November 8, 2013
One day, the Lottery Fairy is going to light just outside my door and leave me zillions of dollars. Then I’m going to tell work to shove it, buy some HUGE properties all over the country, and hire good, reliable people to manage them for me so that all I have to do is receive income. Maybe I’ll check in from time to time just to see how folks are doing… or, of course, whenever I feel like hunting or fishing.
I’m also going to hire someone to manage this damned blog, at least on the back end. Qualifications include serious hacking creds, because I’m going to have this person figure out how to hack the spammers and bots and start turning their crap right back into their own inboxes with digital incendiary charges that will melt down their entire system, burn through the floor of their rooms, and open up a flaming portal that will drop them straight down into hell.
And so on…
At any rate, the three of you who actually read and comment here may have noticed (or not) that some of your comments might have disappeared (or not). My efforts at clean-up got a little sloppy. Sorry. But hopefully you can all comment again now.
Time to put aside the bow and load the rifle. I need some fresh meat on my butcher table.
November 6, 2013
Years ago, when I was barely a teenager, my best friend’s dad got us into waterfowl hunting. It was perfect for us, living right on the banks of the Intracoastal Waterway. We could hop in the canoe and hunt the salt marshes any time we wanted. In an effort to keep us interested in the sport, my friend’s dad told us that the ducks with the big white patch on their heads were “buffleheads,” and were good to eat. What we didn’t know at the time was that the birds were actually hooded mergansers, and that they rate right next to seagull (yes, I’ve tried both) on the table. But for two kids new to the sport, they were beyond plentiful and they decoyed with abandon… and we shot lots of them.
That went on for a couple of years, until the day I decided to cook up one of those birds for myself.
But even after I’d learned to determine “good” birds from “trash”, I still found ducks lacking at the table. My limited culinary expertise told me that chickens have to be thoroughly cooked to kill bacteria, so I applied the same tactic to my ducks (they’re both poultry, right?). Anyone who has tried a well-done, wild duck can attest to the outcome. It’s pretty bad… so bad, in fact, that I was near the point of abandoning duck hunting. If I didn’t want to eat them, I sure didn’t see the point in killing them.
Fortunately, it was just about that time I discovered Justin Wilson (RIP) and an episode about cooking a duck. Right after that, I delved into a couple of wild game cookbooks. The error of my ways shone clear…
Years later, I’d moved to California which is a waterfowler’s paradise. Not too long after that, I met Hank Shaw. Among other things, Hank had just started a blog about cooking wild game. I was immediately impressed by his writing, and while I’ve never been much on following recipes, I was intrigued by some of the things he wrote. When I finally had the opportunity to sample his cooking, I knew this guy was going to do something special. Hank has skills.
Since then, Hank has proven those skills several times over. In addition to other awards and recognition, his blog, Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook has been thrice nominated and once selected by the James Beard Foundation as Best Food Blog. In 2011, he published his first book, Hunt Gather Cook, Finding the Forgotten Feast (my review of that one is here, on my old site). And now, just in time for the holidays, he’s published his second work, Duck, Duck, Goose.
And by “just in time for the holidays”, I don’t mean the Christmas gift giving madness (although this book will make an awesome Christmas gift), but the holidays that accompany the prime waterfowl seasons across the U.S. This book can, and should, be the impetus for everything from hearty meals at the duck club to a centerpiece for family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are how-tos and recipes in here for everything from the simplest, slow-roasted whole duck to fairly elaborate productions and charcuterie (goose prosciutto anyone?).
As with pretty much anything Hank does, Duck, Duck, Goose is not your average cook book. First of all, Hank is all about the details. Whether you’re an experienced chef or a neophyte, there’s nothing in this book that will leave you guessing. From identification and understanding the difference between various ducks and geese - to plucking, dressing, and butchering birds for the table – to preparation styles based on the different qualities of the duck you have in your hand (all ducks are not cooked equally)… you’ll find pretty much anything you need to know.
Hank draws from, literally, an entire world of influences and styles… and these are all represented in Duck, Duck, Goose. There are recipes for braunschweiger to bulgogi, confit to cassoulet, and tea-smoked duck to Thai duck curry. If you never used another duck and goose cookbook, you wouldn’t ever be bored. In fact, I didn’t count them all, but I’d say you could almost pick a different recipe for every day of the duck season and experience truly global cuisine from a South Carolina-style barbecue on the opener, to a hot bowl of duck pho after a frigid, season closer.
One other thing that sets this book (and Hank) apart is that it’s based on the principle of eating everything but the quack. There’s more to cooking a duck than breasting it out and leaving the rest for the ‘coons. Hank shows us not just how to cook the wings and legs, but the hearts, gizzards, livers, feet, and even the tongues. Not satisfied to stop there, Duck, Duck, Goose includes recipes for rendering and cooking with duck and goose fat (there’s a hollandaise sauce in there that’s just screaming my name).
And, finally, there’s the photography. The book is a beautiful package and worth the extra bulk of a hard-copy for the photos alone. Hank’s long-time girlfriend, hunting buddy, and guinea pig, Holly Heyser combines a great eye for composition with a real passion for the subject matter (waterfowl and food) in order to pull together an incredible set of photos for Duck, Duck, Goose.
You can find a copy of Duck, Duck, Goose (or a bunch of copies… they’re great gifts) on Amazon in either hard back or Kindle e-book. I highly recommend it, whether you’re a waterfowler looking for new ways to feed the family or an experienced chef. Hell, even if you’re like me and refuse to follow a recipe, it’s a great source of diverse ideas and inspiration.
November 4, 2013
Just a little something that I thought of this weekend, with the opening of rifle season down here. I pulled out my go-to rifles, the Savage 30-06 and Browning Lever Action .243. Both of these rifles have always been tack drivers, and each has taken a fairly good number of game animals.
I set up a couple of targets at 100 yards, figuring that I’d shoot four or five shots just to get the feeling back in my trigger finger. I’ve done plenty of rimfire and pistol shooting over the summer, but the big guns didn’t get out much. I leveled off the 30-06, and squeezed off a crack. The 180gr ETip screamed off down range and…
Where the hell did it go?
I pulled out the Leicas and scanned the target. I can’t remember which brand these targets are, but they’re the ones with the reflective layer under the black, so you can spot your hits easier. After a moment, I realized that the yellow spot way over on the right edge of the target was not a number, but my bullet hole. I must have pulled it pretty bad.
I settled in behind the scope again, got my breathing nice and easy, squeezed the Timney trigger (at 2 1/4 lbs., it doesn’t take much), and sent the second round about 1/2″ above the first shot. My third shot went just to the left of the first. It was a nice little MOA group, but it was over 4″ to the right of where I was aiming.
I made the adjustments and got the group to settle just at the top of the 1″ bull. I thought, while I’m at it I should give these Barnes Vor-TX loads a try. These are launching a 165gr. tipped TSX (TTSX) bullet, so I was curious how much different the point of impact would be. I stuffed four of them into the mag and settled in. My first shot was about an inch higher than the ETips, almost dead over the bullseye. My next three all landed almost even with the ETip group, but maybe an inch and a half to the left of it. The group was a little bigger than I got from the ETips, maybe 1 3/4″, but I can’t say that was the ammo… and it was still a really respectable group for a hunting round. My plan is to hunt with the Barnes Vor-TX ammo this season, since I have yet to take any game with this cartridge.
Happy with the Savage, I set it aside and loaded up the BLR. Now I’ve had this rifle for close to 30 years, and it got a lot of use. It has always been scary accurate. I’ve shot holes in dimes with it at 100 yards, and even used to hang a beer can from a piece of kite string, and then shoot the string. But the trick about this rifle is that it’s got a wispy-thin barrel, and .243 is a pretty hot round. You have to let it cool off after a few shots, or the group will start to walk across the target.
The BLR didn’t like Barnes ammo when I tried it a few years ago, and Winchester was good enough to provide me with some of their new (at the time) XP3 ammo. The XP3 shoots lights out from this rifle. Unfortunately, when I dug my ammo out I realized I only had about seven rounds left. “Oh well,” thought I. “I’ll shoot a three shot group to verify zero, and that will leave me four rounds for Kat to use to shoot her deer.”
To make the long story shorter, my first group settled about four inches high and six inches right of the bull. I made adjustments, but now I had a decision to make. Use up the last of the XP3 ammo, or switch to something else. I had about a half box of rounds on top of the safe. They were in a Winchester silver box, but instead of the nickel cases these were brass. I decided to give them a go, and stuffed three of them into the mag.
The first shot was almost exactly 12:00, but still almost six inches high. My second shot went right by about two inches, but was only about one inch high. My third shot was about two inches below the second. What the hell?
It turns out that the ammo in the box was mixed. There were some 85gr Barnes TSX mixed in with what I think were 100gr Winchester PowerPoints, along with a third bullet that I couldn’t recognize (it was coated, so I think it was some kind of Winchester Premium line). Just for kicks, I tried it again. The Barnes bullet went in about four inches high and an inch or so to the right. The Power Points hung together, just to the right of the bull and a little high. I think I was getting fatigued at this point, because I landed the coated bullets all over the place. It was time to stop. The next day and well rested, I was able to get the Power Points into about a two inch group, about one inch high of the bull. Even though I know this rifle is capable of more, that was plenty good enough for shooting deer.
The whole experience was a sobering reminder that it’s a good idea to re-check the zero on our hunting rifles at least every season, even if you don’t think it’s necessary. For example, even though both are topped with identical Leupold VX-II glass, the two rifles I sighted in this weekend have had very different lives.
Because it’s always on standby down here, the Savage spends a lot of time bouncing around in the truck. It’s travelled all over the country, often just riding on the back seat or in the rear floorboard. The dog walks on it. Groceries get set on top of it. All things considered, it wasn’t a big surprise that the scope had shifted. I account for this, however, by shooting it from the bench at least a few times each year.
But the BLR lives in the safe, except during hunting seasons. Last year it came out once, Kat shot a deer with one well-placed shot, and it got cleaned and put away. The distance from the safe to the stand wasn’t more than a 100 yard walk. Before that, it’s been over two years since I used that rifle on a hunt. I shot it a little bit in the interim, mostly messing around off-hand behind the barn, but this weekend was probably the first time that rifle has been on a bench in three years. My guess is that it was off last year when Kat shot her deer, but four or five inches of variance didn’t really matter on that 75 yard shot. The bullet may have gone a little high and wide, but it was still well within the kill zone. But if that deer had been 200 yards out, across the pasture, the result might have been very different.
Besides the obvious, I don’t know why scopes tend to go out of zero from time to time. Manufacturers like to make big claims about the ruggedness and reliability of their optics, rings, and bases. And I think most modern scopes are pretty danged solid. But when you think about it, the mechanics that hold and adjust the crosshairs and mirrors of a modern scope are relatively delicate things. They’re subject to all sorts of forces, from recoil to air pressure and humidity. Even rocks change over time. It should be no wonder that our optics do too.
Checking zero shouldn’t require a whole box of ammo, or a whole lot of time. It’s a reasonably small effort that can pay out big rewards in the end, though.
November 2, 2013
What is the price of conservation?
What is the value?
It’s a fact of this modern world that everything comes with a price. It’s also a fact that if you want to get someone’s interest in something, you have to provide a payoff. Altruism still exists, but by and large it’s a practice reserved for little things… the intangibles like sparing a kind word for a stranger or moving a flock of ducklings out of traffic.
I guess I should focus first, before I wax too esoteric.
About a week ago, the Dallas Safari Club made big waves with the announcement of an auction for a permit to shoot a black rhinocerous. Ripples spread quickly from news sites to blogs. The argument is that the sale of this permit will generate somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million, 100% of which would then be turned around to fund conservation and protection of these endangered species in their native home.
According to what I read (I’m no expert here), there are about 4000 black rhinos left in the wild. About 1800 of them live in Namibia, which is where this hunt, along with four others, will take place. As part of the country’s management plan, five mature, male rhinos will be taken in the coming season. The argument is that the males selected will be past their prime as breeders, but may still be capable of severely injuring or killing younger rhinos as they fight over mates. Taking these animals out of the herd may preserve several others.
What I’ve also read, and something about which I am only slightly more informed, is that the biggest threat to the survival of the black rhino (and to most endangered African species) is poaching. Because most African countries are fairly poor, fielding the personnel required to police the huge areas of wild lands to protect game from poachers is a daunting task.
Selling the various parts of endangered species, such as the horn of the black rhino, is big business and can provide significant income… and poachers are willing to kill anyone who tries to interfere. Stopping the poachers, therefore, requires more than the lightly armed, solo game warden with which most US hunters are familiar. It takes a small army, equally armed, to patrol the countryside. Small armies are not cheap.
An important source of the funding for African conservation is the dollars brought to the country by travelling sportsmen. Hunters from all over the world travel to Africa to hunt the exotic species that can be found there, and they often pay top dollar to do so. The more exotic the species, the higher the tab. As with any commodity, short supply drives the price tag higher. With this in mind, some African countries provide extremely limited opportunities to hunt endangered species.
Of course, even for some of the hunters among us, this practice raises a flag. Selling hunts for endangered species? How does that even make sense? Who would shoot an endangered animal?
Part of the problem is purely perception. When a species is listed as “endangered”, that doesn’t mean there are only one or two animals left. What it means is that, left unprotected and unmanaged, the population is in danger of collapse. And really, in many cases at least, hunting is one of the few ways that both of those requirements, protection and management, can be achieved.
Of course, it would be wonderful if folks felt the urge to just open their checkbooks and send a few hundred thousand bucks over to Africa for wildlife conservation. There certainly are a handful of charitable organizations trying to accomplish exactly that. But the best way to get someone to part with their money is to offer them something in return. That’s just how it is, and hunters are just like anyone else.
Which brings us back to where I started…
October 29, 2013
Just a note that is related and not related to the lead ammo ban discussion. However, what it does suggest is that lead ammo prices won’t be coming down any time soon, and will probably continue to increase. Copper may start to look pretty darned good.
What am I talking about? The news came out last week, but it wasn’t until I read the stories that I realized the implications of the last US lead smelter shutting its doors. Due to increased regulatory restrictions, the company in Herculaneum, MO has realized that it can’t meet the emissions rules.
There are still recycled lead smelters operating in the country, but with the loss of this major facility, lead bullion for ammunition manufacture is bound to be more difficult (and expensive) to acquire. Seriously, it might be time to start looking at lead alternatives for a whole new reason… it may be as cheap as, or cheaper than, lead.
Funny how things happen.
October 28, 2013
From my old home state, the Old North State.
Note, the sharpshooters are still on speed dial…
October 25, 2013
I really thought it was going to happen this evening.
I don’t know why, but I just had a feeling that I needed to get up in the stand after work and I would get my shot… put my first deer in the freezer for this season.
Didn’t happen, of course. You don’t see a new grip-n-grin, “hero shot” in the left margin of this post because I didn’t get anything. I saw deer. I see deer almost every time I go out. Can’t really help it, there are so bloody many of them around here. But, with the exception of a teeny-tiny, yearling doe, nothing came within bow range… at least not before dark.
I sat tight in the stand as the light dimmed, partly holding out hope for that last light deer, and partly just because I like being there so much. At some point, I realized that I could no longer see the pins on my sight. If a deer came out at that point, all I would be able to do is watch it. But still, I sat tight.
My stand sits at edge of the woods just at the top of my big pasture. I built it about 10′ up, into the triple trunk of a spanish oak using cedar poles I cut while clearing thickets. On the downhill side, the ground slopes steadily downward for about 200 yards, until it hits the flats at the bottom of the canyon, and then the road. From this perch, I can look out across the canyon for close to 1000 yards. I can watch the horses grazing at the hay feeder, and jackrabbits picking at my recently planted winter rye grass. I can also look over onto the neighbors’ places, and watch deer and turkeys working between the open meadows and pastures.
On the uphill side, I have about 15 yards of clear sight before the cedar thicket obscures everything. At 15 yards, the ground is pretty much at my eye level. The ridge rises pretty hard right here, and stays steep all the way to the top. Nevertheless, the woods on the other side of that thick wall of brush are laced with game trails. White-winged doves roost here at this time of year, swooping in at sunset with a rush and clatter of wings just over my head. The sudden noise is almost always good for a start when I’m not paying attention.
And just below the north end of the stand, the focal point really, is the spot I call the “Murder Hole.” When I was clearing the cedar from this hillside, I made a swath about 30 yards wide by 30 yards deep that drops down into a draw. When I got to the bottom of the draw, I realized there was a major intersection of deer trails. An old fenceline runs sidehill along the ridge here, and in this spot it had been pushed up by the passage of game. Deer tend to take paths of least resistance, so being able to walk under the fence instead of jumping over is a significant attraction. It is like the spout of a funnel for deer passing up or down the ridge… and it is a classic spot for ambush. I left enough brush here to provide a sense of security, but I have a perfectly clear, 30-yard shot right into the intersection as it comes out from under the fence.
It’s not a perfect stand. Concerned about the health of the tree during the drought, I wanted to minimize the number of screws or nails I used… so the platform is designed to rest in the crown of the three trunks. I thought it was kind of clever, and it reminds me of the funeral platforms utilized by some native American tribes. But really, it sits at sort of a downward angle, and the lack of uniformity in the cedar poles I used for the decking makes for uncomfortable footing. It’s not very comfortable for sitting either. It’s hard to stay up there for more than three hours at a time.
One of the three trunks is pretty much dead and has shed most of its branches, stressed by the intense drought we’ve seen down here. As the branches have fallen away, much of the cover they provided is gone, leaving me pretty well exposed… especially in the late season when the leaves have gone. I’ve tried to compensate by placing some tank netting around the stand, but when the wind blows, the whole thing flaps. That’s not good when you’ve got skittish deer… but sometimes the deer don’t seem to care.
The position of the stand also leaves me backlit at sunset. I didn’t realize how badly I stood out up there until the game camera mounted in the bottom of the Murder Hole snapped a shot of a doe, and I could see myself in the background. No wonder so many deer have busted me before I could come to full draw.
Not all, though. I’ve killed from this stand, and I’ve missed a couple as well. For all its flaws, the stand works. There’s a reason I call it the Murder Hole.
“One day,” I keep saying, “I’m going to do some modifications… maybe bring up some plywood for a floor and walls, and maybe even a roof. Just go ahead and build a shooting house up here.”
I never seem to quite get to it, though. Probably it’s just me and my goofy aesthetic, I realize, but a shooting house feels like taking away some of the wildness. There’s something about being exposed…about trying to fool these animals’ eyes with stillness. Something about trying to time every movement with the movement of the prey, from raising the bow to coming to full draw without being seen.
It’s intense. It’s difficult. It’s often frustrating.
What does the mountain lion feel, perched over the trail, hidden only by elevation and a few clumps of grass? He waits for the deer to take one more step… and then another. Closer. Almost. How often does that perfect ambush fall apart in the snort and clatter of panicked hooves just before the pounce?
I like my tree stand. It suits me.
October 22, 2013
My friend, John (JAC) pops in here from time to time, usually to keep me honest when I’m off on a rant about lead-free ammo or other such stuff. But he also gets out for an occasional hunt, and this season he was fortunate enough to get after an elk in his home state of Arizona. As I requested, he sent me a write-up about the hunt.
Events in the field often don’t play out quite like we plan them. This was the case for John, and as you’ll see, he had to do a little internal processing after all was said and done (as evidenced in the title he gave the piece). I’ve been corresponding with him via email, so I’ll hold off on repeating my comments just now. I’d love to hear what some of you folks think, though.
How to fail massively and wind up with 265 pounds of elk venison
I went elk hunting last week in hopes of finally filling my freezer in accordance with my desire to eat no meat but that which I’d hunted myself. I had only two rules: first rule, don’t shoot a cow with a calf, and second, don’t violate the first rule.
My excellent friend Steve has a place in Payson, Arizona, and last year, he and I hunted mule deer on the high desert that falls away from Payson toward Phoenix and he agreed to help me again this year. He is excellent in the sense that he is good at being a friend, and in the sense that he is good at being a compassionate person working in the morally and legally complex field of law enforcement. You guys would get along, actually. Like you, he has a pick up truck that is 72 feet long. Like yours, It has a big, happy dog in it a lot of the time. He sees game when it’s too far away for me to see it the way you do. And like you, he runs off in pursuit of it. I told Steve about my rules and he said not to worry, there were so many elk around I’d tag out the first morning after picking my shot.
I bought a 30-06 last year in case I was ever drawn for elk. I took it to the range this Spring to sight-in for the first time. I fired ten times over the course of an hour and then went out to the concession and bought a bottle of water. When I came back I was on the right side of the rifle for the first time and I saw a six inch scratch running lengthwise under the bolt-knob. I first thought someone handled it while I was gone and dropped it against the table. But that would be such an egregious, unimaginable violation of etiquette, I decoded instead that I must have pulled it from the case against the zipper and scratched it myself.
Beginning in August, I loaded lots variations of rounds with Nosler E-Tips and the first time I went out and ran them over a chrono and checked their accuracy, some of the groups were perfect little clover leafs and I figured I was one seriously dangerous elk hunter. The next time I went, however, the groups opened up to several inches and the scratch felt rough when I wiped down the stock. The third time out, after a few shots, the scratch grew and forked. There never was a scratch of course, the stock had fractured during the first few shots. So last Tuesday I took my 7mm-08 to the range with a box of reloads made by Stars & Stripes Ammunition and a lump in my throat. I’m a great worrier and I was seriously worried about the diminutive cartridge for elk. I salved my worry by writing friends (sorry you were one) and pointing out that the 7mm-08 is more powerful at 200 yards than a 30-30 is at the muzzle. Pretty thin gruel for my ravenous anxiety, but it’s what I had. Apropos of your post on copper projectiles last week, those Stars & Stripes rounds fired 140 grain Barnes TTSX bullets at 2863 fps. The rifle shot two sub MOA groups like it usually does and I went home and cleaned it. Wednesday morning I went to the range and fired two fouling shots and spent the day getting supplies I needed. When I was loading up Wednesday night, the moon was big and bright. I’d not been paying attention to it and hadn’t noticed it during the week and I hoped it was waning.
I drove up to Payson on Thursday. Leaving dinner that evening, it was clear the moon was waxing instead of waning. It was sitting hugely on the horizon. At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, the moon was fully up and casting shadows. The wind had picked up too making the 32 degree temperature feel especially ugly. We drove out to a 125 yard wide electrical line easement that ran for miles, off loaded Steve’s Polaris, and drove off into the cutting wind, no headlights necessary thanks to the moonlight. The plan was to get up high and glass so after stashing the ATV, we bombed up several hundred feet of a nearby slope, Steve demonstrating how he got the nickname Big Diesel. That guy doesn’t race, but he doesn’t slow down either. Ten minutes later, fully warm I settled in to wait for dawn. Fifteen minutes after that, fully cold, I was silently rooting for dawn to hurry the hell up as I pulled my fingers into a fist inside my gloves.
The sun eventually rose and the cold abated, but he wind never relented. We glassed a long time, then Steve made a big loop through the canyons to see what he could see. I stayed behind in a shady spot, my rifle resting on my monopod and glassed the easement. The area seemed likely. There were ravines falling away on both sides of the easement, filled with a mixture of oak, pine and spruce. There was a lot of elk scat. I stayed in the field all day, still hunting up and down the ravines and eventually found a narrow draw in the easement where the ground fell away pretty quickly to a floor of fresh grass. There was even some clover growing there. I sat up on the edge in the afternoon shadows with the wind straight into my face. Around 3:30 in the afternoon a big coyote with a beautiful red plume at the end of his tail came over the lip of the far side and trotted down the slope. At 60 yards he did the National Geographic front legged hop and stomp, lunged in after whatever he’d stomped up, pulled his head out of the grass and tossed something into the air, caught it, chewed it and then tossed his head back to swallow. For the next five minutes that handsome boy raced around a little blue spruce, lunging in here and there, sometimes upending himself to get an whatever he’d found. He eventually came straight down into the bottom of the draw and crossed away from me to the other side, his tail looking the color of a red-headed baby in the sunshine. After the coyote left, I watched iridescent blue jays gathering food the rest of the afternoon. We don’t have birds like that in Phoenix and I don’t remember them back in Missouri either. II spent a pretty nice afternoon and I headed back to meet Steve at the truck in the gloaming. Steve had taken his quad on a loop of several miles but didn’t see any mammals himself.
Saturday morning we hunted a place named Walnut Flat. There was one truck in the pullout and another high up the mountain when we pulled in. The moon was insanely bright. We waited until 5:30 then got on the quad and drove off into the moonlight. As the first glimmer of daylight started to change the color of the horizon we headed off on foot. Walnut Flat is beautiful. It’s a large grassy mesa surrounded by ravines and there is a pond at the interior edge. We glassed, moved off and glassed again, hopping from juniper to juniper. We came across a ground blind situated to watch a huge open area. We spent the next hour, maybe two skirting the edge of the ravine to get over the edge of the mesa out of the blind’s field of fire. Around 9:30, Steve headed back to the quad to check on his dog back at the truck. I snuck along through the forest for a couple more hours. There was so much scat on the slopes above Walnut Flat that if I wasn’t standing in glistening black elk droppings, I needed only to take a step left or right to crush some. I don’t know where the animals were that left all the scat though. I didn’t hear any rifle shots either.
Saturday afternoon we headed out for a place called Hardscrabble Mesa. We took the National Forest road until it dead ended at an engineer’s dream of a gate. It was made of a rectangle of 4″ box steel with 4″ box steel cross supports. It’s end posts were sunk into concrete and guarded by gambion boxes filled with head-sized river rock which was cemented inside the wire. We left the quad and clambered past the gate to take a look a the road beyond. To our left were rock wall cliffs rising a couple hundred feet and to our right a drop off of lots of hundreds of feet. I never really got close enough to look straight down because I am somewhat, but not completely crazy. The warning signs said the road was unstable and it was hard to dispute that as we made our way down the hill toward a sharp curve guarded by k-walls. It looked like the monsoon rains had washed away the pavement and undercut the cliffs on the inside of road. We only walked for a few minutes past the k-walls and when we turned around we could see why they were there. There were four, maybe five crushed cars that had gone off the road. Those cars had free-fallen as little as 60 feet and as much as several hundred feet. The results were the same for all the cars, though. Gauging by the cars’ age, the road must have been built by the 40′s and the k-walls placed in the 70′s.
We took the quad to the top of Hardscrabble Mesa. That is a sunny, windy place without any water we saw or could find on the maps. Steve wandered off the utility roads once and reported that there was as much scat as on Walnut Flat, only it was all white with age. A couple hours killed, the sun heading for the horizon, we headed for the truck. If you are into zooming, terrifying quad rides, hop on Steve’s on the top of a mountain mesa with 45 minutes till the end of shooting light. Holy mackerel. As we loaded up, I figured that I’d seen a coyote, some beautiful jays and had had the ride of a lifetime. It was a good weekend already.
As I turned in Saturday night, I didn’t need to turn on the bedroom light, the moonlight sweeping in was plenty bright.
For the third morning in a row, my phone lit up and sang at 3:23 a.m Sunday. Steve had picked a third spot, near the East Branch of the Verde River and we lumbered out. It was as cold as the first day but the air was still. As we pulled off the highway, the headlights settled on three elk cows. A really big one, a medium sized one and a smallish one. There must be more, I figured but whatever else, I admonished myself, don’t shoot that mommy elk. I was suddenly very enthusiastic about the place Steve had picked. The pullout was u-shaped and we went back to the highway and found another. We left the quad and headed into the forest sneaking from moon shadow to moon shadow. We picked a big shadow behind a big cedar and stood still waiting for dawn. We could see the highway and watched two trucks pull off within sight of Steve’s. I was pretty unhappy since I had a proprietary feeling about the spot. We moved into the forest away from the people with elk rifles and ATV’s behind us. Steve was hunting, I think I was mostly thinking about putting trees between us and the people I could now hear coming up behind.
At 6:20 I saw a big white rump up the slope ahead of us. I had my rifle unslung so I couldn’t pull up my binoculars, Steve looked through his Swarovskis and said “That’s an elk.” I dropped to a knee, but Steve reminded me that we can’t shoot from, to or over roads, even logging roads. I think he reminded me by saying “Get off the road!!” so I scrambled off the road and stuck the stock of my rifle on a cedar branch and cushioned it with the rubber sling. I dialed my scope up and saw an elk turning left and looking my direction. Steve, watching through his binos behind me and a few yards to my right said, “I’ve got her, take her.” I clicked off the safety, settled the cross hairs into the dark crease low behind her left shoulder and fired. I couldn’t see her as the scope rocked back, but I saw two elk bounding up the slope away. Steve said she’s down.
I found her in my scope and she had gone straight down on her legs but her head was moving like she was trying to get up. My body was shaking pretty violently, my voice was involuntarily modulating. The sound of an ATV rumbling up behind stopped as Steve waved the other hunters off.
Then, to my exquisite horror, a small elk walked over to the one I’d shot and just stood a few steps away, obviously unsure about what to do. That little elk stood there a couple minutes while the head of the one I’d shot craned again and again as she tried to will her body to get up. That little elk stood there until the ATV behind us started up again and drove into her view. Steve was still behind me glassing and telling me not to shoot again. I only remember saying that this was 100% of what I didn’t want. I don’t know if we talked while I watched that elk through my scope except for Steve letting me know where the humans were. For several minutes after her calf left, I watched her and I just kept thinking I’d broken both my rules in my haste and excitement. I’d shot precisely the elk I didn’t want to shoot.
Five or so minutes after she finally laid her head down, Steve and I methodically made our way straight to her. There was a single drop of blood on her right side where the bullet exited. The Cedar tree I’d used as a rest didn’t have a John-sized branch so I was hunched when I fired. I’d pulled the shot up and left but, to be precise, it could have been bad shooting rather than the tree. The bullet caught her at the junction of her neck and body, passed through the near lung, struck the spine and caromed down, I guess, through the off-side lung and out. There was a thumb sized hole in the offside lung, a little one in the near lung. The spinal injury had paralyzed her and kept her in place till the lung wounds killed her. I hate to think how far she’d have run, leaving no blood trail, if her spine hadn’t been damaged.
The Payson-area processers were either full or not accepting elk with their hides on, so we hightailed north it to a mobile elk processing unit run by Miller Southwestern Processing, a Queen Creek (near Phoenix) operation. My elk was 10 percent larger than average. She dressed out at 265 pounds.
Some notes on my personal experience with Barnes’ bullets: I’ve now killed three big game animals using Barnes bullets; a pig in California with a Barnes TSX, an axis deer in Texas using a TTSX and this cow elk also with a TTSX. The pig was 60 yards down a steep slope and I pulled that shot up and left too, catching it under the jaw, and destroying its spine. It went down so fast, and the shot was at such an angle, that I saw the pig drop through my scope. The petals came off that bullet and I found them in the meat. The axis was a country mile off, but I was able to shoot prone with my rifle resting on its neoprene sling. I hit it in the chest, I know, because we found lots of frothy blood, but I don’t know how the bullet performed because we never found that buck. My cow elk died of the lung wound caused by the TTSX, though not in an acceptable time period. There was no blood at the entry wound and a single drop at the exit site. We ranged that shot at 121 yards. That bullet was traveling around 2570 feet per second when it hit her. It’s performance should have been optimal and we found no petals. But the holes in the lungs were’t at all what I expected and the larger off-side wound may have been the result of a tumbling bullet, for all I know. Steve, who has seen the insides of lots of shot animals, didn’t believe it was the lung wounds that had killed her and the debate wasn’t resolved until his lovely friends, a veterinarian and his wife, dropped by and gave the expert opinion that it had to be the holes in her lungs that were the fatal wound since the artery under the spine would have caused death in seconds, not minutes.
I went to bed last night thinking about the despair and terror to which I consigned that baby elk, and the weird fortuity of making a bad shot that was probably much better than the one I’d intended given the little TTSX wound channel. I took the wrong shot and made a bad shot. I did everything wrong. And yet, in the kitchen this morning, there is an iced cooler with five pounds of liver, an elk heart, and a tenderloin I need to take care of.
October 21, 2013
Just the other day, I was sort of lamenting that this is the time of year that I should be packing up for three or four weeks of guiding at Coon Camp Springs. Several weeks in a tiny camp, way off in the eastern Sierra, helping our hunters find some big ol’ California mule deer… it was paradise, and one of the things I looked forward to every year.
Well, obviously I’m not there this year, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t still going strong out there. Dave Allen, my friend, and President of Coon Camp Springs organization just sent me a photo of the first buck of the 2013 season, and it’s a WHOPPER!
October 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.