Every year deer hunters in Southeast Alaska tackle the mountains early in the season to chase deer while they are in the high country. The alpine hunting season is short and weather can limit the number of days that you can actually make elevation to start chasing your quarry. Trying to line up work windows with weather windows is a challenge just about every deer hunter faces, and just because you managed to secure some time to hunt doesn’t mean that you will be able to see the top of the mountain! Just having the time to climb the mountains when the weather is good can seem a like a victory in itself.
This year I had a handful of days around opening weekend marked off on my calendar, with plans to hunt a low alpine ridge with my dad and sister in hopes of notching one of her tags on a buck, then round out my precious time chasing more bucks with a few friends as well. I had my fingers crossed that the weather would cooperate. As the opener drew near, the forecast was looking good. It was going to be sunny and hot. While this meant bucks wouldn’t be out in the open except for at dawn and at dusk, it was far easier to deal with than the driving rain, high winds, and fog that we’ve become accustomed to which can drive you off the mountain. The night before opening day we camped at the base of our chosen mountain. The next morning came quickly, and we got up before daylight, put down a little breakfast, pounded some coffee, and hit the trail. We used a route that I had established last year and made it to sub-alpine elevations just after daylight. As the sun climbed above the horizon, we worked the side of the ridge that was still in the shade.
The ridge we were hunting consisted of mostly sub-alpine vegetation with only a small section of what I would consider true alpine terrain at the top of the ridge. We were seeing some sign and worked slowly through the meadows knowing there were a few deer in the area and we might see or jump a buck at any moment. We knew that as the morning carried on, our chances of catching a buck out in the open grew slimmer. We wanted to take our time and look over every likely spot, but were racing against the clock and I knew that our best chance to see a buck was up on the top.
The sun continued to climb steadily and the bugs came out in clouds. They were truly relentless, and we still had a couple more steep pitches before the top. We had yet to see a single deer and both my dad and my sister were starting to show a strong interested in turning back. For a period of time I had somewhat of a mutiny on my hands! I convinced them to reconsider since we had already come so far. I was successful in my persuasion and we carried on.
As we crested the hill just below the summit, we were rewarded with a good look at the only big alpine basin on the small mountain. It was well past daylight and I knew our chances of finding a buck weren’t getting better as the sun climbed farther into the sky. We looked over the basin and I took notice of a shady area of the alpine bowl that had no vegetation. I focused my binoculars on the patch of shade and was pleasantly surprised to find a buck bedded on the cool rock.
My sister and I took off on a short stalk that ended with her taking the fork horn. By the time we made our way over to him, the small pocket of shade he was bedded in was gone. I’m sure if we had been even 10 minutes later the buck would have headed off the hill too. We spotted him just in time. My sister worked full-time to keep the army of bugs off of me while I butchered and boned out the deer so I didn’t need a blood transfusion afterward. Yeah, they were that bad. After the buck was broken down, we loaded up the meat in our packs and headed off the hill with the relentless swarm of bugs helping us keep our quick pace.
By the time we made it to the flat ground we were pretty spent. As a group we were glad to be away from the bugs and close to a cooler full of refreshments. We took it easy for the rest of the afternoon and turned in early for a long nights rest. The next day I met up with two buddies where we regrouped and headed off to climb another mountain. We started the climb just after noon and made it to spike camp in the early evening. We had just finished setting up our tents when I glanced up the hill just in time to watch a buck stroll out and bed down.
All three of us made the stalk and I was able to take the buck myself. My partners and I boned the deer out and buried the meat in a late surviving snow-pack on the top of the ridge. It had turned into a long day and we didn’t make it into our sleeping bags until around midnight. I knew it was going to be a short night and I wasn’t at all looking forward to crawling out of my cozy bunk when I heard the zipper on the other tent signaling that it was time to start moving. I heard the zipper far too soon.
“What’s it looking like?” I asked.
“Pretty socked in.” was the response.
I relished in the thought that I would be getting a little more rest while waiting for the fog to lift. I climbed out into the pre-dawn darkness to water the lawn when I noticed that the fog was starting to lift over the ridge to our North and the first rays of sun were lighting up the hillside. Despite the strong urge to jump back in the tent, I knew that I couldn’t let myself do that. I announced that the fog looked to be lifting and before long the three of us were ready for another day of hunting the alpine elevation.
We meandered up the ridge toward the peak. I had seen some bucks in some steep chutes off of one side of the mountain on previous trips and wanted to spend some time looking them over. We were almost in position to glass when the fog rolled back in and visibility became very limited. Knowing that there’s never much use stomping around blind in the fog all day, we bundled up in all of our layers and hunkered down to wait it out. The fog didn’t soon burn off and we passed most of the day eating granola bars and napping.
The afternoon yielded to evening and we decided to start heading back towards camp. Of course the fog began to break after we decided our plans for departure, but this afforded us some last-minute glassing before heading out. We glassed for a while and were about ready to continue on our way back to camp when I spotted a buck bedded in an adjacent alpine basin across a deep ravine. He was a long way out and all I had for optics besides my rifle scope were 8 power binoculars. Still, even with the somewhat limited power binos, I could tell that we were looking at a pretty exceptional buck. With limited daylight left there wasn’t much time to waste.
My two partners took off on the stalk together. First they had to climb back to the very top of the ridge to get around the ravine that separated us from the bowl the buck was bedded in. Then they had to drop down into the basin at the right spot and use the terrain and somewhat limited brush as cover to get within shooting range. I stayed back and watched the stalk unfold through the binoculars, donating a substantial amount of my blood to the hordes of noseeums, whitesocks and mosquitos in the area. At times I watched nervously as the buck got up and re-positioned himself in his bed. At one point he bedded down facing straight toward me, resting his chin on the ground like a dog. I could see that the rack was tall and thick and not at all narrow. I savored the moment as I knew that this was what all Sitka Blacktail hunters dream about and work tirelessly to make a reality. This moment is what it’s all about. The approach worked as planned and another buck was soon to weigh down our packs as the report of the rifle sealed the deal.
I headed over to the bucks location and arrived just as my partners were finishing quartering the buck. I put together my saw and cut the massive rack off. My partners each took half of the meat and I put some of their gear in my pack. We climbed back to the top of the ridge and started toward camp for the third time that day. It was pitch black by the time we reached my meat cache. I loaded up the buck in my pack and we moved all of our meat closer to camp since we planned on heading off the hill first thing in the morning. Once again it was after midnight when we got all settled in to camp. We slept a few hours, got up and broke camp shortly after day break, and prepared to hike out. Our packs were heavy with both meat and camp as we made a slow descent. Even though we went ended up with only 2 deer for 3 hunters, nobody was complaining about the amount they were packing. We hit the road tired but satisfied. It was one of those rare trips where things worked out and we knew to be grateful for it. These trips don’t come often.
Story and photos from The Alaska Life Field Staffer Beau Dale of Ketchikan, Alaska!