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Friday, November 7, 2014

What makes a good hunting partner

After reading my report on our mule deer trip to Montana, my hunting partner Tony was a bit disappointed that I talked more about rocks and cactus than his many and varied skills.  As an example, he pointed out that I had totally overlooked his remarkable sense of humor.  Despite the fact that his comedy repertoire consists of a single joke (it’s a good one...but it’s just one) I’ll admit that he has a good sense of humor.  

His comment got me thinking though...what makes a good hunting partner?  It’s not like you pick a hunting partner based on a resume...you just go hunting and if the dude is a good hunter and fun to hang out with then you go again.  If he’s un-safe or un-funny you just avoid him like the plague.

Let me look beyond the anorexic joke lineup of my hunting partner Tony, and provide you with a look at some of the many other talents that make him a great guy to hunt with.

He’s the kind of guy who just works all the time.  He got to our hunting area first, and rather than just look for a slurpee at the nearest 7-11, he rucked up and started scouting for a place for us to hunt.  Interestingly enough, on his first scouting trip he lost the keys to his vehicle.  I got a text lamenting the loss and I could hear the desperation in his words.  A little while later I got another text telling me he had retraced his steps and found his keys.  It was an amazing turn of events...he lost his keys in the middle of Nowhere, Montana but he was able to track his way back to them.  Things were looking up.

He did all the advance work on finding us a place to camp while we were there.  I have to give him credit here.  Tony secured a private camp site for us within a very short driving distance of a beautiful highway rest stop.  How could a highway rest stop be beautiful you ask?  First of all it had heat in the mens room, and hot water too.  One might not really appreciate those two things until they’ve spent a few long days alone on a cold windswept ridge.  The rest stop also had picnic tables.  Big deal right?  A picnic table?  A good hunting buddy will have this area scouted out too and understand the nuances of the environment...this work would pay huge dividends later.

On day one he led me all the way to our hunting spot.  After all, he had done the advance work and knew where we were going.  Day one was great and went off without a hitch...right up until the end.  As I came down off a ridge in the dark I heard Tony yell up at me “I looosst my phooooone.”  Then he romped off into the dark trying to find it while I came down from the ridge.  For the next 15 minutes I stood in the dark with only a creaky old windmill for company.  I watched his headlamp bobbing in the distant blackness as he marched left and right, out and back, all over the horizon as he retraced his steps trying to find his lost iPhone.  I called his phone about 15 times hoping he’d see it or hear it and put an end to the goose chase.  About the time I was wondering what the odds were of a mountain lion getting one of us here in the dark, I saw him start his return...after adding another mile and a half to his days hiking mileage he had found the phone.

I spent day two hunting alone.  Darkness gathered around me as the day drew to a close, leaving me a small, dark, hungry speck upon the rocky landscape.  As the last rays of legal light slipped over the horizon, I got a text message.  Cold hands meant a shaky phone but I could still read the words...Tony said to just meet back at the picnic tables because he was making dinner...steak and potatoes no less.  I got his text as I sat shivering on a high dusty ridge with the wind sandblasting me until I thought I’d walk out of there as a frozen skeleton.  

“Steak and potatoes?” I thought...surely this is a joke.  Tony, you see, is quite the prankster.  In fact, at one point he had me convinced that the entire hunting trip was a bust...that we hadn’t drawn the required tags in the lottery.  As it turns out the day he tricked me was April 1st...it had not even crossed my mind to check the date, and he got me with an April fools joke.  I had trusted him, and like a good hunting partner will do, he immediately violated that trust to toy with my emotions.  Surely you can see why I initially doubted this “steak and potatoes” message.  Part of me thought he had found a road-kill possum and cooked it up to test my gastronomical prowess.

When I arrived at our table Tony informed me that he had met another hunter who was in the area on his own and invited him to our rest stop diner.  “Who does that?” I thought.  Rather than let some dude eat alone, far from home, he simply invited him to join us. Tony is just that nice of a guy.  Of course there was an outside chance that this loner was a serial killer who cruises rest stops for victims, but if that was the case, Tony would at least make sure that he’d be a well fed serial killer.  It might even buy us some goodwill and keep us off the victim list.

The dude turns out to be a cab driver from Minnnesota who has hunted the area for 20 years, and appreciated some end of the day conversation.  As we sat at the picnic table talking shop, Tony broke out a 2 burner Coleman stove and began whipping up a meal that would make Betty Crocker look like Chef Boyardee.  

I watched in disbelief as Tony dipped into his magic cooler and pulled out one ingredient after another, bacon, potatoes, elk steaks...it was unbelievable.  I hadn’t eaten since around 9 that morning and all day I had been “looking forward” to a bag of re-hydrated lasagna with “meat sauce”.  While that lasagna would in fact be nutritious, it would also be extremely bland.  Eating re-hydrated meals from a bag is kind of like paying taxes...you do it because you have to...not because you want to.  

So in a weird way, Tony’s rest stop cooking was a bit like tax evasion.  It helped me avoid doing something I really didn’t want to do and if felt great to be doing it too.   
The guy took a concrete picnic bench at a highway rest stop, and turned it into a comfortable diner serving delicious, piping hot food that you’d gladly pay top dollar for back home.  Rather than sitting in the dark and cold eating bland lasagna from a bag, I was now dining on bacon fried potatoes with elk steak, and enjoying a lot of conversation about hunting.  We were officially having a great time.  

Day three brought more good times in the field followed by dinner at a restaurant in town.  Despite the advantages of heat, walls, indoor plumbing, gas, electricity, dishwashers, a staff, refrigerators, ovens and broilers, the restaurant only managed to barely top the culinary creations of Tony’s rest stop diner.  

Day four was a hard day of hiking.  I filled my tag that morning and rather than continue his own hunt, Tony dropped everything to come help process my deer.  Together we skinned out and processed that animal on the spot where it fell.  Not long after we began, a freezing rain came in and tried to kill us.  I know some people who would’ve quit, or gone back to the truck to warm up for a bit...but Tony is a trooper.  He was in it to win it.  Despite the nasty weather mother nature was throwing at us he stayed right there with me until we had that thing done.  He even took on the role of “expedition photographer” as I set a world record for “slowest pace with a backpack” on the return trip to the truck with 100 lbs of meat on my back. 

That afternoon I got to start returning the favors as I took my supporting role in trying to help Tony fill his tag.  We drove the roads for a while trying to execute a plan but the day ended with no luck.  That evening back at the diner, Tony again broke out the Coleman stove and the magic cooler.  A frigid arctic wind couldn’t dampen the spirits inside Tony’s rest stop diner.  Hot chocolate flowed like champagne in a rap music video.

That evening the cook created a layered dish of fried potatoes with chunks of elk tenderloin perched lovingly on top.  Then to the hushed awe of the patrons, Tony delivered his master-stroke by pouring an entire can of Campbells Chunky Beef Stew over the entire thing.  After a long hard day of hiking, this type of food was a Godsend.  Hot, tasty carbs, and lean protein were the perfect blend to refuel the hiking machines.  

Amid a harsh and cold landscape he had once again created warmth and sustenance.  It felt like a magic trick out of the Lord of the Rings...as if Gandalf himself had waved his staff, muttered some stuff in Elvish or whatever you call that language, and POOF!  All the evil was gone and a banquet was laid out before us.  Such is the impact of a quality camp chef.  

The next morning we returned to the field to try to get Tony’s tag filled.  Before we left the truck in the pre-dawn darkness he asked me to put his camera in the top pouch of his pack.  He had already put his coat in that pouch, so I simply put the camera snugly in with it, then snapped it back the way he had it.  Off we went.

The next few hours are funny in retrospect.  My phone was dead so I had it in the truck charging...and I forgot to take it with me when we left.  We had split up in the field and were on ridges on opposite sides of the valley...facing each other at a distance of roughly 600 yards.  I could see Tony through my binos but every now and then he would disappear.  I figured he was stalking around trying to find something on the other side of the ridge.

Since I had no phone though, I couldn’t confirm any of this.  All I could do was hope that he would eventually figure out to switch to our backup mode of communications...the two way radios.  After a few hours my radio crackled to life.  Tony had figured out that I didn’t have my phone.  He mentioned that he had lost his jacket on the way in.  I told him I’d look for it on the way back to the truck.

I saw no sign of the jacket or camera on my return trip.  When I got to the truck I checked my phone and saw that over the past few hours he had sent and increasingly desperate set of text messages to a phone that no one was checking.  

“Have you seen my jacket?” the first message read.

“I think it fell out on the way in.” stated the next.

The messages grew more stark as his condition deteriorated.

“Man, it’s really cold this morning.”

“So cold”

“Can’t stop shaking.”

It felt like I was reading the diary of a dying man.  As it turns out...when I saw him disappearing off the ridge he wasn’t stalking deer.  When the involuntary shaking grew so violent that he couldn’t hold the rifle still enough for a shot, he’d bail off the backside of the ridge and march up and down it until he got warm enough to hunt again.  Then he’d get back to hunting until hypothermia had him in it’s icy grasp once more, at that point he’d do another “survival hike” to generate some body heat. 

I saw no sign of the jacket, but after retracing all of his steps, Tony found it not far from the truck.  He took a line maybe 60 yards different from the path I took and he found it lying in plain site.  I felt bad that he almost froze to death...I’ve been there and it makes for a tough hunt.  But in the end...like always...he found his gear.  It’s tough to say he “loses” a lot of gear because he always finds it again.  He definitely misplaces a lot of gear and I’d bet he’s in such good hiking shape because he does a lot of 2 for 1 hikes.  One hike for the hunt, and one to find the gear he misplaced.


So when you consider the kind of hunting partner that Tony is, you see that you have a character that can hike all day long, but needs to because he loses a lot of stuff.  He has one joke but tells it well.  He can cook like a 5-star camp chef.  He never rests until the job is done.   He is equal parts humble and tenacious...a combination rarely seen in people.  He is always eager to help out in some way to make things better...even when they seem to be good enough already.  He is as humble and generous an ambassador of the outdoors as you are likely to meet in your lifetime...and I’m glad that I got to spend a week on the trail with him.  If you ever see a dude at a rest stop cooking on a two burner stove...wander over and say hello...you just might get to meet the legendary Tony McClain.  

Friday, October 31, 2014

Montana Mule Deer

I’m done.  Ten minutes ago my plate was stacked with perfectly prepared mule deer tenderloin and crispy garlic/sage potatoes.  Now the only thing I see is an empty plate with a thin layer of au jus, and dotted with bits of freshly cracked black pepper, thyme, and small charred specks.  I push my plate away, but even with a full belly I continue to ponder the meal.  I’m full, I’m tired, and I’m completely satisfied.  As I stare at the plate my stomach lingers in the moment but my brain is rewinding the tape.  My brain is reliving the events of the past 5 days that got me to this table, with this meal.  The stomach lives for the moment, but the brain lives for the memory.


5 days before

Last Saturday morning I found myself in a strange land.  It was opening day of Montana’s deer season and I had never been there or even seen the landscape with my own eyes.  It took 21 hours of driving to get there, and the last 4 hours had been in complete darkness.  The only terrain I had seen was about 12 feet of median on each side of the highway as it was captured in fringes of my headlights.  After I met up with my hunting buddy Tony, we made a quick camp and agreed to wake up at 0515...again I’d still be in the dark.  

I couldn’t sleep much that night, I just wasn’t tired.  There in my sleeping bag I had time to ponder a few things.  I was laying there in south central Montana.  In the morning I would rise and hunt on ground that’s not just in the echo of American history...it IS American history.  This is the same ground that the tribes of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull hunted...where indian tribes fought each other for rights to hunt.  It is the same ground upon which Custer’s 7th Cavalry hunted down the tribes of those same indians.  It’s a stones throw from the very place where the 7th Cavalry was slaughtered, and the same ground where the US Army came to finish off the indian presence here and claim this land for the United States.  

Little has changed on much of the landscape since those men were here.  If you were to bring Crazy Horse and Custer back here today they’d likely recognize most every hill along the Powder River.  Conversely if you drove General Robert E Lee out to Gettysburg he’d be hard pressed to recognize a thing.  He’d have lots of questions about cars and shopping centers but he surely couldn’t pick out any trail he used to get to the battlefield.  The west is full of history, and many parts of it are still as pristine and wild as they were 200 years ago.  So this is the area we’d hunt when we woke, and I was anxious to get started.

Opening day

Shortly after waking we had a quick drive and arrived at our spot.  We left the trucks in the dark loaded down with gear, and lifted up with optimism.  Once we crossed the first barbed wire fence, our adventure had officially begun. 

My buddy Tony had arrived the day before and done some scouting.  He determined that this block of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land would be a good place for us to begin our Montana mule deer adventure. 

As we picked our way across the landscape in the dark, I was moving on faith alone.  When sunrise lifted the curtain of darkness I would be totally surprised by what the landscape might look like.

Up front I’ll admit to being a total rookie when it comes to hunting “out west”.  I’d never been there before.  I honestly had no idea there was a difference between sagebrush and a tumble weed...I thought they were the same.  Tony graciously pointed out a few of the differences as I tripped over a sagebrush with one of my first steps on Montana soil.  The bush seemed providing an early glimpse of the hardship to come...as if to say “welcome to Montana...rookie.”  

Not a few steps later I had to stop us again because my boot had come untied.  I tried to re-assure Tony that despite my Keystone Cops appearance thus far, I’m actually a competent hunter.  In the dark I thought I could hear him shaking his head in disbelief.

Now, finally, boots tied and having learned how not to trip on one of the millions of sagebrush plants that littered the ground ahead, we pushed forward.  At this point I felt a  bit like a kid in the back of his parents car on a trip to Disney.  “Are we there yet?” I wanted to ask.  I didn’t of course, I merely trudged along in the dark behind Tony who would essentially be my guide for today.  

My entire world at this point existed only in the bright white cone illuminated by my headlamp.  It was good gear, and it kept me from tripping on all manner of Montana obstacles: rocks, boulders, sagebrush, some kind of round plant with long spiky leaves, gullies, cliffs, scree slopes...you get the idea.  

As we moved further from the road the terrain grew increasingly intense.  In my mind I figured we’d hike across a fairly flat prairie and maybe 10 minutes later climb a slight hill that overlooked something huntable.  Keep in mind I’d never seen this place...I had no idea what to expect.

Slowly we crawled through the darkness.  First we crossed a long slightly uphill expanse of dusty terrain covered by crushed rock, and sagebrush.  Then we came to a steeper bit that required some careful footwork to navigate.  A quick note is in order here...we weren’t on a trail...a trail is generally smooth...it might be steep or shallow...but by nature a trail is fairly smooth.  This wasn’t a trail...it was just wild Montana landscape and you had to make your own trail across it.  When you went up, you did so in whatever increment mother nature felt was appropriate.  It might be staggered steps of 4 inches or 18 inches at a time, or sometimes you’d have to really pick your foot up and hoist yourself and your load up steps of 24 inches of more.  If we ever walked a trail it was a game trail or a cow trail...neither of which are a perfect width for a mans boot.

Everywhere there were rocks.  The ground itself was basically dust covered by billions of shards of broken rock that looked like the leftover trimmings of a massive indian arrowhead making competition.  On top of the dust and countless rock fragments was the sagebrush.  The sagebrush at first appear random in their placement, but after a few minutes amongst them you see the genius of it.  They are cleverly arranged in a very intricate pattern that denies you a straight path of more than 10 feet, no matter which direction you are traveling.  You can’t get anywhere by walking straight...you are constantly shifting left and right to get around the sagebrush...which stand tall enough to come up halfway to your knee and have a sturdy, woody structure that make them impossible to simply drag your foot through.  It is a short but formidable foe.  

Now on top of our dust, rock, and sagebrush base, I want you to start adding rocks to the equation.  The rocks on the low ground came in roughly two types: flat/wide rocks that wobbled when you stepped on them, or lunch-box-sized rocks that tripped you if you didn’t see them.  You’ll note that neither of those is conducive to balance and or easy travel in the dark.  So now you should have a good feel of what the first part of our hike looked like, it was a dusty, rambling bit with lots of ways to trip.

As we neared the top of the first rise, we took a path that led higher still.  The world was still pitch black, illuminated only in the areas where I pointed my headlamp.  Now the dusty rocky landscape yielded to a lighter colored reddish dirt that looked more like clay...rough crumbly clay that might give way underfoot.  We were now climbing a finger of land that led upward.  In the light of my headlamp I could see rising terrain in front of my maybe three feet wide.  As is customary it was littered with trip-hazards, and on both sides of our path the land dropped off steeply into darkness.  This was the first time I realized that the terrain we were crossing could hurt you, and badly, if you mis-stepped.  We continued higher on this loose, clay-looking, boulder strewn spine until we hit something that looked impassable.   A butte rose straight up from the trail.  “Whew!” I thought.  “That was a heckuva hike...now we hunt.”  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  

Tony gathered his thoughts as he tried to recall which valley he wanted to drop down into.  Rather than stop here to wait for sunrise we pushed around on the right side of the butte.  In the dark with the high wall of the butte lurching skyward on my left, I found myself hopping down off one boulder onto the loose clay one moment (praying my footing wouldn’t give way), then scrambling up a series of lumpy stairs amid the sagebrush the next.  The sound of the wind was constant, interrupted only by the heavy thud of boot steps and the labored breathing of two hunters trying to make good time across rough terrain.  

Eventually we gave the high ground back to mother nature and made it back down to the valley floor...which was still only lit by starlight.  Now we made good time.  We had our feet-under-us so to speak and were a bit familiar with the terrain.  Ground passed quickly in the white light of my headlamp.  Down into one small gully, clamber up the other side, step around that sagebrush, breathing hard, over that rock, chest still expanding and contracting trying to keep up with the oxygen requirement.  Around this time I stopped to strip down to the bare essentials.  It was cold and windy but we were working hard enough to generate a lot of heat, which created sweat, which creates problems when you stop in a cold environment.  I took off everything but my base layer, rucked up, and started again.  I was thankful I did it because I could already feel the wind evaporating the sweat off my arms.  The last thing I wanted was to be soaking wet later and have to sit still...it would make for an extremely cold morning.

On we pushed.  It was still dark but we were now among a group of buttes and hills that were light colored and really stood out as we travelled through them.  They were high, intimidating pieces of topography.  The cliffs and buttes rose from this valley like the formidable walls of a mule deer fortress...like it was designed to keep man out.  Yet here we were, quietly, slowly, and stealthily slipping past these defenses in the hope that we might catch one of these mule deer by surprise in his own back yard.  

Still we pushed.  Now we were traversing a scree slope as we pushed north toward our hunting spot.  We were paralleling the ridge line but I couldn’t tell how far we were below the peak.  I could look to my right and see hillside a few feet away, and look to my left and see nothing but blackness.  If i looked DOWN and to my left I saw the hill falling away into the dark...but I had no idea what lie beyond the range of my light...death was one possibility...but I didn’t lose focus long enough to ponder it.  This was one of those time where I was happy it was dark, because if I could see what we were doing...I probably wouldn’t be doing it.  It was steep enough on this side-slope that you couldn’t put your foot flat on the ground...the angle was too steep for that.  You could get only the side of your boot on the ground...and that side better be able to grip mother earth pretty well or you were going to go for a ride on a boulder coaster.  At this point I was very happy I had bought new boots for this trip.

Once again we gave up the elevation and returned to lower ground.  Next we covered a quarter mile of your standard issue Montana “dust/rock/shrub” country when we hit our first new obstacle.  Depending on where you hail from you might call this a ditch, a gully, a coulee, or even and unmarked grave...whichever you prefer we just hit one in the dark and needed to cross it.

My fearless pal Tony is used to such obstacles...he’s from Idaho...and none of this terrain phases him in the least.  As I stand there wondering how far out of the way we have to go to get around this thing, he clambers right down into it.  Alright...I follow.  This is steep terrain that drops into a ravine that’s maybe 20 feet deep.  None of the ground looks sturdy enough to hold a mans boot, yet each time I get half a boot on the slope below me it holds.  Slowly we side step down into this giant crack in the earth.  When we hit the bottom the first thing I realize is that I’m out of the wind.  Wind that had been blasting us at 16 to 20 MPH just a few seconds earlier has been reduced to just 1 or 2 MPH at the bottom of this ditch.  It’s only a few paces across and now we have to climb out of the ditch and get back into the punishing wind.  It’s crazy...over time, the water has created this huge, energy sucking obstacle in an otherwise easy to navigate section of land.  It’s like natures way of ensuring that nothing goes easy.

One of the beautiful things about having a GPS is that it’s at times better than my own memory.  As I’m typing this I’m looking at the path we actually took, overlaid on a satellite image of the area.  After we crossed that first ravine we made it 150 feet before we realized we had goofed.  My handy satellite track shows that we doubled back and crossed that same ravine again just a few yards away from where we first crossed it. It was twice as much fun the second time.

We were still in the dark, but we were closer to where Tony wanted to set up.  At this point he was like a bird dog on a blind retrieve.  He couldn’t see the target, but he had a good nose for where it was.  Our GPS track on the map looks a lot like the path of a dog working the wind on his way to find a duck.  We poked this way and then that, then forward, shift left, then right.  On and on it went.  

Now it was starting to get a little bit light out.  While I thought the buttes that comprised the walls of the mule deer fortress were the tallest things in town, I now realized that even they were dwarfed by the walls of the valley we were in.  In the very dim early light I could see significant mountains to my west.  Just as I was beginning to enjoy my sight seeing tour we hit another unmarked grave ravine.  This one was so steep that even Tony took his time.  I stood at the rim and watched him slowly go down and evaluate our chances of crossing here.  I stayed up top because I didn’t want to waste the energy of going halfway down only to have to climb back out once we realized the futility of it...and futile it was...wait...oh...Tony scrambled right down the cliff and into the abyss.  I went partway down, but where it got crazy steep I paused...how did he do that?  Nothing about this slope looked climbable.  In my mind I saw only one scenario...me slipping, my rifle butt catching on the ground and pitching me forward where I would bounce and roll end over end just like the scene from The Princess Bride where she kicks the Dread Pirate Roberts down the hill.  That’s the ONLY scenario I could see...I saw no odds of successful passage...but Tony did it and I’m following him so I need to have some faith and dive in.  

Sure enough I made it to the bottom in one piece.  Step two would be getting out in one piece.  This ravine was deep enough to completely hide 30 foot tall trees.  The slope out of it was not walkable...you had to scramble out using your hands and feet...it was almost like climbing a wall.  I’m pretty sure that on my way up I passed a spider going the other direction who had simply quit trying to get out this way.  When we climbed out of that crevice we were approaching legal shooting light.  We crossed another few hundred yards of decent terrain and then crossed another series of gullies.  We had been hiking for about an hour and a half in the dark and were now close to where we needed to be.  

Tony wasn’t exactly sure this was the spot because he had scouted it from a high ridge about a mile away...but we were close enough to start hunting.  We decided to split up to cover more ground.  Having never hunted mule deer before I asked him a question before he left.   “Do you think I should hunt down low near one of these ravines, or get up high to see more stuff?”  

After a moment of silence he replied simply “I’m gonna let you make that decision.” Then he walked off.  I liked the answer.

To my front was a wide gap in a series of low hills.  That gap was like a really wide county road heading down from these hills and gullies to the agricultural fields below.  Given the lay of the land it seemed to me that my best approach would be to take the high ground and control as much as I could from there.  It was a painful strategy though as it meant crossing yet another gully, then making one final climb up steep terrain.  Thankfully when I got there I could rest for a while.

I arrived at the top of the hill with a heaving chest, lungs about to burst, and legs that felt like molten rubber.  Weak was not a good description of how I felt...I’m not sure the human language contains words that can convey the depth of the exhaustion...interpretive dance might get the point across better but nobody wants to see me do that.  No problem though...I could now lay down and rest for a few minutes.  I arranged my gear with my bino’s, rangefinder, and rifle all in front of me, then I proned out behind them.  It was at that exact moment that I discovered another inhabitant of these Montana wilds...cactus.

Yes...yeeeesssss there are cactus in Montana brother let me tell you.  If you hike in during the dark and have never been there you will likely find them the first time you sit or lay down.  I did the latter.  When I proned out behind my rifle I took a cactus strike to the upper thigh...missing my important regions by only a small margin.  Lesson learned, I stopped everything to clear the area underneath me of any more threats.




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Now I was hunting.  I was settled in behind my rifle, bullet in chamber, killing on my mind.  Before I did anything else I broke out my rangefinder to learn my surroundings.  Now that the sun was coming up I realized that from my high rocky perch I could see every gully, hill, rise, butte, valley, and mountain for miles around.  There were patches of trees here and there but they were the exception rather than the rule.   

Range is different

As I grabbed my rangefinder my “Plan A” was quickly destroyed.  That plan had been to simply cover the gap across the valley that led to the fields below.  Picture the rock of Gibraltar covering the entrance to the Mediterranean...that’s what this spot was.  It was a dominant terrain feature of both tactical and strategic importance.  

When I ranged that gap though it was 600 yards.  I was shocked.  The enormity of this country, the fact that it is so vast and so wide open, make even 600 yard stretches look tiny.  My plan called for me taking shots no longer than 300 yards.  I know how my gun shoots out to that range, and I know how I shoot at that range...so that was my limit.  Now I had a real problem.  I could see for miles but only shoot for yards.  

This was the first bit of friction I encountered...the first time my old ways of hunting clashed with my new opportunity.  It was exceedingly probable that I would see deer that were just outside, or even far outside my effective range.  How would I handle that?
One legitimate option would be to wait and hope they come my way and get inside my range.  Another option was to simply watch them go and hope some others came along.    Still a third option would be to leave my position and try to close the distance on them...spot and stalk.  

I’ve stalked and killed a lot of deer “back east” as they say out west.  But it’s a different type of stalking.  Back east it’s more “stalk and spot” as opposed to “spot and stalk”.  It’s an important distinction.  In the case of “stalk and spot” you are moving stealthily through a heavily wooded area the deer use as cover until eventually you sneak up on one and drop the hammer...first you stalked...then you spotted him.  Out here in Montana it’s the opposite.  You can get up high to get good visibility, spot one in the distance, then try to stalk him...and you can move quickly while doing it.

So those were my options on opening day.  Day one was an eye opener.  It was the day I was introduced to my new area and it’s difficult terrain.  At first it was difficult to focus on hunting due to the stunning backdrop of mountains, buttes, and rugged landscape.  This was indeed God’s country.  

The rest of day one was a blur.  That morning marked the first time I saw mule deer in the wild.  I saw three doe about half a mile away as they crossed from the fields to a bedding area in the hills.

Next I saw a herd of antelope.  It was this day that I had another unique experience.  The country here can be a bit dis-orienting to someone not used to being in the hills.  Everything is high and all of your views are full of steep angles going this way and that.  At one point I was scanning the valley floor below me and I had the strangest sight.  A bird was flying toward me...but I was looking down at him.  It’s not every day that you see the top of a bird as he is flying toward you...it was one more visual that reminded me I was a long way from home, and it took some getting used to.  

Later that day Tony went walkabout.  If you’ve ever seen the movie Crocodile Dundee you’ll get the reference.  The man left with his rifle, his lucky Van Halen tee shirt, and his orange vest and that was the last I saw of him for several hours.  

Mid-day was dead still.  For the afternoon on day one I stalked some ridges to the south (the direction we came in) and was able to stalk within shooting distance of a nice buck antelope.  I didn’t have a tag for antelope but it was a fun field exercise and helped me learn more about the tactics I could be using.

Day one ended with no shots, but was a good intro to the area.


Day 2 - Sunday

Sunday I hunted alone.  Tony had some other obligations at church and said to keep him in touch because he could come help pack one out if I got a shot.  It should be noted at this point that we were hunting a “no motor vehicle access” area.  No vehicles means just that...no vehicles...at all.  This meant that if we killed one we’d have to pack it out on our backs.  We liked the idea of this because while it meant a lot more hard work, we figured it should also reduce the number of other hunters in the area.  

It should also be pointed out that this is mountain lion country.  Hiking here alone in the dark doesn’t concern me...very few people get attacked by mountain lions.  However, our plan, if successful, would put us in a precarious position.  

I mentioned earlier that we’d have to pack out whatever we killed.  There was no way we’d be able to drag a 200+ lb. mule deer a mile or more over this terrain back to the truck.  So, the plan is that we’d quarter it and debone it on the spot, then put all the meat in a pack and carry that out.

So, our best case scenario is that we kill a deer, butcher it, then strap on a very heavy backpack full of fresh meat and hike through mountain lion country.  Now that I’m back in the confines of my home it doesn’t sound like the brightest idea...but it seemed perfectly reasonable at the time.  

I set out alone on day 2 with a plan to climb the ridge I left the night before.  However, due to the wind direction I decided to stop about a half mile short and hunt from a ridge on this side of the valley vs the opposite.

From the dark valley floor I picked out a spot on a ridge that was maybe 80 feet tall.  My legs were again molten rubber as I slowly pumped my way to the top.  The wind at the ridge line was almost furious.  It would grab my back pack with enough force to shake me back and forth.  I knew I couldn’t stay that high in that wind...so I eased my way lower to get behind a small clump of juniper trees.  Those juniper trees did a marvelous job of sheltering me from the wind.  I could hear and see the wind absolutely HOWLING off everything around me...just 10 yards in any direction and you took a beating by the wind.  But here behind these junipers it was only about 5 MPH.

From this high sheltered spot I could see a huge cornfield a quarter of a mile to my right, and I had tons of travel corridors to my front.  I could see down into two ravines from here, and I could see huge swaths of country that deer might cross as they left their food source.  I waited patiently in the dark, watching the stars and hoping for deer.

When the sun rose I realized that I could see every agricultural field for miles around.  I saw mule deer and antelope everywhere from this perch.  All morning long there were groups of animals moving out of the fields and into the hills.  Deer popped out of the corn all morning long and made their way into the ravines to my front.  Clearly they wanted to stay out of the wind.  I saw another group of four deer over half a mile away over my right shoulder...they were moving my way but I lost them when they went behind a large piece of topography we called the “ant hill”.  I figured I might see those deer again later in the morning when they came out from behind it.  















Just then I was treated to the sight of a herd of mule deer running across the sagebrush plains along the base of a huge butte.  They were strung out in a line and running.  The only thing that could've made the vision any more "western" would be if John Wayne himself were chasing them on a horse.  

About 40 minutes later I saw two doe coming up the closest ravine in front of me.  They were coming in from the right and I decided to get them in the scope just so I could say I had a deer in my sights (we couldn’t shoot doe but in case I got skunked I at least wanted to know what a mule deer looked like through a scope).  

As I brought the gun down I noticed more deer behind the doe...a spike buck!  Cool.  As I peered at him through the scope I saw bigger horns on the deer behind him.  Soon enough I was looking at a big bodied, tall racked mulie.  They were about 300 yards out, and I wasn’t sure he was big enough that I wanted to use my tag on him, but this was my first lesson in mule deer behavior.  






The ravine they were in ran parallel to me at a range of 300 yards.  They eased in-and-out of sight while they were down in it and eventually the doe popped  out onto the high flat that separated the ravines.  Shortly thereafter the buck popped up out of it.  He didn’t come all the way out though...the front half of his body was exposed but he wasn’t totally committed to coming out of that ditch yet.  He looked around and surveyed the area first.  This was when I noticed that he had a really narrow rack...it was maybe 8 to 10 inches across.  He wasn’t the type of deer I wanted to shoot on the dawn of day 2. That buck didn’t like being up on top and eventually eased into the ravine right below me.  He hung out between 100 and 125 yards for a long time.  The whole time I got to study him through the scope.  I let that buck walk, but if things were slow and he showed up later in the hunt...he’d be on the menu.

This ridge offered a great vantage point for learning how the deer are using this area.  Hopefully that knowledge would pay dividends soon.


Day 3 Monday

A cold front with some rain has swept through the night before and when dawn came on day 3 it was like the county fair.  Deer were everywhere, bucks were everywhere.  It seemed as though every deer in the county had come out to play.  

I started texting Tony when I saw deer but it quickly became so many sightings I had to stop texting.  Groups of doe, a few bucks here and there, more doe over there, it seemed like every direction you looked you’d see deer.

The activity was pretty steady for the first hour with deer traveling from the fields to the hills.  Around the time things began to slow down I noticed a pair of bucks about a quarter of a mile away.  One looked to be a decent sized deer and the other looked like a runt.  They were too far away to do anything with but I tried to keep them on my radar just in case something changed.

Deer sightings became fewer and fewer after 0830 but I still saw these two bucks following a ravine on the other side of the valley.  That ravine curved around the bottom of some hills and dumped out into the valley straight in front of me roughly half a mile away.  

There was nothing else going on so I just watched them work their way back, hoping to see where they would bed down.  About the time they came out of the ravine into the middle of the valley to my front, another deer emerged from behind some hills on the left side of the valley and made his way to them.  That deer looked a little bigger but at this distance, even with 10x binoculars, it was tough to tell.

I watched through my bino’s as that bigger deer made his way down and started thrashing a bush in front of the others.  They all kind of hung out in the middle for a bit,
then as a group they began moving to the left side of the valley.

Part of me just wanted to see where they were going, but another part of me began to ask “Can I close that distance?”  It seemed ridiculous, they were almost half a mile away.  More importantly was the fact that if I came off this ridge I could easily be spotted by anything in the valley.  I would be pretty upset if I started to stalk these deer and blew an opportunity at a bigger one that was coming my way and I just didn’t seen it.

This was a dilemma for sure.  Slowly the bucks eased toward a set of low hills on the left side of the valley half a mile away.  Should I stay or go?  Going means betting the entire mornings hunt on one set of cards...gambling that I can catch those deer and that one of them is big enough to shoot.  It was a big risk...there was a lot of activity here already and I didn’t want to ruin the area by spooking game.  As I watched them slowly feed their way up the back side of that hill and begin to go out of sight I decided that it was now or never.  I came out here to hunt, and part of hunting is adapting your strategies and taking risks.  I’d drop gear to get light, then I’d take off after them.

I eased my way down the ridge because I was still in sight of them...if I moved too quickly down this scree slope they’d surely see me and run.  When I got near the base of the hill I slipped behind a juniper tree, shed some gear and hid my pack.  I left with my rifle, shooting sticks, and heavy jacket.  The jacket might get me sweaty but I thought it might come in handy in case I got locked down and unable to shoot for a bit.

From where I sat my mission looked tough but maybe do-able.  I had to ease off a 100 foot ridge, then cross three ravines just to get into the same zip code as they were in.  Once I got there I’d have to figure out a way to approach three of them without being spotted and get close enough, and stable enough for a shot.  

I slipped into the first ravine with confidence.  They hadn’t seen me bail off the ridge and as I passed in between the few scraggly pine trees that lined the mouth of the gully I knew there was no way they could see me.  I made good time in the ravines, crossing them as fast as I could march.  One thing I needed to do was make sure I didn’t get so out of breath that I couldn’t make the distance in time, or couldn’t control my breathing when I got within shooting range.  

Each time I came out of a gully I looked for those deer.  When I came out of the first one  I saw the deer going behind the second of two, low hills that separated us.  With his butt disappearing behind the hill I knew I could now make good time with no worries of them seeing me.  







I practically ran into the second ravine.  This one was really wide, maybe 40 yards across at parts.  I picked a shallow exit on the far side and marched my way toward it.  80 yards to my left there was a doe in the ravine walking away from me.  I smiled as she had no idea I was there.   Even if she spooked there was no way she could alarm the deer I was after.  It didn’t feel like it at the time but I had a lot going in my favor at this point.  I was covering ground at a good speed, the wind was with me, and nothing could see me coming.   

I quickly exited the second ditch, slowed my pace to catch my breath and tried to figure out the best path to take.  There were two low hills to my left.  The first had two low tops with a saddle connecting them.  The second was a slightly smaller hill with a round white top.  Those deer had gone behind the second one with the white top.  I figured that if I climbed up the back of the first hill and snuck into that saddle then I might be able to flank them.  With my ad hoc plan in hand I scrambled into the last ditch.  I was across it in no time and had about 200 yards of uphill climbing before I reached the saddle on the ridge I wanted to shoot from.  

I was running on empty as I climbed the back of the hill.  My plan was to try to pace myself and have some gas left in my tank when I got there so I could still make a shot.  
 
The saddle of the ridge was coming up, in just a few seconds I’d be able to peer over the back of it and into the bowl below.  I could see the distinct round white top of the hill they had gone behind.  In a few more steps I should be able to see them below me.  I crept up to the ridge slowly so nothing would be alarmed by my movement.  Every inch closer I crept to the edge I could see that much more of the bowl below me.  Soon enough...he was right there.  60 yards away on the back slope of the second hill was one of the three mule deer bucks I had been stalking (chasing is a better term).  He was quartering away from me with his head outstretched and eating.  

The contrast of that moment was remarkable.  He was as calm and placid as could be.  Slowly feeding his way across this hill in the middle of nowhere.  60 yards away, kneeling in the weeds was a well hidden predator whose brain was in overdrive, every synapse firing at lightning speed to execute a plan, chest heaving from the chase that only he knew was unfolding.  I eased back a few steps and quietly deployed my shooting sticks in such a way that way they had no chance to see me until the gun was in firing position. 

I got behind the scope and looked at his rack.  I couldn’t see much so I went to zoom...in my haste I turned the wrong way...a moment of panic passed over me and then I got it fixed.  I zoomed in until the rack filled my scope, he turned his head and I could see that he was as wide as his ears, he had good mass, he didn’t have the best forks in the world but I recall my brain reflecting on everything I had done to get to this point and my final thought was “This is how I want the story to end”.  I flicked the safety off, found my mark, and eased the trigger until I got the boom.  

With a sudden clap of thunder my hearing was reduced by 50% and the part I lost was replaced by the familiar high pitched ringing.  There was a moment of hesitation as he locked up when the bullet hit him, and then he crashed in a heap right where he stood.  It was a beautiful sight.  There was no smell of gunpowder due to the 500 MPH wind that was constantly blowing here.  I stood there for a few moments just looking at him below me.  This is what success looks like and I wanted to enjoy it.  As I knelt there behind the shooting sticks his two partners trotted off from the other side of the hill.  I had totally forgotten about them.   

While I was busy staring at the mule deer I had just shot, they were locked up solid just a few feet away trying to figure out what just happened.  Eventually they just trotted off.  I was surprised to see them...once I got my sights on the first buck I got target fixation and blocked out everything else.  One of the other bucks looked to be about the same size as the one I shot, he might have had a rack a little bigger or a little smaller...I’ll never know...but I’m happy with the way my hunt ended.  I had planned a lot, worked hard, learned a lot, and now I had been successful.  It was a feeling of deep satisfaction.

As I walked to him I was shocked by the size of the beast.  Here lied a solidly built animal.  This is the first time I really thought about the chore of carrying him out.  As I stood there admiring this buck, I got a text message from Tony: “Did you shoot?”

“Yep...put one on the ground.”






He said he’d be on his way immediately but i told him to keep hunting.  I couldn’t gut him on the spot because I had left my knife with my pack when I dropped all my gear at the start of the stalk.  I had a mile round trip hike before I got back here to gut him.

I made the half mile through all of the ravines with a big smile on my face.  The whole way I considered what the best path might be for our pack-out.  Hiking this way with a 30 lb. pack is one thing...but doing it with a whole mule deer on my back will be another game entirely.  The straightest line is probably not going to be the best one with the beast on my back.  The line that has the least rise and fall will be the one that appeals to me the most.

When I got to my pack I had a change of plans and thought it would be best to go and drop all my gear off at the truck before starting to do the difficult work ahead.  There won’t be room for my pack and rifle in the pack-out trip.  This would now be a two mile round trip from the deer to the truck and back.

I left everything I didn’t need at the truck because I didn’t want an ounce of extra weight for the pack-out.  I left my pack, coat, gloves, layers, hat, everything except my knife, orange vest, and baseball cap.

I met Tony back at the kill site for some pictures, then we began the chore.  As we finished gutting this beautiful and tasty animal I began feeling something on my back...rain.  I didn’t think much about it...and kept working.  Soon the light rain became a steady rain.  When I turned to look over my shoulder I saw an ominous gray storm front over the mountains behind us.  This was not a rain that was going away soon.  It gathered right on top of us and as the temperature fell it left us quartering this animal in a freezing rain.    





All I had on was a synthetic base layer and a very light wool pullover.  Soon we were shivering so hard that we had to change our plan.  There was no way we could debone this entire deer in this weather.  We’d sooner freeze to death as complete the task.  

Tony’s idea was to simply separate the hindquarters at the spine, leaving their bone structure intact.  We could then dump the hindquarters into the pack as one piece and worry about deboning them later.  As plans go it was a good one...it would mean a heavier pack but it would allow us to both live AND get the meat out of the field.  

Now it was time to troll for mountain lions.  I’m guessing that the lions of south central Montana are pretty well fed, because with 90 lbs. of fresh meat on my back I was a fat, juicy, slow target and nothing hassled us on the way out. 








    


In the end I consider this to be a perfect trip in that it was extremely challenging as well as rewarding.  We had planned well, prepared well, and executed well.  Even if I hadn’t fired a shot I would have considered the trip a success.  I learned lessons about mule deer, western spot and stalk tactics, and the challenges (as well as opportunities) presented by rugged western terrain. I got to hang out with a good friend and spend a lot of time outdoors.  What more could I ask for?  The kill (and the many meals it will provide) was just a bonus.  

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Night Fishing


Night fishing can be some of the most rewarding fishing that there is to be had.  In the summer time it's especially good as it allows you to escape the heat and dodge all of the boat traffic…leaving you to float alone on the lake as if you're floating right there with the stars above you.  

Constant trips to the lake can get expensive.  Between fuel, snacks, and chewing tobacco a man can run up a handsome bill in a hurry…oh yeah…tackle too.  Those costs become even more painful when the trip turns out to be unproductive…i.e. you get skunked.  I got to wondering if I could find a way to get more experience without taking the hit to the wallet that comes with actually going fishing.

Given that fishing, like flying jet fighters, is expensive, I thought it might make sense to look to the military for clues on how to do things more efficiently.  Often times in the military the budget is tight.  Jet fuel and aircraft maintenance are expensive, so rather than actually go flying…pilots simply practice flying in a simulator.  

Now, I won’t lie to you…aircraft flight simulators are expensive…lucky for us we don’t have to buy one.  What I am proposing here is a night-fishing-simulator…something that gives us the essence of night fishing without the expense of gassing up the truck and the boat, buying a bunch of tackle, and consuming hours of time.  After a few moments of sage-like rumination, it occurred to me that night-fishing is well suited to this type of simulator training.  After studying how my night fishing trips normally unfold, I was able to concoct a simulator from commonly available tools/stuff.

My night-fishing simulator requires a few initial steps to get set-up, but once you have the basics you won’t have to do much work at all.  The first step is to get your hands on your favorite baitcaster.  Once you have it in your hands I want you lighten both the mechanical and magnetic drags to their absolute lightest settings and tie on a light lure.  On the next really windy day I want you to give this set-up to the left-handed girl who lives next door and ask her to try her hand at using a bait caster.  Tell her to just let it rip, as hard as she can, directly into the wind, and that you’ll check on her progress when you get back from the pet store.





Yep…you’re going to the pet store for the next step…to buy a bat.  Any size bat will do but bigger is usually better…trust me on this.  
They will probably give you your bat in a bag as they are nocturnal creatures and daylight tends to freak them out…and we don’t want a riled up bat in the truck with us…it just wouldn’t be safe.






When you get home, collect the bird-nest-infested baitcaster from your neighbor and thank her for her help.   Now you have all of the components for your night-fishing simulator so let’s put it to the test.  I want you to take your fouled baitcaster and your new pet bat to the darkest closet  in your house.  With the closet light off, sit on a stool with your reel in your hand, then reach down gently, grab the bag, shake it like there is no tomorrow, and then open it.  Have someone outside the closet start a timer and see how quickly you can untie the knots in your baitcaster with an angry bat dive bombing your head before you freak out and give up.

This is the essence of night fishing.  Aside from the cost of the bat it’s virtually free (and if nothing goes wrong you can generally re-use the bat).  The simulator lets you get just as creeped out and frustrated without the all of the fuel and bait costs associated with an actual trip to the lake.  As I wrap this up I think there may be one cost I left out…that of paying someone to remove the bat from your house after your wife discovers your simulator…and those costs may be more than monetary in nature…on second thought maybe there is no cheap alternative to night fishing.