Elk Hunt

Went elk hunting with Sara’s sister, her husband, and our niece’s boyfriend on Afognak.  We flew into Kodiak the 23rd for what has become a routine trip.  We have friends there who supply us with things like tarps and camp stoves, then we make a run to the store for groceries and propane, etc. 

There had been a spate of high winds in Kodiak, and the air taxi was backed up.  We weren’t sure if we’d get in on the 24th as planned, and our flight kept getting moved later and later in the day.  We finally did get in late in the afternoon with enough time to get the tents set up.  Opening day was the next day on the 25th.

My sister in law and brother in law had drawn the  permits for any elk, so I hunted with my sister in law and the boyfriend with the brother in law.  The first day was a nice day with no rain and in the 50’s.  We climbed a now familiar trail up to a beaver pond, and split up there to start asending the numerous ridge fingers to call for elk.    In mid-afternoon we jumped a very large blacktail buck deer.  It rose from it’s bed and was about 20 yards away.  In the dark of the spruce forest we could not tell how many points the rack had – only that it was a big, barrel-chested buck.  I wanted to take it, but we decided to wait as it was the first day of elk season and we might be missing out on an elk if I harvested the buck.  It’s the biggest deer I’ve ever passed up on for sure.  
Afognak is a special island.  Where we go, there are solid Sikta spruce stands with an understory of 1 to 2 foot tall devils club and ferns.  The elk and deer make about 2 foot wide paths that look manmade in many places they are so well-kept.  The walking is easy and climbs are mostly gradual – seldom are they near vertical for more than about 50 yards.  In between the spruce stands are open areas that are usually comprise of 3 sort of monoculture stands – grass, alder and salmon berry.  Although they appear nasty, once you find the trail through them it’s a matter of keeping the brush out of your eyes and your feet on the trail.

About 20 minutes after we passed on the buck, we heard a shot.  When we radioed the other group, they said they were looking for the elk they shot at, and had a second one there too.  Turns out they called in a bull within 100 yards in the tall grass, took a shot which they thought was a hit, then blew the cow call right after the shot.  What they thought was a 2nd bull coming they didn’t shoot as they thought the first one was down.  Turns out the 2nd bull was the first bull that had not been hit coming back.  The result was no elk.

The next day was pouring rain, but the only day of rain, as it turned out.  We took a long jaunt towards saltwater from the lake we were camped.  We called in a doe deer and saw a cross fox.  When we got back to camp, we saw a bear swiming in the lake.  Although we saw a few bears in and around the lake, and sign of them on either side of our camp, they never bothered us.  We saw one very large brown bear fishing on an island in the lake, and saw his print near camp.  My size 15 was just a tag longer that the width of his paw print just behind the claws.

We hunted another area the next day up the lake.   We were in the spruce trees on a ridge, and came to the edge of the trees and blew the elk bugle.  We heard crashing on a small finger of a hill that ended about 30 yards across the grassy bottom from us, and thought it was an elk coming for sure.  Then I saw what looked like a big buck deer looking at us.  I only have a 4 power scope on my 30.06, and when I looked at the deer through the scope his head was under a pine branch.  Everythign about the deer said it was a buck but I could not make out any antlers.   My partner had a bigger power scope and was sure it was a buck.  Then she dug out her binoculars and brought them to me, as I was sitting about 15 yards from her.  I looked and saw antler through the tree branch over the deer.  It was bucks only season until Oct 1, so I had to be sure.  I had a good sitting position with my elbow resting on my thigh.  I put the cross hairs behind the
buck’s shoulder, squeezed off the shot, saw the buck cartwheel down from the little hill and into the brush, and thought that was that.  My partner asked if I’d hit the deer and I said I thought so.  She said she thought she saw it going through the brush parallell to me, but I had not seen any such movement.

The area she thought the deer went meant the deer would have had to cross a small creek.  I walked to the spot the deer had been standing, and could find no hair or blood.  It looked like a clean miss, but I could not believe the deer would cartwheel like that if it wasn’t hit.  I followed where my partner thought the deer had gone.  When I exited the alders, I was in the grass and the trail went downhill from there.  I didn’t see any sign or tracks that the deer had gone there.  My partner went to where the deer had been standing, and followed what she thought was the trajectory of it’s fall and found a small piece of hair – which gave me a little encouragement.  When she got to the creek, instead of crossing it, she turned and followed it a very short distance and the big buck jumped out of the brush and headed up the side of the little hill, obvously crippled.  She shot and then that was really that.

Turns out the bullet went right where I was aiming.  The problem was I was shooting downhill, and the bullet went right through the clavicle and out the armpit without ever entering the body trunk.  So I had cleanly broken the leg, and so the deer went down, but the brush was so high he was 20 yards or less away all the time we were looking until we finally stumbled into him.  The deer’s rack was not overly impressive – 3 points and an eyeguard on each side – but it was one of the largest bodied black tail deer I’d ever seen.  It was actually fat around the middle, and had a tremendous layer of fat on the muscle.  Afognak was treating him well.

We were miles from camp, so we butchered the deer where it lay.  As I cut away the cape and was cutting thumb holes as I went along for a better grip, I remembered my friend Pat had shown me how to cut the thumbholes on one of my first deer hunts when I worked in Kodiak now over 20 years ago.  Time flies.  We loaded the meat into a meat sack, tied it to my pack, and off we went.  I was going to leave the head, but my partner insisted she carry it down with the antlers so we could cut them off at camp.  We were back to camp in less than 2 hours, and got the meat hung in a tree out of reach of the bears.

We were supposed to leave the next day, but the winds came up and it was too windy to fly.  I took my rifle and hunted the hills behind camp to see if I could get another deer.  I did call in a doe, but doe season was not open for 2 more days, so I had to pass.  Another beautiful clear day.  Later in the day the couple went to the head of the lake to see what they could see.  And what they saw was an elk.  On the other side of the lake.  And too late in the day to try to ford the inlet stream to get to it.  We all went down there the next morning to see if it was still around, but it was nowhere to be seen.  So, everyone saw an elk on the trip except me.  

The wind continued that day and the planes weren’t flying, so I went with my partner to the outlet of the lake to climb some of the hills there to look for an elk or a deer.  We saw coho salmon spawning in the outlet stream, and the grass flats along the creek were a brown bear highway of trails.  We didn’t call in any deer or elk, but found some neat country to hunt our next trip in.

The pilot flew in later that evening, but only to tell us he wanted to come the next day because the winds were still marginal.  We sent the boyfriend in so he could get back to work in Anchorage.  The pilot came in for us the next morning as the winds had died to nothing, and we made it, reluctantly it seemed, back to Kodiak.  I could have stayed another week just deer hunting.

Mark Stopha
Alaska Wild Salmon Company
4455 N. Douglas Hwy
Juneau, AK  99801

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