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
October 1, 2013
I see from the trails of Coors Light and Bud Light cans (why are these two brands so predominant amongst the Adam Henry crowd?) that the deer hunters are visiting their leases. About an hour before sunset, the telltale rattle of feeders echoes through the canyon. Little camps and cabins, dark for the past nine months, are now lit up like football stadiums.
It’s deer season.
Another sign of the season is the preponderance of “how to” articles for deer hunting. Most of these articles are rehashed versions of the same article from last year, which was a repetition of the year before that was almost identical to the article from three years ago… and so on. In the interest of simplicity and my altruistic desire to help my fellow hunter, I determined it wise that I should put the whole thing to bed with the definitive catalogue of deer hunting tips and tricks. These are tested and guaranteed to work, by the way… none of that theoretical hypothesizing that these city-boy, hunting writers crank out between their lattes and tofu burgers.
Tip #1 – Finding Deer
In order to shoot a deer, you have to find a deer. This is the most important tip of all.
Tip #2- Food Sources
It’s no secret that one great way to find deer is to find their food sources. That can be easier said than done, though. Deer eat lots of stuff. They like acorns, grain, fruit, green foliage, and the occasional little bird. I’ve determined that the list is simply too extensive, so it’s easier to focus on things they don’t eat. Deer don’t eat televisions, computers, or living room furniture. That is generally not the best habitat for deer hunting success.
Tip #3 – Deer and Water
Deer can swim, but they are seldom found snorkeling or SCUBA diving (Some people would say they’re never found snorkeling or SCUBA diving, but in my experience, I have discovered that deer do many surprising things. I have learned to never say, “never.”). However, deer do drink water. Sometimes they can be found near water sources. Sometimes they can’t. Deer might also drink beer. However, it is well and widely known that wild deer only drink beer when it occurs naturally in streams or ponds. They don’t drink from cans or bottles. The tactic of trying to bait deer to the roadside by tossing beer containers out of the truck window is futile, so please stop doing it immediately.
Tip #4 – Shooting Deer
In order to kill a deer, you have to shoot it. You can use a gun or a bow. I have learned that either method works just fine, but they work best when you can hit what you shoot at.
Tip #5 – The Best Deer Cartridge
I have a friend in North Carolina who swears that the best deer cartridge is a small block Chevy V-8 in a half-ton pickup truck. It’s big enough to kill cleanly, but not so big that it destroys the meat and antlers. Personally, I have found that the best cartridge for deer absolutely has to include two key components… gunpowder and a bullet. Doesn’t matter what caliber you’re using, if you don’t have these two elements in your cartridge, you’re probably not going to have much success.
Tip #6 – The Best Deer Broadhead
Bowhunters seem to like gadgets. Whether it’s training wheels on the bow, or lasers that leverage the Pythagorean Theorem to give accurate range at any angle, they gather and collect and argue about the merits and shortfalls of every little thing. One recurrent argument is about broadheads. I’m here to put that debate to rest. The best broadhead is the sharp, pointy one that’s attached to an arrow, which is fletched to a point of stability, and is launched from a bow with sufficient speed and energy by a hunter who has practiced to the point of mastery with his tools. Period.
Tip #7 – The Best Deer Camo
Just to be clear, I’m talking about the best camo for the hunter, not the deer. The deer is already clothed in some of the most effective camo you can get. Personally, I believe it’s some kind of Romulan cloaking device. If you’ve ever seen a buck simply appear in the middle of an open meadow that you’ve been watching for hours, you’ll know what I mean. Hunters would probably benefit from a similar camo, but Romulans don’t care much for us and won’t share the technology. They saw what happened to Klaatu, the day the Earth stood still, and never got over it. So we have to make do with regular clothing. There are lots of patterns out there that can pull off a nearly perfect disappearing act… for your money. Deer don’t care about colors or patterns. They care about predators. Predators move and make noise. Don’t move or make noise. Now you’re camouflaged.
Tip #8 – Scent Control
We stink. Companies like Proctor and Gamble have been telling us that for decades. Deer and other wildlife have been dropping the hint for even longer. Wild deer don’t like to associate with stinky people. There are many products out there that claim they will make us not stink. They all lie. Onions smell like onions. Deer smell like deer. We smell like people. It is our nature. In nature, smell is carried on air. Moving air is called wind. If the wind blows to a deer, it will smell us. If the wind blows away from deer, it will not smell us. See? The essence of scent control.
Tip #9 – Moon Phases
The moon has several phases. Sometimes it is big and bright and we call it the “full moon”. Sometimes, it’s barely visible. We call that the “new moon.” Usually, it is somewhere in between. When the moon is going from new to full, it is called “waxing”. When it is going from full to new, it is called “waning”. That’s what you need to know about moon phases.
Tip #10 – Weather
It is possible to hunt deer in any weather. From the stormiest, hurricane conditions to the driest drought, to the most frigid arctic blizzard, you can go deer hunting. You may not see any deer, but you can certainly go hunting. You are more likely to have success, however, if you don’t go in the worst conditions. How do you judge the worst conditions? Some people rely on barometers or rain gauges. I recommend using the girlfriend gauge. If she just nods as I gear up and head out, it could be a good day. If she shakes her head and rolls her eyes, it could still be a good day. If she calls me an idiot and puts 911 on speed dial, it probably won’t be a good day. That doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t go, of course, but the odds of success are generally slim on those days.
Tip #11 – Best Time To Go Hunting
Editor’s Note: I decided to break with convention and go with 11 tips instead of 10. I’m a rebel like that.
My friend in North Carolina (the small block Chevy guy) believes the best time for deer hunting is between midnight and 3 A.M. By his account, there are generally less hunters in the field and the deer seem to be less skittish. However, it should be noted that most game wardens tend to react with displeasure at having to patrol during these hours. In order to get a reasonable night’s sleep, they have passed laws that require us to hunt during the daytime instead. Should they be called from their warm beds at the ungodly hours to respond to someone violating these laws, their response is generally severe and unpleasant. This is why the best time for deer hunting is during the daytime, generally from one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset.
So there it is. I recommend printing this out and making copies to keep around the house. Share this advice with the neophyte and the veteran alike. I believe that if everyone follows these eleven simple tips, your deer hunting success will go way up. It may even skyrocket, but that’s marketing talk and I prefer to avoid such hyperbole.
Good hunting. Have fun. And most important of all… be safe.
September 30, 2013
The whitetail season is now officially underway here in the Hill Country. I could tell by the flood of pickup trucks, beds and trailers loaded with pallets of feed corn, 4-wheelers, UTVs, and various designs of shooting houses and elevated stands.
I actually spent opening morning with my friend Levi, trying to get him on an axis for his freezer. Saturday afternoon brought torrential rains, and when they ended I finished the day by putting a roof over my new back porch. Sunday, however, was spent in my tree stand. And in keeping with the recent trend of super-short posts, I could end this one by saying no deer were harmed in the making of my weekend.
I did pass up a couple of deer on Sunday morning, including a very tempting cow horn (8″-9″ spike) at 12 yards. I can tell it’s going to be tough not to shoot small bucks this season, as they seem to be everywhere. I also let a yearling doe walk, but that one wasn’t a difficult decision. I’ve got plenty of time, and there are plenty of deer.
September 27, 2013
You probably thought I was gonna get all poet-y and recreate the beloved Christmas rhyme to celebrate the impending deer season opener (tomorrow!) … but it’s been done so many times that I fought back the temptation to do it over.
But the camo is all hung by the backdoor with care, and the broadheads are sharpened to fly through the air…
So, depending on if this rain actually comes in like they’re saying, I’ll be up on my hill at first light tomorrow with bow in hand. I’m still seeing that six pointer every day, as well as plenty of does. The turkeys also popped in a couple of times, and since the fall season opens with the deer season, I’ll be happy to add one of them to the freezer as well.
There’s a lot of real world stuff going on around here that’s kept me from getting too amped up about the opener, but I imagine that by the time I go to bed tonight, there will be visions of whitetail dancing in my head.
September 18, 2013
And then there was this…
It’s deer season, and as usual, along with the guns and bows, out come the ethics arguments. It’s an educational opportunity for those with the patience to sort through the hypocrisy and ignorance, and for the rare individual who can resist the temptation to feed the “trolls”. Ethics conversations are almost always worth having, even if the outcome isn’t always definitive (it almost never is).
Yesterday, an article about deer “farming” was making the rounds on social networking sites. As you might imagine, it drew a good bit of debate, both about the specific topic as well as the associated conversations about high fence hunting.
First of all, let me say that while I try to be pretty non-judgemental about hunting practices and trends (as long as it is safe, legal, and environmentally healthy), the one thing I have consistently bemoaned is the focus on trophy antlers.
In my opinion, I feel like it changes the nature of the hunt to some sort of competition. I hate to hear a successful hunter practically apologize because his buck is “just a forkie”. It’s disingenuous, to begin with, because if the hunter really felt bad about shooting it, he shouldn’t have shot it. But it’s also a sad sign when we feel like we should measure up to some arbitrary and inconstant standard.
I also feel like the focus, from TV shows, magazines, and the myriad of record books like Pope and Young or Boone and Crockett, perpetuate and feed the appetite for bigger and better deer. I know that “bragging rights” aren’t a new thing (although it will be an interesting bit of history research to pinpoint when trophy quality first became a point of pride), and I absolutely grok the concept. Hell, I am as happy as the next guy at the opportunity to kill a prime specimen (I’ve killed a few), and I lose no time getting those pictures on the Interweb for all my “friends” to see. But I’m also pretty tickled to shoot a fat doe. “Quality” deer to me doesn’t mean big, thick antlers… it means big, thick backstraps.
I also have a lot of respect for the individuals who choose to hunt only for big, trophy bucks. It takes a lot of self control, patience, and hunting skill to consistently kill mature bucks. You have to be willing to set a standard, and to be willing to pass on anything that doesn’t measure up. It can be a great, personal challenge which I can certainly appreciate… as long as they don’t get all self-righteous about it.
But you’d think there would be a limit. No matter how good your property or your management program might be, wild whitetail bucks are only going to get so big.
Enter the deer farms…
Breeding big bucks is huge business. From my place here in the Hill Country, I can drive an hour in any direction and find deer breeding ranches where farmers are mixing genetics to develop an “ultimate” deer. I’m not sure how, or if, anyone defines “ultimate” in this context. Maybe it’s the wrong word, because it implies a final point. I don’t know if there’s any such thing. With the right, carefully managed genetics and ideal nutrition, we could eventually see whitetail bucks with over 300 inches of antler.
It sort of makes me pity the poor bucks, though. I’ve seen some of them in the breeding pens, their heads so heavy with antler that it looks like a struggle just to look up at the sound of the feeder. There must be a reason they never grow that big in the wild… doesn’t anyone consider that?
My sentimental feelings aside, though, it’s crazy big business. From talking to some folks who are involved, I’m reminded of the horse breeding industry. A tube of prime semen can go for tens of thousands of dollars. A breeder buck will set you back more than a house. Even the does can go for a pretty penny, especially if they’re “guaranteed bred” with a top buck.
And then there’s insane amount of money some people will pay to hunt these freaks… and here’s where the conversation gets dicey.
The vast majority of hunting for these freakish deer takes place on high fence ranches. It makes sense, of course, since nobody who paid that much to stock these animals on their property wants to take a chance of it wandering across property lines to be shot for free by some yokel. And just the mention of hunting and fences sets off the klaxons of self-righteous “ethicists” and hunting “purists”.
“Hmm. Strong words, Phillip,” you might be thinking.
And you’d be right. I’m a little sick of the ongoing, holier-than-thou assaults on the general practice of high fence hunting… particularly when it’s carried out by people who’ve never experienced it and don’t have a clue what they’re really talking about. The arguments are built on stereotypes, myth, and the misplaced idea that their ethics are the only ethics. It’s a button. They push it.
So for now, I’m not going further down that road. Just noting that the aforementioned crowd is going to dogpile anything to do with high fence hunting, and that’s that. Not likely to change.
There’s another faction in the argument though, and they’re not as concerned about the fact that these trophy animals are hunted behind a fence (which they generally don’t like) as they are about the trophy itself, and how the hunter chooses to show it off. This one is curious to me.
The scenario they paint is some uber-wealthy individual who goes out to an exclusive property where he spends a blue-collar salary to sit in a luxury shooting house and pick over a herd of genetically superior deer until he picks and shoots his “trophy”. (So far, so good… it’s plausible because it happens.) A few months later, the mount comes back from the taxidermist and goes on rich man’s wall. He proceeds to regale anyone who will listen with the tale of his monster buck, and either omits or changes the actual conditions of the “hunt” in order to enhance the trophy and his own status as Great White Hunter.
Kinda makes you want to take a shower, huh?
And the truth is, those guys are out there. They’re the same ones who lie about their golf handicap or their financial portfolio. They’re the ones who live in trophy houses and collect serial trophy wives. They are every stereotype of the rich and famous that we’ve ever glommed onto.
But I ask you, besides the fact that everyone hates a liar and a braggart, why does this stereotype have such a grip on people… on hunters? Is there a perceived impact on hunting ethics, or on our individual experiences as hunters? Or does it have to do with the traditional divide between the “haves” and “have nots”… a resentment of wealth and privilege?
It’s a valid distinction, and in a lot of ways, it’s probably as old as sport (e.g. recreational) hunting. But does it advance any agenda for hunting? Does it make our individual hunting experience better or worse? What do we gain by denigrating other hunters, even if we don’t appreciate their methods?
It seems to me that this is the question on which we should focus… not on whether farm-raised, genetically modified deer are a good thing or bad. Not on whether it seems fair that only the super-rich get to hunt these monstrosities. Not even whether we should call what these rich sports do behind their high fences, “hunting.”
I think we should be focused on whether or not making that distinction makes us, or our sport, better. Does it improve us? Does it improve the deer herd or habitat? Or is it just an annoyance that we find irresistable to pick at, like an itchy scab over a shallow wound?
September 16, 2013
Well, I’m still waiting for my deer season to open up (12 more interminable days) and I guess some of you guys who are already in the field can’t help rubbing it in! Ian, I’m talking about you! I thought we were friends!
Seriously, big congrats, Ian, on this beauty of an A-zone buck! I know you put in the time for him, and definitely reaped the rewards!