Alaska Sitka Blacktail 2020

Pre-season

First time setting up game cams (2). My angles sucked, I forgot to set the date on one, but my spots weren’t terrible. Picked up some nice buck action in an area that’s great in the rut. Wonder if these guys wandered up or stayed low. Migration patterns of island deer is much different than that of Lower 48 deer.

Opening Day
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Rainy for weeks, then hot, hot, hot. Weather was supposed to break Friday evening, and rain Saturday for the opener. As long as there was enough of a ceiling, conditions might be close to ideal. Not so.
Wind was sustained at 20-25. Couple does popped, two small forkies. Scary slow given it should have been great feeding weather in the protected bowl I was glassing. Maybe I need to find a new spot. Last year the weather was hot, rain, warm. The deer popped in the morning warm after the rain and saw four bucks before 7 a.m.
Lesson: Scout new spots. Don’t always count on the honey hole.

August 3
Buck #1
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Break in the weather allowed another shot at my alpine spot. Once on top it rained and the wind picked up dropping visibility to less than 100 yards. I ended up wrapping myself in my hammock tarp (no trees in the alpine) which kept my warm while I waited things out.
Saw a forkie feed out in the bowl I was eyeing and tried to make a move down within range. Got a look at 400 yards and it was feeding with its head down so I figured it was game on. Tucked out of view and cut the range to 200, but when I popped up, he was gone. I am assuming he just fed down and out of the bowl.
On the way back to the truck, I saw a small forkie and couldn’t let him pass. Meat needs to go into the freezer.
Lesson: Don’t be too picky. If it’s really about the meat, then make it about the meat and notch a tag. 

August 10-11
Buck #2
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Abby arrived on the 7th, and the plan was to get into a new piece of alpine I had scouted for the chance at a mountain goat. We waited until she got her COVID test results back since on the form she signed it did say she was going to be quarantined at my residence. Probably wouldn’t have hurt anything to be out on a mountain, but if everyone made exceptions for themselves, no one would follow the rules. Anyway, we took my boat a few hours south of town, rode mountain bikes up an old logging road, hiked then made camp at about 1600 feet.
The route I scouted looked pretty good except for two timbered humps that we’d have to traverse on the way to the ridge that led to the alpine and 3200 foot peak.
According to the topographical lines, the first hump peaked at somewhere above 1900 the second one at just over 2300, then the broken muskeg/alpine started at 1900. So the plan was 1600 to 1900, dip below 1900, up to 2300, down to 1900 then cruise gradually to the top.
There was no 1800 line between the humps so I figured it wouldn’t be too tough of a hike down then back up again. What we found was that it was very near a 200 foot drop then incline through maddening brush. It was wet, foggy and energy sapping, so by the time we reached the top of the second hump we were already gassed, couldn’t see the mountain and had to drop to 1800 feet before starting the gradual climb to alpine.
We broke into the alpine just as the weather cleared enough to reveal bits of the bowl and peak. The bowl looked even better than I had guessed. Lush and full of texture to hold deer which would make stalks easier, provided you could spot the deer first then make a stalk. However, we were after goats which should have been high on the mountain which was now visible, but we saw no clusters of white.
By the time 2 p.m. rolled around, we had seen a few nice bucks, no goats and knowing the weather was going to worsen and we had a tough climb back to camp, I picked out a nice 2×3 and punched tag #2.
The hike back down sucked for sure, but waiting at the 4-mile mark were the mountain bikes and the Burley utility trailer I had recently purchased. We plopped the meat on it and I rode the brakes back to the boat.
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Lesson: Never think it will be as easy as you assume based on a scout. If you haven’t seen it, you haven’t seen it. That will prevent being beaten down by a worse hike than you thought. Figure it will be harder, brushier and nastier than you expect. It’s southeast Alaska. Duh. 


SEPTEMBER

 

September 5-6
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September is supposed to be the transition month when the deer move down, and it is, but after a month of rain the weekend was hot and sunny. My buddy Dave and I spotted a few deer up high under a rock cliff. There weren’t a lot of deer but we did see half a dozen bucks in the morning just after the fog burned off. However, all of the deer had shed their bright orange fur and replaced it with the thicker, gray fur that made them much more difficult to glass.

September 18-19

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Well, if it’s still sunny and the vegetation isn’t totally brown and dead, maybe deer are still up top? They might be, but we didn’t see any. There was a little foot traffic and some wolf sign on the mountain where I proposed to Abby, but I did find a much better route to the top. There were some tracks and some sign at the 2500 foot mark. Makes me think that it’s daylight and food that dictates when deer really move down. That, and wolves.

OCTOBER/NOVEMBER

The later in October the better with Halloween being a date that is circled for many. I’ve had great luck the day before, of, and after Halloween. This year I took notice of the barometric pressure and the weekend of Halloween the pressure was above 30 which apparently is key for whitetails. I haven’t heard much about hunters using pressure as a way to choose days or key in on, probably because the populations are so strong and the rut is ramping up.

I saw three bucks during the weekend and missed 2 with my bow. The first issue was ranging. I guessed which is stupid. When hunting with a bow, range the animal unless you’re posting up and have ranged trees, rocks, etc. To hunt without a range finder seems unnecessarily minimalist. Or as if you want to sound minimalist and confident by cutting ounces where you really shouldn’t because bad shots on animals could be the result. Anyway, I didn’t range because the buck had already moved once. I guessed 30 it was 40, but that didn’t matter because I dropped my bow the instant I hit the release which dropped my arrow to its feet. Follow through every time by holding the bow up every single time after ranging the animal to get an accurate, ethical distance every single time. So I missed.

The second shot was after four hours out in the rain. I had my face zipped up as much as possible and I fouled up my anchor and shot left. Two clean misses, thank goodness. I didn’t have to learn those lessons at the expense of an animal that either died slowly, or didn’t die, but had to suffer a gash while trying to breed.

A lot of people depend on the call this time of year, and stroll up to the side of a muskeg, call, wait, then move on. I hunt in a pretty high pressure area, so I only occasionally call. Instead I depend on being slow and quiet and work the edges of muskegs. There is almost always a trail that’s in the transition just off the edge of the muskeg and if it’s quiet, I’ll choose that. It provides cover and I can see out into the muskeg and in that great bedding habitat on the edge.

I have also found that land borders that are cut by the Forest Service are great escape points for deer. It’s a pre-cut trail that allows for extended escapes. The image below is over a border of National Forest and State Forest. The border is cut and all three bucks I saw were within 20 yards of the border. This of course could be coincidence but it does provide a plan and a focused plan means a focused hunter.

The top buck is the one I missed on Oct. 31. The middle buck is one I didn’t get a shot at and the lowest buck is where I ranged, but missed the buck at 42 yards on Nov. 1. This section of a little over a half mile in length and has travel corridors moving from higher ground to the river bottom. I stopped marking rubs and beds because I would have spent the whole day looking at my phone.

The first weekend of November a buddy and I went to the lower buck spot and had a larger 3-point walk down a small brushy decline toward us at 30 yards. We had made some noise, it’s going to happen when moving through brush, as we traveled toward the timber and the creek and I caught a tail flick. We froze. It certainly knew we were there and assumed we were something interesting but we hadn’t blown the call. However its curiosity only went so far. Upon reaching the bottom and dipping behind a root wad at 15 yards, it never came into the clear directly in front of us. It turned and walked back up the rise and into the brush. My buddy called, but couldn’t stop it. We never took a shot.

The next weekend (Nov. 14) I went to the same place and waited. When nothing seemed to be moving, I used the call, and still nothing. The creek was finally low enough to cross so I did and called from the thick edge of each little muskeg. Since I was now hunting with my rifle, I didn’t feel the need to get as large a shooting lane.

I was nervous at this point because the rut was winding down. The running rut stage is when bucks are active and moving, then there is the rut when they are paired up and calling in a doe means there will likely be a buck with it, or a buck might come in expecting a doe. But once it starts to taper off, I have heard that the bucks are in recovery mode. Resting and eating instead of searching and moving.

Thanksgiving is a time many look forward to and often bucks still come to the call at this point. The rut can vary, though, by location and when rut kicks off on Prince of Wales, doesn’t mean that it’s the same in the Ketchikan or Wrangell areas. That said, you don’t have to hit it exactly right. It can just feel like you missed out. That’s how it worked out for me. After missing those three great chances early in the month, I was worried I wouldn’t get any more, and I didn’t. Patient hunters keyed in on the Thanksgiving dates and picked up nice bucks beach hunting. I wanted a few beaches and found some fresh tracks (they had been made after the high tide which had very recently dropped) but couldn’t catch up to whatever it was that made them.

Tips for hunting Sitka blacktail deer in the rut:
Put in time. People always go out and get a buck just after sunrise. But many shoot them in the middle of the day too. Plan on being out for awhile. The days are short, but dress warm and bring a headlamp just in case.
Pay attention to the edges of muskegs. Muskegs are the best places to shoot a buck, but they might not be the best place to find one.
Mix it up. I didn’t have success with a grunt or rattle, but switching it up rather than just using a call might be the key especially in high traffic areas. It’s hard to find a deer that won’t at least stop after hearing a call. One that takes off is either positive it knows you’re not a deer, or has been fooled before.
Game cameras are fun. Rubs can tell you if bucks are around, but game cameras can tell you the caliber of buck and give you insight into the time. This was my first year putting our game cameras and below are some shots. The largest buck was in a low area in September. Hunters from the lower 48 are used to deer migrations that could be miles across different types of terrain as the weather changes. But there’s no reason for some bucks to leave areas you find them in rut. Alpine is my favorite way to hunt blacktail, but that doesn’t mean that that’s the only place to find big bucks. Of course, trying to sneak your way through some of that thick brush around muskegs when a buck isn’t curious enough to stick around or compromised enough to come to a call, isn’t easy in the early season.

Digital Camera
Digital Camera
Digital Camera
Digital Camera
Digital Camera