Hunting Sitka Blacktail Deer: A Complete Guide
by Lon E. Lauber
If you were to shoot a quiver full of flaming arrows in my direction to make me choose only one big-game species to bowhunt for the rest of my life, I’d select Alaska’s Sitka blacktails—before I ever got singed. Here’s why.
First, this hypothetical situation has consumed countless hours of debate while enduring “marathon weather days” on wilderness hunts. Second, I’ve had the good fortune to hunt big game across North America for 39 years. I haven’t hunted everything but I have a good basis for comparisons. Third, the Sitka’s beautiful habitat, the ever-changing climate and varied hunting tactics make this species a joy to hunt. Four, hunting success is much greater with this portly deer than with most species. Success is almost eminent if you have a viable plan. With these factors in mind, here is a complete guide to hunting Sitka blacktails.
Sitka blacktail season opens in August. At this time of year, the orange-ish deer are lounging in the lush emerald alpine. Blacktail deer stand-out like fresh carrot shavings resting on a bed of lettuce. Think of an August Sitka excursion as a blue-collar sheep hunt. It’s a high mountain, spot-and-stalk affair. Yet, as a non-resident, you don’t have to hire a guide. August is “down time” for many other species. So, planning an early-season blacktail hunt may not compete with higher priority species. The weather is generally milder in August, too. Plus, most bears are down low on salmon streams at this time of year. Bumping into meat-thieving bruins is less likely.
My most bittersweet Sitka deer hunt occurred on Prince of Wales (POW) Island during a mid-August adventure. Sweat poured off our heads as South Cox and I thrashed through near-vertical rainforest all day. Once we got to the rolling alpine, the hiking was easier and hunting awesome. We glassed up 50 deer on the first day. Thirty of those were bucks!
With his usual stealth, South slithered in on an unsuspecting buck. Moments later he was tagging his first Pope and Young Sitka blacktail. While butchering this deer, I stood to stretch my aching back when I noticed another buck. He seemed curious about our activity. He was a dandy 4×4. Shortly, he lost interest and fed over a hill. I had just minutes of daylight to make a stalk. Hastily donning fleece slippers, I dropped into a fold in the tundra and scurried his way. When I peeked over the rise the deer was only 20 yards away. As I drew my bow, the buck walked closer. Curiosity doesn’t kill just cats. At 16 yards he turned broadside and hesitated, ears perked and eyes wide. He was trying to identify my camouflaged form. By then it was too late.
The next day, we each lugged 100 pounds of deer meat and gear. We were happy until I slipped and hyper-extended my knee in the slick, steep rainforest. My leg buckled like snapping the leg off a grouse. Screaming in pain, I clutched my knee. It finally happened. I’d blown out my knee in a wilderness setting. Prudently, we had a handheld aircraft radio and called for help. South lugged both his pack and then mine down the mountain for a floatplane rescue. I hobbled down through the jungle for six hours. My knee collapsed five more times. Later, I had anterior cruciate ligament replacement surgery. But that’s another story.
Regardless, whenever I admire that buck’s fuzzy, velvet-covered rack, I flinch with painful memories followed by sweet visions of alpine hunting.
Mid-September to late October can be hit or miss while hunting Sitkas. It depends on where you are and the given weather that fall. A few years ago I had a bust of a hunt on Prince of Wales during October. The deer were no longer in the alpine because hard frosts had made their forage bitter. And, the deer were not yet concentrated in their wintering grounds near the ocean. These blacktails were scattered throughout the dense rainforest and nearly impossible to find. We only saw a few deer the entire week. Also, at this time of year, bears are roaming everywhere and gorging before hibernation. So, bear encounters could be more likely during midseason.
On the other hand, I’ve had great October Sitka hunts in the open tundra of Kodiak Island. Recently, I killed my second largest Sitka during a mid-October adventure.
I’d jumped this big buck on two previous days. He was not rutting and extremely wary. I spent five hours sneaking, crawling, and climbing cliffs to remain undetected. Finally, my perseverance paid off. I was hiding in chest-deep grass at 40 yards when the buck finally let down his guard. He sauntered by at a mere nine paces. When the buck dropped his head below the grass line, I drew and shot. Upon recovery, I found a 210-pound buck that gross scored 100 7/8 inches.
Weather in Alaska during September and October can vary dramatically. It can be 70 degrees F. and sunny and calm or zero degrees and snowing sideways! On the above-mentioned hunt, I spent 8 1/2 out of 12 days tent-bound due to bad weather. There were documented, sustained winds of 55 mph and gusts to more than 70. It rained and snowed, too. Our tent poles broke and we nearly ran out of food before a plane arrived.
On any Sitka hunt, thoroughly research where the deer are during that exact timeframe. And, be prepared for all weather scenarios.
Hunting the Rut
November can be an excellent time to hunt Sitka blacktailed deer. They usually begin rutting by the first of November. Breeding usually peaks by mid-month. However, I’ve killed rutting bucks after Thanksgiving. The weather at this time of year can literally be lethal, if you are not ready. Using quality wilderness gear, and being physically and mentally prepared, is critical to enjoying this type of hunt. If you get antsy about being stranded a few extra days, don’t schedule a rut hunt. I’ve never gotten into or out of the field without delay during any of my late-season Sitka hunts. Also, during November, you still need to be cognizant of bears.
When hunting in an area with a good deer population during the rut, action can be nearly non-stop. One day in early November I saw 75 different deer, 38 were bucks and I passed up eight shots at less than 30 yards on Pope and Young-class bucks. I finally nailed a 90-inch trophy just before dark.
On another November trip, I hunted during a torrential downpour. The hurricane-like weather didn’t discourage the thick-necked, steel gray bucks from rutting. I stalked within 20 yards of two bucks locking antlers in a scrawny alder patch. After thoroughly judging their undersized mahogany colored racks, I walked away. Shortly, I intercepted a doe-chasing buck and zipped an arrow over his back. I hadn’t even found my arrow when another whopper buck wandered by. I missed him, too!
I almost tossed my bow down the mountain in disgust. These had been slam-dunk shots and there was no excuse for missing other than being human. Instead of heaving my bow, I hiked farther into the wilderness, too bull-headed to quit. By late afternoon, I was at least five miles from camp. Of course, I jumped the buck of a lifetime. He and three other bucks were hounding a doe in heat. A fight broke out. The two biggest bucks attacked each other with vicious thrusts. The stronger deer knocked the other buck off his feet and jousted his foe while he tumbled downhill and frantically skedaddled. Meanwhile, I sprinted down the tawny grass-covered hillside to close the gap. At about 100 yards I stopped. Two challenging grunts from my call brought the big boy on the run. He stopped broadside at 13 yards. Even I couldn’t miss that shot! This 5×5 gross scored 104 7/8 inches. This is my best Sitka buck to date.
I shot a couple photos as night swallowed the rain-soaked canyon. It took me six hours to butcher and pack the buck over the mountain and back to camp. Each windblown raindrop stung like a snap from a thick rubber band. Twice I stopped to pour rainwater out of my boots. When the clouds finally broke and a yellow moon painted an eerie sheen on the ocean near camp, I knew I would survive.
Late Season Hunting
In December you can hunt Sitkas when they concentrate near the beach. This is probably the least physically demanding time to hunt northern blacktails. Lots of folks use boats and or land planes on the beachfront where deer have gathered. When snow is deep, Sitkas are forced to live near shoreline and eat kelp to survive. This type of hunt can be easy pickings—if you can handle the brutal weather. However, Sitkas start dropping their antlers by Dec. 10. It’s almost like clockwork. So, if a record-book buck is important, hunt before the second week of December. The good thing about a late-season hunt is most bruins are snoozing.
The Best Options
In my opinion the last two weeks of August and the first two weeks of November are the best times to bowhunt Sitka blacktails. During these timeframes, the deer are concentrated, active and easier to find.
Alpine hunts usually required an arduous ascent to get above timberline. Backpacking is the norm. The weather is milder, yet far from ideal. It can rain for two weeks non-stop in late August anywhere Sitkas live. The meat is excellent early on. The deer aren’t as spooky because they haven’t been hunted since the previous fall. And, there’s something special about spot-and-stalk hunting in the alpine.
During the rut, Sitkas are as vulnerable to calling and rattling or more so than all other deer species. Go light on the rattling and adjust your whitetail grunt call so it’s not as deep and raspy. Also, they’re so distracted pursuing does, they can be somewhat easier to approach. I’ve even had a few blacktails walk closer after catching my scent. It seems these bucks were so desperate to breed they’d approach any potential mate! I’ve killed most of my Pope and Young Sitkas duringthe rut. However, I’ve noticed a slight rutty scent/taste to the meat from these deer. It’s very slight though because none of my dinner guests have mentioned it. You probably won’t have to do a true backpack hunt for rutting Sitkas. But brutal weather in November is the norm. BE PREPARED!
Kodiak Or Prince of Wales?
I’ve hunted these big islands several times. Normally, both have good to excellent deer populations. Either can produce trophy bucks. My gut sense is you stand a better chance of killing a true whopper on Prince of Wales Island. One reason for larger antler potential is the winters usually aren’t as deadly for the deer in southeast Alaska as they are in the Kodiak Archipelago. Plus, the jungle-like vegetation in southeast Alaska is a nightmare to traverse. I loathe the rainforest. It’s wet, thick, exhausting to walk through and you don’t see many deer. An average day on POW during an early alpine hunt should net 20-30 deer sightings. During the rut, you might only see one or two deer, perhaps a handful at best due to the thick forest environment. These factors can rapidly squelch enthusiasm. Perhaps this combination is why the bucks get bigger “down south.” One advantage to POW is that only black bears live there. Everywhere else, Sitkas live with brown and/or black bears
Due to the open terrain in many parts of Kodiak, you’re likely to see more deer. This keeps enthusiasm high. You can find plenty of places to hunt where the cover isn’t molasses-thick, yet there’s enough brush to obscure a hunter’s approach. I doubt anyone knows accurate deer per square mile data. I just know I see more deer while hunting on Kodiak. It’s reasonable to find 30 to 80 deer per day on an early or late-season hunt on Kodiak.
Other Hunting Locales
Sitka blacktail range expands from mid-British Columbia, up the coast, including most near-shore islands and north to the Kodiak Archipelago. There have been a few deer sightings as far north as the Kenai Peninsula. But, every time the deer get a foothold in southcentral Alaska, a bad winter knocks them back to more traditional and coastal/temperate habitat.
Don’t have tunnel vision when it comes to selecting a Sitka deer hunting spot. Investigate islands surrounding Kodiak and POW. Sitkas are Olympic-class swimmers. Islands 15 or 20 miles offshore are worth researching. I’ve hunted on nearby islands to both the big islands with grand success. Also, check out the “mainland” between Juneau and Ketchikan. Regardless of where you hunt there’s one axiom that has worked for me: The more costly and physically challenging the spot, the more likely you’ll find fewer hunters and bigger bucks.
First, you must put antler size into perspective when defining a “trophy” Sitka blacktail. Realize Sitkas don’t get big antlers like whitetails or mule deer. Pope and Young minimum for this species is 75 inches. Boone and Crockett’s minimum is 100 inches for their three-year awards book and 108 for the all-time book. An average mature Sitka buck will likely sport big forks with eye guards and score in the low- to mid-80s. Symmetry is uncommon. Many bucks have missing or broken tines. In 17 years of living in Alaska, I’ve never seen a Sitka buck whose antlers I thought would score 108 inches. I’ve only seen four 5x5s and I killed two of them. So, keep your trophy goals in perspective.
Keeping a Pulse on the Population
The population of Sitka blacktails in any specific location is volatile. If you charted the estimated deer numbers from Kodiak on a graph, it would look like a mountain range. Just a few years ago, the very healthy herd on Kodiak experienced a 70- to 90-percent die off (depending on specific locations). Just four years later, in places where there was 30-percent survival, the deer have bounced back quite well. The point is, “traditionally good” hunting spotsmay be lousy at any given time. Check out the current deer numbers in the exact hunting spot or you might be disappointed.
Modes of Transportation
There are a few spots where you can drive a vehicle to access Sitka habitat. However, for the best hunting, I recommend flying or backpacking. One option you shouldn’t overlook is hiring a fishing vessel to access remote bays. Here, you motor ashore each day via skiff. At night you sleep in a warm bunk onboard the SS Big Buck and eat crab and halibut for dinner. If motion sickness concerns you don’t go this route. The same nasty weather that keeps planes grounded can make boat hunting a chunk-blowing experience! Also, I’ve made successful rafting trips down small rivers into untouched deer country.
Regardless of when and where you hunt, be thoroughly prepared, physically, mentally and with the right gear. Then, you can have a wonderful hunt for a very special deer species.
Outdoor author and photographer Lon E. Lauber has been hunting Alaska for two decades. He is a contributing editor for Hunt Alaska.