This is a story about three Sitka blacktail bucks. All of them had close encounters with me in the second half of November 2005, and two lived to tell about it afterwards. For storytelling purposes, I have hung a nickname on each one, which pretty well encapsulates the essence of the encounter. Their true names have been discarded in order to protect the innocent.
On November 14, 2005, I flew to Anchorage, Alaska, and after overnighting there I was flown by Andrews Air Service down to the south end of Kodiak Island to begin my first serious Sitka blacktail hunt. Outfitter Scott Mileur arrived by separate aircraft only minutes after my pilot had left me alone on the beach. He was coming from his bear camp on Red Lake, some 20 miles away, where he had just concluded a successful bear hunt with another client.
Scott’s deer camp was situated on Olga Bay not far from the outlet of Silver Salmon Lake. It consisted of two roomy “Bombproof” tents (erected after our arrival), and was furnished with many accessories and much equipment stored in a permanent cache hidden nearby. While Scott set up camp, he encouraged me to hike up the hill behind us to glass for deer.
I returned to camp shortly before dark, rather pleased by what I had seen. With most of the brush knocked down by earlier fall rains and subsequent hard freezes, the deer had been easy to spot—particularly because of three or four inches of snow on the ground. I had spotted six deer, including two bucks. One, which passed quite close to me, was a big, massive forked-horn, with an especially wide rack. I could have sworn the horns were 19 to 20 inches in width, but that would have been very wide for even a California Columbia blacktail. Later in the seven-day hunt, I found myself wishing I had really made a serious effort to harvest that first, impressive two-point. No other buck I saw during the next six days had a spread anywhere close to that big boy.
While I was switching from hunting boots into some camp loafers, the smell of frying pork chops reached my nostrils, and I suddenly realized how hungry I was. Of course, I live on a see-food diet, so whenever I see food of any kind, I eat it—if given the chance. Yet, as has been remarked many times by countless others, there is just nothing like invigorating exercise in the outdoors to help a guy work up a healthy appetite. I found out that first evening that I also had a good cook in camp. Nothing fancy, but Scott definitely knew how to keep his hunter happy.
The next morning revealed that a typical, Kodiak Island overnight rain had reduced the snow to only scattered vestiges. Scott decided our first sortie together should take the form of a hike down the long side hill overlooking the east shore of Silver Salmon Lake. The lake itself had already been frozen pretty solid by a rather vicious cold spell that hit the area a week or more before my arrival. In only a few places along the shore, where little springs trickled into the lake, was there any margin of open water.
We had traveled less than a half-mile before we started seeing deer. I had brought with me a “very special,” wooden deer call, given me by my taxidermist and good friend Buzzi Cook of North Bend, Washington. It seemed to simulate the soft, high-pitched bleat of a lost fawn—or so I imagined, anyway, since I wasn’t sure I’d ever really heard one. I think Buzzi called it a “fawn-distress call.” Regardless of what it imitated, it sure seemed to produce results. Scott and I got ourselves into position beneath a batch of does feeding on the steep slope above us. We were hopeful the late rut was still in progress, and that a nice buck might be tending those does, close at hand. We figured he could be bedded nearby, but not visible from our lower vantage point.
From a prone position, we started blowing on the call, and within seconds four does came running down the hillside as fast as they could come, putting on the brakes only yards from our prostrate, camouflaged bodies. The look of puzzlement on their beautiful, highly-colored faces was downright laughable! We were possibly the first human beings this Amber Alert Brigade had ever laid eyes on. Unfortunately, they brought no buck in tow with them, so Scott and I picked ourselves up and continued on our way.
All in all, that first day, I believe we saw twenty-some deer. Not a huge number, but enough to keep things interesting and make the time pass quickly. Of those we saw, five or six were bucks (including a couple of “shooters”). However, they all seemed to spot us about the same time we spotted them, or else be traveling in the wrong direction. Consequently, a good stalk or ambush possibility never really presented itself. The next day would prove a different story.
Things turned very cold overnight, and the second morning found us testing the surface of the lake to see if we might be able to use it for getting to the country we wanted to hunt. Because of the brittle margin at the edge of the water where we first approached the lakeshore, getting out on the solid ice was a bit tricky, but the passage was made quickly, and we then discovered we could get up a “head of steam” and actually skate on our boots. With no brush and broken terrain to negotiate, this made traveling easier and swifter than I would have ever thought possible. Within 10 or 15 minutes, we had gone the entire length of the lake, which was nearly a mile-and-a-half long.
Once back on terra firma, we got into action almost immediately. Not 300 yards from the end of the lake, we found a doe and a buck very much involved in the annual mating ritual. Clearly the rut was still going strong, and we were definitely not above trying to take advantage of it! The female in estrus was still playing Ring Around the Rosie with her suitor, and Lovelorn Louie was really breathing hard. They first came into view about 100 yards from us; Scott motioned for me to hand him my deer-call and get ready to shoot.
Three bleats on the call were all it took. The doe came running, with Louie right behind her, and, as I raised my bow to draw, he caught the motion out of the corner of his eye from about 25 yards away. She continued right on past us, but he stopped instantly and stared directly at me. Standing behind the tall willow bush I’d chosen for cover, I found my aim at full draw challenged by one branch that was in the way of my target. The buck had stopped slightly uphill, quartering severely toward me, and I decided to go for the front-entry shot in the middle of the brisket. As luck would have it, when I took the one step sideways that I needed to make, he started to go into motion. I released the arrow as soon as I could, but I missed him cleanly. I had no clear impression of whether the shot passed him by high, low, left, or right. I just knew that the two, accelerating missiles had failed to connect. Thus it is, quite often, with hunting. Sometimes events unfold so fast you’re left unsure of what you saw.
I had seen enough of Louie’s antlers, nonetheless, to know he was a nice 3×3 that almost certainly would have exceeded the Pope and Young minimum score for entry into their records. Well, at least I’d had a chance at a wonderful trophy buck—and that is really all a true bowhunter ever asks for. Since the hunting gods had chosen to spare Louie’s life, I found myself hoping that he would soon get things straightened out between himself and his paramour, and in the process have the pleasure of creating another life or two! I knew if he didn’t, however, some other buck would.
Day three was the one that allowed me the opportunity to try to match my cunning, as predator, against the defensive skills of Wily Willy, the prey. The contest was a close one, but in the end, he prevailed. Scott and I had once again skated down to the end of the lake and headed inland from there. It was still quite cold, and a couple inches of fresh snow had fallen during the night, but a cheerful sun was now playing Hide-and-Seek with a few large clouds trying to bluff their way across the sky.
Scott was the first to spot Willy feeding in the bottom of a little cut about a quarter-mile above us. Scott’s spotting scope made it possible for us to see that he was not yet aware of our presence, and that he was carrying a dandy set of antlers! He appeared to be at least a big 4×3, with brow tines to boot, but one G-2 point looked as if it were trying to sprout a second G-3, as well. This was, indeed, a high, wide, and handsome rack—as Sitka bucks go. I knew I would be thrilled just to get a shot at a buck of his quality. I felt privileged even to have set eyes on him!
An hour later, we had closed the distance to less than a hundred yards, and had circled to put the wind in our favor. Willy remained slightly above us, standing in a patch of sunlight, very alert, and looking out generally in our direction, yet we still didn’t think he was wise to us. It was up to him to make the next move, since Scott and I were feeling rather pinned down in our location. While the waiting game continued, I managed to get some pretty good video footage of him with the zoom lens of my camcorder. Willy, however, seemed perfectly content to just stand there posing for an hour, looking out over the landscape below him. If the rut was affecting him in any way, we saw no sure evidence of it.
At long last, the handsome buck walked straight away from us about 30 yards, over a little hummock, and bedded down in some willow bushes with just the tips of his horns showing. Here was the chance we’d been waiting for. The brush around his chosen bed was tall enough that I figured the only possible stalking path was along the very trail he had followed to reach his “bedroom.” The slight breeze was perfect for that approach, although I knew it was not strong enough to give me much sound-cover. I also knew with certainty that Wily Willy would be bedded watching his back-trail.
As I began crawling on hands and knees the last 20 yards to the hump he had disappeared over, I became concerned about the little sounds (half-crunching, half-squeaking) that the snow was making as I moved slowly along. At one point, I started using a gloved hand to try to sweep the snow off the trail, so I wouldn’t have to compress it, but that created its own problems as I exposed twigs and dried leaves that made their own damnable, little noises. When I had almost reached the crest of the little hummock that was my only visual cover, I slowly lifted my head a bit and brought me binoculars up to my eyes. Upon refocusing them for the extremely close distance, I realized that the startling magnification was showing me a lot of brush, some sections of horn, and the top half of a deer’s face that was staring right at me. The slanted, tense posture of the head told me I could proceed no further, and that perhaps I’d already gone too far.
It was now or never. Staying as close to the ground as I could, I got an arrow on the string. In one anything-but-fluid motion, I drew while rising to my knees. In switching my feet over to the right side of the brushy trail, so that (as a left-hander) I could shoot off the right side of my body, I had unintentionally made a lot more noise than I wanted to. Somehow, the buck remained bedded. I could still only see his head and the top half of his neck. That was not enough of a target for me to shoot at from some 25 yards distant, so—while holding my draw—I struggled to rise to my feet. Never had I felt more awkward, as my boots fought with the brush and the slippery snow!
It was simply too much to expect a trophy buck like that to keep his composure any longer. Before I could again stabilize my body and my aim, Willy shot out of his nest like a rocket headed for somewhere between Saturn and Jupiter—leaving me, of course, with a saturnine look on my face, and a lump of lead in my heart. So close, but so far, I thought to myself.
Bowhunting. Murphy’s Law. Often synonyms, I mused. The prey had defeated the predator, for the umpteenth time. Naturally, big, old bucks—as the cliché goes—don’t get to be big and old by being dumb or careless. A young buck might have stayed in his bed a second or two longer, but not that buck! The more I thought about it, the more lucky I felt just to have gotten that close to such an animal.
Day four brought rain, sleet, and nasty winds: the kind of thing you normally count on for Kodiak Island in November. Day four also brought us our only bear sighting of the hunt: a sow and a cub, perhaps 400 yards distant across a broad valley. She spotted us shortly after we saw them, and the duo hurried out of sight within seconds. A couple of unsuccessful stalks on mediocre bucks (that somehow vanished into thin air, or the bad weather) consumed the dreary afternoon. We were both glad to return to camp a bit early.
That night the temperature dropped markedly, and the heavens dropped about eight inches of powder snow on top of everything around us. Day five saw witnessed a marked improvement in the weather but yielded no heart-pounding action of any kind. Day six was the last scheduled day of hunting, and morning dawned with a cloudless sky, a 15-degree bite in the air, and an almost immediate, unexpected encounter with a buck I later nicknamed Suicide Sammy.
Scott headed for the lake without me, while I tended to my early-morning “business” in the willows near camp. As I hustled to catch up, I suddenly spotted Scott below me, pointing at something with great excitement. It was a large, heavy-horned two-point (without brow tines) that was pawing through the snow and feeding his way out onto the flat in Scott’s direction.
I was still some 50 feet in elevation above the flat, and perhaps 60 yards away from the buck. He appeared amazingly nonchalant, even though Scott was in full view of him just 30 yards away. I couldn’t believe Sammy’s apparent lack of concern, but I still hurried as quietly as I could down the trail that would reunite me with my guide. The next thing I knew Scott began talking to me out loud, and the buck never even lifted his head. As I passed him by at about 25 yards, he stopped feeding just long enough to eyeball me for two seconds and then resumed his foraging.
“Why don’t you just walk over and shoot him?” Scott exclaimed.
“The thought had entered my mind,” I acknowledged. “He must have some sort of a death wish, for sure!” I added, while walking obliquely in Sammy’s general direction. I could see no sign of the animal being crippled or wounded. To the contrary, he seemed fat, sleek, and a prime example of a deer in perfect health. Here, in one of the wildest, most remote places on earth, this buck was acting as if he had just stepped out of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo! There was no explaining it!
I stopped walking at 17 yards (pacing the distance off later), drew my bow, and sent an arrow through both lungs and into the willows. This finally put an end to Sammy’s nonchalance, and he went dashing off into the willows himself—expiring quickly some 50 yards distant. All of a sudden, with the sun just coming over the horizon, I had finally taken my first Sitka blacktail buck—with a full day still in front of us, and a second deer tag now burning a hole in my pocket. Scott and I knew this handsome forked-horn would not make the Pope and Young minimums, but I didn’t care; I was very happy to have him! We both judged him to be an older buck because the antlers had considerable mass to them. After a few photographs taken in the intense apricot lighting of the new sunrise, Scott got out his butchering and skinning knives and prepared the meat for hauling back to camp upon our return that evening.
Although, as it turned out, we did see several other bucks later on that final day, no other shot opportunities materialized despite many miles of hiking. Yet the exhilarating thought for me all day long was just the very idea that I might actually have a chance to take two bucks in one day. It would have been strictly legal. It would have certainly been a first for me. And it will probably always remain a pipe dream. Yet dreaming is vital to the human condition, and dreaming is an important element of what hunting is all about. By the end of my adventure with Scott Mileur, I had fallen in love with Kodiak Island, and I knew I would someday return.
Editor’s note: This article is the forty-first of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the fortieth Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson