By Jeff Sullivan
-- Hunting Sitka blacktail deer in Prince William Sound, Alaska, presents many challenges for a first-time deer hunter. For example, travel by boat or plane can be turbulent due to the unpredictable weather in this area. The islands have rocky shorelines, steep terrain and are inhabited by some of the world's biggest brown bears. On the positive side, the islands are loaded with blacktail deer.
Fifteen-year-old first-time deer hunter Kade Gilfillan, and his stepfather Dan Mott, joined Leon Morgan and me for a five-day hunting adventure by boat to the islands. We traveled in two boats across 70 miles of relatively calm water from the City of Valdez to the islands. The boats traveled across water inhabited by gray, humpback and killer whales along with Dall's Porpoise. The boat ride was trouble-free and three hours later we arrived. We anchored the boats in a protected bay that would hold anchor during a storm.
I would stay with the boats as vessel tender to prevent our only mode of transportation from sinking or dragging anchor. Whether or not I was in good enough shape to make the climb up the mountain is beside the point. Kade, Dan and Leon prepared for the climb up the steep 2,000-foot hillside. The goal of their mountain goat climb was to hunt the alpine meadows around the peak of the island. The deer that live in the high country feed on the lush vegetation, sleep on the hillsides and keep a constant watch for bears. The prevailing winds and year-round snow patches provide the deer with some protection from the gnats and mosquitoes.
The hunters packed their overnight gear and planned on sleeping with the deer and bears for at least one night. I had a radio on the boat and could communicate with the hunting party as a safety precaution. This area is a long way from medical services. I piloted the boat across the bay to the drop-off point. The water was shallow and rocky near shore. We kept from bending the prop and dropped off the hunters at the same time. Kade was excited once he reached shore and adjusted his heavy overnight pack on his back.
As I motored away from the rocky beach, the hunters disappeared into the thick alders that guard the Island shoreline. The hunters continued their climb up the mountain. They tangled with thick alders. Kade held his own while climbing with the two experienced hunters. After slipping on wet moss, clinging to alder branches on the steep terrain, climbing over deadfall and navigating through the old growth Sitka Spruce forest, the hunters arrived at the peak of the island four hours later.
The alpine meadows were as lush and green as Dan remembered from last year. The mountain tundra is a mixture of grasses along with alpine azalea, alpine blueberry, deer cabbage, mountain hemlock, and dwarf crowberry. The hikers were all very tired from the steep climb. They replenished their cramped muscles with water and trail mix. It was time to hunt.
Dan, Kade and Leon sat on a grassy knob and blended into the countryside while they glassed the high meadows for deer. The sun and breeze felt warm and began to dry their sweaty clothes. The first task was to find Kade a deer. The hillside's green leafy vegetation was a lush green color and waved in the breeze. The hunters glassed the countryside and realized it looked like a picture of the Emerald Green Isle of Ireland from a coffeetable book.
Leon began spotting bucks bedded down on the green hillside. The wind kept the annoying mosquitoes off the hunters and deer. Dan sized up the bucks with his spotting scope. One of the bedded bucks was a very nice blacktail that would make a fantastic first deer for Kade. The dwarf shrubs of the open alpine tundra didn't provide Kade much cover so he prepared for a 250-yard shot. Dan glassed the widest rack of the two bucks with his spotting scope. The antlers extended beyond its ears and had wide forks. Suddenly the buck stood up and started running down the hill toward a ridgeline. Kade was in a sitting position and had his scope on the running deer. Kade's shot went low as the blacktail buck bounded over the ridgeline.
The hunters gathered their gear and hiked 250 yards to the ridge the deer disappeared over. They sat down below the skyline of the ridge and started glassing again. The buck was gone. They continued glassing the hillsides when out of nowhere the three hunters saw a reflection in the grass. Another buck was bedded down in the lush green grass 150 yards away. Dan sized up the buck with his spotting scope as Leon helped Kade find a good shooting rest. Kade stretched prone out on a grassy knob next to Dan, which provided a steady rest for the shot and allowed Dan to keep Kade informed on wind, distance and sight picture.
Dan determined that this buck was bigger than the first buck. The chocolate colored velvet antlers extended well beyond the buck's ears. The big forks stood high and the eye guards were thick. The buck's reddish orange summer body color glistened in the bright sun. Kade wasted no time as he centered the crosshairs on the shoulder of the big-racked buck just as it stood up.
Dan used the rangefinder and called out the distance at 150 yards while. Kade took a deep breath and moved his finger onto the trigger. The wind was blowing in Kade's face as the buck started moving broadside to the right. He had a clear, steady, sight picture through the scope as the buck increased its speed. Dan called out the distance unchanged at 150 yards. Kade didn't show the signs of nervousness expected from a young hunter missing the first buck.
Kade was confident that the shooting range practice would pay off as his breathing momentarily halted. With an eye on the crosshairs and a clear mind, Kade's finger slowly squeezed the trigger. The booming sound and the powder smell of the .270 caliber Remington 700 was immediately carried away by the northwest wind. Dan or Leon hardly had time to size up the scene as the big orange buck tumbled to a halt on the green grassy slope. The sounds of success filled the mountain air as Dan and Leon congratulated Kade on the shot.
The three hunters gathered their packs and Kade's thoughts raced with a combination of excitement and happiness as they hiked over to the fallen deer. He had been looking forward to this hunt all year. The contrast of the bright blue sky, a lush green countryside and the shining reddish orange hair of the Sitka buck lying in the grass put smiles on their faces. Kade's first deer was a beautiful 2x2 Sitka blacktail with thick eye guards and an antler measurement of 19 3/4 inches wide. Adults who have gone on this hunt in past years complained about the weather, the bears, the climb, the cold and the lack of water much more than this 15-year-old first-time deer hunter did.
He avoided sea sickness, climbed the steep mountain with a full backpack, fought through the tangled alders, glassed the spectacular countryside, stalked a beautiful Sitka blacktail, slept with the brown bears on top of a Prince William Sound Island and was rewarded with the trophy of a lifetime.
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