February is not your typical month to head afield in search of big game. However, in Alaska we are blessed with the opportunity to hunt mountain goats as late as March in some areas. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
It was mid-September; I had just finished a sheep and moose hunt unsuccessfully. Still yearning to get out during the fall, I contacted a buddy who lives in Skagway to see if we could conjure up an October goat hunt. Everything was coming together when I managed to separate my shoulder playing a game of flag football. Needless to say, that put the brakes on the October goat hunt and luckily so, as I had planned on booking plane tickets the following night. Furthermore, the registration hunt was closed only two days after I was scheduled to arrive. Sometimes I think the man upstairs makes things happen for a reason.
Fast forward to late October, and my buddy Steve mentions that he and his brother Joey are planning a February goat hunt and wanted to know if I was in. It took all of about one second to confirm my intent. Now it was just a matter of counting down the days.
As we inched closer to February, we began to finalize our plans, always keeping an eye on the weather. We confirmed our bush flight out with Island Air, and had three possible locations in mind to get dropped off. I managed to secure the help of a pretty lady to watch my house while I was gone – even though I would be absent for Valentine’s Day! Everything was falling into place, so three weeks out I decided it was as good a time as any to pack. With the help of Christina, we ran down my checklist, completing the first round of packing. This is usually my favorite part as the anticipation really starts to build. However, for the entire two months leading up to the hunt, the weather reports were horrible and it was hard to stay focused.
Trying to keep an optimistic outlook for this hunt was nearly impossible, as it seemed like every time I checked the weather, the extended forecast held nothing but rain and wind. Combine that with the fact that I was not able to work over any maps researching a specific area and I felt stuck in limbo. Being an optimist though, I kept telling myself that at least the temperatures were extremely mild.
We had decided that our hunt would take place over President’s Day weekend, from February 11th through the 20th if necessary. Knowing the weather was always iffy, Steve and I did not book any commercial air, as we intended to wait until the final few days. As the departure date neared, Steve and I decided that we would at least spend the long weekend down there regardless of the weather. The excitement started to build as we picked our flights. Luckily for us Joey is an airline pilot, and he graciously used his airline miles to purchase our commercial air tickets to and from Kodiak.
We would leave for Kodiak Island on Thursday after work, arriving in Kodiak early on the morning of the 12th, and if weather permitted we would fly out to the field by mid-afternoon. For anyone who has hunted Kodiak, we were asking for a lot of stars to align here: all three of us (and bags!) to show up on time, get our last minute gear and tags, and still have good weather to get out.
Work dragged on far too long. I asked the boss if I could cut out 30 minutes early, and he gave me the green light. It was finally here! As is usual I had the feeling I was missing something, so I yard-saled my gear, pulling everything out of the bags, ran down the checklist once more, and completely repacked. I celebrated Valentine’s Day early with my sweetheart and told her goodbye.
We made it to Anchorage and terminal-camped, catching the first flight to Kodiak. We arrived on schedule, made our way to the air charter, and awaited transportation to round out our gear. A few short trips later to pick up Joey, and hit Walmart, Big Ray’s, and ADF&G and we were set. Our pilot for the day was Eric, and we talked over our locations. He actually mentioned a few more and we devised a plan to check out a few spots. Finally, with the plane packed, it was go time! Floats were up right on time: 1200.
It was a rainy, gloomy day at the basin, but the south side of the island was holding some sunny patches. After an hour and 45 minutes in the air we still had not seen many goats. We opted for an interior lake that hadn’t frozen that year; the only place we actually saw goats when we flew over. We landed and had everything offloaded by 1400. The pilot wished us well and was on his way, not scheduled to return until February 19th.
With the unusually wet and warm year, the first order of business was to find a suitable camping spot. Steve went left, and I went right. Steve ended up finding the best spot, so we started shuttling our gear about 300 yards up the lake. I remember thinking to myself, “Damn I wish we had packed lighter.” We set about making camp as Joey and I pitched our tents and Steve continued shuttling gear. With camp basically set, we got down to business. Steve quickly located the goats further down lake, the opposite direction from where we had moved camp. We put them to bed with high hopes that they would be there in the morning. We made a quick dinner and jumped into bed about 1900 with high hopes. With a little rain throughout the night, and the crisp air, I slept very well.
Joey was the first one up on February 13th, our first hunting day. We quickly got dressed and piled out of the tent. Steve and Joey began glassing while I boiled water. Steve ended up skipping breakfast, while Joey ate a few granola bars, and I hurriedly ate my oatmeal mix. Steve had located the goats right at the snowline on the mountain. Much to our benefit, the goats had moved one knob closer to us throughout the night. In all we counted about 30. As we prepared our gear and packs, the goats began working even farther downhill and to our left. We could not believe our luck, yet at the same time, they had the advantage as they could move faster than us.
We tore out of camp with only the necessities. Trying to catch up, we headed for the first creek drainage coming out of the mountains in hopes of cutting the goats off, a foolish attempt at best. We made it to a spot where we could see them from the creek drainage. Cresting the terrain, I pulled out the rangefinder and grabbed a quick reading: 600 yards. Joey and I continued on, but the goats beat us up the hill. I continued hiking alone for another three quarters of a mile before I re-located the goats.
I had finally broken out above the brush line into a massive snowed in bowl. I was just sure that the goats had wrapped around and would be walking near the base of the mountain. Boy, was I wrong. As I began to crest a small knoll, I grabbed my binos and saw some off-white motion. Sure enough, it was the goats – and they were darn near on the top of the mountain!
It was at that point that I lay down to contemplate a shot. I set the gun up, began looking for a billy, located one, and pulled out the rangefinder. Shit! My rangefinder pouch was open! I knew that it was around 400 yards, but without the range it was too far to risk a shot. Angry at myself for not attaching the lanyard to my bino harness as I normally do, I realized I’d learned an expensive lesson and blew an opportunity.
Riding the emotional roller coast of losing the Leica rangefinder, yet finding the goats, I headed back to meet up with Steve and Joey. To add a little salt to the wound, it began snowing. I learned another valuable lesson here; Steve had very astutely counted the goats that went around the hill: 19. That left 11 goats unaccounted for. They had not seen them go up and over or straggle behind the others, so they must be back where we’d originally spotted the group.
We took a quick break, swigged some water, ate a few snacks, and headed towards the original location. We made it to a clearing around 1430 and began glassing. What ensued may have been the funniest interaction of the entire hunt. We were getting ready to pack up and move farther down the mountain when Steve asked, “Joey, have you checked the top part of the mountain really well?” Both Joey and I looked up.
Joey responded, “Apparently not, because here comes a parade of goats!” We could not have planned it any better. The goats just kept pouring over the top of the mountain, right towards us, with every step bringing them closer. I was shaking at that point, and I’m not sure if it was from excitement or the cold, damp weather. I tried filming a bit, but the trees and my shakes made for some rather crappy footage.
The goats eventually made it to the original rock that we’d spotted them on that morning. Steve quickly pulled out the spotting scope and identified a few billies, finding one that really caught his attention. The odds where shaping up, yet we almost blew it.
The most intense part of this hunt followed, occurring in a matter of 20 minutes. From our current position we were over 400 yards away. Wanting to close the distance, we decided to move through the alders to another open spot, knocking out 50 yards. We all tried to get set up, but the angles were not working out. We made yet another move, back to our original location.
When we got back, the goats must have seen us because they began to move off. Steve was trying to call out a goat for me to get on, but we could not synch up. We were all getting frustrated with so many goats moving about and we did not want to inadvertently shoot any nannies. Finally, Joey and I told Steve to take his shot, not wanting to lose out on a good opportunity.
Steve found a billy and took a shot; a clean miss. Much to our delight, the goats moved closer still. Three minutes passed and Steve found another billy, ranged it at 428, settled in behind the rifle, and bang – this time a hit. His goat dropped and eventually dove off the left side of the rock into a thick alder patch. Steve quickly went from shooter to spotter. The goats were getting antsy and starting to move out. I was up next.
Both Joey and Steve diligently searched the hillside for other billies. As the group began to split, Steve found a line of goats moving away. I quickly confirmed that I was on the same line. Steve rattled off the sex of each goat, in sequential order, as I followed along in my scope. I was struggling to get a good sight picture, and I had to count back three different times.
Finally. “I got him! Steve, I need a range!”
“Hold tight. 411!”
I quickly dialed my turret for 415 as the billy continued to walk quartering away. Steve yelled in an attempt to get him to stop, but to no avail. It was pretty much now or never as he would soon crest a knob that would put him out of sight. I tracked the billy, moving my cross hairs slightly in front of the goats shoulder. Exhaling, I squeezed the trigger.
I remember the recoil, followed by Joey saying, “You dropped him!”
Steve tacked on, “He’s down for good. Great shot!”
I quickly found the goat in my scope, in disbelief, as I knew how tough goats can be. Just like that I had my first mountain goat and a huge flood of emotions and relief came over me. However, these quickly subsided as it was now Joey’s turn while Steve and I spotted for him. I also began filming in case we did locate a billy.
For another five minutes, we watched as the goats finally cleared out of the area. No dice for Joey today, but he was more than happy as both Steve and I doubled up on our first day. We threw many high-fives and congratulations around on that grassy knoll, as Steve had harvested his third goat and I my first. Steve remarked, “You might have gotten the big one; he is really nice.” Little did we know it, but he was right. As we packed our gear, we devised a plan for the evening.
Joey and I would head to my goat, take a few pictures, and gut him. Then we would scramble to Steve’s goat and help him do the same. We made it to my goat at 1715. I arrived first, and standing there, it finally sunk in that I had realized another dream of mine. My first mountain goat, harvested with some great company! Joey made it up shortly after me, and we began taking pictures and gutting the animal.
Another billy eventually showed himself on the top of a rocky outcropping within range, but not knowing what was on the back side, Joey opted not to shoot. Making quick work, we headed for Steve.
Darkness was fast approaching as we eventually reached him in the middle of the alders and finished taking pictures, quickly gutted him, and decided that it would be safer to pack it out in the daylight. We returned to camp, ate a celebratory dinner, and reminisced on the day. We used the satellite phone to call Christina and relay the good news. She could not believe that we had gotten our goats so fast. Sleep came easy that night.
We slept in as the continual patter of rain on the tent made it hard to crawl out of the sleeping bags. Finally, knowing we had a full day of skinning and packing, we got up around 1000. Eating a quick breakfast, we left camp heading for my goat, still resting on a steep grass slope.
The first priority was to get him to a safer spot to skin. Joey and I dragged the goat down the mountain to a flat, snow-covered bench. We set to skinning him out; having three people made for a very expedient job. We had him skinned in a little under an hour and a half. Still on the steep stuff, I loaded up with the hide and half the meat while Steve toted the other half down until we reached a flatter bench.
We took a break and I loaded up the rest of the meat. After refitting the 100-plus-pound pack, we parted ways. Steve and Joey went for the second goat and I left for camp. Making it to camp, I constructed a makeshift lean-to over an alder and placed the meat and hide out to stay dry and let air circulate. I made room for Steve’s portions and heated water for them as they made it in just past dark. They scarfed down their dinners and I placed the meat under the tarp. Sleep, again, came easy after the day’s chores.
We were settling into a routine. Joey awoke and he and Steve were going to go out looking for goats. Before they left, Steve and I hung the meat down by the lake. It was a pretty uneventful day for me as I stayed in camp taking care of the meat and hides. I set out both hides to dry, fleshing extra meat off of mine. Steve’s was nearly perfect. As they began to dry out, I folded them back up and placed them under the lean-to.
I checked on the meat periodically, making sure a nice crust was developing. As rain approached, I quickly used one of the extra tarps to cover the meat. Other than that, I sat in camp reading, glassing, and thinking back on the trip so far.
It turned out to also be an uneventful day for Steve and Joey, as they only found a group of seven nannies paired with kids, two miles from camp. However, at dusk we both located a solitary nanny. If we located her in the morning, she would be the target.
We awoke to bluebird skies; a rarity for Kodiak. Joey woke up early and located the solitary nanny. I quickly dressed and exited the tent, hoping to tag along, but Joey wanted to do it solo. He packed and quickly left.
That was the perfect opportunity to look for my lost rangefinder, so I took off. Of course it was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. No dice. Shortly after I made it back to camp, I talked to Steve who was watching the nanny through the spotting scope. We were waiting for a shot to ring out at any minute. Sure enough, about 1000, we heard it and watched the nanny drop.
We expected her to roll off the cliff face, but she luckily hung on. I quickly exchanged hip boots for mountain boots, and 42 minutes later was standing next to Joey with his awesome nanny. With the good weather, we decided that it was in our best interest to call our pilot and see if he could pick us up later that evening. Steve, meanwhile, was caping the heads of our two goats.
Joey and I took a bunch of pictures and began skinning out his goat. We loaded up and headed for camp. Coming out was a bit treacherous as we had to walk out an avalanche chute; luckily it had already avalanched. However, once we made it down out of the steep stuff, it was easy going back to camp. We made it back around 1530. We had just enough time to eat a Mountain House and finish packing our personal gear right as the pilot flew over. Steve started taking the meat down and shuttling it towards the rest of the gear while Joey and I packed the tents. We helped load everything and took off by 1645. With the perfect weather, we were able to fly over the entire mainland of Kodiak all the way to the basin. It was a rare experience as we made it back without ever feeling any sort of turbulence; not so much as a bump.
A quick division and repacking of gear and plans for meat care were followed by a celebratory dinner. After reminiscing on the hunt once more, we split ways as Steve and I headed for the Kodiak air station hotel. We awoke the next morning to catch our early flight off the island headed back to Fairbanks. With a little delay in planes we made it back in time with all of our gear.
Christina was waiting for me and I ran over and gave her a big hug. I think she was as excited as I was about this goat. After all, it is her favorite Alaskan animal. I couldn’t wait to show her the head and hide. We quickly split up gear and were on or way.
The weeks surrounding the hunt were a whirlwind, and I would not have had it any other way. The fact that we snuck into Kodiak, had some of the best weather I have seen there, harvested three mature goats – two on the first day – and got out early, is beyond improbable. Furthermore, we only had to hike 0.6 miles from camp to reach our goats, with an elevation gain of no more than 1,500 feet. Lastly, we made it back to Fairbanks earlier than anticipated.
As always, some valuable lessons were learned on this trip: never give up, tie your rangefinder to you bino harness, and it is better to be lucky than good! We had potentially blown one opportunity, on the first day, but with persistence, good things followed. Unfortunately it cost me a rangefinder, but you can bet I will never lose another one. Of course, being lucky benefitted us dramatically on this hunt as well. The goats just marched over the hill towards us and got closer after the shots, we shot Joey’s goat and got picked up on the same day, and we made it off the island as the weather moved in the next day with 50 mph winds and pouring rain. All in all it was a perfect hunt with great friends!
I am already making plans for next year. I just have to pony up for another rangefinder…