Story last updated at 11/14/2012 - 1:51 pm
Southeast Alaska hosts an array of accessible and edible flora and fauna species. Sitka black-tailed deer are a commonly harvested animal in the region, upon which many residents rely as a primary food source. This is the first of a four part series focusing on the process of safely, ethically and efficiently harvesting the animals for food.
Let's backtrack from a plate of grilled tenderloin, a burger with cranberry ketchup or a deer meat stir-fry. Back past how your meal was packaged, butchered and aged. Just to get on the hunt requires some key educational components.
Go buy a gun, go blast off some rounds, get your adrenaline fix and walk with a swagger. You might be confident and eager to charge into the woods with a life-taking weapon, but without adequate instruction, practice and preparation you won't be a real winner. The kind of winner that earns respect and utilizes patience as an invaluable tool that ultimately determines whether the bacon comes home.
Certainly many hunters learn the tricks of the trade from their parents, friends or trial and error. But the error element can be greatly reduced by taking a hunter education class. According the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website, "Hunter education training is a good investment. Certified hunters are involved in fewer accidents and less frequently get in trouble afield. Our experience has been that even adult hunters benefit from this training, and we recommend it for all hunters."
Frank Zmuda is a Fish and Game technician who oversees the Juneau Hunter Education Shooting Complex located off Montana Creek Road.
"I coordinate the classes for all of Southeast Alaska," Zmuda said. "I make sure there are classes being conducted, that they have the right equipment and supplies, and that they're being conducted when the community needs them."
The Juneau complex is open from late September through April. Zmuda said that there are three formats of education classes offered through the complex.
The first is a traditional course with a minimum of 20 hours of education.
"You get in-depth information," Zmuda said. "Instead of reading about how to start a fire, you have to actually start them."
There is also an independent study course that combines a workbook and hunter educational manual with eight to 10 hours of instruction. The third format is mostly online, requires a written test and has a four-hour instruction and field component.
Zmuda said there are three main components of the classes: firearms handling, a field course and marksmanship.
"There are many things to learn," he said, including how to handle and use firearms safely, ethical hunting practices that include an emphasis on respect. "Respecting individuals' property, respecting the animals and other hunters. We teach survival, to include hunt planning, first aid, items you should take hunting and water safety segments. We work together with the hunters to be conservationists of our environment."
In the field course component of a class, participants work with silhouettes of animals in the woods.
"We start out by leaving the building and crossing Montana Creek Road," Zmuda said. "Across the road is a no trespassing sign. We stop everyone on our side of the road, and say 'What do you know,' and we've got a deer right there in front of the sign. We say, 'It's a legal hunting season, will you shoot that animal?' Hopefully they'll say no, because it's illegal to shoot across a road, from a road or on the road."
Besides learning the rules and regulations, of which there are many (bag limits, season dates, harvesting practices), practicing with a firearm is an essential part of effective and responsible hunting. The choice of a firearm depends on many variables, including, but not limited to, the target animal, the location where one will be hunting, one's budget and personal preference.
Based on interviews and research conducted for this article, the most commonly recommended firearm for deer hunting in Southeast Alaska is a 30-caliber rifle. These rifles are available in different brands, models and components, but the main reason the 30-caliber firearm was recommended is its versatility. This particular style of rifle can hold ammunition with enough power to kill larger animals like brown bears, as well as lighter grained ammunition that will cause less damage to deer. A hunter can have one gun but several types of cartridges for different situations.
"The caliber is simply the diameter of the projectile," Cody Kullander, a staff member at Western Auto said. "It doesn't have anything to do with the casing or the amount of explosive powder. The difference is the propellant, what's driving the lead out of the rifle."
Zmuda recommends testing out different firearms, if possible, before purchasing.
"You have to get used to how you shoot the gun," he said. "Everyone shoots differently. Body size and body shape is different. Every firearm fits different people in different ways. If you can find a firearm to practice before you spend the money, you'd be much better off."
The cheaper models of 30-caliber rifles, which generally range between $350 and $450, just have cheaper parts. A wood stock, for example, versus a composite one. The quality of the trigger and its adjustability are also determining factors in firearm costs.
"Most triggers are around 3-5 pound pulls," Kullander said. "Meaning it takes that much pressure to pull the trigger. A more expensive rifle would have a trigger that you could adjust to a wider range."
A trigger on a more expensive gun, upwards of $1,200, will be more sensitive.
"There's less human error involved with a higher quality trigger mechanism," Kullander said.
He also pointed out how different firearms have different action qualities, that is, how smooth it is to load the chamber with a bullet. For bolt-action firearms, how far the bolt has to be moved in order to load a chamber decreases as the firearm's quality increases, (it takes less time to load a gun with a bolt that has less distance to move). Another factor contributing to price and quality among rifles is the barrel. In wet climates, coatings that reduce rust and saltwater damage are worth looking into. Sales representatives at several Juneau retail stores suggested ignoring any rifle without a stainless steel barrel. The butt of the rifle, the part that sits against one's body, can also vary widely. After firing a bullet there's a kickback, reduced with a softer butt pad. The kickback is increased with a decrease in gun weight. Finding the right personal balance between hauling around a firearm for days and a bruised shoulder takes time.
After a firearm is selected and a scope mounted, the initial phase of "sighting in" a gun is called "bore sighting." This process involves a small component that fits on the end of the firearm's barrel. When looking through the scope one can see both the scope's crosshairs and a grid of squares in the bore sighter. Aligning the two can save a lot of time fine-tuning accuracy when range-ready.
Whatever the experience level is, a new firearm or new choice of ammunition requires time at the gun range. In Juneau, the Hank Harmon rifle range is open to the public year round during daylight hours.
The range is marked in increments of 25 yards, allowing one to place targets and practice at various distances. Most deer are shot in a range under 100 yards; so many hunters will sight in their rifles at this distance.
Sighting in requires firing multiple shots, noting where they puncture the target and adjusting the vertical and windage settings on the scope accordingly. For deer, the target area is the lung and heart section, located a few inches above and behind the front legs. Of the areas that, if hit, will most likely kill a deer, the heart and lung section is the easiest. Retail stores sell all sorts of products for range shooting, like cartridges that are specifically manufactured for reduced recoil, life-size posters of deer with the location of the heart and lungs to be stapled onto targets and they also sell gun rests.
For the beginner, just pulling the firearm's trigger can be enough to get used to, let alone holding the gun at the same time. This is why people often start out with the barrel resting on a stand of some kind, a blanket rolled up onto table or a rest specifically designed for practicing. Once the shots are accurate and a comfortable relationship between potential hunter and firearm has been established, practicing with more realistic conditions in mind is the next step.
"You have to practice in different positions, at different distances, and you have to be very, very comfortable with the use of your firearm and the distance you're shooting," Zmuda said.
Though most hunters won't shoot a moving target, they won't always have enough time to set up any gun rest, so learning how to quickly raise, site, load and shoot the firearm is important. Leaning against a post at the range, like one might use a tree in the field, was recommended, as was placing some pressure on the shooter, like requiring oneself to shoot a certain amount of rounds in a specific amount of seconds.
"It could take three or four trips to the range to be comfortable," said Adam Marino, an employee at Rayco Sales in Juneau. "It's about respect, and the accuracy of a shot. You don't want an animal to suffer. You have to have a clean shot."
And that clean shot means having the practice under your belt that you can have a rifle loaded, raised and fired within seconds.
For more information on the Juneau Hunter Education Complex visit http://jrpc.tripod.com/hhrri.htm.
For details like the dos and don'ts of the Hank Harmon range visit http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=juneaurange.main.
For general information on hunting in the state visit http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=hunting.general.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at Amanda.firstname.lastname@example.org.