The Sitka Chasing Game

October 30th, 2004. Aaron and I got up in the dark, it was pouring rain. We contemplated going back to bed. We both knew it was the chasing phase of the rut and we had a couple days off. What the heck. Tough day for keeping your powder dry however. We drove towards our destination seeing a couple of younger bucks chasing doe in the head lights. We parked where we intended to begin our walk and drank coffee as the morning’s light began to define the landscape. The rain lessened and slush began to fall, the slush turned to hail. We looked at each other and laughed. He had just acquired his father’s .308…this would be his first outing with it. We exited the truck during a lull in the precipitation. I loaded my Hawken and placed it in my heavy wool cover. We dawned our packs and slipped into familiar territory. We worked down deer trails through a couple muskegs and a bit of forest before entering the first of many large muskeg systems. It was light enough to see open sights now. The first call sequence caught the attention of two doe who came in fast from different directions. They found themselves unnaturally close, their ears laid back, they groaned, and then reared up pawing at each other. One ran off and the other walked slowly away. A second calling sequence brought her back. We moved on calling as we went. We crossed through another veil of timber and sat at the muskegs edge. 300 yards distant 4 does were running back and forth. I hit the call once and two of the does ran the distance to us. We waited a long time thinking something must have been pushing them. We moved close to where we had seen all the deer and sat against a tree on the edge of the muskeg. I let things quiet down. It was raining lightly now. Aaron watched to the east. I hit the call. Four does appeared in front of us. They were dancing about out front, one particularly close looking for the fawn. Arron grabbed my arm and looked eastward. A smaller three-point shout thorough an opening. I jumped up and took the wool cover from my Hawken. I walked forward through two of the does. Fifty yards distant among the larger shore pines, through a six-inch gap, I could see a gray shape, an antler base, an ear, and where a buck’s neck entered the chest. I tried to kneel and make the shot but I could not see the sweet spot at that angle. I stood and focused, telling myself you do this at the range all the time, make the shot! I took careful aim and fired. The air’s moisture formed a huge smoke cloud which sat motionless in front of me. I rolled left and the target was gone. Aaron came to my side. I slowly reloaded. One of the does were still only 20 yards away. The others had scattered. Arron asked if I got it. I had no idea. He had just vanished. The doe to our left slowly walked to where I had shot as I reloaded. She got to the spot where the buck had stood and looked at the ground, slowly she smelled something on the ground just out of site. Her ears laid back and she spun and ran into the woods. I looked at Aaron and smiled. Now reloaded, we walked towards where I had shot. The sun came out. As we got closer, I could see a buck laying at the base of the shore pine. I only could see a little of its rack. I rounded the last tree to see a beautiful, huge buck lying on the wet mosses. I had no idea of its size when I shot. I looked at Arron, we both could not believe its size. Both the body and rack were huge. It had two cool non-typical points on the inside of the beams. A fantastic buck. A pleasant surprise. The sun stayed out for the photo session. Then the sleet and Hail returned, luckily mixed with rain. We had no idea what happened to the smaller three point. Aaron continued his hunt while I boned out the buck. After I finished packaging up the buck, I explored the area and found where he had rubbed on a large cedar that morning. It was lucky him that was pushing the does about across the muskeg when we first entered the opening. We met back at the truck later in the afternoon. Sadly, Aaron had not found another buck. I on the other hand could not stop smiling. A great experience with a close friend. The buck grossed 108 0/8, netting 100 7/8 placing it well into the Longhunter records and the Awards in Boone and Crockett. God, I love these deer…

A flintlock’s first buck…

November 11th has historically been my best hunting day. I have taken more bucks on that day than any other. November 11th, 2014 was foretasted to be cold, in the 20’s, clear and sunny…perfect flintlock weather. I had identified a likely looking “hot spot” on Google Earth and had checked it out on November 4th. I had found heavy deer usage and several huge rubs on shore pine. I waited to the 11th to try an extended calling sequence. I left the house at 4:30 to begin the hike at first light. It was about ¾ mile from the road to where I wanted to call. I set up to call by 7:30 am. I combined doe bleats and doe estrus bleats from the Primos “Long CAN®” with grunts, snort wheezes, and rattling for about 20 minutes, light calls for about 20 minutes, and sat motionless for another 20 minutes. Beautiful sunny morning, nothing showed but a couple of ravens, a winter wren, and a jay. I decided after the hour to move to the forest above the muskeg and see if I went into the bedding habitat if I could stir anything up. I put away my calls, slipped on my pack and gloves and picked up the rifle. I took a couple of steps up the slope from behind my cover and looked up. There, just over 100 yards distant coming down the timber edge was a huge 4 x 4, a Sitka dreams are made of. He turned sideways, a bit farther than I wanted to shoot. I was caught in the open and he knew I was there. He was in the full sunshine, his brilliant red antlers gleaming. He was huge, his double white throat patch contrasted with his rich brown coat, his roman gray nose suggested his maturity. He was not as fat as he would have been in September but his body was on the upper end of Sitka’s. Steam rose from his body and each breath was visible from his nose. He turned and slowly walked away. He stopped many times looking over his shoulder at me. He disappeared into the timber. I dropped the pack, primed the pan, and rested on a shore pine. I used the “CAN®” to call him back out of the timber twice. He eventually, slowly walked into the upper muskeg bowl and disappeared from site. I worked my way up to the saddle, standing at the edge of a roughly oval muskeg basin surrounded by timber. I could see his tracks in the morning's frost. I hit the “CAN®” call once more. He stepped out at about 50 yards directly across from me. He rose is nose to catch my scent, then scratched his butt with his antlers. I dropped to one knee to fire but the curvature of the muskeg would not allowed it. I stood and took careful aim. His sweet spot was behind a bit of blue berry/cedar barrier. I would have to slip a round ball just at the upper edge of the brush. I mentally prepared for the follow through, took careful aim, and fired. When the smoke cleared I was alone in the muskeg. I returned for my pack and to reload. I walked to where he last stood. His tracks were in the heavy frost. A tuft of hair rested on the frozen muskeg. There was no blood, no indication of being hit other than the hair. No meat was attached to the hair. I followed his tracks in the frost to where he ducked to enter the forest. There was a few more hairs on the end of a stick he broke off. I spent the next three hours retracing his tracks, looking for blood, looking for anything. He last movement suggested he had bolted down hill into the cedars. There were a multitude of heavily used game trails so I began to follow each one out carefully. Nothing. The site picture was perfect when I shot. I convinced myself I must have pulled high, grazing his back. I cut a tag. I had touched this buck. I owed him that much. With nothing more to go on, I hunted a huge muskeg complex to the north calling in a few doe. Mid-way through my trek while still sitting after a calling sequence I ranged a large snag at 70 yards, there was a 2” knot on the tree trunk. I aimed at the knot and hit it center. If the jerk behind the trigger did not screwed up I should have hit that deer center. I ended up about a mile distant still reliving the shot in my mind. Though later in the day, I returned to where I had shot hoping to find something else I had missed or birds. Nothing…two more hours of searching. I heard birds in the muskeg way down off the ridge. Though it would mean I would have to come out in the dark I went to investigate. It was a flock of ravens on cranberries melted from the frost. I came home and told Karen my story. I kept replaying the shot in my mind. I woke twice during the night reliving the shot in dreams. I had to work the next day. I could not keep my mind on work. I took off the afternoon and hurried to the spot to call and search. The 13th I climbed the adjacent mountain and shot 2 bucks. On the 14th I returned and set up 3 trail cameras hoping to get a glimpse of him following one of his rub lines. I searched some more and called again. The afternoon of the 14th, Karen and and a friend flew back to Thorne Bay. The 15th we had a wine tasting, the 16th we all went for a drive. The 17th -19th I had to work. The 20th we went south so Karen could fly to El Salvador for 3 weeks and I visited my mom and family. I returned on the 26th. Thanksgiving day was also cold and sunny. I decided to go back to check the cameras and have one last look for the buck. I climbed to the saddle where I had one of three cameras. It was beautiful and sunny. I had images of a few good bucks but not him. I decided to call. As I was setting up, I noticed a mature bald eagle 40 yards away in a cedar. I thought “what the hell was he doing there?” He took flight and soared down to the lower muskeg where he joined a 2nd eagle. I noted a raven nearby. Were the bird there because of the buck? I picked up my pack and moved down slope curving around the knob and into the forest. Birds exploded from the forest. At least another 6-7 eagles and an untold number of ravens. I followed my tracks from the 11th still frozen onto the trail to where the birds rose from. There, not 15 feet from where I had stood at least 4 times on the 11th was the buck where he had died on that day, just off the trail in a small depression behind a log. I set down in both disbelief and relief…closure. A wolf had chewed off the rib bones accessing the chest cavity. The birds had eaten all but the front shoulders and neck. An autopsy showed a perfect pass through double lung shot a bit high. His death was swift. The shot WAS true. It took me 16 days to find him. He died 60 yards from where I shot him. To make sure all legal considerations were addressed, though slightly soured, I salvaged the remaining meat before the antlers. I packed both out. I am sorry to not have utilized all of this great animal, but days of agonizing and at least 8 hours of searching finally paid off…with the help of the eagles and ravens. My thanks to my friend for making such a fine rifle. The first buck it shot will score high in the Longhunter Records, and be forever remembered for the search it led me on. The image of his steaming body in the sunlight is burned into my memory. God I love these deer!

Roaring Bucks

Roaring Bucks

November 11th has historically been my best hunting day. I have taken more bucks on that day than any other.…Veteran’s Day 2015 was no exception. Sophie Gilbert and I returned to where we had seen some gigantic rubs in hopes of finding their maker/makers. The weather was a combination of rain/hail/snow and sunshine. The afternoon was mostly good weather. We called, rattled, grunted, and saw nothing until about 1:30 in the afternoon…

Patience and preparedness!

How many times do we need to relearn patience and preparedness? November 8th, 2015, the rut was in full swing. Dr. Sophie Gilbert (Assistant Professor, Department of Fish & Wildlife Sciences, University of Idaho) and Dr. Casey Brown (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Wildlife Research Biologist) came to Prince of Wales Island to experience a November rut hunt. It was Casey’s first big game hunt. On Sunday morning we were about ¾ miles off the road at the edge of a great muskeg opening/bedding area. It was overcast but cool with a light breeze. We had been calling since dawn working our way deeper into great country. We had called one doe out a cross a frosty muskeg. Rubs were everywhere. At about 10:45 am I began a rattling/grunting call sequence. Maybe about 10 minutes into it, out walked a great 2 x 2 at about 65 yards across the muskeg. He turned sideways circling to the right in and out of the bull pine at the edge of the clearing. Sophie and I hoped that Casey would get her first deer. She sat poised and ready to my left, rifle up, waiting. We did not know that her shot was obscured. Watching the buck as I continued to call out of his site, I could tell he had just about had enough. Finally, he cleared all brush, I suggested that someone needed to shoot and Sophie put the hammer down. He never moved. Hugs and high-5’s all around. We crossed the muskeg, paying respect, thanking the blacktail Gods, and taking photos. We had been there about 15 minutes still admiring Sophie’s buck when I heard a noise 20 yards behind me; a grunt then a limb snap and I caught movement. Out walked a great 5 x 5, he turned broadside staring at me. Steam rose from his body. I was 15 feet from my Hawken, 15 yards from the buck. Neither young lady had their rifle at hand. The buck whirled running straight away. I made it to my Hawken as he was zigging and zagging in and out of the bull pine and cedar at the muskeg edge. He turned to disappear into the forest at about 60 yards. I jumped to the left as he stopped, his head obscured, only his vitals showing between two pines. I focused on the sweet spot and snapped off the shot. When the smoke cleared, he was gone. We all looked at each other in awe of what had just happened. After reloading and feeling like an idiot for being caught unprepared, we went to where he had been standing. There were hairs on the moss where he had stood. A bit of hair where the round ball went in and a clump of hair and bits of lung where it came out. He was dead somewhere, the roundball had found its mark. We tracked bits of blood a ways then lost the sign. We circled to the left down a well-used deer trail. We had not gone more than 30 yards when the morning breeze was filled with the strong odor of a rutting buck. We followed the breeze to where he lay. He had not gone 40 yards. I am convinced he was still coming to the calling though we were cackling like school children over Sophie’s buck. I have learned many times that it is 25 to 45 minutes after you quit rattling that a buck will appear. How many times do we need to learn patience? God, I love these deer.

Muzzleloading Sitka blacktail from a tree stand...

A close friend of mine, Kris Larson had found a set of cool non-typical Sitka blacktail sheds in the spring of 2013.  That fall, he put up trail cameras near this spot in hopes of getting an image of the buck and told me where they were.  I had not really started using trail cameras yet, only having a couple to experiment with. Kris lives in Ketchikan and works for Fish and Game and does not get out here often enough.  I asked him if I could check his cameras for him. He obliged.  Holy Cow! The first time I checked his camera there were 90 images of several bucks on one of them.  He had a sequence of a nice 5 x 5 coming through the small opening every day between noon and dark.  He had found this bucks sheds from the year before. I asked him if I could hunt that buck, I wanted to try a tree stand...I am no a lover of tree stand hunting, it truly tries my patience.  However...on 11/02/2013 at about 10:30 I hiked into "the spot" with an old tree stand and hung it.  It was about 46 degrees and I worked up a sweat.  About 11:00 I began my sit. The temperature was dropping to freezing.  I had sweated and I was not dressed for freezing temperatures.  I got cold. At about 2:00 pm I decided to get down and go back to the truck and come in dressed for all day in the morning. At 2:18 pm the big buck pushed a doe and a fawn past the stand (see the first image). I was back at 8:50 the next morning dressed for an all day sit.  It was 29 degrees. I checked the trail camera and saw he had passed about 20 minutes after I left.  Go figure.  I climbed into the stand, I was not going to budge today.  Nothing but one Golden Crowned Kinglet stirred until a doe stepped into the opening at about 3:28 pm...she followed my tracks to the stand, smelled my pack, smelled were I had peed, mouthed the rope I had pulled the rifle up with and walked off.  I cocked the rifle and swung towards where she had come out of the woods.  Into the opening the buck ran shaking his head.  He passed right by my trail camera setting off a three shot burst.  I had no idea you could see me in my stand in the background.  He passes the camera, I mouth grunt him to a stop, I fire and he dies just out of the last frame.  Check out the images below.  This is one of the coolest hunting sequences ever (my opinion)...I wish I could say I set it up but I'm not that good...my first time using trail cameras and tree stands for Sitka blacktail….other than the LONG moments of boredom followed by a few split seconds of bliss it is great. And worth it all..I love these deer.  

Closure

In 2016 I revisited one of the many collections of annually rubbed trees I knew of for the past 20 years. The trees were now much larger but an obviously great buck had been rubbing on them. I revisited that site in 2017 and found one of his shed antlers some 70 yards away and more rubs. I hunted hard for this buck but never had the pleasure of an encounter. In 2018, armed with trail cameras I set out to get an image of the buck. I might not see him in the flesh but I hoped to get an image of him at least. Though several nice bucks visited the site, no huge, wide monarch appeared. November 9th I changed my exist route from the cameras and rubs by 30 yards and noticed another shed antler, no two sheds, no; OMG here laid the buck where he had died December of 2017. The reason I never got images of him this year was because he laid on the forest floor 150 yards away. He was a wonderful, wide, heavy old warrior, gross scores 101 6/8". So ends this story. A new adventure starts with his prodigy. I love sitka blacktail deer... 

The December old-growth buck...

Hello from the Deck!

December 1st 2018 was a perfect hunting day.  Frosty and cold, clear skies and a light wind. Perfect for the Hawken. I explored a new area, climbing to 1300 feet elevation. I had identified a south facing big stand of timber and muskeg complex that given its location should hold a few deer. 

As I entered the first muskeg, I called in a doe who circled in the open finally catching my wind.  With short days to hunt, I pushed on to the timber stand I wanted to explore.  I was pleased, it was very open, deer sigh everywhere.  I could see out to a hundred yards in most every direction.  I still hunted to the edge of where the slope dove downhill.  I crawled into the buttressed roots of a large spruce where the slope fell away beneath me.  The ridge to the west also looked like a good bedding spot.  If I were a deer, I would be on the south facing slopes absorbing the noon sun.

I called several times and waited. A doe appeared about 120 yards away. Her neck, face, and flanks were wet from where a buck was tending her.  She moved to about 70 yards away.  I caught a glint of antler coming down the ridge.  He stopped at 120 yards, in the cold air and sunlight filtering through the trees you could see his breath.  The doe came closer and he moved to about 80 yards distant, obscured by a windfall.  He grunted to her and she turned back towards him.  They moved north behind a veil of windthrow and brush.  She entered the last possible opening, and I ranged her at 70 yards.  She moved through the opening and away up the ridge. 

I readied for the shot.  The buck entered the opening between the trees and I mouth grunted him to a stop.  He turned, looking for the challenger. I told myself to aim small miss small resting on the spruce root.  The smoke obscured the shot.  I rolled right and could see the buck 20 yards up the ridge… 

I swore I saw him go down.  As I reloaded, I replayed the shot picture in my mind.  As a hunter we always begin to doubt the outcome until we touch the animal.  I put my pack on and worked my way through the huge open forest and turned onto the trail the deer had used.  Where the buck had stood were a couple tufts of hair.  The trail was churned up where he ran after the shot.  I followed. Seeing the first bright red blood, my doubt eased. 

As I rounded a rocky ridge, he laid where I had last seen him.  A grand Sitka blacktail. He had only gone 20 yards from where he stood at the shot. 

I am so thankful for public lands where we can have such experiences.  I sat in a ray of sunshine on the forest floor surrounded by enormous trees and paid my respects. I took some photos and boned and caped the buck.  The pack was heavy on my shoulders as I made my way back down through the forest arriving at the truck as the last bit of sunlight faded behind the horizon. The weight felt good, the rewards of a perfect day and hunt. I am always humbled.

We should never take the opportunities we have for granted.  For me this was a personal milestone.  This wonderful buck is the 200th animal I have taken with a traditional black powder rifle.  As a hunter, days just do not get better than this.

Jim's World Record Buck Hunt

A version of this article has appeared in the North American Hunter Magazine, October 1999, Volume 133, Grueling Hunt Nets World Record Sitka, pp. 86-87) and in the Longhunter Muzzleloading Big Game Record book, 2017, Seventh Edition, pp. 94-95. This hunt happened on August 1, 1998.

Dennis Landwehr and I worked our way towards the three point he had just busted in its bed. We used the topography to keep as concealed as possible for we suspected that other deer were around. As we rounded one of the rock ledges, we spotted a group of five bucks feeding at about 600 yards. Several other deer were feeding on the adjacent ridges.

We slowly glassed the landscape. One of the five bucks was a dandy, a large three by three with eye guards and good mass. We were discussing how I might get close enough with my custom Hawken for a shot when in the periphery of my binoculars I saw a movement. I shifted and refocused my binoculars on the movement near one of the small trees in the alpine meadow.

What I saw shook me to the bone. Rising above a rock ridge some 300 yards in front of us were a set of antlers, each side supporting four long points. In eight years of hunting the Sitka black-tail in Southeast Alaska I had never seen such a rack. The height, symmetry, and mass of the velvet-covered antlers were incredible. We were hidden from the buck’s vision by the rock outcrop. Dennis’ earlier shot had not alerted the buck, however, a doe just above him stared at us intently. I had to move fast.

Dennis and I moved back behind the rock ledge. I took off my pack as I described how I thought I might get close enough for a shot. I backtracked into the draw we had just climbed. The wind was perfect, a light steady breeze from the buck to me. I moved forward keeping the rock outcrop between the buck and me. I tried not to think about the massive antlers I had seen through the binoculars. I tried to focus on the spot I had last seen the buck and on what I needed to do to make the shot.

It took me about 15 minutes to get to within range, still out of sight of the buck and doe. I checked the powder under my nipple. The last 80 yards were the toughest. I crawled slowly to a rock outcrop only 30 yards from the bedded buck. I calmed myself once more and crept forward. I could see the doe, standing alert only 40 yards distant. As I crept forward the buck was suddenly in full view, still in his bed at 30 yards.

The hunt had started seven years before. In my work as a geologist with the US Forest Service I had flown by helicopter to this remote site in 1991, leaving an inventory crew in the alpine for a week. Upon returning, they had videos of huge blacktails crossing the alpine meadows in the rain. I again visited the area in 1993 and 1995, this time photographing large deer myself. In 1995, I tried a solo hunt to the area. I borrowed a skiff and motored the 50 miles to the beach below the alpine ridge.

After securing the boat I began the climb from salt water to the ridge above. The weather front that had threatened had come early and clouds obscured the ridge by mid-afternoon. After many hours of pushing through the thick undergrowth and surviving a fall, I decided it best to return to the beach and spend the night on the skiff and return home in the morning. The weather and the terrain had beaten me. When I reached the beach at 10:00 pm I found the tide out. It took me until midnight to water the boat. I weathered the night’s storm anchored in the bay and worked my way home the next morning. Weather hampered attempts to reach the ridge in 1996 and 1997.

Dennis and I had planned this years trip well in advance, and when it looked like the weather would cooperate we were ready. We chartered a ride to the beach and began our ascent in the morning hours of a crystal clear day. The first three hours of the climb were not bad through the dense rainforest of Southeast Alaska but the last five were grueling. The only route to the top was through a Sitka alder choked shoot. The alder was entwined with devils club, salmonberry, and current. For five hours we pushed against the wall of vegetation. We made camp that evening just below the alpine, gathered water, and went to bed early. On the morning of August 1, 1998, we climbed the last hour to the ridge crest and began our hunt. Within moments of reaching the alpine we spotted a nice three point in its bed. We discussed whether to take the buck or not and Dennis decided to not let the opportunity pass. As I previously described, I now found myself 30 yards from the buck of my dreams.

I had expected the massive four point to rise and give me the shot I needed. The other deer we had spotted stood on the surrounding ridges seemingly unconcerned. The massive animal rocketed from his bed, running straight away. I rose to one knee and held on his shoulders swinging with him. I did not want to make a running shot but within 90 yards the buck would be into the next draw. Not believing that he would stop I set the rear trigger and took careful aim.

At about 60 yards he suddenly turned full broadside and attempted to leap between two rock ledges. He faltered, missing his footing on the upper ledge. I swung the sights of the .54 caliber Hawken (a Track-of-the-Wolf custom rifle) deep into the buck’s heavy chest and fired. At that same time he bent forward on his forelegs, preparing to leap onto the rock ledge above. The roundball smashed through his spine and the buck slumped to the base of the outcrop.  He lay motionless.

I slowly reloaded and Dennis appeared from where I had left him with both of our packs. Dennis quickly worked his way over towards me, announcing that he wanted a chance at the largest of the 5 bucks still watching from the meadow above. Suddenly my buck began to thrash coming to rest on his front legs. I sat down and took careful aim on this throat and fired. The buck moved no more.

Dennis came to my side and stacked our packs on the rocks where we stood. He laid down and took careful aim on the massive three point who still watched with curiosity the intruders into his high country. Dennis’ 30.06 roared and a third buck was added to the morning’s hunt. At this point we had no concept of just how big my buck was. I did know that we had three deer on the ground which meant we would be boning and packing a lot of meat.

Dennis and I gathered our gear and moved towards my buck which was closest. The closer we got the larger the animal became. Not only were his antlers unbelievable, his body was nearly twice the size of the average good buck we were used to. We paid our respects to the magnificent buck and stood by it for a long time both in admiration and awe. It was only then that I realized that I had shattered the existing record for a Sitka black-tail taken with black powder.

We photographed and cleaned all three deer and then began the boning process. We rested that evening in camp under clear starlit skies. We radioed our ride that we needed an early pickup the next morning. We then began what would be a 12-hour climb down off of the mountain. We finally hung the meat at 8:00 pm that evening in a large spruce near our camp at saltwater.

As we made camp and gathered water a wolf howled in the distance. I howled back to the wolf and he came closer. Within moments he was just a few yards across a small bay in the timber. This is when he smelled the meat and for the next several hours he barked and howled at us expressing his desire for the conveniently delivered deer meat. We re-hung the meat and antlers far up in the branches of the spruce. The wolf finally ended his serenade shortly after midnight and we finally got some much-needed sleep. Our ride arrived promptly at 6:00 the next morning. The long ride home gave us plenty of time to reflect on the spectacular hunt that we had both experienced.

After the mandatory 60-day drying period the antlers scored 121 6/8 Boone and Crocket and 125 3/8 Safari Club International points. This places the buck as the #1 Sitka Blacktail in the Longhunter Muzzleloading Big Game Records, as #12 in the all time Boone and Crockett Sitka Black-tail (as of 03/02/2019 B&C Trophy Search), and as #1 in the Sitka Blacktail/Muzzleloader records for SCI. I have hunted both Dall sheep and mountain goat and by far this hunt was more physically demanding. I can not wait to go back.

~Jim Baichtal