December 27, 2022
The guttural roars of a lovestruck axis deer echoed down the drainage. Separating us from the rutting buck was a steep and rugged, thorn-infested, hellhole of a canyon whose terraced ledges fell off so steep that we could not see the bottom from our current vantage point. With several other herds of axis deer between us and the fired-up buck, we didn’t dare move until the axis showed itself.
Fast forward an hour and Earl Dunham, my guide, whisper-yelled: “There he is!”
About 800 yards above us, the buck emerged from a dense pocket of trees trailing a doe. My Leupold spotting scope revealed a striking buck with long sweeping beams and substantial brow and caudal tines. Dunham took one look through the spotter and immediately declared: “We need to kill that deer.” It was time to practice what I preach to my clients and trust my guide. With less than an hour before sunset, we frantically gathered up our gear and put a game plan in motion to cut several hundred yards between us and the buck.
The Gift That Kept On Giving
Axis deer, also known as chital deer, are native to the forests of India, Sri Lanka and Nepal where they have thrived for centuries. In 1868, Hong Kong, then a British colony, gifted eight axis deer—three bucks, four does and a male fawn—to King Kamehameha V, the ruler of the Hawaiian Islands. These eight axis deer were placed on the tranquil island of Molokai as a future source of protein for the islanders. Now, 154 years later, that original introduction has erupted into an estimated 50,000–70,000 animals on Molokai, with successful introductions from this herd to both the islands of Maui and Lanai. This sounds like a wildly successful conservation story, and it is, but as the axis deer have proven, too much of a good thing can have negative consequences.
When most picture Hawaii, thoughts drift to the miles of pristine white-sand beaches and tropical rainforest jungles. What many do not realize is that every island has a leeward side and windward side. The leeward sides of the islands are quite dry, somewhat resembling the high desert ecosystems on the mainland. I knew we would be hunting the leeward side of Molokai, but I didn’t anticipate that much of this side of the island would be a red dirt moonscape, devoid of many naturally occurring flora.
Molokai has been stricken by drought in recent years, but the adverse effect that the massive herds of axis deer are having on the island is undeniable. Cue the absolute necessity for hunting these incredibly delicious, spotted deer. Koa Manaba, Molokai native and avid hunter, recognized this need several years ago and founded Go Hawaii Outfitters to give hunters the opportunity to hunt and experience Molokai, as well as help control the bursting axis deer population.
With no winter kill or natural predators to keep the deer numbers in check, the population of axis deer continues to grow at an unmanageable rate. I have never seen an ecosystem so desperately in need of hunters to step up and be stewards of the land.
Desmund “Dez” Manaba, Koa’s father, is a lifelong Molokai native as well as a passionate hunter. In an attempt to keep deer numbers in check, Dez heads up a USDA-approved culling program that puts 60 to 80 deer a month in the cooler. The venison from these deer is subsequently packaged and sold, providing a two-fold benefit to the island of thinning the deer herd and bolstering the economy. This is a great step in the right direction, but if you spend one morning of hunting with Go Hawaii Outfitters, where you will literally see deer by the hundreds, you will quickly realize that they still have a long way to go to control this extreme overabundance of deer.
Axis To The Extreme
Almost as if time has forgotten it, Molokai provides a refreshing step back in time to a simpler way of life. Many of the estimated 7,300 residents live and breathe the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, relying on both the land and the sea to provide sustenance for them and their families. As we drove from the airport into town, it was evident by the staggering number of axis deer skulls hanging on fence posts and railings—or simply thrown on the roofs of many homes—that the axis deer has become an engrained piece of Molokai culture. The chance to hunt these deer in such a special place was not an opportunity I took lightly.
After sighting in our Nosler M21 rifles, chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor, we grabbed some lunch, changed into our camo and headed for the field. With a knack for the extreme, I opted to go to a steep, remote corner of the island for our first evening hunt. Justin Moore, PR master for Nosler and Kryptek, and I met up with Dunham at a designated mile post just off the beach. After brief introductions we grabbed our gear and headed up the mountain. And when I say mountain, I mean it. The cliffed-out ledges and steep, rocky canyons of this area could easily be compared to the treacherous places that sheep call home on the mainland. Luckily, that is just the way I like it.
As the sun slowly worked her way to the horizon I was simply soaking in the moment and serenity of hunting in Hawaii. To be honest, I really didn’t want to kill a buck that night as I was not ready for my hunt to end. My night went from tranquility to game time at the snap of a finger when the roaring buck above us finally crept out of the trees, hot on the tail of an estrous-stricken doe. Heeding Dunham’s advice, we hastily grabbed our packs and the rifle and slipped on the backside of the ridge. Moore and I are both in pretty good shape, but we fought to keep up with Dunham who was flying up the mountain to cut the necessary distance between us and the buck before the sun set.
We covered several hundred yards and some substantial vertical feet before Dunham finally stopped so Moore and I could catch our wind. After several deep breaths, I chambered a round and we peered over the ridgeline. The buck had not moved 50 yards from where we had last seen it and stood love-struck behind the doe, 236 yards across the canyon. Sprawling prone across the rocky, red dirt, I acquired the buck in my scope, dialed the custom CDS turret fixed atop the Leupold VX-5 scope and waited for a shot. With the buck slightly quartering away, I settled my crosshairs in line with the offside shoulder and squeezed through the trigger. The report of the 140-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip impacting the buck was music to my ears, but the buck immediately dove down and out of our sight. “Where did he go?” I asked. “I think he ran right off that cliff,” replied Moore. Dunham assured me I had made a good shot, but until you lay hands on your target, there is always a small pit in your stomach when you do not see the animal fall. Knowing it had nose-dived off a 25-foot cliff didn’t help my anxiety.
Slowly traversing down the sheer canyon walls, we finally got to where we could see the bottom of the canyon. Piled up at the base of the cliff was my buck, miraculously with both horns still intact. Racing to beat the dimming light, Moore worked his camera magic, after which we hung the buck from a low-hanging branch of a kiawe tree and got to work. The only way this buck was getting out of this nasty hole was in pieces. Dunham and I made quick work carving off every edible morsel of meat. With my pack loaded down, I took a deep breath of the ocean breeze drifting up the mountainside and soaked in the moment. The sun had long set by the time we made it back to the truck, but the memories made that night will always be cherished.
With my buck tag filled, I had the opportunity to spend time with good friends both new and old as they filled tags of their own. Molokai continued to provide as everyone was blessed with plenty of opportunities and some incredible bucks in the freezer. We were also asked to fill our coolers and help out with the overabundance of deer numbers by also taking some does. This gave us the opportunity to further test and stretch out the Nosler M21 rifles, which performed in spades. On one occasion, Nosler’s Madi Woodward and I doubled up on tasty axis deer does at 420 yards. By the end of the trip, I had over 125 pounds of boned and trimmed meat from one of the finest-tasting game animals in the world to bring home and share.
Hunting provides a cultural education unobtainable any other way. When most go to Hawaii they will get to experience the commercialized tourist attractions, which are great, but they do not get to experience the rich traditions of the Islands the way the locals do. Hunting on Molokai was the avenue to which I was able to experience the culture, food, and people of this special place and for that I am grateful.
On our final night on Molokai, the Manaba family, along with the other guides and their families, invited us to a luau where we enjoyed the bounties of the island. We ate everything from fresh poke (raw ahi), to lau lau pork (Hawaiian pork dish wrapped in taro leaves and steamed), to fresh fruit and vegetables and of course mounds of delicious axis deer prepped and cooked several different ways. Dez was right at home serving up slices of axis deer sirloin straight off the Camp Chef grill as fast as people could eat it. The luau was an appreciated reminder that hunting is about so much more than the hunt and was an incredible cap to a memorable week spent on the beautiful and bountiful island of Molokai.