September 17, 2014
It’s been seven years since I last chased elk in Colorado, and every one of those years has brought an intense longing (aka, jonesing) to get back into the high country and do it again. And, finally, I was able to make it happen.
Tomorrow morning, I’m hitting the road for Montrose, CO. There, I’ll meet up with my friend, Dave and our other friend, Dave, and we’ll all meet up with my friend and favorite CO outfitter, Rick Webb of Dark Timber Lodge. We’ll follow him along the backroads and climb up to his cabin in the higher country, along the edges of the Uncompahgre Wilderness… and beginning on Saturday, we’ll be afoot and in pursuit of the great wapiti.
I checked in with Rick a couple of weeks ago, and the bulls were just beginning to bugle. The weather has been all over the place, but it’s looking promising for the next seven or eight days. We’re close to a new moon (instead of the full moon I battled last time I was there). I’ve been shooting the bow daily, and daydreaming about watching that broadhead disappear into the tawny hide of a big bull. Or, it could be a cow, or a raghorn. I’m not really picky. Like almost any hunter, I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity at a trophy animal, but I’m there to put elk venison in the freezer. The cool thing about this hunt is that it’s an over-the-counter, either sex tag.
But I’m really not writing this to crow about my impending, awesome trip. It’s more to let you know that the Hog Blog is probably going to be even quieter than usual over the next seven or eight days. I haven’t checked, but last time I was there, Rick didn’t have Internet at the lodge… and even if he does, based on previous experience, I’m probably not going to be very motivated to do much blogging. We generally head out before daylight and don’t get in until well after dark. I think our average day on the last hunt was in the neighborhood of 18 miles of Rocky Mountain terrain, and that’s all at around 8000 to 9000 feet elevation. My ass will be dragging by the time dinner and showers are out of the way.
So, if you’re one of the small handful of folks who pop by regularly to see if there’s anything new (sporadic as it’s been lately), don’t worry. The blog isn’t dead.
I’m just gone hunting.
August 20, 2014
I know, CA hunters are already hard at it, with A-zone rifle underway, and archery seasons cranking up across most of the rest of the state. Kinda late to say, “get ready for the season,” huh?
But here’s news (at least to me) that I think some CA hog hunters will be happy to hear. According to an article I just saw in the Red Bluff Daily News, northern California hog hunters will have a new opportunity, starting on September 1, as the DFG and US Fish and Wildlife Service will be opening up hog hunting in the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge.
According to the article, the hogs are doing significant damage to the riparian areas that the FWS has worked so hard to restore along the river. Hunters will help alleviate the damage, both by killing some of the hogs and pressuring others out of the sensitive areas. These hunts are shotgun and archery only. The season will run from September 1 through March 15, and will only apply in units of the refuge that already allow hunting. Check local regulations before venturing out.
Of course, down here in the Lone Star State, an awful lot of folks are looking forward to the September 1 dove season opener (Northern and Central zones). Down in the southern edge of the state, dove hunters will have to wait a week to get in on the action. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, there should be a boom of birds this year. I know that, down here at the Hillside Manor, I’ve been seeing a pretty fair number of birds. Closer to the agricultural areas around Uvalde and Sabinal, birds seem to be everywhere. Lots of cut corn fields, cotton, and sunflower fields are keeping them active and fat.
Something else the TPWD has done for 2014 is set up an online tool to apply for “Drawn Hunts”. These are hunts on both public and private property that offer some opportunities like archery hunts for Mule Deer in Big Bend, alligator hunts over in the eastern part of the state, or even guided, scimitar-horned oryx hunts at Mason Mountain. Some of the hunts include a fee if you’re drawn, while others only cost the price of entering the drawing (this varies from a few bucks to $10 or so). Obviously, these drawings can be tightly contested, as only a few openings exist for most of the hunts, but the rewards can certainly be something to get excited about. Deadlines for each drawing are posted on the site, and most of the hunts include a specific set of dates. You’ll want to make sure you read everything thoroughly before you sign up, but definitely, sign up! In a state like Texas, with so little public land, this is one way to get out and do some hunting in prime locations… often with very limited pressure or competition.
Me? I’m pretty much ready for the doves (besides the occasional Eurasian collared dove I shoot for snacks), but this year I’ve really started looking forward to deer season. There are two bucks that have been pretty regular visitors this summer, and as much as I’ve enjoyed watching them grow… well, I can’t help thinking about getting an arrow into one of them. I haven’t decided if I want a shot at Funkhorn (or if presented, can I take the shot after watching him for so long?) or at the traditional 8-pointer. I guess my mind will be made up should the time actually come.
August 15, 2014
Big thanks to my friend, David, for sharing this story and pictures. Like him, I’ve been putting in for the Grizzly Island tule elk hunt for years (since 1997) without success. Congrats to Serra for drawing this hunt!
How’d it work out? Here are David’s own words and photos.
About Tule Elk in California and the Tag Lottery
For as long as I have been hunting, I have put in for the lottery drawing for a Tule Elk tag at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. The wildlife area is home to a few hundred head of Elk and although they are free range animals, they rarely go far from the wildlife area and when they do, they always return. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife manages the elk herds here and throughout the state. Their stated goals are to maintain healthy elk herds, reestablish elk in suitable historic range, provide public educational and recreational opportunities involving elk, and to alleviate conflicts involving elk on private property. Part of the management plan calls for a limited number of animals to be harvested by hunters. The number of tags in a given year can vary but the competition to win a tag is steep, sometimes there are more than a thousand people trying for the same tag. For instance, last year’s period 5 bull hunt had two tags allotted with over 1600 applicants. That is a 1 in over 800 chance; not very good odds. I know people who have been trying to obtain a tag their entire hunting careers and have never done so. Imagine my surprise when I logged in to the DFW website to check our draw results and saw that my daughter, Serra, had won an antlerless tag. We would be hunting in the first hunting period, August 12-15 (on her 16th birthday no less). With more animals to be harvested this year, maybe the odds were in our favor, maybe the hunting gods were in a good mood on drawing day or maybe it was birthday luck. Whatever it was we weren’t questioning it. We were thankful and we knew we had a lot of work ahead. We had to incorporate scouting trips and a whole ton of shooting practice into the 2 months from the tag drawing to the actual hunt.
Serra has had a license since she was 12. She has taken deer, quail and ducks. She hunts deer with a Marlin 1898 in .44 Remington Magnum. A fine gun for a deer out to 100 yards but for elk, we would need to step it up a bit. We knew, from our experiences duck hunting on the wildlife area that these animals can get so close to you that you can see their breath in the cold foggy mornings. Nothing like duck hunting and to have a bull elk walk right through your decoy spread. At the same time, they may stay several hundred yards away. Whatever the case, we knew that we had to be prepared for a wide range of shots. For this hunt, Serra would use my Browning BAR Semi-Automatic in .300 Winchester Magnum. This is a very flat shooting gun and can handily take down a big animal out to several hundred yards. The gun was a gift from a very dear friend. After shooting it some, my friend and I had a muzzle break added to it to reduce the recoil. Between the semi-automatic action and the muzzle break, there is hardly any kick to it at all. Perfect for my daughter; she could shoot it a lot and not worry about the kick and just focus on improving accuracy. We practiced on various targets from bowling pins to cans, to bottles to traditional targets. We practiced shooting at various yardages with the targets at different elevations from ground level to eye level to above eye level. This gave us small targets to shoot at different sight lines and it gave her the confidence to make a pin-point accurate shot knowing that if she was off a little from a tiny target that the mistake would not be so detrimental on a large animal.
Next we had to scout the wildlife area in an effort to find a large group of cow elk and learn their patterns. Luckily, we live about 40 minutes from the area so we could take some trips after work and on weekends to scout it out. The first trip, we found some bulls but not a single cow elk. We were a little down on this but we ran into a game warden who took time to congratulate Serra and to explain their habits and patterns to us. He told us to give it a couple of weeks and come back. He said that the Cows were pretty spread out but in a couple weeks the smaller bulls would be herding them up in preparation for the rut. Heeding his advice, we returned in a couple of weeks and just as predicted we were finding large groups of cow elk being herded by rag-horn bulls. One group in particular had over 65 head of elk, most of them cows. This was the group we would continue to follow and watch until we had the pattern figured out. We knew where they were going to be and at what times and we even formulated our plan for the stalk and the kill. This was going to be easy I thought. I had visions of a short stalk and about a 60 yard chip shot. I think I heard the hunting gods (the same ones that showed us favor in giving us the tag) giggle. Actually, I heard one of them do a spit-take followed by bellowing laughter.
Prior to opening day, DFW hosts a mandatory orientation. The tag winners, six in all plus their spotters/helpers, attended the orientation. It is led by Pat, the area manager, Orlando the area biologist and the local game warden (I forgot to get his name). They cover everything from safety to elk habits and patterns to giving you tips on where they have been seeing the elk and strategies for getting close. Their goal is to ensure safety during the hunt and to help you to be successful. They did a superb job. They also provide you a phone number so that when you harvest an animal, they can respond out to pick it up. They collect a myriad of scientific data including live weight and biological samples such as the front teeth so they can determine age.
Opening day started early, with the alarm going off at 3am. It was unusually cool for a summer morning. The wind was strong and fog was blowing in from the bay. My good friend and neighbor, Matt, would be accompanying us on the hunt. I am disabled and although we would hunt as a group he would help guide Serra to the animals and get close enough for a shot where I could not. As we drove into the wildlife area in the cool dark morning, a big bull elk and a spike elk bolted from a creek bottom up and over the gravel road. They were running full bore as they crested the road. They had been out on private land all night and were returning to the wildlife area. This got the heart rate going. Was it going to be this easy with elk just crossing right in front of us? I heard another hunting god snicker. Read more
June 20, 2014
The age-old battle over the bird-feeder between homeowner and squirrel is the stuff of much humor, as well as the never-ending source of frustration for some people. The quest to build a squirrel-proof bird feeder has lined the pockets of many an “inventor”, but when it comes to thwarting these agile, clever little thieves… well, success has been generally limited.
Personally, I say, “if life gives you squirrels, make fried squirrel for dinner!”
Until recently, I haven’t really had much of an issue with the squirrels. Most of them stay up in the woods, happy to feed on acorns and such, with the occasional foray to the deer feeder. They don’t eat that much, and I kind of like to watch them when I’m deer hunting. Here at the house, I’ve also let them be. Until this spring, there were only one or two who’d show up from time to time to gnaw on the big suet block, but they generally left the other feeder alone. They provided great entertainment, particularly when Iggy would go charging off the porch and launch himself into the yard to chase them.
I guess a little spring magic happened, though, because suddenly there were not two, but five or six squirrels hopping around the oaks in the front yard. A suet block would disappear in a day, and they even figured out how to shake the seed out of the “squirrel proof” finch feeder. It was too much.
I keep the Benjamin Marauder by the front door anyway, because I’ve been working on thinning the jackrabbits who graze my barn pasture. That’s another critter I wouldn’t ordinarily worry about, but it’s amazing how much grass those things can eat… and in the drought conditions, grass is a precious commodity. I’ve been making rabbit chili, braised hare, and my own take on a dish I saw over on Hank Shaw’s Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook blog, chilinron. There are still a few left in the freezer, and the “on-the-hoof” supply seems nearly limitless.
But anyway, the other afternoon the squirrels were particularly active. Three of them had literally emptied the finch feeder in a few hours and were scampering around, collecting whatever seeds were left in the area. Iggy would run out and chase them into the oak trees, and then they’d descend almost as soon as he set foot back up on the porch. The time had come. I grabbed the Benjamin.
A couple of notes about using the Marauder for this work.
First of all, it’s amazingly quiet… not dead silent, of course, but the noise level is way below that of the .17hmr or .22lr that would be my usual small-game guns. At the first shot, the remaining squirrels took some notice and ran a short distance into the trees. I’m fairly certain the crack of a .22 would have sent them off into the woods. As it was, I was able to shoot all three squirrels in relatively short order. (As an aside, no one out here much cares about a little gunfire in the ‘hood, but for use in a more suburban environment, the quiet-shooting Marauder is a very positive attribute.)
The second thing about the Marauder is its accuracy. I’ve been shooting those jackrabbits out to 75 yards across the pasture. I’ll admit to requiring a bit of Kentucky windage to make the longer shots, and there are a number of misses… but I only try for head shots. Jackrabbit bones are brittle and tend to explode into little shards, so I avoid shooting them through the body. It just wastes too much meat (and there’s not much there to begin with). Squirrels are, skeletally speaking, similarly fragile. Fortunately, these shots were all within 25 yards, and that Marauder is ridiculously sharp-shooting at that distance. Quick, clean kills were the rule… one, two, three.
Finally, there’s the safety factor. I have a neighbor about a quarter mile across the canyon from my house, so that precludes much use of the .22 or .17 for shooting out of the front yard… especially up in the trees. Despite its power and accuracy, the Marauder is still an air rifle. Barring a phenomenally perfect angle and tailwind, it’s highly unlikely an errant pellet would come anywhere near their house. Even if it did, it would not be carrying enough velocity or energy to do any harm. (I still avoid shooting directly toward their house, of course, but I’m not too worried about mishaps.)
At any rate… from the bird feeder to the frying pan. Seems like a fair deal to me.
June 19, 2014
Sorry, couldn’t help the post title. Wonder how much misdirected traffic that will pull in…
Anyway, there are a handful of interesting things going on but I’m still gathering details. In the meantime, I thought that it’s about time I started posting up some Texas hunting news, along with news from CA. So here’s a good one to start with:
The Public Hunting Program is launching a new online-only drawn hunt system for 2014-2015 hunts. Starting in early July, you can search for hunts by category and location, apply for hunts and check drawing status, all online.
Drawn Hunts offers affordable hunting experiences on public lands in more than 24 different hunt categories, including eight Youth Only hunt categories. This includes hunts for desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn, white-tailed deer, mule deer, exotics, turkey and more.
This year, all applications will be submitted online and the “Applications for Drawings” booklet will no longer be printed and mailed. Instead, an online catalog of all 2014-2015 hunts will be available.
With the new online-only Public Hunt Drawing System, you can now:
- Apply multiple times in the same hunt category and apply up until midnight the day of deadline
- Receive email notifications once selected
- Print or store permits on a mobile device to display when needed
- Use your unique Customer ID number as your identifier
- Pay any required application or permit fees by credit card
- Apply for antlerless deer tags on US Forest Service areas
Learn more about the Drawn Hunts application process. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact us at email@example.com or (512) 389-4505.
As I’m learning more about Texas, I’ve found that there are actually some pretty intriguing public hunting opportunities around the state. Obviously, compared to other western states, Texas has very little public land available to hunters. At the same time, though, the land that out there is extraordinarily diverse, with opportunities for everything from alligators to desert bighorns. Learn more on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website.
May 15, 2014
Well, look at me. My very last post was about cleaning out my blog roll and removing folks who haven’t been posting regularly… and here I let the whole, bloody week slip by without so much as a peep. Ah, well… I’ll fall back to my favorite Whitman. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. etc.”
All that aside, I just haven’t had a lot to report of late.
There’s some occasional news coming in from my news feeds in regards to feral pigs and wild boar, but I tried the news aggregator approach here before, and I don’t think it added much value to the blog. There’s a certain sameness to most of the news articles anyway… sort of an, “if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all” atmosphere. I’ll sum it up.
Wild pigs are in X neighborhood (or county, township, community, state). They’re bad. People are scared. Officials are trying to do something about it that may include:
- shooting them
- trapping them
- scaring them away
I’m also keeping an eye on news related to lead ammo, of course. And it looks like there’s a strong movement afoot in Rhode Island to ban lead for hunting… led by none other than our friends at HSUS. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do an entire “Lead Ban Chronicles” post on this one. I did, however, provide counterpoint to an editorial on the topic in the Providence Journal online edition.
On the other hand (and the other side of the Atlantic), according to this piece from Ammoland news, Norway is considering a repeal of their ban on lead shot outside of wetlands and clay shooting courses. Here’s the guts of the story from that site:
The Norwegians have concluded, following sustained lobbying from the Norway Hunters’ Association (Jegernes Interesseorganisasjon), that there is no evidence of any real harm from the use of lead in shotgun cartridges and they believe that none of the alternatives to lead ammunition are as effective.
The Norway Hunters’ Association summed up the key facts for a repeal effectively – the amount of lead discharged throughout the countryside has a negligible impact on the environment, in comparison to both the potential welfare implications of using alternatives and the unknown environmental implications of those alternatives. The arguments about alternatives to lead shot are well rehearsed (read more about alternatives in our own Case for Lead here), but the simple fact is that it is vital we meet our responsibility to kill wild game in the most humane and effective way.
An interesting side note in this article is that Norway’s neighbors in Denmark are apparently adding tungsten to their list of banned shot materials, along with lead. As the US military found out in their own “green ammo” testing, tungsten is a carcinogen, and is actually less stable in the ground than lead. Thus, it presents a greater risk of leeching carcinogenic material into groundwater sources. Tungsten is commonly used as an alternative material for lead-free shot, and has also been used in the development of lead-free rifle and handgun bullets.
Personally, I think most of the risks are miniscule and overstated, but it should give folks pause in the blind, headlong rush to ban lead ammo and give some serious thought to what we’re replacing it with.
Finally, on a local note, the Hillside Manor deer herd is coming along nicely. While some of the bucks were still wearing headgear right up into the first of April, I’m also seeing the first nubs of new growth on several others. We only killed one buck here last year, and pressure was pretty light at the camps around us, so I’m expecting to see a bunch of last year’s youngsters coming into their own this coming season.
I’m heading out this weekend for a hunt with a group of guys from CA, AZ, and UT. We’ll be looking to put some meat in the freezer. On the list are aoudad ewes (I haven’t eaten aoudad yet) and axis does… as well as any unfortunate hogs that stumble into view. At least one of the guys is hoping to tag a trophy-quality animal as well. If nothing else, that should give me some pictures to put up next week.
March 26, 2014
I did notice that a lot of the young bucks that usually come to the feeder have shed already (except one little spike who is currently a unicorn), but this guy was still sporting full headgear just a couple of weeks ago.
I’ll be checking the juniper thickets over the next couple of weeks, in hopes of picking these guys antlers up before the mice get them.
I may as well hunt sheds. The turkeys are playing mean games with me right now.
November 4, 2013
Just a little something that I thought of this weekend, with the opening of rifle season down here. I pulled out my go-to rifles, the Savage 30-06 and Browning Lever Action .243. Both of these rifles have always been tack drivers, and each has taken a fairly good number of game animals.
I set up a couple of targets at 100 yards, figuring that I’d shoot four or five shots just to get the feeling back in my trigger finger. I’ve done plenty of rimfire and pistol shooting over the summer, but the big guns didn’t get out much. I leveled off the 30-06, and squeezed off a crack. The 180gr ETip screamed off down range and…
Where the hell did it go?
I pulled out the Leicas and scanned the target. I can’t remember which brand these targets are, but they’re the ones with the reflective layer under the black, so you can spot your hits easier. After a moment, I realized that the yellow spot way over on the right edge of the target was not a number, but my bullet hole. I must have pulled it pretty bad.
I settled in behind the scope again, got my breathing nice and easy, squeezed the Timney trigger (at 2 1/4 lbs., it doesn’t take much), and sent the second round about 1/2″ above the first shot. My third shot went just to the left of the first. It was a nice little MOA group, but it was over 4″ to the right of where I was aiming.
I made the adjustments and got the group to settle just at the top of the 1″ bull. I thought, while I’m at it I should give these Barnes Vor-TX loads a try. These are launching a 165gr. tipped TSX (TTSX) bullet, so I was curious how much different the point of impact would be. I stuffed four of them into the mag and settled in. My first shot was about an inch higher than the ETips, almost dead over the bullseye. My next three all landed almost even with the ETip group, but maybe an inch and a half to the left of it. The group was a little bigger than I got from the ETips, maybe 1 3/4″, but I can’t say that was the ammo… and it was still a really respectable group for a hunting round. My plan is to hunt with the Barnes Vor-TX ammo this season, since I have yet to take any game with this cartridge.
Happy with the Savage, I set it aside and loaded up the BLR. Now I’ve had this rifle for close to 30 years, and it got a lot of use. It has always been scary accurate. I’ve shot holes in dimes with it at 100 yards, and even used to hang a beer can from a piece of kite string, and then shoot the string. But the trick about this rifle is that it’s got a wispy-thin barrel, and .243 is a pretty hot round. You have to let it cool off after a few shots, or the group will start to walk across the target.
The BLR didn’t like Barnes ammo when I tried it a few years ago, and Winchester was good enough to provide me with some of their new (at the time) XP3 ammo. The XP3 shoots lights out from this rifle. Unfortunately, when I dug my ammo out I realized I only had about seven rounds left. “Oh well,” thought I. “I’ll shoot a three shot group to verify zero, and that will leave me four rounds for Kat to use to shoot her deer.”
To make the long story shorter, my first group settled about four inches high and six inches right of the bull. I made adjustments, but now I had a decision to make. Use up the last of the XP3 ammo, or switch to something else. I had about a half box of rounds on top of the safe. They were in a Winchester silver box, but instead of the nickel cases these were brass. I decided to give them a go, and stuffed three of them into the mag.
The first shot was almost exactly 12:00, but still almost six inches high. My second shot went right by about two inches, but was only about one inch high. My third shot was about two inches below the second. What the hell?
It turns out that the ammo in the box was mixed. There were some 85gr Barnes TSX mixed in with what I think were 100gr Winchester PowerPoints, along with a third bullet that I couldn’t recognize (it was coated, so I think it was some kind of Winchester Premium line). Just for kicks, I tried it again. The Barnes bullet went in about four inches high and an inch or so to the right. The Power Points hung together, just to the right of the bull and a little high. I think I was getting fatigued at this point, because I landed the coated bullets all over the place. It was time to stop. The next day and well rested, I was able to get the Power Points into about a two inch group, about one inch high of the bull. Even though I know this rifle is capable of more, that was plenty good enough for shooting deer.
The whole experience was a sobering reminder that it’s a good idea to re-check the zero on our hunting rifles at least every season, even if you don’t think it’s necessary. For example, even though both are topped with identical Leupold VX-II glass, the two rifles I sighted in this weekend have had very different lives.
Because it’s always on standby down here, the Savage spends a lot of time bouncing around in the truck. It’s travelled all over the country, often just riding on the back seat or in the rear floorboard. The dog walks on it. Groceries get set on top of it. All things considered, it wasn’t a big surprise that the scope had shifted. I account for this, however, by shooting it from the bench at least a few times each year.
But the BLR lives in the safe, except during hunting seasons. Last year it came out once, Kat shot a deer with one well-placed shot, and it got cleaned and put away. The distance from the safe to the stand wasn’t more than a 100 yard walk. Before that, it’s been over two years since I used that rifle on a hunt. I shot it a little bit in the interim, mostly messing around off-hand behind the barn, but this weekend was probably the first time that rifle has been on a bench in three years. My guess is that it was off last year when Kat shot her deer, but four or five inches of variance didn’t really matter on that 75 yard shot. The bullet may have gone a little high and wide, but it was still well within the kill zone. But if that deer had been 200 yards out, across the pasture, the result might have been very different.
Besides the obvious, I don’t know why scopes tend to go out of zero from time to time. Manufacturers like to make big claims about the ruggedness and reliability of their optics, rings, and bases. And I think most modern scopes are pretty danged solid. But when you think about it, the mechanics that hold and adjust the crosshairs and mirrors of a modern scope are relatively delicate things. They’re subject to all sorts of forces, from recoil to air pressure and humidity. Even rocks change over time. It should be no wonder that our optics do too.
Checking zero shouldn’t require a whole box of ammo, or a whole lot of time. It’s a reasonably small effort that can pay out big rewards in the end, though.
October 22, 2013
My friend, John (JAC) pops in here from time to time, usually to keep me honest when I’m off on a rant about lead-free ammo or other such stuff. But he also gets out for an occasional hunt, and this season he was fortunate enough to get after an elk in his home state of Arizona. As I requested, he sent me a write-up about the hunt.
Events in the field often don’t play out quite like we plan them. This was the case for John, and as you’ll see, he had to do a little internal processing after all was said and done (as evidenced in the title he gave the piece). I’ve been corresponding with him via email, so I’ll hold off on repeating my comments just now. I’d love to hear what some of you folks think, though.
How to fail massively and wind up with 265 pounds of elk venison
I went elk hunting last week in hopes of finally filling my freezer in accordance with my desire to eat no meat but that which I’d hunted myself. I had only two rules: first rule, don’t shoot a cow with a calf, and second, don’t violate the first rule.
My excellent friend Steve has a place in Payson, Arizona, and last year, he and I hunted mule deer on the high desert that falls away from Payson toward Phoenix and he agreed to help me again this year. He is excellent in the sense that he is good at being a friend, and in the sense that he is good at being a compassionate person working in the morally and legally complex field of law enforcement. You guys would get along, actually. Like you, he has a pick up truck that is 72 feet long. Like yours, It has a big, happy dog in it a lot of the time. He sees game when it’s too far away for me to see it the way you do. And like you, he runs off in pursuit of it. I told Steve about my rules and he said not to worry, there were so many elk around I’d tag out the first morning after picking my shot.
I bought a 30-06 last year in case I was ever drawn for elk. I took it to the range this Spring to sight-in for the first time. I fired ten times over the course of an hour and then went out to the concession and bought a bottle of water. When I came back I was on the right side of the rifle for the first time and I saw a six inch scratch running lengthwise under the bolt-knob. I first thought someone handled it while I was gone and dropped it against the table. But that would be such an egregious, unimaginable violation of etiquette, I decoded instead that I must have pulled it from the case against the zipper and scratched it myself.
Beginning in August, I loaded lots variations of rounds with Nosler E-Tips and the first time I went out and ran them over a chrono and checked their accuracy, some of the groups were perfect little clover leafs and I figured I was one seriously dangerous elk hunter. The next time I went, however, the groups opened up to several inches and the scratch felt rough when I wiped down the stock. The third time out, after a few shots, the scratch grew and forked. There never was a scratch of course, the stock had fractured during the first few shots. So last Tuesday I took my 7mm-08 to the range with a box of reloads made by Stars & Stripes Ammunition and a lump in my throat. I’m a great worrier and I was seriously worried about the diminutive cartridge for elk. I salved my worry by writing friends (sorry you were one) and pointing out that the 7mm-08 is more powerful at 200 yards than a 30-30 is at the muzzle. Pretty thin gruel for my ravenous anxiety, but it’s what I had. Apropos of your post on copper projectiles last week, those Stars & Stripes rounds fired 140 grain Barnes TTSX bullets at 2863 fps. The rifle shot two sub MOA groups like it usually does and I went home and cleaned it. Wednesday morning I went to the range and fired two fouling shots and spent the day getting supplies I needed. When I was loading up Wednesday night, the moon was big and bright. I’d not been paying attention to it and hadn’t noticed it during the week and I hoped it was waning.
I drove up to Payson on Thursday. Leaving dinner that evening, it was clear the moon was waxing instead of waning. It was sitting hugely on the horizon. At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, the moon was fully up and casting shadows. The wind had picked up too making the 32 degree temperature feel especially ugly. We drove out to a 125 yard wide electrical line easement that ran for miles, off loaded Steve’s Polaris, and drove off into the cutting wind, no headlights necessary thanks to the moonlight. The plan was to get up high and glass so after stashing the ATV, we bombed up several hundred feet of a nearby slope, Steve demonstrating how he got the nickname Big Diesel. That guy doesn’t race, but he doesn’t slow down either. Ten minutes later, fully warm I settled in to wait for dawn. Fifteen minutes after that, fully cold, I was silently rooting for dawn to hurry the hell up as I pulled my fingers into a fist inside my gloves.
The sun eventually rose and the cold abated, but he wind never relented. We glassed a long time, then Steve made a big loop through the canyons to see what he could see. I stayed behind in a shady spot, my rifle resting on my monopod and glassed the easement. The area seemed likely. There were ravines falling away on both sides of the easement, filled with a mixture of oak, pine and spruce. There was a lot of elk scat. I stayed in the field all day, still hunting up and down the ravines and eventually found a narrow draw in the easement where the ground fell away pretty quickly to a floor of fresh grass. There was even some clover growing there. I sat up on the edge in the afternoon shadows with the wind straight into my face. Around 3:30 in the afternoon a big coyote with a beautiful red plume at the end of his tail came over the lip of the far side and trotted down the slope. At 60 yards he did the National Geographic front legged hop and stomp, lunged in after whatever he’d stomped up, pulled his head out of the grass and tossed something into the air, caught it, chewed it and then tossed his head back to swallow. For the next five minutes that handsome boy raced around a little blue spruce, lunging in here and there, sometimes upending himself to get an whatever he’d found. He eventually came straight down into the bottom of the draw and crossed away from me to the other side, his tail looking the color of a red-headed baby in the sunshine. After the coyote left, I watched iridescent blue jays gathering food the rest of the afternoon. We don’t have birds like that in Phoenix and I don’t remember them back in Missouri either. II spent a pretty nice afternoon and I headed back to meet Steve at the truck in the gloaming. Steve had taken his quad on a loop of several miles but didn’t see any mammals himself.
Saturday morning we hunted a place named Walnut Flat. There was one truck in the pullout and another high up the mountain when we pulled in. The moon was insanely bright. We waited until 5:30 then got on the quad and drove off into the moonlight. As the first glimmer of daylight started to change the color of the horizon we headed off on foot. Walnut Flat is beautiful. It’s a large grassy mesa surrounded by ravines and there is a pond at the interior edge. We glassed, moved off and glassed again, hopping from juniper to juniper. We came across a ground blind situated to watch a huge open area. We spent the next hour, maybe two skirting the edge of the ravine to get over the edge of the mesa out of the blind’s field of fire. Around 9:30, Steve headed back to the quad to check on his dog back at the truck. I snuck along through the forest for a couple more hours. There was so much scat on the slopes above Walnut Flat that if I wasn’t standing in glistening black elk droppings, I needed only to take a step left or right to crush some. I don’t know where the animals were that left all the scat though. I didn’t hear any rifle shots either.
Saturday afternoon we headed out for a place called Hardscrabble Mesa. We took the National Forest road until it dead ended at an engineer’s dream of a gate. It was made of a rectangle of 4″ box steel with 4″ box steel cross supports. It’s end posts were sunk into concrete and guarded by gambion boxes filled with head-sized river rock which was cemented inside the wire. We left the quad and clambered past the gate to take a look a the road beyond. To our left were rock wall cliffs rising a couple hundred feet and to our right a drop off of lots of hundreds of feet. I never really got close enough to look straight down because I am somewhat, but not completely crazy. The warning signs said the road was unstable and it was hard to dispute that as we made our way down the hill toward a sharp curve guarded by k-walls. It looked like the monsoon rains had washed away the pavement and undercut the cliffs on the inside of road. We only walked for a few minutes past the k-walls and when we turned around we could see why they were there. There were four, maybe five crushed cars that had gone off the road. Those cars had free-fallen as little as 60 feet and as much as several hundred feet. The results were the same for all the cars, though. Gauging by the cars’ age, the road must have been built by the 40’s and the k-walls placed in the 70’s.
We took the quad to the top of Hardscrabble Mesa. That is a sunny, windy place without any water we saw or could find on the maps. Steve wandered off the utility roads once and reported that there was as much scat as on Walnut Flat, only it was all white with age. A couple hours killed, the sun heading for the horizon, we headed for the truck. If you are into zooming, terrifying quad rides, hop on Steve’s on the top of a mountain mesa with 45 minutes till the end of shooting light. Holy mackerel. As we loaded up, I figured that I’d seen a coyote, some beautiful jays and had had the ride of a lifetime. It was a good weekend already.
As I turned in Saturday night, I didn’t need to turn on the bedroom light, the moonlight sweeping in was plenty bright.
For the third morning in a row, my phone lit up and sang at 3:23 a.m Sunday. Steve had picked a third spot, near the East Branch of the Verde River and we lumbered out. It was as cold as the first day but the air was still. As we pulled off the highway, the headlights settled on three elk cows. A really big one, a medium sized one and a smallish one. There must be more, I figured but whatever else, I admonished myself, don’t shoot that mommy elk. I was suddenly very enthusiastic about the place Steve had picked. The pullout was u-shaped and we went back to the highway and found another. We left the quad and headed into the forest sneaking from moon shadow to moon shadow. We picked a big shadow behind a big cedar and stood still waiting for dawn. We could see the highway and watched two trucks pull off within sight of Steve’s. I was pretty unhappy since I had a proprietary feeling about the spot. We moved into the forest away from the people with elk rifles and ATV’s behind us. Steve was hunting, I think I was mostly thinking about putting trees between us and the people I could now hear coming up behind.
At 6:20 I saw a big white rump up the slope ahead of us. I had my rifle unslung so I couldn’t pull up my binoculars, Steve looked through his Swarovskis and said “That’s an elk.” I dropped to a knee, but Steve reminded me that we can’t shoot from, to or over roads, even logging roads. I think he reminded me by saying “Get off the road!!” so I scrambled off the road and stuck the stock of my rifle on a cedar branch and cushioned it with the rubber sling. I dialed my scope up and saw an elk turning left and looking my direction. Steve, watching through his binos behind me and a few yards to my right said, “I’ve got her, take her.” I clicked off the safety, settled the cross hairs into the dark crease low behind her left shoulder and fired. I couldn’t see her as the scope rocked back, but I saw two elk bounding up the slope away. Steve said she’s down.
I found her in my scope and she had gone straight down on her legs but her head was moving like she was trying to get up. My body was shaking pretty violently, my voice was involuntarily modulating. The sound of an ATV rumbling up behind stopped as Steve waved the other hunters off.
Then, to my exquisite horror, a small elk walked over to the one I’d shot and just stood a few steps away, obviously unsure about what to do. That little elk stood there a couple minutes while the head of the one I’d shot craned again and again as she tried to will her body to get up. That little elk stood there until the ATV behind us started up again and drove into her view. Steve was still behind me glassing and telling me not to shoot again. I only remember saying that this was 100% of what I didn’t want. I don’t know if we talked while I watched that elk through my scope except for Steve letting me know where the humans were. For several minutes after her calf left, I watched her and I just kept thinking I’d broken both my rules in my haste and excitement. I’d shot precisely the elk I didn’t want to shoot.
Five or so minutes after she finally laid her head down, Steve and I methodically made our way straight to her. There was a single drop of blood on her right side where the bullet exited. The Cedar tree I’d used as a rest didn’t have a John-sized branch so I was hunched when I fired. I’d pulled the shot up and left but, to be precise, it could have been bad shooting rather than the tree. The bullet caught her at the junction of her neck and body, passed through the near lung, struck the spine and caromed down, I guess, through the off-side lung and out. There was a thumb sized hole in the offside lung, a little one in the near lung. The spinal injury had paralyzed her and kept her in place till the lung wounds killed her. I hate to think how far she’d have run, leaving no blood trail, if her spine hadn’t been damaged.
The Payson-area processers were either full or not accepting elk with their hides on, so we hightailed north it to a mobile elk processing unit run by Miller Southwestern Processing, a Queen Creek (near Phoenix) operation. My elk was 10 percent larger than average. She dressed out at 265 pounds.
Some notes on my personal experience with Barnes’ bullets: I’ve now killed three big game animals using Barnes bullets; a pig in California with a Barnes TSX, an axis deer in Texas using a TTSX and this cow elk also with a TTSX. The pig was 60 yards down a steep slope and I pulled that shot up and left too, catching it under the jaw, and destroying its spine. It went down so fast, and the shot was at such an angle, that I saw the pig drop through my scope. The petals came off that bullet and I found them in the meat. The axis was a country mile off, but I was able to shoot prone with my rifle resting on its neoprene sling. I hit it in the chest, I know, because we found lots of frothy blood, but I don’t know how the bullet performed because we never found that buck. My cow elk died of the lung wound caused by the TTSX, though not in an acceptable time period. There was no blood at the entry wound and a single drop at the exit site. We ranged that shot at 121 yards. That bullet was traveling around 2570 feet per second when it hit her. It’s performance should have been optimal and we found no petals. But the holes in the lungs were’t at all what I expected and the larger off-side wound may have been the result of a tumbling bullet, for all I know. Steve, who has seen the insides of lots of shot animals, didn’t believe it was the lung wounds that had killed her and the debate wasn’t resolved until his lovely friends, a veterinarian and his wife, dropped by and gave the expert opinion that it had to be the holes in her lungs that were the fatal wound since the artery under the spine would have caused death in seconds, not minutes.
I went to bed last night thinking about the despair and terror to which I consigned that baby elk, and the weird fortuity of making a bad shot that was probably much better than the one I’d intended given the little TTSX wound channel. I took the wrong shot and made a bad shot. I did everything wrong. And yet, in the kitchen this morning, there is an iced cooler with five pounds of liver, an elk heart, and a tenderloin I need to take care of.
September 12, 2013
It’s been way too long since I made it back to CO for elk season, and the jones is only getting worse. My friend and outfitter, Rick Webb posted this video from today’s scouting trip out of his place near Montrose. This did NOT make it easier to focus on work for the rest of the day.
If you’re looking for a CO hunt, Rick’s got reasonable rates and a great operation. Just remember, they’re wild animals in BIG country… sometimes it takes some doing.