The Wild Side of Santa Catalina

I was in a dive shop when I first heard there was deer hunting off the Southern California coast on Catalina Island. After emerging from the ocean by the old casino that attracted thousands of couples to the world’s largest circular dance floor in the 30s and 40s, I asked around. Sure enough, there were a lot of deer on the island – unwelcome inhabitants it appeared, since they are not native – and an outfitter had the concession for hunting them.

The Catalina Casino, an Art Deco dance hall built by William Wrigley in 1929

The brochure from Wildlife West arrived back at home a little while later, but life got stormy and it sat collecting dust with a pile of hunting magazines for two years. When things calmed down, and the urge to hunt deer returned, my first thought was the 3 points I had in the Iowa draw. But something closer to home seemed more in order, and that’s when I remembered Catalina.  Eight months from the season’s start, I called – and they were booked. Six months out I got a call from them;  a spot had opened up at the end of November!

My aim was venison for the freezer, so I opted for a two-day, two-deer management hunt: a fork-horn probably, and a doe, but with all the amenities – lodging, meals, guide, meat care – of the three-day trophy hunts. And there are plenty of gnarly-racked bucks on Catalina’s 75 square miles, tucked away in the island’s myriad cracks and crevices.

The ferry ride over was pleasant and effortless; the crew safely stowed my rifle with a smile and none of the angst of an airline ticket agent (Southwest Air being the exception, of course). Out the windows, dolphins glided in and out of the glassy water. Getting to Catalina already had getting to most other hunting locations beat. Several other hunters – all returning Wildlife West clients – were on the boat, gun cases making them easy to spot.

We were met at the pier by our guides, who loaded up our gear and took us, not to the rustic camp I was expecting but to a very nice vacation rental typical of Avalon. To be honest, I’ve bathed in enough cold water creeks; a warm cottage and a big screen TV was all right with me. On the coffee table sat photo albums of Catalina monsters taken in past seasons, and for a fleeting moment I wished I’d upgraded my hunt.

Trophy deer mount

This nice mount and all the wall photos of past trophies had me wishing I’d upgraded my hunt.

We did a little hunting that afternoon and evening, driving roads closed off to tourists and glassing hillsides studded with rock and scrub oak. Every now and then one of us would spot a small group of deer and we’d ease out of the truck for a closer look. Being later in the season, the animals knew what a truck full of hunters meant, and they quickly put some distance between us, or just grazed their way to even more distant hills or valleys. The next morning it was more of the same, and I began to realize that this Catalina deer hunt would be more about long-range marksmanship and working out the angles so a hit deer didn’t end up down in a steep ravine, irretrievable. This was a lot different from the treestand bow hunting I enjoy so much, where you get to study your game a long while before, and if, you ever get a shot at it.

Nothing stirred on the island as the day got hotter, hitting the 80s. That evening things got switched; I went out with a guide who wanted to go in on foot, which I welcomed after too many hours cooped up in the truck. My guide, all the guides, knew the island like the back of his hand, and we went to a promising area, venturing in on faith without spotting any deer. Making our way down slowly, we skirted meadows and squeezed through tangles of branches, glassing every few yards. Sneaking up to a low rise, my guide – Jim – waved me forward; a doe was feeding just on the other side, barely 50 yards away. I knelt down and put the crosshairs on her shoulder. The deer hide filled my scope, not the image I was expecting after all the far off deer we’d seen! A slow, steady pull on the trigger, trying to forget the .300 WSM’s coming recoil, and BOOM. One doe down.

Jim had spotted a buck a few hundred yards away just before, so we left the doe and repositioned for the buck. Sure enough, it would be a long range shot, 250 yards plus. The buck was the perfect management target, a fork on one side and a tall flat spike on the other. The sun was dropping down fast behind the island and the world was becoming monochromatic, making the slow grazing buck harder and harder to see. Finding him in the scope (the Nikon Monarch seems to roll the clock back about an hour in the evenings, I’ve found), I put the X on his upper shoulder, figuring the little 130-grain bullet would drop just enough. The big jolt, and the buck was down.

And then back up! I knew I’d hit him well enough, and in the woods would’ve just waited it out, picking up the blood and finding him later. But this was a different world, and in rugged Catalina, with the sea crashing against the rocks below you, and a dozen deep fissures leading up to the mountains above you, there’s only one goal: deer down now!

So I was racking another round and hurrying to find the buck again in the fading light. Crosshairs settled again on the buck as it crept up the distant hillside. Boom. Hit. Boom. Hit. Finally the buck was down to stay. Jim went to fetch the doe and then we hiked up to the buck. The shots were good shots, that passed through without much damage. Could’ve been the all copper bullets we’re forced to use in California’s large vulture – I mean, Condor – range.  Jim hauled the two deers’ worth of quartered meat and pieces up the steep hillside like a Swiss mountaineer, and we made our way in the dark back to the welcome sight of the truck about forty-five minutes later.

Back at the beach house, the sips of Jack Daniels tasted – in the words of Colonel Kilgore – like victory. It had been the perfect hunt for me; short and sweet, challenging enough to be satisfying, with the chance to experience the exotic secret wild side of an otherwise tame and familiar place. The guides know their business and their island, and that five of our group of six hunters were repeat clients says a lot. Looking through the photo albums and listening to the stories of past hunts, it was clear that a Catalina deer hunt can be whatever you want it to be. An up close and personal stalk or a long range test of marksmanship. A trophy hunt or a cull hunt. And for the guys in their 80s pictured in the albums, road hunting keeps them in the game, which is a great thing. Or you can go off road, down deep, and into the rough. Just know that it’s a long way back up.

I’m looking forward to picking up the steaks and roasts from the butcher later this week. And I’m glad I dusted off that brochure.

Nightfall on Catalina

Night falls on the island that was once home to Russian otter hunters, Yankee smugglers, and roving fisherman.

~ by SpeakingZenaphorically on December 1, 2011.

4 Responses to “The Wild Side of Santa Catalina”

  1. Great blog post! Catalina does have some incredible country and some really nice deer. Congrats on filling the freezer!

  2. What a great written story, I am glad you dusted off that brochure. I hope to read more of your wonderful stories.

  3. I will be going on a two doe hunt this December w/ two friends. Made arrangemants with Jim today. We are all experienced big game hunters and fair shots. Can we realistically expect to tag out?

    • You should have no problem filling your tags, Steve. First, there are a lot of deer on the island. Second, your guides are pretty obsessed about you being successful. The shots can be tricky though, like lying on rocks aiming at a deer down in a ravine. So my one warning would be, know how your bullet behaves at long distances. I was shooting a 130 gr. “Condor Zone” bullet that I hadn’t practiced with, and it shot flatter than the 150 gr. I’m used to, which added up to missing on my first opportunity.

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