Last year, after Colorado’s archery season came to a close, I found myself disappointed as it seemed like everyone else continued to hunt. I decided this year would be different, as I planned my fall season, I found the Sisterhood of the Outdoors. They book mostly women only hunts and they had a Sika deer hunt planned for November, so I signed up.
Sika were introduced to the Chesapeake Bay area on James Island in the early 1900s. The current population of Sika deer on the Chesapeake is estimated to be 12,000 animals and approximately 2,400 Sika are harvested in Dorchester County Maryland per year.
Sika deer are a member of the Cervus family which includes European and Asian red deer as well as the American elk. The Chesapeake Bay Sika are in the subspecies of Cervus yakushimae, these are the smallest subspecies of Sika and males have an average of 4- to 6-point antlers. A male Sika is a stag and the female is a hind. The Chesapeake Bay Sika average between 60 and 80 pounds and grow to about 2.5 feet tall at the rump.
After 3 days of hunting, watching tons of YouTube videos, and spending a good deal of time picking the brains of our guides, this is my Sika 411. They are jumpy; in nearly every video I watched (and in person) they do this crouch, jump, run, return nonsense, and when the host of the trip described them walking, it is one step forward one step back, repeat forever. They are cautious and extremely vocal. They are tough as nails. Sika are known to run when shot and bury themselves in the thickest vegetation they can find. With no natural predators in the Chesapeake Bay area, they can just lie in for the most part and heal.
I packed light for this trip,
I took my fully loaded bow case, my Kifaru pack and boarded a plane, took a train and hitched a ride in an automobile to Muddy Marsh Outfitters in Denton, Maryland on the day before the hunt.
The first morning as usual for hunting, I was the first one up. TJ, the owner, and I talked about where we would be sitting that morning. I explained to him that I’d not sat in a treestand but I recognize that it is a skill I need. He described my hunting spot to me, but I misunderstood what he was saying, and I went into the swamp with my harness in my pack but not on. As we hiked through the marsh, we heard the distinctive Sika whistle followed by the sound of many feet splashing. Having a Sika whistle at you is never a good thing, that is their alarm call. I climbed up into my treestand and realized my mistake, so I put my harness on, in the tree. It was an uncomfortable few minutes. I after I strapped myself in and onto the tree, I was amazed how I was immediately comfortable. I turned on my ThermaCELL and settled in. If you do this hunt, I recommend buying 2 ThermaCELLs. When managing scent, it is hard to make the decision between that and mosquito control. I didn’t win this battle as I often turned off my ThermaCELL and my legs were covered in bites by the end of the trip.
It was an exciting morning, listening to diving ducks take off, getting buzzed by dabblers, and finally seeing a hind come out at 200 yards in front of me. It was a great first look at the elusive swamp ghost. As I walked out of the marsh the first morning, I enjoyed the view of the open water behind me and was amazed at the comfort the trip host had in her skinny tree when I stopped to pick her up on the way.
For the evening hunt, I was informed that my “princess boots” wouldn’t make it, apparently, all Muck boots aren’t created equal and mine weren’t high enough. Luckily, they are prepared for this and I was able to borrow a pair. Even in my tall boots I was in over the top on the hike in. This was exciting for me, coming from Colorado I thought this hunt would be easy…hiking through the marsh in knee high, muddy water is not easy. As I settled in my blind for the evening hunt, I made sure I was able to draw back my bow. Not long after getting situated, two hinds came into my field of view. Sika do this crouch, jump, run away thing. These two did this around my blind for about 30 minutes. At last, they settled down and began to forage. One of the Sika turned broadside, I drew back my bow and my broadhead got caught in the mesh of the window. As my arrow bounced on the rest, she looked at the blind and decided it was nothing. Now, my heart was racing, I scooted back a little and waited, while I twitched in anticipation of having another opportunity to shoot. After about 5 minutes, the other hind turned broadside so I drew back, aimed and shot her. I watched her do a 270 degree turn and run straight away. I wasn’t sure I hit her until I spotted my arrow, lying on the ground a few yards behind where she had been standing. One bad thing or good one, if you are impatient like me, about hunting with a guide is that they expect you to respect the fact that others would be hunting these areas to not get out of the blind or tree stand until dark. I had a long 1.5 hour wait to go see my arrow. When I finally picked it up, I was disappointed. The arrow was brown from tip to fletchings and there was white fur in the blades of the broadhead, it was agonizing. Sika are white on their rump and their underbelly. I knew that we’d be leaving her overnight, so I hiked out, following the bright eyes in the light of my blue headlamp. I think a brown arrow is way worse than missing.
The next morning, I put on my borrowed boots and we headed back into the swamp, quickly finding the blood trail. Marsh tracking is hard, you are often on hands and knees crawling through the thick green thorns or slogging through the muck. When we lost the trail for a few minutes, I noticed blood drops on FLOATING leaves then Joe spotted her, lying in the thorns. She was about 45 pounds and was estimated to be 1-2 years old. My shot placement was good and it cut her right lung, but she must have done the 270 degree turn while the arrow was inside and it came out in front of the right hind corner. This is apparently common with these animals, adding to the challenge of a harvest. The Maryland deer tag allows for 1 stag and 2 hinds as well as whitetail deer, so my hunt wasn’t over.
That evening, Joe took me out to a different swamp and put me in a higher tree. I heard Sika bugling and splashing all around me, but none came into view. As I climbed down and walked through thicker swamp, I reveled in the beauty of this place and how trusting I was in my guides. I followed the bright eyes, but it was high tide, I had disregarded Joe’s head shake and princess boots comment on the way in, I paid for it as I tried to balance on a log and both boots slid off into the muck, filling them with water, leaving me to dry my boots by the stove that night.
The final day, a cold front blew in and we hiked out into the swamp with a light mist and a big cold full moon. The forecast for this trip was a slight chance of rain with highs in the 80s. Luckily, I’d brought my Sitka Cloudburst rain system and was able to insulate my other layers from the wind/rain. This hunt was in the highest treestand of the trip. As dawn approached, I heard some grunting, it was a whitetail and he came to the left side of my tree stand. Being left handed, I would have had to turn with my back away from the tree, but I was too scared to take that shot. He went under my tree and then straight out where I didn’t have a shot. I love just seeing animals, even if I was disappointed in my ability I was glad to watch him forage for a while.
That afternoon, I sat with Joe and we looked at trail camera pictures. He showed me the tenacity of the Sika, we looked at this aggressive stag who had been shot poorly by a hunter a few years ago. I got to see him heal and watch his behavior as he got stronger. He also showed me some an interesting whitetail buck and we talked about the tenacity of Sika compared to the more common deer. It was like being home. That evening, at my blind he said, “Does this look familiar?” It was the spot we’d been looking at all afternoon on the trail cameras. Joe explained the typical patterning of the deer and stags before setting off. He had seen my excitement, shared the story of these two animals and took me to that spot so I could hunt them. Having a guide sit with you, share their knowledge of the area, and really involve you in the hunt is a true gift. For the 3 hours that I sat in the blind, the stags were bugling, but none came in.
I am hooked, I was from the moment I arrived hearing the Sika bugle and whistle. Hunting the tiny, jumpy, swamp ghost is in my blood. It is a challenge that I intend to take as often as I have the chance.