Alaska Deer Hunting: the ABC Islands
from Sitka Hunting Guide,
To most people, the term "Alaskan Big Game" evokes images of bears, moose, or caribou. Lesser known Sitka black-tailed deer are often overlooked by nonresidents, but are important meat and trophy animals on the southern coast. Deer are found in Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, and the Kodiak Archipelago. They are seldom far from ocean waters and can be abundant on Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof islands. The quality of the meat is excellent, and venison is a mainstay of the diet of many coastal Alaskans. Sitka black-tails don't produce the impressive antlers sported by mule deer and rarely achieve the antler growth of trophy Columbian black- tails. To give Sitka black-tail hunters a fair chance to have their trophies recognized, the Boone and Crockett Club, Safari Club International, and Pope and Young all place the Sitka subspecies in a different category than Columbian black-tails.
Deer numbers go down when severe winters strike coastal Alaska. When herds decline, deer have a tremendous ability to repopulate the habitat and unless there is excessive predation or repeated severe winters, they soon regain high numbers. Brown bears prey on deer in Unit 4; but the deer's main predator in Southeast, the wolf, does not occur in GMU 4. Uneven-aged mature timber is essential to deer habitat quality in Southeastern Alaska. Logging old-growth forest creates problems for deer by reducing wintering habitat. The effect is not noticeable as long as winters are mild. During severe winters the problem is pronounced as deer move into small areas of standing timber, where many die when forced to compete for food.
Hunters from outside Alaska are often surprised that the buck season in Alaska begins the first of August. In August deer can be found from the seashore to the alpine, but hunting is at its best at the higher elevations. It is not unusual to see more bucks in the alpine than does or fawns. Bucks are commonly in velvet in August, but antler growth has usually slowed or stopped. Bucks rarely respond to a deer call that early, but there are enough exceptions to make it worth trying. Hunters who try alpine hunting either love it or hate it. First of all, it is tough to get into the high country. In many areas deer share the range with mountain goats, and hunters need a little of a goat's sure-footedness to climb to the hunting ground. Secondly, it can be an ordeal getting the meat down the mountain. Experienced alpine hunters do not carry or drag an entire deer down the mountain. The effort of hauling a deer over and around fallen trees is a bit more than most of us can handle. Many alpine hunters quarter a deer if it is small, or completely bone larger ones and carry the quarters or boned meat down the mountain in a back- pack. Trimming the fat and removing the bones substantially reduces the weight. Regulations require that all edible meat be taken, including the meat of the ribs and neck. State regulations require you bring out all the meat prior to retrieving trophies. Although bucks may be numerous, resist the temptation to take more than one during a trek to the high country. If you have to make more than one trip bringing the meat down, it is likely that a bear will find your extra venison while you are hauling the first load. If you must leave meat temporarily, put it in a spot where you will have an unobstructed view of the site when returning. Disturbed soil or vegetation may mean your meat has been discovered by a bear. Bears often cover a cache with soil or debris. If you find yourself in this situation, approach cautiously (but not quietly) from upwind; the bear may be resting nearby and guarding its cache. If a bear contests your ownership of the meat, don't argue. There are other deer in the woods, and game meat is not defined as property under DLP provisions. When hunting deer in brown bear country, it is always a good idea to have a rifle of at least 30-06 capability. Be alert when field dressing your deer; the odor of deer blood and organs may prove irresistible to a brown bear. Remember that it is not legal to kill a bear to defend game meat. Always hang meat and other food well away from your campsite. Scenic value alone is enough to get you hooked on alpine hunting. The view from the alpine is spectacular when the sun shines, and plant life is completely different from that at lower elevations. Some people mark their route with ribbon or flagging, but be sure you remove it on the way down. Flagging in the woods can lead other hunters astray and litters the scenery. Alpine hunting requires good physical conditioning. Bike riding, hiking, and other aerobic activities will help you prepare for the hunt and enjoy it more.
Deer calls are most effective in late fall and early winter, but remember that there is a chance of luring a bear to the call. Call where visibility is good so that you can see bears approaching and will have time to let them know that you are not a distressed fawn. Alaskan black-tailed bucks rub antlers on trees and make scrapes in the dirt just as deer in other locations. Deer often frequent beaches at low tides. Deer also use grassy meadows at the heads of bays where streams empty into the ocean. Tracking deer in the snow adds an element of excitement to the hunt. As snow deepens, deer avoid muskegs, clear-cuts, and other openings and are found in the large timber. Deer move down to lower elevations and are often seen on beaches when it snows. There they browse on shrubs and eat kelp and other sea- weed. You will often spot many deer from the water before you are able to make a successful stalk. Remember that it is illegal to shoot at big game from a boat in Southeast Alaska. On Kodiak and Afognak islands, deer may form huge herds on the beach during periods of heavy snow, but this behavior has not been observed on the ABC's. Deep snow interferes with feeding; and hungry deer are less wary and easier to kill. Some hunters say meat is poor later in the season, while others praise its quality. Whenever you kill your deer, keep the meat clean and cool to ensure the best flavor. Although a buck may be rutting and smelly in the field, careful handling of the meat and hide eliminates much of the problem. To avoid transferring the odor to the meat, avoid touching the meat of a rutting buck after handling the hide.
Winter storms often prevent boat and air travel, so be prepared to stay a couple of extra days. A light tarp, sleeping bag, and fire starting materials are essential items that you can stow in the boat or airplane. A compass and a light pack with fire starter and other basic survival items are essential. Two-way radios are great to have in an emergency, but remember it is illegal to use them to assist you in hunting.
Winter deer die-offs can be severe in one place and light in another location a few miles away. Terrain and habitat quality are major factors in deer survival. For this reason, areas with high bag limits may not have consistently high populations. Look for areas with abundant deer sign. Most hunters in Unit 4 use boats or airplanes to get to their favorite hunting ground. Hunters who live outside the area can charter a boat or airplane, and skiffs may be rented in some communities. In almost all of Unit 4, a boat is useful. Even a small inflatable raft will add a lot of mobility and enjoyment to your hunt in the ABC's.
Editor's note: The information on regulations, populations, and hunting conditions contained here are subject to change. Please consult the current Alaska Hunting Regulations for details on regulations. Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff and private sources can provide information on current populations, hunting conditions and other aspects of hunting in this area.
Links to related information:
Southeast Alaska regional hunting information
Alaska hunting guide directory listings
Search Google for hunting information on OutdoorsDirectory.com