Neil Barten headed up the hills near Eaglecrest Ski Area last weekend in search of deer. An avid hunter who works as a state game biologist, he had a good idea of where they'd be. But with no snow on the ground, even at high altitudes, there were too many places to look.
"There's deer scattered all the way from sea level to the alpine. They're staying up high because they don't have any reason to leave," he said.
Most years, enough snow has fallen by now to chase deer down the mountains into the forest or out to the beach. But the warmer-than-usual weather has kept forage from freezing, giving game animals a wider range.
There are no statistics available, but anecdotal reports show many hunters still are finding enough deer to fill their freezers. They're just having to work harder.
"Probably the number of deer per trip is down, but if people don't get one they'll go out again," said Gary Paul, a hunter who runs a game-processing business.
While they move up and down the mountains and hills, deer tend to stay at high elevations for as long as they can. Instinct tells them to eat now what will be killed by frost or covered with snow later, said state deer research biologist Matt Kirchhoff.
"They've sort of evolved a strategy of maximizing range," he said. "If you're a deer that doesn't follow that pattern, you'll be less likely to pass the behavior along."
Deer hunting closes Dec. 31 for state game unit 1-C, which includes mainland areas around Juneau, plus Douglas, Lincoln and Shelter islands. The same is true for unit 4, which includes Admiralty, Baranof and Chicagof islands.
Previous years' statistics show November, which often is snowy at high elevations, as the most popular time to hunt. December is also a big hunting month.
"Hunters who traditionally hunt down low are not going to encounter as much deer or deer sign this time of year as usual," Kirchhoff said.
Some people are used to high-elevation hunting, such as Barten, who bagged a deer in September and another one in October. The weather was better and the sun was up longer then. But with winter solstice approaching, there's less daylight for longer hikes.
"By the time you get up that high to where the deer are, you're running out of time," he said.
That's why he tried Eaglecrest, where hunters can drive up Fish Creek Road to get a head start on the elevation gain. He saw one deer last weekend and found tracks of another, but never got a deer in his sights. One reason is the area's popularity.
"The deer there, they all have Ph.D.s, I think. They know how to escape detection," he said.
Hunter Glenn Miller used a different approach, taking a long, cold skiff ride to Admiralty Island in November to bag a lower-elevation deer.
"I got lucky and went to a place we call the land of the stupid deer, where they don't see many people," he said.
Leon Shaul, who has bagged three deer so far this season, said it's been a bit harder than usual.
"I put in a little more time than I have in the past two or three years," he said. "It's nice to have a little bit of snow just to see the tracks and what's on the ground. You see the sign a little better."
Scott Kelley said people hunting Admiralty Cove have found fewer deer this year. While he's bagged a few, others he's hunted with and heard from have had little or no luck due to the lack of snow.
"The deer were definitely scattered all over," he said.
Joe Buell, manager of Outdoor Headquarters, which sells hunting gear, said he's heard some complaining about the lack of snow. But he said his sense is people are working harder rather than giving up.
"I'm sure there are some people that are passing, because there's no frost line to bring the deer down to the shore areas. But I'm also sure there's guys who say, 'The season's almost over so let's go get some.' "
Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.