KODIAK — Only two weeks remain before the opening of the 2019 Kodiak deer season.
It’s one thing to have your rifle sighted in and your gear packed, but another altogether for newcomers to early season hunting to contend with the conditions that await.
If you doubt that, try a little scouting in the time remaining. There’s a lot of tall brush and grass out there, and the bugs can be fearsome. Worse yet, at lower elevations all that vegetation is taller than the deer you’re hoping to see.
Then there’s the issue of retrieving your deer from the field and caring for it once you get back home.
The good news is that winter deer survival has been terrific over the last couple of years and there are a whole lot of deer out there awaiting discovery. Even better news is the large number of bucks I’m seeing ahead of a bucks-only hunt.
That brings up a problem I should address first. Sorting bucks from does.
When you see a larger buck within normal shooting ranges, there’s usually little problem in making out its rack. But what about those orange spots you see on the next mountain. Are they bucks worth the long hike to reach them or merely does and fawns? I large portion of the bucks I’m seeing are spikes, and even at closer ranges it can be tough to spot spearpoints of bone between ears rather than larger racks.
That’s problematic when you encounter deer at your eye level in the lowlands. At best you’ll have only a quick glimpse of its head, and it can be difficult if not nearly impossible to distinguish short spikes.
Do your best, but while you’re stumbling around in the thick stuff, look around for places to give you a little elevation. While deer are difficult to impossible to see except at very short range in dense vegetation, they’re easy to spot when you are above them a little and looking down into the green stuff rather than through it. Better yet for spotting spikes, they also likely to be relaxed and moving slowly if at all. You’ll have lots more time to scan and decide on a shot.
All that changes once you get into the alpine high country. You can often spot deer at great distances, even on neighboring mountains. But you still need to put horns on their heads.
If you decide against a hike to the next mountain, those distant deer can provide an important clue for finding deer on your own mountain. The deer are pretty specific about choosing elevations over a broad area, and the deer close at hand are most likely to be at the same elevation and in the same terrain as distant deer. It’s a great help to be able to focus your efforts on the most productive terrain from one day to the next.
I’m acquainted with folks who “scope” deer looking for horns, or even use their rifle scopes to scan terrain in the hopes of seeing deer. I’m here to tell you that if you’re in the vicinity, it’s more than a little rude to see them doing it, looking for all the world as though they’re aiming their rifles at you.
It’s far better to carry and use binoculars for searches rather than your scope, both from the optical standpoint and for neighborly relations. The pair of lenses in binoculars help greatly when the deer are in and out of cover and you need to have a little depth of field in your view for spotting them.
Inevitably though, binoculars likely aren’t powerful enough for spotting spikes at the limits of rifle range or spotting horns on the next mountain. The problem is that as binocular power increases, it’s harder and harder to hold them steady.
This is the realm of a spotting scope. Adding one to your pack along with a tripod can add considerable weight though, if you’re not careful. I opt for a lighter spotting scope and I leave the tripod at home. It’s a small matter to use your pack or a handy limb or rock to support a spotting scope in alpine areas where you need the extra power the most.
We may picture bears merrily feeding on salmon in lowland rivers this time of year, but that’s not the case. In fact bears eat a whole lot of vegetation and it appears to be sweetest and most desirable up high this time of year. You can often watch bears moving between rivers and the high country, and especially at midday your chances of encountering one may be better in the high country than along rivers.
I’m always alert for bears, but especially so in the high country in August. They may be up there for the vegetation, but they’re not about to ignore the potential for a free meal of red meat if they happen upon you dressing out a deer or dragging one back to your vehicle.
In the first place I’m unlikely to go ahead and shoot deer if there’s a bear nearby. It’s just asking for trouble.
But when I take a deer with no bear in sight I still go about my field care quickly, as though a bear could appear at any moment. As noted in a previous column, if I’m planning to drag a deer out rather than butcher it, I dress it by removing only the intestines while leaving the diaphragm, heart, liver, lungs and bladder in place for removal when I skin it later.
When your cut is minimal for such dressing it’s easy to sew up to keep out mud, bugs and debris. But it’s also fast. I can dress a deer and be dragging it in under 5 minutes. That does a whole lot to cut the opportunity for bears to happen upon you while you’re at it. I also use a rope to drag the deer just so I can drop the rope and back away, should a bear show up suddenly to claim the prize.
If I anticipate having more than about a mile to transport a deer to my truck, I usually opt for a full-size backpack rather than a daypack, and I carry both butchering tools and supplies for protecting the meat in my pack.
With decades of butchering experience behind me I can have a deer in a pack and ready to go in under a half an hour. But that’s mostly because I reduce it only to the 4 quarters, ribs, backstrap, tenderloin, neck and head while leaving the spine behind. I’ve always been a little uncertain about requirements for leaving evidence of sex attached while butchering for transport, so I play it safe. Not only do I leave the head and horns attached to the neck, but I also leave the genitals and a patch of skin attached to one hindquarter in the course of butchering. It might or might not be overkill, but I’m more comfortable doing it that way.
The final consideration in early season hunting has more to do with a good pillow than heroic hikes and long-range shooting. It’s a recognition of the fact that deer can move through the terrain lots easier than I can, appearing and disappearing in just a few steps all along the way.
I’ve found that the best strategy on early season hunts involves a lot of patience and the willingness to pick a good vantage point for watching, then staying there. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve awakened from my customary nap after lunch to spot deer, often at close range. It’s convinced me that moving around lots pushes deer into cover or simply moves us through prime terrain long before the deer arrive. The long period of quiet without movement overcomes both issues nicely, while leaving me well rested for my return jaunt come evening.
It pays greatly to take the time to sit and watch for a while each time your movements open new vistas, even if you don’t immediately spot deer. With such uneven terrain and so much vegetation, it’s easy for deer within range to be out of sight when you first arrive at the vista.
The final point worth raising is deer care back home. The venison will be at its best and easier to butcher if it’s hung for at least 24 hours or spent the night in your refrigerator. While space will be the biggest issue in your refrigerator, blow flies will be a huge issue for hanging.
Never use cheesecloth “deer” bags for hanging deer on Kodiak, because blowflies can lay their eggs right through the mesh. By all means use “elk or moose” bags instead for the tight weave of their fabric. As long as you keep them sealed tightly shut, no blowflies can get inside to do their evil work.