Big Things Come in Small Packages
This hunt was conceived in early December of 2011 when I received a call from my son, an Army officer, who is stationed in Bethesda, Maryland. He asked if I had ever considered going on a sika deer hunt. Sure, I've considered just about every kind of hunt; I just haven't considered it enough to shell out the money it takes to make it happen. Kevin has been stationed in Maryland for the past several years and while there, has been eyeing the illusive little sika deer which resides on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay in Dorchester County. It's the only place in the US where this is considered a legitimate game animal and not just an exotic.
To sweeten the pot and get me to fly east, he offered to pay my way back as my Christmas present. Now what kind of father would reject his son's Christmas present? I figured it would be a great way to spend some time with my son and at the same time, hunt a new and different animal. The date was set for me to fly from Washington State to Washington DC on the 15th of January and we'd drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on our way to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge for the hunt.
Here's a little history on the sika that I took from the internet.
Obviously, when the word deer is mentioned, most of us think of whitetails and mule deer, since they are the most predominant deer species in North America. But over the past few decades there has been another deer that has received a lot of attention by hunters, biologists and wildlife viewers.
The sika (see-kuh) deer, (cervus nippon) is a non-native species and is not related to our Sitka black-tails of the Northwest and Alaska, which are actually related to the mule deer. The sika’s are more closely related to our native elk. They are not native to North America but originate in Japan, Taiwan and Eastern Asia. Captive sika’s have been reported in 34 states in the U.S., with wild populations found in Texas, Virginia and Maryland's Eastern Shore.
It has been reported that Clement Henry, an Eastern Shore resident, released five or six sika deer in 1916 on James Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Then in the 1920’s, some of the Henry stock was released onto Assateague Island. Over the years, the deer have moved onto the mainland of Maryland, taking up home in the marshes and wetlands of the lower eastern shore. Today, sika deer inhabit Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset and Worchester counties of Maryland with the highest concentrations in southern Dorchester County.
The sika males are called stags and females are referred to as hinds, both of which are very vocal, especially during the rut. The sika is more closely related to our native elk than whitetails, therefore they are one of the most vocal of all the deer species. During the fall and early winter breeding period, stags can be heard bugling across the marsh, with most of this occurring early in the morning and at dusk. Hinds also vocalize using soft bleats and whistles to communicate with other females and their young.
They differ from whitetails in appearance in size and color. Adult sikas will stand about 2 ½ feet at the rump and have proportionally shorter snouts, legs and ears. Adult stags weigh around 90lbs., with mature hinds weighing around 60lds. Their coat is a reddish brown during the summer months and a dark chestnut to almost black during the winter months. Stags are typically darker and have a shaggy main around their neck, much like a bull elk. They will also keep their white spots into adulthood which are most noticeable during the summer. Unlike whitetails, who raise a large white tail when alarmed, sikas have a white rump patch that flares outward.
Kevin had done his homework and made all the arrangements to park his 30 foot trailer and get us entrance into the park. We would each need a treestand and a pair of waders, as much of the park is marshland. I was preparing to haul a treestand with me until we found a climber that someone wanted to sell on Craigslist. He even offered to meet us at the Bass Pro Shop just outside Washington DC when we stopped to buy hip waders. Man, this whole thing was coming together.
I flew in on Sunday, we stopped at Bass Pro to pick up our licenses and the treestand. As we were getting ready to leave on Monday morning, we decided it would only make sense if I shot his crossbow at least once or twice before hunting with it. Crossbows are legal during archery season in Maryland, and since Kevin is left handed, I wasn't going to borrow one of his compounds. Now what better way is there to sight in a crossbow than to shoot at an actual animal. Kevin's home borders a greenbelt and there seems to be no limit to the number of whitetail that visit his corn feeder. I merely steped out his back door and took a shot at a nice little 2X2 that came in. As you can see, both me and the bow performed adequately. We spent a little time adjusting the sights and we were ready. What a way to start a hunt!
I quickly dressed the buck and deboned the meat. After placing it in the freezer, we were ready for the “real” hunt. With the trailer, affectionately known as the “Baby Broadmore”, firmly attached to Kevin's Toyota Sequoya, we headed down the road for our first sika adventure.
On arrival at the eastern shore, we parked the trailer and went about the business of securing admission to the wildlife refuge and picking up some chest waders Kevin had located. While talking to a lady on the phone about possibly renting a canoe, she told him that her sons were hunters and would gladly loan us some waders. We met one of her sons and had a wonderful chat. It's amazing to me how hunters have an almost instant mutual bond through the love of this sport. Matt loaned me his chest waders, gave us valuable information on how to start and wished us well.
By the Bay
After a quick dinner and a few games of cribbage, we hit the sack with high hopes of a successful hunt in the morning.
Venison steak and hash browns
Five o'clock rolled around pretty quickly and we were met with the sound of a pouring rain on the camper roof. What to do? Go splashing around the marsh in the dark or wait till daylight and get a better feel for what we had in front of us. Good sense won out and we went back to bed.
A couple of hours later, the rain had slowed to a mild shower and we were ready for our first assault on the marshy forests of the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge. Matt had told us what to look for and where to set up our treestands. We sloshed our way around the muck and marsh for a couple of hours until we were soaked with our own sweat. We found what looked like well used trails and set up the stands about three hundred yards apart. The forest is fairly heavy and visibility is limited but I was sure I had picked the right spot. Two days later, without so much as seeing a sika, I was changing my mind. Maybe I hadn't picked such a hot spot afterall. I have been called “lucky” more than a few times for my ability to pick a good spot to hunt. I guess this wasn't one of them.
We drove around to look at other areas. We met a guy from Pennsylvania that was headed into the swamp to hunt, and again, we found him more than happy to spend some time and give us tips. With our newfound wisdom, we trudged back into the swamp, removed our stands and relocated them to a “better” area. A day later, without seeing a thing, we weren't so sure of that great “wisdom”. Man, this sika deer hunting is a tough job!
We bumped into another hunter and I struck up a quick conversation. We had already found that sika hunters are a breed to themselves. They are avid sportsmen and totally dedicated to the chase of these incredibly illusive little creatures. After about half an hour of conversation, I was ready to move my stand to the third tree this week. Either these guys were good at sending us off to areas they knew held NO game, or we were just not at the right spot at the right time. Something had to give. I packed my stand about half a mile in and snooped around for trails and a tree. I can't tell you how I pick trees, but one usually just stands out as “the one”. Kevin put his up about two hundred yards from mine and we settled in for the evening hunt. NOTHING! Can you say “nothing”? Once more, we saw exactly nothing.
I hunt with intensity and go out on every outing fully expecting to be successful. That doesn't mean I always am, but I believe it ups my odds. I'm not there just to relax and enjoy the scenery.... I'm there to “hunt” and I go about it seriously. But after five tries, I was now beginning to have a few doubts. I was beginning to wonder if this little critter was actually going to beat me.
Back in the stand before light, this was my sixth hunt so far. We usually sat for between three and five hours per outing. We would then drive back to the camper, grab a bite to eat, relax for an hour or so and go back out and sit in our stands until after dark. We were in our stands well before daylight in the morning and until after dark in the evening every day. My stand gave me a short view in three directions.... straight ahead, off to my right and off to the left. I would sit looking in one direction for a short time and then slowly turn to check out the next. I had been looking to my right for some time when I caught a slight movement out in front of me. I turned and almost fell out of my tree. Standing less than twenty yards from me was my first sika deer.
Like one of the hunters had told us, he looked a lot like a chocolate lab. I was stunned. I started to shake. He was behind some bushes and I didn't have a decent shot. As he walked behind a dense holly tree, I silently stood and raised the crossbow. I would be ready when he came out on the other side. I could see bits and pieces of him moving through the tree and I was ready. When he stepped out, I picked a small window between some branches and let the arrow fly. The small spike hit the ground almost immediately. He was dead within seconds. I sat down and started shaking uncontrolably. It had just happened. I had taken a sika deer on public land on my first hunt. I said a prayer of thanks. I had been blessed.
My cell phone vibrated and I got a text from Kevin asking if I had just shot. Two words went back to him.... “Dead Stag”.
We sat in our stands for another hour, hoping other deer might wander by, but there was no such luck. Kevin climbed down and came to my stand to see the prize. He took pictures of me in the stand from where I shot the deer. The shot was seventeen yards and the deer had gone less than two from there. We reveled in the moment and took a plethora of pictures. There's just nothing like spending times like that with your family or people you care about. I consider myself blessed. It sure wouldn't be hard to get hooked on sika deer hunting.
Wet and miserable
A sika and a smile
A happy father and son
The drag out