August 28, 2014
It can be a little tough to get psyched about deer season when it’s over 100 degrees outside, and humidity is in the upper three quarters as well. It’s one thing to walk up the hill and check cameras, fill the feeder every month, and watch the deer from the porch. It’s another, altogether, to climb that hill with chainsaw and machete in hand (and a backpack full of water) to work on stands and clearing out the cedar (juniper) so that both the deer and I can actually move through the tangle.
Once I got up there, of course, I found that the deer really didn’t have much problem. In fact, the hillside looks like a deer highway with little tunnels anywhere the branches are too thick. Picking a spot for a stand isn’t so much a question of figuring out where the deer will pass, but figuring out where I can put it so that I’m not right in the middle of a trail. I need them to walk past me, not over me. What’s more, is I need a place where I can actually slip an arrow through the brush. The only way to do that is start cutting.
I’ve been meaning, ever since last fall, to get out there and clear some new hunting spots. I’ve planned, and reconsidered, and planned some more, but it just seemed like there was always some reason not to do it. The barn needed work. The pasture needed to be mowed. I needed to build a back porch because the old stairs were a death trap. And so on and so on until, suddenly, summer was here. And with summer comes heat.
The thing about working in this terrain during the Texas summer is that it’s not only uncomfortable, it’s potentially dangerous. It’s easy to become dehydrated, and it happens fast. Heat prostration can sneak right up, and if you’re not careful, you’ll face full heat exhaustion… and working solo, up in this thick stuff, that’s a very bad place to be. Of course, it can be done. There are guys out there every day, building fence, herding livestock, clearing land… but it’s not something that a 50 year-old, computer jockey should take lightly. I’m not a kid anymore, and as much as I love working with my hands on this ranch, I’m not a lifelong rancher either.
But all that aside, the other real reason for delay is that it’s just damned hard to get motivated to get out there and suffer that heat when I’ve got a nice, air conditioned house with Internet and TV and Kat to keep company. Besides, I have a stand for Kat already, when either of us wants to shoot deer with the rifle. And, until fairly recently, I already had a great stand, the Murder Hole, for all my bowhunting needs. But back in May, while checking the pasture fences, I saw that a huge piece of the oak tree that contains the Murder Hole stand had broken off. The stand is still intact, but it’s now completely exposed. I can still put some cover up there and use the stand, but it’s going to make a tough hunt even tougher.
The Murder Hole was not as well planned as I’d like. I mean, it’s in the perfect location for deer traffic, both morning and evening. But I made a couple of miscalculations. The prevailing winds in the canyon when I built the stand were generally south to north, so I set the stand with an optimal northerly view. Behind the stand (to the south), I left the thick cedars alone to provide a screen, and to funnel the deer to either side of the stand. What I didn’t realize was that this changes during the fall, and that there’s more of a northerly flow… especially in the late evening, when the deer are moving down from the south-facing slopes. I can’t count the number of times the deer walked right up behind me, and then blew out when they caught my scent. And trust me, I don’t care what kind of scent control you use… at five or ten yards downwind, especially on a warm day, the deer are going to smell you.
So setting up a new stand isn’t just an option anymore. I had to do something. I could try to fix up the Murder Hole, or get to work on a better location.
Back in June, I went at it and cleared a really pretty little park amongst the cedars up on the hillside about 200 yards behind the house. There’s a huge, old oak tree in the middle that would be a great spot for a platform stand. I also used the slash to create a couple of brush piles where it would be pretty easy to hide a pop-up blind. Within a week, the native bunch grasses started coming up in the new clearing (thanks to some very timely rain), and the place looked perfect. I set a camera out, looking forward to a ton of photos. What I got, so far, is a couple of shots of the same two does, and a bunch of raccoons. This wasn’t what I’d hoped to see. I needed to put something up closer to the old stand, but better planned.
The summer came, and nearly went. Deer season is less than a month away. So, this past weekend, I went at it.
I found a good location up on the hillside where there’s a reasonably flat(tish) spot. Several trails converge around it, but there’s one spot where it’s too thick for the deer to move. I could clear a hole out there to build my stand, and with all of the cedar brush I would cut, I could build a blind with natural material. When I finish, it should look like any of the other brush piles I’ve created around the property (it’s too dry to burn, and they make great habitat for birds and small game).
I still have a lot of work to do. These cedars are hell on a chainsaw, and it was already a little dull from the previous projects. I was soon reduced to using the machete. Even after drinking three liters of water, I started getting chills and cramps… and that’s a pretty good indication that it’s time to call it a day in this heat.
The final plan is to have the site completely brushed in, including a “roof”. As you can see in this photo, I’ve also still got a lot of clearing to do for shooting lanes. I got both chains good and sharp now, so consider this the “before” picture. I’ll update soon, I hope, with the finished product. Then I just need to leave it alone until the deer get used to it. By September 27 (archery opener), it should become my new, go-to spot.
Then I can focus on some of the other locations I’ve scouted. Who knows? Maybe by the time next summer rolls around, I’ll actually have some of them cleared and ready for use.
August 26, 2014
There’s been some interesting discussion going on lately amongst a couple of the gun writers I follow, as they delve into the hotly debated question of “enough gun”. Although Dave Campbell comes at it one way, his fellow gun writer and author, Richard Mann takes a different tack.
Now both of these guys know their stuff. That’s pretty much beyond question, and they have the masthead credits and bylines to prove it. Whenever I read anything they’ve written, I seldom come away without gleaning some nuggets of valuable information. So, of course, this topic got my attention because it’s such an active conversation.
Dave’s blog column takes a look at whether or not the .223 (5.56) is a valid deer cartridge. This is a controversial argument (.22 caliber firearms are not even legal for deer in every state), and one that has grown with the increasing use of the AR platform as a hunting tool. There’s not a lot new in Dave’s piece, at least not to anyone who’s ever participated in this particular discussion. It boils down to the conclusion that yes, the .223 can be a viable choice for deer under the right conditions (range, bullet construction, shot placement). What I inferred, whether or not it was implicit, is that Dave still doesn’t necessarily think it’s a great choice.
I don’t know about the intent, but Richard Mann’s blog reads like a rejoinder to Campbell’s commentary. As he rightly points out, there is no definitive answer to the question of, “what is ‘enough gun’?” Unfortunately, while it’s hard to argue with any of his points, he boils his commentary down to the banal and badly abused argument that it’s really a question of shot placement and penetration.
It’s absolutely true, of course. A bullet that penetrates well and hits the vitals will kill. Disconnect the central nervous system, upset the cardio-pulmonary functions, or deflate both lungs, and the majority of animals will expire post-haste. And there’s no doubt that a .223 with a good bullet can deliver these goods on deer-sized game at appropriate distances. Hell, a .22 magnum can deliver these goods… all else being equal.
But now I’m going to repeat something I’ve said so many times I’m sick of it… but I bet I’ll be saying it again soon.
It is NOT all about shot placement.
Yes, of course we all strive for perfect placement every time we shoot at game. Yes, of course, a little deviation from perfect is, usually, still adequate. But until we start hunting with self-guided, smart bullets that always find the heart from the ideal angle, we’re not always going to make perfect shots. It just doesn’t happen.
Sure, we practice. The most conscientious of us practice a lot. We hone our skills, tune our weapons, and remove as much of the element of chance as we can before we hit the field. That’s great. It’s the right thing to do. But here’s the caveat…
There’s no one out there teaching that buck to freeze, slightly quartering away with his near-side leg stepping forward to expose the “pocket”. Nobody taught the brush to move aside, or instructed the wind about the appropriate time to gust. Nobody hipped you to the possibility that, despite the near-religious ritual drills of the top three offhand shooting positions during every range session, your shot opportunity will take place as you balance flat-footed on a 40-degree, rocky slope with the animal appearing at approximately five o’clock behind you.
There are a handful of hunters with the restraint and composure to pass all but the ideal shot opportunity. I don’t think I know any of them.
We take chancy shots… too far, no rest, bad angle, off-balance, nervous, breathless, and so on. We get excited. We over or under-estimate range and wind drift. We blink and flinch and jerk the trigger. These aren’t just my observations of other people… I’ve done all of these things myself.
While I may not have the experience of some of the widely-published gun writers, I’ve done a lot of hunting. I’ve shot a lot of animals (and shot at some as well). I’ve accompanied scores of other hunters as they took their shots too. Beyond that, over the past couple of years working in the processing house, I’ve disassembled more than my share of game animals. So trust me when I say, unequivocally, that for every perfect heart/lung shot I’ve seen, there are at least five or six marginal hits (probably more, but I don’t keep records). I would estimate that at least two thirds of the animals brought in to be processed required multiple shots to bring them to hand. If it really were all about shot placement, many of these guys would be eating tag soup.
Enough rambling. The point is, hunting is not an exact science where you can perfect a formula and get identical results every time. The perfect shot happens, but it’s not something that I think a hunter should count on. The better bet is to prepare for the imperfect… and part of that preparation includes selecting a caliber that provides a little extra leeway. There’s nothing wrong with a little bigger wound channel, a bit more kinetic energy, or that extra oomph to pass through a hindquarter and still plow its way to the vitals.
Like Dave Campbell and Richard Mann, I cannot define “enough gun,” because the truth is, almost any gun can be “enough”. But if nothing else, consider this. With all of the quality, proven options available on the market these days, why would any hunter purposefully handicap himself with something that is, at best, adequate?
In sport fishing, I understand the allure of fighting big fish with little tackle. It’s challenging. It’s exciting. Likewise, I recognize the challenge and expertise required to consistently kill big game with a little bullet. Kudos to the marksman who succeeds unfailingly. But when the fisherman loses, the fish swims away, little the worse for the experience. This is not the case when you shoot an animal.
August 25, 2014
“In past years, the coupon for free non-lead ammunition was mailed with the hunt tag. However, this year, the department has been working to expand its network of retailers that will accept the coupon to better accommodate hunters. In addition, now a limited supply of the most common ammo will be available for coupon redemption at the Phoenix and Flagstaff department offices (note: it will not be offered for regular sale).
Coupons will be mailed to affected hunters soon, and hunters are encouraged to buy their non-lead ammo to avoid a possible supply shortage. Hunters can choose either one box of loaded ammunition or one box of bullets for reloading their own ammunition with the coupon. There are multiple non-lead ammunition manufacturers to choose from as well as several available calibers and grain weights. Hunters in Arizona have proven their commitment to wildlife conservation in the past six years with 85 to 90 percent of hunters in Arizona’s condor range voluntarily using non-lead ammo during their hunts, or if they used lead ammunition, removing the gut piles from the field.
This year, Game and Fish is reminding hunters that if they have trouble finding non-lead ammunition, they can still support condor recovery by removing gut piles from the field that were shot with lead ammunition. Hunters that remove their gut piles (lead ammunition only) will be eligible to be entered into a prize raffle.
Note that, in addition to using lead free ammo, there are other measures you can take to reduce the potential impact of lead ammunition. If it’s not possible to remove the gut pile, consider burying it. Where the ground is too hard to dig, build a rock cairn. It’s not that difficult, and if your efforts result in one less, lead-poisoned condor… well, most of us think it’s worth it.
Up in Washington, the discussion about lead ammo has been going on for several years. However, so far, little action has been taken. From now through September 20, the Department of Fish and Wildlife is taking comments in regards to proposed changes to the regulations. These changes include:
- Develop voluntary programs to encourage hunters to utilize lead alternatives.
- Work with hunters to develop local restrictions that reduce lead poisoning of wild birds.
- Develop an outreach plan that helps hunters understand the lead- ammunition issues and encourages reduced use of lead for hunting.
- Promote use of nontoxic ammunition for department activities where applicable.
- Conduct a survey to ensure hunters’ opinions are considered in future discussions about lead ammunition.
Learn more about the proposals at the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife website.
In Utah, the Division of Wildlife Resources has modeled their lead ammo abatement effort on Arizona’s successful program. Hunters drawn to hunt specific zones (I believe it’s just the Zion unit right now) received a coupon for a box of lead-free ammo. As with Arizona, Utah hunters are encouraged to act early in order to redeem their coupons. Lead free ammo supplies are limited, and hunters who wait until the last minute may not be able to get their ammo. Nevertheless, those who hunt with lead ammo in these areas can pack out the entrails and carcass, and then turn it in for entry into a prize drawing.
Now for a little editorial content…
If you’re not hunting in an area with condors, the truth is that using lead ammo probably isn’t doing any appreciable harm in the big picture. It’s certainly possible that your choice could result in the lead poisoning of a scavenger bird, but the threat is pretty slight. You’re doing more damage to the health of the animals and the environment just driving to and from your hunting area than you ever will by hunting with lead ammo. That said, it really is your choice. You can opt to use lead-free bullets, shot, or slugs and mitigate your footprint. You could make the choice to bury or remove carcasses and gut piles in order to keep the lead fragments away from scavengers. Or you can choose to keep doing what you’ve been doing and not worry about it. At the very least, though, you should educate yourself enough to understand your options.
On the other hand, if you’re hunting in an area where condors scavenge, the stakes are higher. The evidence linking lead ammo and condor mortality is pretty compelling (even if there is no “smoking gun”). Evidence or not, every time a condor shows up sickened by lead, hunters will get the blame. You can argue the “facts” and the “science” with the non-hunters and environmentalists until you’re blue in the face, but they are not buying it. So even if the potential death of another condor isn’t high on your list of personal concerns, your choice has a much more significant impact… not only to the condor population, but to all hunters. It behooves us all to take the extra measures, whether it’s switching to lead-free ammo or removing/burying carcasses and offal so that the birds can’t get to it. It’s not just about YOU.
A lot of people are still resistant to lead-free ammo because they’ve heard a lot of negatives and myth. The fact is, most of the lead-free ammunition on the market today is very good stuff. I have used it extensively on everything from hogs, deer, and exotics to rabbits and squirrels. I have hunted with or guided scores of other hunters who used it, and I’ve seen the results first hand… time and time again. It works, and it works well.
There are some caveats, just as you’ll find with most lead bullets. Some guns don’t handle certain bullet types or weights very well. Some bullets, like the older style Barnes, don’t seem to do well at velocities over 3000 fps. Copper shotgun slugs and muzzleloader bullets don’t seem to expand so well at extreme (150 yards or more) range. And just as with lead ammo, as a skilled, ethical hunter, it’s up to you to do your homework to understand these caveats and overcome them… such as choosing a different bullet manufacturer, changing up the bullet style or weight, and taking shots at more appropriate distances (shotguns and muzzleloaders are not intended to be 200 yard guns… no matter what you’re feeding them).
Be safe. Be smart. Have fun. The hunting seasons are upon us!
August 21, 2014
The guns are already out in several states, and with September rolling around, more of us are gearing up to hit the field. But as we do, whether at the range, in the field, or even cleaning up at the house, remember… gun safety is no joke. It only takes a second to turn a wonderful day into a nightmare.
And yes, I have posted this one before… but it bears repeating.
August 20, 2014
I know, CA hunters are already hard at it, with A-zone rifle underway, and archery seasons cranking up across most of the rest of the state. Kinda late to say, “get ready for the season,” huh?
But here’s news (at least to me) that I think some CA hog hunters will be happy to hear. According to an article I just saw in the Red Bluff Daily News, northern California hog hunters will have a new opportunity, starting on September 1, as the DFG and US Fish and Wildlife Service will be opening up hog hunting in the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge.
According to the article, the hogs are doing significant damage to the riparian areas that the FWS has worked so hard to restore along the river. Hunters will help alleviate the damage, both by killing some of the hogs and pressuring others out of the sensitive areas. These hunts are shotgun and archery only. The season will run from September 1 through March 15, and will only apply in units of the refuge that already allow hunting. Check local regulations before venturing out.
Of course, down here in the Lone Star State, an awful lot of folks are looking forward to the September 1 dove season opener (Northern and Central zones). Down in the southern edge of the state, dove hunters will have to wait a week to get in on the action. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, there should be a boom of birds this year. I know that, down here at the Hillside Manor, I’ve been seeing a pretty fair number of birds. Closer to the agricultural areas around Uvalde and Sabinal, birds seem to be everywhere. Lots of cut corn fields, cotton, and sunflower fields are keeping them active and fat.
Something else the TPWD has done for 2014 is set up an online tool to apply for “Drawn Hunts”. These are hunts on both public and private property that offer some opportunities like archery hunts for Mule Deer in Big Bend, alligator hunts over in the eastern part of the state, or even guided, scimitar-horned oryx hunts at Mason Mountain. Some of the hunts include a fee if you’re drawn, while others only cost the price of entering the drawing (this varies from a few bucks to $10 or so). Obviously, these drawings can be tightly contested, as only a few openings exist for most of the hunts, but the rewards can certainly be something to get excited about. Deadlines for each drawing are posted on the site, and most of the hunts include a specific set of dates. You’ll want to make sure you read everything thoroughly before you sign up, but definitely, sign up! In a state like Texas, with so little public land, this is one way to get out and do some hunting in prime locations… often with very limited pressure or competition.
Me? I’m pretty much ready for the doves (besides the occasional Eurasian collared dove I shoot for snacks), but this year I’ve really started looking forward to deer season. There are two bucks that have been pretty regular visitors this summer, and as much as I’ve enjoyed watching them grow… well, I can’t help thinking about getting an arrow into one of them. I haven’t decided if I want a shot at Funkhorn (or if presented, can I take the shot after watching him for so long?) or at the traditional 8-pointer. I guess my mind will be made up should the time actually come.
August 15, 2014
Big thanks to my friend, David, for sharing this story and pictures. Like him, I’ve been putting in for the Grizzly Island tule elk hunt for years (since 1997) without success. Congrats to Serra for drawing this hunt!
How’d it work out? Here are David’s own words and photos.
About Tule Elk in California and the Tag Lottery
For as long as I have been hunting, I have put in for the lottery drawing for a Tule Elk tag at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. The wildlife area is home to a few hundred head of Elk and although they are free range animals, they rarely go far from the wildlife area and when they do, they always return. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife manages the elk herds here and throughout the state. Their stated goals are to maintain healthy elk herds, reestablish elk in suitable historic range, provide public educational and recreational opportunities involving elk, and to alleviate conflicts involving elk on private property. Part of the management plan calls for a limited number of animals to be harvested by hunters. The number of tags in a given year can vary but the competition to win a tag is steep, sometimes there are more than a thousand people trying for the same tag. For instance, last year’s period 5 bull hunt had two tags allotted with over 1600 applicants. That is a 1 in over 800 chance; not very good odds. I know people who have been trying to obtain a tag their entire hunting careers and have never done so. Imagine my surprise when I logged in to the DFW website to check our draw results and saw that my daughter, Serra, had won an antlerless tag. We would be hunting in the first hunting period, August 12-15 (on her 16th birthday no less). With more animals to be harvested this year, maybe the odds were in our favor, maybe the hunting gods were in a good mood on drawing day or maybe it was birthday luck. Whatever it was we weren’t questioning it. We were thankful and we knew we had a lot of work ahead. We had to incorporate scouting trips and a whole ton of shooting practice into the 2 months from the tag drawing to the actual hunt.
Serra has had a license since she was 12. She has taken deer, quail and ducks. She hunts deer with a Marlin 1898 in .44 Remington Magnum. A fine gun for a deer out to 100 yards but for elk, we would need to step it up a bit. We knew, from our experiences duck hunting on the wildlife area that these animals can get so close to you that you can see their breath in the cold foggy mornings. Nothing like duck hunting and to have a bull elk walk right through your decoy spread. At the same time, they may stay several hundred yards away. Whatever the case, we knew that we had to be prepared for a wide range of shots. For this hunt, Serra would use my Browning BAR Semi-Automatic in .300 Winchester Magnum. This is a very flat shooting gun and can handily take down a big animal out to several hundred yards. The gun was a gift from a very dear friend. After shooting it some, my friend and I had a muzzle break added to it to reduce the recoil. Between the semi-automatic action and the muzzle break, there is hardly any kick to it at all. Perfect for my daughter; she could shoot it a lot and not worry about the kick and just focus on improving accuracy. We practiced on various targets from bowling pins to cans, to bottles to traditional targets. We practiced shooting at various yardages with the targets at different elevations from ground level to eye level to above eye level. This gave us small targets to shoot at different sight lines and it gave her the confidence to make a pin-point accurate shot knowing that if she was off a little from a tiny target that the mistake would not be so detrimental on a large animal.
Next we had to scout the wildlife area in an effort to find a large group of cow elk and learn their patterns. Luckily, we live about 40 minutes from the area so we could take some trips after work and on weekends to scout it out. The first trip, we found some bulls but not a single cow elk. We were a little down on this but we ran into a game warden who took time to congratulate Serra and to explain their habits and patterns to us. He told us to give it a couple of weeks and come back. He said that the Cows were pretty spread out but in a couple weeks the smaller bulls would be herding them up in preparation for the rut. Heeding his advice, we returned in a couple of weeks and just as predicted we were finding large groups of cow elk being herded by rag-horn bulls. One group in particular had over 65 head of elk, most of them cows. This was the group we would continue to follow and watch until we had the pattern figured out. We knew where they were going to be and at what times and we even formulated our plan for the stalk and the kill. This was going to be easy I thought. I had visions of a short stalk and about a 60 yard chip shot. I think I heard the hunting gods (the same ones that showed us favor in giving us the tag) giggle. Actually, I heard one of them do a spit-take followed by bellowing laughter.
Prior to opening day, DFW hosts a mandatory orientation. The tag winners, six in all plus their spotters/helpers, attended the orientation. It is led by Pat, the area manager, Orlando the area biologist and the local game warden (I forgot to get his name). They cover everything from safety to elk habits and patterns to giving you tips on where they have been seeing the elk and strategies for getting close. Their goal is to ensure safety during the hunt and to help you to be successful. They did a superb job. They also provide you a phone number so that when you harvest an animal, they can respond out to pick it up. They collect a myriad of scientific data including live weight and biological samples such as the front teeth so they can determine age.
Opening day started early, with the alarm going off at 3am. It was unusually cool for a summer morning. The wind was strong and fog was blowing in from the bay. My good friend and neighbor, Matt, would be accompanying us on the hunt. I am disabled and although we would hunt as a group he would help guide Serra to the animals and get close enough for a shot where I could not. As we drove into the wildlife area in the cool dark morning, a big bull elk and a spike elk bolted from a creek bottom up and over the gravel road. They were running full bore as they crested the road. They had been out on private land all night and were returning to the wildlife area. This got the heart rate going. Was it going to be this easy with elk just crossing right in front of us? I heard another hunting god snicker. Read more
August 6, 2014
Now I know why there are no hogs around here right now. They’re all on vacation!