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!
December 9, 2013
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a definite uptick in the number of bucks coming to the feeder. I can attribute part of this to the fact that the acorns have pretty much fallen, and we had a lot of wet weather on top of them, so they’re already starting to rot. Corn and protein pellets are looking pretty tasty to the critters again.
But also, it looks like the rut is finally about to kick off down here. This latest cold snap can’t hurt to get things moving. While the bucks still seem to be mostly moving solo, they’re seldom far behind the does… and the does are THICK. I had ten deer out on the feeder the other evening, none of which had visible antlers. Groups of five or six are a pretty common sight. It’s a bachelor’s dream scenario.
For my own part, while I’m pretty stoked to see the bucks showing up (I haven’t seen them much since early season), I’m in no hurry to shoot one. I put two does in the freezer already, so the meat supply is fine. Unless I see something I really can’t resist, I’ll probably hold off. Maybe I’ll finish one of the new stands in the woods after Christmas and try one with the bow.
But Kat hasn’t killed a buck yet, and this could be a great opportunity for her. We set up in the blind yesterday evening, in hopes that one particular six-pointer would be around. We’d also seen a couple of “new” bucks on the camera from a few days earlier… one of which was a pretty nice eight-pointer. A more recent visitor didn’t give me the look I needed, but I’m fairly certain it is Funkhorn… and if not, it’s a near relation.
It was a lovely, cool day to watch the sun go down. We slipped out to the blind a couple hours before sunset and settled in for the wait. The deer had been showing up reasonably early, but the overcast and cold had given way to a sunny afternoon. Nothing except doves, jays, and squirrels were moving in the woods. There’s a major flight of doves right now, by the way, but they’re safe until the 20th when the season re-opens. Sparrows kept popping into the open window of the blind, apparently looking for a good place for a winter nest. It was entertaining, but sometimes startling when they’d just flit right in out of nowhere.
Finally, as we wound into the last 45 minutes of shooting light, a little group of does and yearlings wandered across the pasture and started to feed. Kat scoped each one, declaring that she could make a clean kill on every deer in the group… but she was holding out for the bucks.
The deer fed for a while, and then filed back out to the horse pasture. At one point, they must have passed within a few yards of the blind. A couple more does showed up next and hung around until almost dark. The bucks never showed. I kept waiting for Kat to change her mind and decide to just take a doe, but it never happened, despite the temptation of some amazing shot opportunities.
We probably won’t get another chance before the holidays, as we’ve got some travel plans that will keep us out of the woods for the next few weeks. Hopefully, the big boys will still be around when we get back, and Kat can add a whitetail buck to her hunting achievements log… and one more pile of meat to our annual supply.
November 29, 2013
So I noticed a couple of the bucks I skinned last week were starting to look and smell kind of rutty. I hadn’t seen much activity around my place though, but with the cold snap and December coming on strong, I knew it would happen soon. With all the does that have been coming to the feeder and the oak trees, the bucks simply had to be somewhere in the wings.
Then, yesterday I got a wild hair and decided to saddle up the horse for a ride. Just as I was passing the far corner of the neighbor’s place, a doe burst out of cover and bounded across the road in front of us. I reined Dolly in, and a moment later, a nice looking buck came bouncing across behind her… never once glancing toward me, the horse, and Iggy (who was itching to go “play” too).
Later, after the ride, I was doing a little miscellanea around the barn and went up to check the game cameras. Look who was here! I got photos of him again the next morning (Thanksgiving Day).
We’ve decided that, if he hangs around long enough, I’ll give Kat the opportunity to shoot her first buck. But the rut usually kicks up the activity at the local hunting camps, so he’ll have to slip through a veritable gauntlet to make it to my skinning rack.
November 21, 2013
So I thought maybe an update on the Hillside Manor Ranch deer season would be in order.
My deer season has been going reasonably well, despite a couple of setbacks during the archery segment. Seems like I am still a victim of target panic, and as a result I missed shots that I should have made… in two cases due to stupid range estimates and overcompensating for shooting angle, and in a third case due to a massive bicep cramp during my draw. Ouch. Fortunately, all of the misses resulted in clean arrows and no damage to the deer (excepting of course the brief panic caused by the sound of my bow and the crack of $12 worth of carbon arrow shattering on the rocky ground).
I’ve seen a lot of deer, and as I wrote in previous posts, I have “walked” a few for various reasons. As rifle season came on, it was accompanied by a huge drop of acorns, especially from the local live oaks. We also had a pretty wet season so far, and browse has been in awesome shape. Deer that had been rolling in to the feeder became more scattered, as they definitely prefer acorns and natural browse to the nearly empty calories of corn. This means we’ll have some fat, healthy deer around… and fat and healthy deer means good venison! It also means they’ll, hopefully, be less concentrated over feeders, which means less risk of disease. Anthrax is always a consideration out in this part of the country, and I’ve already heard about outbreaks in a couple of nearby herds of exotics.
At any rate, a week or so into rifle season, I decided to add a ground blind to “Kat’s stand”. Kat’s stand is out at the edge of the pasture, looking back up into the edge of the woods. I’d created it by putting in place a portable shooting bench, and then building a “nest” out of cedar trimmings. It works pretty well, but it was a little exposed. It’s hard to find a place that isn’t on an active deer trail… yes, that’s how many whitetails we have here… so it’s not uncommon to have a deer walk right up on the stand. The ground blind resolves that, and adds a level of protection from the weather as well.
Since I’d done all that work to set up the ground blind, and Kat was off in town for the day, I decided to take Iggy and sit in the blind for an evening “hunt”. I had low expectations, what with the brand new blind and the panting dog laying by my feet, so I was mildly surprised when a single doe meandered out along the edge of the trees. She would browse a bit and walk, hidden most of the time by the tall grass (did I mention we had a wet fall?). Finally, at about 75 yards, she stopped and raised her head for a look around. I leveled the crosshairs over the white patch on her neck, put my finger on the trigger, and let the Savage do the rest. The 165gr Barnes TTSX dropped her straight to the ground, so fast I almost thought I’d missed.
I led Iggy up the hill, but the deer was laying in the blood trail. I let him sniff around, to remind him what we were about, and then dragged her down to the barn to do the heavy work.
With meat in the freezer, I hung up the bow and rifle and put my attention to other things for a couple of weeks. With rifle season coming into full swing, I’ve been busy down at the smokehouse again, skinning deer for the processors. Kat and I also made a trip into Sabinal to look at some furniture (she picked out an entertainment center). I did some stuff around the place. But the hunting bug crept up on me, and as my work day wound down yesterday I couldn’t stand it. I had to be in the woods.
I grabbed the bow and headed up the hill. I’d been cutting the understory on the hillside, clearing out the cedar to open things up a little bit in hopes of creating some new hunting spots. As I made new paths, I noted the most heavily used deer trails, and decided that I’d set up to watch one of those trails for the evening. Honestly, I really just wanted to be in the woods and enjoy the end of the day. But I had an arrow nocked, and a sharp broadhead… you know, just in case.
And “just in case” happened. I was reclining on the hillside, listening to the squirrels and jays and enjoying the evening breeze when I heard another sound. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but the ground here is rocky and rough, and it’s almost impossible for anything to walk quietly on it. The gravel crunches, and the rocks roll, and even the tiny feet of whitetail deer are audible from a hundred yards away on a quiet, autumn evening. I sat up slowly and picked up the bow.
I’ll be honest. At this point, I still hadn’t decided if I’d shoot. Of course, on the off chance that this was a big, mature buck, I’d take the shot. But more likely this was that little group of does and yearlings I’d been seeing all season. The youngsters are all weaned, of course, but I still didn’t really feel like killing one of the big does out of this group. I guess I’m a little more sentimental than I think sometimes. Regardless, if the approaching footsteps turned out to be this group, then I’d pass the shot. Likewise, I decided not to shoot the cowhorn or the little four-pointer that I’d been seeing on camera.
It had been a few minutes since I first heard the sound, and things were pretty quiet. I relaxed my posture a bit, and was considering leaning back again when a doe appeared in the path, about 20 yards down the trail from me. She was crossing, mostly broadside, following one of the deer highways that leads along an old fenceline. I looked and listened, and in a moment realized she was alone. She wasn’t an old deer, but she was mature… and pretty fat.
Almost unconsciously, I’d clipped the release to the bowstring as I watched her and debated the shot. I had cleared about a 15 yard opening and she was almost halfway across when I decided to take her. She raised her head as I came to full draw, but apparently didn’t see me behind my screen of branches, and when she turned her head to look off in the other direction, I let the arrow fly.
I heard the “thwack” of impact, but it didn’t sound like I thought it should. As the doe bolted, I could see half of my arrow hanging from her side, well back from where I’d aimed and at a strange angle. I didn’t like the looks of this at all, and my heart thudded into the bottom of my chest. Still, as I listened, she only ran a short distance through the thick brush before the noise stopped. Either she’d stopped to lie down, or she had run out of the woods and into my barn pasture. I couldn’t imagine a frightened, wounded deer intentionally running across hundreds of yards of open ground when there was so much thick cover available, so I was fairly sure she was still close.
I sat tight for another 30 or 45 minutes as the sun began to set, replaying the shot and the deer’s reaction. As it got darker, impatience got the better of me. Even though I knew better than to try to trail the doe so soon, I wanted to see the arrow, and the spot where the deer was standing when I shot. Maybe there’d be some answers there. I crept down the hill to the fenceline. I could clearly see the disturbance where she’d bolted after the shot. She was closer to the fence than I’d thought. Maybe the arrow clipped the wire, which would account for the strange angle.
There was no blood obvious from where I stood, but to see better I’d have to climb the fence or go around. I didn’t want to do that, though, because I was pretty sure the deer had gone to ground close by. I stood scanning for sign, and then noticed the back half of my arrow lying in the trail about ten yards away. That meant that at least half of the arrow had penetrated, which was a good sign. I took a step closer, and that was a mistake. With a wheeze and a crash, the doe, who had been only about 30 yards away, broke cover and took off.
Mentally kicking myself, I walked the trail back out of the woods and into the pasture. Down near the road, the horses were all stock still, staring at something. I followed their gaze and then caught my breath. The doe was at the fence, almost to the road. She was obviously weakened, but I wasn’t sure if she’d be able to cross the fence or not. I hoped she would bed down in a brush pile instead of crossing, but from where I was standing, there was little else I could do but hope.
I considered sprinting the 200 yards or so the barn to get a rifle, but I knew I couldn’t shoot at her with a rifle from there, since there is a house and a hunting camp across the canyon. If I chased her, I ran the very real risk of losing her on a neighboring property where I was not welcome. The only right choice was to go to the house, sit down, and give her time to expire. Since I wasn’t sure of the hit, it looked like it was too far back and that meant I’d be sitting for several hours.
Tom Petty has a song titled, The Waiting is the Hardest Part. He must have been a bowhunter.
To anyone who has never had to sit it out, waiting for an animal to expire, it’s difficult to describe the experience. Hell, there’s probably an entire blog post about this topic all in itself. I can’t speak for everyone, but the thought of the animal laid up, bleeding out and maybe in pain… or worse, wandering off to some place I can’t follow… well, it’s tough. Everything in you wants to jump up and take on the trail. You want the animal to be dead, and if it’s dead, then why not go ahead and go collect it? Circular, spiraling thoughts cloud reason.
So I went to the house. I made a short shot of whiskey and sat down to Facebook. I watched a couple of TV shows. I made the preparations for dinner. I paced. I stared out the window. It was probably around 5:00pm when I shot the doe. By 8:00, I couldn’t stand it anymore. Logic and reason told me it was too soon, but as so often happens, logic and reason lost out to emotion and impatience. I grabbed a headlamp and my SureFire tactical light, called Iggy, and headed out.
Last year, I had Iggy with me when I shot a buck. I saw the buck run into the woods and drop, and was confident he was dead. I figured this was a learning opportunity, and introduced Iggy to his first blood trail. He took to it like a seasoned veteran! Unfortunately, the dog got away from me, got there before I did, and jumped the deer (rumors of his death had been
greatly slightly exaggerated). The buck ended up crossing the pasture, tumbling over the fence (with Iggy at his heels), and disappearing into the thick creek bed on the neighbor’s place. Stymied by the fence, the dog finally responded to my yells. In this case, the deer was hit hard and I knew it wouldn’t go far, so I put the shock collar on Iggy (no more running off) and took him around the fence where he immediately picked up the trail and led me right to the buck.
I was counting on Iggy to remember those lessons.
We got to where I’d last seen the doe. While it took me a few minutes to find the first, sparse blood, it only took Iggy only seconds to realize we were on a hot trail. If you’ve ever watched a dog go from goofy, play mode to serious business, you’ll know what happened when he hit the first scent. He ran up and down the trail once, then went straight to the fence crossing and stuck his head through. I swear he was pointing the deer.
Fortunately, we’re friendly with the neighbors across the road so I wasn’t too concerned about trailing over onto their place. There’s a deep ravine there where the deer tend to bed, and it was an obvious place to expect her to go to ground. Still, it’s thick as hell in there, and the ravine runs over onto another property that is owned by another neighbor who jealously guards his privacy (and is a law enforcement official as well).
I took Iggy around to the road, and as soon as we hit the spot where the deer crossed, he went back to work. I couldn’t see a single speck of blood, even where the deer had jumped the fence. The road is caliche, which is a light-colored limestone, and blood shows up very well against it… but there was nothing. I began to think the dog was lying to me, but he was determined to prove me wrong. In a matter of minutes, he’d led me to my deer.
Without Iggy, I don’t know if I could have found that doe. Due to the scant blood trail she left, I’d probably have decided to wait until daylight to track her. When I woke up this morning, it was raining. What blood there was would have washed away, which means I’d have had to rely on little more than intuition and luck… or wait a couple of days and follow the buzzards.
You don’t hear much about blood tracking dogs in big game hunting. There aren’t many articles in the hook-n-bullet mags, and they don’t get much mention on outdoors television either (even though I expect they’re used more than we’re led to believe). But I have a new and growing appreciation for the whole idea.
And Iggy… he’ll be getting a little something extra when I butcher this doe tonight.
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.
October 21, 2013
Just the other day, I was sort of lamenting that this is the time of year that I should be packing up for three or four weeks of guiding at Coon Camp Springs. Several weeks in a tiny camp, way off in the eastern Sierra, helping our hunters find some big ol’ California mule deer… it was paradise, and one of the things I looked forward to every year.
Well, obviously I’m not there this year, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t still going strong out there. Dave Allen, my friend, and President of Coon Camp Springs organization just sent me a photo of the first buck of the 2013 season, and it’s a WHOPPER!
October 2, 2013