Sitka blacktail deer

A Sitka blacktail deer pauses near Buskin Lake.

KODIAK — If you’re new to Kodiak and love deer hunting and venison, there’s a nice surprise in your future. But don’t feel alone if it catches you unaware. 

Kodiak’s deer season opens August 1, just a month from now!

It should reassure you that opening day catches most old timers by surprise too.

Have you sighted in your rifle?

Have you even caught your first pink salmon?

In July all of us are focused on fishing and it’s easy for deer season to sneak up on us, especially when it runs on for months. Since August deer hunting presents special challenges, why all the excitement?

One small bite of August venison is all the answer you need. It will have you packing your hunting kit, sighting in your rifle and poring over maps.  Kodiak venison is great in the first place, but there’s something special about it in August.

I’ve spent countless hours in the hills watching August deer, and I’ve found an answer that satisfies me. You can see it for yourself if you settle down and leave them undisturbed.

They spend long hours each morning wandering and feeding, but look closer.  They’re not eating grass or leaves. They’re eating wildflowers!  

They walk purposefully from plant to plant nipping off the flowers.  I can’t verify that a steady diet of sweet blossoms accounts for the difference, but along with many others I can verify that August venison is absolutely sweet. It’s the best venison I’ve eaten from anywhere in the country.

But in order to enjoy the difference, you have to prepare yourself for the rigors of an August hunt.

The list of challenges is long and the details can be tough enough to make many veteran hunters stall their seasons until October.

Dense brush and tall grass top the list at low elevations. Spotting short deer in tall grass doesn’t come easily. Yet in spite of the intervening vegetation you need to get close to distinguish bucks from does in the bucks-only early season.

Because our deer wander far and wide, it’s usually fruitless to set up a stand and wait for them to come to you. You truly need to go looking for them. Fortunately there’s a trick to it.

If you get a little above the deer, they’re easy to spot downhill from you. Their summer coats are brilliant orange and stand out from the greenery, and a little elevation lets you look down into the grass and brush rather than trying to look through it.

I happen to prefer hunting at close range, so it appeals to me to meet the deer on their own terms in the thick stuff. But many other hunters have found another way to overcome the tall vegetation in August.

They leave the tall stuff behind and climb into the high country where the alders disappear and the grass is seldom as tall as the deer. You can look up at any mountain and see where the alders end and the alpine terrain starts, but getting there is an entirely different matter. The brush line occurs at roughly 1300’ elevation with a whole lot of thick grass and brush between it and your parking place.

High country hunts have great rewards beyond the clearer views for deer. It’s like a magic world with the change in vegetation and often rocky terrain. In truth it’s more like hunting for Dall sheep than deer, the terrain is so similar.

But it’s also near-desert in the amount of water available to you. Carry lots and carry a filtration system so you can refill your containers any time you cross a water source. Kodiak is rife with the Giardia or “beaver fever” parasite, and you certainly don’t want to take chances with it. The resulting dysentery can last for weeks and rival anything you might experience in the tropics.

The weather and air temperature in the high country is also lots more variable than at sea level. Ever notice how often clouds will hug mountaintops around here?  

When you’re inside one of those clouds it’s often not simple fog. It can be rainy and windy with a sharp drop in temperature while a few hundred yards away clear skies bring warmth and gentle breezes.

It’s a good idea on high country hunts to carry an extra layer of warm clothing and a rain suit. Even if you don’t need the extra layer of insulation, the impermeable outer layer will be welcome for blocking both wind and rain.

Due to the greater distances involved up there, always pack binoculars and perhaps even a spotting scope. Remember that August is bucks-only and you need to spot horns before you shoot, much less before you walk a mile to get closer to orange deer far away.

Another fact of life is biting insects, specifically the black flies or “white sox” as they’re known locally, and no-see-ums. If you think they’re bad at sea level, just wait until you encounter them on a calm day in the high country.

Wherever you hunt in August, always be prepared for biting insects. Some folks swear by DEET, but I’ve come to love picaridin. It’s as effective as DEET without all the other problems associated with that traditional formula. If you don’t like repellents at all, then by all means pack a head net and lightweight gloves to keep the biters at bay.

Specific to deer hunting, there’s another insect to worry about too. 

Kodiak has lots of blowflies. You may not even be aware of them as you walk around, but when you drop a deer they’ll arrive in minutes and do their very best to lay eggs in your deer and spoil it with maggots.

I’ve learned never to cut the throat on a deer, which creates a great big entry point for blow flies. High powered rifles do a fine job of “bleeding out” deer, so there’s no reason at all to cut throats.

The other big entry point for blowflies is the cut you make for dressing the deer. Experience has taught me to make a minimal cut only about 6” long, just enough to get my hands inside the stretchy hide.

When I dress deer I leave the diaphragm, heart liver and lungs in place and remove only the intestines. I knot the large intestine to prevent pellet spill and leave that and the bladder in place for removal while skinning. As a final step I use a short piece of cord or boot lace to sew the incision closed before dragging out deer. It keeps out not only the blowflies, but also the dirt and vegetation along the route off the mountain

Of course dragging a deer isn’t a good idea if bears are in the vicinity and it’s a lot of extra work if long distances are involved. If you’d rather not drag your deer, by all means carry a larger pack along with plastic bags for boned out meat. Just keep an eye out for those blowflies and work quickly while butchering.

Granted I’m getting old and need the help, but even when I was younger I found great value in a walking stick on Kodiak hunts. It makes a great impromptu rifle rest in tall vegetation, while it’s invaluable for descending steep hillsides. Even in low country grass it’s a boon for feeling in front of you for the inevitable holes and tangling branches that can cause falls while forcing your way through thick grass.

I’ve accumulated quite a list of necessities haven’t I? Yet I haven’t even mentioned others like first aid kits, lunches, GPS units and even emergency radios. Since it’s August and usually warm, you’re not likely not to have enough coat pockets for storing it all.

Enter the most useful piece of gear for Kodiak deer hunts, wherever you go.

Bring along a roomy and comfortable daypack. I’ve gone through a lot of them over the years, and the most useful have turned out to be right around 1700 cubic inches. Bigger will certainly work except in the thickest brush, while smaller creates challenges in packing all your necessary gear.

Just remember to clear some freezer space before you leave home. You’ll be glad to have it once you pull the elements together and can enjoy sweet August venison.

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