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.
October 28, 2014
Saturday, 11/01, will herald the beginning of the rifle deer season out here. It’s sort of a high holiday, as it is in many other parts of the country, and I expect the little camps in my canyon to start getting busy sometime on Thursday. Friday, the hills will echo with rifle shots, as hopeful nimrods are sighting in (there’s already been a fair amount of that, scattered around), and beginning at first light on Saturday, I anticipate a scattered peppering of gunfire as deer that have been largely unmolested since mid-January are caught unaware.
The bulk of the properties out here are less than 40 acres, and for most of these guys, after driving all the way from Houston, Corpus Christi, or wherever else, have a fairly limited concept of “trophy management”. As a result, you seldom see bucks living more than two or three years in the canyon… and when you do, they’re some pretty wily animals.
Ordinarily, I don’t really put too much thought into trophy management. I’m about the eats, and you can’t eat antlers. If you shoot a young buck, odds are pretty good another one will take his place. If they never grow into, “wall hangers,” so what?
But I guess I’ve fallen victim to some odd sense of proprietorship over the last couple of seasons, as I’ve been watching a few bucks grow up on my place. A couple of them are really showing good potential for development, like the eight pointer in this picture. Honestly, I’ll probably shoot him now, if he comes into bow range. But if he can survive another season or two, he’s likely to be a real bruiser, and that will pretty cool to see. So, on some levels, I begrudge the arrival of the weekend warriors and the likelihood that one of them might take this fellow out of the herd.
There’s also a really pretty, young six point that I’ve already passed on twice. I know… I passed on a legal deer. Not something I’m likely to have done when hunting public land in CA, or even back in NC. But there’s something that changes when you know you have plenty of other options… particularly does. I don’t “need” to shoot this one. I can get a doe, or maybe that funky-horned buck. If I can’t close the deal with the bow, I can certainly knock a couple down with the rifle.
Suddenly, I want to see this guy reach his potential… or at least come a little closer.
So this year, as rifle season enters from the wings, I’m feeling a little different sense of suspense. It’s not so much about the possibilities of what I will shoot (I’ve already been bowhunting since Sept. 27), but about what the other guys in the local camps might shoot. Will “my” six point make it through the gauntlet? What about that nice eight?
Of course, it may be reasonably moot this weekend. The deer have all gone nocturnal, despite the fingernail moon. The live oaks are dumping acorns all through the canyon, and the deer are living pretty good in the thickets right now. There are a lot of deer in the canyon (the anthrax outbreak didn’t make it here), but they’re hard to spot right now. If this holds out through the weekend, the opener might be a little slower than some folks would hope.
But we’ll see.
October 7, 2014
California’s A-zone is a special place, and the folks who hunt it every year are a different kind of deer hunter.
To begin with, it’s the largest, single zone in the state, ranging from just north of Los Angeles all the way up to the southern edge of the Mendocino National Forest. It reaches from the coast, inland to Interstate 5. That’s a lot of diverse territory, and the animals that inhabit the place are as different as the regions in which they live.
Then there’s the season itself. A-zone archery starts the weekend after July 4th. Rifle season kicks off in the second week of August. That’s mid-summer, folks, and across much of the zone, these are the hottest, driest months of the year. It takes a special kind of dedication to get out there in these conditions to hump the rugged country in hopes of hanging that A-zone tag on a blacktail buck. Consider as well, that there’s only about a 10%, reported success rate in the zone… and if trophy blacktail bucks are your thing, the A-zone is not the best place to find them (although some real monsters come out of the zone every year… trophies not only for their size, but for their rarity).
Bottom line is, you have to really want to hunt deer to take part in the A-zone seasons, especially to do it consistently. People think I’m crazy when I mention that I miss it.
My friend Jean, and her husband, are a couple of those special hunters, and they didn’t miss the season this year. Here’s Jean’s story from her 2014 A-zone hunt.
Okay, here goes nuttin’…
We took the F150 and the trailer down to Willow Creek early Thursday morning for 3 days of trying to invite a deer to dinner.
The end of the ranch we had talked about hunting was occupied by another hunter. So we started working some of other spurs out from the main ridge. Down from one of the saddles I noticed a loaf shaped object on a small hill, maybe 400 yards away.
It was a bedded doe. She was looking at me. I called Todd on the radio. He came over and watched her with me. We looked away to talk for a few seconds. When we looked back, 3 does were standing. The middle one runs over, kicks the deer on the left and they all trot off down the hill together. It was as if to say “They’re watching too long. Get going, asshole!”
This was exciting to me because it is so hard to see bedded animals. 99.99999% of the time, they do a much better job of hiding than I do of looking.
We then set up camp and rested from the early morning start.
The evening hunt was uneventful, other than the usual bird pissing matches with one another at one of the water tanks.
The next morning hunt I got busted by what was probably another doe. At least I’m seeing deer, even if it is just a glimpse at deer butt. As we’re driving the ridge road, another deer we can’t identify runs away from us. We didn’t find that deer, but we did see one bedded in the same spot as yesterday.
In the early afternoon, we drove the back part of the ranch. Not many tracks and fewer new ones.
I got to my spot for the evening hunt about 6pm. I had little hope of seeing anything other than does but still glad of seeing all of the deer we had been able to see.
A little before 7:00pm I see one, then another critter about 500-600 yards distant. They look like dogs. No wait, THEY LOOK LIKE DEER.
NO, WAIT, THEY LOOK LIKE BUCKS!!!!!!!!!!! THEY ARE HEADED THIS WAY!!!!
Is one legal to shoot? YES, at least one is. They disappear behind a little hill for what seemed like an hour but was probably about 3 minutes. They crest the hill and come down the trail.
I can’t get that thing that’s slamming around in my chest to settle down as much as I would like. I take my best shot at 215 yards. Buck # 1 jumps and runs down the hill. I shoot again because he’s moving and I don’t want him running down into the canyon. He does not come out the other side of the brush pile.
I can now see that Buck # 2 is legal as well. For a moment there is a flash of doubt about “Did I hit the right buck?”. I review my actions and decide my course of action was correct. Buck # 2 did not respond to the sound of the shots at Buck # 1. He looks around for his buddy (in doing so, he presents a perfect broadside shot opportunity), prances around, jumps the fence, and trots away.
I babble something at Todd on the radio. Having heard the shots, he was already on his way. I am cold from the adrenalin in my system. He gets me to tell him the area where I shot and where I last saw the deer. I go down the hill so I can shoot if the deer comes out of the brush.
Todd goes in to check for tracks, blood and deer. There is no blood to see, but he finds some tracks that look like deer in a big damn hurry. Then he finds the deer. At first he thought it was a log. He calls me over. I ask him if I need my rifle. He says “No, he’s dead.”
The hill is steep. The reason the buck did not roll down the hill further is that his antlers became entangled in some chamise branches. I said my private thank you to both the buck and the bush that held him.
Even though he is only a forkie, he is a pretty big buck. The light color of his face tells me he is an old one. I say thank you again and again to nothing and everything.
He is too heavy for us to drag up the steep hill, even with some mechanical advantage.
When I opened him up, seemingly massive amounts of stomach ick and blood come pouring out. One lung is all but gone. My first shot was further aft than I had thought it would be and the buck was at more of an angle to me. There was no diaphram to cut through, it was just gone.
My second shot was almost total crap. My bullet tore some tendons on his upper right front leg. Maybe it helped stop him, I don’t know. It was nowhere near the front of the chest like I had intended.
We pulled him about 100 feet up the hill with a block and tackle to the truck. Lifting him into the back of the truck was a challenge. Todd figured out how to get it done. It is now 9pm and very dark.
Back at camp, the skinning and initial clean up finished up about 2am.
When we came home the next morning, a friend stopped by to help move the cooler, and inspect the head. He looked at the teeth . They were worn even with the roof of the mouth. This deer was definitely an old one.
I look forward now to summer sausage, steaks, jerky, roasts, and burgers. I am grateful to the deer and to my husband, Todd for all his amazing help and hard work.
The deer has indeed become all of those things, including roasting the bones and trimmings in the BBQ and making soup stock.
So congrats, Jean and Todd!
Updated 10/09/14 – Jean sent us a picture with her buck!
September 12, 2014
I know, I know… my friends back in CA have been hunting for weeks (months, in some cases), and the NC archery season back home is opening this weekend. I still have to wait until the 27 for Texas archery to fire up, but I’m about as ready as I can get! I pulled the pictures off the cameras the other day, and I’m pretty stoked about the possibilities.
(As always, click the image if you want a larger view.)
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.
July 28, 2014
I’ve noticed that a popular thing to do at events is to bring in a photo booth, where the participants step inside for a quick snapshot of themselves enjoying the party. I guess sometimes there are costumes and props available to make the picture a little more memorable. For my part though, I like the come-as-you-are approach.
It just so happens that there’s a year-round party going on up the hill behind the Hillside Manor, and the festive attendees aren’t a bit shy about showing off their party finest. Here are a couple of candids from some recent shindigs.
As always, click any image to see a full-size version.
April 14, 2014
Big hat tip to my friend, Sten, at Suburban Bushwacker for turning me on to this video. It’s the first part of a six part series, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the additional installments.
Note that there’s not a lot of hype. There are no high fives or ridiculous, “now that’s what it’s all about,” after-the-shot posturing. There’s no blatant product placement. No politics. Just a quiet, but beautiful setting with a guy for whom the hunt is not just an opportunity for self-promotion.
So enjoy, please.
January 9, 2014
This may be a little over-optimistic, since there were still a couple of weeks of buck season left when these pictures were taken, but it looks like we may have a decent crop of bucks to carry us into the 2014 deer season. It’s also a given that these pictures didn’t capture every buck still living in the canyon, much less the ones who are hanging out on the other side of the ridge. But it was fun to go through the camera and see who’s around.
January 4, 2014
From a hunting perspective, as my second whitetail season winds down here at the “Hillside Manor Ranch”, I find that it’s creating a different set of memories and experiences. I can, and sometimes do, find myself hunting right off the back porch. A long hike is out to the corner of the pasture where my treestand overlooks the “murder hole”.
There’s no question of “if” I’ll get a deer, but more about how many I think we can eat in the eight months before the next season opens. Even this weekend, as the buck season winds down (does and spikes are open until the 18th), the biggest question in my mind is not whether I’ll get one, but whether or not I should go shoot another deer. We have three in the freezer now, including my two does and Kat’s six-pointer. Do I really want to add one more? Because I know, if I want to kill one, all I have to do is go out there with the bow or rifle (admittedly less of a sure thing with the bow)…
Of course this confidence doesn’t necessarily take away from my love of the hunt, nor does it lessen the satisfaction of providing a year’s worth of red meat. But there are many times when I really miss humping the hills and canyons for the elusive blacktail or hog. I reminisce about the satisfying exhaustion you can only get after thigh-burning climbs, or from packing a big boar out of the deepest hell hole. You don’t get that here, because I guess that’s the trade-off for easy hunting. Hard hunting is its own reward, even if you end up with unfilled tags.
So I didn’t do any of that sort of hunting in 2013, and that was reflected in the content of the Hog Blog. While I spent a fair amount of time hunting, most of that time simply didn’t justify a write-up. It would have become pretty banal after a time or two. How many times can you read about my morning or evening in the stand, watching the beauty of the day coming or going? Deer came and deer went, and sometimes I passed a shot, sometimes I had no shot, and occasionally I got busted before I could decide.
Of course, I had some great times, like when John came out to visit and hunt axis with me and when Kat shot her first whitetail buck. But those times all sort of blur in the craziness of work at my “day job”, the back injury that laid me up most of the winter (and the ongoing visits to the specialist in San Antonio), and the never-ending list of projects and chores to be done on a small ranch property. I’ve also been busy settling into my new Texas digs… a process that is still ongoing. It’s just chaos.
So I’ve been on vacation since December 11. We went to Ireland for a week or so, and spent some time with my family in NC. It all wrapped up with a week here at the manor. While the time off has had its own sort of chaos, it’s also given me some much-needed time to try to get my head back together. 2013 was, in many ways, a rough year. Rewarding, sure, but rough.
I expect 2014 will have a whole new set of challenges, planned and unplanned, but it’s also going to have some changes. I will make the time and effort to get away from the homestead and do some “hard” hunting, even if that means going out of state. I’ve been invited, for the third year in a row, to hunt turkeys with my friend Ron Gayer in New Mexico. I have also made a commitment to myself to get back up to Dark Timber Outfitters in Colorado for elk this season. It’s been a long time since I last hunted elk, and I have declared that 2014 will break that long, dry spell. I’m even bouncing around the thought of trying to make it back to California for a hog hunt.
Something else that was missing in 2013 was my annual trip to the SHOT Show. It was the first show I’d missed in 10 years, and I felt personally let down, not to mention the feeling that I’d let the Hog Blog readers down as well. The impact of missing the show included a loss of contact with some gear manufacturers, which resulted in a dearth of gear review opportunities over most of the year. I’m already booked to attend this year, albeit briefly, and I’m looking forward to it as always. It’s kind of like a second Christmas!
Other than all that, I don’t really have big resolutions for 2014. I would say I’ll try to update the blog more regularly, but honestly, that will depend on what I have to say. More hunting and new experiences always translate into stories and commentary, and now that I’ll be back at work after my long vacation, I’ll be spending more time at the computer. As usual, I’ll be keeping abreast of the lead ammo issue, and I’ll try to help separate the politics and misinformation from the facts as things develop. And SHOT should provide me with a fresh source of gear to review along the way.
So, even though it’s four days late, I bid adieu to the chaos of 2013, and lock in a heading to make my way through 2014. Happy New Year!
December 10, 2013
Well, as usual, it ain’t over until the ink dries… and the virtual ink on my last post was barely fixed on the page before the whole thing changed. Sometimes, it’s all about that last minute effort…
Kat had pretty much given up hope on getting a buck this year, since our holiday travels and plans will keep us from hunting again until the new year (buck season ends on January 5). Of course I’d have had her out there for those last few days, but I think she was feeling like it was now or never… and Sunday seemed like never.
But I kept a close watch this evening, and when I saw a buck show up to harass the does, I grabbed the rifle and told her to come on. It wouldn’t be ideal timing, since I’ve got a ton of stuff to get done before we head out on vacation, but it would be her first buck…
I can’t give the hunt a lot more build-up than that, since the toughest part was waiting for the deer to turn and offer a good shot angle. When he did, Kat touched the trigger and the .243 did its thing. The shot was a little lower than we’d hoped, but with Iggy’s help I was able to follow the six-pointer to his final resting place. Tonight, instead of leftover venison stew, we had grilled tenderloins.
So tomorrow morning, instead of all the last minute work stuff and packing, I’ll be butchering her buck and getting him into the freezer. Then I’ll deal with work, packing, and getting ready for a much-needed vacation!