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Pūlama Lāna'i Hunting Experience

  • Russell Kuhlman
  • Apr 22, 2021

Like most out-of-state hunts, it started while sitting on my couch browsing the internet for my next outdoor adventure. This hunt came to my attention while scrolling through the National Wildlife Federation’s auction list during their 2020 virtual meeting that took place last June. Although I did not have an Axis deer/Mouflon sheep very high on my hunting wishlist, I knew that a week-long Hawaiian vacation during a cold Northern Nevada winter would be an easy sell to my better half.

Fast forward to March 2021, my wife and I are boarding a plane to Maui after testing negative for COVID-19 and filling out the corresponding paperwork. The plan was to spend the week in Maui while making plans to spend two days on Lāna‘i for my upcoming hunt. However, my wife and I were not alone for this experience, my dad and his significant other were there to participate in this adventure. As if the chance to spend a week in Hawai‘i and squeeze in a hunting trip was not enough, the Conservation Department of the island’s land management company, Pūlama Lāna‘i, was gracious enough to package this donation as a two-day, two person trip. My dad was the one who took me on my first hunting trip over twenty three years ago and since our last trip took place roughly ten years ago, it was long overdue for me to be the one to extend the invite.

Having never been to Hawai‘i, the logistics of pulling off a vacation on one island and hunting on another was a daunting organizational task. Luckily, a ferry that typically runs multiple times a day/seven days a week had modified its schedule due to the pandemic to operate on the dates I had planned to hunt. Boarding the ferry was similar to boarding the aircraft, arrive 30 minutes early, ensure your firearm is safe and locked in a hard-sided case, however the ferry service asks you to store your ammunition in separate luggage, and make sure you fill out the COVID-19 paperwork. After the one hour trip from Maui to Lāna‘i that consisted of watching spinner dolphins and humpback whales breaching off the port side, and gazing at the crystal blue waters they inhabit, we arrived at Lāna‘i’s Mānele Harbor. Catching a shuttle at the landing dock, we were on our way to pick up our rental car and meet our hosts Jon and Rachel Sprague of Pūlama Lāna‘i in the middle of Lāna‘i City, the lone town and located at the center of the island.

Lanai landscape

Before the sun set on our first day on the island, Jon offered to take my dad and I to sight in my rifle after its two thousand mile journey. On our way to the range, I spotted my first Axis deer, two females staring at us as we drove past them. As we took the short trip to the shooting range, Jon was a wealth of information on the history of Lāna‘i including how it was created and the affects invasive species have had on its fragile ecosystem. With thousands of invasive grazing wildlife on one of Hawai‘i’s most arid islands that only covers an area of 140 mi2, the effects were stark. We stopped by a research fence that prevents animals from grazing the enclosed area. As we stood at the boundary of the fence in shin high invasive fireweed that Jon told us was toxic to deer, we stared into the enclosure that held abundant flora and knee high, luscious grass that both the deer and sheep have grazed into oblivion just outside the fence boundary.

The next day, we met Jon in front of his house well before the sun was scheduled to rise in order to be ready at first light. After checking in at the kiosk, we made our way towards our hunting area driving on one of Lāna‘i’s three paved roads. Numerous Axis deer are seen along the road giving me great expectations for the day ahead. Still in darkness, we park the truck close enough to the beach that the sounds of the waves breaking on shore make me hesitant to stray far from the truck in fear of filling my sneakers full of sand before the hiking begins. Strapping on our packs and checking our rifles, we quietly hike up the hill as the sun throws its first rays of light onto the new day. It did not take long to spot our first animal, a Mouflon sheep slowly making its way down the canyon unaware of our presence. In short order, our first animal of the day was on the ground and in our packs. While processing the sheep, Jon noticed movement up the canyon as a group of Axis deer were feeding along the slope of the mountain a few hundred yards ahead of us. Using the terrain of dry creek beds and lava rocks, I was able to close the distance to one hundred and eighty yards. Using my .280 Ackley Improved rifle shooting the all-copper Barnes LRX bullet, I had roughly seventy pounds of free ranging, organic meat in my possession before breakfast. After a rendezvous at the truck to put our newly acquired meat in the cooler and grab a quick snack, we devised a game plan to add to our grocery list.

As this hunt was part of an ongoing effort to remove surplus animals from the landscape, our priority goal was to target any Axis deer or Mouflon sheep that we encountered. The overabundance of animals contributes to the high probability of having a success hunt, but the negative effects these animals have on the native flora is disheartening. Efforts to remove these surplus animals play a critical role in the interaction between Pūlama Lāna‘i and the three thousand residents the island supports. Since there are no cattle on the island and shipping meat to the island can provide both fiscal and logistical hurdles, the meat from the island’s invasive species serve as an incredible healthy food source. A quick tour around “downtown” Lāna‘i City supports this mutually beneficial program as Axis deer antlers can be seen mounted to many residential houses and garages along its streets. If you look hard enough, you might see the same Toyota Tacoma I did that had an impressive set of antlers mounted to the truck’s front grill. In addition to providing local residents with red meat, these animals also provide a steady supply of economic revenue to the island. One of the many great things about Lāna‘i is that there are only two corporate chains on the island, a NAPA auto parts store and two Four Seasons Resorts located on the beach and upcountry just outside of town. Since the rest of the businesses are privately owned, a constant influx of year round hunters to the island provides opportunities for hunters to support the local gift shops and grocery stores, there’s two, that line the main street.

Our afternoon hunt started out by driving up an unpaved, rutted out road while keeping an eye peeled for movement in the open areas of brush. Halfway up the hill we pulled over to scan our surroundings with our binoculars. It is not every day when you can sit atop a ridge and view deer, sheep, tropicbirds and whales all from the same spot. Not long after taking in the views, a bachelor group of bucks was spotted feeding on the new grasses sprouting as a result of the massive rains that visited the island a few weeks before and we decided to head in their direction . This new area we were in was the island’s best example of native topsoil, supporting grasses, forbs and shrubs. As the rest of the island’s rich topsoil had been washed away due to a number of factors including overgrazing by wildlife, it was important to keep animal numbers to a manageable level in this area to avoid having the same fate as the other parts of the landscape.

stalking deer

It was the middle of the day and the sun was beating down on us during this cloudless day. This resulted in most of the animals finding shade in the low growing shrubs making it impossible to see the vast majority of them scattered throughout the valley. As we stalked the group of bucks through the brush, I felt the dreaded wisps of wind cooling the back of my neck and knew time was limited. In perhaps the first time in my hunting career, having animals get my scent was turned into my advantage. With the wind shifting, it made these previously unseen animals rise from their afternoon beds and move through an open window of vegetation on the opposite slope, exposing their presence. As a herd of deer made their way single file across one of these gaps, I readied my rifle on my pack and ranged the opening at three hundred and thirty yards. As a mature doe stopped to wonder why the lead animal was in a hurry to find a new resting spot, I squeezed the trigger, and the bullet found its mark. The sound of the rifle firing stirred up the entire valley and deer and sheep were coming from every nook and cranny imaginable.

As we processed our third animal of the day, Jon shared some of the island’s early history. He told us the local legend of how Lāna‘i was once uninhabitable to humans because man-eating spirits roamed these hills. It was only when a Maui chief’s mischevious son, Kaululāʻau, was banished to the island for his bad behavior and set to the task of expelling these creatures was the island fit for human occupation. This story made me wonder where else I have hunted on the mainland where native local legends were once told and how I will never be privy to them.

As mid-day transited to early evening, we still had enough room in the cooler for one more animal. A quick drive further up the hill revealed a large herd of deer scrounging for bits of grass. Using the topography of the land, the three of us walked along a narrow cliff edge and were able to stalk within two hundred yards of a mature Axis deer buck. As this was the last animal of the day, I waited for my dad to join us as he fell behind during our half mile stalk. Whether it was because of the unnerving exposure the cliff edge provided or his increasing age, I do not think he will ever provide the true reason. As the buck was standing quartering towards us, I was confident in my equipment to provide a quick lethal kill. Upon the shot, the animal expired immediately and upon inspection, the bullet had entered the shoulder, traveled approximately 26 inches and exited the hind quarter. Although the popular reason people use all-copper bullets for hunting is to provide a lead-free food source for themselves and the scavengers that consume the non-edible remains left in the field, this trip highlighted the superior performance these bullets offer. Of the handful of animals we encountered that day, ranging from a sixty pound Mouflon sheep to a hundred and seventy pound Axis deer. Every animal died from one bullet and the majority dropped in their tracks and never moved. The rest expired within twenty yards with the farthest traveling a total of fifty yards, mainly due to the shot being a touch back.

Axis buck

With the cooler at maximum capacity and my back starting the feel the effects of packing out over two hundred pounds of meat during the course of the day, it was time to head back to town. Watching the sunset over the ocean as we made our way down the hill was the perfect setting to one of the best hunting days I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy. When we arrived back in town, we commenced to de-bone the hindquarters and concluded we had roughly one hundred and twenty pounds of boneless, organic meat. This was verified by the airport luggage scale later that week since I had frozen the meat and stuffed it into my zero degree sleeping bag that was then put inside my North Face duffle bag (much cheaper/lighter than flying with a YETI cooler). Once back at Jon’s house, we were able to reflect on the day’s events and the memories I was able to create with my father that will undoubtfully be cherished by the two of us for the rest of our days.

As I boarded the ferry that next day with a year’s supply of the best tasting meat I have ever eaten, my mind was thinking of how soon I could return to experience this again. However next time, I am bringing my speargun in addition to the rifle.

My gratitude goes to Jon and Rachel Sprague of Pūlama Lāna‘i for their gracious hospitality and their willingness to share their impressive knowledge of the flora, fauna and local history of the island. Also, for Jon getting me hooked on the island’s local delicacy, fried garlic peanuts.

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