Hunt Of A Lifetime: Kodiak Brown Bear

AK brown bear sam

My friend and fellow Virginia hunter Sam Fullerton just returned from a dream hunt and filed this field report:

The hunt took place in a special draw area on the northern end of Afognak Island in the Kodiak chain. It took 3 years to draw the permit.

I booked the hunt through Wade Darby at Crosshair Hunting Consulting. Wade booked me with Afognak Wilderness Lodge, which has an extremely remote camp that the Randall family has chiseled out of the Afognak wilderness over the last 50 years. It is an impressive camp considering every single thing was either made from the rocks or trees growing on the island, or brought in by float plane or boat.

We left base camp every day by boat, and after about an hour’s ride to our permitted hunting area we glassed from the boat along the shore lines and hillsides.  We concentrated along the beaches at low tide. When we spotted a bear and determined it was a good one, we launched a Zodiac with a small motor and maneuvered to shore to get a closer look at the animal. We saw from 5 to 20 bears each day. Many were inaccessible and we simply watched to see if they would move or feed into better position, which rarely happened.

One day we spotted a bear, launched the Zodiac and got into position. My guide, Josh Randall, immediately realized we were looking at an exceptionally good one. After a good bit of slipping and sliding we were able to get into a good shooting position on a slime-and-barnacle covered rock along the beach. The bear fed towards us, flipping over rocks and driftwood looking for food.

I shot the bear squarely in the front shoulder with hand-loaded 270-grain Barnes TSX from my .375 H&H. Hit hard with the first shot, it spun and snapped a few times. I followed up with a second shot and the bear dropped on the beach within 40 yards.

I feel extremely fortunate to have had an opportunity to harvest such a majestic animal like this. Walking up to this bear was like a dream. I was in shock at the sheer size of the animal. The hide was spectacular, heavy and thick. Its head was massive.

My guide Josh was as excited as I was. We were able to get the main boat to the beach and winch the bear onto the front of the boat to return to camp for skinning, which was an all-day affair.

The hide was not stretched and had been salted when the hide measurements were taken. The bear squared 10 feet 7 inches claw to claw wide, and was 9 feet 6 inches nose to tail, putting it just over the magical 10-foot squared mark.  Alaska game and fish biologists measured the skull at 27 9/16, which will qualify it for Boone & Crockett awards. It was tentatively aged by the biologist at approximately 25 years old. Nearly all the bear’s teeth were either broken or rotten.–Sam Fullerton

Tech notes: Sam Fullerton is a well-traveled big game hunter and hand-loader. Sam reports that while skinning the bear, he recovered the first Barnes TSX bullet, which had entered the front shoulder at a slightly quartering-to angle; it was bulging under the hide just in front of the opposite side rear hip. “Perfect bullet performance with nearly 100% weight retention,” he says. Sam has also used the Barnes TSX in both 270- and 300-grain on a variety of African big game with the same impressive results.

Mule Deer: Why Antler-Point Restrictions Don’t Work

mule deer 2 ptMost western states and provinces have, over the years, implemented some type of antler-point restrictions during mule deer hunting seasons. On the surface, antler restrictions make sense: If by law hunters cannot shoot young fork-horns and other immature bucks, those deer will grow older and bigger next year and the next. More mature bucks is good for the health of any herd, right? And most hunters want to shoot a deer with big antlers, right?

Not necessarily, say experts with the Mule Deer Working Group (MDWG). These researchers and biologists report that antler-point restrictions have proved to have limited potential to produce more trophy bucks, and they result in a myriad of challenges and problems. For example:

– Available data and experience from across the West suggest that antler restrictions result in no long-term increase in either the proportion or number of mature bucks in a herd, or the total deer population. Antler-point restrictions have been shown to actually reduce the number of trophy bucks in a herd over time by protecting only smaller-antlered young bucks.

–Antler-point restrictions do not increase fawn production or herd population size.

–Antler restrictions dramatically reduce hunter participation, success and total harvest. They can cheapen the value of young bucks by changing the threshold for success from “any buck” is good to a quest where “only a big buck will do.” Antler point restrictions may discourage hunters (especially beginning and young hunters) because it can be difficult to locate and identify legal deer.

WORST UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCE: Antler-point restrictions increase the number of deer shot and illegally left in the field; this can be significant and has been documented in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, Nevada, and Montana.

The MDWG says that after decades of disappointing results, most western states and provinces have discontinued statewide antler-point restrictions (although some local jurisdictions still have them in limited areas). The two main reasons for abandoning them are: (1) unacceptable accidental-illegal kill, and (2) increased harvest mortality focused on the very age class of buck of it was intended to promote.

Today, according to the MDWG, most states and provinces have concluded that rather than antler-point restrictions, the best way to improve mule deer numbers (including number of mature bucks) and buck:doe ratios is to reduce the annual harvest through 1) a limited-quota licensing system that decreases overall total buck harvest while allowing for some level of doe harvest; or 2) setting a very short hunting season in early fall (before rut) when mature bucks are less vulnerable.

Bottomline for those of you planning a mule deer hunt anywhere out West: Anticipate more draw/quota hunts, and perhaps more and shorter seasons in early to mid-October.

Photo above: The problem with antler-point restrictions. While this 2-point buck is fully mature and should be fair game for any hunter, he would off-limits in an area where “one antler must have 3 points.” Also, while an antler-point restriction rule would unnecessarily protect this older buck, all he’ll ever be antler-wise is a 2-point… most hunters are looking for at least a mature 3-point and more typically a big 4.

Why Are Fewer People Hunting in 2018?

ny adirondacks rob buckA survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveals that only 5% of Americans age 16 and up hunt. That’s half of what it was 50 years ago.

The number of licensed hunters, most of them deer hunters, dropped from 14.2 million in 1991 to 11.5 million in 2016. Most disturbing, the decline is expected to accelerate over the next decades.

Why fewer of us? I have my suspicions and government agencies and wildlife organizations have their theories, but I wanted information from real-life hard-core hunters, so I did a little Twitter/social survey. It’s far from scientific, but pretty darn representative I believe.

Loss of Access

By far the number one reason fewer people are hunting, especially east of the Mississippi, is loss of access to private land. This is not surprising, and it’s something I have known for years, but we have seemingly reached a tipping point. After years fighting it, trying to hold on to one or two spots they have hunted for years, people get frustrated and fatigued. Another 200 acres or so a guy has hunted for 20 or 30 years gets bought and posted and he says, “That’s it, I’m out.”

The repercussions? Not only do our numbers drop another tick, this guy’s kids don’t get the chance to hunt, and their kids don’t… You get the point.

Many landowners are posting their private properties, closing them to hunting probably forever. Others are leasing farms and woodlands to deer hunters and clubs, often at exorbitant fees depending on the rack genetics of a region. Many private lands continue to be developed, with houses springing up on hallowed ground where you and I shot deer for years.

My survey revealed that leasing land remains a hot topic, with strong feelings on both sides. One person in the Midwest wrote: “In my area almost all the private ground is now leased…people are paying big money, and I can’t afford that. So eventually I’ll have to quit…and dammit my kids and grand kids can’t hunt.”

Another hunter in Virginia posted: “My buddies and I lease land. We don’t like paying for it, but hell if we didn’t we wouldn’t have anywhere to hunt.”

Hunting Is Too Expensive

“Hunting has become a rich man’s sport.” I’ve heard people say this for years, but again we have seemed to reach a tipping point. Most deer hunters that responded to my survey, hard-working men and women, can’t afford lease fees or are not willing to pay up to hunt.

A number of people also mentioned that the cost of gear and tags have gone up so much so that they can’t or aren’t willing to pay for it. I get where they are coming from. But all things considered, if you still have a spot to hunt, hunting deer in your home state is still pretty cheap. As a rule, in-state licenses are reasonable. You can buy a fine new deer rifle package with a scope for $400 or less. The truth is, you can wear the same camo you have worn for 10 years, and in most cases use the same old gun and bow. So I urge you not to let cost impact your hunting.

America’s Changing Demographics & Culture

This is the most complex reason for the decline and the one that causes me the most worry. The vast majority of urban and suburban parents don’t hunt, and thus their kids will never have a chance. Rural parents, the ones that have driven the recruitment of young hunters for years, are super busy. And many of them have a different outlook on life and priorities than you or I or our fathers did, so their kids are never introduced to the woods.

As one guy wrote: “Many parents would rather pay $10,000 a year for their kids to play select sports than take them deer hunting these days.”

Most everybody rightly pointed to technology, electronics, video games, social media, Snap and the like. One person said: “When a kid becomes addicted to all this by the time he’s 4 or 5, he can’t imagine going out into the cold, wet woods when he’s 6 or 7 to sit still and wait for a deer.”

A few other notable comments from my survey:

One person wrote that baby boomers are aging and not hunting anymore. True, and there are facts to support this. Studies have shown that hunters are most active at 48 years old. Every few years after that, they hunt less and less…around 65 most people hang it up, either by choice or necessity.

One guy responded and said: “Part of the overall decline in hunters can be traced to the decline of America’s once rich traditional conservative values.” I’d say some truth in that.

Another person posted: “Some of my friends just say they have lost of the fire to hunt.” Disturbing, and if you dug deeper into their thinking I bet you’d find that they have lost all or most of their best places to hunt. They might have been forced to hunt a few years on public land where they didn’t have must success. All this douses that fire.

That guy, who still has the fire, went on to say:”Time to find some new friends!” LOL

Here’s the main reason all this matters. State wildlife agencies depend heavily on you, me and our brothers and sisters in arms for funding. Money generated from license fees and excise taxes on guns, ammunition and fishing equipment provide some 60% ($3.3 billion) of the annual funding for state fish and game agencies. As hunter numbers dwindle, so do dollars for conservation.

For more on the decline of hunters and the culture of hunting in America, this article is must read.  

So what do you think? Still got any good places to hunt? Still got the fire to shoot a deer?

I do.

Alabama Snow Freaks Out Deer

IMG_2959[1]A couple of weeks ago we had a TV crew down near Selma, Alabama. The rut typically kicks off around January 15 here, and after my first 2 sits I knew we’d hit things just right.

I saw young bucks scent-trailing and chasing, and the first evening a pretty good buck fight broke out in the food plot I watched. I had 3 more days to hunt, and figured it was just a matter of time until I saw a shooter. I was not going to be picky; people had been hunting these areas and these stands for weeks, making these already wild deer spookier and more nocturnal yet. If I saw a 3.5- or 4.5-year-old buck with a 120-plus rack, I’d gladly take him.

The next morning deer rutted harder yet. I didn’t see much from my ladder, but my friend and Sportsman Channel colleague Graig Hale spotted a high-racked buck chasing a doe through the woods. The white antlers looked heavy, so Graig dropped him with a quick shot from his .270 Remington Model 783.

Great decision: the 4.5-year-old 8-point buck scored 136 with character, a real trophy for hard-hunted ground in Alabama.

All good, but dark clouds were moving in and the temperature was dropping fast as I headed to my stand that evening. Around 2:00 o’clock, sleeted started and then turned to light snow.

Normally I hope for cold and snow in the rut, but not in Alabama. “This weather will freak these deer out,” I told my cameraman Mike.

The snow picked up and the temperature dropped into the 20s at dusk. We didn’t see a single deer. It snowed 3 inches overnight, and was 10 degrees the next morning. We saw nothing, even the squirrels refused to move. I hunted 2½ more days and saw a total of 4 deer, and no bucks even close to shooting.

Back home, to confirm my suspicions that snow and cold freak out Southern deer, I emailed Chuck Sykes, Director Alabama Wildlife and Fisheries. He wrote back:

Mike: You’ve got to think like an Alabama deer not a Midwestern deer. Most of our deer have never seen snow. They may be 3 or 4 years old before they do. So, it does freak them out. It’s been my experience over the years down here, sleep in when it snows or a hard cold front comes in. They hunker down in the closest thicket and pout until it warms up a bit and the snow starts to melt. It usually takes them 2 or 3 days to get adjusted. 

I’ll remember that next time I hunt the Deep South, and you should too if you live down there.

But all was not lost. Graig shooting his great buck the morning before the snow hit saved the day and helped to make another fine episode of BIG DEER TV that will appear on Sportsman later this year.

IMG_2956[1]

 

2 Reasons a Mature Buck Avoids Your Trail Camera

graig hale kansas 2017My friend Graig Hale shot this great buck in Kansas one afternoon last December. It was the first time anyone had spotted this giant on the farm where Graig got him.

Brian Helman of 180 Outdoors scouts incessantly and has incredible knowledge of the bucks that live on the leases and farms that he manages in southeastern Kansas. Brian went back through thousands trail camera pictures he’d captured last summer and fall—not one image of Graig’s buck. Then he and checked tens of thousands of pictures from 2016 and earlier—still no picture of the old buck.

Generally whitetails in this type habitat—a perfect mix of corns, beans, food plots, oak strips and woodlots, and creek bottoms—have a home range of a mile or so, and a mature buck’s core area is smaller than that. But obviously the buck did not live on that farm, and to Brian’s knowledge had never stepped hoof on there before.

Why was the big deer there that one day last December? Where had he come from? I have 2 theories.

One, he might have been one of the few bucks that live on a farm for a few years, and then for whatever reason picks up and leaves, only to return a couple years later. We actually posted last September about a Kentucky buck that did just that.

BUT, a better explanation I believe is that this buck was pushed out of his core area by hunting pressure. Graig and I hunted the first week of KS rifle season in early December 2017. While there were no other hunters on the farm that Graig hunted that week, there was obviously pressure all around on surrounding farms.

It is true, and it’s been supported by many studies, that in the face of hunting pressure, most big bucks hole up and go nocturnal, but don’t leave their home ranges and core areas entirely. But I believe that sometimes a mature buck has just had enough. Day after day hunters plow through the woods and thickets where he hides…ATVs roar around…rifles crack. A buck says to heck with this, and goes on a “pressure excursion,” sneaking a couple miles or more off to a place where there are fewer people and where he might relax.

I theorize that the 5-year-old 9-point Graig killed had done just that, and that is why the buck had never before been seen on the farm before. I believe that had Graig not killed him that afternoon, the buck would have made his way back to his home turf in a couple of weeks when the season was over and the guns had stopped booming.

Bottom line, you never know when and where you’ll encounter a shooter buck, man. Your very best tactic is plan and scout as best you can, and then put in as much stand time as you can, right up to season’s end.

You can see Graig’s hunt for this buck on the new season of BIG DEER TV, coming summer 2018.