Hill Country Christmas – A Musical Card

December 21, 2012

Merry Christmas to everyone!  I’m hitting the road for NC, and will likely be offline until Christmas Eve, so wanted to offer up my musical Christmas card.  Hope you enjoy.  And if you don’t like the music, then at least I hope you appreciate the sentiment.


A Little Short On Christmas Gift Suggestions

December 19, 2012

GrinchSo ever since switching over to the new site at the beginning of this year, I’ve got to say a lot of things have changed.  My readership has gone down drastically, my posting schedule has dropped off (hard to be as motivated), and I’m not seeing the opportunities to test and review products.  The truth is, without the promotion from the old host site, I’m not getting exposure outside of my circle of regulars (thank you guys!).  I never got paid much, but I’m getting nothing now… neither ads nor pay-per-post.  And without a big audience, the major companies aren’t particularly interested in sending me expensive things to write about.  But I can write what I want, when I want, how I want, and whatever I turn out here is mine and no one else’s.  Freedom isn’t free, I suppose…

It all goes hand in hand, of course, and I’m not gonna bemoan it.  I’m simply pointing this out as my way of saying, I haven’t got a lot of new stuff to recommend for Christmas gifts this year.  And that’s probably OK, because if you haven’t done your shopping by now, nothing I could promote here is likely to get you off of the hot seat.  Seriously, if you’re stumbling around and looking for gift ideas at this point, you’d probably do well to roll on over to one of the big box department stores… or hit your local Cabelas or Bass Pro.

Or, grab the construction paper, glue, and magic markers.

It’s not that I haven’t had any ideas or suggestions, especially when it comes to building out your library.  In February, I reviewed my online friend, Tovar Cerulli’s book, The Mindful Carnivore.  It was a really interesting look at hunting from a really different perspective.  I also reviewed Steve Rinella’s book, Meat Eater, and while I didn’t personally care much for it, I know a lot of other hunters who really enjoyed what Rinella had to say.

For the wannabe gunsmiths out there, the collectors, or the serious afficianados, I also really like the Firearms Guide series of DVDs.  For pure information about pretty much any gun you can think of, this is a great and growing resource.  I also think this disk would be required for anyone who writes about guns, whether you’re a journalist, blogger, or novelist.

If  you’re looking to stuff some stockings, ammo makes a great (and weighty) option to really make those socks sag.  Toss in a box or two of Winchester ETips for their favorite hunting rifle, or some Barnes VorTX handgun loads for that hog pistol.

But if you’re looking for something really new and unique for the hog hunter on your list, I may have the perfect thing.  It arrived in an unsolicited email the other day, and I almost deleted it.  For whatever reason, I clicked on it instead.

There’s something about a nice hip flask that’s always sort of appealed to me.  Maybe it’s the fantasy of the “gentleman hunter” coming through, or Hog Flaskmaybe I just like to have a nip from time to time, but pulling the flask from a convenient pocket, unscrewing that cap, and tipping it up just makes returning to camp at the end of a long day a little nicer.  The introduction to this email suggested that the sender was the manufacturer of a nice hip flask, with a wild boar on the front of it.  I clicked on the attached photo to see what we were dealing with, and I was pleasantly surprised.  This is not the standard, stamped stainless steel, made in Taiwan piece of junk.

I went ahead and visited the web site, Taliesin Pewter, and enjoyed a virtual visit to an English craftsman’s shop.  They make a lot more than just flasks, but since that’s what I came to see, I poked around a bit.  These are some nice pieces, and honestly, I don’t think the prices are too out of line either… in the neighborhood of US $70 (based on current conversion rates).  In addition to the hog, there are several sporting designs, including stags, waterfowl, and grouse.

This is definitely something I’d like to find under my tree on Christmas, and I bet many of you guys know someone who’d like something like it as well.

If you’re still shopping, good luck.  If you’re done… well, good luck anyway.  You know there’s someone you’ve forgotten.


A Clouded Christmas

December 18, 2012

I had some other things I wanted to write about this week.  It’s the time of year I usually post up the bright and whimsical, Christmas carols and gift ideas. It’s a time of happy anticipation of gathering with friends and family, the exchange of gifts and the continuation of traditions that warms us all as we prepare for the season of winter’s cold embrace.

But all weekend, every bright light seems to have been dimmed by a shadow. Everytime I started to feel good, the spectre of horror and sadness cast its pall over my consciousness. I need to say something, to write it out, if for no better reason than to try to purge my own mind.  Honestly, I don’t even know where I’m going with this, but I need to let it spill.

I watched the scenes unwind on the TV Friday, as I was eating lunch.  I saw the distraught parents, the emergency workers pushing through their own shock to get their jobs done, and the children… babies, practically… caught up in a vortex of terror in a world that is already beyond their control.  And the tears welled up and my throat wanted to close, and I couldn’t stop watching.  They’re just little kids, getting through the last week of school before Christmas vacation.  It shouldn’t be like this.

I looked around the restaurant, full of locals, many of them out Christmas shopping and still mostly unaware of the tragedy playing out in Newtown, Connecticut.  Some noticed, as I had, and were locked to the television monitors in various attitudes of shock and sadness.  As one after another of them realized what was happening, the normal buzz of luncheon conversation took on another tone… a hushed, reverent, and maybe even frightened hum of lowered voices.  The waitresses glanced up when they could, aware of the news, but then returned to their business and strugggled to keep their smiles in place as they took orders and served plates of food.  I can only imagine how hard it was for them.  I saw my waitress stop to watch for a moment before returning to my table, her eyes moist and shining in spite of the forced smile.  She must have seen my own eyes, and there was a brief sort of acknowledgement in a quick glance back at the television and a sad nod. 

It was all pretty intense, on a level I honestly haven’t felt since maybe 9/11 (and maybe, for me, worse).  And so far, it hasn’t really eased.

We heard a lot over the weekend about how we have to stop this sort of thing from happening again.  In the wake of other recent events, there seems to be a vocal concensus that, “this is enough!”

But here’s what scares me… what scares a lot of people, I think… the possibility that this isn’t something you can just bring to an end.  There will be talk about gun control, mental health programs, parenting, and our generally violent culture.  Fingers will point and well-meaning people will push for laws and policies and programs to make it all go away.  And part of me wants to support the idea that there is something we can do as a society or as a culture to prevent people like Lanza, or Dylan Klebold, or James Holmes… or Charles Whitman or Anthony Kehoe from going over that edge and harming innocent people.  I want to believe that we can do something.

When I started writing this, I kept catching myself going off on tangents. Gun control.  Mental health.  The inevitability of evil.  They’re all hot topics, and discussions raging all around and I’ve got plenty of thoughts about them… but that’s not what I need right now.  I don’t want to fight anyone.  I don’t want to debate.  I don’t want to be party to more divisiveness and anger.  It’s a time to heal.  That’s what I need.  It’s what we all need. 

Try to rise above. 

Pray for those little children.  Pray for their families and loved ones.  And pray for ourselves a little bit too. 

There’s gonna be a cloud over Christmas this year, but we have to know that it will pass.  It always passes. 


Well That Was Bound To Happen

December 13, 2012

“Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then I contradict myself.  I am large.  I contain multitudes.” 
Walt Whitman

“So?  I changed my mind.”

So after all that noise in yesterday’s post about sticking to the bow and all that, I had to know this morning would turn my plans upside down.  I wasn’t even going to hunt this morning, but instead I planned to leave things alone after missing that doe last night.  I was going to sleep in until daylight, tend to the horses, and get to work.

That was the plan.

It all started when something woke me up this morning at around 05:00.  I think it was probably the cats, bouncing off the walls as they’re wont to do in the wee hours.  Apparently they knocked something over, so I got up to make sure it wasn’t important.  It took a bit of looking before I discovered they’d somehow climbed up on the washing machine and knocked my binoculars off onto the floor.  Thank goodness for Leica’s shock-resistant sturdiness.

Well, once that happened, I was awake.  I stumbled around and cursed a bit, made coffee, and sat down at the computer.  I looked at the bow hanging in the laundry room, but just wasn’t that motivated to gear up and go sit in the tree.  Visions of that arrow sailing over the doe’s back pretty much sapped my enthusiasm.

Once the sun had started to light up the canyon, I decided to go ahead and feed the horses a little early.  As I started out, I noticed some movement down near the corner of the pasture, not too far from my tree stand.  “Goofy deer,” I thought out loud, but I grabbed the Leicas anyway.

spindlesThere were several deer, but the two that caught my interest were sort of circling one another, in and out of the cedars.  The light was still dim, but I definitely saw antler on at least one of them.  After a moment, I could see it was the wide, spindly six-point I’ve been seeing on my cameras.  The other deer still wouldn’t give me a good look, but it looked like he had a smaller rack.  The bucks weren’t exactly fighting, but they were definitely squared off.

I watched for a little bit.  The does and yearlings weren’t particularly interested in the bucks, and they browsed under the oaks along the edge of the woods.  The bucks would sort of follow one another around a tree, then stop and nonchalantly nibble some acorns or grass.  Then they’d circle again.  I kept watching that six-point, and it didn’t take long before I made a decision.

The Savage was in the back of the truck.  I grabbed it, and slowly snuck toward the barn, closing the distance and making sure I wouldn’t be shooting into the pasture where the horses were.  At about 120 yards, I took a rest against a power pole and found the deer in my scope.  They moved in and out of the thicket.  Every time I thought I had him dead to rights, he’d turn his butt to me, or move behind a cedar.

Finally, I had the shot I wanted.  The angle wasn’t ideal, but at 120 yards with the 30-06, I knew I could make it work.  With the pull of the trigger, I set a sequence of mildly regrettable events into motion.

First error… I either pulled the rifle, or the deer moved at precisely the moment of my shot.  Either way, I heard the bullet thump but I could see that it was further back than I’d wanted.  Had the angle been better, it would have been a perfect double-lung shot.  But he was turned more than I thought, which meant that the bullet ended up quartering back through the paunch, exiting behind the ribs, and then entering the off-side ham (Damn!).

Still, there was no question it was a fatal shot.  I watched him run into the thicket, and while all the other deer ran out, he didn’t.

So as I watched the other deer run, I realized that one of them was the spindly six.  I’d gotten mixed up by their little shell game in the cedars, and shot the other deer.  “Oh well,” I figured.  “I hunt for the meat and not the horns anyway.  No matter.”

I waited a few minutes and headed to the woods.  I decided to bring Iggy along.  I’ve wanted to work him on blood trails a little bit, but the last deer died so close to where I arrowed her, I didn’t even bother to go get him.  He was pretty excited by the shooting, and practically jumping over the fence when I went back to the house.  I put the rifle away (another mistake) and grabbed the .44 in case a coup de grace was necessary.

So the only work Iggy has done over the guns so far was when I worked him on doves a little, back in September.  He definitely gets the idea that, when I shoot, he gets to chase something.  I let him out of the gate and he led me toward the woods.  At the site where the deer were gathered, he struck a scent.  I wasn’t sure which deer he smelled, or if he was smelling all of them, so I held him back until I found a splatter of blood.  I pointed it out, and he looked at me like I was an idiot.  “Of course there’s blood, you fool,” he seemed to say.  “Now let me do my job.”

I should have put him on a leash.

At first he worked the trail like a pro, staying just ahead of me as we entered the woods.  But he started going faster, and suddenly disappeared with a leap.  A moment later, the buck charged out of the woods, followed closely by the black blur that was Iggy.   Even if I’d had the presence of mind to get the gun up, I couldn’t have taken the shot with him so close.  I yelled to stop him, but by then they were halfway across the pasture and headed for the road.  I yelled again, and then remembered that I’d at least had enough sense to put the electric collar on him.  I hit the “nip” button, and that didn’t even slow him.  Reluctantly, I hit the continuous button.  That got his attention, and he finally pulled back.

My pasture lays on a downhill slope, and right before the fence there’s a low spot where the deer like to cross.  I saw the deer go down there, but I didn’t see him come up.  I hoped he’d run into a brush pile to die, but just in case, I held the pistol ready as I moved across the pasture toward the spot.  Iggy was behaving well now, staying a couple of yards ahead of me with his nose to the ground.

We hit the brush pile, and the deer staggered up about 50 yards away.  Because he looked so unsteady, and because I’m not the greatest shot with the .44, I decided to get closer (if I’d brought the rifle instead, this story would have ended here).   Finally, I closed to about 20 yards and had the deer clear and broadside.  I leveled the pistol, but as I was cocking the hammer, a black blur ran into the scene again!  Iggy couldn’t take the excitement of seeing his quarry this close and broke into my line of fire.  I raised the muzzle into the air and waited for an opportunity.

The deer ran to the fence and weakly tried to jump it.  His side and flank were covered in blood, and I could see he wouldn’t live long.  But he managed enough strength to finally clamber over the fence to the road.  In a couple of bounds he was across, and into the thicket on the neighboring property.  I called Iggy back and watched through the branches as the deer staggered down into a draw and out of sight.

The tale does have a happy ending, though.

I brought Iggy back to the house, then went in and had breakfast, got some work email answered, and waited for about two hours.  Given how hard the deer was bleeding when he hit the fence, I figured that would be more than enough time to let him bed down and die.  When in doubt, back out… right?

When we got to where the deer had crossed the fence, the blood trail was pretty obvious.  Iggy hit it and was almost gone again before I reined him back.  This time I made him stay right with me as I Iggy the Blood-trailing Dawgcrawled and stumbled through the cedars.  Iggy followed the trail right to a clump of agarita bushes, and then started worrying something on the ground.  I caught up and saw that it was a thick pool of gore.  The ground was tracked up where the deer had gone down and dragged himself into the thicket.  Iggy had blood-trailed his first deer.

Could I have tracked the deer without him?  Yeah, although it would have been much slower… especially at first, as the blood sign was spread out and hard to see in the cedars.  Of course, had I been tracking without the dog, I’d probably have found the deer where it laid down the first time, and been able to finish it there and then with the pistol.

It was definitely a learning experience for me, as well as for Iggy.  The next time, I won’t set him on a real hot trail.  If a shot is questionable, I’ll wait a couple of hours, and then go in with him on a leash so he doesn’t push the wounded animal.  I also think that sort of tracking would have been better with a shotgun loaded with buckshot, instead of the .44.  Of course, I went in thinking that the deer was probably already dead and if anything, I’d have to put a shot in its head at powderburn range.  Obviously, it pays to plan for the worst case rather than being over-confident.

In which standards are lowered and lessons are learned…


Making Up Lost Time

December 12, 2012

I had a professor way back in my college days who really gave me a lot to think about in the years afterward.  One day, when I was late to class, I promised I’d make it up.  “You don’t get that time back,” he told me.  “You can never make up lost time.”

It’s a simple concept because it made simple sense.  Once time is gone, it’s gone.  You don’t go backwards.  Obviously the lesson stuck.

So hunting season here in Texas has been going strong since late September.  I made it out and arrowed a doe earlier on, but really haven’t spent much time in the stand since then.  Sure, I’ve made a run or two at getting in some time, but really haven’t done nearly as much hunting as I thought I would… given that I’m hunting a few minutes outside my back door.  I’ve had so much work to do on the place, as well as work and travel for my day job, that hunting just hasn’t taken the forefront.

Last week, I was back up in Spokane for work.  As the week wound down, I decided that I’d put some focus on hunting in the coming couple of weeks, leading up to Christmas.  Maybe I couldn’t really make up time, but damned if I wasn’t going to put some time in to do some whitetail hunting this season.  Hell, it’s one of the reasons I bought this place!  All the other projects are just going to have to take a back seat for a few weeks.

Now, to be honest, I could shoot a deer every day right from my back door.  I hung the feeder on the hill about 160 yards from the kitchen window, and almost every morning and evening I can watch the deer as they feed.  A few times, I’ve even gone so far as to drag the rifle out the back door and lean up against the truck to settle the crosshairs on an unsuspecting doe.  Some mornings, I’ve put a chair in the bed of the truck, and sat there at sunrise and sunset with the binos and rifle.  The opportunities have been abundant to say the least.  I’m not saying it’ll happen every time, but so far, I’ve resisted the itch in my trigger finger and let the deer feed in peace.  Later in January, as the season runs down, I’ll probably put some meat in the freezer.  With the exception of restaurant meals, I have no intention of buying red meat this year.  But for now, I just don’t want to take the “gimme”.

That’s the same reason I’ve primarily stuck with the bow, even though rifle season has been underway for over a month.  With the rifle, I’m pretty sure I’d have already used up my book of tags even without shooting over the feeder.  There are a lot of deer here.  I’ve strapped on the pistol a time or two, to hunt the cedar thickets where I can’t even draw a bow, but for the most part, I’m hunting the same tree stand with my bow.

So this week, I’ve been pretty solid in my resolve to hunt every single day.  I haven’t missed a morning or evening hunt since Sunday, and have every intention of being out there first thing tomorrow too.  And every day, I drag the rifle out and leave it by the kitchen door in favor of the bow.  This evening, for example, I wanted to drag the .243 up on the stand.  I took it out of the safe, cleaned it up, and even shouldered it a few times.  But when it came time to head out, I reached for the Mathews instead.

Just before dark, I heard a ruckus in the woods above my stand.  Below me, something was slowly creeping along the edge of the cedars toward the horse pasture.  My heart was pounding and my head was swiveling like a weathervane in the eye of a hurricane.  A big doe stepped out of the cedars into the pasture, about 35 yards from my stand.  At the same time, four deer stepped into the spot I’ve dubbed “the Murder Hole”, just below my stand at a laser-ranged 32 yards.

With all those eyes, I moved at the speed of an oak tree growing, and finally managed to get the bow up.  A big, mature doe in the Murder Hole stood broadside, looking away.  I decided to take her, instead of the longer shot in the pasture.  My heart thudded so hard it actually moved the sights of the bow with each beat.  I took a deep breath, but not deep enough, and settled the 20 yard pin high on the doe’s shoulder, with the 3o yard pin just barely on her chest.

In retrospect, given the downward angle, I should have just gone with the 20 yard pin and put it on the doe’s chest.  As it was, on my release the woods exploded with motion.  The doe I was aiming at dropped almost to her knees before bolting headlong down the trail.  I watched the red and white fletching slip just across her back and thump into the duff under the oak trees.

It was a simple error, and one I’ve made before… and will probably make again.  At a steep, downward angle, the shot is always shorter than the rangefinder suggests.  Of course, I could get a rangefinder with the angle compensation mode (like the Nikon Archer’s Choice), but I don’t have that now.  Besides, I know the range and where I should hold.   This deer was within a few yards of where I shot the doe earlier this year, and I used the 20 yard pin to kill her very cleanly.  But with all the deer around me, I was simply too excited.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings…



Notes From The Skinning Shed – Field Care Reminder

December 11, 2012

Up to my elbows, caping out a nice mule deer this weekend (not mine… a smokehouse customer shot it near Marfa, TX and brought it in for processing), it occurred to me that there are some things that just bear repeating.  You know… things like don’t text and drive, make sure of your target before you shoot, and treat every gun like it’s loaded. 

When it comes to field care of your game, there are a few key things you should keep in mind as well.  It’s all basic stuff, and it seems redundant as hell to say it again here, but from what I’m seeing in the skinning room, it needs to be repeated some more.  So here goes:

Keep it cold – Warmth and moisture are the essential qualities of the petri dish.  Together, these factors provide an excellent environment for the growth of bacteria.  Freshly killed meat also shares these attributes.  If you plan to eat that meat, you need to cool it down pretty quickly before the bacteria has an opportunity to get established.  Failure to cool the meat results in spoilage, which is a wasteful shame. 

The thing is, there’s never any good reason for letting meat spoil.  Even on a summer day, it’s possible to defend against spoilage by gutting the animal immediately, skinning it quickly, hanging it in a shady spot with the carcass propped open to encourage air circulation.  Wrap it in a cloth game bag to keep the flies off (flies can lay eggs amazingly quickly, and those eggs become the most unappetizing maggots).  Quarter the carcass out as soon as it’s practical, or even bone it out, and then get it in the ice chest.  If you have to transport the carcass whole, fill the body cavity with bags of ice, wrap the carcass in a sleeping bag (or a couple of old blankets will serve… throw them in the truck before you leave for hunting camp), and don’t spend a lot of time jawing at the Starbucks on the way home. 

Some game meats, like venison, can stand a bit of abuse and still be perfectly toothsome.  Others, like hogs and bear will “turn” quickly in even mild conditions.  It takes a little effort, but that effort can save the prize. 

Field dress it properly – When skinning and breaking down carcasses that customers have brought to the smokehouse, I’m constantly amazed at the number of deer with bladders, genitalia, sections of intestine (often full of fecal matter), chunks of heart, and entire windpipes (filled with yummy, regurgitated ruminate) still inside.  All of these things can add a gamey taste to the meat, especially if they’ve been left the carcass for a couple of days. 

On some animals, like pigs and bear, the outer layer of fat can quickly turn rancid and flavor the meat.  I recommend that, as part of your field dressing you skin away most of that external fat before storing the animal.  I know bear fat can be rendered into a useful (and tasty) product, but you need to either process it right away or get it cold fast.  Also, if you’re planning to save a bear hide, try to cut away as much of the fat from the skin as you can before stowing it. 

Yeah, I know… field dressing is messy work.  For most hunters, it’s the most dreaded part of the hunting experience.  And if you’re actually doing it in the field, without the benefits of a hoist and gambrel, it can be a challenge to really get the carcass cleaned out.  Nevertheless, this is an important step in ensuring that the meat is clean and tasty.  Go ahead and get bloody.  Get in there and make sure you got everything.  It’s worth it.

Keep it clean –   Be careful where you stick that knife.  There are things you don’t want to cut, such as the paunch and the bladder. If you’ve never experienced the fragrant aroma of partially digested stomach contents, trust me… it’s simply not the kind of marinade that great meals are made of.

The bladder is another story altogether.  While some animals will void their bowels in death, the bladder often stays quite full.  And worse, it is situated right there with the best cut of meat… the tenderloins.  An incautious poke of a sharp knife floods the lower part of the body cavity with urine. 

Accidents happen though, and all is not lost.  A water hose is your friend in these instances, but a few bottles of water will work in a pinch. A thorough rinse, right away, will usually get the worst of the contamination off of the meat. The trick is to clean that stuff out ASAP.  Don’t wait until you get home the next morning, or until you get ready to start processing. 

On the topic of keeping it clean, a lot of guys don’t seem to give much thought to hair.  This is especially an issue with whitetails and axis deer, as the belly hair is fine and soft, and comes loose from the skin with minimal effort.  It ends up all over the meat, particularly around the hams and tenderloin.  It’s not harmful, but it’s unsightly, and most folks don’t particularly enjoy picking hairs out of their dinner. 

You can’t keep all of the hair out of a carcass, but you can cut way down on by observing some simple practices.  First of all, use a sharp knife.  A dull knife pulls the hair.  And with that sharp knife, try to cut with the grain of the hair (towards the back of the animal) rather than against the grain.  You won’t cut, break, or pull as much hair this way.   And when you’re done, use a damp paper towel to dab away the remaining hair.  In a pinch, you can rinse the meat using a hose with good water pressure.  Just be aware that sometimes spraying water on the meat merely makes it harder to get the hairs off.  Anything that’s left will usually stick to the meat, and can be removed during trimming and butchering.

A couple more tips for using a game processor – If you’re taking your animal to a processor, you’ll find that they usually charge a base rate per pound for processing.  That weight is calculated as-is, which means that if you bring your animal in with skin, head, and hooves attached, you’re going to pay the processor for that unusable weight.  That can equal as much as 30 or 40 pounds on a decent sized animal.  You’ll save a significant chunk of change if you skin your animal yourself, before bringing it to the processor. 

If you do skin your animal, do your processor a favor by not cutting the hamstrings on the hind legs.  This is the most convenient way for the processor to hang your animal in the cooler.  It’s not a requirement, but your effort will be appreciated.

By the way, if you choose to cape your animal for mounting, I’d recommend stopping at the base of the head instead of skinning the face.  This is tricky work, and in my opinion, it’s part of the reason we pay so much for a taxidermist.  Unless you’re well practiced, leave that fine work to the professionals.  It can mean the difference between a great trophy and a marginal mount. 

Finally, I always recommend pulling the tenderloins out of your animal prior to dropping it off.  Most processors are conscientious and honest, but screw-ups happen and sometimes those toothsome morsels accidentally end up in the sausage grinder.  Of course, that can only improve the sausage, but it seems sort of a waste to see them ground up, mixed with pork or beef fat, and spiced beyond recognition.  Just a thought…

Lead Ban Chronicles – Guest Post – AZ’s Volunteer Lead Ban Works

December 4, 2012

My friend, Dan, frequently sends me reports about his experiences (and his opinions) using various lead-free ammunition in California.  He and a buddy recently had the opportunity to hunt the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona, a western deer hunting mecca, and when he wrote to let me know how the unleaded ammo they used performed, I asked if he’d be willing to pen a short piece for the blog about the hunt and how AZ’s voluntary program made for a different experience.  He actually sent this a little while ago, but I’m only now getting to publishing it.  Apologies for that, Dan. 

When things are dull and quiet, my hunting friends, seeking entertainment, bait me by saying something like “Hey, have you heard the latest on the CONDORS?”  Then they sit back and watch the fireworks.  That one word, “Condor”, will set me off on a rant that’s good for at least 45 minutes. My blood boils.  For that reason, I was reluctant to write this guest piece.  I was afraid I couldn’t be objective.
My long time hunting buddy, Chuck, knowing of my character flaw, sent me an article from the AZ Game and Fish Department about various environmental groups suing the Kaibab National Forest.  The groups want the U.S. Forest Service to place a mandatory ban on hunting with lead ammunition in northern Arizona. They want the ban, in order to protect the Condor from lead.

The Kaibab Plateau is birthplace of the North American Conservation Model and the Pittman-Robertson Act.  It’s the foundation of all the wildlife management plans in the United States today. The Kaibab Plateau is home to some of the best mule deer hunting in the world.  The deer are HUGE.  The Kaibab is a show piece. It is beautiful, it is perfect, and it is the tag to draw. It is Nirvana. 

The California condor, even after years of intensive management, is still dying.  It’s dying for a variety of reasons; chief among them is lead poisoning. No one disputes that. What’s disputed is the source of the lead poisoning and the approach to managing the problem.

Condors are found in Arizona and California.  The same environmental groups that are currently suing in Arizona once sued in California. I hunt both states and have witnessed, first hand, each states approach to the problem.

Californian hunters were largely oblivious to the impending lawsuit and indifferent or ignorant to the plight of the condor.  The Department of Fish and Game was slow and ineffective in promoting a voluntary lead-free hunt and condor education program. In short, California largely ignored the problem.

In 2007, the Ridley-Tree Condor act was passed and it established a “lead-free” zone covering much of the central California. The area is gigantic.  Within the zone, big game hunters are required to use lead-free ammunition. Hunters were shocked at the law and the cost.  Lead ammo was going for around $18 a box and lead-free was closer to $45.  Worse, for many hunters, there simply wasn’t any lead-free ammo available in their favorite calibers.  The law allowed the state to subsidize hunters by offering free lead-free ammo if funds were available.  Funds were never made available.

Overnight, the Ridley-Tree Condor Act caused open warfare between hunters and environmental groups. The hunters felt betrayed, lied to and preyed upon, both by the state and the environmental groups.  When blood lead tests in 2008, and 2009 indicated the ban had absolutely no effect on lead poisoning, it got positively ugly. Any hope of mutual cooperation between California hunters and environmental groups, on anything, was forever shattered. 

In Arizona, the lead-free approach was much different and very proactive. There was an extensive condor education program.  The hunting community was informed early, and often. The hunters were asked for their opinions and their opinions were valued.  As a result, the lead free program in AZ is voluntary.  If you draw a tag in the condor range, your tag comes with a condor information packet and a voucher for a free box of lead-free ammo. If you chose to use leaded ammo, you are encouraged to remove all parts of the animal from the zone.  Hunters are asked to be part of the conservation program.

When Chuck drew a Kaibab tag, I went with him.  I found that the state of AZ had provided Chuck with a box of lead-free ammo.  Three times during our 7 day hunt, the AZ game warden stopped by our camp and provided us with an information packet and stout plastic bags to carry out our gut pile in case we used lead ammo. When Chuck got his deer, we went to the mandatory check station and there was a dumpster provided to deposit the gut pile.  The biologists interviewed us on our thoughts on the lead free program and its ease of use. Arizona had achieved hunter buy-in. 

Today, 80-90% of hunters in Arizona’s condor zone voluntarily use lead-free ammunition.  Many Arizona hunters actively assist in the condor recovery, and are proud to do so. They’ve become willing advocates, rather than adversaries.

I wish California had been able to do that.