Selling Our Ethics

February 17, 2015

I just read a really good piece over on BowhuntingNet, by the founder of Bowhunting magazine, M.R. James.  In the piece, James shares his thoughts about long-range bowhunting, and makes his arguments for why it’s a bad practice.  He writes:

I’ll concede that a hunting arrow with a sharp broadhead can kill a game animal at any distance if it hits the vitals. But there’s the rub. Animals are not foam or paper targets. They can and do move. Taking 100-plus yard shots at a browsing buck or bull is not the same as shooting an unmoving 3-D replica of the same animal. No matter how good you are on the latter doesn’t mean you can consistently hit the kill area of live animals at great distances.

Personally, I couldn’t agree more, and I’ve made similar arguments, not only about bowhunting, but about long range shooting with firearms as well.  Modern weaponry has come a long ways, and there’s no question that some of it enables the average hunter to perform feats that would have seemed virtually miraculous a few decades ago.  There are new bows that sling high-tech arrows at remarkable speed.  There are new broadheads that fly as true as field points, with blades that come out of the box as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel.  And there are sight systems that make it easy to consistently place an arrow at ridiculously long distances, as well as electronic rangefinders to eliminate the guesswork and essentially tell you which sight pin to use.

But as we overcome the mechanical challenges, we still have to face the variables of nature, not the least of which is the simple reality that live animals move.  Consider that an arrow from a top-end bow begins its flight at about 300 fps.  At 50 yards, (a distance that many modern bowhunters don’t consider “long range”), it takes a full half second for the arrow to arrive on target.  Knowing that the arrow is shedding speed as it travels, it takes over a second to reach a target 100 yards away.  An animal can do a lot of things in one second.  It can take a couple of steps.  It can lie down.  It can turn 90 degrees or more.  With this in mind, no matter how skilled the archer, or how technologically advanced the gear, there is a point at which a successful shot hinges on nothing more than luck.

So as with Mr. James, when I hear about a bowhunter shooting big game at distances of  80, 90, or 100 yards, I cringe inside.  It’s such a huge risk, not simply of failure… of missing… but a risk of a crippling shot.  And I recognize that, truly, whenever we attempt to cleanly kill an animal with a bow and arrow, we’re already stacking the odds against ourselves.  But, at some point, I believe it’s simply bad practice to intentionally amplify that risk.  And when I talk about why I don’t like long-range shooting on game, this is my primary rationale.

Of course, I have personal ideas about bowhunting that drive my own actions.  Mr. James does as well, and he articulates some of them pretty clearly in the article.  I find that I agree with everything he says, and expect that a lot of other bowhunters do too.  We share an appreciation for the idea that the thrill of bowhunting is about getting close to game.  To me, and I think to James, that’s the whole point of bowhunting… the challenge of getting close, drawing, and making a clean shot.

Mr. James writes:

Equally important to me is the satisfaction that I derive from being a hunter and not just a shooter. I prefer looking back on a successful hunt and crediting my hunting skills as much or more as mostly relying on luck and the bow I’m holding to put the animal on the ground.

And, as far as it goes, that’s awesome.  I read and enjoyed James’s column as someone of similar mind.

But what if I didn’t think that way?

What if I bowhunted for the sole reason that it gave me an extra four to six weeks of hunting season?  What if the only reason I picked up a bow was so that I could access places where I’m not allowed to use my rifle?  What if the single most important measure of success, for me, was dead meat on the ground… as much as I can get?

I think that we too often forget that every hunter is not wired to the same frequency as those of us who have made a spiritual (for lack of a better word) connection to the hunt… and especially bowhunting.  For a lot of people, the hunt is merely the means to an end.  More challenge does not always equal more fun… the value of the prize is not necessarily elevated by the difficulty of attaining it.  I know, from experience, that there are hunters out there who barely notice anything beyond the absence or presence of the game they seek.

How do you sell that person on the idea of what bowhunting should be about?

Even more importantly, how do you sell that person a set of ethics based on that point of view?

To be blunt, you can’t.

I think that’s the key weakness in most discussions (or arguments) about hunting ethics.  You’re not starting from the same philosophical foundations.  For a person who doesn’t make that deep, spiritual connection to the hunt, you’re never going to be able to play on that connection to convince them… because the connection isn’t there.

It seems simplistic when I write it here, but then I watch some very intelligent people bashing their heads against this basic, brick wall.  It’s not selling ice to eskimos.  It’s selling ice to someone who has no concept of hot or cold.  Or… and I’ve made this analogy before… it’s selling religious fundamentalism to an agnostic.  You can’t force these ends to meld, no matter how deeply you may believe.

So when you tell someone, “the reason long range bowhunting is bad, is because it goes against everything that bowhunting is about,” you have to consider that maybe it’s not at all what bowhunting is about to that person.  It’s like telling someone who’s been hunting a certain way his whole life that the way he hunts “isn’t hunting.”  That’s just ridiculous.  It doesn’t compute.  And it challenges the credibility of anything else you may have to say.

What do you do?  How do you convince the person that you’re right… that you are only trying to show them the one, true way?  How do you convert them?

You don’t.  You shouldn’t.  And that’s the point I’ve tried to make over and over again.

If the best argument you have against a practice is esoteric or aesthetic, then it really isn’t a good argument… no matter how deeply you believe.  You aren’t going to convince someone that your beliefs are right and theirs are wrong on the simple basis that their actions conflict with your interpretation of, “the hunt.”  If someone hunts over bait, or high fence, or long range, then in their mind they have “hunted.”  You can’t argue that away.  Why would you even think you could?

After saying all of this, I want to point out that I think Mr. James did a great job of articulating his position without really appearing to “preach” his “gospel”.  I think it’s the right approach. He challenged some opposing viewpoints (the folks who argued in favor of long range shooting), but he didn’t challenge their validity as hunters.  He started his discussion with a tangible truth… shooting at long range reduces your odds of a clean, humane kill.  And the desire for a clean kill is fairly universal… whether you’re deeply committed to the ethics of the clean kill, you’re deeply opposed to missing, or if you hate the idea of following a tough blood trail for hours through rugged country.

But there are folks who are going to do it anyway, because when the moment comes, they are in that moment.  They’re not thinking as much about failure as they are about success.  It’s something deeply ingrained in our psyche, I think… that momentary lapse of reason where we push aside doubt and go forward with blind certainty, even when we should (and do) know better.  Few hunters have the self-awareness to recognize it when it comes, and fewer still have the discipline to restrain themselves if they do.

So we get those 120 yard bow shots, or the 900 yard hail, Mary with the rifle… and there’s really nothing M.R. James or I can do about it but cringe.  And maybe use it as fodder for a column or a blog post.







The Neverending Learning Curve

October 29, 2014

It seems like there would come a point, after a lifetime of hunting, where you’d pretty much have it down.  You’d know the habits of your quarry, and the idiosyncrasies wouldn’t be quite as mysterious.  You’d understand why they do the things they do, and when you set out to hunt them, it would just be a matter of piecing the puzzle together.

That time would come where every step of preparation, planning, and the setup would be practically automatic.  Whether a ground blind or a tree stand, or even still hunting through the timber, you would know every step to take, and when to freeze, draw, and aim.  Mistakes would become things of the past… memories of silly oversights, missteps, and bonehead moves.

Well, I’m not there yet.  I probably never will be.

Despite the almost completely nocturnal activity going on right now, and the fact that most of the deer are happily fattening up on acorns, I decided to go sit my stand for the last couple of hours of shooting light tonight.  I practically ran out there, as the sun sets earlier and earlier this time of year, but I managed to get in and set up without incident.  I fired up the Thermacell and waited to see what would happen… expecting very little.

Near sunset, but much earlier than I expected, I caught the sound of a footstep on the loose rock.  A body brushed against a cedar branch.  A limb cracked.  Something was coming.

I eased around in my chair, thrilled to feel the barely moving breeze right in my face.  A shadow appeared through the cedars.  The white glow of antlers crowned a dark head.  The eight point I’ve been watching since August pushed through into the clearing, 19 yards from where I sat… rapt and surprised.

In person, he was a lot bigger than he looked on the game camera.  I slowly lifted my bow, moving in millimeters.  He was looking away, surveying the trail ahead.  My shoulders tensed as I started to draw.  And then he whipped his head around, his eyes locked right on me!  How the hell did he spot me?

I froze, willing my eyes to look away… to avoid contact with his stare.  His ears pricked forward.  His nostrils flared.  He couldn’t hear me.  He couldn’t smell me.  But he saw me.  Somehow, despite the hours of work… the gallons of sweat… the pints of blood I shed to build this blind… he saw me.

He turned, not spinning, but fast enough to keep me from getting to full draw.  And then he high stepped away, fading back into the cedars with that marching cadence that tells you he’s not quite sure what you are… but he’s not going to wait and find out.

I let out the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding, and I sat there sort of shocked.  Sure, 19 yards is pretty close.  But how in the world could he have seen me?

I turned to examine the blind, and then I realized… a section of brush had apparently settled, or fallen in on the back wall, and I was perfectly backlit by the setting sun.  A blind deer could have seen me turn and draw.  I probably looked like an actor on a giant movie screen to that buck.  I guess, in my rush to get into the blind and set up before dark, I didn’t really bother to take a quick look around.  What a bonehead move!

I’ll go out and fix it tomorrow, of course.  But tonight, I’m pretty sure my dreams are going to be haunted by that buck.


Home Again, Home Again… ETC. Videos From The Colorado Elk Hunt

September 27, 2014

Well, I’m back.

Colorado is in full splendor as the aspens and oaks are changing into fall colors.

Colorado is in full splendor as the aspens and oaks are changing into fall colors.

Colorado was as beautiful as always, with the aspens and oaks turning, even as the week progressed.  The temps were a good bit higher than normal this year, and that definitely impacted the way the elk were behaving… which, in turn, impacted our hunting.

The hunt was five days, beginning on Saturday, 9/20, and running through Wednesday, 09/24.  On the hunt with me were two of my friends from California… both named Dave, which made it pretty easy for the guides to keep up.  Just call, “Dave!”

The outfitter, and my guide for the week, was Rick Webb of Dark Timber Outfitting, out of Montrose, CO.  His helper, Bobby, took responsibility for The Daves.

This would be my fourth hunt in this place, and my third since Rick took it over.  My first two hunts, both with the rifle, were successful.  I tagged out on the first and second days, respectively.

On my third trip, I chose to go with archery tackle and chase the bulls in rut.  While I wasn’t able to close the deal, I had a couple of close encounters… including the one that left me chronically infected by the elk hunting bug.  Having a bull called to within nine yards of you, and bugle right there in your face, well… that’ll do it for most hunters.  If you can come away from that without recurrent dreams and an overwhelming urge to head for the high country every September, then you probably shouldn’t be hunting.

It took seven years to get back up there, between economic trials and trying to balance hunting with other things in my life (like moving to Texas).  But I decided last year that I’d be going to Colorado this season, come hell or high water.  After a lot of consideration, I decided to do it again with the bow… chasing the dragon, I suppose… hoping to recreate that last experience.

The following videos pretty much tell the rest of the story.  While my skills as a videographer and video editor obviously leave a lot to be desired, I managed to capture the general essence of the trip in these four epsiodes.  I hope you enjoy them…

A Tradition Askew

April 3, 2014

That title is a fancy way of saying, “whoops!  I missed my annual April Fool’s Day post.”

It’s not that I had anything particularly solid to work with this year, due to varying factors (day job) and limited inspiration.  But it’s tradition, dammit.

My brother and I were off hunting Tuesday and Wednesday, and while the lodge advertised wifi, the mere wisp of a signal I found when I logged in Tuesday evening would hardly have carried a full post with images.  What’s worse, the signal was security-protected, and since it was approaching midnight and the guide had gone home to bed, I didn’t dare go knock on the door and ask for a password.  So I guess the April Fool’s joke was on me.

The hunt?

Well, that was fun.  It’s an archery-only hunting ranch about an hour from here, called Crystal Creek Bowhunting.  The plan was to hunt for axis and hogs, and while the package offered the option of shooting sheep (ramboulet, mouflon, aoudad, and some hybrids) and turkeys, I was pretty much narrow-mindedly fixed on axis.  Thus, I passed up a couple of opportunities in return for… well, I did see some axis yesterday afternoon.  From the truck.  On the way to the stand.  But I never even had one come past my stand, much less pose for a shot.

I did get a shot at a hog during the hog-a-palooza on Tuesday night.  The damned things came out of everywhere, and all six hunters had shot opportunities.  At the end of it all, six hogs were dead.  Unfortunately, most of the pigs were of the football-size.  One of the hunters managed to skewer three with one arrow.  A few bigger (50-60lbs) showed up as well, but the real heavies held up in the thick stuff until after dark.  One of the other hunters took two of these meat hogs, including a really cool looking blond boar.  My own shot went a shade high over a little boar at 22 yards.  I’d been holding out for an orange and black spotted boar, probably about 60 pounds or so, but it just wouldn’t come into my shooting lane long enough.  As it was almost too dark to really see my pins (time for a new sight), I switched over to the black boar and promptly jerked my shot.

My only redemption was that my brother, typically an absolute dead-eye with the bow, missed his pig too.

As dusk settled into night yesterday, I had one more close call.  A good-sized, 125 or 140lb pig was coming right to my stand.  Unfortunately, he stopped to snack in the thicket as full darkness fell.  I heard Mr. Scrofa rooting rocks out of the way, and then after a sudden grunt, he was tearing and chomping at something. I’m pretty sure he was eating the 5′ buzz worm I’d seen earlier, which had disappeared in that same general vicinity.

Whatever it was, it occupied him for the final moments of shooting light.  When I couldn’t take it any longer, I hit the Surefire and tried to light him up, but he was screened by a thicket of persimmon and mesquite.  I heard him grunt and bolt, but only a few yards.  Then he stood there and popped his teeth at the intrusion.

After a few minutes, I climbed down out of the stand and went out to wait for the guide to swing by and pick me up.  As I stood in the darkness, I heard the pig return to his feast, less than 40 yards from where I stood.

Bowhunting is hard.




Contemplations Upon A Tree Stand

October 25, 2013

I really thought it was going to happen this evening.

I don’t know why, but I just had a feeling that I needed to get up in the stand after work and I would get my shot… put my first deer in the freezer for this season.

Didn’t happen, of course.  You don’t see a new grip-n-grin, “hero shot” in the left margin of this post because I didn’t get anything.  I saw deer.  I see deer almost every time I go out.  Can’t really help it, there are so bloody many of them around here.  But, with the exception of a teeny-tiny, yearling doe, nothing came within bow range… at least not before dark.

I sat tight in the stand as the light dimmed, partly holding out hope for that last light deer, and partly just because I like being there so much.  At some point, I realized that I could no longer see the pins on my sight.  If a deer came out at that point, all I would be able to do is watch it. But still, I sat tight.

My stand sits at edge of the woods just at the top of my big pasture.  I built it about 10′ up, into the triple trunk of a spanish oak using cedar poles I cut while clearing thickets.  On the downhill side, the ground slopes steadily downward for about 200 yards, until it hits the flats at the bottom of the canyon, and then the road.  From this perch, I can look out across the canyon for close to 1000 yards.  I can watch the horses grazing at the hay feeder, and jackrabbits picking at my recently planted winter rye grass.  I can also look over onto the neighbors’ places, and watch deer and turkeys working between the open meadows and pastures.

On the uphill side, I have about 15 yards of clear sight before the cedar thicket obscures everything.  At 15 yards, the ground is pretty much at my eye level.  The ridge rises pretty hard right here, and stays steep all the way to the top.  Nevertheless, the woods on the other side of that thick wall of brush are laced with game trails.  White-winged doves roost here at this time of year, swooping in at sunset with a rush and clatter of wings just over my head.  The sudden noise is almost always good for a start when I’m not paying attention.

And just below the north end of the stand, the focal point really, is the spot I call the “Murder Hole.”  When I was clearing the cedar from this hillside, I made a swath about 30 yards wide by 30 yards deep that drops down into a draw.  When I got to the bottom of the draw, I realized there was a major intersection of deer trails.  An old fenceline runs sidehill along the ridge here, and in this spot it had been pushed up by the passage of game.  Deer tend to take paths of least resistance, so being able to walk under the fence instead of jumping over is a significant attraction.  It is like the spout of a funnel for deer passing up or down the ridge… and it is a classic spot for ambush.  I left enough brush here to provide a sense of security, but I have a perfectly clear, 30-yard shot right into the intersection as it comes out from under the fence.

It’s not a perfect stand.  Concerned about the health of the tree during the drought, I wanted to minimize the number of screws or nails I used… so the platform is designed to rest in the crown of the three trunks. I thought it was kind of clever, and it reminds me of the funeral platforms utilized by some native American tribes. But really, it sits at sort of a downward angle, and the lack of uniformity in the cedar poles I used for the decking makes for uncomfortable footing. It’s not very comfortable for sitting either. It’s hard to stay up there for more than three hours at a time.

One of the three trunks is pretty much dead and has shed most of its branches, stressed by the intense drought we’ve seen down here.  As the branches have fallen away, much of the cover they provided is gone, leaving me pretty well exposed… especially in the late season when the leaves have gone.  I’ve tried to compensate by placing some tank netting around the stand, but when the wind blows, the whole thing flaps.  That’s not good when you’ve got skittish deer… but sometimes the deer don’t seem to care.

The position of the stand also leaves me backlit at sunset.  I didn’t realize how badly I stood out up there until the game camera mounted in the bottom of the Murder Hole snapped a shot of a doe, and I could see myself in the background.  No wonder so many deer have busted me before I could come to full draw.

Not all, though.  I’ve killed from this stand, and I’ve missed a couple as well.  For all its flaws, the stand works.  There’s a reason I call it the Murder Hole.

“One day,” I keep saying, “I’m going to do some modifications… maybe bring up some plywood for a floor and walls, and maybe even a roof.  Just go ahead and build a shooting house up here.”

I never seem to quite get to it, though.  Probably it’s just me and my goofy aesthetic, I realize, but a shooting house feels like taking away some of the wildness.  There’s something about being exposed…about trying to fool these animals’ eyes with stillness.  Something about trying to time every movement with the movement of the prey, from raising the bow to coming to full draw without being seen.

It’s intense.  It’s difficult.  It’s often frustrating.

What does the mountain lion feel, perched over the trail, hidden only by elevation and a few clumps of grass?  He waits for the deer to take one more step… and then another.  Closer.  Almost.  How often does that perfect ambush fall apart in the snort and clatter of panicked hooves just before the pounce?

I like my tree stand.  It suits me.




Twas The Night Before Opener…

September 27, 2013

The bow was all hung...You probably thought I was gonna get all poet-y and recreate the beloved Christmas rhyme to celebrate the impending deer season opener (tomorrow!) … but it’s been done so many times that I fought back the temptation to do it over.

But the camo is all hung by the backdoor with care, and the broadheads are sharpened to fly through the air…

So, depending on if this rain actually comes in like they’re saying, I’ll be up on my hill at first light tomorrow with bow in hand.  I’m still seeing that six pointer every day, as well as plenty of does.  The turkeys also popped in a couple of times, and since the fall season opens with the deer season, I’ll be happy to add one of them to the freezer as well.

There’s a lot of real world stuff going on around here that’s kept me from getting too amped up about the opener, but I imagine that by the time I go to bed tonight, there will be visions of whitetail dancing in my head.

Checking The Cameras – Counting Down To Archery Opener

September 9, 2013

That’s right… 19 days and counting until the whitetail archery season opens.  Despite a couple of outings for exotics, it’s been a long off-season. 

I’m stoked.  

Just had the Mathews restrung, and I’ve been slinging arrows at the target out back almost every day.  I’ve been Six Packchecking the cameras too.  As of now, I’m still thinking I’ll be primarily hunting does this year. 

There’s a pretty good buck coming in regularly, but he’s sort of young.  If he survives all the other hunting camps in this canyon, maybe we’ll be able to make ourselves let him walk.  We don’t get a lot of big bucks in this country, and he looks like he has great potential. 

Then again…

We’ll see what happens when he walks under my stand… or when rifle season opens and Kat gets back out there.  The temptation might become a little too much to take.  Six Pack

The cameras are loaded with does again this season, and pretty much have been loaded constantly since last year.  You’d hardly notice that we took four deer off the place last season.  They’re just that thick out here.

Of course the search goes on for other critters.  I haven’t seen any sign of hogs since that one old boar came cruising through last February, but hope springs eternal.  We’ve had a relatively wet season the last few weeks… not enough to change the drought status, yet, but definitely enough to keep my pond wet and green up the trees.  The persimmons are busting out all over, and I know that’s got to be an inviting treat for sus scrofa.

The axis, all through the canyon, have been a little scarce all summer.  Turns out that our neighbor down the road was trapping them behind his house.  They pull in a pretty penny right now, and you can see nets all over the canyon as folks are trying to make a little cash off of a fairly abundant resource.  It’s definitely had an effect on the numbers, but it also appears to have another effect… scattering the animals out of their normal hangouts.  I have to admit a little selfish pleasure at seeing their spotted bodies through the cedars and pastures close to my house.

On Saturday, from my chair at the living room window, I spotted movement in the barn pasture.  A group of whitetail does and yearlings was making their way across the open and heading back to their beds.  There’s nothing new about that, as they tend to drift across the pasture after chowing down at my feeder.  Still, I enjoy watching them.

The last doe hopped the fence, and I was about to turn my attention to other things when I spotted something else… an axis buck, not a trophy but a real good buck, came strolling along my fenceline.  He was apparently following the whitetail does.  I went for the rifle, as this looked like a good opportunity to restock the freezer, but I knew he’d be across the fence before I could get after him… and I really wasn’t sure I wanted to shoot him like that anyway. 

Look who's come to dinner!Of course, I haven’t seen him since.  I checked the cameras, and sure enough I had a glimpes of spotted coats… no photos of the buck, and this blurry picture doesn’t offer much in the way of quality photography, but it sure was enough to get me excited. 

According to the camera, they were only here once… so far.  But just the fact that they are passing through is enough to make me pretty happy.  As much as I do like eating whitetail, it’s hard to compare anything to axis venison. 

Time to go shoot the bow a little more… gotta be in practice when the 28th rolls around!

CA Deer Hunters Hitting The Fields!

July 2, 2013

Bow killSo, the A-zone archery season is about to kick off in California!  It’s something I used to look forward to every year, and I expect a bunch of you CA folks are getting fired up. 

So here’s the thing…

I’m not in CA anymore, and my deer season down here in TX won’t get going until the end of September.  I need a vicarious fix!  So any of you CA hunters, let me know what’s going on.  Share your stories.  Send your pictures.  I know it’s hot right now in the A-zone, but I know you guys can hack it. 

Meanwhile, I’m just going to kick back and daydream about the smells of the CA hills in summer… that yellow-gold color that glows in the rising sun… and the chill that flees so suddenly from the morning air.  I never killed a deer with a bow in CA (which is why I had to use a picture of my Texas whitetail), but I had some incredible hunts.

Another Day In the Long Texas Deer Season

October 15, 2012

The long day finally wound down.  As the clock rolled past 5:00, I decided I’d had enough work for one day and set the laptop aside.  Kat was on a conference call, so I stood and stared out the window.  The clouds had set in early, and the evening was calm and grey and relatively cool.  I knew what I was going to do.

15 minutes later, I’d fed the horses and was headed up the hill to my stand.

Here’s the thing about my tree stand.  When I first started building it, I thought I had it pegged.  On one side, it looks down on the pasture fence.  The deer have been beating a trail along the fenceline since I first had it put in.  On the other side, I had cut a clearing among the junipers (cedar – I’ve really got to start calling it by the local name).  What I hadn’t counted on was the hillside that put the clearing right at eye-level with the stand.  At 20 yards, any deer entering the opening would be right across from me, and the stand offered little cover.

And sure enough, the first evening I hunted the stand, the first deer that came down the trail blew out immediately.  I hung some camo netting along the edges of the stand, but when I hunted the spot again last week, I got busted again.  It was simply too close to the main deer trail.  I’d need to make some adjustments with the chainsaw and clippers… open up the clearing another 20 yards or so, and maybe cut a shooting lane down into the ravine.  Until then, the stand wasn’t likely to produce much more than frustration.

So as I climbed into the stand tonight, I really didn’t have much hope of success.  I just needed some “tree time”.  The other night when I was up here, I had the chance to watch a couple of young raccoons playing in the open.  Later, a little barn owl lit on a branch just a few feet from my head, and we sort of stared at each other for a few minutes before he floated off to another branch.  And then a thunderhead formed over the distant ridgeline, and I watched a mind-bending light show as lightning flared and flashed through the pink fluffs of cloud.  I couldn’t hope for quite so much every night, but there’s something special about spending the waning hours of daylight perched in an oak tree as life goes on around you.

After about an hour in the stand, I was relaxing into the groove and just sort of letting the day go on.  The horses were munching their hay.  A flock of doves rocketed overhead like a flight of tiny F-15s.  A squirrel leapt from limb to limb in a nearby oak, scrounging scarce acorns.  A couple of little brown birds flitted through the understory beneath my perch.  The last thing I really expected at this point was to see a deer.

Which is why the thin, brown legs moving through the thick cedars didn’t register in my mind at first.  A doe was picking her way up the trail that would bring her out less than 15 yards from my stand… too close, really, for me to get into position and draw the bow.  My daydreaming was my downfall, and even as my focus sharpened, the deer froze.  I could see her white snout and the glint of setting sun in her eyes as she tried to define that man-shaped blob up in the oak tree.  She stomped her foot, and I knew I was done.  She had me pegged, and I just waited for the tell-tale “whoof” as she blew out and flew into the thick brush.

But she didn’t.  She bobbed her head, trying to catch me moving.  She craned her neck.  My bow hung, useless, at my side.  I couldn’t move to raise it, much less get to full draw.  All I could do was await the inevitable.  And finally, she turned and walked away with mincing steps.  She never blew, or ran, but I had no doubt that encounter was final.

I settled back into the evening.  There was a little disappointment, but it really didn’t ruin my night.  I hadn’t expected success anyway.  I counted the sighting as a bonus.

Shortly thereafter, I noticed the horses all staring at something across the pasture.  A doe was standing out in the open, drinking from the horse trough.  The trough was over 150 yards from the stand, so there wasn’t much to get excited about.  Still, I watched, and after the deer finished her drink she started moving in my direction.  Now my heartbeat accelerated… briefly.  Still 100 yards away, the doe turned and wandered across the barn pasture toward the feeder.

I settled down again, and was about to take a seat when something caught my attention.  The brown legs were back, on the same trail, and stopped in the same spot.  Apparently the doe had decided that the funky shape in the tree wasn’t too much of a threat.  But she was still very cautious.  I stood as still as I could while she scoped me out.  Finally, she took one more step, and her head went behind a thick branch.  I eased the bow up, coming to full draw as I did.  The pin centered in the peep, and I leveled it on the deer.  I had a small hole to shoot through, but that hole showed me the perfect look at the crease of the deer’s shoulder.

I struggled.  With the exception of this tiny window, the rest of the deer was well covered.  If the deer continued on its path, it would step into the open for a perfect broadside… but that opening was a good ten yards from where she stood.  Could I hold out that long?  Would she go that far before her caution got the better of her?

At 20 yards with this Mathews bow, I’m extremely confident.  I don’t even like to shoot targets with it at that range, because I tend to cut my fletchings and break arrows.  As I thought it through, I couldn’t see any reason not to take the shot… and no sooner had that thought entered my mind than I touched the release and let the arrow fly.

Even though the deer wasn’t looking right at me, she was tense.  As quiet as this bow is, she heard something and spun, just as the arrow arrived.  I winced, dreading the worst, but as best I could tell the arrow plunged just behind her shoulder, angling down and back.  She sprinted off into the thick junipers, crashing through branches at a dead run for a few seconds, until the noise stopped.  I heard another deer blow, and bound off through the woods, circling with the wind until it passed only 30 or 40 yards from my stand.

I sat tight as long as I could stand, trying to at least wait 30 minutes before going to check for blood.  The blood would tell me what to do next.  I remember checking my phone after the shot to see that it was 6:28.  After an interminable period, I checked it again.  It was 6:40.  I sat for a few more minutes, and couldn’t stand it anymore.  I climbed down and crept over to the opening where the doe had been standing.

My first feeling was disappointment.  The tracks were easy to find where they spun and threw dirt across the trail.  But there wasn’t a speck of blood.  Not a droplet.  The other thing missing, however, was my arrow.  If I’d missed, it should have been sticking in the dirt under the junipers.  On the other hand, at 20 yards, a good, clean hit should have passed clean through.  The arrow should have been right there.

I had a decision to make.  The smart thing, probably, was to pull out.  I should go back to the house, have dinner or something, and come back in a couple of hours.  But without any blood, I was a little concerned about trying find the trail after dark.  This was my first deer on the new place.  I’d hate to lose it.  So I could follow now, and risk blowing it out for good… or I could wait, and risk missing the trail in the dark and losing the deer.

I played the shot over and over in my mind.  Every time I saw it, the arrow hit right where it needed to be.  I heard the hollow thump of impact that told me it should have been right in the chest cavity.  A shoulder bone would have been a crack, or a paunch shot tends to have a sort of zipper sound.  The other audible clue was the crashing charge through the limbs, followed by silence.  This wasn’t the sound of a healthy deer bounding off down a trail.

I compromised and decided to follow the tracks until I found blood, and make the decision to continue or not afterward.  If the blood looked good, I’d keep going.  If it looked like muscle or gut, I’d back off and come back later.

About 25 yards from the first tracks, I found a drop of blood.  Not a splash, or a dribble, but a drop… about the size of a pencil eraser.  About five yards from that spot, I found another one.  Just past that, I saw a funny shaped limb, sticking up amidst the juniper branches.  On closer inspection, the “limb” was the lower half of my arrow, and it was covered in thick blood.  One sniff of the blood told me this was good stuff… not guts, and not the mild scent of muscle blood.  My confidence soared, despite the fact that the blood spoor was still sparse.

About 10 yards from the arrow, the ground was torn up where the deer had obviously stumbled.  I crawled to that spot (this is pretty thick stuff) and found another spot of blood. The area was a little more open, and I stood up and looked around the area.  There were only two possible trails, and the blood seemed to point pretty clearly to the one to my left.  I gathered my breath and looked for more blood.  Then it hit me.  A few yards away, there was my deer… stone dead.  I’d probably looked right at her five times without realizing that the tan clump on the ground was made of fur and flesh.

So there it is.  My first deer from the new place.  She’s on ice now, and I’ll do the butchering tomorrow.  It’s too warm to let her hang, so I’ll cut her up and get the meat in the freezer… except the tenderloins.  Those are going on the grill tomorrow night.


The Countdown Is On! Deer Opener This Weekend!

September 25, 2012

Archery season opens here in my part of the Texas Hill Country this weekend.  The wait has seemed interminable.  Only the fact that I’ve had so much work to do around this place has kept me from going nuts, especially since I know my California friends have been deer hunting since the second half of July.  Several of them have already tagged out!

So I’ve had the Mathews out, and it’s driving tacks as usual… a far more accurate bow than I am an archer, but I’m very happy out to 40 yards.  I had a 60 yard target set up out back, and the bow is certainly capable, but with the rocky ground out here it was just too hard on arrows when I clanked a shot.

According to my game cameras, I’ve got at least two “shooter” bucks coming onto the property regularly, and a pile of does.  I’m not counting eggs yet, but my plan is to put meat in the freezer first, and then worry about getting an arrow in a buck later.   First mature deer to walk under my stand this weekend gets a 100gr Slick-Trick.

Looks like rain for the weekend too, which will dampen my plans (insert rimshot and rolled eyes here).  I’m not crazy about bowhunting in the rain (hard to follow a blood trail), but hopefully it’ll hold off enough so I can get some time in the stand.  I have to head back to Spokane next week, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to get my deer on the ground and in the freezer before my flight on Monday.

Of course, I’ve got until the middle of January to fill my freezer.  I think I have five tags for whitetail, and two for mule deer.  That’s more than enough venison to hold me for a bit.

So cooler weather, a little rain, and the high, holy days (as my old friend, Reverend Roy Steward used to say) are upon us!

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