Story last updated at 11/28/2012 - 3:17 pm
Southeast Alaska hosts an array of accessible and eatable flora and fauna species. Sitka black-tailed deer are a commonly harvested animal in the region, upon which many residents rely as a primary food source. This is the third of a four part series focusing on the process of safely, ethically and efficiently harvesting the animals for food.
Experience is key in the game of hunting: learning how to prepare, finding the tools that work for you, and becoming more efficient, but there's a lot one can learn from talking with other hunters. Over the course of the last month I spoke with handfuls of local hunters about their tactics and advice.
When preparing for a hunt, weather is one factor many hunters consider. Greg Germain, who has been hunting in the area since he was a teenager (he's now 49), said that foul weather doesn't just make the hunt less pleasant for the hunter.
"If it's raining sideways, forget it," Germain said. "They don't want to be out in that any more than you do."
Another hunter, who would like to remain anonymous and will go by Dale, has a different observation.
"In September and October they're feeding machines, so I don't think it matters too much what the weather's doing; they'll be where the food is, they're eating, that's their program, to stock up," he said.
Steve Hill, who has a lot of experience hunting in interior Alaska but is just learning the ropes for deer hunting after he moved to Juneau, said that he's noticed that deer are often harder to find on days following clear nights.
"The deer have been out hunting all night," Hill said.
Tides are also a factor when traveling by boat. You want to tie up on a high tide, so you're not left high and dry when returning to the boat.
"If the boat's on anchor," Dale said, "I'm always nervous about it drifting away or coming off anchor. Whenever I can I like to put it on the beach, which means arrival on a high tide."
Dale also tends to find more deer activity following significant changes in the weather.
"After a big blow when things calm down, you definitely see the deer become more active," he said.
Beyond watching weather and tide patterns, a strong influence over a successful hunt is how well a hunter has prepared. This means spending time collecting appropriate gear and tools.
Steve Byers, who owns Alaska Survival Products, is well versed on preparing for hunts.
"There are three rules," he said. "First, the wilderness does not forgive. Second, the wilderness does not forgive. Third, go back to rules one and two. Basically it's dangerous out there. And the better you're prepared the better you are to have a good hunt."
Byers puts a lot of emphasis on communication. Let someone know when and where you're going, he said. He strongly recommends bringing a global phone, a GPS unit or another personal safety device that gives the hunter the ability to communicate with the Coast Guard if the need arises. Byers said such devices can send one's coordinates to a recipient, and some can be set with pre-programmed written messages that can be sent if voice communication isn't possible.
"I always look for products that can do two things, to cut down on weight," Byers said.
He packs a light tarp, a safety blanket, a Leatherman, a light, extra clothes and something to start a fire with.
"You need rope for tying and dragging out deer, and some parachute cord for your tent or something else," Byers said. "And a minor medical kit. Some band aids, a bandage, tape."
Dale said that he has a specific pack devoted to hunting. It gets bloody, smells and can be bleached. While he has different gear caches depending on if he's going on a day or multi-day hunt, in a boat or by foot, there are certain key items he always brings. They include a knife and a spare knife, which have been sharpened after their previous use, a compass, a GPS handheld unit, an emergency communication device, 10-20 feet of rope made from something that doesn't absorb much water, game bags and Ziploc bags for putting different parts of an animal into and flagging tape. The tape, he said, can be used if a shot doesn't kill the animal. The wounded animal will leave a blood trail, and the flagging tape can be used to backtrack one's trail if the hunter loses course.
"You have to be careful about not following others' flagging," he said. "People don't always clean up their flagging. You see a lot on Douglas."
Dale also said that leftover flagging can, on some occasions, be helpful. They can lead to hotspots, places hunters have flagged specifically as good deer sighting locations.
Extra everything was also on his list, extra batteries, and an extra headlamp, as well as synthetic clothing.
"I try to make sure I have enough insulation so that I could build a fire and stay warm through the night," he said.
After a dialed pack list, the particular time of hunting season is a factor many hunters consider. In August, when the season begins, the alpine is exposed and many people find greater success at the higher altitudes during this time. Not only are the deer easier to spot, but it's before the rut season, and one school of thought is that the meat is more tender.
"If you're shooting bucks they're not in the rut yet," Germain said. "When they get into rut they tend to get a little tougher and get a little gamier."
Laurie Cole, a female hunter, uses a slightly different strategy. As shooting deer in the alpine means a longer haul with a heavy pack, she likes to find locations that simply don't have terrain with high elevations.
As the season progresses, Dale said he notices that the deer become more privy to human presence.
"There are more deer around the less accessible places," he said. "I write off October for hunting. The deer are all over the place or in the thick blueberry and brush; you never get a look at them. If you get close to them you make too much noise."
Many hunters said the presence of snow accumulation as helpful.
"If there's snow already, I'll get into the woods and then start cruising until I see sign," Germain said.
"Sign," means fresh deer pellets or other indicators that the animals have been in the vicinity.
"They'll generally be near the snow line," Germain said. "I'd go to snow line, and work my way down. I wouldn't waste a lot of time easing my way up."
Rut season begins in November. Dale said he likes to keep tabs on deer behavior by heading out at least once a week. He looks for doe tracks next to fawn tracks, which would indicate that the rut season hasn't hit yet. Generally, he said, by rut season the does aren't attending their fawns anymore.
"Once the days get darker and colder, there's a hormonal change that trips the deer into going into estrous," Dale said, an indication that it's mating season.
Deer calls are a tool used to call in a deer. Their function is to mimic either a doe or deer.
"During a rut, a call is most effective, said Steve Hill. "Any time a critter is in rut they're dumb."
Germain mostly uses the doe call during the rut season.
"You bleat, then wait," he said. "Bleat, then wait. Find a good muskeg clearing with game trails. Stay 5 feet inside the timber."
Germain also noticed a drawback to hunting during the rut season: the animals get tired, and for older animals he notices a difference in the meat quality.
"If you get a big buck towards the end of the season, the neck meat could be bad," he said. "All he's been doing is running around and it's rank."
In addition to particular hunting tactics during specific times in the season, hunters have other methods of perusing the terrain. Dale prefers to approach benches or ledges, and hunt upland.
"You have a view upwards, and if you don't see anything you can climb up and peak over the edge, so your approach is undetected," Dale said. "Whenever I'm coming into a new open view where I haven't given away my position and haven't seen what's there, those are times I get excited. You don't often see deer out in open meadows, there's no food there and it's dangerous. It can be tricky sneaking around those areas, and if you step out into the meadows you're exposed. I think deer usually hear or see you before you see them."
Germain takes a different approach to meadows.
"Give a meadow time, don't march into it," he said. "I've seen people cruise right through meadows, use them to travel faster. I'll try and find game trails around them in the brush. That way you can look down into holes and things. I'm not out there to move from point A to point B."
Germain also prefers to haul upland quickly, then work his way down.
"Simply because you see better down below you than you see up," he said.
Some hunters continuously stay on the move; others prefer a slower approach to hunting.
Cole said she has no strategy.
"I walk until something makes a mistake," she said. "Sometimes it pays off. You're just on a journey. You see a lot of cool stuff."
"You can find deer everywhere," Germain said. "It's just a matter of doing it. I know old timers that find a nice used game trail and just sit there. It's a matter of being able to pay attention, hold still, and be quiet. Simple things. It's hard for men though."
Rick Carter, a former cop and hunting guide who teaches hunting safety courses mentioned a difference between men and women as well. Women, he said, can attract bears during their menstrual cycle, and should thus be cautious if hunting in bear territory.
"Bears can smell that," he said. "It's no different than a fresh deer kill."
"There's a thousand different ways to go," Germain said. "It's just about being in the woods and getting lucky. Believe it when you feel that there's something looking at you 'cuz there probably is."
Once a deer is spotted, the shooting practice comes in.
"You want to make a good shot," Dale said. "The goal is to prevent suffering, to have a clean humane kill. Shooting into the brush or at an animal when it's running or when you can see only part of it, those aren't very good practices. You want to know what you're shooting at. You want to make sure you're not shooting at someone or someone's dog."
"To be an ethical hunter you want to make sure that once you pull the trigger you're going to kill that deer," he said.
It's common knowledge that the ideal shot is into the deer's heart and lung area. Basically, aim slightly above and behind the front legs.
"It kills it and prevents meat loss," Dale said. If you hit the stomach, you're left with a stinky mess filled with bacteria. "You don't want that junk all over your meat."
Dale said he likes to wait for at least five minutes after he makes what he thinks is a kill shot. If you've called in that animal there may be others around as well. Plus, it's a sign of respect, he said, to not approach the deer while it's in the process of dying.
Byers said he always honors the spirit of the animal after a kill.
"When you kill the animal, you thank its spirit," he said.
But a shot doesn't always mean a dead animal. A hunter may just wound the deer. Though it's not required to punch one of the season's allotted tags if a kill isn't made, it is ethical to attempt to track down the wounded animal. Generally, Dale said, the animal will wander downhill.
"They don't usually go terribly far if they don't think they're being perused or chased," he said. "You go around looking for signs of blood, tracks; you can tell an animal's gait if it's running hard. If an animal is wounded, you'll see much more disturbed tracks, torn up soil."
In the end, Dale said, its discipline, self-control and patience that are the hardest traits to learn, but the ones that pay off the most.
"Being patient and putting in time makes you more skilled and you appreciate it more," he said.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.