With gorgeous weather in the forecast, our plan for this day was to hike as far as we dared and attempt to explore a saddle roughly 3 miles north of camp. If we could navigate the terrain to the saddle, that would open up a plethora of other easily accessible options that all looked to be great looking deer habitat. We got a good early start but the going was much slower than we had anticipated. Navigating the spongy tundra was a time suck and going any higher on the hill put us into a never-ending alder tangle. With no real great alternatives, we alternated between the two whenever a good clear bear trail appeared on the tundra or when we could spot a gap in the alder thicket that looked like easier going.
Staying in the valley, the terrain was flat for several miles and we were continually glassing up new groups of deer once we got a mile and a half from camp. Nearly all the deer were high on the surrounding mountains, but the spotting scope was again paying huge dividends by being able to field judge animals at a mile or more distant and save countless potentially wasted steps.
Mid-morning and we were still making progress up valley. Eventually we had the choice of continuing in the valley floor and swinging towards the west to explore more country but from a lower vantage. On the other hand, our original plan was to scale the mountain facing us and explore up through the saddle and into the adjacent high country. One look west made that decision instantaneously. Bears!
They were a loonnngg ways away and that was a good thing. Enjoying our first Kodiak brown bear encounter from a healthy distance, we set up the spotting scope and spent the next hour taking turns watching the bears’ antics. There were 3 cubs and a big blonde sow spending on the steep creek bank in the bottom of the valley. For the most part, the sow spent her time lounged in the grass, but the cubs were anything but inactive. Climbing on mom, tackling siblings from behind, lying on their backs eating vegetation, tucking into a ball and rolling down the steep bank, they were simply having a big good time.
I decided to include a brief passage from the book I read during our adventure “Monarch of Deadman’s Bay” at this point of the story.
“The ten-ounce cub that had been born seven years earlier was a Kodiak brown bear from the moment of his birth, specifically a member of the species Ursus middendorffi. In fact, though, he had been more the promise of a future bear, for a bear is a living, thriving collection of unique behavioral patterns, not just a structure or a collection of dimensions. Those behavioral patterns grow out of two sources, behavior learned, and behavior instinctive. The instinctive elements, those parts of an individual bear’s way of life that come to him locked as firmly in his genes as the structure of his skull or the pattern of his teeth, represent one of the natural world’s greatest mysteries, for no man can say what an instinct really is. Nor can any man truly separate a pure instinct, if there is such a thing, from a pattern of behavior that has been learned. In fact, it is probably true that since the bear is a higher animal, most of his instincts are open-ended, little more than a potential pattern of behavior or set of responses waiting to be influenced by what is learned. Since no two bears live the same life anymore than two people do, no two bears are exactly the same. Each bear is the totally unique result of common instincts uncommonly influenced by the accidents of existence. That is why no one can predict what a bear is going to do next, or explain satisfactorily why a bear has acted as he has in the past.”
Though I could easily have stayed to watch the bears for another couple hours, we had great-looking country ahead of us. Starting up in slope, we started to find a few more decent bucks lurking in the high country. Still nothing worth pursuing even though a couple were similar-sized to the bucks we had tagged the two days prior.
Sometime into the afternoon, we made a low swing underneath a large patch of alders that were relatively high on the mountainside. As the thermals pulled our scent upwards into the tangle, the thicket erupted deer out in all directions. A doe and a couple fawns bounding out and heading towards lower country, 3 small bucks climbing straight up like mountain goats, a couple more does and a medium sized buck lining out towards the saddle we were hiking towards. There were a lot of deer to sort out quickly, but none appeared to meet our standards.
Only 15 minutes later, we looked way high up on the mountain to our right and spotted another group of deer. Thinking it was one of the groups that had just spilled out of the alder thicket, we almost kept walking without giving them another close look. Thank goodness we did not keep walking!
I knew instantly this was the sort of buck that we wanted to chase. Huge, mature body and he gave me a quick side profile that allowed me to spot at least one of his forked G2s. He was standing approximately where the arrow is pointing below and had a smaller buck and 2 does by his side.
They were feeding slowly and not really covering any ground at all. Roughly 1,200 vertical feet in elevation above us, it was time to make a game plan. We decided that Dad would park it right where we were standing and keep the spotting scope trained on the buck while I made the stalk. We rehearsed hand signals for directing stalks through long-distance binocular communication and watched the deer for a few more minutes until we were satisfied they would continue feeding in the same general location.
The next 90 minutes were an excruciating climb up through the saddle and around the backside of the mountain to where I had last lost sight of the deer. Thankfully, I was able to maintain line of sight with Dad for the majority of the time, and he kept giving me the signal that the deer were in the same general location. At one point, I had closed to within 425 yards and set-up my rifle on a solid rest as soon as I was able to relocate them with my binoculars. As I thought about taking the shot, I took one last account of the wind and thought better of it. The wind was in my face blowing north, cutting straight uphill in a strong thermal pull at the deer’s location, and doing who knows what in between. I shrugged my pack and kept a low profile trying to close the distance more. The buck was bedded now and not going anywhere anytime soon.
The star marks the buck’s bedded location and the position from where I took this panoramic shot is the exact place where I finally took my shot. Distance. 60 yards.
After I decided not to take the long range shot, I had my work cut out to close the distance to where I would be able to see the buck again. At just beyond 100 yards, my sight line to the buck opened up again but I had no way to get any sort of rest. As winded as I was and with my nerves being frazzled, I decided that taking an unsupported shot would be a bad idea. Thankfully, he was bedded facing away and I could not see anything of the 3 other deer except for one pair of ears. Staying horizontal, I was able to slide across the slope until I came to a small hump that let me get a solid rest over my pack and deliver the shot. He never knew what him and he took such a serious tumble off the mountain that I was skeptical if he would still have 2 antlers when I reached his side several hundred feet below where he finally stopped rolling.
Dad and I exchanged whoops of celebration even as over 1,000 yards separated us. I took 15 minutes or so to soak up the moment and it began to sink in what had just transpired. We had spotted a world class Sitka black-tail buck in one of the wildest places on earth on one of the finest weather days you could possibly ask for on Kodiak Island, executed a difficult stalk flawlessly with the assistance of my father, my best friend and hunting buddy, and took the buck in a swift and ethical manner that did both the buck and the adventure justice. It was a dream come true on so many fronts, and boy was it sweet!
The buck was every bit as good as we judged through the spotting scope and more with heavy mass throughout, long G3 tines, both G2s forked, and his antlers only suffering minor chips due to the long fall.
I love revisiting my stated expectations for a hunt after everything has transpired. Here is what I wrote back on August 27th, 2 days before leaving Raleigh-Durham to travel to Kodiak Island on this hunt of a lifetime.
“For brevity’s sake, I’ll identify our #4 and final goal to each shoot a quality Sitka blacktail deer. We will be carrying 4 tags, but we don’t HAVE to fill all 4 to be completely successful. (Though we gladly will!!) For me personally, I’d define an ideal Sitka buck as one having dark-colored antlers with hefty mass and at least one of his fighting tines with that classic blacktail split. Past that, width, tine length, number of tines don’t really matter too much. I’m not sure how dad will define his idea of a trophy Sitka, but we’ve got patience, time, and optics to hopefully sort through a bunch of deer and find some quality bucks.”
That describes my buck to a T.
Because the whole stalk had been a mid-afternoon affair, we had tons of daylight to enjoy the moment without feeling the pressure of what would end up being our longest (not, thankfully, the most difficult) packout. That said, the thought of the sow and cubs lurking in the valley below did add an element of urgency to getting back to camp before dark.
It was all smiles as we started the descent down to the valley below, and ultimately, the long pack back to camp was bear-incident free and we beat darkness by a wide and comfortable margin. We pit-stopped several times along the way to re-tank our water bladders from a beaver pond, to dry out our soaking wet feet, to explore a huge natural mineral deposit that the local was using heavily, and to revel in the successful adventure that we had enjoyed to this point in the trip. We even managed to pick-up a super heavy Sitka shed antler lying on one of the bear trails we used to navigate the alder thickets.
When we hit camp that evening, we scrambled together some hearty meals and did our routine evening check on the Inreach communication device. The forecast made us extra appreciative for the unreal success we had enjoyed on the previous 3 days. 3 days. 3 bucks. That said, it was no time to get complacent, the actual forecast was accompanied with a text message from our pilot – “Bad weather headed your way.” When a Kodiak native says that, you should listen.