Outdoors & Recreation

Hunting Alaska's Sitka Black-tail Deer

Written by
Kyle Moffat

Ive spent my share of days in the woods, bagged a few nice critters over the years, and can even share a story or two about some of the adventures that my brother and I have experienced in our youth. Despite having “field experience” under my belt, there is certainly one thing that I’m new at, and that is hunting Alaska’s Sitka Black-tail deer … and it shows. Even with a lack of experience, we decided to give it a shot anyway.

It’s not often that my wife, Nicole, and I get the opportunity to spend an extended period of time alone together without our children. What better way to spend this precious alone time than stomping through the wet, and sometimes cold, environment of Southeast Alaska, near the coastal town of Sitka? Doing a hunt like this can sound expensive, but if you take the time to plan your trip and have a few contacts along the way, it can be very affordable to travel within the state to hunt these “ghosts of the old-growth.” Combine flying with Alaska Airlines on a mileage ticket, staying in an affordable rental cabin (or cheaper yet … a tent), and getting a buddy or a water/air taxi to take you to and from your destination, I feel that these hunts can be done pretty routinely between the $500-1000 mark for two hunters. Our particular trip had us arriving in Sitka and traveling by boat to Silver Bay, where we would hike from the ocean shore to our rental cabin on Salmon Lake.

Our arrival in Sitka and the travel out to the cabin was on a particularly rare type of day in Southeast Alaska. The sun was shining and we saw fewer Xtratuf and Helly Hansen clad people than on a “normal” day. Nicole and I met up with our friend, Bill, who took us under his wing. He was able to hook us up with a ride in his skiff out to Silver Bay, where we would start our hike to the cabin. Relatively short days and long, dark nights are the order of the day for a November hunt, so staying in a cabin was, in my opinion, the only way to go for a six day trip.

Having grown up in Interior Alaska, this part of the state is fairly enchanting to me. The sheer size of the Sitka Spruce along with the large cedar and other giants living there is nothing short of astonishing, and it never seems to get old. Wandering the moss-covered old-growth forests feels like you’re walking onto the set of a feature film or something. We got to the Salmon Lake cabin, unpacked our packs, got situated, and headed out for a quick evening trail-scout. Since the light was quickly waning, we returned to the cabin and retired for the evening, eager for the next day’s hunt. 

The clear and cloudless night meant we woke up to a very heavy frost and began our wander in the wilderness. Fresh brown-bear sign was immediately spotted just a short ways from the cabin site, and with brown-bear tags in our pockets as well, we wouldn’t have disdained meeting one on the trail as we normally would have! The deer sign was also very fresh and we followed many sets of tracks criss-crossing over more game-trail systems than you could shake a stick at. I had high hopes that slow-hunting this area would produce some good deer sightings. Day one was the first proof of the aforementioned “newbie deer hunter” comment.

You would think that coming back to the cabin and doing our “chores” would burn up quite a bit of an evening. Splitting wood for the stove, filtering water, making and cleaning up dinner, unpacking wet gear to hang and dry, and other various camp activities seemed to go quicker than normal. By about 7:30, we’d find ourselves sitting in front of the stove, staring into the fire, soaking in the warmth, and letting our minds wander until we decided to turn in each evening.

Days two through four seemed to find us in a pattern of getting up, slow-hunting through the surrounding areas, about eight miles per day, and coming back to the cabin wet from rain, but enjoying ourselves. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit discouraged at the lack of deer sightings when taking into account the sign that we were seeing. Some of my friends, local to the area, who I would consider “pros” at this deer-hunting gig, said that the deer were likely in the thick brush this time of year. I had worked some really promising drainage areas, some natural choke points through muskeg fields, and other seemingly good hunting spots to no avail. Since this was far different than the “spot and stalk” hunting that I am accustomed to, I think that I might need a few more trips under my belt to get a better feel for Sitka Black-tail deer hunting tactics. Either that, or drag a few of these “pros” along with me another time!

Nicole had been nursing a knee injury during this trip, so we decided to cut the hunting time to just five days and enjoy a day of wandering around the town of Sitka. We called Bill on the satellite phone and made plans for him to motor over and pick us up. We met up with Bill and a few other guys who were going to be spending some time in the Salmon Lake area that morning, so we planned to meet back up with them at the boat a short time later. We decided to make a last-ditch effort at deer hunting between the lake and the ocean. A short ways from where we parted ways with the guys, we broke off of the main trail onto a creek-bed that had a pretty well defined game-trail running up a ridge in-between two very promising old-growth valleys interspersed with berry bushes. We stopped at a great look-out and I was busy taking some photos when Nicole exploded with quiet excitement. It was pretty obvious she’d spotted what we had come for! Less than 100 yards up the valley she had seen a deer and we decided that the chase was on! Slowly but surely we made our way farther up the ridge-line to hopefully cut this elusive critter off. We split up our efforts and made a push up the hill and met back up at the top. Down on our luck, again, we wondered where it could’ve gone but knew it was a long-shot to see it. Nicole made mention that it was about time to head back to the boat. I told her we would make our way for another five minutes and then begin to head back down. Not two minutes later, after clambering over the umpteenth downed log, there it was, frozen in the brush, doing an excellent job of hiding … but it was seen. Ear plugs in, rifle readied, I pressed the trigger on the Forbes and after five days and about forty miles of hiking, we had our deer! Though small and somewhat anticlimactic, we weren’t going home skunked!

Laden with rifles and a boat-load of gear, Nicole followed me down the hill, with the little buck slung over my shoulders, where we met up with Bill and the other guys. They congratulated us on our success and made a few obligatory quips about the diminutive size of our catch, all in good fun. We quickly made it back to Bill’s place where we got cleaned up, and then we headed to Sitka for “fifty cent wing night” at the local eatery called “The Pub” (if you’re ever there on a Thursday, definitely drop in). After “The Pub” we checked into a hotel with a bunch of gear and a deer for the freezer.

Hunting in Alaska never guarantees success, but if you put enough time in, you just might get lucky, like we did. I don’t think this will be our last trip to Southeast Alaska, and I feel a “redemption trip” is already in the works. Taking advantage of hunting different areas of this state (even on a shoestring) is definitely worthwhile. We came home with a few pounds of venison, way too many photos, and a memorable husband and wife trip that we won’t soon forget. It’s easy to love Alaska, and the variety of terrain, activities, people, and things to do make it even more attractive. This won’t be the last time we travel to Sitka. It’s quite the place.

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Hunting Alaska's Sitka Black-tail Deer

Outdoors & Recreation

Author

Kyle Moffat

Ive spent my share of days in the woods, bagged a few nice critters over the years, and can even share a story or two about some of the adventures that my brother and I have experienced in our youth. Despite having “field experience” under my belt, there is certainly one thing that I’m new at, and that is hunting Alaska’s Sitka Black-tail deer … and it shows. Even with a lack of experience, we decided to give it a shot anyway.

It’s not often that my wife, Nicole, and I get the opportunity to spend an extended period of time alone together without our children. What better way to spend this precious alone time than stomping through the wet, and sometimes cold, environment of Southeast Alaska, near the coastal town of Sitka? Doing a hunt like this can sound expensive, but if you take the time to plan your trip and have a few contacts along the way, it can be very affordable to travel within the state to hunt these “ghosts of the old-growth.” Combine flying with Alaska Airlines on a mileage ticket, staying in an affordable rental cabin (or cheaper yet … a tent), and getting a buddy or a water/air taxi to take you to and from your destination, I feel that these hunts can be done pretty routinely between the $500-1000 mark for two hunters. Our particular trip had us arriving in Sitka and traveling by boat to Silver Bay, where we would hike from the ocean shore to our rental cabin on Salmon Lake.

Our arrival in Sitka and the travel out to the cabin was on a particularly rare type of day in Southeast Alaska. The sun was shining and we saw fewer Xtratuf and Helly Hansen clad people than on a “normal” day. Nicole and I met up with our friend, Bill, who took us under his wing. He was able to hook us up with a ride in his skiff out to Silver Bay, where we would start our hike to the cabin. Relatively short days and long, dark nights are the order of the day for a November hunt, so staying in a cabin was, in my opinion, the only way to go for a six day trip.

Having grown up in Interior Alaska, this part of the state is fairly enchanting to me. The sheer size of the Sitka Spruce along with the large cedar and other giants living there is nothing short of astonishing, and it never seems to get old. Wandering the moss-covered old-growth forests feels like you’re walking onto the set of a feature film or something. We got to the Salmon Lake cabin, unpacked our packs, got situated, and headed out for a quick evening trail-scout. Since the light was quickly waning, we returned to the cabin and retired for the evening, eager for the next day’s hunt. 

The clear and cloudless night meant we woke up to a very heavy frost and began our wander in the wilderness. Fresh brown-bear sign was immediately spotted just a short ways from the cabin site, and with brown-bear tags in our pockets as well, we wouldn’t have disdained meeting one on the trail as we normally would have! The deer sign was also very fresh and we followed many sets of tracks criss-crossing over more game-trail systems than you could shake a stick at. I had high hopes that slow-hunting this area would produce some good deer sightings. Day one was the first proof of the aforementioned “newbie deer hunter” comment.

You would think that coming back to the cabin and doing our “chores” would burn up quite a bit of an evening. Splitting wood for the stove, filtering water, making and cleaning up dinner, unpacking wet gear to hang and dry, and other various camp activities seemed to go quicker than normal. By about 7:30, we’d find ourselves sitting in front of the stove, staring into the fire, soaking in the warmth, and letting our minds wander until we decided to turn in each evening.

Days two through four seemed to find us in a pattern of getting up, slow-hunting through the surrounding areas, about eight miles per day, and coming back to the cabin wet from rain, but enjoying ourselves. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit discouraged at the lack of deer sightings when taking into account the sign that we were seeing. Some of my friends, local to the area, who I would consider “pros” at this deer-hunting gig, said that the deer were likely in the thick brush this time of year. I had worked some really promising drainage areas, some natural choke points through muskeg fields, and other seemingly good hunting spots to no avail. Since this was far different than the “spot and stalk” hunting that I am accustomed to, I think that I might need a few more trips under my belt to get a better feel for Sitka Black-tail deer hunting tactics. Either that, or drag a few of these “pros” along with me another time!

Nicole had been nursing a knee injury during this trip, so we decided to cut the hunting time to just five days and enjoy a day of wandering around the town of Sitka. We called Bill on the satellite phone and made plans for him to motor over and pick us up. We met up with Bill and a few other guys who were going to be spending some time in the Salmon Lake area that morning, so we planned to meet back up with them at the boat a short time later. We decided to make a last-ditch effort at deer hunting between the lake and the ocean. A short ways from where we parted ways with the guys, we broke off of the main trail onto a creek-bed that had a pretty well defined game-trail running up a ridge in-between two very promising old-growth valleys interspersed with berry bushes. We stopped at a great look-out and I was busy taking some photos when Nicole exploded with quiet excitement. It was pretty obvious she’d spotted what we had come for! Less than 100 yards up the valley she had seen a deer and we decided that the chase was on! Slowly but surely we made our way farther up the ridge-line to hopefully cut this elusive critter off. We split up our efforts and made a push up the hill and met back up at the top. Down on our luck, again, we wondered where it could’ve gone but knew it was a long-shot to see it. Nicole made mention that it was about time to head back to the boat. I told her we would make our way for another five minutes and then begin to head back down. Not two minutes later, after clambering over the umpteenth downed log, there it was, frozen in the brush, doing an excellent job of hiding … but it was seen. Ear plugs in, rifle readied, I pressed the trigger on the Forbes and after five days and about forty miles of hiking, we had our deer! Though small and somewhat anticlimactic, we weren’t going home skunked!

Laden with rifles and a boat-load of gear, Nicole followed me down the hill, with the little buck slung over my shoulders, where we met up with Bill and the other guys. They congratulated us on our success and made a few obligatory quips about the diminutive size of our catch, all in good fun. We quickly made it back to Bill’s place where we got cleaned up, and then we headed to Sitka for “fifty cent wing night” at the local eatery called “The Pub” (if you’re ever there on a Thursday, definitely drop in). After “The Pub” we checked into a hotel with a bunch of gear and a deer for the freezer.

Hunting in Alaska never guarantees success, but if you put enough time in, you just might get lucky, like we did. I don’t think this will be our last trip to Southeast Alaska, and I feel a “redemption trip” is already in the works. Taking advantage of hunting different areas of this state (even on a shoestring) is definitely worthwhile. We came home with a few pounds of venison, way too many photos, and a memorable husband and wife trip that we won’t soon forget. It’s easy to love Alaska, and the variety of terrain, activities, people, and things to do make it even more attractive. This won’t be the last time we travel to Sitka. It’s quite the place.

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