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The Story of my Sitka Black-tailed Deer Hunt by Greg Hill

Part of my preparation for my Alaskan hunt was going to the shooting range twice a week and practicing shooting at different distances, from the prone position, kneeling, leaning against a post, and leaning over a bench.  This I did at the suggestion of my outfitter Alaska Glacier Adventures with Kurt Whitehead and Trina Nation.  I had gotten reasonably proficient at this but for some reason the thought never had occurred to me to practice from the prone position with my feet above my head, body wrapped around and between some large rocks, on a beach, in the rain with a fairly heavy fog at a little over 200 yards.  But here I was on an island near the Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska lining up a shot on a Sitka Black-tailed buck.

As I write this, the phrase “My Alaskan Hunt” still gets me excited.  I mean what young kid with a sense of adventure and an appreciation for the outdoor sports wouldn’t fantasize about an Alaskan hunt?  Yes I had known for as long as I can remember, I wanted to go to the last Frontier, and here I finally was in my 55th year doing what I had long dreamed of doing.  I had been to Alaska once before after winning a Alaskan cruise from my job, and although I enjoyed that immensely and even had the opportunity to do some salmon and halibut fishing, let’s face it- for those of us with the strong primal urge for outdoor adventure one can associate a cruise with, well, taking a shower with their socks on.

The Black-tailed rut was just getting into full gear when I arrived for my hunt, making the preferred method of hunting the deer setting up on a beach, primarily during low tide, and waiting for does to come out to feed.  Bucks, doing what they do during the rut, will come seeking receptive does and do their level best to perpetuate the species.  Sounds simple enough, but incredibly enough Alaska is known for some pretty severe weather and sometimes landing on said beach doesn’t go all that smoothly.  This I witnessed firsthand in the course of my first beach landing as I slipped upon leaving the boat and managed to pretty much submerge myself.  Which brings me to the subject of proper gear. For you novices coming to Alaska for the first time:  If your outfitter is worth his or her salt, they will give you a pretty explicit list of the type of gear you need to bring.  Now you can you can question their motives and speculate as to which gear outfitters they may or may not own stock in, but I’m here to tell you no matter what else you bring with you, bring quality, and I do mean quality rain gear.  Even if it doesn’t rain (like that’s not going to happen), and you are on the water, the chances of getting wet are still just about 100%.  Good raingear is a wise investment choice.  Another item you don’t want to go without or acquire when you get to Alaska is a pair of what I term The State Boot of Alaska.  You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

Hunting Vessel Glacier

The Author, Greg Hill, during a rare sunny moment on the dock.

When I booked the hunt with Kurt he had told me the other hunter on the boat would be a woman of quite some hunting repute.  I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, even to the point of not mentioning to my wife that I would be hunting with a woman with a similar sense of adventure on a boat in the wilds of Alaska for several days and nights with adjoining bunks.  I just looked forward to meeting her at the airport in Ketchikan and taking the ferry from Ketchikan to Prince of Wales Island to meet Kurt and Trina.   So imagine my surprise when I met Ethel Leedy at the airport and found out she was there to harvest her first Sitka Black-tailed in order to complete the requirements to be the first woman to achieve the Super Slam of North American Big Game!  Interestingly enough, a few years back I had made the decision that I wasn’t getting any younger and if I wanted to accomplish or experience a number of items on my bucket list I had better get going.  So here I was 54 years old thinking I am running out of time to do these things and along comes Ethel 82 years young! Think of this, Ethel harvested a Polar Bear while in her 70’s!

Kurt met Ethel and myself at the ferry landing and took us to a very cozy bed and breakfast, the Trophy Inn in Klawock, for the night with provisions he would meet us in the morning and off we would be on our adventure.  In the morning, it didn’t take long for us to get our gear stowed, and with the intent of spending the next 7 days and 6 nights hunting Sitka Black-tailed deer and ducks along with crabbing, shrimping, and deep sea fishing we were off.  It also didn’t take long for my forehead and the top of the entryway to the sleeping quarters to become intimately acquainted.  As I am of pretty stubborn if not of hard headed stock, I didn’t let that bother me, but did my best to hide my education lump under my hat.  That first day the weather was absolutely beautiful and I spent most of my time outside looking at sea otters, harbor seals and bald eagles.  We don’t get a lot of those where I live in Pennsylvania.

Once we arrived at our hunting grounds, or maybe I should say islands, Trina and Ethel headed off in one direction as Kurt and I headed off in the other.  The weather picked up some which I am using as my explanation for the above mentioned dunking.  The weather forecast that night was not encouraging so we sought out a secluded cove for the night.  The next morning it was windy and raining-not especially encouraging weather for the planned deer hunt so Kurt and I decided to see if we could find some Harlequin ducks.  We were successful despite the weather and I was able to harvest my limit.  Incidentally, for me the lure of the waterfowl hunting is just as great as the deer hunting, and there are a number of species in Alaska that just don’t happen to spend any time on the east coast.

Thankfully the weathered cleared in the afternoon and we decided if we happened to be a Black-tailed deer we would be thinking pretty seriously about getting something to eat.  Ethel and Trina were off and hunting as were Kurt and I.  Kurt found an excellent spot on the sheltered side of an island where there was a pretty expansive cove with a small stream running into the corner of it with a fair amount of open space.  We landed the skiff around the corner of the cove and slipped through the woods, coming out midway on one side of the cove.  With the tide on the lower side, we were able to slip down under overhanging branches and glass the banks for deer.  Kurt had spotted several deer before I was able to get settled in and told me there was a shooter buck across the way and I needed to shoot it.  This pretty much brings us to the beginning of this story where I am sprawled out on the rocks.  The buck we were after was a little over 200 yards away and to be perfectly honest with you, in my scope I could make out the deer completely other than I really couldn’t see his headgear all that well.  I had told Kurt I didn’t need to shoot the biggest deer in the world, but wanted one that was fairly representative of the species.  So I took Kurt at his word that this buck fulfilled my criteria, drew down on his vitals and squeezed the trigger on my .270.  Amidst the fog, and the fact the deer was backed up against a dark background, I was pretty sure I had hit the buck but wasn’t sure how hard.  Kurt assured me I had hit him hard, but as long as we were all gathered together and having a pretty good time of it all, I should probably try to put another round in him.  So with the buck facing me, which when you think about it provides a pretty narrow target especially from 200 yards, I popped off 2 more shots which proved to be unproductive but thankfully unnecessary as the buck went down for good.  So it was great to take a minute and enjoy the feeling of a successful hunt with a pretty good fellow who is also an excellent guide.  You know hunts of all types are filled with a lot of anticipation and thoughts of what will make the adventure a success, we all know the taking of an animal is not the only measure of the success of a hunt, but it’s still a good feeling when everything comes together.

Sitka Black-tailed Deer

Greg Hill’s Sitka Black-tailed Buck

There was another buck hanging out on the beach, who was probably thinking things were looking up for his love life with the elimination of one of his competitors, so Kurt decided he would go back out to the skiff and see if he could find Ethel and Trina in hopes they could come harvest the buck and complete Ethel’s quest.  It was my charge to stay put on the beach and keep track of the buck.  While Kurt was gone I was provided with a snapshot of Alaska.  There were deer on the bank, harbor seals in the water, ducks in the bay, an eagle soaring overhead and the landscape, the beautiful landscape.  Kurt was unable to find Ethel and Trina, so returned with the skiff heading up into the cove to retrieve my buck.  It was quite a show with the harbor seals watching Kurt while at the same time watching the reaction of the remaining buck as he lay bedded down on the edge of the bank.  The buck watched Kurt while he went to the far end of the inlet, beached the boat, dragged my deer out, and returned to pick me up.  After Kurt had returned to the skiff the buck got up and went over to where my buck had lain, I guess to confirm his good fortune.  I found that incredibly entertaining.  When Kurt got to me I was thrilled to see how big my buck actually was.  I asked Kurt if he had known the buck was this big and he admitted he knew he was pretty good, but he too had been pleasantly surprised.  My buck was later officially SCI scored at 94 2/8” making him the third largest Sitka Black-tailed Buck harvested in Alaska by a guided hunter in 2010. This earned me an award plaque at the 2011 APHA awards ceremony.  That was much more than I had hoped for when the whole idea of this hunt was conceived and put together.

Barrow's Goldeneye

Greg Hill with Barrow’s Goldeneye

As great as harvesting my buck was, there was so much more to this experience than the deer hunt.  There was the great camaraderie between Kurt, Trina, Ethel and myself, and especially the food.  I mean fresh crab and shrimp before the evening meal, salmon, halibut, the tenderloin from my buck, and as Ethel wanted to know: “I wonder what rich people are eating?”.  Also the joy and relief when Ethel harvested her buck completing her Super Slam Quest!  Then there was the duck hunting including when Trina and I bellied up on a flock of Barrow’s Goldeneye so I could pick out a mature hen to go with my drake.  What an experience that was bringing big game hunting techniques to a duck hunt!  There were 3 mink on the bank of an island going about their business foraging for a meal and trying to determine just what the heck Trina and I were.  Or the group of river otters who raced through the water almost like dolphins leaping in and out of the water as they headed for the safety of the shore.   There was the Bald Eagle convention in the harbor; meeting Geoduck [pronounced Gooey-Duck] divers and learning about their trade; crabbing; the incredibly huge Red Cedar trees and the weather.  The weather, which kept us from shrimping and deep sea fishing, was such an incredible spectacle in and of itself.

The 29th North American Big Game Animal

Ethel Leedy with her Super Slam Sitka Black-tailed Deer

Dungeness Crab

Captain Kurt and the author, Greg Hill, displaying fresh caught Dungeness Crab

Today as I sit in my “man cave” and admire my Black-tailed buck and the collection of ducks, I am planning and scheming my next adventure to The Last Frontier as I relive the great memories of the trip I already had.

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