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’BOU! No Tricks, Just Treats


Hunting Nelchina Caribou

Best Fall Coho Gear

ARCTIC ADVENTURE Down The ‘Kug’ Without A Paddle


Tundra Grizzly Extreme Blacktails

SWIMBAITS NOT JUST FOR BASS Alaska Pike Love/Hate These Huge Lures!




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SPORTING JOURNAL Volume 9 • Issue 5 PUBLISHER James R. Baker ASSOCIATE PUBLISHER Dick Openshaw GENERAL MANAGER John Rusnak EXECUTIVE EDITOR Andy Walgamott EDITOR Chris Cocoles WRITERS Paul D. Atkins, Christopher Batin, Chris Cox, Scott Haugen, Tiffany Haugen, Darrell Holland, Jeff Lund, Mike Lunde, Bixler McClure, Krystin McClure SALES MANAGER Katie Higgins ACCOUNT EXECUTIVES Nancy Ekse, Mamie Griffin, Mike Smith, Paul Yarnold PRODUCTION MANAGER Sonjia Kells DESIGNERS Sam Rockwell, Jake Weipert WEB DEVELOPMENT/INBOUND MARKETING Jon Hines PRODUCTION ASSISTANT Kelly Baker OFFICE MANAGER/ACCOUNTS Audra Higgins ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT Katie Sauro INFORMATION SERVICES MANAGER Lois Sanborn ADVERTISING INQUIRIES

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ON THE COVER For subsistence hunters like Paul Atkins, a nice bull caribou will provide plenty of meat for the long Alaskan winter. There are roughly 950,000 caribou in the state and they’re a popular species of big game for hunters to target. (PAUL D. ATKINS) MEDIA INDEX PUBLISHING GROUP WASHINGTON OFFICE 14240 Interurban Ave South • Suite 190 Tukwila, WA 98168 (206) 382-9220 • Fax (206) 382-9437 • OREGON OFFICE 8116 SW Durham Rd • Tigard, OR 97224 CORRESPONDENCE Twitter @AKSportJourn Email | OCTOBER 2017


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When Chris Cox and Chris Dankmeyer wanted a challenge, they decided to float the Kugururok River, which flows through one of the Last Frontier’s most rugged regions. For extra credit, they left key raft parts at home ... or maybe just forgot them. But between a little Alaskan ingenuity and a lot of para-cord, they enjoyed an epic fishing and wildlife-viewing trip. (CHRIS COX)


THE ELI, WHERE IT ALL BEGAN Most of us have a special spot stored in our memory bank, a place we hope to get back to someday. For Paul Atkins, it was the site of a childhood fishing and hunting trip on the upper Noatak River and a channel there that had such a profound impact on who he became that he named his son after it. When a friend planned a return, Paul jumped at the chance to reconnect with his past.


EXTREME BLACKTAIL HUNTING Kodiak’s celebrated brown bears attract many hunters to one of Alaska’s wildest ecosystems. Blacktails are also ubiquitous on the Gulf of Alaska island, which draws hunters like our Chris Batin, who shares why this is his favorite place to push himself to be the best deer hunter possible – and fill his freezer with tasty venison.


A BUCK ON A BOW Jeff Lund began his deer hunting career with a rifle, but the Southeast Alaska sportsman also practiced with a bow. But when he felt comfortable enough to use his fledgling archery skills to try and bag a buck, he faced an unexpected conundrum after stalking a spike.

1O3 FALLING FOR AUTUMN SILVERS October finds most Alaskans turning their attention to hunting big game, but coho can still be plentiful in many of the Last Frontier’s rivers. In fact, Scott Haugen calls this month the most overlooked of the season for silvers. Check out his top lures for this time of year, as well as Tiffany’s recipe for a spicy salmon gumbo that’ll warm you up as the weather begins to cool down!


Nelchina Herd caribou hunting Toss swimbaits for monster northern pike Are you prepared for a natural disaster?

DEPARTMENTS 17 19 19 37 101

The Editor’s Note Protecting Wild Alaska: How to safely release salmon Outdoor calendar Big Game Focus: All about caribou Fly of the month: Woolhead sculpin

Alaska Sporting Journal is published monthly. Call Media Inc. Publishing Group for a current rate card. Discounts for frequency advertising. All submitted materials become the property of Media Inc. Publishing Group and will not be returned. Annual subscriptions are $29.95 (12 issues) or $39.95 (24 issues). Send check or money order to Media Inc. Publishing Group, 14240 Interurban Ave South, Suite 190, Tukwila, WA 98168 or call (206) 382-9220 with VISA or M/C. Back issues may be ordered at Media Inc. Publishing Group, subject to availability, at the cost of $5 plus shipping. Copyright © 2017 Media Inc. Publishing Group. All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be copied by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording by any information storage or retrieval system, without the express written permission of the publisher. Printed in U.S.A. 12


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Paul Atkins made a triumphant return to the upper Noatak, a river of special memories where he’d experienced an epic hunting and fishing trip years before. (PAUL D. ATKINS)


really enjoyed Paul Atkins’ story this issue on his return to fish and hunt the upper Noatak River, a spot that holds a special place in his heart after a trip there as a boy. When it comes to adventure, I’m one of those who mostly prefer to see something new than try and recreate a previous trip of a lifetime. Besides the idea that I feel life speeds by so fast, I can’t see myself missing out on a new destination if I end up going back to one I’ve seen – albeit enjoyed. So I promised myself I’d get back to Montana and spend a week trout fishing there – I drove through on a cross-country trip with a friend and we had little time to get more than a taste of a spectacularly beautiful state. But I’m also dying to hook a muskie in some remote lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (then again, I keep hearing about those monster trout in New Zealand, so maybe that’s worth saving up for). I’m just glad Atkins had a great experience. When a good friend and I were kids, we both enjoyed a lake a few hours from home that our families returned to every year. A certain resort had a mini-golf course, a sandy beach and horseshoe pits, as well as a long fishing pier that we’d cast lines from and reel in an occasional catfish. We always had fun. Fast-forward about 20 years to our 30s and we decided to spend a long weekend at the same resort. Let’s just say time hadn’t aged the lodge nor the adjacent area very well. We left shaking our heads about why everything was so run down and depressing. Still, we were able to make it back, and there never are guarantees that you won’t be disappointed. But that’s what makes travel so deliciously unpredictable. So do yourself a favor today and rummage through those old photos and find your own upper Noatak reunion to go back to. You might just find your own paradise (again). –Chris Cocoles | OCTOBER 2017





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laska is blessed as one of the last strongholds of native salmon and trout populations in the world. With a rich cultural and spiritual history devoted to harvesting fish for the dinner table, times have recently changed with threats from climate change, commercial overharvest and pollution. So when you’re choosing to release that coho or rainbow, there are certain guidelines you should follow to enhance a fish’s odds of surviving to fight another day. Here are a half-dozen reminders of what to carry and how put a fish back in the water: 1. Have two sets of pliers or hemostats, a small pair for trout or grayling and larger set for salmon and steelhead. 2. Use a rubber mesh net to reduce physical damage. Knotted nylon or monofilament mesh nets remove



If you choose to release that Alaskan Chinook, follow the author’s guidelines to ensure your fish safely swims off to continue its spawning journey. (MICHAEL LUNDE)

scales, mucus or slime, and cause pectoral and caudal fin abrasions. 3. If the fish is hooked inside or within the gill area, it is recommended to cut the standing end of the line as close to the fly or lure as possible. Hooks rust over time and eventually fall out. 4. Keep photo ops limited to a minute or less when holding fish out of the water. Minimize air exposure during periods of warmer water temperatures (60 degrees or greater), as fish generate additional lactic acid.

5. Avoid holding fish vertically since it places additional stress on their spines. 6. Release fish in an upstream position in areas with slow current flow. Follow the above guidelines and your prized trophy catch will swim off with higher odds of survival. An advantage with catch-and-release fishing is that participation is still allowed in the fishery, and the money generated from license sales can be used for funding fisheries research projects to conserve and maintain current populations. ASJ


Oct. 1 Oct. 1 Oct. 1 Oct. 1 Oct. 7 Oct. 15 Oct. 15 Oct. 15 Oct. 15

Goat season opener in Game Management Unit 1B (Southeast Mainland; draining into Lynn Canal and Stephens Passage between Antler River and Eagle Glacier/River) Elk season opener in GMU 3 (Etolin Island) Elk season opener in GMU 8 (KodiakRaspberry Island) Fall brown bear season opens in GMU 9 (Alaska Peninsula) Brown bear season opens in GMU 10 (Aleutians) Goat season opens in GMU 6 (Cordova) Deer season opens in GMU 3 (Petersburg-Wrangell) Youth deer hunt season opens in GMU 5 (Yakutat) Moose hunt season opens in GMU 5 Fall brown bear hunt season opens in GMU 6 (Montague Island)

Etolin Island, located just east of Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska, features a permit elk hunt that begins on Oct. 1 and continues through Halloween. (JEFF LUND)

Oct. 25 Oct. 25

Fall brown bear season opener in GMU 8 (Kodiak) Moose hunting season opens in GMU 14C (Anchorage area; Ship Creek drainage above Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Management Area)

Editor’s note: For more specific information on hunting regulations, refer to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s handbook ( | OCTOBER 2017





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A SPECIAL CHILDHOOD PLACE PROVIDES MEMORIES AND BEARS River gunk speckles the long amber-colored claws of an Alaskan grizzly. (PAUL D. ATKINS)



’ve always wanted to get back to where it all began – the place where I fell in love with Alaska and the beauty of the Arctic. It’s a spot on the map in the far North, where few have been and fewer still have returned. It was a place I visited in my youth with my father, my uncle and his friends. It was there where I hooked my first salmon, saw my first grizzly bear and experienced my first real boat ride. I remember the cool weather beaten back by long sleeves and camouflage and rifles slung across our shoulders; it was awesome. I’ve never | OCTOBER 2017



Decades after fishing and hunting there as a kid, author Paul Atkins returned to a very special spot on the upper Noatak River to pursue moose. But it was a bear that provided the defining moment of the trip. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

forgotten that day on that piece of river, and I still think of it often. In fact, I was so moved by it that I named my son after that river … Eli.

I HAD NEVER BEEN BACK to that spot. Why? I don’t really know. Maybe I didn’t want to spoil the memory and, to be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure where it was – there was only a picture in my mind. So when my good friend and hunting partner Lew Pagel said we should pack up to head north and find that spot, I was eager to go. “Moose,” he said when we talked about the purpose of our visit. “Let’s look for a moose and maybe catch one of those big ‘chum dogs’ you’re always talking about.” We packed gear all week for the adventure. We had everything hunters need for a long weekend of camping upriver in search of adventure. The weather was going to be iffy at best and would probably involve us getting wet, with the thought of a warm fire but a dream.

Cloudy days mixed with rain and cold nights were in the forecast, but the wind was supposed to be light at best, a huge plus when it comes to crossing oceans and sounds and maneuvering upstream in an open boat. I packed the usual weaponry: my trusty rifle, the BowTech bow and a pistol, just in case. I knew there would be bears; there always are when hunting the upper Noatak region. The area is loaded with them; when you hear conservationists talk about favorable habitat, well, this part of Alaska is built for grizzlies. Rocky sandbars line the river leading into dense areas of willow and small birch trees. But fish are the key to the presence of bears. Salmon congregate in the deep pools, making their final run through the narrow streams into the shallows, creating a grizzly bear buffet. The constant splash and swirl in the water created by these big fish define long stretches of river. The ride up was a wet one. Rain

came down in sheets of misery. Lew and I both knew that if it didn’t let up, the weekend might be a bust. Several times I turned to ask Lew if this was really worth it, but I could see he was determined, even though rainwater was dripping down his nose. We pressed on, navigating the shallows and avoiding the many gravel bars that are well known once you enter the flat country. Finally, according to the GPS, we had arrived. The entrance into the river looked familiar. Ducks, geese and a group of sandhill cranes welcomed us as we made our way into the channel that is called the Eli. Salmon raced beneath us, the rain even stopped briefly to provide a sense of happy anticipation. There is nothing better than riding into new country, seeing new things and being hopeful about what is to come.

WITH NO BOATS OR people in sight, we knew we had the stretch of river to ourselves. We motored slowly up the

On an adventure such as this you better have a good tent. Rain is almost a guarantee and good shelter for an extended period a must. The new eight-man Instinct tent from Cabela’s provided all the protection the author and his friend Lew Pagel needed. From camp, Atkins had a fine view across the Eli, a channel he named his son after, just in case a moose decided to appear or a bear came looking for dinner. (PAUL D. ATKINS) 24


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channel and watched the water break constantly from all the fish hitting the surface. I turned and smiled at Lew, but I didn’t say anything. We both knew what this meant; there would be bears, and many to choose from. The last bend in the river before it forked brought back my vision from long ago, and I could see it. This was it, this was the place and this, I told Lew, was where we were going to camp. I could see why we had stopped here all those long years ago; it was ideal. With plenty of bank to watch for moose and the expected bear, we had good vision in all directions. The river narrowed as well, holding an accumulation of fish like I had not seen in many years. Great hunting, great fishing and – at least for the moment – we had it all to ourselves; this would be our home for the weekend. The rain came and went, but Lew and I made quick work of getting up both the tent and the adjacent mosquito hut. The bugs weren’t bad, but we knew that if the sun did break through, they would be. The fish called to us, and in no time we were in our waders standing hipdeep in the clear blue water. Every cast was a strike and within minutes we had fish on. The big chums fought like warriors and provided three or four hours of nonstop action. It was fun!

WITH EVENING APPROACHING WE surveyed the area. Our intuition was correct; the shoreline was covered in fresh bear tracks and scat, some monstrous in size. Mixed among them was the occasional fresh moose track that we could only assume was one tough dude

Bears are plentiful in this country, as evidenced by the tracks (left) on every muddy bend in the river. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

to be living in country where everybody was trying to eat him. Late evening in the North Country is prime time for most species. Moose, bears and other creatures exit the dense cover of willow and alder and make their way to the river. We knew this and made a plan accordingly. Lew went one way and I went the other in hopes of doubling our chances on the short three-day hunt. As the old saying goes, hindsight is 20/20, and looking back we should not have done this. When in bear country with so many of these predators roaming freely about, you should always stay together, and when I took off on my own I felt this almost immediately. I nervously tried to keep one eye on the river and another on the wall of willows as I pushed forward. It’s an eerie feeling, especially when you feel like you’re being watched. After 500 yards of this and with darkness approaching, I decided to head back to camp and meet up with

It takes a lot more gear than you think when planning for a weekend upriver. It’s always better to have something you need than need something you don’t have. (PAUL D. ATKINS)



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Lew. This is when I heard a shot downriver in the direction of where he had gone. I quickly made my way in that direction, wondering what happened. As I traversed the mud bank imprinted with a plethora of big bear tracks, I looked for Lew but couldn’t find him. I pushed slowly on, rifle ready and ears listening for the sound of anything that didn’t seem right. It was nerve racking to say the least. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I broke the silence by calling for Lew, but there was no answer. A swarm of bad thoughts entered my mind. What if? What if a bear had charged him and that shot was in self-defense? Images from the movie The Revenant were all I could think about. What if? I pushed forward and to my great relief saw Lew sitting along the high bank of the river smiling. BBD! The bear had come out on the opposite side of the river. Lew watched as it had made its way across the river, stopping midstream to catch a fish. After dragging it to the far bank and commencing to eat, Lew placed a carefully aimed shot from his 7mm. The bear had dropped where it stood; peering through my binoculars in the dusk-like dark I could see it on the other side. High fives all around, but not until I mentioned that we would never do that again! We have to stay together; it’s just too damn chancy! We didn’t want to work in the dark and decided to wait until morning to make our way over to Lew’s bear. We thought it would be safe with all the noise and the firing of Lew’s rifle, but all we could do was pray that nothing would mess with the bruin overnight. | OCTOBER 2017



IT WAS A SHORT, cold night, with sleep almost nonexistent, a lot of tossing and turning with one ear open for the sound of an approaching bear. The next morning we glassed upstream to see if Lew’s bear was untouched; it was. We carefully maneuvered the boat as close as we possibly could and made our way along the gravel bar to where he was. Stiff and wet, the great bear lay where it fell; it was Lew’s biggest so far. We snapped off a lot of photos and began the process of skinning the beast. If you haven’t skinned a grizzly or any bear for that matter, I hope someday you can. It’s a surreal and tedious process at the same time but has to be done right if you plan for a rug or to have it mounted. The feet are the biggest challenge, but if you know a little anatomy, you’ll be fine. Just as the sun broke we had it done and were on our way back to camp. The smell of bear, which is like no other, permeated our clothing, but we were both happy. The rest of the day Lew worked on his bear and I grabbed a quick nap during the “safe” daylight hours. It was



Yes, selfies even happen in Alaska. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

good to sleep, especially in the new roomy eight-man Cabela’s tent and new cots that I had brought along specifically for this hunt. It would soon be time for another adventure.

AFTERNOON APPROACHED AND I awoke. Lew was just finishing up, so I decided to grab the rod and reel and give those “jumping” fish another go. It was fun standing there in the river reminiscing

OCTOBER 2017 |

of that day long ago. I could picture my father standing beside me as I hooked my first salmon, trying desperately to land him on the gravel bar. I never did catch that fish, but I wouldn’t trade that moment for anything. As clouds began to build to the south the sun disappeared entirely. I knew rain was coming and asked Lew what should we do the rest of the day. “You’re up,” he replied, “so you can de-

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cide.” I knew that the likelihood of killing another bear was almost a sure thing, but I also knew we might have to move or at least boat downstream in order to make it happen. But my goal wasn’t a bear; I needed a moose. The freezer back home was feeling a bit empty and needed to be filled. With only so many weekends left before freeze-up we had to find a moose, or at least hit the caribou migration right. We decided to break camp and float downriver, but only until 9 p.m. or so. If we were going to have a chance at anything, it wouldn’t be before then anyway. We did so just as the rain started coming down. We said goodbye to that special spot and Lew eased into the river, cut the motor and let the current pull us out. It was quiet – the special silence that is full of anticipation of “anything” could happen at any moment. And it did.

I LOVE WHEN PLANS come together and things tend to line up. As Lew poled us like a canoe, we rounded each bend in



complete silence. It’s legal to shoot from a boat, ATV or even a snowmachine in Game Management Unit 23 (covering Kotzebue Sound and the Chukchi Sea to the Arctic Ocean), as long as the motor is off and progress from the motor’s power has ceased, which was our case the moment we left camp. We knew that if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have a chance. As we pushed forward I felt Lew touch the top of my head – I was sitting on the boat seat directly in front of him – and point towards the left bank of the river. Through my Leicas I could see the big bear coming in our direction. He was old, blonde in color and seemingly unaware of our presence. I moved to the front of the boat and positioned myself with my rifle. As we closed the distance, the bear’s attention was on the river, not us. The constant sound of salmon splashing was all he could focus on. As I pushed the safety off and found him in my scope, he did what all good bears do: He looked straight at us – almost like a sixth sense – turned and disappeared into the willows. Like so many

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times before in places across the Arctic, we were bitten by a bear’s intuition. It wasn’t until seconds later that we saw something we couldn’t comprehend. Another bear was making his way towards us on the other bank. It was surreal. Only this bear was on a mission and just kept coming with little to zero fear, or maybe it was just his stomach that kept him coming. He was close; for a minute I thought of grabbing the bow but had second thoughts since things were happening too fast. I lined the rifle up and found the deep chocolate bear in the scope. I never felt the recoil – I never do – and watched as the bear fell where he stood. I paddled us the short distance to shore and could see he wasn’t as big as the first bear, but I was happy. In the twilight, I could see he was beautiful, with a great hide and exceptional claws. I also knew it was another bear that wouldn’t be taking anymore moose, something I would have traded him for if I had had the chance. But it was a great hunt and a great couple of days. (800) 939-0310




Lew and I made quick work of getting the hide off and into the boat. It was dark now and with rain setting in we decided to make the long ride home. We are used to this, long rides home in the dark, arriving while everyone else is asleep. We are actually getting pretty good at it. Plus we decided the next weekend would be better for moose anyway. As the boat lights guided us home I felt a sense of joy and satisfaction, and it was a feeling that I had come full circle after all these long years in the Arctic. Finally, I had traveled back to the place where it all began, a place that provided great adventure and grand scenery both times, a place that I want to get back to with my son Eli. Maybe we too can create a future memory as well. ASJ

Atkins has taken many bears of all sizes, but this dark chocolate grizzly capped off a return to a corner of Alaska full of warm memories. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.

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Caribou, a large member of the deer family, are one of the most sought after antlered game animals in Alaska. (PAUL D. ATKINS)





laska is known for its caribou. Yes, moose, bear and Dall sheep are exceptional in their own right, but it’s the nomad of the north that is the most abundant here in the Last Frontier, and for most residents and nonresidents alike, the most sought after. I’ve hunted them every year for the last 25, and each time I encounter them I’m in awe. They’re truly incredi-

ble animals and very special. Caribou in Alaska are distributed in 32 herds (or populations), totaling approximately 950,000 animals. Although each herd uses its own unique calving area, different herds may mix together on their winter ranges. Some herds winter in the boreal forest, but during the remainder of the year caribou prefer treeless tundra and mountains where they can find relief from biting insects. Eventually, when the weather turns and the first chill of late summer and early

fall kicks in, they start their annual migration south for better conditions.

DIFFICULT TO PREDICT Caribou numbers seem to run in cycles, but whether a herd is in decline or increasing is not very predictable. Alaska hunters – residents, that is – shoot about 22,000 caribou each year for food. Each fall, a few thousand other hunters, primarily from the Lower 48 states, Europe and Mexico, travel to Alaska to experience caribou hunting. | OCTOBER 2017



These hunters contribute significantly to the economy of the state, particularly in rural areas. Meat from caribou taken by nonresident hunters is also required to be used for food. Alaska’s great caribou herds have also become increasingly treasured as a natural wonder of the state, with significant importance both locally and statewide. The Western Arctic Caribou Herd is the largest of 32 identified herds in Alaska, but like most within the state, it has been on the decline the last few years due to several reasons. Weather and predation rank as two of the biggest factors. But just recently, helped by careful observation and planning, they have started to stabilize somewhat in hopes of growing into what they once were.

The author with a caribou bull. Cows also have antlers, albeit far smaller than their male counterparts. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

ANTLERS FOR ALL Alone among the deer family, caribou of both sexes grow antlers, with those on adult bulls large and massive, while adult cows’ antlers are much smaller. In late fall, caribou are clove brown-colored, with a white neck, rump and feet, and they often have a whitish flank stripe. Adult bulls weigh from 350 to 400 pounds, while a mature female averages 175 to 225. The dressed weight of a 400-pound caribou is about 240 pounds, which equates to about 100 pounds of meat.

MAN VS. BULL I could tell the big bull in front was old. His faded hide blended perfectly with the river rock that stretched along the Omar. His antlers were massive too – long beams reaching high into the sky, but with worn tips and short points that characterize an older, more mature bull. But he was magnificent to look at, especially since he was only a yard away. It was a standoff – the old bull and me. The lone willow that separated us was all the camouflage I needed; as soon as he turned I hit the release and let the arrow fly. It found its mark and the bull piled up not 40 yards away. Caribou are incredible creatures and each hunt provides an incredible adventure! ASJ 38


GIMME FIVE: FACTS ABOUT CARIBOU 1) Caribou have the widest and roundest hooves of all deer species. Their large, concave hooves are spread widely to support the animal in snow and soft tundra, and function as paddles when caribou swim across lakes and rivers during migration. 2) Male caribou tend to have larger front hooves than females. 3) Caribou live in the Arctic tundra, mountain tundra, and northern forests of North America, Russia and Scandinavia. Although they are called reindeer in Europe, only domesticated caribou are called reindeer in Alaska and Canada. 4) Most drawing hunts are available

OCTOBER 2017 |

to residents and nonresidents. Drawing hunts require an application fee and are awarded by lottery. The application period for drawing hunts is during November and December. Check the Alaska draw hunt information page for more information ( cfm?adfg=huntlicense.draw). 5) Caribou scat differs in size and shape depending on the amount of moisture obtained in vegetation. During the winter, caribou diet on small shrubs with high fiber contents that appears in small, concave pellets. In the summer, scat is seen as soft clumps of mass resulting from a diet of lush, wet vegetation. -Alas-

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udos to you for bringing your baby hunting with you,” a fellow hunter a few campsites down said the morning we were packing up to head home from our annual Tier I Nelchina Caribou Hunt. It was below freezing again that morning and our son Lynx was fussing since Bix and I were busy trying to stuff our Arctic Oven tent into its storage box. “Thanks,” Bixler replied. “It’s a lot more complicated bringing a 10-monthold along.” We passed Lynx back and forth as we talked to the newly arrived hunter who’d left his family at home since they felt their small children were not ready for a long camping trip. Lynx had just survived our six-day outing, as I would not miss this hunt for the world. Yes, traveling with a baby is always logistically complicated, but all it took was a bit of extra planning.

Little Lynx McClure (inset, with dad Bixler) was a bit high maintenance during his first caribou hunt, in the Tangle Lakes area between Anchorage, Fairbanks and Tok, but traditions are traditions in this growing family of hunters and anglers. (BIXLER MCCLURE)

THE WEEK BEFORE, WE packed up for the hunt with the little man in mind. Lynx is too small for four-wheeler vehicles, so we opted to try hunting off the jet boat since there are numerous lakes in Game Management Unit 13, which covers Nelchina and the Upper Susitna River area, and, broadly speaking, sprawls | OCTOBER 2017



Bixler headed out on his ATV to hunt in some pretty rugged but beautiful Interior wilderness. (BIXLER MCCLURE)

between Anchorage, Tok and Fairbanks. Just in case, Bixler loaded a wheeler for himself since he would be doing the shooting. We made contact with a few friends headed up that direction and planned our hunts together for safety. We also packed all the bells and whistles a small kid might need: a mountain of diapers, warm clothes, portable crib, toys, high chair – you name it, we brought it. We loaded that and all of our camping gear in our jet boat and trailered it north to the Tangle Lakes campground, one of two developed camp areas on the Denali Highway. We arrived just after dinner and set up our camp. One family of hunters that recognized us from the year before came over and chatted about the hunt. The father remarked that he’d 44


taken his now-adult kids hunting when they were still in diapers. We seem to attract a lot of people with older children nostalgically thinking about the baby days. But as much as we enjoyed chatting with others in the camp, we had a busy hunt ahead of us and needed our sleep. Lynx’s crib fit snuggly between our cots in our tent and we were thankful for the heater, considering the thermometer dropped to freezing that night.

BIXLER WOKE US UP before dawn to get on the water at first light. Neither Lynx nor I were particularly happy about that since it was a cold 20-degree morning, but we ate breakfast, loaded up the jet boat and launched on the lake. We had heard of animals crossing

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the lake, so Bix picked a spot to hop off the boat while Lynx and I waited as he climbed a knoll to scan for caribou. Lynx was a trooper for a while, but I could tell that he did not like the cold or wearing mittens. The latter restricted his ability to eat blueberries off the bushes, making him frustrated. Bixler glassed for hours and returned to the boat empty-handed. Last year he shot a nice bull and passed on a handful of nice cows. This year he realized that with a baby in tow, getting meat was more important than seeking out the trophy of a nice rack. We returned to the tent to warm up and let Lynx play, while Bixler hopped on the four-wheeler to scout a few trails. He found a promising one that he went up early the next morning. Lynx | OCTOBER 2017



LYNX’S LINKS (OR AT LEAST HIS FOLKS’) So, you got your caribou. You’ve butchered it. Grandma is over to watch the baby while you do something with the trimmings. Rather than turn them into straight burger, try spicing things up with this andouille sausage recipe. Andouille sausage – a staple in New Orleans-style cooking – is great as an appetizer or in dishes like an Alaskan gumbo with all of our favorite fish. 8 pounds caribou trimmings 2 pounds pork suet 1 cup chopped garlic ½ cup ground black pepper 4 tablespoons cayenne pepper 2 tablespoons thyme 8 tablespoons coarse salt Sausage casings Hickory or pecan, for smoking

Making spicy andouille sausage is one way to turn your caribou meat into a super-tasty treat. (BIXLER MCCLURE)

Grind caribou and pork suet using a coarse grind. It is easier to grind the meat and suet if they are partially frozen. Mix in garlic, salt and spices. Mix thoroughly and prepare casings according to instructions. Using a sausage stuffer, stuff the casings, making links about 4 inches in length. When

completed, let age for an hour or two to tack up the casings. Smoke sausages on hickory or pecan chips for about three hours to flavor smoke or until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees to have them ready to eat out of the smoker. BM & KM

is always an early riser and I was hoping to glass the hillside to watch Bixler make a stalk, but I woke up queasy that morning. A beef jerky pack we’d gotten into the day before was moldy, but we didn’t realize it until after eating half of it. The sickness hit me suddenly and I found myself alone with Lynx, puking in the bushes next to our camp. Meanwhile, Bixler had ridden several miles in on his new trail and had his sights on a nice cow in the distance. Bixler guessed the caribou was some 300 yards away and fired the shot. The cow went down and Bixler was elated at his solo hunt success.

AS I WAS WONDERING what he was up to, imagining him hopefully field dressing a caribou, I had stomach cramps and nausea. I got in the truck with Lynx and headed to our friends’ camp a few miles down the road in case something happened to me. Thankfully, one of our friends was home and I convalesced while she watched the little McClure. The food poisoning passed and I 46


What’s a McClure hunting trip without a few tasty ptarmigan? (BIXLER MCCLURE)

headed back to camp, keeping our friends in the loop on the caribou and thanking them for their hospitality. Bixler joined me, proud with his cow caribou and happy that he could spend the rest of his trip with Lynx rather than

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stalking animals. We camped for four more days and spent each day either fishing for grayling or hunting ptarmigan all together while the caribou aged and hung over our picnic table in camp. Between Bixler

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A caribou for mom and dad and a few Cheerios for Lynx made for a memorable first hunt for the youngest McClure. (BIXLER MCCLURE/KRYSTIN MCCLURE)

and I, we also brought home 13 ptarmigan and took turns hunting them while we watched Lynx, who had discovered the joy of eating blueberries. We spent each evening scrubbing the blue off of his little hands and face.



When we did finally pack up and after talking with the fellow hunter about taking Lynx along, we realized how special this trip had been for us. There will be many hunts with our little guy in the future, but there is only one first. ASJ

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Editor’s note: Bixler and Krystin McClure own and operate Seward Ocean Excursions, offering year-round, boat-based adventures around the Kenai Peninsula. For more, go to or call (907) 599-0499. | OCTOBER 2017






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Author Chris Batin holds two blacktail bucks he bagged while hunting the lower elevations of Kodiak Island. The smaller size of these deer is typical of those that live closer to the coastline, while bigger bucks come down during the November rut to find receptive does. (CHRIS BATIN)



t was a hunt to remember. We had sweated our way up the mountainside, pushing the morning sun as we climbed, legs hardened from months of conditioning. My friend Larry Suiter and I operated as one hunter, taking turns picking the precise routes through alder thickets so as not to alarm the deer that we expected to find in the hidden alpine amphi-

theater. The day prior, we had observed a bunch of does congregating near the mountaintop, though no bucks. Yet it being the November rut, we expected big bruisers to be there, and we allocated a day’s climb to find them. We scurried over the last ridge and belly-crawled to the edge of the tree line. There we saw two huge combat-ready three-points, as well as a fork-horn and a three-by-four interacting with several does and chasing off

the lesser bucks when they ventured too close. The herd moved closer to us, and when we picked the bucks we wanted, we shot simultaneously. Larry’s three-by-four fell in place, while my three-pointer ran and took a leap into a ravine that was so dark and deep, it resembled a geologic fault. We processed Larry’s deer in a hurry, and packed it to the ridge edge to watch it before we half-lowered, half-slid our way down the ravine. Larry stood watch | OCTOBER 2017



The author stays in shape during the summer to prepare for the rigors of hunting Kodiak’s alpine blacktails. Carrying weight and building core strength from log or property work and maintenance are good routines that also help to prevent injuries. (CHRIS BATIN)

as I quartered my trophy and packed the meat and antlers into my pack. With my camera and survival gear and rifle, I lugged the 80-pound pack up the hillside, only stopping once, prompting Larry to give me the name “Iron Mule.” But I was pushing it, aches and all, because an approaching storm was chasing the tail of dwindling twilight, forcing us to scurry even faster to pack his deer and beat it to the trail that led down to the beach and our pickup point. We soon learned our descent was a no-go, as a 9-foot sow and two second-year cubs were foraging along the only access to the trail. We had to break our hunting protocol, which requires that we take the same route down as we do up. We eased down a side route, stymied by a series of cliffs hidden by darkened alder clumps, which required us to lower our packs down on ropes. 54


DIY hunters get advice on pickup times from the deer hunting camp skiff skipper, who runs shuttle boat service to drop off hunters from a hunting lodge. (CHRIS BATIN)

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Larry Suiter puts the final touches on a ground blind. A hardcore Kodiak blacktail hunter, a leg injury has limited Suiter’s ability to climb into the heights but not his determination to hunt the Gulf of Alaska island for its deer. (CHRIS BATIN)

What should have taken 90 minutes took over three hours. The drizzle and fog moved in, slowing our descent, as we moved according to the contour of the land as we remembered it. It was close enough. We arrived on the beach well past our pickup time and flashed a signal to the boat to come and get us. Anticipating a hot shower, meal and drinks, we sat atop an old yet stately piece of driftwood, with gnarled, squiggly upturned roots resembling the rays of the sun. We were kings of the hunt, sitting on our log throne after having navigated a treacherous detour. We avoided a bear encounter and added two more bucks to the boat’s meat pole, all sans injury. Larry and I would enjoy perhaps another 100 climbs for blacktails, some far more treacherous, others amazingly simple. And each time we’d arrive at the boat or cabin, the hunters in our party who hunted the lowland areas or 56


who had not yet climbed high enough for success were always mesmerized by the size and number of bucks we brought back. We told them what to do. But unless you have the heart of a Kodiak alpine deer hunter, you will always hunt as a flatland dreamer.

IN ALASKA’S BIG GAME hunting cosmos, you have the trophy seekers, who claim moose hunting is the toughest, with its long-distant packs lugging out 120-pound hindquarters. Caribou hunters claim theirs is the greatest challenge, with navigating across ankle-wrenching tussocks, through fly-infested river basins and enduring vicious Arctic storms that sweep across the open tundra. And of course, Southeast bear hunters delight in toughing out days of incessant rain, snowshoeing across 10-foot snow drifts and waiting out blinding snowstorms on the edge of dark rain forests to find trophy black bears.

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Then there are those of us who are hopelessly consumed with the total experience of Kodiak blacktail deer hunting. How and where we hunt is not for the faint of heart or weak of back, but rather the fittest of the fit who push physical performance to conquer the terrain and bag the wily bucks it holds. The trophy we value most at season’s end is not the set of antlers from our biggest buck; it’s the entire hunt, because Kodiak offers challenges that seldom disappoint. So why do we enjoy this kind of hunting? We hunt Kodiak blacktails because it pushes us to be better hunters than we already are. Those with whom I have hunted with over the decades agree; how we pursue Kodiak blacktails is among the toughest hunting we’ve ever experienced. We gladly push ourselves and gear to the limit so we can experience what hunting should be, replete

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The options for hunting Kodiak blacktails are many: private and public cabins, boats, land-based lodges and tent camping. You can rent private or public cabins, but it’s often better to hunt from liveaboard boats, which range from small 28-footers that can hunt two to 70-foot yachts that can comfortably house six and can access areas with the least amount of pressure. Choose a boat based out of the area you are hunting. Local knowledge often pays big dividends. A good operator will pick you up at the airport, take you to the grocery and sporting goods store and, if necessary, buy any gear ahead of time and keep it for you until your arrival. That’s service and helps save on taxi or car-rental fees. Contact the Kodiak Island Convention Visitor’s Bureau ( for details on air charter operators and boat operators working out of Kodiak. I’ve had good luck with Kodiak Combos’ Jeff Peterson (, who hunts the coastal mountains near Old Harbor.

Sitka blacktails are small compared to muleys and their Columbian cousins, but they are backbreakers when you’re trying to drag them off the mountainside. Unless you plan to shoot deer on the beach, you’ll need a durable backpack and frame. After 20 years, I am still using a Moose Freighter pack frame. Dragging a deer also leaves a scent trail for a bear to follow to your camp. Hunters who anticipate bringing home three deer should limit their hunting gear to 60 to 100 pounds per person on the flight in. We pack groceries in plastic totes that we use to ship deer back to Anchorage or the Lower 48. For rifles, I recommend a .338 or heavier caliber for blacktails, as they offer extra insurance in brown bear country. If you hunt properly, the average distance of most blacktails taken with a rifle is 100 to 200 yards. Avoid the 300yard shots. On one hunt, a bear stole a hunter’s kill before we reached it less than 100 yards away. Archery hunters do especially well during the rut, when stalks are easily made. The best archery areas are in southern Kodiak, where brush, rather

than trees, predominates and offer better stalking opportunities. Optics are important because of Kodiak’s often wet weather. When glassing for deer, don’t expect to see a full profile. You’ll invariably see parts of a deer: head, ear, antler, tail flick or white patch. Blacktails typically freeze in place for several minutes if they’ve seen you. I’ve seen them not move a muscle for nearly 10 minutes. If not alarmed, they’ll move around until they bed down. Then it’s a matter of looking for head movement. I use a spotting scope with a 45-degree eyepiece, but my workhorse optics is a pair of Alpen 8x42 Apex binoculars, which are perfect for the low-light levels on Kodiak’s overcast days. They’re affordable, and waterproof. Some other items include Hunter Specialty game bags, which work best at keeping out dirt and flies, and citric acid spray, which keeps bacteria from ruining your game until it can be properly cooled. Toss in a couple of trekking poles or a hiking axe and a sweatband. Your gear list should also include survival gear, a GPS, headlamp, knife, saw, and an emergency blanket. CB

with its many adversities and dangers. Hunting Kodiak, an island with about 2,000 brown bears – about one for every 1.5 square miles – is like stealing expensive Italian chocolate from a candy store guarded by zombie cannibals and their Mafioso leg-breaker brethren. Its ocean and mountain challenges come with unpredictable weather systems that are spawned in the narrows of Shelikof Strait and the Alaska Peninsula, the Scylla and Charybdis of our time, with storms that sink boats and take the lives of unprepared hunters. Television hunting shows try to convince us that shooting trophy bucks from a treestand on the back 40 corn lot is true hunting. It’s all many hunters have back east, and I support their effort. Yet I am a different breed of hunter who has not forgotten what it truly means to hunt hard. Kodiak Island hammers hardened hunters who push the limits and bag game, while others are often hightailing it off the mountain for

the safety of their boats, tents or cabins. To climb Kodiak mountains is a challenge enough; to bag a blacktail buck and return is cause for veteran status; to do it repeatedly over the years, however, is Alaska tough, and there are few achievements as satisfying in Kodiak blacktail deer hunting. For over 40 years, I’ve hunted Kodiak blacktails with only a select handful of Alaska’s toughest hunters, for two reasons. First, it’s nearly impossible to find an experienced hunting partner who has the physical stamina to do what it takes to get to the top within a few hours, hunt with the savvy and focus of an ultimate predator, shares the same philosophy and mindsets on hunting, and make it down the mountain safely to base camp, day after day, for an entire season. Antler points matter not here. Our group has taken massive forkhorns that resemble small muleys from atop peaks that overlooked mountain goats below,

and packed out loads of meat in daylight and darkness, with brown bears on our tracks like beagles on a rabbit trail. When people refer to me as a tightass, I take it as a compliment. Only a Kodiak-toughened blacktail hunter keeps a tight sphincter when busting down a rocky, alder-infested cliff in the dark with a backpack stuffed with deer meat, and keeps his resolve when his headlamp beam kicks up two red eyes spread almost a foot apart that resemble red supernovas ready to explode in fiery rage. Luckily in this instance, the bear half rolled, half ran down the darkened mountainside as Larry and I shouldered our rifles. Larry knows Kodiak blacktail hunting better than anyone I know, having taken over 100 deer the alpine way on the island. He was the toughest of my hunting partners, and we hunted together for a few decades until a biking accident shattered his leg, which now limits his extreme blacktail hunting


OCTOBER 2017 | | OCTOBER 2017



Suiter poses with a nice blacktail he bagged while hunting Kodiak in November from a ground blind close to saltwater. After taking the deer, Suiter had to keep a watchful eye out to make sure no bears were closing in as he quickly closed up his blind. (CHRIS BATIN)

days, but not blacktail hunting. He now brings the deer to him, which is a story for another time. Mountain height has nothing to do with toughness. It’s an amalgam of deterrents, from approach routes, vegetation, alpine location, geology, weather and deer concentrations and locations. We plan our next day’s hunt while afield each day, searching for areas and routes that would deter most hunters. With safety, photo and hunting gear, I am packing about 30 pounds up the mountain. With 60 pounds of boned-out blacktail meat, the 90-pound downhill load is what separates the men from the boys. On extreme-climb hunts, only one of us shoots a buck, and we distribute the weight for the climb down. You may be tempted to leave behind the 10 pounds of emergency food, space blanket, flares, first-aid kit and other survival items, but to hunt with anything less is foolhardy and dangerous. During one successful blacktail hunt in late October, Larry and I had chartered a 30-foot live-aboard boat. We were anchored in a remote harbor, having supper when a freak Chinook wind flipped the boat at dark and sank it. We along with our skipper had to fight our way to shore through huge waves in our survival suits as we 60


watched the lights flicker on the boat as it sank, like a miniature version of the Titanic. Despite a busted shoulder that made my arm go limp and bleeding from severe lacerations that had me lightheaded and weak, I managed to take photos after the boat flipped and saltwater rushed into the boat as we struggled out of it. Once ashore, the wind knocked us down repeatedly as we fought our way down a long sandbar to the mainland. We spent a long night huddled in space blankets in sandy depressions at the high-tide mark, before an orange dawn and lesser winds allowed us to build a fire. The Coast Guard picked up our mayday signal the night before, and sent a helicopter to pick us up and get me to the hospital to sew me up and put my arm in a sling. A total of five ships sank that night, including a 70-foot diesel craft, but there were no fatalities. If you hunt Kodiak blacktails, it’s not a matter of if you’ll face a serious survival scenario but when.

THE KEY TO BAGGING Kodiak blacktails is learning how to see them. I compare them to the many forms of water. At sunrise, they ease up mountainsides like early-morning fog. They can’t be seen, but you know they are there, ris-

OCTOBER 2017 |

ing with the air currents to sun in the high, rocky crags. Like a trickle of water, blacktail bucks also ease through the gullies and through forested bottomlands undetected, yet their tracks deeply gouge the forest floor, so you know they are there. And like ice, a heavy-antlered blacktail buck can stand frozen, brush-stained rack glistening in the morning sunlight, staring in the opposite direction of your approach because you’ve outsmarted him with one of several strategies. Wait a second too long, however, and he will evaporate into the alders as vapor on the wind, never to be seen again. There are other attractions. While the blacktail’s coastal marine environment has its share of storms and adversity, it also offers incredible beauty. Few vistas are more spectacular than climbing a hillside and taking in the panoramic, cerulean blue of the Gulf of Alaska or Pacific Ocean. Most hunters plan a seven- to 10-day hunt, which allows for inclement weather and the option to pass up smaller bucks for that larger wall-hanger. If you’re looking for trophies, you might see one four-point or nothing but does and young bucks during the entire hunt, depending on how and where you hunt. Don’t think that just because this is | OCTOBER 2017



Alaska you’ll see a deer behind every bush. Expect to work and climb hard for each deer, and that’s just to enter the game with no guarantee for success. The better shape you are in, the better your chances for success. But brawn alone does not guarantee success. Those who charge up the mountainside often fare much worse than those who wait in the lowland flats for spikes and does to walk into their sights. Experience counts, but Kodiak blacktail strategy is its own game and has its own set of guidelines based on how you hunt the island, the time of year, your hunting partners, whether you hunt with a rifle or bow, and your tolerance for hard hunting. Most importantly, it’s how you handle survival scenarios if things go south. You might encounter a bear after the meat in your pack; a sudden storm hammers you on a mountainside, and you’re faced with a deer to butcher and pack out; an injury atop the mountain; a backpack failure that keeps you from safely hauling your gear; or a hunting buddy who mentally just can’t hack the



blinding snow squall or drenching rain. There is no one to rescue you – only yourself – and it’s a mantra you keep in mind 24/7. When the bag limit is three or more, I leave the last tag(s) for a trophy buck as part of my hunting strategy. For good reason, the first two are destined for the freezer. Sitka blacktail is some of the best venison you can eat. I consider it sweeter meat than whitetail or mule deer. I definitely prefer blacktail to moose and rank it on the same category as Dall sheep and muskox. Say my first buck is a three-point, the next one has to be a larger four-by-three. Yet there are a few exceptions. I’ve taken several fork-horn deer with heavy tines that resemble small mule deer, and any hunter would be remiss in not taking such fine trophies. Either way, my strategy makes me hunt smarter and harder, and I remind myself just how hard those big bucks are to bag. It also allows me to be more selective in how close I make the stalk, as I have historically not taken shots over 100 yards at Kodiak blacktails, with

OCTOBER 2017 |

most being 60 yards or less. The thrill of the hunt is stalking to within 100 yards of the buck, not blasting away at 300 yards as many hunters unfortunately do. Not only do you risk wounding the deer or missing the shot, but such behavior also allows bears time to sneak in and steal your deer before you have a chance to reach it. In thick alder brush, busting through 300 yards can take two or more hours, especially going uphill.

BEFORE I BECAME AN alpine blacktail hunter, I enjoyed hunting different times of the season for blacktails, each of which offers its own set of challenges and opportunities. Hunting Alaska’s early-season deer almost always requires a climb to the uppermost meadows. A September hunt offers few if any hunters and lots of opportunity. Expect biting bugs and high grass not yet laid down by autumn or frost. Antlers are still in velvet. Bears are not easily seen because leaves have not yet fallen, so carefully choose access routes up open creeks and across meadows, and avoid brush busting. For






best success, glass from atop rocky cliffs and outcroppings that overlook alpine meadows. And don’t be surprised to find yourself sharing a rock shelf. Geography, predators, and hunting pressure prompt many trophy blacktails to remain at or above timberline throughout the late October and November prerut and rut, and you’ll need to climb high for many of these highlander trophies. In mild weather, big bucks do migrate to lower elevations in search of does, and you can expect more deer at these times down low if weather hovers around 0 to 10 above zero, or when large amounts of snow drift into the alpine meadows, driving deer to the black rock and sand beaches for warmth or to dine on shoreline kelp. Whether you choose to hunt early or late, expect a rigorous ascent of about two to three hours. This allows ample time for water breaks, glassing the hillsides, wrestling through thickets and taking snack breaks to maintain energy. Once on top, you’ll have two or three hours to hunt hard, and another two to three hours to make it back to base



SHARING THE LAND WITH BEARS Kodiak deer hunting means sharing brown bear country, and we always hunt with bruins in mind. Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there watching you. You can sense and even smell them if the wind is right. Don’t ever hope to see them up close, because by then, it’s too late. Over the years, I’ve hunted with veteran hunters Bob Robb and Mike Citrone. One time, they both shot deer but by the time we reached those bucks – no more than 70 yards away – brown bears had sneaked in and stolen them. The bears simply lift the deer as a Lab would a mallard, and carry them away. Larry Suiter and I once had a brown bear corner us on a mountainside. We had watched him trail us from the creek bottom on our climb up, darting and following our track as a hound on the scent trail. For an hour the bear tried to sneak up a ravine to where we decided to stand our ground. After an hour of the bear watching us and trying to sneak up to us – which we deterred with shouts and making

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ourselves visible to him – we finally opted to quickly bug out to another mountain ridge, crossing creeks and rock piles so the bear couldn’t track us. We suspected the bear had been following archery hunters who had been successful in the area the week prior, so the bear became “preconditioned.” In another instance, Citrone had shot a nice buck, and it had run down the hillside and crumbled into the brush. From a small ridge, I was watching him walk to his buck, when a large brown bear suddenly materialized 30 yards from him. I shouted a warning and was ready to shoot the bear if it charged Citrone, but the bear simply vanished with the deer. For the remainder of the trip, we had bears stalk us as we hunted, looking at us from afar as a potential food source. We later learned that the berry crops and salmon returns had both failed that year, and the bears were beyond hungry to the point of being a danger to hunters. We spent as much time avoiding bears that year as we did hunting deer. CB

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Fresh venison is always welcome on the dinner menu, and a reminder of another great adventure on Kodiak Island for the author. (CHRIS BATIN)

camp. Carefully consider the time of year and your mountain’s level of difficulty. You’ll have more time to hunt early in the season, when Alaska’s days are longer, and less time in December, when days are shorter. There are many ways to hunt highlander blacktails, and strategies that work elsewhere for mountain deer work in Alaska. Drive on foot through the alpine, watching carefully as you walk the edges of alder thickets and brush. Blacktails favor isolated

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islands of brush, which are must-glass areas from afar to identify trophy bucks, but be ready to shoot, as they’ll often sneak out the backside or side exits while you are still 100 yards away. But by moving slowly behind brushy fringe or tussocks, the deer are not alarmed, primarily because big bucks up high are not accustomed to seeing humans before the November rut. Most often, these bucks, which overnight in the thickest alders on the mountainsides, will be heading back uphill to feed and for sanctuary while you are still ascending before dawn, so glass as you climb. Expect the big five-pointers to be wary, but they do make mistakes, so be ready for them. You might be lucky to catch a glimpse of them at 500 yards, but here’s a tip: We take a roundabout route to get above them for an easy shot when they are crossing a gully 30 yards below. The big boys seldom look up, unless you give them reason to. Here are a few additional pointers we’ve adapted to our alpine hunting routine: Never shoot more than one deer



at a time. An average boned-out Sitka blacktail weighs about 60 pounds, which includes neck, rib, antlers and all edible meat. With raingear, survival gear, water bottle, food, binoculars, and camera, expect a downhill pack of 70 to 80 pounds. Lay the meat on a tarp, bag it and place it in a contractor-rated, plastic bag, to keep down scent dispersal and leakage. Place gear in colored survival bags so you can easily repack as required. Use a different-colored bag for emergency food, electronics and signaling items, which will help you verify you have them after drying out for the night and repacking the next morning. After you bag a deer, avoid quartering it in the brush. If possible, drag it into an open area so your buddy has a good view of the surrounding area and have him watch for bear as you quarter the animal, lay it out on a tarp and bag it. If you need help, limit it to no more than a minute. Packing out a deer allows you to leave the area quickly and minimizes your odds of an encounter with bears. Blacktail hunting requires the bud-

OCTOBER 2017 |

dy system. Sure, all my Kodiak blacktail companions could hunt alone, and we all have done so. But it’s more fun and safer to hunt with a valued hunting companion. Studies show that two or more deer hunters who hunt together have a decreased chance of being mauled or attacked by a bear than hunters who spread out and hunt 100 yards or more apart.

IF YOU CAN’T CARRY an 80-pound backpack, stick to bottomland or low-elevation hunting, a good option when bucks and does are plentiful later in the season. Perhaps the best way to hunt the bottomlands is from a blind. In forested areas, use a ground blind or the newer Cocoon Hunting Hammock from Stringer Outdoors, which hangs from a tree and blends seamlessly into the surrounding forest, making it far less obtrusive than a ground blind. You won’t be packing it up a mountainside, but when blacktails are in the timber from heavy snows or when they drop down in cold winters during the November rut, it’s the perfect place

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from which to hunt. The system keeps you warm, dry, out of the wind, and, best of all, keeps your scent enclosed for when deer get close. A ground blind is great during storms, or for two hunters to sit together and share the day. You can move around, eat lunch and not worry about the animals seeing your movements. In good weather, consider sitting quietly against a fallen tree, overlooking an open hillside or clearing, and wait. Occasionally glass the beach and saltchuck meadows, as deer migrate down to the shoreline for salt and to feed on kelp. In sunny weather or during extreme cold snaps, black sand or rock beaches radiate heat, which also attract deer. Meadows at the base of thicketed mountains are good places to place a blind. Choose a location that borders natural migration corridors. Also good are trails emerging from thicketed hillsides, open terrain that borders wooded crossings near streams and any elevation that borders groves of willow and cottonwood.


for those who like an easy hunt – and for those who are willing to work for something more. My hunting partners and I relish the unexpected adventures that take place. With our packs loaded with deer, we’ve weaseled down to the edge of cliffs in darkness, only to crawl back up hill to find an alternate route. We’ve had bears track us and charge us on two occasions, only to have them pull up short at the last minute. We’ve hunted bucks moving in winds where we could barely stand, and we’ve been borderline frozen from stormclass winds. Why do we still go back to engage in such challenging hunts? Meeting these calculated risks headon not only tests our skills as hunters, but also the true grit that makes us outdoor men and women of adventure. Highlander blacktail hunting teaches us to develop a mindset of self-sufficiency and overcome formidable, respected adversities that make Alaska hunting so appealing. This is not the place for a homogenized hunting adventure commonly found on the back 40 or a week-

end jaunt in a patrolled national forest. In Alaska, veteran blacktail hunters push the limits of self. By doing so, we become the best of the best in blacktail hunting, not to compare ourselves with others but to measure our progress against ourselves. And building wisdom- and experienced-based confidence is what keeps us returning year after year to pursue larger blacktails and seek out greater adventures in hunting and in life that only Alaska can offer. Try Alaska’s Sitka blacktail hunting for yourself this year. I promise you won’t be disappointed. ASJ Editor’s note: Chris Batin is editor and publisher of The Alaska Hunter and author of the 416-page book, Hunting in Alaska: A Comprehensive Guide, which includes a detailed chapter on hunting blacktail deer. He is also featured in the newly released book, Alaska’s Greatest Outdoor Legends. As a special to ASJ readers, autographed copies of these books are available from the author at or

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t was a buck, but I drove past it. Had I stopped, it would have known something was up. I’d continue, park and make a move. Shortly after the clearcut gave way to timber, I pulled off the deteriorated road. I’d sneak up the timber and make my way out of the woods and onto the clearcut hill that held the buck. It was halfway down on the opposite side. If I was quiet, it would have no idea I was there. Was this going to happen? I bought a bow two years ago and have been practicing and talking about one day using it to take an animal, but I wasn’t counting the hours to put my top pin on the vitals, you know? I have buddies down south who are all about bowhunting because it gives them an early start on season – not to mention a fraction of the competition. But I was fine with my rifle. My bow was for after-work recreation. Still, there was enough curiosity that it put me into the woods with an absolute shooting boundary of 30 yards – middle pin. I didn’t make a sound as I reached an elevation I could sidehill out of the timber and up the clearcut mound. On the other side was the buck. There was enough of a game trail that I could maintain my stealth without fear of snapping an old dead branch. I replaced all indecision with assertion because you can’t go into anything without confidence. I paused for a second, took a breath and peeked from behind a log. Twenty yards. It wasn’t a fork like I had hoped; it was just a spike. Did I want to burn a tag on a spike? There would be other deer, other chances. Right?

WHY I WAS THERE Two days before that internal conflict, I was in a muskeg. August is not muskeg season in Alaska; it’s the alpine season, my favorite month of the year – green slopes, long days, short nights,

A blacktail spike presented a conundrum for the author, who recently began bowhunting: Burn a tag on such a small buck or hold off, assuming he’d spot another, larger one? (JEFF LUND)

long stalks for short shots. The weather didn’t permit any of this. I hiked my favorite mountain hoping there would be a long enough break in the weather to make a move on a nice buck. It had worked the year before and I’d scored a masher three-point with two eyeguards. Great for someone like me whose hunting career has spanned only four years. I made camp and scouted. In the process, I was drenched by rain delivered on a stiff wind. I was uncomfortable but enthusiastic, which prevented me from sinking into misery. In the morning I woke, put on wet clothes – which sucked – but again, I wasn’t miserable. There would be a window. I’d get a shot. But I didn’t. So the next day I was in that muskeg,

seeing nothing. As I was nearly back to my truck, I spotted a pair of grouse. I drew back and took out the back tips of the wings and enough of the body to kill the bird but not ruin the breast. There was no hesitation. I had drawn my bow and delivered the shot I wanted and provided myself dinner. This bow thing was cool and I felt good about using it. I also decided that I needed to buy some different points for my arrows.

BAG A SPIKE? I say “just a spike” because I’ve been conditioned to be at least a little patient. Where I hunt has a healthy population of big blacktail, so while the point of hunting deer is to get meat, it’s not too much to want some horns as well. | OCTOBER 2017



I’ve shot big-bodied, tall-tined fork-inhorns, but never a spike. I rose, but didn’t even nock an arrow. It could have been mine. I had been meandering around the woods thinking “Just get into range.” You know, don’t screw it up before you have a chance to actually take a shot. Grouse aren’t notoriously smart birds. The one I took a few days earlier was almost accidental. I didn’t stalk it; I didn’t make a great move. It just happened. My mentality with deer was different. “Just get into range.” That became the goal. Now there I was, in range and it was like I had accomplished the goal by sneaking that close to a buck with my bow. Was this a jerk move? Not shoot a spike because it’s not big enough? That’s the problem with these sorts of things. Why was I even hunting with a bow? To increase the thrill? As a personal challenge? We’re talking life and death here, and I want it to be more challenging? I didn’t hesitate with the grouse, but a grouse isn’t a deer. Duh. None of those unanswerable questions came to mind as I rose and didn’t shoot. I just didn’t shoot. I didn’t freeze. My heart wasn’t pumping the blood of fever. I just didn’t shoot. I took a picture of the spike – the one that I had sworn was a fork – and walked down out of the clearcut. I knew I would be going home empty-handed. There was no way I’d get that close to another buck that day, and I was OK with it. I was excited with the process. I would continue to bowhunt and there was no doubt that when I found another, I would make it happen. It wouldn’t be today, but I would. Two hours later, I returned to that same clearcut. I found another buck – a spike. The stalk was identical. The result was not. Twenty-five yards. Broadside. Great first buck with a bow. I drew. I hit. I waited. I ate well. Bring on the October rut. ASJ Editor’s note: Look for author Jeff Lund’s fishing and hunting memoir, Going Home, on 74


A grouse taken in Southeast Alaska was Lund’s welcome-to-bowhunting moment. (JEFF LUND)

He did it, and this spike buck with a bow – his first as an archery hunter – meant some delicious backstrap and the promise of more such adventures. (JEFF LUND)

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Interior Alaska is known for its giant northern pike, and the advent of swimbaits has led to effective new techniques for hooking these monsters. (ALASKA FISHING AND RAFT ADVENTURES)



here the clearwater streams of Interior Alaska’s White Mountains meet the lowlands, the shallow and deep lakes and occasional backwater sloughs they feed contain a plethora of coontail and cabbage vegetation. A rich ecosytem that hosts 36 species of migratory waterfowl, it’s also home to a hungry torpedo-shaped predator with teeth as sharp as a pair of Cutco knives. In the immense underwater jungle, northern pike hover just above the bottom and rely on their lateral line to track down any helpless whitefish or cisco that swim within their vicinity. All may seem tranquil above and below the surface, but a surprise attack is about to be unleashed as the distance between pike and prey shrinks with each passing second.

ON AN OVERCAST EARLY August afternoon, Reinhard Neuhauser, a professional guide and owner of Alaska Fishing and Raft Adventures (800-819-0737; and I ventured southeast off the Elliott Highway towards the native Athabascan village of Minto, situated on the Tolovana River as it flows through Thompson Lake. With a 14-foot raft, we paddled upstream into the stillwater flows of the Tolovana searching for large northern pike. Our hope was to score one of those 40-plus-inch, 20-pound monsters. I have a muskie fishing background dating back to the classic Esox environs of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, so I relied heavily on traditional muskie lures – prop-style topwaters, crankbaits, bucktails and spinnerbaits – to seek my first 40-incher. And Reinhard himself is no stranger to large pike, having grown up fishing the trophy waters of Austria,

which produce giant European pike that often show up in online postings and leave American anglers awestruck. As the morning started, traditional pike lures such as spoons and jointed minnow baits caught fish, but nothing surpassing 30 inches. Since we are fascinated with the art and science of newly introduced swimbaits, we methodically experimented with recent models released by Savage Gear’s Larry Dahlberg, known as a pike legend. Hours passed with a dozen 30-inchplus pike taken on swimbaits, but none of the monsters we’d come for. After the second drifting session over a large weedbed that dropped off into the mainstem Tolovana, we placed ourselves just outside a windswept point and repeated another drift. I systematically switched over to an 8-inch Savage Gear inline pike swimbait, which has a tandem treble-hook system at- | OCTOBER 2017



Big swimbaits like these are perfect for pike. (ALASKA FISHING AND RAFT ADVENTURES)

tached to 60-pound wire. A third of the way through the retrieve on my third cast, I made two quick downward snaps of the rod tip coupled with a momentary pause. Suddenly, a freight train of a collision caused the

EATING THEIR OWN Something I’ve wondered about since moving to Alaska is whether northern pike eat their own when prey availability is scarce. Although pike forage on the common native baitfish that patrol Alaska’s countless rivers and lakes – least and Arctic ciscoes, round and humpback whitefish, and longnose suckers – I developed my own evidence that the species engages in cannibalism quite frequently, even when their dominant prey resources are available. Stomachs of pike in the 28- to 33inch range that I’ve kept over the past several seasons have contained smaller ones in the 6- to 11-inch spectrum. Personal diet examinations of stomach contents from deeply hooked pike in combination with a two-year Chinook salmon smolt predation by the Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit demonstrated that pike in some scenarios would consume each other. To take advantage of this common predator-prey interaction, multiple tack-



swimbait to stop dead in its tracks. After setting the hook, a violent series of headshakes placed a fair amount of bend into my 9-foot, heavy-powered Shimano king salmon rod. The fish leaped out of the water,

le manufacturers have created swimbaits and other soft plastics that resemble small pike. Upon this important realization and discovery, I researched countless lure manufacturers through online catalogs and brochures from previous sports shows in the Midwest to search for swimbaits developed as pike. Multiple manufacturers actually make pike-specific swimbaits to take advantage of the theory of pike cannibalism; Savage Gear and Storm are two primary options in Alaska. Storm’s 4-, 5- and 6-inch Baby Pike soft plastic swimbait is an ideal option. An additional effective swimbait that may trigger a bite from a cannibalistic pike is the 8- and 12-inch prerigged soft plastic swimbait from Savage Gear. This swimbait is inline, meaning that when hit, the lure slides up the mainline or leader like a tube fly would. An advantage with this is that the pike cannot take the weight of the lure off itself and shake the hooks free. ML

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tail-dancing on the surface like a bottlenose dolphin. As she inched towards the raft, the pike dove into a thick clump of vegetation. With lightweight tackle, this fish would have been a dream never realized. Instead I applied firm, subtle pressure to physically wrench the fish out of the weeds. She rotated onto her side and I carefully inserted my right pointer and ring fingers into the gill area and lifted her out of the water as quickly as possible. Reinhard was speechless for a minute, then said, “Mikey, that is it, that is the 40, the elusive 40-incher.” After a few photo snaps, I put the fatigued pike back into the water, and after a couple seconds it bolted for the depths, the tail splashing water on my face and upper chest waders. We celebrated with high-fives. Although not as big as true trophy 50-inch pike, it was still quite the specimen for a roadside fishery in Interior Alaska. Minutes later, Reinhard buried the hooks of the same lure into a 36-incher, a sign that the pike preferred our swimbaits.

CASTING AND RETRIEVING SWIMBAITS on spinning or baitcasting gear will score pike. The primary factor for casting and presenting these lures efficiently and comfortably is the weight. Smaller swimbaits in the 3- to 6-inch | OCTOBER 2017



Author Mike Lunde hoists a giant Interior pike from the Tolovana River. (ALASKA FISHING AND RAFT ADVENTURES)

category, characterized by weights from ⅓ to 1½ ounces, are suitable for 7- to 8-foot fast-action medium-light to medium-heavy rods. Seven-and-a-half- to 9-foot baitcasters are required for moderately sized 6- to 8-inch swimbaits weighing 1 to 3 ounces. Oversized soft plastics in the 9- to 10-plus-inch-range commonly weigh around 5 to 6 ounces or more, and are only appropriate for muskie rods, heavy-powered king salmon rods or some models of inshore saltwater rods. The long baitcasters have an ability to bomb oversized swimbaits long distances, coupled with minimal fatigue

compared to using shorter rods. Mainstream and custom-rod manufacturers typically offer one- and twopiece models, with the latter favored on remote trophy pike watersheds across Alaska. Large, low-profile baitcasting reels that contain powerful, specialized gear and drag systems are a special requirement for oversized swimbaits. Common preferred choices include the Shimano Tranx, Daiwa Lexa, Abu Garcia Toro Winch Beast and Okuma Moto. Spool up with 50- to 100-pound braid connected to a heavy fluorocarbon or titanium wire leader. Flurocarbon is more essential in waters with

USING LINE-THROUGH SWIMBAITS FOR BIG PIKE As swimbait development transcended into a mixed composition of hard and soft plastic construction, the exploration of a modified prototype called an inline or line-through lure was born. An inline swimbait is defined as a hard or soft plastic swimbait that exhibits an internal tube connecting the front of the mouth to the bottom of the lure underneath the gill area. Typically, the mainline or leader is inserted through the tube opening, fed through the other end and tied onto a single treble or tandem treble hook system. An advantage with this type of swimbait over others is that upon strike impact from the pike, the swimbait detaches from the hooks and slides up the mainline. Two reasons why this is extremely 82


OCTOBER 2017 |

effective: 1. Regardless of lure material construction, the life history of the swimbait is increased, especially if it’s soft plastic. 2. The pike cannot throw the weight of the lure itself to get unhooked, which is highly characteristic of their fighting behavior. Out of all the swimbait categories available to trophy pike fanatics, this perhaps might be one of my personal favorites, as well as trophy pike hunter Reinhard Neuhauser. During an early August overcast afternoon, inline swimbaits accounted for nearly a third of landed pike over 30 inches, including Neuhauser’s personal best of 36 inches and a 40-incher that was likely in the 20-pound category. ML | OCTOBER 2017



Fairbanks guide Reinhard Neuhauser, originally from Austria, grew up catching European pike but is just as skilled at catching big ones in Alaskan waters. (ALASKA FISHING AND RAFT ADVENTURES)

relatively gin-clear water clarity.

WHEN ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONS AND time of season create flexibility in the day-to-day behavior of pike, a transitional switch between an aggressive and nonaggressive presentation is highly preferred. Three common strategies utilized for retrieving swimbaits include



swimming, snapping and vertical jigging. To implement the swimming technique, simply cast the swimbait and retrieve it with a continuous reeling speed. Experiment with fast and slow retrieves for best results. I typically prefer burning swimbaits back at mach 2, as it represents a baitfish fleeing for its life, which drives pike bonkers.

OCTOBER 2017 |

The second technique, called snapping, is accomplished by holding the rod at waist level and throwing in a mixture of downward snaps or twitches with the rod tip while reeling. A gradual acceleration of the twitch or snap followed by a sudden pause causes the swimbait to dart either in an up-and-down motion or even erratically.



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Pike gorge themselves on baitfish that share Alaska waters with them, so it’s only natural that swimbaits resembling these creatures are an effective way to catch trophy fish. (ALASKA FISHING AND RAFT ADVENTURES)

Oftentimes, if fishing is slow, I will count down the swimbait to a select depth and throw in subtle twitches, with a longer complementary deadsticking pause. Prepare for violent, rod-jarring strikes when using this technique, as it is highly successful during cold fronts or on postspawn fish in early to mid-June. Vertical jigging with swimbaits is effective when targeting pike in lake systems that are characterized by a deeper main-lake weedline and an availability of the deep-water habitat that pike often suspend in during midsummer. To vertically jig, engage the levelwind on the baitcaster or flip the bail on the spinning reel and drop the swimbait to your preferred depth. Utilize a 2- to 3-foot aggressive jigging stroke. Experiment with pause lengths for determining what the pike prefer.

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AS THE INTERIOR ALASKA sunset faded into the White Mountains, the hues of twilight glittering over the tundra, we felt surges of confidence as we returned to Fairbanks. Obsessed with catching northern pike, we’d had a good day. As with any lure category, specific techniques and presentations routinely elevate themselves to all-star status, while others slowly fade away but perhaps will return to hot-ticket-item status in the future. Of all the pike fishing techniques that I have used over the years, swimbaits that realistically simulate the appearance of baitfish never seem to let me down. As lure manufacturers continuously race to release the hottest up-to-date prototype, it simply gives pike anglers more options compared to the standard bass-style models of decades ago. ASJ

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long river that drains into the Noatak River. The Kug is usually quiet and peaceful, since not many people float there during summer, which was particularly attractive to my buddy Chris Dankmeyer and I. We knew our pilot had planned on dropping us off at a feeder stream of the river, Kagvik Creek. After landing safely on a very nice gravel bar, unloading our gear and hearing the 206 take off headed back to Kotzebue, we were alone in the wilderness with not a single person around. Our plan was to take our time, which would allow us to set up the raft, our tent and tactical fishing gear. We had

hoosing a river in Alaska for a multiple-day rafting and sportfishing adventure requires a good degree of planning. We thought we had done all our homework before leaving on our eight-day self-guided fishing trip on the “Kug.” The Kugururok settles south of the De Long Mountains above the Arctic Circle in Northwest Alaska, and little did either of us realize how the river would test us with a few frustrating challenges, present an unexpected wildlife encounter, and give us a long, windy river ride home. The fishing along the way wasn’t too shabby either.

Intrepid adventurers Chris Dankmeyer (above and left in insert) and Chris Cox found plenty of beautiful scenery, wildlife and fish during a float on the remote Kugururok River in Northwest Alaska. (CHRIS COX) | OCTOBER 2017



read a fish study about Kagvik and planned on hiking up it a ways to see what holes lay above. All the months of planning and checking/rechecking our gear made it seem almost surreal that we were back on the river. As we pumped up the raft and started assembling the frame rails and the cross bars, we noticed we didn’t have everything to assemble the frame. We couldn’t find the bag of U-bolts that hold the chairs on the cross rails or the setscrews that bite into the frame tubing to keep the frame from shifting. We rechecked all the bags and had an inkling of emptiness, that punch-in-thestomach moment that makes you sick. As any raft owner knows, those parts are critical. They are used for setting up the cargo rack properly, holding the seats down, and keeping the oars from sliding left to right and up and down. You can imagine what was said after realizing we had forgotten those critical parts, considering we were 85 miles from the nearest town and not wanting to initiate a rescue operation. After some strategizing, Chris realized that we had a bunch of para-cord with us. His thoughts were to use it to fasten the cross bars so that they wouldn’t slide front to back, and we had the left to right covered by tie downs we hadn’t forgetten. With the midnight oil burning, he quickly ran the cord under and over, left to right, and repeated that pattern until the length of cord he had left was short enough to tie down. We had to make adjustments, including not using the front passenger seat. Instead, the cooler represented the passenger seat. The captain’s seat

Chris Dankmeyer uses a little Alaskan ingenuity - some para-cord - to help secure the raft. (CHRIS COX)

was utilized, but only because it leaned against the seat bar pushing against the back of it. After what should’ve been a stressfree evening, we hit the sack well after midnight and it appeared our jury rig was going to work. There would be no stopping us from completing this adventure, hell or high water.

THE NEXT MORNING, WE broke camp, loaded the raft, and then walked a mile, perhaps 2, upstream into Kagvik Creek to fish our way back down. We caught many Dolly Varden and Arctic grayling, even a chum salmon or two. We worked our way back down to the raft and set off downstream late in the afternoon. As we navigated a few bends after some stops to land a few beautiful Dollies, Chris saw what he thought were caribou on the mountain. We pulled the raft over to the bank and climbed a small bluff to confirm the sighting.

BE PREPARED FOR EVERYTHING We overcame our small setback by having the right tools with us. Always, always write yourself a gear checklist before departure. It’s recommended to have separate lists for the raft and parts, the fishing gear, the clothing, the food, and finally the camp gear. For this trip, we brought 7- and 8-weight fly rods and casting and spinning rods for medium- to large-sized fish. Great lure choices include spinners,



beads, Dolly Llamas, Egg-sucking Leeches, and, if you want to fish the topwater, the AKGurgler and Mr. Hankey mouse flies from Alaska Fly Fishing Goods. You don’t want to be on the side of the river without the tools to get you home, trust us. The Noatak watershed is bear country; always practice good camp habits and be bear-aware of your surroundings when fishing or floating through this region. CC

OCTOBER 2017 |

Through our binos, we viewed what appeared to be a couple hundred caribou in the distance, roaming across the mountainside. It was a real treat to see a different species, and this was only day two of our adventure. Back on the river we departed after a few successful casts for more Dolly Varden. As we headed downstream and around another bend, caribou were suddenly all around us, some crossing the river in front of the raft, others behind us, and even more to our left and right flanks. We could see and hear caribou in every direction and quickly maneuvered the raft over to the riverbank to get some steady pictures with the camera. Some walked 10 feet from us not knowing we were there. We held our breath and tried to be as motionless as possible as a few hundred passed by. Some were just a few feet from the scrum of brush we hid behind. The fishing around the next stop was pretty slow, and we ended up staying a couple of nights at Trail Creek, roughly 10 miles from our starting point. We hiked up the tributary a bit and worked our way back downstream, crossing the tundra in a few places while capturing the scenery that was all around us. We found our starting point upstream at the end of a rockwall that protruded a few hundred feet above the creek. An osprey’s nest sat perched precariously on the rockwall and two of the raptors flew above us as we worked the pockets below the nest. We headed down along the banks after not finding

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any luck. While walking, we stumbled upon odd-looking rocks every few hundred yards. After examining them, we realized they were all old fossils. There were lots of them, some resembling jellyfish and old plants. Some looked like old teeth, while more appeared to be petrified wood. All of our attention was on the ground as we walked our way back to camp, wondering what we would come across next.

It wouldn’t be Alaska without a spectacular encounter with the local fauna, in this case caribou the guys found themselves ridiculously close to as the herd crossed the river. (CHRIS COX)

WE DEPARTED THE FOLLOWING day determined to reach the mouth. We entered a famous feature of the Kug, its gorge. Inside the steep-walled canyon were numerous sections of boulders that we dodged, as well as sections of class II rapids, which made for a very fun float. As the float progressed, we admired the scenery at a few places throughout the gorge and eventually found a great fishing hole that we nicknamed “Fragile 92


OCTOBER 2017 |


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Dankmeyer shows off a nice chum salmon. (CHRIS COX)

You just never know what you might stumble upon along the Kug, in this case the toothy maw of a dog or chum salmon. (CHRIS COX)

Rock.” The hole is located next to bedrock that extends 4 to 10 feet above the swift water in most spots, and because it’s so rocky it made it very difficult to walk on, let alone land any fish. It was a real bone breaker! Chris hooked into and landed a nice fish that we very carefully landed on the hazardous bank. The fish was one of the



prettiest landed up to that point on the trip – a colored-up male showing all of its spawning colors. We each landed eight or nine fish out of this one tiny hole along the rocks. The amount of Dolly Varden the river produced exceeded our expectations, and this hole in particular was especially gratifying.

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We worked our way down to the mouth of the Kug, where we had planned on staying one night before moving onto an old pal, the Kelly River. Upon arrival at the Kelly, we headed upstream to one of our favorite fishing holes and found ourselves casting into familiar waters, despite obvious changes at the river mouth. Instantly, both



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A couple of buddies and a lot of Arctic char caught made for a great float trip on the Kugururok. (CHRIS DANKMEYER/CHRIS COX)

Chris and I had fish on, both huge Dollies. We fished the hole until late evening, finally giving all the fish a break after each of us had landed a dozen or so, many of them well over 20 inches.

WE WERE SCHEDULED TO depart the next day, so we got up earlier than usual



and headed for the same hole that had been so productive the day before and in years past. When we had hit this hole last year, it seemed like fresh fish moved in each day of our stay. My first cast that morning immediately hooked into something heavy. As line peeled off my 7-weight reel, I re-

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alized that this something was large. I called Chris, who was fishing upstream, to come help me land the big guy. After several long runs, even into my backing, I had him close to the bank. Not knowing the next move and trying to be gentle, I worked the fish into some slack water next to the bank. Just as

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Charter Spotlight

the fish was about to hit the side of the bank SNAP! went my line. Chris was right there and tried to wrangle it, but the water was just deep enough to allow the fish to escape his grasp and swim back to the deep current, with my hook still in its jaw. Not wanting to accept defeat, I caught my breath and retied, then moved upstream a little bit to a set of overhanging trees that I knew should hold some nice fish. I swapped out my bead for an AKGurgler fly pattern. Floating along the surface, it enticed a big Dolly Varden to chase and smash it, similar to a mouse. After some more casts and takes from several nice grayling, a huge Dolly surged out of the depths below a submerged tree and smashed my offering. After a quick fight, I again yelled for Chris to come snap a photo of my moment with the stunning 28-inch Dolly. After a few quick shots, I sent the beautifully orange and green male back to the river, which quickly alleviated my pain of having lost its big brother. By this point in our trip, I was completely satisfied with all the fish we’d caught.

WE FINISHED OUR TRIP down to Noatak over the next two days, spending one night on the river between the Kelly and the village of Noatak. Travel speeds on this section of river vary with the wind. It whips upstream strongly enough in some sections to hold your raft steady in place despite the 8-mph river current. We opted to turn the raft around and rowed downstream until we made it to our destination, albeit with burning shoulders and blistered hands. It was well worth it for this trip. The Kug is one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve been on in all of Alaska. There’s just something special about floating south along the gorgeous landscape from the Brooks Range. We overcame the frame parts we forgot to bring and got to enjoy the scorching sun, the wild caribou, the numerous fossils below, the flying osprey above, and last but not least, the amazing fish the river has to offer. ASJ Editor’s note: More of author Chris Cox’s adventures in the Last Frontier can be found at

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Alaska features some of the world’s premiere waters for fly fishing, so we thought it would be a good idea to share some of the best Alaska-inspired flies available for your fishing destinations in the Last Frontier.


n the transition from summer to fall, the underwater world experiences immense metamorphic changes as temperatures cool and daylight decreases. With rainbow trout foraging heavily on a nutritionally enriched diet of salmon eggs and flesh, the availability of these two important prey sources shrinks. Rainbows forage opportunistically because their objective is to eat as much prey as possible before the onset of winter because their metabolic activity fluctuates. Achieving a large mass is a requirement of survival for Alaska’s long winters. One of the most abundant, widespread trout food sources in the state is the sculpin. Various freshwater and marine sculpin species exist, with the slimy sculpin the most common species in the native range of rainbows. This species in particular is characterized as a bottom-dwelling fish living in proximity to rocky substrates adjacent to sandy or gravel habitats. It moves along the bottom in an inconsistent, rapid, darting motion similar to hopping. While each sculpin species varies in their morphology, the slimy sculpin exhibits dark olive/brown coloration on its head, back and sides, is mottled with irregular blotches and has a light cream underbelly. Given their coloration, they are hard to observe because they camouflage themselves against the bottom so well. They commonly range between 3 and 6 inches in length. Many sculpin fly patterns are specifically designed to imitate either a certain species or match various stages of coloration unique to its morphology. A combination of wool, synthetics,

Sculpins are a favored fall meal for rainbows, so creating a fly in a similar pattern provides anglers with a nice option. (MIKE LUNDE)

and dubbing are used to make various styles of heads. To construct their large, lobed-like pectoral fins, tyers often select a pair of individual hen saddle feathers or clump of flared deer hair. For a traditional woolhead sculpin, a leadwire underbody assists for weight so that the fly swings deep on

the presentation. A 2-inch olive-dyed barred rabbit strip is tied onto the rear section of the hook. Multiple applications of sculpin wool are tied in the remaining room up front to form a densely compacted head. An effective bonus option can be a 3-D holographic eyeball. -Mike Lunde | OCTOBER 2017





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’ve been fortunate to fish throughout much of Alaska over the past 25 years, from city streams to remote fly-out camps. What gear to take is always a good question, especially when multiple species can be targeted. Oftentimes, the answer is determined by space and weight limitations. But when it comes to coho salmon this time of year, keep it simple. October could be the most overlooked month to experience exceptional silver fishing, without having to pack a ton of tackle.


Adding a 4-inch pink worm to any lure can be just what it takes to turn on a coho bite. This fat silver couldn’t resist a Rooster Tail tipped with a rubber worm. (SCOTT HAUGEN)

If fishing cured eggs on a river where bait is allowed, a 2/0 hook with a 15-pound mainline and leader is good. With coho teeth maturing and being sharp this time of year, a little stronger leader is a wise choice. What sinker set-up you use, be it a dropper, pencil sinker or split-shot, depends on the depth and current of the water being | OCTOBER 2017





Have a bunch of fish and shellfish and feel like eating something with a kick? Try this spicy gumbo recipe. (TIFFANY HAUGEN)



ith coho salmon still lurking in many Alaskan waters, here’s a recipe everyone will love. It’s simple, tasty and also works well with any fish. Gumbo is one of those recipes that can be adapted to freshly caught fish or what’s stashed in the freezer. You can use all salmon or toss some trout or bottomfish fillets into the pot. Mussels or clams can be substituted for oysters, or chicken can be substituted for all of the shellfish. With quality seafood, you won’t go wrong with this flavor-packed creation.

COHO-SHELLFISH GUMBO ½ cup olive oil ⅔ cup flour 1 cup finely chopped onion 1 cup chopped green pepper 1 cup chopped celery 2 tablespoons chopped garlic 2 tablespoons jalapeño pepper 2 cups beer (stock can be substituted) 104


4 cups fish, seafood or chicken stock 4 bay leaves 1½ tablespoons Cajun rub 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce 1 cup chopped okra, optional ½ pound chopped salmon ½ pound chopped bottomfish 6 medium oysters with liquid Five to 10 large shrimp ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons garlic powder 2 teaspoons onion powder 1 teaspoon oregano 1 teaspoon thyme 1 teaspoon black pepper 1 teaspoon white pepper ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

In a large pot, whisk oil and flour continuously over medium-high heat until it begins to brown, seven to 10 minutes. Add onion, peppers, celery and garlic and continue to sauté five minutes. Add liquids and seasonings and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 30 minutes. Add okra and fish and continue to simmer 15 to 30 minutes. Add oysters, shrimp and parsley, simmering an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Serve over rice if desired.

Editor’s note: For signed copies of Tiffany’s popular book, Cooking Seafood, send a check for $20 (free S&H), to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489. This and other cookbooks can also be ordered at Tiffany Haugen is a fulltime author and part of the online series, Cook With Cabela’s.

CAJUN SEAFOOD RUB 1 tablespoon smoked paprika

OCTOBER 2017 |

In a small bowl, mix all ingredients until thoroughly combined.

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The author has fished coho throughout Alaska, and ranks October as the most overlooked time to experience some great fishing action. (SCOTT HAUGEN)

fished. Having eggs that are cured a bright red, purple or orange helps fish see the bait, and scents play a huge part in salmon locating bait in the murkiest of water. Another great coho set-up is a bobber and jig. A floating, braided mainline is ideal, as is a long rod in order to efficiently mend the line in big water. Thread a bobber stop onto the mainline, followed by a 3mm bead (these serve as your depth regulator), then the float, and tie off to a size 7 barrel swivel. Add to a 12- to 24-inch mono leader, a ¼-ounce jig in either pink or green and you’re set. 106


LEGENDARY LURES While jigs, eggs, plugs, flies and poppers can be very effective on silvers, perhaps nothing is as versatile as casting lures. Today’s lures and spinners are very diverse, allowing anglers to cover a wide range of water and target salmon wherever they may hold or travel. If fishing fast currents or deep holes for coho, a ¾- to 1-ounce lure works well. In slower-moving shallow water, downsize to a ⅜-ounce lure. Coho aren’t shy of big lures, but downsizing will help keep from getting hung up. A favorite of many coho anglers is a lure with a skirt, which creates a

OCTOBER 2017 |

lot of action. The Coho Bolo has been a standout for years, and the highly popular ½-ounce Flash-Glo Casting spinner with the squid skirt and large beads is a favorite of many serious coho anglers. Flash-Glo spinners and many others come with a treble hook and a siwash hook, and they are easy to change out in fisheries where a single hook is required. Pixie lures could be the most popular coho lure in Alaska, and with good reason: They cast far and fish love them. The famed Rooster Tail is also a great coho spinner, and its range of sizes, all the way up to 1 ounce, allows | OCTOBER 2017



for many types of water to be covered. Add a 4-inch pink worm to the Rooster Tail; the movement it creates, along with the undulating hackle, is something coho love. As for lure color, start with pink or chartreuse and end with pink or chartreuse. Pink or chartreuse work best for coho. Invest in a variety of shades, from bright to light. Orange and red can also be good.

RODS AND REELS When it comes to picking a spinning rod set-up for casting lures or even drift fishing, I like the Shimano Stradic 3000F reel, which I use on two different rods. In small streams, the G.Loomis IMX 9000 Twitching rod is ideal, as the short length allows for accurate casting and hitting pocket water with control. In bigger water and where larger salmon are targeted, a great option is the IMX 1165S, a 9-foot, 8-inch rod with a line rating of 8- to 17-pound test. I’ll usually go with 12- or 15-pound-test P-Line CXX mainline, depending on the type of water and size of fish sought. These class ratings for reels, rods and line will help get you started.

SEE YOUR WATER When the sun pops out, having a pair of polarized sunglasses will help you read the water, which is critical for knowing where to cast. And just because the sun may be out, don’t think that means it’s going to be warm. October temperatures in Alaska can range from the 40s all the way down into the teens, so dressing accordingly is vital to safety and comfort. With silver salmon making their way into many Alaskan streams this month, get ready for some fun. A lot of anglers think August and early September mark prime time for coho, but the entire month of October can also be exceptional. Don’t miss it. ASJ Editor’s note: For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s popular book, Bank Fishing for Salmon & Steelhead, send a check for $17 (includes S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489, or order online at 108


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he recent events in Houston and Florida should be a wake-up call to many. Sadly enough, some never get the memo. In my seminars around the country, many attendees have a “deer in the headlights” look when the discussion turns to preparedness. Has convenience shopping really dulled our senses to the point of inaction? It amazes me that people will drive to the nearest shopping mart or supermarket for a single can of soup, box of cereal or bottle of water every time they need one. The minute-by-minute coverage of long lines, empty shelves and people fighting over a case of water is reveal-

ing. Being a participant in such free-foralls can indeed put one’s life at risk. And that doesn’t take into account the danger posed by looters who might want to liberate you from your precious cargo. Natural disasters can and do bring out the best and worst in people. Which one are you? Having at least two weeks’ worth of nonperishable food, 10 to 15 gallons of bottled water, some extra cash and a modest first-aid kit (prescription meds are a must) on hand are just a few of the common-sense items required to survive an interruption in services. A small book could be written on the topic (several have been, so get reading), covering all the important items needed. At a minimum, though, the

aforementioned items should be mandatory in all households desiring a modicum of self-sufficiency. And it’s not enough to stock up at home. Consider the amount of time you spend in or near your vehicle. Does it not make sense to also have some supplies in the car or truck should fate intervene while you’re on the road or at work? Yes. Snow storms, floods, accidents, getting lost and vehicular breakdowns can all render you a statistic and get you front page coverage on the nightly news. Don’t be that guy/gal competing for the coveted Darwin award! ASJ Editor’s note: Darrell Holland owns and operates Holland’s Shooter’s Supply. Find out more at

THE PERFECT SURVIVAL KIT This grab-and-go kit will allow you to remain in the gene pool under extreme conditions. It includes a Hollands Jet Pack, Lightning Strike Fire Starter, 100-foot para cord, shelter tarp, flashlight, extra batteries, Silky Saw, 6 to 20 penny nails, tent stakes, knife,



Derma-Safe, zip-close bags, two large H/D garbage bags, Ibuprofen, Benadryl, prescription meds (if required), Band-Aids, water bottle, protein bars, Neosporin, nature paper, Quick Clot bandage, optional rescue beacon and equalizer. Some of you may question the cost

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of such a kit. The answer is simple. What’s your life worth? Waiting for government assistance can be just as costly, if not more so. You need to be responsible for yourself and your family. Get busy; the life you save may be your own! ASJ | OCTOBER 2017



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