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Kodiak Calling: Blacktails Mean Adventure

By Skip Knowles | November 15, 2023

Heels dug in against a blasting wind, we sat a thousand feet above the sea on the edge of a slope so steep you felt like you might fall into the ocean and get swallowed by one of the five whales feeding in a giant eddy far below. We looked down on the backs of eagles as they soared, cursed the gale, and drank it all in. 


Landscape photo of mountains and lake


And we looked for deer, while trying not get distracted by all that natural beauty.  We’d started with our feet in the ocean that morning, crawled across a dodgy little land bridge, and hiked straight up the hill in the blasting wind on sore legs, and had about given up on seeing a buck by midday. And there he was, a mature Sitka blacktail, walking stiffly across the ridgeline with his nose in a doe’s nethers.


Skipp Knowles by water stalking deer


Chasing Sitka blacktails on Kodiak Island simply has to be the most unique experience in deer hunting, because it is so much more than a deer hunt. From the wild weather swings to the raw and rugged terrain, from seeing whales and pulling up crab traps full of giants, to experiencing beach landings on new shores each day from a floating basecamp…there’s just nothing like it. Eagles like seagulls, a chance to wet a line in Alaskan waters while aboard the mother ship and detour out for top notch waterfowl hunting on the side. 


Skipp Knowles with Alaska Crabs in hands


Add in large numbers of beautiful bucks with heavy dark horns and the sweetest meat in the venison world, and it’s a wild ride. 


The ominous presence of large carnivores adds so much to the hunt, too, because although you may not see them, they are there, always there…and they are seeing you, the captain had told us during the safety briefing. You can’t go on a hike on Kodiak without being near a brown bear at some point. The true threat from bears is probably overrated—not many hunters have been outright attacked, but the encounters are frequent and hair raising enough to add the deep wild feeling to your hunt.


Skip Knowles on a mountain holding a Lupo Rifle


 I first stepped foot on the Rock years before with another greenhorn and was not ashore for 30 minutes before we were bellowed at from an angry brown bear in the brush just below us. The sound was a terrifying promise of violence telling us to leave, now. We did just that. It was three bears, it turned out, a trio that later ran more of our guys off near that same dropoff spot. 

It’s unguided hunting from a transporter boat, just you and a partner traipsing about this wonderfully wild place, all adding to the thrill. 


After that encounter, I mentally renamed it Kardiak Island, after sneaking around through the blowing grass overhead, expecting to surprise a giant bear at any minute and get our heads knocked off because they couldn’t see hear or smell us coming in the swirling ocean wind until you stepped on one. That and the famously fickle plane rides—especially the smaller planes—can fry your nerves.. 


Fast forward a few years. On this trip last October 2022, I’d seen five massive brownies on the first day, five more bears than the buck deer we’d been chasing, incidentally. And this time ashore a few days after that, we had seen no bear but it appeared one may have had found us. 


My partner and I had scaled a long open ridge that morning after seeing a few deer crossing at the top a half mile straight up, but the wind steadily came up. Our senses were dumbed down by the blasting winds, the same reason animals don’t like to move in it. Everything appears to be moving, and it’s tough to see, hear or smell much as the gale makes all vegetation sway in a noise of confusion. Sitting atop that ridge, with nowhere to escape the wind, I had slipped off a glove only to have the wind snatch it from me and send it tumbling downhill in a spot so steep it felt like you might fall into the sea. 


Skip Knowles Spoting for deer


 We were sitting there glassing still, but ready to start the long hike down to the ocean for pick up to the main boat, writing off the day for deer because of the wind, when my buddy grabbed my shoulder and exclaimed, “There’s a buck! A nice one! Right on top of the ridge where we crossed.” 

I could not believe what he was saying, nor probably, at that moment, could he. But there he was.  I looked and could not believe my eyes. Right where we’d hiked up, a fat, matur-ish 3-point was crossing the saddle of the ridge, leisurely following a doe. This would have to be quick. I threw the gun over my pack, cheated a little bit for the wind and my partner said “157 yards.”


The buck kicked at the shot, hind legs flying skyward like a bronc. Heart shot! But he ran out of sight over a rise into a broad gully. We watched. Minutes later, the doe ascended to the ridgetop on the far side, stopped, turned around, and stared back down behind her. A great sign. Her companion was no longer following.  We waited 15 minutes, worked our way over, and that’s when we spotted a massive blood trail from some distance away. The buck, clipped in the heart and with an entrance hole you could fit your fist into, had still somehow managed to go 150 yards and deep into that thicket. 


The trail of blood  where the buck had disappeared into the thick wall of alders was a couple feet wide and 20 yards long, and there were chunks of tissue and meat littered along the way. My partner hiked down to it while I circled above with my rifle, in case this mysterious disappearing deer burst from the cover, as we were unsure of its status.


Now, my buddy was clearly rattled, and could only come to one shocking conclusion: He might be in trouble, because it appeared that in the 25 minutes it had taken us to get to the deer I had shot—waiting a bit to make sure it expired from what looked like a good heart shot—there was now a real possibility that a brown bear had claimed our prize, finished the deer off and dragging it into the thick bush they love to hide in on the Rock. It was the only way to explain the gory scene before him. 

And he had no rifle. He had opted to shoot photos on this leg of the hunt, teaming with me to just record the chase for the beautiful blacktail bucks in the pre-rut. The hunting had been tough enough we weren’t expecting to get multiple shots at deer. Besides, getting a fat Sitka blacktail out of the thick bush is a real task in itself. 


 Far above him, I was unaware of the alarming blood trail he was seeing. I was comfortable and confident with the Benelli Lupo chambered in .300 Win Mag, and creeping along the ridgeline I finally spotted the buck laying deep in tangled brush, its neck stretched out over a log. A bear had not gotten our deer—what caused the damage and the gory scene was the devastation of that Federal Premium Hybrid Hunter 185 grain Berger bullet fired from that lovely new Lupo. 


I hand signaled to my buddy that I could see the deer in the secret sign language most hunters have perfected by their 20s. He was still waving emphatically for me to get my butt down the hill to join him. I scurried through the grass to his side and when I saw the blood trail from his perspective, my eyes got real wide too.  I understood his worries right away, and started second-guessing what I’d seen up ahead. 

Skipp holding up deer meat

I had seen that the deer was clearly dead, but had I failed to see an angry grizzly laying right beside it? Waiting to defend the kill it had claimed? We looked for tracks, tensely crept forward and stayed outside the alder patch to the point where I had seen the deer from above. There, slowly, we recovered our prize. 


That extra element of excitement and fear that comes with hunting within proximity of dangerous predators is tough to describe.


How we even got a shot at a buck in that weather we’ll never know. It was such a gift the deer should’ve had a bow tied on his head. Our group was deep into the trip and the famously easy deer hunting had proven difficult, with only one guy seeing a big enough buck to take a poke at, missing in heavy brush at long range.  And the weather was only getting dodgier: Kodiak gives you lots of good days to duck hunt but not enough good ones to chase deer. 


Skipp Knowles Tagging a deer


I had a heck of a time wrestling that buck out of the alders while my buddy stood guard with the rifle, because the alders grow sideways here, almost straight out of the mountain side, so they can bend with heavy wet snows that fall in this marine climate, often feet at a time, rather than be snapped off. And they may not have huge antlers, but “little blacktails” they are not. Sitka bucks are stout, keg-shaped beauties that commonly hit the 200 pound mark. Penetrating those alders are like trying to crawl through a sideway maze. Hunters often traipse downhill right through them by following the deep ruts at the bottom from runoff in the tree-covered gullies, but that’s where it’s so easy to run into a bear. 

My buddy’s fears that a bear had taken the deer had in turn had rattled me as I took apart that blacktail. He watched over with the rifle as I prepped it for the pack out. Bears don’t come running to the rifle shot like everyone says on Kodiak, looking for a free meal. They are still hunted on the island chain and generally try to avoid humans. Generally. But there are plenty of stories of them getting on a gut pile and following hunters to make off with a deer if an opportunity presented.  In fact, a friend had a buck snatched right out if his hands while dragging one out with his rifle unloaded. Can you imagine? The bear ran off with that big-bodied deer in its mouth like a golden retriever fetching a newspaper. 


Skipp with deer antlers


And we had bear on the brain, as I’d seen those five bears the very first day, hardly hiking a hundred yards when a massive boar appeared on a ridge we were on 500 yards above us. An awesome sight. Cresting that ridge, we found a broad valley that had the last crumbs of the salmon run dying in it and bears kept popping out, four more total, including a boar that had a head so broad and that giant humped back so huge he looked like a different species from the others. 

I had heard the stories and dodged the man in the brown suit enough. On the way there on that first trip years ago, I sat on the plane beside a veteran hunter who talked about tent camping (nuts!) on Kodiak in the high country, on native land, and losing every deer they killed to bears at night. The bears ate the hide, the hooves, even every bit of the horns, he’d told me, and there’s just no way to stop them. 
Years passed after that first safari, and I forgot all about how it had been a long wet trip on a cramped boat where we had to take turns standing in the berth getting dressed in damp clothes. I just remembered the good stuff.  Eagles zipping past my head in a full death dive, whales feeding all over, a big chestnut buck standing on a ridge with those dark horns and that white throat patch. Beautiful.  Throwing huge crab pots in the sea off a broken boom, and using a skiff with an outboard to pull the pots up through a pulley on the main boat, jammed with the best eating seafood on earth. 


Skipp with buck in backpack


Adventure! Then in 2022, my friends at Benelli announced a seaduck mission with a chance to hunt blacktails, too, and we scored an ancient, banded drake harlequin duck on the first outing! To duck hunters, that’s a unicorn within a unicorn. And the boat experience was far different this time, a much bigger, roomier vessel that was luxurious by comparison, a planning hull that could zip all over the archipelago. 


Rucking out with our deer-laden packs, we laughed the whole way from relief and exhilaration, despite the heavy loads once we hit grassier windswept terrain with less of the brush-choked gullies that might hide a bear.  I’m not scared of much on open ground where I can see a threat coming with a Lupo .300 Win Mag in my hands. We would still have another adventure climbing down with the heavy packs along wet muddy cliff-side ledges with loose rocks, and grass that tripped you, in a place where if you started to tumble you would not stop. 


Getting back on the boat from the island


Because we’d chosen a different way down than we’d originally ascended, we had to be super careful not to get cliffed out. It’s common here to hike down toward the ocean where you think you’re going to the beach but end up with a 50-to-100-foot vertical drop straight to the wet rocks below. Cliff dodging is a common exercise on the Rock. We picked our way down, and I did end up taking the pack off, letting it roll to the bottom, throwing my trekking poles to the beach below, and sliding on my butt down a sheer rock to land safe on the shoreline. 


The guns proved accurate, reliable, and Alaska-tough. This environment is so salty and hostile to metal I have seen muzzle brakes with gunpowder residue on them turn orange within hours just while hunting. With the Lupo, nobody had a misfire or any problems, and we didn’t realize just how superb the Benelli special BE.S.T. surface treatment is on the Lupo is until we got home. It’s not a coating. Typical methods like Cerakote are baked-on ceramic coating that, while tough, can chip or mar. The  BE.S.T. is rust-proof molecular binding and just about impossible to even scratch. All but one of the guns on the trip had BE.S.T. treatment, and they all looked new when simply wiped off after a week of salty abuse. Every inch of that standard steel gun was bright orange with rust when the trip was over. I would not buy a Lupo that lacks the BE.S.T. treatment no matter where I hunt. 


As the skiff took us safely to the mother ship, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I realized the turnabout of the day. For earlier in the day, it had not been my partner getting scared witless at being left unarmed and alone on Kodiak, it had been me. 


Skipp standing at the edge of the water.


That morning, I was already a bit rattled because we had searched the shoreline for a usable drop off point for the skiff to hit the beach and start our deer hunt, and our captain could not find a good spot to drop us. I saw an odd jumble of rocks maybe 40 feet high, a mini cliff below the bigger one, topped by a small grassy land bridge to the main shore. It was my bright idea to try that, but it was both higher and narrower and wetter than I’d foreseen, with severe consequences waiting on the wet rocks below when we shimmied across if we’d slipped. With a pack and a rifle, it was a bit much for a guy who had just two months prior spent five nights in the I.C.U. with six broken ribs and a punctured lung from a mountain bike crash. Yeah, that was me.


 I decided right then we would not be coming back out that way, especially with meat-laden 70-pound packs, if we killed something (which we did). I grew up in the mountains and know dodgy when I see it. Hence the scramble to the beach down a different cliffy section later.  


As soon as we’d climbed onto the main shore that morning, I’d needed to find a bush, for nature was calling and I don’t think it was a coincidence after that pucker of a scramble. I handed my partner the gun, our only one, and told him to stay close. By that I meant maybe 15 yards away through the dense brush. His long-legged idea of “close” was different, however. Upon emerging from my business, I saw him easily 300 yards above me, straight up, and still moving out at a clip. With my gun. The only gun. On Kodiak. 

It took me a long time to catch up to him, scrambling all the way over bear dung and up bear trails. Only amateurs go unarmed on Kodiak, yet there I was. I let him know my displeasure, and he mumbled something about how, “Well, if you think of it like a bowhunter does, I wasn’t really that far away because it was straight uphill. More like 30 yards than 300,” he said with an evil smile.

 I gave him my very specific opinion of that theory of his, and how I felt about him taking off with my gun.  And 8 hours later, there he was, facing a gory path on a blood trail leading straight into the bush, alone…unarmed.

These are the stories you remember best. It made for one long day, for both of us, but the kind of adventure you will not forget. The weather, the large carnivores, it’s all trying to get you on Kodiak, but the island chain has such a powerful allure.  My family is still eating the sweet meat of that buck, and I think of the salmon, crabs, and halibut we hauled over the gunwales, the best sea food you can possibly taste.

  It’s why every few years, ten to one, you’ll have the itch to go back to the Rock. 


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