We had an incredible time last week.
My wife’s cousins visited from another state and they share our enthusiasm for the outdoors.
Rain or shine we hiked dozens of miles, drove every inch of road and boated most of Chiniak Bay with frequent stops to explore remote beaches and islands. We even chartered ATVs for a long day of back-country exploration.
We walked beaches and we ate berries in the high tundra, sweating and swatting bugs in the tall grass on the hillsides between.
Sure, we saw lots of great scenery and wildlife.
But to this longtime Kodiak brush buster, something special stood out.
We saw deer everywhere.
In four decades on this great island I can recall only one year when deer numbers approached this year’s count.
We even saw them right in town, patiently waiting for the traffic so they could cross a busy street.
In retrospect it seems at least half of them were spike bucks. We saw larger bucks here and there, too, but the spikes were everywhere.
I have no doubt that with deer season opening Aug. 1, lots of households will enjoy sweet Kodiak venison this winter.
The profusion of deer is no doubt the result of recent mild winters. I doubt there was any winter kill on the island for at least the last two winters, and the population has exploded.
But along with the deer, the conditions have been just right for an explosion of vegetation.
The grass is taller and denser than ever and the alders seem to be spreading like a plague.
Aside from the effort in walking, the vegetation presents extra challenges to hunters. Not only do you have to spot the deer, you have to make accurate shots for quick kills.
When the deer are waist high and the grass is over your head, it’s almost impossible to see them on level ground. You need folds in the terrain to put you above the deer or the deer below you. Even then you’re unlikely to see more than heads and necks while you’re in the tall grass at lower elevations.
They’re easier to spot in the short vegetation far up the mountains, but of course you have to climb all the way up there to take advantage of the easier viewing.
You also have to be patient. Really, really patient.
It takes very little of the green stuff to conceal a deer. They can be within easy range, but you have no idea they’re near unless you spook them or allow them to time to move out from behind cover.
I make a lot of hunting companions nuts with my slow pace and long waits in the hills. But as a general rule, I see lots more deer than they do because I am content to study a view for long periods while waiting for deer to slowly move out into view.
Our guests caught on quickly, though they were using cameras rather than guns.
The husband summed it up perfectly: “How in the world can you hit one of them?”
At closer range the grass and brush make it almost impossible to find a rest for your rifle, yet you have to make very precise head or neck shots.
At longer range in the low country you might be able to see the whole deer, but due to the distance they’re still small targets requiring precise shots without a rest.
Even in the high country where vegetation is low and you can find a rifle rest, you may be called on to make very long shots, because you can’t stalk closer to the deer.
Hunting on Kodiak is demanding for both hunters and their rifles.
It takes lots of practice to develop the offhand shooting skills required in the tall grass, along with a rifle that lends itself to the effort. But the same rifle also has to be capable of making very long shots from a rest in the open tundra of the high country.
It’s a little late to start practicing your offhand shooting for this year’s season. But if your rifle is set up for the job, it’s a lot easier.
Specifically the rifle needs to fit you like a glove, with the sights, whether open sights or a scope, lined up perfectly in front of your eyes the instant the rifle hits your shoulder. Quick shooting is the norm at close range, and you’ll do best if your body isn’t contorted while you do it.
If you’re using a variable-power scope, it has to have lots of field of view at the low end of its range, and the lower, the better. My favorite for example is a 1.5x5 variable, which is virtually as quick as a good peep sight down at 1.5x. I find no handicap making long shots at 5x, so it’s easy to see why I like that power range so much.
A 2x7 scope is a fair second best, even though most I’ve used have lots less field of view than my favorite down at 2x. A 3x9 falls into much the same category for me, but with a nod toward extra magnification at the high end for long shots.
Scopes that verge up to 4x at the bottom end such as a 4x10, and those with even more reach are pretty specialized tools for long shots in wide-open country. They sacrifice a lot at the low end, which can be fine if you simply don’t hunt the thick stuff.
Power at the high end of a scope’s magnification range isn’t a guarantee for successful shooting if you’re not skilled in shooting from improvised rest, however.
Almost anyone can make a long-range shot from the comfort of a bench rest, but try the same shot again with the rifle balanced precariously on a rock or a lumpy pack while your body is twisted to fit the cold wet terrain on a prone shot. In field shooting, laser accuracy in a rifle is pretty much pointless if it isn’t backed with laser-sharp skills behind it.
There’s also the dilemma of sighting in a rifle for both close shots and long shots. You likely need the help of a range finder for accurate range measurement on long shots, but you also need to be able to hit close targets with a rifle sighted in for longer ranges.
For “combination” rifles suitable in the dense lowlands and open high country, I prefer rounds that shoot at least as flat as a 30-06, and flatter is better. I sight in no higher than 3 or 4 inches high at 100 yards, which generally pushes the dead-on impact point out to a little beyond 300 yards. I know where it hits at 25, 50, 100, 200, 300 and 400 yards, so trajectory is not much concern when I also know the range.
But there’s still that nagging concern about the skills of the body behind the rifle. If I can’t do my job, the rifle can’t either.
I’ve found one cure for unsteady rifles which helps both my shooting and my movement through the hills.
I like a good walking stick, which not only helps me steer an aging body through rough terrain, but also makes an ideal rest for steadying rifles in tall vegetation.
I haven’t found a commercial version long enough for a rifle rest because I’m tall, so I made my own with a piece of stout bamboo. It’s as tall as I am, so even on uneven ground it still reaches high enough for most shots.
But the real secret is that I’ve done a lot of shooting with it, so I know how to make it work for me.
I strongly recommend something similar for your own hiking and shooting. If you settle on a commercial walking stick or a bipod, it will only work if you practice with it in thick vegetation as well as on the clear ground of the rifle range.
The 2016 deer season is more promising than ever, but seeing deer and putting venison in the freezer is still challenging in Kodiak’s rugged terrain.