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Hog Blog Gear Review – Something Different

March 23, 2015

So, I’ve reviewed a lot of hunting gear over the years.  I’ve also been asked to write about things I’ve never put my hands on, and my general rule is to leave it be.  I’m not going to read a press release or promo and then try to tell you I think it’s a great product.  I want to know if it’s good or not, and then give you the pros and cons based on my personal experience.

With this in mind, I’m proud to introduce this next product.  I’ve had almost three years (and change) to get a good feel for this offering, and I can say without hesitation that it’s a pretty sweet deal.

If you want to kill whitetail deer, this product will get you as close as you could ever want to get.  You still have to shoot, but this product pretty much does everything for you… including putting them right in front of your gun or bow.

If you’re looking for a “country” experience, this product will put you there.  Fresh air and birdsong for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Yeah, it’s that good.

So, here it is.  In the interest of shameless, self-promotion, I offer the real estate listing for the Hillside Manor.  Not only is it a great deal on a wonderful place, it’s the only property in the Texas Hill Country that was occupied by none other than that Hog Blog guy.  How can you resist?

Check it out here.

Looking northwest

 

Catching Up, Keeping Up, And Thinking About It All

February 14, 2015

I know that, a little while back, I mentioned that the Hog Blog would be running a little sporadically over the coming days (weeks, months, hard to say).  Nevertheless, when I look at the site and realize that I’ve let the better part of the week pass without so much as a quick note, it sort of bothers me and I want to apologize to the two or three folks who actually keep up with this little exercise in ego and vanity.  But there is a lot going on lately, and so much of it has nothing to do with hogs or hunting or anything else folks want to read about.

That said, I do have one semi-relevant update.

Thursday morning, I met with my realtor and officially began the process of listing Hillside Manor for sale.

It wasn’t done without emotion, and as much as I’d like to say it was cathartic to actually pull the trigger, I’m not sure that’s quite true.  Looking around at the other properties for sale in the area, this is likely to be a long, drawn-out endeavor… which means I’m probably going to be here for a while.  So every sunset on the porch, watching the colors in the sky over the glowing ridgetops… every scotch out on the patio, watching the deer come down to the feeder… every time I look out the office window at the oak trees in the yard…  it will be a reminder that this is all about to end.  I put a lot into this place.  I invested much more than money and sweat.  Giving it up is not easy, and I’m afraid that drawing it out is only going to make it harder.

But it’s done.  It’s time to focus on the next thing.

So if you know anyone who is looking for a little piece of paradise… around 24 acres or so, to be precise… with a comfy little home, a big barn, and a couple Big axis buckof pastures already fenced, and arguably the prettiest, brightest night sky I’ve seen… more whitetail deer than a person can eat, and the occasional axis… I’ve got just the thing.  And it can be yours for well under $200K.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why it is that I’m so drawn to this place, and why it’s so painful to leave… besides the natural beauty, of course.  There’s something here that I can’t quite put my finger on, but I know part of it is in the people.

The people here are pretty awesome.  They’re country folks, which brings a curious mix of hospitality and standoffishness.  On the one hand, you’re welcome to join the community, but no matter how long you stay, they’re not likely to let you forget that “you ain’t from here.”  They’ll do about anything for you if you need help, but you probably want to have an invite before you ride up past their gate.

Folks here tend to look at things simply, without many shades of grey.   That can be intellectually frustrating, but at least you always know where they stand.  And you’re more than welcome to think differently, as long as you’re willing to accept that you’d be wrong.  But don’t you dare jump to conclusions thinking they’re ignorant (some are, some aren’t) or simple.  A simple life doesn’t necessarily indicate a simple mind.

There’s an old fellow down the way from me.  I couldn’t tell you how old, but he’s seen a few winters come and go.  The first time we met, I stood out in his yard while he told me about his family’s deep, Texas history, which included a mix of outlaws (apparently something of a gang down in Corpus Christi) and lawmen (one of the early Texas Rangers).  As hard as I tried to redirect the conversation, he went on to politics with exactly the perspective and opinion you might expect from a lifelong Texan (some stereotypes are real).  He also warned me all about these newfangled, wireless electric meters that transmit microwaves and “give you brain cancer.”

By the time I wandered back up to the Manor, I’d formed an impression of him as a generally good, and very likeable person, but a little narrow-minded.  I didn’t consider him ignorant so much as I just figured he didn’t have the benefit of a formal education or of exposure to life outside of his small sphere.  From the work he’d done to his place, I could see that he was handy and practical, as well as industrious, even in his advanced years (there’s a lot of that out here, and that sense of self-sufficiency is definitely something I value highly).  In all, I had him pegged as pretty much a classic example of the type of people I’ve met out here.

But, here lies the danger of generalizations and stereotypes.  I was in the Family Dollar store the other morning (our shopping options are limited), picking up some distilled water when I ran into him in the aisle.  He had two gallon jugs of drinking water in his hands.  He looked in my cart, smiled, and proceeded to rattle off Coleridge (“Water, water, everywhere… etc.” from  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in case you didn’t guess).   I expressed my appreciation for his poetic alacrity, so he regaled me with a couple more as we made our way to the checkout counter… a snippet of Shakespeare, a little Longfellow, and finally, some cowboy poet that I’d never heard of.

Sometimes, it’s what’s beneath the surface that really makes the difference.

Beneath the surface in this rough country, there’s a cruel beauty.  The field of bluebonnets may look inviting, but think twice before strolling out there barefoot because cactus and rattlesnakes mingle with the lupines and sideoats grama.    Spread your blanket along the banks of the crystalline river, but have a care because the scorpion doesn’t think much of being sat upon.  And always overhead, the vultures and caracara wait patiently… but seldom long.

There is a very real sense of frontier.  A little over a century ago, it was still untamed, dangerous land… the land of the Comanche, Kickapoo, and Apache (among others).  You can find their traces everywhere in the Hill Country.  The rocky ground is littered with arrowheads and stone tools.  The stories are still living, passed along by the grandchildren of old settlers… tales of indian raids and white reprisal.  In the immediate area are the ruins of at least two Spanish missions, established to “civilize” the indigenous people and abandoned in failure.  It was a hard place then.  It is still a hard place now.

It’s border country.  It is not entirely unusual to see the ragged groups of illegal immigrants, sneaking through the canyon.  Late at night, along the empty highway, I’ve spotted them in the edges of my headlights, ducking into the cedars and mesquite.  In town, whispered rumors point out certain citizens as members of the “Mexican Mafia”, while others hint of smugglers and meth-heads.  From bank to barbershop, Spanish is as common as English… or at least Spanglish.  It’s not hard to think you’re in another country, not America at all.

It’s outlaw country.  For decades, it has been a place where people have come to disappear… fade into the hills, or slip across the border.  And the people here appear to know it.  Folks seem to be less interested in who you were someplace else, than who you are here and now.  It’s a place where you can come to reinvent yourself, or to rediscover the self you thought you’d already invented.

It creates a state of mind, I think, that I have never really experienced anywhere else.  To borrow from Charles Kuralt, North Carolina is my home.  It will always be my home.  But North Carolina has been tamed.  I will be happy enough to return… to be back home… but I know I’ll never again feel what I feel living here, in the rocky canyons of the Texas Hill Country.

How’s The Hunting Been?

November 21, 2014

Over the past couple of years, I've spent hours of time, gallons of sweat, and a few pints of blood clearing brush, cutting trails, and setting up blinds.  I've spent hundreds of dollars on corn and various seed to establish feeding areas.  And all this time, I could simply stick the rifle or bow out of my office window and shoot them in the yard.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent hours of time, gallons of sweat, and a few pints of blood clearing brush, cutting trails, and setting up blinds. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on corn and various seed to establish feeding areas. And all this time, I could simply stick the rifle or bow out of my office window and shoot them in the yard.  But, so far, I haven’t.

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.

The new blind in progress

This is the New Murder Hole, which I built in the thickets up behind the barn. The original Murder Hole stand is still there, but the big oak lost most of the lower branches, leaving the stand completely exposed.

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.

I didn't do any Grip-n-Grin photos of my deer so far, but I think this picture is just as good.  Sliced heart, fried eggs, and grits... it's what's for breakfast!

I didn’t do any Grip-n-Grin photos of my deer so far, but I think this picture is just as good. Sliced heart, fried eggs, and grits… it’s what’s for breakfast!

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.

 

 

Belated Friday Post – Lead Free Muzzleloading And Newcomers On The Game Cam

November 15, 2014

The Breakfast ClubWell, I didn’t get home from Plano until late last night, so I didn’t get a post done for yesterday.  I was on a roll, too, dammit.  So here’s the Friday post a day late.

I slept in a little this morning, so it was full daylight when I got up and started my day.  As usual, I went to take a look out the back door.  Sure enough, three or four deer were milling around up at the feeder.  I couldn’t put horns on any of them, but that’s OK.  It got the heart pumping better than my morning cup of coffee.

I killed a doe last weekend with the bow, but I’ve got a new challenge.  A friend of mine sent me some .50 caliber round balls, cast from bismuth, and I’ve been itching to load up the Hawken and see what they’d do.  Getting the Hawken up and running again after all these years has been a bit of a challenge, since apparently nobody in this part of the Hill Country still hunts with traditional muzzleloaders.  Among other things, I couldn’t find powder anywhere.  I finally sucked up the “hazardous material” charge to have a pound of Pyrodex RS shipped from Cabelas.  The shipping cost more than the powder… but that’s how eager I was to shoot the smokepole again.

I got out on the bench, and charged up the rifle with 80 grains of Pyrodex.  I had to double patch the ball to get the fit I wanted, and rammed it home.  I set up my targets at 50 yards, which is a reasonable shot with this rifle.  It’s definitely not one of the modern tack drivers (and I don’t feel like I need to shoot 200 yards with a muzzleloader anyway… I’ve got modern rifles that do that more effectively).  The spot I’ll be hunting is set up for archery anyway, so 50 yards will be the longest poke I’ll have.

The first shot was way off to the right.  I vaguely remember that problem from the last time I used the rifle, so I tapped the front sight over a bit.  The next shot was right where I wanted it.  I pulled the one after that, but then settled down and managed to eke out a 2″ group.  That’s not bad for a cheap Hawken.  I decided to compare the results to what I’d get with a regular, lead round ball.  The point of impact was almost identical.  Not too shabby!

I only had 10 of the bismuth balls, so I saved the last three for hunting.  I felt like I should run through a few more of the lead projectiles, though.  Shooting a cap and ball rifle is a bit different from a centerfire due to the slight delay between the cap and powder ignition.  You really have to be conscious of your form and follow through, or you’ll pull the shots… not to mention that the trigger on my rifle is not the finest example of precision machining.  I needed to build up a little bit of muscle memory before I was comfortable hunting with this rifle.

I wrapped up the shooting, satisfied that I could probably hit what I wanted to hit… at least at 50 yards or so.  I ran a brush down the bore to clear the worst of the fouling, but decided that a thorough cleaning could wait. I hope that doesn’t come back to haunt me, but the Pyrodex shoots pretty clean.  I stowed the rifle, and then took Iggy and the tablet up the hill to check the cameras.  When I pulled in last night, a mid-sized eight pointer was in my front yard with a group of does.  They appeared to be eating acorns, not chasing, but it’s a hopeful sign that maybe some pre-rut activity might be cranking up.  This was the first time since mid-summer that I’d seen one of the bigger bucks hanging out with the does.

The NewcomerI keep one camera running at the feeder, and that’s the easiest one to access.  I knew, of course, that I’d been getting pretty good activity at the feeder recently.  Tracks and scat were all over the place, coming and going.  Maybe they’ve just about finished off the acorns already.  Or maybe they’re just eating corn for dessert.  I don’t know.  They’re wild deer.  They do wild deer stuff.  The minute you think you’ve got them figured out, they’ll change the whole game.  But whatever the reason, they’ve started coming to the feeder again… in droves.

At any rate, the card was loaded with pictures. The bulk of them were the same deer I’ve been watching all along.  I was happy to see that Funkhorn and the big eight point are still around, as is that young six pointer that’s looking so good. Whatever my neighbors were shooting the other morning, they didn’t kill any of “my” bucks.  There were also several newcomers, like this really tall, spindly eight pointer.  I don’t think I’ve seen him before, but he’s been showing up every night for the last week or so.  He’s not particularly old, but I’d probably shoot him, given the opportunity.

Damn hogI had set my other camera up the hill a ways, in a spot where I’m thinking of setting up a stand.  There are some trails there that are really torn up.  When I first saw the amount of traffic, I was certain that there were hogs up there, but I couldn’t find any solid evidence (scat, good tracks, rubs, etc.).  I decided it must just be a really busy highway for the deer.

Anyway, it’s kind of a hump to get up there due to the steepness of the hill and the fact that the ground is all loose limestone.  I decided this would be a good day to break a sweat and check the pictures.  The camera didn’t show much, but on closer inspection, I realized it was aimed sort of high.  Still, as we see here, it wasn’t entirely fruitless.

Now I just have to figure out how to hunt those suckers in the daylight.

 

 

A Little Fun In The Rain

November 5, 2014

It’s been a little dry down here in the Hill Country lately.  How dry?

So dry that the whitetails have come out to play in the puddles!

The Suspense Begins

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.

Nice looking buckOrdinarily, 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 Developing six pointback 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.

Works In Progress – Prepping For Deer Season

August 28, 2014

The new blind in progressIt 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.

This is the view from the blind now.  I'll clear most of the brush from the shooting lanes, and use it to fully brush things up.  This should become a really deadly spot.

This is the view from the blind now. I’ll clear most of the brush from the shooting lanes, and use it to fully brush things up. This should become a really deadly spot.

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.

 

Hillside Manor Photo Booth

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.

I just thought this was a cool shot.  My guess is that Kat or I are walking to the barn and he's decided it's time to go.  They aren't as tame as they may appear.

I just thought this was a cool shot. My guess is that Kat or I are walking to the barn and he’s decided it’s time to go. They aren’t as tame as they may appear.

I think this may be our old friend, Funkhorn.  That right side is developing some, but it's still sort of catawhompus.

I think this may be our old friend, Funkhorn. That right side is developing some, but it’s still sort of catawhompus.

Here's some nice, boxy antlers with reasonably good width for this area.  He'll be interesting in a couple of months.

Here’s some nice, boxy antlers with reasonably good width for this area. He’ll be interesting in a couple of months.

This guy carries that tall, narrow six-point configuration I see every year.

This guy carries that tall, narrow six-point configuration I see every year.

This one says more than I probably wish it would... but I thought it was pretty cool.  It's like they're watching the big, green piñata and waiting for someone to break it.

This one says more than I probably wish it would… but I thought it was pretty cool. It’s like they’re watching the big, green piñata and waiting for someone to break it.

I think this guy is about to tree that coon.  Is this the latest thing in coon hounds?

I think this guy is about to tree that coon. Is this the latest thing in coon hounds?

There’s Blood On My Hands… Finally

May 19, 2014

When I’m not hunting, I’m thinking about hunting.

I’m sure that sentiment isn’t unique to me.  But the truth is that over the past several months, I’ve done a lot of thinking about hunting.

This weekend, I was finally able to put all that thinking into action.  I got together at the nearby Boiling Springs Ranch for an exotics hunt with a great group of guys I’d guided and hunted with back in CA.  There were four of us in our bloodthirsty little gang, Kent, John, Mike, and myself… and when Friday evening rolled around, the excitement practically boiled over.  Think Christmas morning in a household of six year-olds.

While I set up in a tripod stand with my bow, the other guys went safari-style and tooled over a big chunk of the 10,000 acre property in search of axis deer, aoudad, and any wild pigs that should be unlucky enough to wander into the firing line.  Based on game camera evidence, there was a large group of hogs feeding at this particular stand.  Several axis had also been showing up from time to time.  I was assured that this would be a productive spot, especially for a bow hunter.  I relaxed through several peaceful hours, uninterrupted by anything legal to shoot.  As the last light waned, a healthy little whitetail buck wandered in.  His stubby new antlers were already out to about three or four inches, and forking well even at that early stage.  He’ll be no giant this year, but he obviously has great genetics.

Kent drew first blood, rolling an 80 lb. (or so) hog during the evening hunt.  If I remember correctly, I heard that someone else took a shot… but where it went, nobody knows.  When I got back into camp, I heard that the lack of carcasses did not denote a lack of game.  The animals were unusually skittish… a problem that plagued the weekend (but we made the best of it).

As so often happens, the first night revelry got the upper hand.  There was much irresponsibility.  When morning dawned, some of us were only just slipping off to sleep, while others were like the dead.  Somehow, I managed to sleep through my alarm, and only rolled out when Blaise, the camp boss, came in and let me know it was already 06:00!  I shuffled into the kitchen to start the planned breakfast, but I’d barely got the sausage browned when I realized the sun was already rising.  No time!  I woke the rest of the gang and we proceeded to prepare for the hunt.

Despite heavy-lidded eyes and some plodding, all but one of us was relatively healthy and ready for the day.  Since we’d slept in, there’d be no time to get into the blinds, so we opted to roll out for more safari-style hunting in the truck.  We saw a good number of animals, but they were not so happy to see us and sprinted into the thick cover before anyone could raise a rifle.  When a shot was finally fired, by someone who will remain nameless (for now), it went awry.

Blaise had to go do some work with the landowner, so we went back to camp to switch up the crew.  Blaise’s wife, Cheryl, would drive, while top-dawg guide, Chris, took over the shot calling.  At this point, a zombie departed the shooting deck and retired to the cool and quiet darkness of his bed.  It appears that some of us can withstand a little more irresponsibility than others.

After a break, some coffee, and a snack, those of us still standing rolled back out to the truck for another round.  Once again, the skittish game made it impossible to line up or connect on a shot until, finally, we spotted movement in a clump of cedar.  A single axis was slinking through the brush and heading for the safety of the hills.  I caught a glimpse of one sweeping antler, and motioned to Kent to step up, since he’s the only one in the group hoping to shoot a trophy animal.  I told him this one looked good, and I reached for my binoculars to get a better read.  From where he stood, Chris was unable to see clearly, so he hadn’t Kent's Axishad a chance to judge the buck.  Apparently though, Kent wasn’t concerned about judging or scoring, because even as I lifted my glass to my eyes, his .300 Win Mag roared and the buck jumped, staggered, and disappeared into the thicket.  One thing I’ve learned about Kent over the years is that you shouldn’t say, “shoot,” when you really mean, “wait.”

Fortunately, the buck was a pretty good one, with 30.5 inches on one side and a shade over 31 inches on the other.  He also had some unique character in the form of extra brow tines, making him an eight-point (axis typically only have three points on a side).  Kent was, as you may expect, pretty elated.  With a hog and an axis buck, he’d achieved the goals of his hunt.

With the day heating up, and the wildlife headed for cover, we decided to call it for the time being and head in.

For the evening hunt, I chose to take a stand again.  Safari-style is fun and social, but I also enjoy the quiet of a stand.  Chris took me out to as perfect a spot as I could imagine.  A spring-fed creek held cool, clear water.  A steep cliff formed a natural wall on one side, while a thick, brushy draw provided cover and food for game.  As I walked across the clearing to find a place to set up, I saw fresh sign of deer, aoudad, and hogs.  I chose to take a stand in a little clump of brush that stood out a few yards from the cliff face.  The thick growth formed a canopy, and it looked cool and shady.  When I pushed through the limbs, I saw that I wasn’t the only one who thought this was a good place to chill out… it was littered with hog beds.

Chris hadn’t been gone more than a half hour when the first animals showed up.  I heard rustling in the grass, and suddenly a small hog face popped out about ten yards from my seat.  Totally oblivious to me, he turned and trotted down the rocky creek bank, followed by seven or eight more.  They ranged in size from six or seven pounds down to a couple of little guys that probably didn’t top a pound.  They must have been barely weaned.  I held my breath, my hand tight around the grip of the Savage and my thumb caressing the safety.  There had to be at least one big hog following this group, if not more.  I knew they’d come out any minute… any minute… but nothing else showed.

The little pigs splashed and rolled in the creek for a few minutes, and then trotted, single file over to the feeder.  I still held hope that the big ones were just waiting, but nothing showed up.  After about a half-hour, the little sounder wandered off into the trees.

Things got quiet for about another half hour, when suddenly I was jolted by the sound of rocks rolling down the cliff behind me.  I turned my head slowly, just in time to see a Corsican ewe hopping down onto a tiny trail, just out of arm’s reach.  Without even looking my way, she crept to the edge of the thicket, and after a cautious scan, stepped out onto the creek bank.  As she did, two tiny kids clambered down the cliff and ran out to join her.  A moment later, a yearling ram hopped down and wandered out as well.  All of this happened less than three yards away.  I was stunned.

The sheep went down to drink, but then something startled the matron.  She hopped up onto the rocks and gazed hard across the pasture, past the feeder.  I followed her gaze to see three pigs, each about 10 pounds, come trotting out of cover and heading toward the creek.  The ewe gathered her young and the whole group charged right back past me, and disappeared up the sheer cliff.

The three pigs didn’t even seem to notice, but made a beeline for the water.  They dropped down the bank, out of my sight, but I enjoyed the splashing and grunting as they were apparently making the best of the cool stream.  A few minutes later, they popped up right where the sheep had been and started walking directly toward me.  The wind was perfectly in my favor, but at that close distance I couldn’t believe they didn’t even seem to register my presence.  They came just beside my chair, and then turned on a trail that led into some thick grass.  The last pig stopped and rubbed against a rock, and then shook himself off… so close the water spattered on my pants.

I turned my head to see where they’d gone and suddenly heard a “huff!” A fourth pig I hadn’t seen had come up from the creek and saw me moving.  In a clatter of stones and a splash, he was gone back the way he came.  I held the rifle ready, in case any large pigs blew out from his panic… but there was nothing more.

The evening wore on and the sun began to set.  More small pigs came out to the feeder, but again, no adults were in sight.  How small were the pigs?  Three tom turkeys glided down from the cliff to the feeder, and they dwarfed the little hogs.

As light dimmed, I could hear splashing in the creek again.  I settled the rifle in my lap and waited.  A whitetail doe and yearling popped up on the opposite bank and went to join the growing menagerie around the feeder.  As they wandered off, I heard more splashing, and then a deer’s snort.  Several more deer blew out of the end of the creek drainage and ran off across the pasture.  With the wind blowing hard and steady in my face, I wondered what had panicked them… until I heard more splashing and grunting, and then yet another group of small hogs poured out of the creek and headed to the feeder.

Finally, I heard the sound of something much larger coming down the creek bank toward me.  I tried to crane my neck without moving too much, hoping this was finally a shoot-able hog.  I peeked around the trunk of an oak tree and looked right into the eyes of a young, axis buck.  I wasn’t going to shoot an axis buck at any rate, but at this distance there was no way I could have raised the gun anyway.  He glared at me, trying to figure out what I was, as I froze and did my best imitation of a caliche rock.

The stand-off continued as the sun sank lower and lower.  The pigs continued to mill around the feeder, and in the lowering light I thought some might look bigger.  (I didn’t need a trophy, but I wasn’t going to shoot a five pounder with the 30-06 on a paid hunt.) I gently raised the Leicas, and at the movement the axis buck finally had enough.  He turned and trotted away, stiff-legged but apparently not panicked.

John's aoudad eweIt was finally dark enough that I couldn’t really make out individual pigs through my scope.  I settled back and waited for the truck to come pick me up.  When it did, I saw a big aoudad ewe in the back.  The zombie had awakened from his torpor, re-joined the hunt, and killed… not only an aoudad, but also a big axis doe.  Not bad for someone who was so thoroughly over-served the night before (bad bartender!).

On the drive back to camp, I learned that they’d seen several animals, but had few chances at a shot.  Mike redeemed his earlier shooting with a good kill on a sow.  She was emaciated and apparently sick, so Blaise decided not to keep her for meat.  I know that’s a hard call, especially for empty-handed Mike, but it sounds like it was probably the right choice.

Everyone was pretty whipped by the time we rolled back into camp.  I’d left a pot of venison chili to cook all day, and Cheryl made up a batch of delicious, cracklin’ cornbread.  Dinner was excellent, but significantly subdued in comparison to the previous night.  The witching hour came to a house full of snores.

On Sunday, Mike and Kent had a fairly early flight and had to leave early.  We made a short safari drive around while John went and sat in a blind.  We had barely loaded the rifles when we came up on an axis doe and a monster of a buck.  Under ordinary circumstances, I had enough time to shoot the both of them… but whether the shock of seeing them so early, or because my brain just wasn’t engaged… I don’t know why, but I never even got the rifle up.  The doe spun and ran, and the buck gave a belligerent glare and turned to follow her.

That was it for easy opportunities on that drive.  We got Mike back to camp so he could leave.  John had also returned, empty-handed.  But the day was overcast and cool, so once Mike and Kent packed out, we headed back out on the road in hope of more opportunities.  Chris drove and spotted, and we covered a lot of the same ground.  As we headed back toward the camp again, an aoudad stood out on a hillside.  I don’t really know much about aoudad, and don’t have a clue how to tell a ewe from a young ram.  I leveled the crosshairs on the animal’s throat and waited for the go-ahead from Chris.  “It’s a ewe,” he whispered.

“I can kill it,” I asked?

“Yes.”

Bang.

When we walked up to it, Chris shook his head.  “Damn.  This is a ram.”

He called it in to Blaise and took responsibility.  It seemed, to me, like a pretty easy mistake to make.  I felt bad for him, because as a guide I’ve been in similar circumstances… having directed a client to shoot a “meat hog” that turned out to have trophy tusks.  Accidents and mistakes are part of being human.  As long as we learn from them…

At any rate, I had my first animal for the weekend.  We took the aoudad back to the house as the day was starting to heat up.  John had to start packing anyway, and had to head back to the airport in a few hours.  We passed the time, and soon after he left Chris asked if I wanted to go out and make one more round.  Blaise had generously offered to let me stay and hunt until dark if I wanted, but I felt like it would be nice to get home at a reasonable hour.  All I needed to do was shoot an axis doe.  And maybe a pig.  But definitely an axis.

Chris and I headed out and checked some likely spots.  After a couple of close opportunities, we were heading back to camp when I spotted a bunch of ears sticking out of the grass in a persimmon thicket.  A closer look showed what we were looking for.  Even better, the whole bunch didn’t bolt instantly.  I had time to pick an animal, a fat doe, and then my hunt was over.

I have to give kudos to Blaise and the gang at Boiling Springs Ranch.  It’s a well-run place.  The lodge is very comfortable and homey, which it should be, because Blaise, Cheryl, and their son, Roy live there year-round.  The game is plentiful, and although it was pretty spooky on this trip, the opportunities are there.  Besides axis, aoudad, and hogs, they’ve got some incredible whitetail with the south Texas genetics (BIG antlers… if that’s your thing).  They also have some high-fence sections with other options, including scimitar-horned oryx.

Blaise said they don’t usually hunt safari-style, but the animals have been so scattered that it seemed like the best option for the weekend.  Since our group of friends rarely gets together, this method allowed us to spend some social time… which isn’t often the case on a big game hunt where you spend the bulk of the day alone, sitting in a stand.  If you’ve never done this kind of hunting, I liken it to trolling for big game fish out in the ocean.  It’s hours of cruising around, interspersed with brief periods of excitement.  Certainly not to everyone’s tastes, but it can be a lot of fun if you go into with the right attitude.

I did enjoy the stands, and the blind set-ups are first rate. They’re well hidden and well-positioned for the feeders and game approaches, and there are options for any kind of wind or weather.   There are no dangling death traps here, and even the tripod stands are solid and reasonably comfortable.

If you’re interested in this kind of opportunity for some Hill Country exotics hunting, I think you could do much worse than giving Blaise a call.

Disclosure:  I received no consideration for writing this review.  I paid full-price for my hunt, as did my companions.  The comments I’ve made here are my honest evaluation of the operation.

 

Where Did The Time Go?

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.

Still wearing head gear in April?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.  Halfway shed

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.

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