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.
October 7, 2014
California’s A-zone is a special place, and the folks who hunt it every year are a different kind of deer hunter.
To begin with, it’s the largest, single zone in the state, ranging from just north of Los Angeles all the way up to the southern edge of the Mendocino National Forest. It reaches from the coast, inland to Interstate 5. That’s a lot of diverse territory, and the animals that inhabit the place are as different as the regions in which they live.
Then there’s the season itself. A-zone archery starts the weekend after July 4th. Rifle season kicks off in the second week of August. That’s mid-summer, folks, and across much of the zone, these are the hottest, driest months of the year. It takes a special kind of dedication to get out there in these conditions to hump the rugged country in hopes of hanging that A-zone tag on a blacktail buck. Consider as well, that there’s only about a 10%, reported success rate in the zone… and if trophy blacktail bucks are your thing, the A-zone is not the best place to find them (although some real monsters come out of the zone every year… trophies not only for their size, but for their rarity).
Bottom line is, you have to really want to hunt deer to take part in the A-zone seasons, especially to do it consistently. People think I’m crazy when I mention that I miss it.
My friend Jean, and her husband, are a couple of those special hunters, and they didn’t miss the season this year. Here’s Jean’s story from her 2014 A-zone hunt.
Okay, here goes nuttin’…
We took the F150 and the trailer down to Willow Creek early Thursday morning for 3 days of trying to invite a deer to dinner.
The end of the ranch we had talked about hunting was occupied by another hunter. So we started working some of other spurs out from the main ridge. Down from one of the saddles I noticed a loaf shaped object on a small hill, maybe 400 yards away.
It was a bedded doe. She was looking at me. I called Todd on the radio. He came over and watched her with me. We looked away to talk for a few seconds. When we looked back, 3 does were standing. The middle one runs over, kicks the deer on the left and they all trot off down the hill together. It was as if to say “They’re watching too long. Get going, asshole!”
This was exciting to me because it is so hard to see bedded animals. 99.99999% of the time, they do a much better job of hiding than I do of looking.
We then set up camp and rested from the early morning start.
The evening hunt was uneventful, other than the usual bird pissing matches with one another at one of the water tanks.
The next morning hunt I got busted by what was probably another doe. At least I’m seeing deer, even if it is just a glimpse at deer butt. As we’re driving the ridge road, another deer we can’t identify runs away from us. We didn’t find that deer, but we did see one bedded in the same spot as yesterday.
In the early afternoon, we drove the back part of the ranch. Not many tracks and fewer new ones.
I got to my spot for the evening hunt about 6pm. I had little hope of seeing anything other than does but still glad of seeing all of the deer we had been able to see.
A little before 7:00pm I see one, then another critter about 500-600 yards distant. They look like dogs. No wait, THEY LOOK LIKE DEER.
NO, WAIT, THEY LOOK LIKE BUCKS!!!!!!!!!!! THEY ARE HEADED THIS WAY!!!!
Is one legal to shoot? YES, at least one is. They disappear behind a little hill for what seemed like an hour but was probably about 3 minutes. They crest the hill and come down the trail.
I can’t get that thing that’s slamming around in my chest to settle down as much as I would like. I take my best shot at 215 yards. Buck # 1 jumps and runs down the hill. I shoot again because he’s moving and I don’t want him running down into the canyon. He does not come out the other side of the brush pile.
I can now see that Buck # 2 is legal as well. For a moment there is a flash of doubt about “Did I hit the right buck?”. I review my actions and decide my course of action was correct. Buck # 2 did not respond to the sound of the shots at Buck # 1. He looks around for his buddy (in doing so, he presents a perfect broadside shot opportunity), prances around, jumps the fence, and trots away.
I babble something at Todd on the radio. Having heard the shots, he was already on his way. I am cold from the adrenalin in my system. He gets me to tell him the area where I shot and where I last saw the deer. I go down the hill so I can shoot if the deer comes out of the brush.
Todd goes in to check for tracks, blood and deer. There is no blood to see, but he finds some tracks that look like deer in a big damn hurry. Then he finds the deer. At first he thought it was a log. He calls me over. I ask him if I need my rifle. He says “No, he’s dead.”
The hill is steep. The reason the buck did not roll down the hill further is that his antlers became entangled in some chamise branches. I said my private thank you to both the buck and the bush that held him.
Even though he is only a forkie, he is a pretty big buck. The light color of his face tells me he is an old one. I say thank you again and again to nothing and everything.
He is too heavy for us to drag up the steep hill, even with some mechanical advantage.
When I opened him up, seemingly massive amounts of stomach ick and blood come pouring out. One lung is all but gone. My first shot was further aft than I had thought it would be and the buck was at more of an angle to me. There was no diaphram to cut through, it was just gone.
My second shot was almost total crap. My bullet tore some tendons on his upper right front leg. Maybe it helped stop him, I don’t know. It was nowhere near the front of the chest like I had intended.
We pulled him about 100 feet up the hill with a block and tackle to the truck. Lifting him into the back of the truck was a challenge. Todd figured out how to get it done. It is now 9pm and very dark.
Back at camp, the skinning and initial clean up finished up about 2am.
When we came home the next morning, a friend stopped by to help move the cooler, and inspect the head. He looked at the teeth . They were worn even with the roof of the mouth. This deer was definitely an old one.
I look forward now to summer sausage, steaks, jerky, roasts, and burgers. I am grateful to the deer and to my husband, Todd for all his amazing help and hard work.
The deer has indeed become all of those things, including roasting the bones and trimmings in the BBQ and making soup stock.
So congrats, Jean and Todd!
Updated 10/09/14 – Jean sent us a picture with her buck!
September 12, 2014
I know, I know… my friends back in CA have been hunting for weeks (months, in some cases), and the NC archery season back home is opening this weekend. I still have to wait until the 27 for Texas archery to fire up, but I’m about as ready as I can get! I pulled the pictures off the cameras the other day, and I’m pretty stoked about the possibilities.
(As always, click the image if you want a larger view.)
August 28, 2014
It can be a little tough to get psyched about deer season when it’s over 100 degrees outside, and humidity is in the upper three quarters as well. It’s one thing to walk up the hill and check cameras, fill the feeder every month, and watch the deer from the porch. It’s another, altogether, to climb that hill with chainsaw and machete in hand (and a backpack full of water) to work on stands and clearing out the cedar (juniper) so that both the deer and I can actually move through the tangle.
Once I got up there, of course, I found that the deer really didn’t have much problem. In fact, the hillside looks like a deer highway with little tunnels anywhere the branches are too thick. Picking a spot for a stand isn’t so much a question of figuring out where the deer will pass, but figuring out where I can put it so that I’m not right in the middle of a trail. I need them to walk past me, not over me. What’s more, is I need a place where I can actually slip an arrow through the brush. The only way to do that is start cutting.
I’ve been meaning, ever since last fall, to get out there and clear some new hunting spots. I’ve planned, and reconsidered, and planned some more, but it just seemed like there was always some reason not to do it. The barn needed work. The pasture needed to be mowed. I needed to build a back porch because the old stairs were a death trap. And so on and so on until, suddenly, summer was here. And with summer comes heat.
The thing about working in this terrain during the Texas summer is that it’s not only uncomfortable, it’s potentially dangerous. It’s easy to become dehydrated, and it happens fast. Heat prostration can sneak right up, and if you’re not careful, you’ll face full heat exhaustion… and working solo, up in this thick stuff, that’s a very bad place to be. Of course, it can be done. There are guys out there every day, building fence, herding livestock, clearing land… but it’s not something that a 50 year-old, computer jockey should take lightly. I’m not a kid anymore, and as much as I love working with my hands on this ranch, I’m not a lifelong rancher either.
But all that aside, the other real reason for delay is that it’s just damned hard to get motivated to get out there and suffer that heat when I’ve got a nice, air conditioned house with Internet and TV and Kat to keep company. Besides, I have a stand for Kat already, when either of us wants to shoot deer with the rifle. And, until fairly recently, I already had a great stand, the Murder Hole, for all my bowhunting needs. But back in May, while checking the pasture fences, I saw that a huge piece of the oak tree that contains the Murder Hole stand had broken off. The stand is still intact, but it’s now completely exposed. I can still put some cover up there and use the stand, but it’s going to make a tough hunt even tougher.
The Murder Hole was not as well planned as I’d like. I mean, it’s in the perfect location for deer traffic, both morning and evening. But I made a couple of miscalculations. The prevailing winds in the canyon when I built the stand were generally south to north, so I set the stand with an optimal northerly view. Behind the stand (to the south), I left the thick cedars alone to provide a screen, and to funnel the deer to either side of the stand. What I didn’t realize was that this changes during the fall, and that there’s more of a northerly flow… especially in the late evening, when the deer are moving down from the south-facing slopes. I can’t count the number of times the deer walked right up behind me, and then blew out when they caught my scent. And trust me, I don’t care what kind of scent control you use… at five or ten yards downwind, especially on a warm day, the deer are going to smell you.
So setting up a new stand isn’t just an option anymore. I had to do something. I could try to fix up the Murder Hole, or get to work on a better location.
Back in June, I went at it and cleared a really pretty little park amongst the cedars up on the hillside about 200 yards behind the house. There’s a huge, old oak tree in the middle that would be a great spot for a platform stand. I also used the slash to create a couple of brush piles where it would be pretty easy to hide a pop-up blind. Within a week, the native bunch grasses started coming up in the new clearing (thanks to some very timely rain), and the place looked perfect. I set a camera out, looking forward to a ton of photos. What I got, so far, is a couple of shots of the same two does, and a bunch of raccoons. This wasn’t what I’d hoped to see. I needed to put something up closer to the old stand, but better planned.
The summer came, and nearly went. Deer season is less than a month away. So, this past weekend, I went at it.
I found a good location up on the hillside where there’s a reasonably flat(tish) spot. Several trails converge around it, but there’s one spot where it’s too thick for the deer to move. I could clear a hole out there to build my stand, and with all of the cedar brush I would cut, I could build a blind with natural material. When I finish, it should look like any of the other brush piles I’ve created around the property (it’s too dry to burn, and they make great habitat for birds and small game).
I still have a lot of work to do. These cedars are hell on a chainsaw, and it was already a little dull from the previous projects. I was soon reduced to using the machete. Even after drinking three liters of water, I started getting chills and cramps… and that’s a pretty good indication that it’s time to call it a day in this heat.
The final plan is to have the site completely brushed in, including a “roof”. As you can see in this photo, I’ve also still got a lot of clearing to do for shooting lanes. I got both chains good and sharp now, so consider this the “before” picture. I’ll update soon, I hope, with the finished product. Then I just need to leave it alone until the deer get used to it. By September 27 (archery opener), it should become my new, go-to spot.
Then I can focus on some of the other locations I’ve scouted. Who knows? Maybe by the time next summer rolls around, I’ll actually have some of them cleared and ready for use.
July 28, 2014
I’ve noticed that a popular thing to do at events is to bring in a photo booth, where the participants step inside for a quick snapshot of themselves enjoying the party. I guess sometimes there are costumes and props available to make the picture a little more memorable. For my part though, I like the come-as-you-are approach.
It just so happens that there’s a year-round party going on up the hill behind the Hillside Manor, and the festive attendees aren’t a bit shy about showing off their party finest. Here are a couple of candids from some recent shindigs.
As always, click any image to see a full-size version.