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Friday, November 25, 2011

Three days, three tags

Calhoun County IL
When you think of Illinois you likely think of flat corn fields; or worse…Chicago.  I once had a similar view, but that all changed when I was introduced to one of the most promising white-tail hunting regions of the country…Calhoun County in southwestern Illinois. 
Calhoun County, IL is largely a peninsula sandwiched between the mighty Mississippi River on the west and the Illinois River on the east. The topography in between these rivers is a series of glacially formed valleys and ridges full of rocky outcroppings, dramatic cliffs, and gently rolling valleys filled with fertile dark-brown soil.  The roads wind through narrow valleys with small fields and homesteads on each side that quickly give way to foothills and steep climbs up to forested hilltops.  It is to this region we’ve travelled in the hopes tagging an Illinois buck. 


My brother-in-law, Jay, bought a farm here last year and has invited Sam (my father-in-law) and me to hunt the Illinois early gun season.  I’ll state up front that all of the “in-law” business is a formality just to allow you to see how these relationships fit together on paper.  In reality there is no “in-law” in the deal…I’m very close to these guys and I consider the relationship to be just as solid as if it were based on blood-line.  So this is our three man hunting party…we hunt together a lot and while I can’t speak for them I can say that I am really looking forward not only to getting away for a few days but to the camaraderie I’m certain will run through the trip as well. 
Jays Farm
Jay’s farm is located on the first ridge-line east of the Mississippi River.  It’s a roughly 200 acre plot whose entrance sits just about a mile from the river road that parallels the mighty Mississippi.  A gravel driveway takes you through a screen of trees and over a creek where the road comes under the shadow of the big ridge.  The road takes a short left hand turn and puts you right at the house and outbuildings which sit at the foot of the northernmost part of the ridge.  This will be our home for the next few days. 
As soon as you step out of the truck you begin looking for deer.  The leaves have all fallen so you can see the entire slope all the way to the top, which means that even from the front porch you can see deer as they work and feed across the slope and ridge.  This area holds as much potential as it does excitement. 
There is a soybean field on the western edge of the farm that sweeps upward from the perimeter road at an increasingly aggressive angle until the beans fade to grass where it gets so steep that the tractor couldn’t till.  The grass continues to climb to the top of the ridge and from that vantage point you can turn around and look back at the river.  What you will see from that perch is a dramatic mix of sharply rising, jagged, glacially formed ridges dotting an otherwise flat landscape through which the historic Mississippi river makes her passage to the Gulf of Mexico. 
These hills rise so abruptly and the surrounding land appears so flat that there is no telling how many towns could be hiding out of sight just behind them.  It is a landscape that captures your eye as well as your curiosity.  The mismatched nature of the hills and flats reminds me of the desert southwest where giant buttes are silhouetted against flat desert.  They are similar in that respect…the hills just pop up and look almost out of place…like game pieces on a board.  It is a beautiful sight that begs you to sit and stare for hours.
As you move through the rest of the farm you realize that your legs are going to be hurting when this trip is done.  This is not easy country to navigate.  It is steep and rocky and unforgiving.  Once you’re on the ridge-line it’s OK…but getting there will humble you.  In its natural state the farm is a hardwood forest that produces an abundance of mast crop.  There is no telling how many squirrels, turkey, and deer get fat off the land here…and there is plenty of food left over. 
The list
Jay has been running trail cameras on this property for some time and he’s compiled a nice bit of intel on the bucks that have been using the farm.  After dinner the first night we went over the deer that were on the “hit list”.  There were five deer that were considered “shooters”.  The first was a heavy racked 8 point with an additional antler sticking straight out of his forehead.  The neighbor also had pictures of this deer and had named him the unicorn buck.  Due to its size Jay had changed that name to the “Unipig” and he was number one on the hit list.  It was the biggest buck on film on that farm, and orders were given to shoot on sight. 
Next there was the Split G2 buck, named because his second beam on his right antler split at the top.  Then there was the Broke G2 buck whose right G2 antler had been broken off in a fight.  Then there were a pair of big and heavy eight point bucks who didn’t have enough unique features to get a cool name…they were just collectively referred to as “The Big Eights”. 
First evening
The night we arrived was the last day of bow-season and Jay had a tag he wanted to fill so we dropped him off at a stand high on the ridge.  After dropping him off I jumped in the truck to ride the roads and look for activity that might help us figure out what the deer were doing.  Were they hitting green fields?  Going to grain fields?  Staying in the woods?  Answers to these questions would shape our strategy for the next day.
The road I chose was basically a seven mile loop just north of the farm.  It’s a single lane gravel road with several low-water crossings that hugs the hills on one-side and agricultural fields on the other that flow upward to higher ground.  It looks like any picture you took of this road could grace the cover of a country music album…this is "rural" at its finest.
My drive around the county was uneventful until the last twenty minutes of light.  I spied a few deer high on the hills above the fields but it was pretty slow until I got halfway through my second loop.  I looked up at a bare topped hill full of alfalfa that was silhouetted against the late evening sky and I saw three doe.  I almost went back to driving but as I swept my gaze back toward the road I saw about 20 more deer on the hill with them.  This was interesting…so I stopped.  As I studied this herd of deer I scanned over to the brushy draw that separated this hill from the next and I saw two very large bucks.  Now I was getting excited.  I was 300 yards away but I could clearly see that both were large bodied specimens with a lot of rack on top. 
One buck picked out a single doe and chased her halfway down the hill.  It’s almost as if she thought she might lose him in the crowd as she cut through a large group of doe to get away.  But his nose would not be fooled…a doe in heat is a prime target and this rutting buck showed no signs of stopping.  The crowd of deer parted in a hurry to let these two pass.
The other buck stood his ground at the top of the hill and remained in the brush.  This was a good introduction to Calhoun County…the deer were moving and the rut was still on…I had high hopes.
As the sun began to set I drove back to farm to pick up Jay.  I drove up to highest point on the ridge and turned the truck around so I could watch the sunset as I waited on him to come out of the woods.
I waited on that high, cold, windswept hill, looking out across an ancient glacial valley at the sun setting over the Mississippi river.  The western horizon was slowly transitioning from a streak of blaze orange to a gently fading ribbon of magenta, purple, then deep dark blue and finally…black. 

As the sun set behind that beautifully-complex and forested ridge-line in the distance my iPod quietly played the Zac Brown Band’s "Chicken Fried" in the background.  It's a fitting soundtrack that sings the praises of the simple things in life like fried chicken, cold beer, a good woman, and Friday nights.

This day has ended, and when the dawn comes it will find us on a stand in a set of woods that has the potential to deliver a record class whitetail buck.



Opening day
The plan for opening day was to be in position 45 minutes before legal light.  This would allow the woods to settle down after we made our entrance.
I would take a stand in the timber on the north side of the farm and Sam and Jay would both set up in an elevated shooter-house on a high ridge that held a food-plot.
I would be on a ladder-stand on a white-oak covered bench halfway between the ridge-top and a thick bottom.  It looked like a great spot but the stand itself was wide open…a one-eyed deer with bad vision would have no trouble spotting me here…it was the only concern I had but it was a big one.  To my left was easy shooting…it’s the strong side for a right-handed shooter and it was 70 yards of fairly open forest floor.  Any big deer that wandered into that area would be in real trouble…as long as he didn’t see me first in my exposed position.
To my front was about 15 yards of easy shooting that quickly became choked with saplings as the hardwoods began to transition to brambles and saplings in the bottom.  To my right was about another 150 feet of down-hill run to the road that ran along the bottom…it offered a nice view but few shots due to the interference of saplings.  Overall I was very happy with the spot, it promised very close encounters with anything that came through the area.
The wind picked up to its forecasted 15 to 25 MPH but the brunt of it was blocked by the high ridges that surrounded me…it was cold but bearable with temps in the mid to low 30’s.  I sat for several hours exchanging text messages with Sam and Jay to hear how they were doing.  My heart went out to them as I heard the 30 MPH gusts roaring through the trees above me…their position was fully exposed to that wind. 
They saw deer on and off all morning even as the wind hammered them.  I saw nothing until 9 AM when five doe came off the top of the ridge like bowling balls.  They came down the hill so fast I didn’t think they’d be able to stop.  They hit the brakes when they got to the first of the white-oaks and then surrounded me in my completely exposed stand.  I must have looked like a 500 lb. knot on the side of that tree with my big jacket a backpack and a rifle, and despite the fact that they looked at me, and that I was at eye level with the deer further up the hill…none of them spooked.  I just moved at the speed of molasses and all was good. 
After a short visit they left.  About 30 minutes after that two more doe came off the hill as if they had rockets attached to them.  This looked like different behavior…these deer weren’t just free-wheeling with gravity to get to some food…they were in full bore evasion mode.  They scampered past me running and dodging and trying to give the slip to something.  I got the gun up because I knew who was coming next.  Thirty seconds after they passed I could hear a buck grunting as he dropped off the ridge.  Then I could see his dark chestnut coat as he slipped in and out of sight behind trees, stumps, and vines…he was a man on a mission.  His nose was stretched way out in front of him and he was dogging those doe into the bottom.  He was a good looking young ten-point who would be shot in a minute back home, but I let him pass with no interference because he wasn’t the type of deer we were after on this farm.  A small spike buck was not far behind and had the look of a kid tagging along with his older brother to see what fun he might be able to get in on.
A little while later the sun got high enough above the ridges that its rays found me down in this deep hollow.  When that happened the dark colors of all of my heavy hunting clothes began to draw heat and eventually it felt like I was in a Dutch-oven.  I HAD to get some gear off or I’d start sweating and stinking bad enough to choke a vulture.  I put the gun across my lap and started stripping gear off my head, a full face mask, a neck gator, and a heavy watch-cap; then I put it all away and donned a net facemask.  As I pulled my face mask down and looked up, relieved at being cooler, I made eye contact with a huge buck staring at me from 60 yards away.  Nothing could have shocked me more.  At some point he had wandered into the thick bottom to my front-right and he saw “something” as I adjusted my gear.  He didn’t know what he saw, but he knew where he saw it because he was burning a hole right through me. 
I wanted to puke.  Here I am with a huge buck 60 yards away, my gun in my lap, and my hands unable to let go of my facemask because he is staring at me.  Why did this buck have to come through at the EXACT time that I was adjusting my gear?  I’ve been here for almost four hours and he picks this very minute to walk into my area?!?  The timing is beyond coincidental.  This must be a sign from God…I don’t know if God is telling me to quit hunting, or to quit wearing so much gear, or that he just likes to see me puke…but it has to be a sign.
After a brief staring contest the buck determines that I’m not a threat (or perhaps that I’m just a rank amateur) and he begins to move on.   As he moves behind a tree I get the gun up to take a left-handed shot.  There is one break in the heavy cover that will allow me to weave a shot through…all I have to do is stop him in that window and this hunt is over.  He moves into the window, I grunt, and he keeps on walking.  Maybe he couldn’t hear me, maybe he didn’t care…but as he disappears into the thicket I realize that this hunt is now far from over.
I spent the next 10 minutes kicking myself for being stupid when my self-torture session was interrupted by the heavy report of a shotgun from up on the next ridge.  “That sounds promising” I thought.  I wonder if they killed the Unipig.  A string of texts revealed that Sam had indeed shot a nice 10 point up on the ridge…it was the Split G2 buck from the pictures.  That was an encouraging report.  A nice buck was just taken off the list on the first day.  This was really looking good. 
I stayed on the stand all day and the next six or seven hours were brutally slow.  At 4:40 PM rush hour started.  I saw perhaps 15 deer in the last 20 minutes of the day.  A nice 8-point emerged from the draw below me, followed by a 3 year old 10-point, then another 3 year old 8-point popped up on the shelf to my left, then a four point.  It was like an old time shooting gallery with targets moving everywhere…the only thing it lacked was the music and the sound of bb’s hitting tin targets.
Day one drew to a close with no shooting from my stand.  Overall it was a pretty good first day on the stand…lots of activity and I didn’t get busted.
I got back to the cabin about 40 minutes after dark and we immediately began swapping stories and planning day two as we heated up dinner that the girls had sent with us. 
As it turns out Sam’s deer had come up to the ridge on the left hand side of the shooter house and surprised them by appearing in an open spot just thirty yards from them.  The woods to their left are divided by what might be described out west as a sendero.  Dense woods on the left side of the stand are separated by a 30 yard wide strip of tall grass and scrub bushes that offers decent visibility all the way down to the bean field a few hundred yards below.  His deer had appeared at the top of this sendero, right where it meets the green food-plot next to the shooter-house.
They eased the window open and Sam had his Remington 870 locked squarely on this bucks chest as they sized him up.  He wasn’t sure he would take this deer but he wanted to be in position as he made up his mind.  After a few moments it looked right up at them in the window…at that point I think the decision was made to take him now before he spooked and blew out of there a wiser deer.
The 870 barked with the ferocity of thunder and spit out a 300 grain Hornady SST slug.  His deer wheeled about and took off down the hill looking hurt, then disappeared into the woods on the left. 
A short time later Sam and Jay moved down the sendero looking for blood. They found a faint blood trail and began closing in on his deer.  About 60 yards down the hill the blood trail turned into the woods and when they turned with it Jay saw a deer run up the far side of the draw.  He quickly glassed the animal and saw that it looked hurt but was still able to run.  They backed out to ease the pressure on this deer.  With no predator tracking him, this deer would lie down and rest, and ultimately succumb to his wounds which would enable us to find him the next day if he didn’t move too far.
Given everything we knew, Sam’s deer must be hit in the shoulder and would likely be found the next morning not far from where they last saw him.
It was an easy prognosis to reach but as I drifted off to sleep I couldn’t help but wonder how much stress Sam was under as he tried to sleep on the other side of the room.  Just a few feet away in the darkness his brain must be churning and working overtime on reliving everything about that shot and hoping and praying we find his deer the next day.  This was his first shot at a big deer, and it was on his son-in-laws farm, and it was a 30 yard shot, and it was poorly hit and ran off.  I know exactly how I’d feel if I were in that situation and my heart went out to him…I could only hope he got some sleep that night. 
Day 2
Day two dawned warmer than the first, but windier too.  It felt like the temps were in the low 40’s and the wind hadn’t quit all night.  It met us with unusual ferocity the moment we stepped into the darkness on the front porch.  It was one of those moments that remind you that you’re a long way from home.  I’m sure there are plenty of places where it’s not uncommon for the wind to be blowing at almost gale force at 4 AM (like west Texas)…but Memphis TN isn’t one of them…that wind really surprised me.
Today’s plan had Jay in the timber stand I had occupied the day before, and Sam and I would take the ridge stand where he had hunted yesterday.  After an easy trip to the stand we were ready.  The plan was for me to hunt and then we’d track Sam’s deer.
Ten minutes after legal light we had a pair of 8-point bucks standing 40 yards away in the overcast grey light of early dawn.  They were pretty deer that would have been “shooters” back home…but this was Illinois and they would get much bigger with some age so we let them walk.  It was a good start.
One of the first things you notice about this shooter-house is that it is almost daring the wind to knock it over.  It stands about 20 feet tall and sits on the highest ridge on the property where the wind is furiously whipping.  It’s a remarkably sturdy stand…it never swayed, but from the sound of it I would have sworn the wind would knock us over that ridge and we’d get beaten to death by the chairs and gear inside it as we tumbled to the valley floor.  In my mind I tried to imagine what that would be like…I pictured the two of us inside a clothes dryer with several cinder blocks…it wasn’t a fun thought so I tried to ignore the wind and concentrate on the hunt.
Despite an active start to the day the activity died off completely.   We saw nothing in the next hour.  Nothing the hour after that, and nothing in the hour after that hour.  It was painfully slow.
One modern technology that has helped kill the boredom of the slow days is the cell phone.  Non-hunters might not know this but the number one texting demographic in this country is hunters…following in a distant second place is the group comprised of 13 year old girls.  We put them to shame with the amount of bandwidth and OMG’s we text while on the stand. 
I had just finished texting a buddy back home that it was incredibly windy and slow and he sent back telling me to keep the faith...the big one would be by any time.  As I looked up from that text I saw three doe blow through the narrow back part of the field at about Mach 3.  They absolutely FLEW though the field.  It was the type of run they use to escape something.  Their feet might have only hit the ground once or twice and when they did they applied max power and took to the air in another giant leap. 
My heart jumped and I instinctively grabbed the gun and threw open the window.  Normally I would open that window in a slow, cautious and deliberate fashion but this time I almost ripped it off its hinges.  That window needed to be open immediately. 
The chairs in this shooter house are new and they are the wrong size so you can’t use them to shoot to the back of the field…so I knelt down with the gun out the window and it was then that I realized that my heart was absolutely pounding.  I had moved about six inches total distance and my heart felt as if I had just sprinted up a mountain…and there weren’t even any deer in front of me.  This was a massive anticipatory adrenaline dump.  I was completely jacked up based on what was about to happen.
I can’t tell you the last time my heart rate jumped up like this while deer hunting.  It’s always fun and exciting but never something that generates such adrenaline that I can’t keep the crosshairs settled.
I asked Sam to help with the bino’s and we both trained our focus on the dirt road that runs into the food-plot from the back of the field.  Another doe came blasting across.  It was happening.  Something big was coming…would it be the Unipig?  One of the Big Eights?  I couldn’t imagine a small buck emerging after all this ruckus.  Something was chasing these doe and it was about to step out in front of us…he had to show himself if he wanted to follow them.
After what seemed to be an eternity of watching my pulse rocking the crosshairs and trying to calm myself through proper breath control, we saw movement.  A single deer was walking up the path toward the field. Nature loves a good joke, and todays joke was that amid the 500 MPH winds we’ve had all weekend there was one tree in the entire state of Illinois that hadn’t lost its leaves yet…and that tree was directly between us and this deer.  This tree was covered top to bottom with big, dried, brown leaves…it was the perfect cover for this deer.  It could approach all the way to the back of the field without being observed from the shooter house.  This hunt began to have the feel of heartbreak. 
Through the few gaps and holes in the leaf cover you could see pieces of the deer.  One moment you’d see a piece of shoulder, another time a piece of antler…but never enough to judge him by.  As you might expect, this deer stopped in a spot where we could see none of his vitals or his rack.  He was at this point a set of deer legs at the far end of the field.  I hit my grunt call one or two times and to my surprise…it worked.  He took two or three steps forward to get a look at the buck that had the nerve to be on his field grunting at him…and we could see the large body of a 4 year old buck.  I could also tell that while the rack wasn’t terribly wide…it was very tall.  This was the type of buck we were after.  Now it became all business.
I had the hammer back and was 80% successful in settling my pulse but it was still causing the crosshairs to dance more than I’d like.  I had a perfect unobstructed shot at the center of his chest as he looked straight at me.  Despite the voice in my head screaming “SHOOT” my brain was saying “wait”…fresh on my mind was Sam’s experience with yesterday’s chest shot, and my crosshairs still weren’t as calm as I’d like them, and this was a shotgun rather than my surgically accurate rifle.  At the risk of having this deer run off I decided to wait for a better shot.  I doubted he’d stick around, turn broad-side and stop to offer me a layup, but I knew that if he wanted to leave he had to turn sideways…he wouldn’t put it in reverse and walk backwards.  I was confident I’d get something.
The moment he turned and offered me a mostly broad-side view, I sent the shot.  The gun rocked back, the boom echoed across the Mississippi river and into Missouri, and the deer took off running into the deep wooded draw to my right.
My confidence in my sight picture and trigger control was shattered by the fact this buck did not look hit.  Now an avalanche of emotions began to cloud my logic.  I don’t often miss a target with a rifle…I’m a good shot and I was floored by the thought that I could have missed at 100 yards.
This deer had his tail up and was bounding down the draw into deeper cover.  I quickly stood and snatched open the window on the right side of the blind to gain a view into the woods.  He ran about 100 yards into the woods and stopped.  My brain was working overtime…I reloaded and tried to re-acquire this buck in the dense woods.  Ultimately I found his tail.  I saw a fraction of a white tail flicking behind a dense tangle of wood and vines and I felt compelled to try to anchor this deer with another shot.  Despite how he ran I had to believe I had hit him.  No way could I have missed at 100 yards.
We are looking down into this draw at an angle of perhaps 35 degrees…it’s a steep stretch to where he is.  With my heart and brain racing to keep up with the facts I found a small opening to the left of where this deer was standing.  There were no shots anywhere else and I normally wouldn’t describe this opening as “a shot” but given the circumstances I’d have to make it work. There was a spot where I could thread-the-needle through an 8 inch alley of small trees and vines and get perhaps get a shot if he came through it.
Just after I picked that spot he started to move.  I watched my zone intently as head and antlers entered the alley, then shoulder, then BOOM, I sent my second shot to anchor him.  He took off running like the devil himself was chasing him, tail flagging the whole way, and he climbed the first hill then curved to the right and apparently ran off into the next county…unfazed. 
I was getting sick to my stomach.  I was disoriented.  What just happened?  In two minutes time I had gone from having a great opportunity, to seeing a great buck, shooting at him, missing him, finding him again, shooting, missing, and watching him run off the farm…it was like a nightmare that you couldn’t wake up from.  I had just been invited to hunt with one of my best friends on his new farm and I’ve shot the place up, spooked everything within ten miles, and come out looking incompetent.  These were the thoughts running through my head as I climbed down from the stand. 
I had to get to the back of that field to find out what happened.  I marched straight to where he was standing when I sent my first shot and I found nothing.  No blood and not a single hair.  Hope was leaving.  The only alternative now was to simply walk into the woods and stomp around like a blind man looking for sign that logic told you wouldn’t be there.
As I started into the woods I saw Sam standing halfway down a finger that dropped into this ravine.  He was saying something but I had a hard time hearing him.  As I got closer I realized that he was telling me that he had a sight-line from where the deer was back to the shooter house.  He had the presence of mind after the shots to ask me where the deer was when I pulled the trigger.  It’s something I’d have normally done but given the mountain of evidence that I had missed I completely forgot about it.  He marched straight down to the spot so we could perhaps start tracking from there.  It was an awesome idea…and one that might end up saving the day.
As I walked down the ridge toward him, he was still talking but I couldn’t hear him…I was distracted by what I was seeing and I pointed over his shoulder to a spot on the ground behind him and said “There’s a dead deer”.
“What?” he called back.
“Somebody shot a deer…it’s dead right there.” 
I saw mine run off…so I have no idea whose deer is lying behind Sam.  Now on top of all the other stuff going on I have to worry about the poachers who shot this doe and left it down in this draw.  This day that started off with so much potential is going downhill fast.  I look at the deer through the scope and there are no antlers…it’s a doe…I figure it was shot sometime in the last few days by a poacher.
As I walk down the hill toward it I pick up a strong and fresh blood trail.  “This thing was just shot!?” I exclaimed as I wonder how a poacher could have possibly shot this deer so recently that there is fresh blood on the ground.  Now I’m wallowing in confusion.  I hurry down the hill to get to it and when I do I realize that it’s not a doe…it’s a buck lying on its back with its antlers buried in the leaves and dirt.  I grab an antler and pry it out, and lo-and-behold…I’m staring at my buck.


If I were texting someone about this it would have read “WTF?”  I simply couldn’t grasp how the deer I just saw run to the next county was lying dead at the bottom of the draw where I took my second shot.
As it turns out there’s a bit of an optical illusion at work here.  My first shot hit the deer in the lungs…which makes me feel a lot better about things.  He didn’t start bleeding until after the first twenty yards but that shot is responsible for the blood trail leading to the body.  He ran down into the woods where I took my second shot…which also hit him (I’m feeling vindicated now).  After the second shot he ran straight away from me to the top of the finger and ran out of steam…when I saw him “turn right” he was actually turning back down into the ditch on the far side of that finger, then he crossed back to my side un-seen because he was down in that draw, and fell in the ditch…dead as a hammer.
I was so confused by the whole ordeal that it took Sam and me a full five minutes to piece it all back together.  Elated by the find we got to work tracking Sam’s deer.
Tracking
Sam took me to the spot where they had lost contact with his deer.  We had gone down the sendero to the edge of the woods and he pointed across a deep draw to the far hillside.  As is usual in the woods the description was something like this:
Sam: “Do you see that forked-trunk tree just to the right of the skinny tree with the squirrel nest in it?”
Me: “that little skinny tree that forks about six feet up?”
Sam: “no the big one whose trunk splits about 12 feet up…it’s to the left of the one you’re talking about and maybe 20 yards past it.”
Me:  “yep…I gotcha.”
Sam:  “Draw a line straight past that over to the base of that huge white-oak on the far side and that’s where we last saw him.”
That spot was maybe 200 yards distant from where we were standing and the only way to get right on it is for one guy to hike over there and the other guy to direct him onto the spot with calls and arm signals.  After an easy descent into the bottom I had a heart pumping climb to our reference point so we could start tracking him.
Shortly after Sam arrived on my side we began tracking.  The plan was to try to find blood first.  Blood is the best way to start because it doesn’t lie.  If we can find blood we can track him rather than just try to guess where he went.  Our main problem was that the wind blew really hard all night, and it was a weak blood trail to begin with.  24 hours of 20 MPH winds could have blown leaves hundreds of yards over night.  The trail we are looking for could quite literally have been blown away.
If we couldn’t find blood then we’d check likely places where a wounded deer would have bedded down.  We were also mindful to check downhill as a wounded deer won’t want to climb any more than he has to…and a dead one can roll a long way in this terrain.
After 10 minutes of running a basic search grid where the deer was last seen we had nothing to go on.   There was no blood in this area.  We had just humped some tough terrain and things weren’t going our way and I could tell Sam’s spirits were down.  I’ve helped people track before and you can always tell from the look on their face when they’ve lost hope that we’ll find the animal…it’s a look of abject discouragement.  I thought I was starting to see that look. 
Our backup plan was to hit the top of this finger and the next one and check the thickets.  We identified two likely spots to check first.  I approached the first one with my gun at the ready in case we needed to anchor a wounded deer but there was nobody home.  That’s curious because I would have sworn that deer would be there based on their last sighting.
I eased around the side of the hideout and as I looked to my right I saw a very nice and very dead buck lying on the ground.  Pay dirt.  I was so happy I couldn’t stand it.  I almost couldn’t believe my eyes.  We had just killed a nice buck, and now we had recovered Sam’s deer.  Our luck had really shifted toward the positive in the last half hour.
I called down the hill to Sam and shouted that I’d found his deer.  I couldn’t see is face but I could feel the tension dissipating.  I texted Jay that we’d found the deer and he sent back that he was on his way to us.

The next few hours were spent getting my deer out of the woods (no easy task on a deer that heavy that’s down in a deep valley), taking pictures, and getting deer to the processor.
When we got back from town I took a turn on the big hill overlooking the bean field and Sam glassed the ridge from the house.  With hours of alone-time and nothing to do but watch for wildlife my mind is free to wander.  Sometimes it’s about terribly complex issues like “why do so many Chinese restaurants deliver, but so few Mexicans ones do?”  Other times it’s about easier stuff.
This evening as I sat on the hill I took turns watching the bean field and the river.  It’s kind of cool to have this vantage point from which to view the mighty Mississippi River.  You don’t normally think about it, it’s just a river and unless it floods it pretty much takes care of itself…it’s an out-of-sight-out-of-mind kind of thing.  But here with this big, picturesque view of it you stop to really think about it.  It’s a huge river that’s flowing by in the distance.  It is silently doing its thing, every day and every night.  It doesn’t stop for anyone.  It’s as variable as it is constant…sometimes it floods…sometimes it trickles…but it always flows.  Since God put it in motion it has not stopped. 
Six miles on the other side of the farm is the Illinois River.  It too is moving day and night.  It might have been the sleep deprivation kicking in but as I sat on that hill I thought that in some ways the two rivers that frame this county could be synonymous with time and life…they both continue to pass-by whether you’re paying attention or not.  It’s a nice reminder that life shouldn’t be all about work…I need quiet time like this occasionally to allow me to see the bigger picture.  You need to LIVE life…not just work it away.  It’s like the old saying goes “when your life flashes before your eyes…make sure it’s worth watching.”
For what it’s worth I never did get to the bottom of why Mexican joints don’t deliver. 
This hunt too ended with no sightings.  Day two ended silently with a walk through the woods back to the house.
One to go
The next and final day was Sunday.  There is a lot riding on the last day.  Jay has put a lot of time, money, and emotion into this farm and it would be the icing on the cake if he could tag out too.  With the last day upon you the choices become more significant.  You don’t have any room for error in picking spots…there won’t be any time to recover from a bad hunt.  He had a morning hunt, and an evening hunt, and then we had to go home.
Jays thoughts based on the wind were to hunt a spot that has been left alone for most of the year.  It’s a great spot that has received no pressure and it seems like the perfect place to be in the morning.  It’s in the timber on the south side of the property, the rut is on, and most of the bucks have been seen in the woods so far.
At dinner we talked about the next day’s hunts.  In the morning he’d hunt the south timber that has seen no pressure all year.  It seems like a solid plan since most of the activity thus far has been in the woods.  For the evening hunt we agreed that as unlikely as it seems…it might be best to hunt from the same stand where Sam and I had killed our deer.  It’s the one stand that has seen consistent activity with bigger bucks.  It seemed like a solid plan and for the moment we ignored the absurdity of thinking that we might kill three nice bucks from the same exact stand in three days.
The next day’s plan was for Jay to hit the south timber, Sam to ride the roads, and me to take a big stand in the bean field to observe.
Jay and I got up the next morning and got into position with no problems.  It felt like he’d kill a big one in those woods…the spot had everything going for it.  I fully expected to hear him shoot by 8 AM. 
I got into the elevated box blind with roughly 30 minute of darkness remaining.  The wind wasn’t blowing as hard this morning and in the calm darkness I could hear something in the distance.
Somewhere from the west came the lonely sound of a train’s horn whaling in the darkness.  From my stand on this ridge I can look down and see for miles.  I can see the lights of a small town that hugs the Mississippi river as well as small dots of light at farms across the valley.  Off the windows of the blind I can see a very faint, flickering light.  When I lean forward to find the source I’m surprised to see that it’s from the single headlight on a train in the valley across the river.  That train must be 6 miles away but its light is strong enough to reach this ridge and get my attention. 
I watch with no shortage of amazement as that train moves through this dark valley, rumbling and crawling much like the glaciers that carved this place.  It comes in and out of view over time as it slinks behind one hill and emerges from behind another.  The huge light on the front of the engine makes it look like an enormous cyclopse searching its way across the land.  Before long it disappears for good as it crosses the river to my south.  Daybreak is almost upon us and it’s time to start paying attention.
Things on the bean field were fairly slow.  I saw a pair of doe and then a mangy, half bald, three legged coyote but that was it.  I felt badly for the coyote.  He was missing three quarters of his coat and was completely hairless from his neck down, which means he’ll likely die of exposure as the nights get colder.  Until that death comes he’ll have to deal with the pain of a broken leg and the starvation that will surely accompany it.  If I’d had a rifle I’d have put him down out of sympathy.  It’s a stark reminder of how difficult life can be in the wild. 
Reports from Sam indicated little activity around the area and Jays reports revealed the same.  Despite the fact that he was in a great place and that the bucks had been chasing the last two days…nothing has moved.  When he came in for lunch there were some thoughts that maybe the pressure of opening weekend had shut them down.  Doubts creep in when the deer aren’t moving and its human nature to try to put a reason on it.  Everyone we had seen in town was telling us that the wind was the reason they hadn’t seen deer.  We had been seeing them regularly the last two days despite the wind so we couldn’t use that excuse today.  It had to be something else…and the only thing we could think of was maybe the woods had been shot up too much.  Jay’s exact words were “I would have bet the farm that I would have seen activity in those woods this morning.”  Having a spot that good come up empty is a big disappointment.
We had one hunt left…and then we’d head back south.   For his final hunt Jay would use the same stand Sam and I had scored from on the previous two days.  It seemed logical and desperate in equal measure.
Sam and I cleaned the house and packed up our gear while Jay took to the stand.  We would support his efforts again by monitoring activity and texting reports.  Sam would take the bean field stand and I’d watch the big ridge from the house.  The nice part about my job was I could stay inside the house and see the ridge to the east, the food plot to the north, and a big clover field on the east side.
There was a lot of tension surrounding this hunt.  I know we had all been praying that this would end with another deer on the ground.  The longer the day went on the more the tension built.  There had been no sign of Unipig the entire hunt.  I might have seen one of the Big-Eights in that draw on the first day but some of the biggest deer on the place have become ghosts.  I couldn’t help but wish that Jay would hammer the Unipig on the last day…what a story that would make…but it was too much to ask for out loud.
Sam and I texted back and forth as the afternoon turned to “late afternoon”.  Our window for scoring was rapidly compressing.  It was over at dark.  The longer we went without seeing activity the lower odds of scoring.  Countering that logic though is that the later it gets the more active the deer become.  I spent the last two hours of the day pacing the house with binoculars.  My cell phone was propped in the one window of the house that had a signal and I was texting Sam every few minutes.
I was seeing nothing.  Sam was seeing nothing.  I’d sent some words of encouragement to Jay, and I believed those words…but the stress was still there.  Nothing was moving…anywhere.  The only thing moving was the clock. 
Sunset was closing in…it would all be over shortly after 5 PM.  At 4:31 I started the following string of texts with Sam…this is how it went:
Nov 20, 2011 4:31
Me:  Anything on the field?
Sam: Nope, fraid not, U
Me: nada
Me: a lot can happen in 30 minutes though…especially in Calhoun County!!
Sam: Gunshot  Awesome
Me: from Jay??!
Sam: must be J
Me: duuuuude!
Sam: sounded like up the hill from me!
Me: I’m not gonna message him in case it wasn’t…don’t want to hose him (in the last few minutes of the hunt)
Sam: Roger, time is critical
Me: I’m jacked on adrenaline right now
Sam: He may have to wait a while – get your flashlight ready
Sam: Me too heart pounding for him.  Hope it was him
Sam: I’m gonna head for house
We had been waiting and praying and scouting and doing what we could to support Jay in filling his tag and now we had two gunshots from his area near dark.  We knew he wouldn’t be shooting at a small deer which made the anticipation even worse.
Jay had been in that stand for a few hours with not a lot of activity.  He texted me that he had a few doe on the field and I texted back “that’s great…you’ve got live bait”.
The doe were feeding all around the stand and he was really hoping that he wouldn’t get busted.  There was a doe just a few yards away on his left…close to where Sam shot his deer two days prior.  He had been keeping an eye on that doe for a while and after checking the rest of the field he turned back to her and a big eight point eased out from behind a big blown down tree trunk just 30 yards away.
His first thought was that it was one of the Big-Eights and he started to slowly open the window to get the scope on him.  This deer also had a split G2 tine as one of the Big-Eights had.  Then the deer turned a bit and he saw an antler sticking out from between his eyes…and it was then that he realized that the Big-Eight with the split G2 and Unipig were one and the same.
Months of scouting, thousands of pictures of deer, dozens of road trips, all building mountains of evidence that the Unipig was out there…but hunter and prey were never in the same place at the same time.  There were always hundreds of miles between them, or cameras between them leaving only trace evidence that the Unipig had once been there…there were no direct connections…there was only distance. 
All of Jays work has come down to this one moment on a high, windy-ridge above the Mississippi River just before dark.  After months of work, and tons of scouting photos, as fate would have it…in the last 20 minutes of the last day of the hunt, Jay had the Unipig in his crosshairs…there was literally nothing between them but 30 yards of thin air.  Finally they were in the same place at the same time…and the Unipig was going down for the count.
Send it
Jay pulled the trigger and the 12 gauge sent its 300 grain payload straight through this massive deer.  You couldn’t ask for better performance out of a slug…it slammed into a 250 lb. deer and like the Mississippi River in the distance beyond…it just kept on going.  The Unipig ran down the sendero about 90 yards, stopped, collapsed, and died. 
The next texts were from Jay at 4:44 PM:
Jay: I think I just busted Unipig
Me: U are the freakin MAN!!!
That shot sealed into history one of the best trips we’ve ever taken.  With luck, hard work, and answered prayers we all tagged out and all three were killed from the same stand.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Back in time

This weekend I took one of my last trips to Pickwick Lake for the year.  I might get one more trip in, but it’s fall and hunting season is starting so my fishing time is about to drop off.  I’m hoping this will be a good trip so we can end fishing season on a high note and then start chasing deer.
Our two day trip started off a bit worse than we had anticipated.  We had a rough afternoon on the water but with perseverance and a dose of tenacity we were able to pull six fish from the lake under some very difficult circumstances.  Our plan was to spend the night at the state park lodge and fish the next morning so we were looking forward to getting one more shot at the fish before we had to turn the truck toward town and drive back to reality.  
Now it’s dark, the boat is tied up, our gear is stowed and we are back in the room insulated from the cold and the wind.  It’s early November, it’s 48 degrees, and the wind has been blowing 20 MPH all afternoon.  My fishing buddy was getting some gear squared away, so I stepped out on the back deck to look at the lake.
A word about the lodge is in order here.  JP Coleman State Park is in Iuka, MS and it sits on what I believe is some of the best real estate on the entire lake.  The park is located on a bluff right where the mouth of Indian Creek meets the main lake.  On the main point they built a two story lodge with perhaps 24 rooms.  Each room has a deck that looks out to the lake.  Because it is fall there aren’t many people here.  The campers and skiers have all gone home and it’s a very quiet time here now.  In fact we were the only people in the lodge at present…we had virtually the entire park and the entire lake to ourselves…for the low, low price of only $70 a night. 
This was the situation as I stepped alone onto the deck after dark.  I turned off the TV, killed the lights and I stepped onto the back deck with the intention of just taking a look.  What happened next was a real shock.  When I shut the door behind me the first thing I noticed was the view.  It was nearly three hours since the sun had set, the moon was high, and I could see perhaps seven miles down the river.  Despite the fact that it was now night-time I could see bright light and sharp shadows on the ground…not the yellow, artificial, incandescent illumination from street lights.  This was the brightest silvery-whitish moonlight you could imagine…and it bathed the shores of three states as far as I could see.  Every bit of shore, every dark ridge-line above me, every greenish-black tree on every hillside was awash in this perfectly soft light.  It was bright enough that there were strong shadows on the ground from tall objects like buildings and trees.  Anyone who spends time outdoors knows that there are times when you need a ball cap to keep the moonlight from blinding you as you walk…tonight was one such night. 
From my perch on the deck I could see parts of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama.  I could see all the way back to the mouth of Bear Creek which the wind had made so difficult for us to reach earlier in the day.  The silence was so pure that it made me wish I had younger ears with which to hear it.  Over the years the sounds of guns and equipment and life in general have taken their toll…I now have a faint but constant ringing in my ears most nights as I drift off to sleep.  It’s not enough to destroy the moment but I do wish at times like these I could really hear the true sound of silence. 
When you look up at the night sky here there is nothing to keep you from seeing every star that God ever put there.  With no humidity or smog in the air there is nothing to distort the startlight.  Stars appear as sharp and crisp diamonds, lighting up against the inky blackness of the universe behind them.   It is almost breathtaking how gorgeous this scene is.  As your gaze returns earthward the brilliance of the stars descends to earths horizons and is then blocked out by high,dark, forested hills; which fall and roll and cascade down to the shores of Pickwick lake. 
The harmony created by darkness and silence is solitude.  And solitude is something sorely lacking in many lives today.  What started out as a quick and curious step onto the back porch has turned into a long, purposeful, relaxing sit.
As I looked out across that lake in this silvery moonlight a flood of memories began to come back to me.  Events that might otherwise have been long forgotten are coming back in crisp and vivid detail.  Half a mile away on the right side of the channel, right where that dark hill descends and juts out into the lake,  sits a point where I was learning how to use tube baits to catch smallmouth bass and I had a 10 pound drum take me for a wild ride on my third cast.  Just a few hundred yards in front of me, where the creek meets the main lake is the area where I took the family fishing one day and we just hammered catfish on a jug-line all afternoon on a sunny summer day.  This is amazing…I’m looking at a black patch of calm water in 48 degree weather in the middle of November…but what I’m seeing is a sunny August afternoon and a boat full of family, laughter, and flopping catfish. 
Further still down the right side of the river it begins to make a long, gentle, arching turn to the left.  Just about in the middle of this sweeping turn is a gravel bar where I caught my largest ever smallmouth bass one morning.  Again I can see it as if it was that very day and I’m watching from this deck as I catch that fish…I recall the cool foggy conditions as I left the marina, I can see the explosion as the fish tried to destroy a topwater popper, I remember the first glimpse I caught of those long dark vertical bands on his side and realizing it was a big smallmouth, and I can remember smiling as the family met me down at the dock to take some pictures and see what dad had caught.  This is like a redneck version of an out-of-body experience. 

Everywhere I look, as I peer through the quiet, cold, moonlit darkness; I see things from the past.  I see coves where my kids fly through the air on rope swings and lazily swim the day away.  I can see my family hiking on the hills above me.  I can hear their laughter coming from the cabins around the bend.  I can see and hear people catching fish from my boat.  This is the last thing I expected when I stepped out to catch a look at the river before hitting the rack.  Standing here on the banks of this lake, engulfed in solitude I get transported back in time and get to relive the best parts of it.  This is the essence of relaxation.   Everyone needs a place like this. 
When you step out onto the deck it might seem like you can see seven miles down the river from here…but if you slow down and really listen to what this place telling you…you can actually see back in time.