I remembered sitting in the kitchen as he spoke, hanging on his
every word as he described the chase. Even before I knew where
the island was, I wanted to hike those same hills with a rifle, just like
my grandfather had.
QUITE A BIT has changed on Catalina Island since my grandfather’s days. The island’s resources are now managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy. The conservancy has partnered with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Wildlife West, a privately owned guide service, to utilize hunters to control the number of introduced mule deer on the island. Mule deer were first introduced to Catalina Island in the 1930s by the Los Angeles County Forestry Department and thus are a non-native species to the island. In the absence of predators, the deer have propagated unchecked for over 80 years. Even with an annual deer harvest, the island population remains a healthy 2,400 animals. Over the years, the conservancy has gradually reduced the number of non-native plant and animal species that inhabit the island in an effort to protect the native plant community. The hordes of pigs that used to run wild throughout most of the island have now been reduced to a single lonely male. The voracious goats that used to mow down whatever they could feed on have been dwindled to a trio of nannies that will likely live out their last years unmolested and barren. The island’s iconic bison, also introduced to the island, have been shipped off, leaving a reduced herd of a little over 100 head to roam Catalina and pose for photos. Hunting deer on Catalina is a unique experience and opportunity for California hunters. Located just 26 miles from the mainland, your adventure begins as soon as you start the crossing. Outdoors men wishing to experience Catalina Island hunting need to contact Ben Myhre and Jim Settle of Wildlife West (503-519-4902; catalinahunting.com) for an absolutely amazing hunting experience. I’ve hunted with Ben and Jim during their deer management hunts a couple of times, and each trip I find the entire hunt a true adventure. Ben’s group will take any California
deer tag for the state’s current deer season and trade it out for their special island deer management tag when you check in for your hunt. Transportation to and from the Avalon harbor is provided, and you will see sections of Catalina Island that are not normally accessible to the everyday tourist.
A FEW YEARS back, I gathered up a group of five friends to hunt Wildlife West’s island doe hunt. After boarding the Catalina Express and making the crossing, Ben picked us up Friday morning at the Avalon harbor. We loaded our gear into his truck and were taken to a large house in the town of Avalon. This was to be our elegant and very comfortable home base for the two-day hunt. We were greeted with snacks and drinks as we relaxed after the channel crossing. Ben and Jim guided us through the paperwork, trading our deer tags for island management tags. They then asked if we wanted to head out that same day to hunt the north side of the island. A few hours after hitting the shores of Catalina, my good friend Eric Frandsen and I were hiking the steep canyons, rifles in hand. From the ridge we could see the brilliantly blue Pacific. We sat in the shade of a large boulder and glassed several ridges from our position. The surrounding terrain was bordered by the bright blue of the ocean and we could see for miles. Sitting on that island and hunting with Eric, I wondered if my grandfather had sat on that same ridge while he hunted. We spotted some really good habitat in several of the adjacent canyons. Whenever I hunt and see animals off in the distance, or quality habitat that may hold animals, I don’t care where
it is or how difficult it is to get to, I go; Eric feels the same way.
We made a quick plan and started hiking towards the edge of the
canyon. As we reached the ridge, we spotted movement on the next ridge over. Two mule deer doe flushed from the canyon brush, hopped to the next ridge and stopped. Several shots later, one from me and a few more than that from Eric, we had two tags filled. Over the course of the next two days, our entire group tagged out on Catalina Island mule deer does. The group at Wildlife West is great about accommodating your hunting wishes. Our group was fairly experienced and desired to hike the area ourselves
looking for game. Ben let us explore the island while we searched for deer. Ben and Wildlife West take care of field dressing and processing the deer if you like, or you can get in there and do it yourself. Despite this being an island, the hunt is anything but easy. The terrain is steep, rocky and vast. There are countless canyons for deer to hide and escape detection. The terrain will also test your shooting ability.Many times the shots are from one ridge to another. My longest shot during our hunting weekend was right at 300 yards.
FOR MOST OF my hunting career, I’ve hunted without guides. In situations where guides are required, I have been lucky enough to find individuals that have been professional, friendly and competent. Ben and Jim are at the very top of that list. It’s a lot more than just their treatment of their clients. Both Ben and Jim have a thorough
understanding of wildlife management and articulate that to their clients as they travel the island. Both have degrees in wildlife management and understand the important role hunting lays in true resource management. Hunters will also find Ben and Jim’s historic perspective of the island refreshing. They are both very familiar with Catalina’s rich history and freely educate their clients on landmarks and events during the drive to the hunting area. Being wildlife biologists, they also understand animal movement, habitat requirements and animal health, all extremely important factors for a successful hunt. Hunters can reach the island by private boat, plane or the very popular and affordable Catalina Express, which makes the 26-mile crossing in about an hour. This aspect of the hunt just added to the overall adventure for me. Once there, you feel like you’ve been transported back in time. Catalina maintains its unique history, and, if you’ve never been there, you should at least make a trip out to see the island.
If you’re looking for a reasonably priced and unique, outdoor experience, give Ben Myhre a call at Wildlife West. His outfit offers both trophy and management mule deer hunts on the island during the California deer season. The accommodations are comfortable and impressive. Located in the historic Avalon area, our group thoroughly enjoyed exploring the harbor and waterfront area a short walk away after the day’s hunt was over. For me, the island deer hunt was much more than hunting with good friends. Knowing that my grandfather had hiked and hunted those same hills put a nostalgic spin into the trip. I thought about him often as I glassed distant ridges and during frequent stops to catch my breath. I never got a chance to hunt with my grandfather, but I felt like he was with me as we chased deer on Catalina Island. We will definitely be back.
By Tim E. Hovey