears, fantastic ocean fishing, or just seeing an amazing place, this is the place to visit. You can find more info on their websites huntafognak.com (hunting) or afognaklodge.com (fishing/sightseeing).

Tyler Freel spent his Thanksgiving hunting blacktails and fishing on Afognak Island. Check out the photos from his incredible trip.