July 7, 2015
Unless things have changed since I moved away, the 4th of July fireworks are still popping and whistling around CA. Summer is getting into full swing for most folks, and (depending on where you are) the temps are bouncing around the upper 80s and low 90s, burning off the morning haze to create those bright, sunny days that represent California to most people.
In other words, it hardly seems like hunting season.
But it is. Saturday morning brings the first hours of the 2015 deer season for the hearty, A-zone bowhunters. While most US deer hunters are only dreaming of the first morning back in the field, folks all through the central part of CA are tuning up and gearing up for the opener.
I’m only vaguely jealous, although if I were still living there, there’s no question that I’d be honing my accuracy and double-checking my pack in preparation to hit the field. Some people think we’re nuts to hunt that early season, when it’s not unusual to broil under 100+ degree temps, but most of those people have never experienced a hunt in that country. It’s beautiful out there, and while the heat can be a challenge (but the mornings and evenings can be downright chilly), there’s something special about taking to the field in mid-summer.
So, to all of my CA friends heading out this weekend, good luck! Hunt hard, have fun, and be safe!
December 12, 2014
I put one last deer in the freezer today.
I’ve been watching this buck all season, and last year as well. I was calling him “Funkhorn,” but after reviewing some of the original photos of that odd-antlered buck from 2011 and 2012, I’m fairly certain this isn’t him unless he’s devolved significantly… and I don’t think this buck is that old.
And that sort of makes me happy, because I have very mixed feelings about killing the real Funkhorn… one of the first bucks I ever caught on camera during my very first year here at Hillside Manor. To be honest, I’m a little sad about killing this guy. I think that comes with watching them grow over the seasons. But I’ve had the crosshairs and the bowsight on this one all year. He squeaked by a time or two earlier in the season, and on Wednesday night, I’m pretty sure I had him in the scope but I didn’t shoot (uncertainty or sentiment?).
This morning though, it was pretty much all on the line. It’s the last opportunity of the season. The rut’s coming on strong and sudden. And I plan to take a pile of meat to Kat, which means I’d have a low spot in the freezer (not that low, since I’ll still be looking for hogs and axis when I get back from NC, but still… ).
Truthfully, I wasn’t even really “hunting”. With early meetings scheduled this morning, I only had about 45 minutes to sit and watch. I figured it would just be a nice way to spend the sunrise.
He’s not as big as the eight point I’ve been watching, but I think he’s a Boss. I watched him chase that eight point out of the woods and clean across the pasture the other evening. When he came back, he was definitely strutting a victorious strut. This morning, he had five does all to himself. And while I realize that I’ll have limited success managing the bucks around here, I think his odd conformation makes him a good choice for removal. I’ve already seen a young four-point wandering around that has similar structure in his beams.
So yeah, there’s sort of an empty feeling when I look up at the feeder now. I’m not sure who’s going to take his place as the rut kicks into full swing, but between the big eight, the tall six, and that new eight pointer that just showed up, I don’t think any of the does are going to be missing out. And with at least two spikes and a couple of young fork-horns, the next crop is already growing into their place in the hierarchy.
My brother has promised some shooting opportunity when I get to NC around Christmas, but with this one packed away, I’ll probably be a little more motivated to chase ducks than deer. Not too much duck hunting here in this part of the Texas Hill Country, so that should be a welcome relief.
By the way, just an FYI for anyone who actually cares to follow this closely… I’ll probably be posting sporadically for the next several weeks as I’m on the road and in NC. There’s some stuff I want to write about, and I hope to get to it, but there are a lot of things going on that may supersede blogging time.
Also, next week, look for my annual (more or less) Christmas Gift Guide as I take a look at a handful of nifty ideas for the hunter who’s managed to stay off the Naughty List this year.
December 10, 2014
Last night, I wrapped up my last bowhunt of the season.
I spent the last two hours of daylight in my blind, sitting patiently as the sun set. There’s always a sense of melancholy at the last sit in a particular stand, so my mind drifted with it as the evening wore on. A couple of does happened down the only downwind trail, slipping up behind the blind. They bounced off, about 40 or 50 yards, blowing and stomping, and pretty much making sure no other deer would happen along the general area. Every 20 minutes or so, it was like they’d remember I was there and start blowing again. I couldn’t see them, and probably couldn’t have shot them if I did.
They kept it up until it was too dark to see my pins.
I didn’t care.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I could have shot deer from my shooting bench on Sunday night. I could have shot deer from my porch on Monday evening. But I wanted to make one last hurrah with the bow… and so last night, I did exactly that. It was good.
This morning, as I was making my second cup of coffee, I looked out the back window and saw three deer under the feeder. I picked up the Leicas and slipped out the back door for a closer look. There were two spikes (one was pretty big for a spike) and a little four-pointer. I looked at the rifle in the corner and left it there. I watched for a few moments, then went and got my coffee and returned to work.
Tonight, I wrapped up my work day and started into the bedroom to get my camo. The motivation wasn’t really there. Instead, I sat out on the patio with the binoculars and the Savage. At about 5:30, two big does fed out. One, in particular, would have been a good deer to kill… swaybacked and a little grey in the face. I kept telling myself I was holding out for one last chance at Funkhorn, or at the big eight. I’ve got one more evening to hunt, I figured, so I could afford to be picky.
I watched the does for about a half hour. Eventually, the larger of the two drove the smaller one off of the corn, and she sulked away, stiff-legged into the pasture. As it started to get darker, the old doe started looking into the woods. I put the glasses on her, and suddenly wished I were in the stand, 80 yards away, instead of sitting here at 170 yards. I wanted to see what she was looking at, but I couldn’t see from here. It could be a coon, or the other doe could be coming back. Or, it could be a buck.
We’re past due for some rut activity. It looked like, with the cold snap around Thanksgiving, that things were starting up. A couple of the bucks I skinned at the Smokehouse were pretty musky. But then it warmed back up and stayed warm. But they’ve got to start sooner or later. As I watched the doe on full alert, I hoped that’s what was happening. I didn’t need full-blown rut… just enough to make one of those good bucks a little stupid.
As I scanned the hillside, my pocket buzzed. I’d promised to Skype with my daughter, and it was my reminder. I answered the phone, and as I did, I caught a flash of movement from the edge of the trees. Like two racehorses, a pair of bucks chased one another down the hill, across my line of sight, and out toward the pasture. The glimpse was fleeting, but it was enough to see visible antlers on both deer, even in the dimming light from 170 yards away. I tried to raise the glasses, but the one downside of these Leicas is that their weight and balance make one-handed use a challenge. I gave up, as the deer had already disappeared, and finished my call.
I hung up the phone, and shooting light was nearly gone. From the edge of the pasture, I caught a movement. With the binos, I was able to make out a deer’s body. He stepped into a clearing, briefly, and I saw that it was Funkhorn! I reached for the rifle, but he stepped up, into the trees, and was gone. As the last glimmers of usable light dropped their glow on the caliche rocks, I saw a deer walk out under the feeder. I glassed him hard, and for a moment, I was pretty sure I saw antlers. Had Funkhorn come back to feed a bit, his rival vanquished?
I put the rifle on him, but even with the Leupold cranked to 9 power, I couldn’t be sure it was him. In the fading light, it was difficult to tell. I slipped the safety, and my finger danced around the edges of the trigger guard. The deer turned to offer a perfect quartering away opportunity…
But I couldn’t. Or I wouldn’t. I don’t know. But I didn’t.
I’m supposed to be at a party tomorrow evening, and if conscience is any sort of guide, I shouldn’t go hunting. But one more deer would give me plenty of meat to take to Kat this weekend. I could probably have it killed and skinned with time to spare for the party. But there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip, and things do come up. I could end up tracking a wounded deer into the night. I could not see anything until right at dark, which would push me right up to party time. I wonder how they’d feel if I showed up at the Camp Wood Bookworm Society (our book club) Christmas party with blood from elbow to fingertip?
And if I did hunt tomorrow, would I shoot?
I guess I won’t know until tomorrow gets here. There are probably worse quandaries to have.
December 8, 2014
I’ve got a BAR in .308, passed down from my grandfather several years ago. I can take this rifle to the range and shoot lights out. People will tell you that a semi-auto isn’t accurate, but this one easily shoots MOA or damned close to it, and it doesn’t seem to care what kind of ammo I load in it. But in the 16 years I’ve owned this rifle, I have missed every single animal I’ve aimed it at. And lest anyone begin to think differently, I am a reasonably good rifle shot. I’m convinced it’s jinxed. (As I write this, I realize that maybe I need to park the Savage for the rest of the season and focus on breaking that jinx here at the Hillside Manor.)
I was hexed when it came to bowhunting too, although I finally broke that one in 2009, after several years of effort. I felt like I was also jinxed on CA deer, after five years of close calls and missed opportunities, but I eventually broke that one too.
But this weekend, I think I saw the concept of jinx elevated to a whole, new level, when my friend, John, popped in for a weekend visit.
I’ve been living here for the better part of three years now, and in that time, I see deer on my property pretty much daily. I usually see them several times a day. In addition to the fact that I live in a heavily populated (by deer, not people) area, and my property is a core, transit area, I also run a feeder year-round. I can (and have, a couple of times) walk out on the back porch in the evening after the feeder has gone off, and shoot a deer. While I prefer to set my stands back in the woods, along travel corridors, I have a couple of spots set up specifically to shoot at the feeder… mostly for those times when I just want to put some meat in the freezer.
Point is, I have always considered killing a whitetail deer at my place a “gimme”. I can add a little challenge by bowhunting and staying away from the feeder, but the bottom line is, if I want to kill one I can… any time (as long as the season is open, of course).
So, back to John’s visit.
The last time I hunted my place was November 18, when I arrowed that last doe. The neighboring camps have been empty since Thanksgiving weekend, and most of them have been empty all year. Since then, there has been no hunting pressure on the deer around me. I’ve checked my cameras, and I’ll often sit out back with the binos and watch the deer at the feeder, or in the pasture. During the day, while I’m working, I’ll watch deer from my office window… some of them even hopping the fence and munching acorns right in my yard. I jump deer when I go out to check the pasture fences after a big wind.
The place is lousy with deer.
So when John and I started talking about his trip, I had the highest level of confidence that we’d be skinning the first night, and we could probably even get him a second deer before the weekend was out. Seriously, the Wednesday before he arrived, he sent me an email saying something along the lines of, “well now we just need to get something in front of the gun.” I literally read his email, looked out my office window, and snapped a photo of a deer in the yard. I then sent the picture in my response, saying, “you mean something like this?”
John rolled in a little later than we’d hoped on Friday evening. Just before he reached my place, he had to stop to let a doe cross the road in front of him. I heard the feeder going off, literally at the same time as I was opening the gate for him to drive in. We got his stuff unpacked, and he decided that, since it was so late, not to get in a hurry to get out to the blind. We’d just catch up. I thought we should do our catching up on the back patio, with the binoculars and the rifle close at hand. Sure enough, as we walked out the back door, a big doe was strolling up to the feeder. Unfortunately, we were making a bit of a racket (Iggy is always very excited to entertain our guests), and she skittered into the woods. Oh well, there’s plenty more where she came from.
Morning came really, really early on Saturday. It was painfully early, in fact, but I rolled out at 06:00 and woke John. I’d been watching pretty closely, and most of the morning activity was taking place at the very civilized period between 08:00 and 09:30. After a cup of coffee, I walked him out to the pop-up blind, pointed out the likely approaches, and went back to the house. Originally, I’d planned to set up in the blind with him and shoot video, but I was afraid that we’d probably be too noisy, especially since the deer had been using a trail that crossed just a few yards away from the blind. I cleaned up the kitchen and, as 08:00 rolled around, I waited to hear the sound of his 7mm-08 crack through the canyon.
At about 09:00, I went out and sat on the front porch with the binos. I figured I’d kind of watch from the sidelines. Way down at the end of the pasture, well out of sight of John in the blind, I saw a deer-shape move across the open. The white glow from its legs and lower body told me it was an axis! As I watched, five axis deer meandered along the pasture, coming closer and closer all the way. I hoped they’d head up to the feeder, and it looked like that might be their plan as they started to angle up the hill. Then one intrepid doe got out in front of the little herd. At about 10 or 20 yards behind the blind, she locked up the brakes, whirled around, and sprinted back to the others.
The herd mingled around a bit, and I think they were going to get a drink from what’s left of my pond, but the proximity to the blind was too much for them. I slipped back into the house, grabbed the Savage, and set up against the porch rail. I don’t get many opportunities at axis deer on my place, and it didn’t look like these were going to go where John would have an opportunity. A truck came down the road, and the lead doe jumped my fence and crossed to the neighbor’s place. The rest would follow soon. I leveled the crosshairs on the biggest doe, and touched my fingertip to the trigger.
But I didn’t shoot. I didn’t want to take a chance at spooking any whitetails that might be coming out of the woods where John was looking. Sure enough, the rest of the deer crossed my fence and headed into the DMZ.
At about 10:30, I went to fetch John in for breakfast. He’d seen nothing… axis, whitetail… nothing.
That was a little disappointing, but I really wasn’t too concerned. After breakfast, he went back out to sit the blind for a couple more hours. Seeing nothing, he came back in. I decided we’d hike up the ridge and see what’s up there. I wanted to check my cameras anyway. Usually, when I top the ridge I bounce a couple of deer from their beds. I figured, even if we didn’t get a shot, at least there’d be some excitement and John would be seeing deer.
At least it was a lovely hike.
I sent John back to the blind at around 16:30. At this point, even knowing it would be his last evening sit, I wasn’t feeling much pressure. The deer would be there. The deer are ALWAYS there. I figured he’d probably not see much until right before sunset, but it would be best if he were in place early. Turns out, he would have done just as well to sit in the house and shoot the breeze with me. No deer.
At this point, I was getting pretty worried. It was almost inconceivable that he’d spent the better part of the entire day in the blind, including prime time in morning and evening, and had not seen a single deer. Not only that, but I sat out on the patio with the binos to watch, and I didn’t see anything either. The deer had simply disappeared.
Sunday morning, we were both a little better rested, so we were in pretty good spirits when I sent him out to the blind. The full moon lit the path, so it’s not like he needed my guidance or any kind of artificial light to find his way. I piddled around with some work I had to do, and as the morning wore on, I waited for the gunshot that never came. At about 10:15, I heard the clomp of boots on the back porch and I knew he was done. His flight would be leaving San Antonio around 18:00, and that’s a two hour drive from my place, so there’d be no chance at an evening hunt.
We ate a big brunch, and as we were sitting at the table, I caught movement on my neighbor’s drive. A big, grey doe was sauntering across. Of course there was nothing we could do but watch.
John hit the road around noon, and I spent the next few hours messing around the house. Finally, as evening came a little closer, curiosity got the better of me. I camo-ed up, grabbed the Leicas and the Savage, and strolled on out to my shooting bench (about 15 yards from the blind where John had been sitting). There’s a clear, 60 yard shot to the feeder, as well as a clear area under the trees where I know they like to stage up. I settled in, pulled my hood up over my head, sort of laid my upper body across the shooting table, and tried to blend in. Truthfully, I wasn’t particularly well hidden, but there’s a lot to be said for being still. And really, I just wanted to see if any deer would show up.
About 15 minutes after the feeder went off, I caught movement to my right. A mature doe stepped into the clearing, about 20 yards away. She glanced at me once, flicked her tail, and continued along the path. A youngster, probably this year’s fawn, followed close behind. A minute or so behind them, a slightly grizzled matriarch brought up the rear. She was a little more curious about the odd lump that had appeared on the shooting table, but after a few tense moments, she trotted off and caught up with the other two.
I do intend to kill one more deer this season, so I can bring a cooler full of meat to Kat, in NC. Either of the big does would have been good choices, and at that range, the shots would have been pretty sure. But I’ve got a few days left to hunt, and I wanted to see if I could get an opportunity at one of the bucks I’ve been watching all year. So I kept still and let them go up and start feeding.
About another quarter hour passed, and I noticed the little trio staring intently into the high grass to my left. I slowly turned my head to see a yearling spike sneaking up the hill. The does apparently didn’t want anything to do with him, so they moved off into the woods and mingled around there while he gnoshed on corn under the feeder. After a bit, something spooked him (it may have been Iggy, 100 yards away, pacing the gate), and he flagged and ran up into the woods. The trio of does took off also, but a few minutes later, they slowly worked their way back down. After browsing a bit under the oak trees, they meandered back in the direction they’d come in from.
As shooting time ran down, I caught movement coming out of the woods above the feeder. A big, mature doe strolled down to feed with barely a glance around her. I eased the rifle up and settled the crosshairs, but chose to hold off. I watched until it was too dim for safe shooting, and stood to go. As I started walking, a deer I hadn’t seen blew and snorted at me from the pasture.
Walking back to the house, I couldn’t help thinking that I should thank John for taking his hex with him when he left.
Just a really quick update this morning. As the sun came up this morning, I looked out my office window to see three deer browsing in the yard. Two more were outside the fence, working around the perimeter. At about 07:30, when I went to get a second cup of coffee, I looked out the back to see three more deer working busily under the feeder. I walked out on the porch to get a better look with the binos, and even in my white shirt, with Iggy bouncing around at my feet, they barely even stopped to look at me. It’s like a whole different place. John, my friend, you have a special kind of magic and the only cure is some immersion therapy. We need to get you back after it as soon as possible, as often as possible, until we break this hex.
December 1, 2014
I finally had my first busy weekend at the Smokehouse as the Thanksgiving holiday hunters made the best of the week off work. It was quite a week, too. By Sunday, Carl (the owner) had to hang out a sign to let folks know we weren’t accepting any more deer until next Saturday. The freezer is full of processed meat, and the cooler is so full of carcasses there’s nowhere left to pile them.
It’s not that the season has been slow, but the bulk of deer have trickled in through the week. Since I’m only available to work weekends, I haven’t been involved in most of the skinning work. On top of that, a lot of guys seem to be getting a little better about skinning and quartering their own deer, prior to dropping them in for processing. And that makes a reasonably good segue to the first tip…
Save Money by Skinning Your Own Deer
Here’s the picture. You’re tired. You finally got your deer killed. All the other guys are back in camp with beers and a crackling fire. All you want to do is kick back in a lounge chair with your favorite beverage and bask in the glow of success. You could spend 15 or 20 minutes to strip the hide off of that buck, and take a few more to saw off the skull cap and remove the head and feet. Or you could hang him like he is and let the processor deal with it.
Most processors include skinning as a standard service, but it is almost never without an additional cost. In many cases, you get a double-whammy for dropping off a deer with the hide intact. First of all, there’s often a flat rate for skinning the animal. This can range from $15 on up to $25 or more. That’s not so bad, right?
But what’s the first thing most processors do when you drop off your animal?
They hang it on the scale.
Everything that you didn’t remove from the animal before bringing it to the processor is factored into your processing cost. Figure the head, hide, and feet of a decent sized whitetail easily top 20 pounds (I keep meaning to weigh the parts some day, just to see exactly what it comes to). I don’t know what the average cost for processing is in your neck of the woods, but around here it’s generally about a buck a pound… so by bringing an unskinned animal in for processing, you’ve already tossed $40 or more into the wind.
And if you didn’t field dress it yourself, most processors have an additional charge for gutting the game (and many will only field dress deer or elk, not hogs or javelina)… along with the total body weight. Here at the Smokehouse, we charge $40 to field dress an animal.
Of course, as a skinner, I appreciate it. But if you think paying a processor is too expensive, reducing the cost is as easy as 1-2-3.
- Gut your animal
- Skin your animal (removing head and feet)
- De-Bone your animal
Speaking of gutting your animal…
Clean That Animal Out
Truthfully, wild venison is pretty hard to mess up. Hang it between 30 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and it will keep for a long time. It can also hang through a warm day, and even a warm night without spoiling. But the sure way to ruin some great meat is to leave it in contact with body fluids… especially stomach and intestinal contents or urine.
I can’t count the number of deer that have arrived at the skinning shed with the bladders, and a portion of the lower intestine and anus intact (and often full of feces). I don’t know if we’ve just got a bunch of Texas hunters with unusually delicate sensibilities, or if folks just don’t know how to remove these parts when they’re pulling out the rest of the guts. It’s not only sort of silly, but it presents a good way to ruin some prime pieces of your game, including the tenderloins and hams. Keep in mind that, sometimes, your animal may not be on the fast track through the processing line. Sometimes, it hangs around for a while until the butchers can get to it.
Now, I can only speak for myself, but I’m usually pretty careful when I start to work on a carcass. When I start to skin, I always look in the pelvic cavity to see what got left behind. Not only do I not want to slice into a bladder and taint the meat… I don’t want that stuff splashing all over me. I’ve watched some folks at other processing operations though, and I don’t think they’re paying quite as close attention. When you’re taking in dozens of deer a day, and skinning them at the rate of a couple of minutes each, you don’t have time to worry about slicing a bladder, or spilling a load of fecal matter into the cavity. You deal with it after the fact, and hope a quick rinse with the water hose will take care of it. Sometimes it does. But when it doesn’t, that carcass may lay there and marinate for hours… or even days.
It’s a simple matter of “coring” the anus and removing the bladder and genitalia. I know, some guys think it’s a little touchy to risk breaking the bladder so they think it’s better to leave this to the “professionals”. But I think it’s better to do it yourself, and if you mess up you know it. At least if you break the bladder yourself, you can take a little extra care to rinse the cavity. Quick attention is all it takes. Because let me tell you, a lot of the “professionals” are just guys who are interested in doing the bare minimum to get the job done. It’s not their meat.
On the same topic, it pays to take a little extra care to clean out the rest of the carcass as well. Did you leave big chunks of lung floating around in the chest cavity? Are stomach contents spattered across the ribcage? It behooves you to get that stuff out before you get it to the processor. Again, the conscientious will do their best to clean it up before it goes on the hook in the cooler… but all skinners aren’t conscientious.
One more thing that a lot of guys seem to overlook is the windpipe and the gorge. These goodies are sort of out of the way, hidden in the neck. Most guys will field dress an animal by reaching into the chest cavity and severing the gullet and windpipe at the base of the neck. That leaves a pretty good length in the animal. The windpipe isn’t usually that critical, although if it’s left in the carcass for too long, it could impart a “sour” smell and flavor. The “gorge”, however, is a different story. If the deer had fed recently, prior to being shot, the gorge can be full of partially digested food… and this can be some really, REALLY nasty stuff. I’ll put it up against a gut shot for gag factor. Do yourself a favor, and take the extra step of cutting this out before you take the animal to the processor. Just run your knife along the bottom of the throat (you can feel the windpipe with your fingers) and pull the windpipe out. At the same time, you’ll open up the gorge. Take the whole mess out, right up to the bottom of the animal’s jaw. It may stink like hell (it sometimes doesn’t smell at all), but imagine not doing this and letting your venison marinate in that stuff.
But what about killing the deer in the first place?
Use Enough Gun, But Not Too Much Bullet
I’m a big fan of going a bit “overgunned” when I hunt. I don’t think twice about using a 30-06 to shoot 80-pound deer (of course, I also enjoy using my .243). I wouldn’t object to using my .325 WSM, but ammo is a little precious right now. I don’t believe there is any such thing as “too dead”. There is, however, such a thing as too devastated… but this is generally a function of the bullet, not the caliber.
This isn’t new this year (and I may have called it out before), but there is a strange fascination some folks have with extremely destructive bullets, like the Ballistic Tips and other variations. I sort of get it, because when you hit an animal as small and thin-skinned as a whitetail with one of these bullets, the result is usually a very short and distinct blood trail. Rapid expansion and fragmentation result in big entry wounds and even bigger exits. At the same time, what you gain in quick and demonstrative kills, you lose in edible meat. I have thrown away more entire shoulders, necks, and even backstraps than I care to remember… all due to the explosive nature of these extreme bullets.
You don’t need them, folks.
Honestly, you want good expansion. You want to deliver big energy on target, and destroy vital infrastructure. But you also want some quality meat (or why else would you bring it to the processor?). There are any number of excellent bullet options out there that provide all the good with less of the bad. Try some of these. Leave the frangibles and rapid-expansion bullets for the varmint hunters.
And that’s about it for now.
Just remember, what you get out of a hunt is what you put into it. The same goes for what you get out of your processor. Drop off a clean, properly cared-for carcass with minimal meat damage, and you’ll get good value in the prepared meat that comes back a few days later.
November 21, 2014
Well, it’s been pointed out to me a couple of times now, that while I’ve shared a couple of hunting tales of woe from the current season, I haven’t really said anything about my successes. And there have been a couple.
Here’s the thing, though, and tell me if I’m wrong… sometimes, when it’s really easy, I don’t feel like it’s all that much to write about. And hunting here at Hillside Manor is often pretty easy.
It’s certainly no bragging point to tell about sitting in a blind with the rifle, and shooting deer at the feeder from 100 yards. Sure, it’s one of the ways we hunt down here and it’s effective. If I wanted to, I could probably sit out at my shooting bench and kill a deer every other evening. But what kind of story is that? It doesn’t necessarily demonstrate my skills as a hunter. There’s very little educational value there (although successfully hunting a feeder takes a little more know-how than most people may realize). And, in most cases, there’s barely even time for a good yarn. Those times when I do choose to take the rifle and kill a deer, the entire hunt generally takes place in under an hour.
It could be even easier. The photo shown on the left is not a rare occurrence. All I have to do is bring Iggy in the house for a few hours, and the deer are over the fence and after the acorns. They’re hardly tame, of course. I can’t just walk up and grab them, but it wouldn’t take much to slip out the back door and snipe them from the corner of the house. Or, for that matter, I could just keep the window open and whack them from my desk chair. But, for the most part, I’ve refrained. It just doesn’t seem right.
So, I try to make it a little more challenging. I’ve gone up into the tangle of cedars, persimmons, mountain laurel, and oaks that cover the hillside behind the ranch and scouted out the trails and travel routes. I’ve wielded the machete and the chain saw to clear some trails so that I can actually walk upright, and used them to manipulate the deer traffic (like most critters, deer prefer the path of least resistance). I’ve cut little parks here and there, and built a couple of brush blinds and stands in high traffic areas.
I’ve also restricted the bulk of my hunting to archery (with the recent exception of the muzzleloader… to try out the bismuth balls). This has definitely added a level of complexity, and provided a lot more satisfaction in my hunts. Even with a pretty well-constructed brush blind, getting to full draw on a deer inside of 20 yards is no mean feat. When that deer is a mature buck, it’s even harder. I’ve had several close encounters with a couple of the big boys around here, including the one we’ve named Funkhorn, but so far they’ve managed to catch me trying to draw, or snuck up undetected and caught me moving in the blind.
But I’ve had my successes. On Wednesday evening, I arrowed my second doe for the season. With two deer in the freezer, I’m pretty well set for this year’s meat (especially considering that I’ll probably have opportunities for axis deer during the off-season), and that’s fortunate. My whitetail season will be curtailed this year, as I’ve got to drive out to North Carolina in mid-December, and won’t be back here before the deer season is over. I’ll still probably hunt a time or two more before I leave, but at this point I won’t shoot anything except a good buck (or, of course, a hog).
Someone asked me if I had any interesting anecdotes or stories about these hunts, and I’ve had to think about it kind of hard.
For me, as the guy in the blind with the bow, it’s always sort of an intense experience. Just drawing the bow and lining up those pins on a deer’s vitals is pretty exciting stuff. Then there’s the release of the arrow and the brief moment of uncertainty between the release and the smack of impact (a very distinct sound, similar to the kugelschlag following a rifle shot, but much more… intimate?). There is always the fear of a miss, and then when the arrow strikes, there’s the fear of a bad hit.
On my first deer this season, there was no question after impact. I watched the arrow disappear into the doe’s side and pass completely through. It was a shade higher than I’d intended, but definitely through both lungs. She ran out of sight, but I heard her crash into the brush less than 30 yards away, which is right where I found her. She was probably dead by the time she fell.
Wednesday’s deer, however, wasn’t so definite. I had to lean forward from my seat, and twist my body a bit to get the shot. The release didn’t feel perfect, and I lost sight of the arrow. I thought I heard it hit her, but then I heard the arrow clipping through the branches behind her. Had I missed, or did the shot pass through? I couldn’t be sure as she ran off, and in the noise of several other deer taking flight, I couldn’t even be sure which way she ran.
I sat tight for the remaining hour of daylight, having learned the hard way last year, that even going to check my arrow too soon can scotch the deal. In the last grey light, though, I slipped out of the blind and started the search for my arrow. It was nowhere to be found. I scanned the ground for blood, but there was nothing. I replayed the shot in my head, but every time I ran it through, I was sure the arrow had hit that deer. Finally, as daylight completely gave out, I decided to go back to the house, wait a few hours, and then come back with Iggy, the .44, and a couple of good tracking lights (and I’m just gonna make another plug for the Olympus RG850, rechargeable flashlight… it’s awesome for tracking!).
I went home, cooked dinner (but it was impossible to eat much), and even called to chat with Kat, in Raleigh. I tried to fool around a little with the Internet, but my focus was shot. Somehow, I managed to wait three hours before the dog and I went back to try to pick up the trail. Back at the blind, I still couldn’t find my arrow, even with the brilliant flashlight. I also couldn’t seem to make out any blood, but I found the tracks where the doe had bolted at the shot, and then about ten yards away, a stumble. That was enough to make me stick to the track.
It was at this point that Iggy changed gears from playful, excited pup on a romp in the woods, to working dog. It’s a distinct change, and most of my hunting dog-owning friends have probably seen it in their own animals. His nose went to the ground, and then to the air. His focus went from, “everything is so awesome,” to “I’ve got a job to do.” Where he’d been sort of meandering around, smelling every bush and branch, he locked into a dim trail through the cedars. I had to scold him several times for leaving me behind (a black dog becomes completely invisible, even with his reflective collar on), and he’d trot back, glance at me quite severely, and then barrel back into the brush.
For my part, I still hadn’t seen so much as a droplet of blood. I also knew that there had been at least seven different deer in the area when I shot the doe. I honestly wondered if he was just following generic deer tracks (he’d done this to me on the first deer of the season… a real wild goose chase), but he seemed so bloody intent that I felt like I had to trust him. And, finally, after about thirty yards of hard going, including a lot of crawling through some wicked thick brush, I saw the first splash of red on the ground. I called Iggy back and pointed to it, and the look he gave me… indescribable. There are a lot of experts out there who’d tell you that the “lower” animals don’t have the capacity for higher thought processes, such as sarcasm or derision… but those experts have apparently never looked into the eyes of a “lower” animal like Iggy.
In the end, the trail was only about 100 yards, which isn’t that extensive for a bowhunt. I knew Iggy had found her when he started running back up to me, and then diving into the bush again. I stood still, and could hear him licking the blood from the exit wound. Following the sound into the darkness, there she was. Something, probably raccoons, had already been at the carcass, so she had probably been laying here dead the whole time. It just goes to show you never know, when you set out on a blood trail.
The recovery was an adventure in itself. The deer had fallen in an area that I have not touched with saw or machete, and the branches and brush form a pretty tough screen. Sometimes, the dried out, lower branches of the cedars will snap right off and you can push right through. And sometimes, they push back… with vengeance and vigor. In many places, the only way through is on hands and knees, or even belly crawling a time or two. Add to this the steepness of the rocky hillside, and the drag down left me completely winded, a little bloody, and very sore.
So, yeah, for me, I guess it wasn’t an unremarkable hunt. But this is the nature of many of my hunts here at the Hillside Manor, and I feel like it gets a bit redundant in the telling. Then again, since I really didn’t have anything else to write about today, I should thank Ian, John, and Kat for spurring me to write this lengthy screed.
I’m done now.
November 16, 2014
I’ve been pretty excited to try out these bismuth muzzleloader balls since they got here a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in a previous post, that wasn’t as simple as it should have been. First of all, I had to find a new nipple for the Hawken, since I’d removed the old one years ago, and as tiny-but-vital objects do, it disappeared. After a series of missteps on my part, ordering the wrong size, not once but twice, I finally found a new one and got the rifle put back together and ready to shoot.
Then, a couple of weekends ago, when I went to sight in, I realized I had no powder. By choice, I do not live in a place where I can run down to the corner sporting goods store and pick up odds and ends for my shooting and hunting habit. The Get-and-Go (our local C-store) and the hardware store carry a couple of boxes of standard ammunition, but you can forget finding anything for less common guns. As it turns out, traditional muzzleloading is anything but common around here. After an hour drive to town, and poking around the Oasis Outback (which is a pretty big store), I still couldn’t find it. The old guy at the counter didn’t even know what I was asking for, and the younger fella, on top of his game, couldn’t find anything but 777 pellets, which I can’t use in my Hawken. He told me that they don’t get any demand for muzzleloading gear. Texas only has muzzleloader seasons in 58 of its 254 counties… and Edwards, Real, and Uvalde are not on that list.
At any rate, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I finally bit the bullet and ordered some Pyrodex RS online, complete with the hazardous materials shipping fee.
So I got out there to shoot yesterday. I opened my box of percussion caps, and realized I was running a little low. But when I got done, I still had about 10 caps left. I stuck these in my capper (sort of a speed loader for percussion caps), and put it in my pocket with my other possibles. I went out and sat in my blind last night, but the deer came in from a different trail, so I didn’t get a shot. I pulled the cap off of the nipple, and on the dark walk back to the house, I tried to put it back into the capper with the others.
That was a mistake.
Somewhere between my house and the blind, in my effort to replace the unused cap, I managed to knock all but one of the remaining caps out of the capper. These things are tiny. Even in the daylight, the odds of finding them on the rocky ground are extremely slim. There’s no way on earth I’d have found them in the dark. I cursed the bad luck, but figured I really only need one shot. Two caps would be OK.
Are you shaking your head yet?
So I slipped out this morning, easing my way around to a different blind. I got set up, capped the rifle, and waited. It was a perfect morning, chilly and a light fog. It was the kind of day that just screams, “deer!”
Up the canyon a mile or so, I heard a rifle shot. A little later, I heard another shot from the other direction. At one point, way up on the ridgetops, I heard hogs fighting. An owl was perched on a broken oak branch… another patient hunter. It was just that perfect. On top of everything else, I had no doubt the deer would be moving and I would soon have my shot opportunity.
I was sort of daydreaming, maybe even nodding off a little, when I caught movement at the edge of the trees. A grey shape ghosted along the trail. I have to admit that I was hoping for an opportunity at that big eight point I’ve been watching, or maybe at the new, tall-racked eight point that recently showed up on my cameras, but this was a doe. Since I don’t eat antlers, and I enjoy watching those bucks as much as I would enjoy shooting them, the doe looked good to me. She was a healthy, mature animal, and she was by herself. I could shoot her and have her dragged down to the barn without really disrupting the patterns of the other animals.
I eased the rifle up, and thumbed the hammer back. Something didn’t look right, and I realized with dismay that the damned cap had fallen off. Moving in millimeters, I eased my hand into my pocket and withdrew the capper, and then slipped the final cap on the empty nipple. The doe had moved to within 40 yards, and seemed oblivious to my actions. I waited for her to turn broadside, slightly quartering away, and leveled the sights at the top of her shoulder. With a breath, I squeezed the trigger, forcing myself not to jerk it and to hold steady on my mark.
The hammer fell, and where I expected a Pop–Bang, all I got was a Pop (if you’ve never heard it, a #11 percussion cap sounds a bit like a .22 short going off)! The cap failed to ignite the powder charge… the cap and ball equivalent of a flash in the pan.
The doe’s head jerked up at the sound, but she didn’t seem too alarmed. After a moment, she put her head down and returned to whatever she was browsing. I picked up the empty capper, as if it might magically create just one more number 11 percussion cap. I looked around my feet in vain, hoping to catch the brassy glint of the lost cap. I dug through the pockets of my coat, hoping beyond hope that a cap had fallen out in there. It wasn’t to be.
I wanted to cry.
I cussed instead.
I’d left Iggy back in the yard, and at the sound of the cap going off, he started to whine (he thinks every shot means time to track or retrieve). The doe came to full alert and turned toward the house. Iggy’s whine became a mournful howl, and the doe had had enough. She high-stepped back up the trail and disappeared into the cedars.
I expect that I was a pretty dejected sight, walking back to the house with the unfired Hawken dangling useless from my hand.
So, About These Balls
At this point, it’s looking unlikely that I’ll actually get to shoot a deer with one of these bismuth balls, so I’ll share a little information that I do have.
First of all, they’re cast, round balls with a .485 diameter and a weight of 141 grains. They’re composed of 93% bismuth and 7% lead.
I forgot to ask where they got the materials to cast these things, but according to Ben (the guy who sent them to me), they come out to about 30 cents apiece to make. I know you can buy bismuth shot for reloading, and I expect this can be melted down and cast in a mold for your specific caliber. Here’s an update from Ben. The raw material for casting these balls can be found at a website called Rotometals. A one pound ingot sells (as of this post) for $19.99. Figure 7000 grains to a pound, and the balls are 141 grains apiece, so you’re looking at almost 50 balls to a pound, and a cost per ball of about $0.40. That’s a little more than twice what you pay for pre-cast, swaged, lead balls via a sporting goods outlet (appx. $17-$18 per 100). In my opinion, if you’re casting your own balls anyway, that’s really not an unbearable cost… especially since I found that the lead and bismuth shoot pretty close, which means I could practice with lead and sight-in and hunt with the bismuth.
As I think I mentioned yesterday, I’m able to get these things to group about 2″ at 50 yards out of my Cabela’s Hawken, using an 80 grain charge of Pyrodex RS. That’s as good as I’ve ever been able to get this rifle to shoot, and personally, I think that’s plenty adequate for hunting. It certainly gave me plenty of confidence.
While I was sitting in my blind last night, I found one of the spent balls from my sight-in session. I’m not sure its exact route to the floor of my blind (the blind is about 100 yards uphill from my shooting bench), but it had at least passed through a sheet of 1/2″ plywood and some cedar brush. Aside from some scuffs and one minor gouge, the ball was pretty much intact enough to be reused. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, as I would expect a little more deformation. However, I’ve recovered lead balls in the past that didn’t show a lot of damage either, so this is probably consistent, regardless of the composition.
November 12, 2014
Every year at about this time, almost like clockwork, you’ll start hearing the fuss about hunting over bait. The arguments get hot, and they almost always break down into a couple of contingents.
First of all, you’ve got the guys who are trying to defend the use of feeders. You’ll hear all sorts of justifications and rationalizations, ranging from the argument that, “it’s the only way you’ll see a deer in ‘X’ habitat,” to “it allows you to be selective and take a clean shot.” I think there’s an element of truth to much of this, although I can certainly understand that some of it probably sounds a little weak to the uninitiated.
On other side are the guys who argue that, “that’s not hunting.” To these guys, the prevalent impression is that baiting deer creates the target-rich environment that you see on some hunting shows, and that it takes all the skill out of hunting. If you dig a little, you’ll find that most of the baiting opponents come from a background where baiting is (or was) illegal and many of them have never actually hunted over bait. They are arguing solely on the strength of their prejudices.
The truth, as usual, falls somewhere in the middle.
On the one hand, baiting definitely can make hunting easier. For the meat hunter, shooting over a well-managed feeder can be a lot like harvesting crops. A timed feeder can condition the animals, and lots of does and younger bucks will show up like they’re punching a time clock when that feeder goes off. Under the right conditions, you can wait until ten minutes before the feeder goes off, climb into your blind or stand, and just whack the one you want when they come out. A feeder doesn’t make them tame though (although you can certainly condition them to accept a level of human proximity if you have lots of time and patience), and in areas where there is other hunting pressure, they’ll get downright skittish once the seasons are open. But there’s no doubt a feeder or bait pile will bring in animals consistently and make it easier to see and shoot them.
On the other hand, baiting does not automatically equate to easy hunting, especially if you are targeting mature bucks. Big bucks have been around the block a time or two, and to perpetuate an irritatingly true cliché, they don’t get big by being stupid. The hunter can up the challenge as well by selecting close range weapons, such as a bow or muzzleloader. And even the does and youngsters tend to catch on pretty quickly, once the hunting pressure is on. Scent control, concealment, and being still are all pretty critical if you want to be close to wild deer… feeder or no feeder.
For my own part, I used to refuse to hunt over bait, but I also didn’t judge folks who did. Like hound hunting, it’s just not the way I wanted to get it done. A lot of that had to do with the hunting terrain and opportunities I had at the time. Most of my hunting took place on public land in NC, so even if baiting had been legal on public land (it wasn’t then… not sure about now), all I would have accomplished would be to bait up deer for other hunters. Instead, I learned to locate and pattern deer, and then set up my stand to optimize my chance at spotting and shooting them. Once you learn a little bit about the deer and the ground you are hunting, this isn’t really all that difficult.
Over time, my attitude about hunting over bait has changed, for a lot of reasons. I think using bait definitely changes the nature of the hunt because it allows you to determine where and (sometimes) when the animals are feeding. This is certainly unnatural, and I can understand how this upsets the aesthetics of some hunting purists. But I also think it can be a practical approach, especially for the hunter who has limited time or limited property. We can’t all spend 90 days of a 100 day season in the field, and we don’t all hunt big country that allows us to scout and locate core areas. We’re pretty much stuck with what we’ve got, and have to make the best of it… and sometimes making the best of it means hanging a feeder, spreading corn, or planting a food plot.
Nature runs feeders all the time, throughout the year. This summer, after a little blessed rain, it was agarita berries, followed shortly by persimmons. Now it’s acorns. In the photo at the top of this page, those deer have been coming back to my driveway pretty much every day for the past week. The live oaks are dumping acorns this year. Meanwhile, about 200 yards or so from where these guys are gorging themselves right beside the road, there are about 25 pounds of corn just scattered around the hillside… in good edge cover, no less. And these deer haven’t even bothered to go up there and get it.
Anyway, if you’re lucky enough to have these natural feeders running on your place in a huntable location, then good on ya! But if you don’t, or if drought or other conditions shut those feeders down, then sometimes you have to take things into your own hands.
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.