Have You Ever Tried This?
Alaska hunting is the stuff of dreams, yet many convince themselves it's beyond their reach. This is easy to understand, as guided Alaska hunts are some of the most expensive around. Single-species hunts for mountain goat, dall sheep and brown bear run anywhere from $9,000 to $14,000. A guided hunt for even commonplace barren ground caribou might finance a multi-species hunt in southern Africa.
For the average working stiff, a do-it-yourself hunt is the only way to enjoy such an expedition. If daunted by such an adventure, especially its costs, I understand. Yet, after 10 Alaska forays of my own, I'm here to say that with plenty of advanced planning and a meager savings-account grab-stake, an Alaska hunt is well within grasp. While the sexiest Alaskan species require the non-resident to hire an outfitter by law, many don't. These include barren ground caribou, Alaska-Yukon moose, Sitka blacktail deer and black bear — all animals you can hunt on your own for a considerable savings.
The first-time Alaska adventurer is advised to book a drop-camp hunt. This involves hiring a flying service to ferry you and gear to productive ground (of their choosing). Various degrees of services are offered, price adjusted accordingly. At its most basic, you're simply taxied in and dropped off, with your own truck. Or, opt for a fully outfitted camp, all necessary camping gear and food provided. You bring only a sleeping bag, duds and hunting gear. Other options include a mid-hunt visit, in case meat should need to be flown out, or more importantly, should you require a move. These options increase expenses but also provide cheap insurance against bum experiences.
When dealing with a reputable operator, drop camps provide a better chance of arriving in the right place at the right time. The best pilots keep a close eye on game movements and whereabouts to assure they're able to set clients in the best areas. The best flying services are also typically willing to spend a bit of extra time in the air on arrival, giving you a better grasp of the land, perhaps spotting game, before landing. Drop-camp arrangements are normally charged at a flat rate per person, even if additional meat-hauling trips are required following a successful hunt.
Shop carefully. Unfortunately, cheats abound in all walks of life, and Alaska bush services have more than their share. The unscrupulous outfits simply dump hunters where it's convenient for them, not necessarily where game is most abundant. Ask for a list of references, preferably recent bookings — hunters from both successful and unsuccessful ventures. If they're reluctant to provide such information, find an operator who will. References simply assure fewer surprises, confirming services are as presented and hidden costs minimal. Talking to someone who's been there also helps you pack more efficiently.
Where to Hunt?
We've researched a few places to help you get started on your Alaskan adventure. Pick your species and then dive in to the places below:
Anchorage: Stony, Hoholitna and Mulchatna rivers and the Lake Clark region. Hunting is complicated by September hunt dates, typically concluding before the rut begins. Increase your odds of calling success by arriving late in the season. As with any gun-dog training, simple commands work best. Hand signals can do plenty as you approach the waterfowl-holding location. And at the moment of truth, just before the flush, you can do many things.
Cordova: Some behemoth bulls, but non-residents are limited to a single unit and limited number of landing sites. Success dependent on hunting pressure in those few places. Contact Cordova Air for more info.
McGrath & Kotzebue: Near McGrath; Iditarod, Innoko, Galena and Yukon rivers top producers of trophy bulls. Some float-only areas restrict fly-in. Areas near Kotzeboe and Brooks Range worthwhile but include added transportation costs, though better odds of rut action.
Anchorage: The easily-accessible Mulchatna herd has crashed and success is low in traditional areas. Super Cub access can get you into new migration patterns at added costs.
Alaska Peninsula: King Salmon area provides quality caribou hunting and trophy potential. Some Peninsula islands worth investigating; little hunting pressure but increased transportation costs.
Kotzeboe & Brooks Range: The stable Porcupine herd offers super hunting, but once again, added transportation costs and travel time make these areas less popular. Trophy quality is top-notch.
Pipeline Haul Road, Fairbanks: Rare opportunity to hunt from a rented vehicle; bowhunting only due to adjacent Alaska Pipeline. Consult area game biologist for best dates.
Black Bear Bush
Alaska Southeast: Areas surrounding Ketchikan and Juneau allow Pacific Northwest residents to drive. Prince of Wales Island hunted via network of highways, ferry system and logging roads. Boats allow access to remote ocean shores. Spring baiting legal and productive. Fall spot-and-stalk also highly productive, especially while cruising remote seashores, or hunting salmon streams from August to September.
Cordova & Valdez: Extremely productive, glassing open hillsides of new growth (spring) or berries (fall). Concentrate efforts along salmon rivers during August and September, though brown bears are common (and very aggressive).
Alaska Southeast: Accessing lesser-known islands is highly productive, but costly. Look to Trinity, Amook, Zarembo and Sitkinak islands — and others surrounding these.
Cordova: In general, Hinchinbrook and Montague islands are hunted hard and trophy quality is poor, though backpacking high and far from access can net bigger bucks.
Prince of Wales Island: Consistently produces top-end bucks, though hunting complicated by thick vegetation. Backpack into high alpine areas immediately following August opener or hunt low during the November rut. Hunting accessed via 4WD.
Kodiak Island: Large die-offs during the past few years, but big bucks still taken and success fair. Open terrain makes hunting easier. Areas on the southern end is best, but include costly floatplane rides. Areas close to Kodiak City allow access from boat/vehicle, but hunting is difficult and the limit is one deer.
Editor's Note: This was originally published on January 30, 2009.
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