Though I love mountain hunting, I've never been much of a goat hunter. I've had more than my fair share of success with drawing sheep tags, but in ~25 years of applying I've never drawn a single goat tag. I tried a couple day hunts on late-season registration tags back when such things were more common on the Kenai Peninsula, and last year I made a quick attempt in another area before deciding to turn back when I ran into some other hunters that were already positioned on the goats I was hoping to pursue. I've been along on some others' goat hunts, but until now that was about the extent of my experience as the one carrying the tag.
With the weather forecast looking spectacular at the end of the week, I took a couple days of personal leave and took off Wednesday afternoon. The flight was spectacular, and I was pleased to find the few landing areas that I was planning on to be empty. When I ran into those other hunters last year I was hunting the weekend, so I was hoping that a shift to a mid-week strategy would at least buy me some solitude. Check. I wasn't really sure where I wanted to hunt, so I landed with enough time to do some spotting and make a move if need be. From the strip I quickly started spotting a few goats on the other side of the valley. They were low on the mountains - a group of five and another two loners - but they were on top of some absolutely gnarly cliffs hemmed in by alders. I didn't see how an approach would be manageable, and the cliff, well...not the best option. About then I spotted a lone goat high on a mountain on the other side of the valley. It was quite a bit higher than I was thinking I was going to have to hunt, but in studying the mountain it looked reasonable enough to make it up to him. That made my decision, so camp was made as the light quickly faded.
I woke at about 6:30 to quite a chorus of coyotes. They were yipping and howling from three areas of the valley, and it was super cool to just lie there and listen for a while in the darkness. As the morning light started to glow, I woke to find everything coated in quite the layer of frost. Looks cozy, doesn't it?
I soon set out from camp, quickly gaining a little elevation provided by a moraine near me that allowed for some spotting a bit further down the valley. I quickly spotted at least one goat on the same ridge above camp, but this one at least halfway further down the mountain. It looked like there might be a couple more in the alders behind it, but it was pretty obscured, so tough to say. Up the valley it was much the same story as the night before - more goats on this side of the valley, pretty low elevation, but in some absolutely treacherous stuff. Perhaps if I had been hunting with a partner I would have considered going that route, but hunting alone I was committed to making conservative decisions...or, at least I was trying to. Those low-elevation goats not being an option, up the mountain I went...and right into an alder wonderland.
I love alders. That's going to be my future hunt criteria if I'm invited to a new area. "Does it have alders? If yes, then I'm in! I love those things! Yessiree, nothing finer than spending a few hours busting alders!" Yep, that's what I'll say.
Ok, sarcasm aside, it was tough but doable. Based on the size of the mountain and the distance from camp, I was hoping to be up in a position to take a look at the goat around 11am. I really was hoping for 10:00, but 11:00 seemed a reasonable goal. Those alders, though...man, they slow things down, don't they? Around noon I topped out on a knoll that gave me a pretty good look around. I thought I was at about the right elevation to take a look at the lower goat that I had seen earlier, but I couldn't seem to find him. After some wandering around, though, he finally came into view. The only problem is that it was way lower on the mountain than I had anticipated. I set up my spotting scope and did my best to judge it, but even with my spotting scope on full power I couldn't tell for certain whether I was looking at a nanny or billy. To my untrained eye, it looked like a really young goat of the sort that makes sex determination difficult at best. The hunt is open to either sex, but they encourage people to take billys for conservation reasons, so that was my goal. While watching this goat from the knoll, I looked back uphill and saw that the goat I had spotted the previous night was back in view. He was on the edge of some craggy stuff, but at least the approach looked reasonable. I decided to pursue him first, and then if that didn't work out I could take a closer look at the one below me on the way back to camp.
An hour or so later I found myself closing in on where I had last seen the goat. He had fed back out of view some time ago, so I hoped that my approach had gone unnoticed. Rather than going right to where I had seen him, I climbed an extra hundred feet or so in order to position myself at the top of a gorge that I hoped would provide a solid view. It worked out perfectly. As I eased to the edge of a surprisingly steep cliff, I quickly saw the goat about 80 yards below me resting on a rock outcropping.
This picture makes it look WAY nicer than it really was. The terrain to his right wasn't bad, as that's what I had climbed. To his left and directly below, though....not so friendly. I watched him for a while from this vantage, trying to determine two things - whether it was a billy and whether I would be able to recover it if I took a shot. With its head turned downhill like that I was having a hard time answering the first question. It looked good, but I couldn't see the bases of the horns, and again...I'm pretty new to this goat thing. As to the second question, the more I looked the better I began to feel. It was steep - much steeper than I had judged from lower on the mountain, but there looked to be a flat spot a little way below him along with a wall of brush that should arrest any fall. About 10 minutes in to this as I was feeling more comfortable with the whole situation, I noticed that he was now staring directly uphill right at me. Apparently I had done something to draw his attention, and thankfully this gave me the view I needed. Yep, billy...no doubt. I loaded a shell, clicked the safety off, waited a few more seconds to mentally double check that this was a good idea. Boom.
I saw an immediate puff of hair, confirming a hit. I tried to load another round as quickly as possible to ensure I could anchor him, but it was to no avail. The goat leapt out of view to the left and was out of my sight in less than a second. I was hoping he'd go right into friendlier terrain, but no dice. I sat there and watched for a couple minutes, as if he was only wounded and tried to escape out of the other side of the chute or down the bottom I would be able to see him. Having seen nothing after a while, I began the process of climbing down and around the cliffs in order to find a way in from the bottom. There were a few sketchy parts that weren't a lot of fun, but soon enough I found him. He took more of a tumble than I had anticipated, and in the end I was really quite lucky that he didn't roll further.
The butchering process was a constant battle against gravity, making me even more thankful that he had come to a rest where he was. Another thousand feet down the mountain would have made the day a whole lot less fun. I took my time, though, and soon enough had the meat bagged up along with a dirty, wet cape. I made two trips around to the face of the mountain where I had originally climbed up, then made the decision to stash the head, cape, and a small amount of meat for a second load. I think I could have pulled it all off the mountain in one trip, but two things were working against me. First, it was already 5pm by the time I got the second load out to the nicer terrain, and I really didn't want to be descending in the dark. Second, I had lost my trekking pole on the way up when I set it down while resting and forgot to pick it back up. With no trekking pole I didn't love the idea of a pack in excess of 100 pounds, so I loaded up the four quarters, backstraps, and tenderloins and was on my way after decorating an alder with enough flagging tape to look like a Christmas tree.
Three and a half hours later, just as it was starting to get uncomfortably dim, I stumbled out of the alders and onto the creek bed. It was still a mile back to camp, but the rest of the way was flat and relatively open, so this was definitely a sigh-of-relief moment. That night was a great one. A load of meat down, a hot meal, a couple frosty beverages, and a fire to rest by. Not bad at all!
The next morning I slept in just a little bit, then strapped on my frozen boots and was on my way by 9am. Slow going again, I made it to my stash by 12:45. It was so nice that I decided to rest for a while and skin out the head. A little while later I took a few last pictures and set off down the hill.
After some poor route decisions the previous day, I was starting to figure out the mountain a bit better and was able to make better time on my way down. Still, alders were inevitable. Did I mention I love alders?
I know, I know...it's just part of hunting in Alaska. There were times, though, that it got the better of my sanity for a moment.
Soon enough I was back to camp, and thankfully with enough light to pack up and begin the journey home. I thought about staying another night and looking around for a bear in the morning, but I was looking forward to seeing my family. A few last pictures, gear stuffed in the plane, and it was time to close the book on my first successful goat hunt.
He's not a monster, but again, my standard was a billy in manageable terrain. The terrain pushed it a bit, but it ended up being doable. I taped him out at 8 3/8" with 5 3/8" bases. He took quite a tumble, but that will only add to the european mount that I plan.