August 28, 2014
It can be a little tough to get psyched about deer season when it’s over 100 degrees outside, and humidity is in the upper three quarters as well. It’s one thing to walk up the hill and check cameras, fill the feeder every month, and watch the deer from the porch. It’s another, altogether, to climb that hill with chainsaw and machete in hand (and a backpack full of water) to work on stands and clearing out the cedar (juniper) so that both the deer and I can actually move through the tangle.
Once I got up there, of course, I found that the deer really didn’t have much problem. In fact, the hillside looks like a deer highway with little tunnels anywhere the branches are too thick. Picking a spot for a stand isn’t so much a question of figuring out where the deer will pass, but figuring out where I can put it so that I’m not right in the middle of a trail. I need them to walk past me, not over me. What’s more, is I need a place where I can actually slip an arrow through the brush. The only way to do that is start cutting.
I’ve been meaning, ever since last fall, to get out there and clear some new hunting spots. I’ve planned, and reconsidered, and planned some more, but it just seemed like there was always some reason not to do it. The barn needed work. The pasture needed to be mowed. I needed to build a back porch because the old stairs were a death trap. And so on and so on until, suddenly, summer was here. And with summer comes heat.
The thing about working in this terrain during the Texas summer is that it’s not only uncomfortable, it’s potentially dangerous. It’s easy to become dehydrated, and it happens fast. Heat prostration can sneak right up, and if you’re not careful, you’ll face full heat exhaustion… and working solo, up in this thick stuff, that’s a very bad place to be. Of course, it can be done. There are guys out there every day, building fence, herding livestock, clearing land… but it’s not something that a 50 year-old, computer jockey should take lightly. I’m not a kid anymore, and as much as I love working with my hands on this ranch, I’m not a lifelong rancher either.
But all that aside, the other real reason for delay is that it’s just damned hard to get motivated to get out there and suffer that heat when I’ve got a nice, air conditioned house with Internet and TV and Kat to keep company. Besides, I have a stand for Kat already, when either of us wants to shoot deer with the rifle. And, until fairly recently, I already had a great stand, the Murder Hole, for all my bowhunting needs. But back in May, while checking the pasture fences, I saw that a huge piece of the oak tree that contains the Murder Hole stand had broken off. The stand is still intact, but it’s now completely exposed. I can still put some cover up there and use the stand, but it’s going to make a tough hunt even tougher.
The Murder Hole was not as well planned as I’d like. I mean, it’s in the perfect location for deer traffic, both morning and evening. But I made a couple of miscalculations. The prevailing winds in the canyon when I built the stand were generally south to north, so I set the stand with an optimal northerly view. Behind the stand (to the south), I left the thick cedars alone to provide a screen, and to funnel the deer to either side of the stand. What I didn’t realize was that this changes during the fall, and that there’s more of a northerly flow… especially in the late evening, when the deer are moving down from the south-facing slopes. I can’t count the number of times the deer walked right up behind me, and then blew out when they caught my scent. And trust me, I don’t care what kind of scent control you use… at five or ten yards downwind, especially on a warm day, the deer are going to smell you.
So setting up a new stand isn’t just an option anymore. I had to do something. I could try to fix up the Murder Hole, or get to work on a better location.
Back in June, I went at it and cleared a really pretty little park amongst the cedars up on the hillside about 200 yards behind the house. There’s a huge, old oak tree in the middle that would be a great spot for a platform stand. I also used the slash to create a couple of brush piles where it would be pretty easy to hide a pop-up blind. Within a week, the native bunch grasses started coming up in the new clearing (thanks to some very timely rain), and the place looked perfect. I set a camera out, looking forward to a ton of photos. What I got, so far, is a couple of shots of the same two does, and a bunch of raccoons. This wasn’t what I’d hoped to see. I needed to put something up closer to the old stand, but better planned.
The summer came, and nearly went. Deer season is less than a month away. So, this past weekend, I went at it.
I found a good location up on the hillside where there’s a reasonably flat(tish) spot. Several trails converge around it, but there’s one spot where it’s too thick for the deer to move. I could clear a hole out there to build my stand, and with all of the cedar brush I would cut, I could build a blind with natural material. When I finish, it should look like any of the other brush piles I’ve created around the property (it’s too dry to burn, and they make great habitat for birds and small game).
I still have a lot of work to do. These cedars are hell on a chainsaw, and it was already a little dull from the previous projects. I was soon reduced to using the machete. Even after drinking three liters of water, I started getting chills and cramps… and that’s a pretty good indication that it’s time to call it a day in this heat.
The final plan is to have the site completely brushed in, including a “roof”. As you can see in this photo, I’ve also still got a lot of clearing to do for shooting lanes. I got both chains good and sharp now, so consider this the “before” picture. I’ll update soon, I hope, with the finished product. Then I just need to leave it alone until the deer get used to it. By September 27 (archery opener), it should become my new, go-to spot.
Then I can focus on some of the other locations I’ve scouted. Who knows? Maybe by the time next summer rolls around, I’ll actually have some of them cleared and ready for use.
July 28, 2014
I’ve noticed that a popular thing to do at events is to bring in a photo booth, where the participants step inside for a quick snapshot of themselves enjoying the party. I guess sometimes there are costumes and props available to make the picture a little more memorable. For my part though, I like the come-as-you-are approach.
It just so happens that there’s a year-round party going on up the hill behind the Hillside Manor, and the festive attendees aren’t a bit shy about showing off their party finest. Here are a couple of candids from some recent shindigs.
As always, click any image to see a full-size version.
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 had 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.
It 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?
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.
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.
January 21, 2014
Whitetail season wrapped up over the weekend, and while I briefly considered slipping back out with the bow, I decided instead to use the downtime to get some work done out in the barn. I have as much venison as we’ll need this year, and really want to leave a little freezer space in case I get a shot at some hogs. It’s been a while since I had fresh pork, and I’m seriously starting to jones.
I stopped by the smokehouse this weekend to see how Carl is making out. He’s hired a couple of new guys, so he hasn’t really needed my help in the skinning shed. Part of me misses it, but the rest of me is OK with having my weekends free again.
Anyway, I was chatting about the deer that came in over the closing weekend. In our area, the season for whitetail bucks ended on January 5, but hunters could still take does and spike bucks until the 18th. A lot of hunters use this opportunity to fill out their tags and put meat in the freezer. But apparently, some can’t read the regs too well, as I heard a couple of guys tried to bring in a four-point and an eight-point for processing on Sunday (the 18th). I do hope Carl got in touch with the game warden.
And the week winds on…
I’ve got a stack of business cards sitting on my desk, and I need to start sending emails to follow up on SHOT Show contacts. I had several promises of ammo to try out, and a few other opportunities for product reviews. I was sort of remiss on product coverage most of last year (partly because I missed the 2013 SHOT Show), and I plan to make that up over the coming months.
For anyone who is new here, note that my product reviews are always “real world” reviews. I don’t have some lab where I do stuff like test light transmission through optics or sample knife steel hardness. I take stuff into the field and make it do what it’s supposed to do. If it works, that’s awesome and you’ll hear about it. If it doesn’t… well, that’s not awesome, but you’ll still hear about it. I don’t get paid for this, and I’m not under any sort of contract or constraint to paint a rosy picture. However, it’s also worth note that I won’t review anything if I don’t think it’ll pass muster in the first place. Ridiculous gimmicks or cheap knock-offs need not apply.
So, back at it. Many a mile to go before I rest and all that.
January 8, 2014
I just like to say it.
Kudos to the guy who came up with that monicker, by the way. It’s like something you’d hear from a Saturday afternoon flick on the Sci-Fi Channel. It conjures images of flash-frozen pedestrians, and skyscrapers coated with crushing ice while the hero struggles heroically to save the hot, scientist-lady who manages in at least one scene, to strip down to a form-fitting sports bra (no nudity on SciFi)… despite temperatures hovering around absolute-zero.
We didn’t get the cold too bad down here at Hillside Manor. I think the lowest we saw was right at 20 degrees. It was cold enough to make me turn off the extra water lines at the barn, and I was certainly sweating the one, uninsulated pipe under the manor house, but all was well and the plumbing is still intact. The horses are not icicles, and Iggy the Ice Monster seemed to enjoy it (except he couldn’t convince me to come out and play with the frozen hunk of deer hide).
It was nice to see that we can still have “winter”, even if it is only in short bursts of polar air. It arrived a little too late for me to get the definitive hunting experience of shivering in my tree stand, but at least I had the chance to let my cheeks get rosy while I was feeding the horses a little extra grain. I expect we’ll have another snap or two before the days get much longer and warmer.
I don’t want to get into a whole thing about “global warming” or “climate change,” because I’m really not qualified to address it from a scientific perspective. But as someone who has spent the better part of a half-century outdoors, I do think I’m qualified to say that something is definitely going on. Change is at hand. Winter is not what it was when I was a kid.
Growing up in coastal North Carolina, winter was never really “harsh”. But freezing temperatures weren’t uncommon overnight, even in late fall, and I recall playing and hunting over icy ditches and frozen puddles. November deer hunts almost always resulted in stinging, icy toes following the walk in through frosted grass and long, frigid sits in the sandy duff under pin oaks and longleaf pines. I remember praying for the sun to get up high enough to thaw my feet and hands before they simply broke off.
That hardly seems to be the norm lately, as my last several winter trips back to NC were more suited to long t-shirts or maybe an occasional pull-over. You might see a day or so of cold snap, but then things turn mild again right away.
Of course, I’m not keeping the records or tracking the trends, so maybe some of this is just the flaws in my memory. But I don’t think so. Things are changing… for good or ill, I can’t say, but they’re changing.
November 29, 2013
So I noticed a couple of the bucks I skinned last week were starting to look and smell kind of rutty. I hadn’t seen much activity around my place though, but with the cold snap and December coming on strong, I knew it would happen soon. With all the does that have been coming to the feeder and the oak trees, the bucks simply had to be somewhere in the wings.
Then, yesterday I got a wild hair and decided to saddle up the horse for a ride. Just as I was passing the far corner of the neighbor’s place, a doe burst out of cover and bounded across the road in front of us. I reined Dolly in, and a moment later, a nice looking buck came bouncing across behind her… never once glancing toward me, the horse, and Iggy (who was itching to go “play” too).
Later, after the ride, I was doing a little miscellanea around the barn and went up to check the game cameras. Look who was here! I got photos of him again the next morning (Thanksgiving Day).
We’ve decided that, if he hangs around long enough, I’ll give Kat the opportunity to shoot her first buck. But the rut usually kicks up the activity at the local hunting camps, so he’ll have to slip through a veritable gauntlet to make it to my skinning rack.
October 17, 2013
Well, it looks like I’ve coasted through another week on the strength of a lengthy, Monday post. How lazy of me, I know.
The truth is, I just haven’t had a lot to write about of late. I mean, there’s more to write about the lead ammo ban, but I expect many of you are sick to death of that one, and for now, there’s not a lot that I can say beyond what I covered in Monday’s post.
I know what some of you may be thinking. “WTF, Phillip? You moved to the Texas Hill Country where hunting is probably the second biggest industry, next to oil and gas drilling!”
And you’re right, of course, except it’s not exactly like you might think. I was semi-surprised to learn that hunting is pretty much taken for granted out here. While plenty of locals hunt, they do it right out their back doors. Once in awhile, someone will mention that they had to shoot another hog in the yard, but it’s just not as common a topic of conversation as you’d expect. Killing exotics, like axis deer, is just pest control. Nobody seems to care much about turkeys. Even during whitetail season, which in some parts of Texas is the High Holidays, the thread of hunting conversation is barely a loud hum.
You don’t hear much about people’s “hot spots”, or who just killed a big axis buck. There’s not a lot of talk about where to find game on public land, because, well, there’s not a lot of public land. And apparently, nobody out here hunts it. Everybody has their own place, or their family place, or their friend’s place. The big, guest ranches don’t advertise (at least not locally), and if I didn’t ask around I’d probably never even know some of them were here.
Maybe I’m just not hanging out with the right crowd.
Which is a whole ‘nuther thing…
There’s a pride that comes from having deep roots in a place like this. The folks who settled this canyon were tough, brave individuals. This part of Texas was still a wild frontier near the end of the 19th century, and early settlers were still braving raids by the Comanches, Apaches, and Mexican bandits. Even a hundred years ago, this was a harsh place to make a life. But these people did it. The names of those pioneers are still here, mingled now with the names of the natives they displaced… not just in the people, but etched into the landscape itself, in the names of creeks, canyons, caves, and ridgelines. You see them on maps, and on historical markers along the roadside. The family lines that remain run strong, and have a deep, personal claim to this place that they’re not ready to give up willingly… especially not to interlopers from the east. (And yes, there’s an irony there, but you’d do well not to point it out to them.)
I’ve lived enough of my life in the rural outback to know how country folks look at city people. I’m no stranger to that odd strain of xenophobia that you see in a place like this… the tolerant, smiling facade that hides disdain and ridicule. I’ve certainly felt my own distaste for folks who bring city noise and attitudes into the bucolic paradise of my backcountry home. In my non-native naivete, I guess I expected some sort of oral tradition of dislike for folks from Dallas. I anticipated hearing any number of jibes at the expense of those weirdos in Austin. But honestly, you don’t get a lot of that here. Instead, it’s Houston.
True, working at the smokehouse last year, an overwhelming majority of the deer tags I recorded included addresses in and around Houston. There were one or two from down near Corpus Christi, and some locals, but a disproportionate number came all the way across the state. Many of the leases around here are held by folks who live in the eastern side of Texas. I can’t really recall meeting any visitors from the Dallas or Austin areas. Maybe they all spend their time in the northern Hill Country, near Fredericksburg and Boerne, or up in Brady.
No, most of our out-of-towners are from the Houston area.
And it’s not really a hatred I hear when locals talk about them. It’s more of a tone (not completely unlike the tone with which my friends and family back in North Carolina would use when someone from New Jersey moved in). It’s sort of an expect-the-worst-but-give them-a-chance-to-prove-themselves kind of thing. Ironically, a fair number of Camp Wood’s leading citizens are transplanted from the Houston area. They’ve settled in well, and are, by-and-large, accepted.
But they’re not from here. That doesn’t change until you’ve outlived anyone who can remember when you moved in.
So, being from Houston is one thing. At least those folks are still some manner of Texan. If you really want to be an outsider, try being from California.
August 9, 2013
The cedar (juniper) that covers my ridge and the far end of my pasture provides great cover, and while too much cedar is a bad thing, a good cover helps minimize erosion, and appears to protect some native grasses from the deadly effects of the Texas summer sun… especially during this drought. I did a good bit of thinning last year, and while there’s still some more to do, I do enjoy finding new deer trails and beds, as well as the abundance of birds and small game that use this thick stuff.
I’ve got agarita as well, and while they apparently only bear fruit every other year, I had a bumper crop this season. The birds and little rodents got most of them before I got a chance, but given the harsh conditions this drought has created, I’m OK with that. We’ve got so much homemade jelly and jam right now, another year or so without agarita is OK by me.
I’ve got a lot of oaks, both red oak, live oak, and various scrub oaks, but they have taken a beating from the drought, and I’m losing several. They just can’t handle the stress. Some are shedding huge limbs in a surival effort to minimize their water needs, while in other cases entire trees have simply given up and died. This is pretty sad, both because I hate to see the big trees dying, and because it means the mast production on my place is going to be even smaller. I didn’t get much in the way of acorns last year, but I’m holding out hope that the surviving trees will make an effort this fall. We’ll see.
One plant I knew I had on the property is Texas wild persimmons. This is a native persimmon, and I’ve got the bushes all over the place here. My main horse pasture is full of them. Last year, I can’t recall seeing much in the way of fruit, but this year I’ve apparently got a bumper crop. I walked the pasture yesterday, and where I hadn’t seen a thing the limbs are now laden with green fruit. And a handful of ripe ones. On closer inspection, most of the ripe fruit has already been hit by birds, and under each bush I have found piles of fresh deer scat. The whitetails apparently love these things too. It’s like a race to get to the fruit when it turns ripe! I was fortunate to find a couple that had just turned before the birds and animals got them.
The persimmons are, as you can see from the picture, not very much like the big Asian persimmons many of us are most familiar with. The biggest fruit I found was a little bigger than a quarter. The skin is sort of thick, with a fuzzy covering sort of like a peach. Eating one reminds me of biting into a loquat. The skin is edible, but not very flavorful and sort of chewy. The flesh sort of separates from the skin, and with a little manipulation you can almost suck it right out. It’s sweet, and tastes a lot different (to me) than the flesh of the Asian persimmon. It’s more like a berry. The only catch is that there’s not a lot there, as each fruit has four or five great big seeds inside. You do a lot of work for a little reward.
There are a bunch of recipes out there for Texas wild persimmons, and if I can salvage enough from the critters, we might try some of them this season. But I’m not going to break my neck to pick the plants clean. The truth is, I’m glad to have something out there for the deer besides corn (which isn’t really all that nutritious). I figure, if I can’t eat the fruit right from the bush, then at least I can enjoy it in this season’s venison!