Trip Planning File: DIY or Guided for Alaska Sitka Blacktails?

Sitka blacktail deer are the small deer native to coastal British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. Their natural range was limited to more temperate climate, which kept them isolated on the islands in southeast Alaska and a thin band along the coast. Even within this range, many of the populations are the result of transplanted deer, such as the area around Prince William Sound and Yakutat, and the Queen Charlotte Islands. They have also been transplanted to Kodiak, Raspberry and Afognak Islands as well as to New Zealand.

Sitka blacktail may well be the smallest species of North American deer both in body and antler size, rivaling Coues deer in both categories. The minimum score for B&C Sitka blacktails is 108, while the minimum for Coues deer is 110. The world records are 133 and 144-1/8 respectively. Blacktails live in notoriously steep country with thick vegetation.

I recently completed a hunt with two companions on Prince of Wales (POW) Island in SE Alaska. While we all had an opportunity to shoot a legal buck, we took only one 3×2 buck, shot by one of my companions. Perhaps my judgement is clouded by the recent experience, but I’m willing to rate the Sitka blacktail as the most difficult deer to hunt in North America.

To briefly recap my hunt, we flew to Ketchikan and overnighted there. Given that it’s still cruise ship season, even the budget hotel chains get $200 and up per night. With the crowds, we were happy to take a float plane to POW early the next morning. There is an interisland ferry that runs between Ketchikan and Hollis on POW each day, but it leaves Hollis at 8am arriving in Ketchikan at 11am, then leaves Ketchikan for the return trip at 3pm not getting back to the island until 6pm. Taking the Taquan Air float plane at 7:30am gave us an extra day on the island to hunt. Since it’s a scheduled flight, you can hunt the same day.

Once on the island, we rented a Toyota Tundra from Hollis Adventure Rentals (www.harentals.com) and the owner met us at the dock to help us get oriented. Not every village on POW has gas for sale and some planning is necessary. We had reserved a cabin from the US Forest Service (www.recreation.gov) that was behind a locked gate. One of our bags was delayed in transit, but Alaska Airlines found it and had it delivered almost immediately. Once we made it to our cabin, we were free to start hunting and fishing for abundant pink salmon.

We scheduled this trip early in the season to try and find the bucks up high. Timberline on the island is about 2,700 feet and by looking at Google Earth images, we envisioned that we could drive up logging roads and climb to the alpine zone. These roads, however, were all closed after the logging ended and we spent a lot of time climbing from sea level to the alpine zone. My original plan to hunt the clearcuts was also hopeless. With the high rainfall (120 inches per year!), logging areas re-grow very quickly and these small deer can hide almost anywhere. One day we climbed 2,800-foot Sunnahae Mountain on 4.5 miles of very rough trail. This kind of climbing is similar to sheep or goat hunting, and when you add the difficulty of downed timber and mud bogs, it was extremely physical.

We arrived to spectacular weather: sunny days and no rain. On the second day, when we shot the one buck, skies were clear with light breeze. That day each of us saw multiple bucks and we each could have harvested a deer. It seemed a shame to end the hunt so early and the bucks I saw were all small, so I passed. Alas, the weather returned to normal the next day and stayed that way the rest of the week. We continued to climb, often right up into the clouds where we sat for hours waiting for the fog to break. We also hunted low, around the bogs where we saw literally hundreds of does and fawns, but few bucks and no shooters.

My hunt is a perfect example of Sitka hunting. Hunting the high country in early season can be great, but you have to have some break in the weather. A local Sitka cult specializes in trophy hunting these deer, but their success comes largely because they can pick the days when they hunt. The traveling hunter will need some luck with the weather or assistance from an outfitter.

Most outfitted hunts for Sitka blacktails take place during the rut. The long blacktail season in Alaska (Aug. 1-Dec. 31) allows outfitters to concentrate on other game while the weather still holds and then turn to rutting Sitka in Nov. and early Dec. The rut, deteriorating weather, and presence of does brings the bucks out of the high country, sometimes right down to the beach. Many hunters also hunt around the bogs and little pockets of tundra. I’m not convinced that blacktails prefer these areas to anywhere else, but your ability to see the bucks is much greater near the bogs or along recently closed logging roads.

Our database includes 14 articles and 37 hunt reports on Sitka blacktail deer hunts. Most of these are on Kodiak Island where well-established outfitters include blacktails as an add-on for bear hunts or offer late season deer hunts from their bear camps. On Kodiak, Raspberry and Afognak, outfitters include Afognak Wilderness Lodge (www.huntafognak.com), Munsey’s Bear Camp (www.hunt.munseysbearcamp.com), Larsen Bay Lodge (www.larsenbaylodge.com) and Rohrer Bear Camp (www.kodiakbearcamp.com). In SE Alaska, Glacier Guides, Inc. (www.glacierguidesinc.com), Southeast Alaskan Adventures (907-790-4687; akhunter@live.com or book through Shunneson & Wilson, www.shunnesonwilson.com; 830-792-4200) and Baranof Expeditions (www.baranofexpeditionsllc.com) all offer guided hunts.

Another option is to locate an authorized transporter who will take you on a boat, provide lodging and food and drop you off on the shore each day to hunt on your own. These hunts are very affordable and can be very successful, especially if you are willing to hunt late and catch the deer in the rut. Many of the outfitters above may also offer some form of self-guided hunt and Ninilchik Charters (www.ninilchik.com; 800-973-4742) offers this hunt option only on Kodiak. Thorne Bay Lodge (www.thornebaylodge.com) offers cabins and vehicle based, self-guided hunts on POW.

Of course, you can do as we did and rent a cabin, fly in and do it all yourself. It was a great adventure, complete with so much more than shooting a deer. We saw more black bears than blacktail bucks, caught more pink and chum salmon than we could have eaten in a year and discovered the island first-hand. Just go into it knowing it’s a very tough hunt and don’t expect success on your first trip!