Shedding the Blues

 

Walla Walla Union Bulletin, April 29, 2018.

I spent the last several minutes marveling over the roster’s brilliant plumage. The girls were electrified, showered in praise as I slid the rooster into my vest. It was late in the season; the thick reed canary grass was crusted hard with snow and broken over the precipitous swale the girls were working. It was our last day of the season. Turning back for the truck, I was already looking ahead to September when the grouse and deer seasons would open again, dreading the long wait ahead.

As an avid upland bird and deer hunter, the enigma of deciding which is most inciting between working birds with my setters and putting the moves on a wily buck can be vexing. I spend the bulk of the off-season reminiscing of past hunts and planning for the next. Spring turkey hunting is a reasonable distraction, but there is another option that heats up around March: shed hunting.

Shed hunting is the art of searching for shed antlers. Each winter, deer, elk, and moose drop or “shed” their antlers to grow a new pair for the following fall. In much of the western United States, elk and mule deer inhabit the high country most of the year, but that’s not typically where you find sheds. When the snow flies, critters move down into the lower elevation “winter range”, which is typically where you want to look. In southeast Washington, mule deer can be found herded up among the bluffs above the Snake River and the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

Shed hunting is a common practice among hunters; however, for those of us obsessed with big game and working dogs, shed hunting promises to bridge the gap between the two worlds during the offseason. It can be a rewarding and downright challenging hobby as sheds blend in quite well with the surrounding vegetation. If I had a shed for each one I’ve passed within a few feet, my friends would have a lot fewer sheds. This is where Rover comes in.

Dogs with the appropriate nose, prey drive, and retrieving instinct can pick it up quickly. I won’t dive into the particulars of training a shed hunting dog, but I will say that the techniques can be quite similar to training your pup to hunt upland birds, and the same breeds are capable. Using an antler with a wax-based scent product and some practice time afield finding and retrieving the antler can feather your dog’s metaphorical cap, not to mention put a lot more bone in your pack at the end of the day.

Part of the shed hunting challenge is remaining focused. I get distracted enjoying the scenery and wildlife as I hike; hence, I walk by more sheds than I find. Having your four-legged companion participate in the search allows you to cover a lot more ground as a team, but the real advantage is that your pup doesn’t have to see the antler to find it. Finding a shed is always rewarding, but the finds are so much sweeter when you spy your pup galloping proudly back with a nice four-point shed.

Your pup will significantly improve your shed hunting game, but there are other key considerations as well. Timing can be crucial. March is a great time to begin shed hunting because most deer and elk will have shed by mid-March. You may also have great areas to choose from but do some homework on the habitat. Well used game trails and fence crossings appear to be a slam-dunk, but bedding areas and important food sources are the prime locations. Animals spend more time in these areas, increasing the odds they will shed there, where an animal on the move can drop an antler anywhere in the county.

If you want to get serious about shed hunting, treat it like any other hunting trip. Be prepared. Wear appropriate apparel, carry food and water, as well as some basic first aid supplies, and don’t be afraid to cover some miles. Possibly the most important tip of all; double check the regulations before heading out. National Parks and critical winter range may have strict regulations on if and when shed hunting or dogs are allowed.

Whether you’re a novice or have hunted sheds for years, a shed-hunting canine can be a game-changer. While solitary miles under a sixty-degree bluebird sky in April or May can sooth the soul, a hunt with man’s best friend can be epic. Turkeys are gobbling among the sparse timber across the canyon. A dull roar drifts up from the slightly swollen headwater stream tumbling below. You look up to see your pup barreling down-slope toting a considerable mule deer shed, which she delivers to hand; her fifth find of the morning. You are both ecstatic, and wagging furiously, she turns to find another.

Thankful for the Opportunity

Fall sparks a time of reflection and thanks, and the Thanksgiving holiday is a perfect time to be thankful for our public lands and natural wonders.

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Published in the Waitsburg Times, November 7th, 2019.

The month of November is a special month. Not only because it’s like an extension of October in the Walla Walla Valley, or that the late season big game hunts are open. Rather, November offers a time of reflection as winter approaches and we gather with friends and family to give thanks. Given my love for fall, I spend many cool evenings reflecting on the outdoor opportunities I have been afforded over the years, and the magnificence of our nation’s natural resources.

One extraordinary September evening a decade ago, twelve hours to the southeast of Waitsburg, I stood amid the roar of the Maison River in Yellowstone National Park. The sun had settled peacefully behind the western peaks while the cool humidity of fall sank into the river bottom. A soft, white haze began to form about ten feet off the water as the cool air from above fought to smother the moderately warmer temperature and moisture rising from the river.

To my left was a pewter-colored, house-sized boulder with a massive log jam against the upstream side. The river had undercut the boulder and placed a couple logs on the downstream edge as well. The twilight cast a dense glare across the river surface, but climbing up and standing atop the boulder, I could peer down and see a few very large mountain whitefish in the eddy on the downstream side. They darted swiftly in and out of the flow beneath the shelter of the logs.

Time was wearing thin, so I dropped back into the river on the thalweg side. There was a glorious seam near a gravel bar across the current, and my size 18 Adams was destined to be picked up by a feisty rainbow or brown trout. Preparing to cast, I stripped out a fair piece of my floating line and began loading the rod with short casting motions. Glancing to my left, the sight of my beautiful little blonde girlfriend, Ali, waist deep in the current and laying out a dry fly with her golden locks trailing behind her brought a warm smile.

I stood momentarily entranced in the scene of my future bride fishing the Madison, but my revelry began to fade with the faint sound of a cow elk mewing, and then another, and yet another. Spotting movement behind Ali, I gawked awestruck for minutes as the dark evergreens under the fading light began to writhe with elk. Big, tawny bulls with rich, molasses manes, raghorns, cows and calves maneuvered among the trees on the opposite river bank. They slowly fed and drink directly opposite us as we remained stone still. I felt a fleeting sense belonging, as if welcomed into their world. We were just part of the woodwork.

Ail Fitzgerald fishing the Madison as a bison watches

Daylight vanished with my rod held at my side. I simply stood there and drank in every precious moment of that scene as the final shred of visibility faded around a couple fly fishermen engulfed by the ambient tumbling river and the screams of rutting bulls. We climbed from the chill of the river, stripped out of our waders, and fired up the heat in our rig as we returned to our West Yellowstone hotel. That trip was noteworthy for a number of reasons, all of which are owed their own story, but fishing the evening hatch on the Madison will remain one of my fondest memories of Yellowstone, and early dating with my wife.

Recalling that moment on the Madison conjures another elk story, only this one occurred an hour from town. It was modern firearm deer season and I had packed into the Wenaha, spiked a camp, and hunted the high ridges with my buddy, Marvin, in hopes of spotting a good mule deer buck and making a move on him.

It was frigid for October and spitting snow. The Eagle Caps appeared as two small, snow-covered hummocks to the distant southeast. The atmosphere lit up around the peaks, pink as cotton candy from the few straggling rays of sun clutching the horizon. I could feel darkness approaching; an impenetrable cloak meant to shield the world from its own inhabitants.

In years past, I had seen mule deer in this meadow, and packed a buddy’s elk on a pack string after clawing our way up from the jagged bowls of the canyon bottom. My only encounter this day was cutting the tracks of a lone cougar and wolf, both on the same meadow trail, and both the diameter of a softball. Worn out and cold, I headed for camp only to suffer the fitful sleep of fall wilderness tent camping.

Awaking the next morning, the sky was incredibly clear with a billion shimmering stars. Within an hour, the warmth of golden sun would breach the eastern tree line to end my frozen torment for eleven glorious, yet laborious hours of searching for backcountry bucks. Standing peacefully over the hiss of my pack stove, as the soothing aroma of hot coffee curled up, tickling my mustache, I stared wide-eyed at the first twinge of pink kissing the low horizon.

The black silhouettes of surrounding evergreens stood tall and firm like the sentinels of dawn. And unexpectedly, a bull elk let out a single bugle, not 100 yards from camp. His guttural squeal echoing around the edge of the meadow sent a chill down my spine, prickling me with goosebumps.

Unexpectedly, tears welled up and my throat went tight. Emotion and memories ran wild. Regrets of moving away from home and family; gratitude for the loved ones I have been blessed with; shame for the times that I failed my loved ones; and bewilderment over all of the undeserved blessings I have been afforded, to include the opportunity to hunt our nation’s wild, public lands. My love of the wilderness, fish and wildlife, and my thirst for these experiences are owed to my grandparents and the heritage they passed on.

Such emotion spurred by a single supremely placed and timed elk bugle. We never found our mule deer buck, but time in the wilderness, no matter how long or short, offers some form of profundity and reward otherwise.

Recollections of wilderness adventures arouse further memories of the most beautiful high mountain lakes I have ever had the good fortune to lay eyes on, just a day’s drive south in northeastern California’s Sierra Nevada range. The John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness areas provide astonishing scenery, hiking, and one of my bucket-list trout species, the golden trout.

Thirty minutes of channeling my inner mountain goat, teetering and hopping up, over, and across jagged granite perched me 11,300 feet above sea-level. With burning thighs and short breath, I gazed back at Long Lake about a mile and hundreds of feet below. The gray walls of the high peaks reflected off the deep blue of the lake. The solemn green of the pines cast deep contrast against the light granite with a dappling of brilliant goldenrod from sparse quaking aspen and grasses changing with the season.

Turning around, I faced the Treasure Lakes. Thirteen-thousand-foot Mount Dade peak loomed overhead to the south. A permanently shadowed, remnant snow pack, dusted gray by the wind, was feeding the lakes. Below the shimmering surface of the crystal-clear depths lay pure California gold.

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Sizing up the lake, I tied up a size 14 hare’s ear wet-fly on my four-weight. Stepping down onto a boulder along the lake’s edge, I rolled the olive-green sinking line into the depths and began retrieving the fly with short strips. My breath, still labored from the climb, or maybe just the elevation, was sucked away completely as the line jerked tight between my fingertips; the fly engulfed as it slowly sank on the pause between strips.

A moment of panic overwhelmed me as I realized I was playing a trout I had obsessed over landing on the fly for decades. Kneeling on the flat boulder, rod tip held high overhead, I softly cradled my first golden trout in the frigid alpine waters. An awesome spectacle in a small package with a rich auburn belly, buttery yellow flanks, and olive-sized parr marks. A scene so perfect I will never forgive myself if I fail to relive it again in the near future.

We are incredibly fortunate for the opportunity afforded us by visionaries like Teddy Roosevelt, who realized the importance of setting aside public lands and parks for our enjoyment. The beauty of our public lands, our right to explore them, not to mention the most spectacular pieces of our nation being preserved for the public rather than privatized, is a true blessing.

Of equally good fortune, Waitsburg is a central hub to more than a dozen National Parks and Monuments within a day’s drive, not to mention the myriad state parks.

Think of Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks with peaks towering sharply above the Montana landscape. When was the last time you saw the turquoise depths of Crater Lake or traversed the prickly, jagged lava beds of the Newberry Monument in central Oregon? How about experiencing the tranquility of looming redwoods along the northern California coast, or the picturesque formations protruding from the Oregon beaches? Have you ventured over to Mt. Rainier National Park or Mount Hood to ogle the glaciers and marvel at the history and architecture of the historic lodges? All of this awaits at arms-length.

As we share in our Thanksgiving feasts, late fall turkey, deer and elk hunts, and make new memories with friends and family, take a moment to give thanks to those responsible for setting aside our public lands and parks. Thank our fellow taxpayers and sportsmen and women for contributing funds to the operation and maintenance of these lands. Thank our military brethren who serve to ensure our freedom and opportunity to enjoy our nations specular resources. And thank your friends and family who, alongside you and I, work to perpetuate this rich wilderness heritage.

Shed Hunting the Wheat Country

Published in the East Oregonian, March 21, 2020.

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March is a fine time to work a bird dog on the Palouse. With the upland season a couple months past and the snow freshly off the wheat fields, my girls and I took to a secluded parcel for a run and maybe put up a rooster or two. A bitter wind howled across the emerald green of the thriving winter wheat, battling the warmth of vibrant sunrays cast sharply from a bluebird sky.

Approaching an island of black locust and wheatgrass about 20 acres in size, a white object caught my attention. Beneath a golden fold of grass mashed flat from its former snow blanket shone a heavy chunk of what appeared to be bone. “How sweet would it be if that were a giant shed!” I thought to myself as I approached. You can imagine my surprise when I unearthed the only drop-tine whitetail antler I will ever lay hands on, complete with a split brow tine and soda-can base circumference.

The antler was weathered and cracked and had clearly lay there for several years. I wondered where that buck had come from. There was no other cover for miles and we were nearly 20 miles from a brushy river corridor in any direction. How had that buck dodged the modern firearms seasons so many years to put on such character?

I may never have such fortune to stumble upon a better shed in my lifetime. Whitetails are known for their adaptation to postage-stamp, patchwork covers. True to form, this guy clearly followed the playbook, shedding where no one would think to look in a relatively tiny and inaccessible patch of cover.

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Bagging elk sheds is exciting, but in my experience, it’s deer in the wheat country that offer the best shed hunting. A solid rule of thumb is to seek out bedding and feeding areas. South and west aspects are the warmest this time of year and typically offer better food sources. Deer spend the majority of their time in these areas and are more likely to shed there. While well-worn travel routes are hard to pass up, I have found so few sheds on trails that a nice walk or the occasional small forky antler is about the main prize.

You can dodge the masses by knocking on a few doors and maybe find some ground all to yourself. Small woodlots and eyebrows with a few trees to provide a windbreak should be given fair inspection. Deer will paw at the ground around these trees to create flat beds on steep slopes.

Deer generally shed their antlers from late December through March. Mule deer tend to yard up in large, visible groups on the open, grassy slopes, while whitetails commonly feed in the unseen crevasses of wheat fields this time of year.

Cabin fever pushes most big game hunters to wit’s end by now, and the prospects of shed hunting are too inciting to ignore. However, there is an ethical consideration to early shed hunting. March on the Palouse can be a deadly month for wildlife as they have hit rock bottom on fat reserves and food sources. A year like the present causes little winter kill as snow accumulations is minimal and temperatures are generally mild. But tough years with lingering deep snow and single-digit temperature can take its toll on a deer herd.

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Waiting to hunt sheds until about the time that spring gobbler opens is a best practice to leave critters unperturbed when they cannot afford to suffer additional stress and energy expense. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife doesn’t enforce restricted shed hunting seasons, but does offer tips to keep wildlife healthy, such as not pushing a herd too hard or pursuing them over consecutive days. One advantage to shed-hunting the wheat country is being able to spot sheds in stubble or green wheat with binoculars before hiking through feeding or resting critters with nothing to show for it.

Additionally, respect for public and private land and landowners is paramount. Sheds are the property of the landowner where they fell, requiring permission to collect them on private land. If you run a shed-hunting dog, ensure that it doesn’t run deer or elk as you hunt for antlers.

Bottom line: shed hunting is a lot of fun and a great way to get outdoors, kick the cabin fever, and grab some sun and exercise while waiting on spring gobbler or fishing seasons. Load up your pack, grab the binoculars, and enjoy the warmth of the sun on your back for a welcome change from winter. You just might find that shed of a lifetime.

WDFW Revising Game Management Regulations

Published in The Waitsburg Times, February 20th, 2020

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February 6th, The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) opened the public comment period on proposals to update regulations for a variety of game hunting opportunities, as well as the proposed 2020 hunting seasons. Among the proposals, two changes in particular have potential to influence hunting opportunity in southeast Washington.

The proposed elimination of several elk areas due to the success of depredation hunts and overall population declines include what the proposal lists as area 1011 for Columbia County (present regulations show this area as 1010). Additionally, area 1082 in Asotin County is proposed for elimination.

Proposed changes to cougar management and harvest are the most significant. Presently, WDFW uses the mean (average) cougar density across five years and five research projects throughout the state to set Population Management Unit (PMU) maximum harvest or “harvest guidelines”. The WDFW developed four options (rewritten here for clarity as alternatives) for adjusting cougar harvest guidelines and propose extending hunting seasons in areas with high cougar/human conflict.

1) Alternative 1 – Status Quo. No change with the exception of changing the harvest guideline from being based on a mean density to being based on a median density for studied populations. The rational for this proposal is that the mean density includes outliers (abnormal extremes) in the data that may drive the mean and harvest guidelines higher or lower than what is appropriate for a given population. The median is simply the middle number in the range of density estimates, which is influenced less by outliers than the mean.

2) Alternative 2 – Similar to status quo, but proposes to use the median density calculated only for adult cougars that are 24 months or older. This option reduces the harvest guideline slightly, but sub-adult cougars harvested under this option would not count toward reaching the guideline and informing season closure for a given PMU.

3) Alternative 3 – The harvest guideline would increase for units that exceeded the harvest guideline by December 31 at least once in the past five years. This alternative assumes that cougar density is higher in units where this occurs because hunters are encountering many animals and quickly reaching the harvest guideline. The new harvest guideline would be based on the highest harvest in the past five years.

For example, in two PMUs, harvest guidelines would be adjusted so they do not exceed an assumed density of 4.15 cougars per 100 square kilometers (62.1 square miles). This would keep the density within an acceptable range based on research conducted in the western United States. This harvest guideline would include adults and sub-adults.

4) Alternative 4 – Same as Alternative 3, but considers only adult cougars that are 24 months or older in meeting the harvest guidelines in a given season.

The “non-status quo” Alternatives 3 and 4 are intended to extend hunting seasons where higher harvest is warranted and where human/cougar conflicts are higher.

The complete set of proposals and 2020 season dates are available for review at https://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/regulations/season-setting, as well as an online comment form. The public comment period closes February 26th. As a steward of the public’s wildlife, don’t miss your opportunity to participate in this important review process.

 

 

LETTER TO THE EDITOR ON PROPOSED COUGAR MANAGEMENT REGULATIONS

Upon reviewing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) presently proposed cougar management regulations, there are considerations I believe the general public should have more clarity on regarding the science behind the proposed alternatives.

Scientifically, there are cautions with every alternative, all for the same reason; setting and managing “harvest guidelines” appropriately to maintain healthy cougar populations. The example given in Alternative 3 that relies on a target population density to inform harvest guidelines is the most scientifically defensible method and should be the standard across cougar Population Management Units (PMU). The harvest guidelines may be set with the intention of maintaining a healthy population density (e.g. 4.15 cougars per 62.1 square miles) in all PMUs. This is implied, but not necessarily clear in the proposal.

Alternative 3 may also result in higher harvest in PMUs where harvest exceeded the guideline by December 31st at least once in the prior five years. Our local PMU 10 includes Game Management Units 149 (Prescott), 154 (Blue Creek), 162 (Dayton) and 163 (Marengo). The 2019 harvest guideline for PMU 10 was 4-5 cougars. Total harvest in 2016 was 11, 15 in 2017 and 18 in 2018; as high as three times the harvest guideline. It appears that higher harvest may be warranted in southeast Washington.

The PMU 10 harvest numbers likely offer a clear example of why WDFW is proposing to set the harvest guidelines on the median population density rather than the mean. There may be a low population outlier that is keeping the PMU 10 harvest guideline lower than it should be.

The “non-status quo” Alternatives 3 and 4 are intended to extend hunting seasons where higher harvest is warranted and where human/cougar conflicts are higher. A perfectly acceptable proposal. Extending the hunting seasons will shift the removal of a proportion of problem cougars from WDFW responsibility to the general hunting public. As a hunter and steward of public resources, my first instinct is to ask how the hunting public can help manage wildlife when animal removal is necessary.

Extending the cougar hunting season is solid logic for a couple reasons. 1) Per law, wildlife is under the ownership of the state and general public, regardless of where that wildlife occurs. Transferring agency removal of problem cougars to hunters through enhanced opportunity offers the public greater ability to participate in the management of OUR wildlife; 2) Sportsmen and women buy licenses to have hunting opportunities. Allowing the hunting public to participate in population management increases hunter opportunity and reduces expenditure of WDFW tax- and sportsman-paid dollars that could be better used on conservation programs, for example; and 3) More liberal seasons and additional opportunities may entice additional license sales. This is important because license sales support habitat management that benefits all wildlife, not simply game species, as well as hunter access programs. Over 70% of hunters in the western U.S. rely on public land and public access for their hunting opportunity.

From a biologist’s perspective, WDFW has developed an appropriate array of alternatives to improve cougar management in Washington. Alternatives 3 and 4 appear to be scientifically sound and offer additional benefit to sportsmen and women. Review the proposals yourself and represent your responsibility to the management of public resources by submitting comments on the proposals.

 

Luck, Gravy and Bucks in the Breaks

The digital dashboard clock read 6:10am on November 2nd, day three of a four-day mule deer hunt in the river breaks of Idaho. Time was wearing thin. It was the first morning of daylight savings time. There was plenty of shooting light, yet my eyes strained to evaluate the whitetails striding across the grassy field to the north. Shouldering my rifle, I reached for my shooting stick and passed a glance across the tailgate at my hunting partner, Larry Holecek. Larry has lived in the Idaho panhandle nearly all of his life and has access to some spectacular hunting ground.

We silently advanced across the road into the ponderosas, traversing an old, broken-down barbed wire fence. In about three miles we will have dropped approximately 2,500 feet in elevation and trekked over a rugged piece of river canyon rarely seen by others.  

 Softly entering the timbered ridge, we instantly spooked a small group of whitetails that bounded off nearly unnoticed. Although this was my “big buck” hunt, I was along for the ride. I had no expectations, and killing a good buck was low on the list. I didn’t care either way, but my wife made it clear. If I ate my tag, I faced a severe flogging, murder, divorce, and possibly all of the above. The only guarantee; I would not pull the trigger on an average buck.

The air was crisp and clouds on the run, being herded out of the country by a strong high-pressure zone approaching from the west. With a gorgeous sunrise upon us, the overall scene and day bloomed into prime conditions for a still hunt. Carefully, we hunted down through a grassy ridge spine, relying on a sparse tree line for concealment. Our steps were well placed, like a prowling cougar softly padding behind its prey.

A beautiful November morning in the Clearwater River Canyon

We stalked our way through the first large meadow, stepped up on a rocky bluff and glassed the surrounding ridges. It became clear that hunting through the adjacent draws would be most challenging. Steep, deep, rocky, and thorny were the only discernable conditions and I was unwilling to tackle such a formidable combination. We spotted a small grassy knob about a mile below us, glassed it for a while, then descended for it.

Approaching the middle elevation of the mountain, the browse petered out, like a mountain stream at the height of a drought as it flows into the valley floor. There was little deer sign, but fresh elk tracks and scat, possibly from animals we bumped unknowingly.

“We should move a little quicker down into better deer habitat. We need to get down closer to the river where the browse thickens up again.” Larry explained.

About a half mile further we emerged from the ponderosas and found ourselves on the up-ridge side of the grassy knob we had glassed previously. taking up the remnants of an old road, we dropped over the west side of the knob and wrapped around the down-ridge slope into a draw. A few sparse rose bushes provided minimal cover.

Suddenly, the unmistakable “blow” of a deer shattered the silence, startling us out of tranquility. Snapping attention forward, a spike mule deer bounced out front of us about twenty yards ahead. Larry looked back with a smile and said “You wanna take him?” Returning the joke, I declined the proposal. While perfectly legal, the effort required to get a deer off the mountain made taking the spike inconceivable, never mind the quality table fare. After moments of silently interrogating one another, the spike bounced down into the draw and out of sight.

Immediately, we advanced a few steps, peered down into the draw, finding ourselves suddenly neck deep in mule deer. Through a small opening in the rose bushes I spotted what appeared to be a buck about eighty yards below. Thinking nothing of it, I propped my stick against my stomach and raised my binoculars. As my vision focused on the dozen or so mule deer, one buck in particular grabbed my attention, slamming me into the reality of two dark, sweeping beams spanning well past the buck’s ear width.

The author and Larry Holecek celebrate a successful hunt

My binoculars bounced against my chest as they fell from my grip. In a panic, I groped for the shoulder strap of my old Remington .243, glanced at Larry and said “That’s no spike…!” Larry’s eyes enlarge as he ducked out from the rose bush to get a look.

The safety clicked hard forward as my face settled on the stock. With the butt wedged between my shoulder and pack strap, the crosshairs settled firmly behind the buck’s shoulder.

Breath. Steady trigger pressure. Recoil.

The draw exploded with mule deer scattering in all directions, yet I focused with laser precision on one buck as he loped out of sight, never to reappear. Turning to Larry I exclaimed “That should have been a perfect shot!That’s a damn good buck!” We never saw exactly how big it was, but I had passed on several other bucks the prior days and trusted my gut instinct that he was why came to Idaho.

A raucous erupted from the brush directly below and the buck briefly appeared before vanishing again into timber. A few blurry seconds passed and the mountain fell silent.    

Larry, appearing more excited than I, started down into the draw. I called after him, reminding him that we should wait a moment and start tracking methodically from the point of impact, regardless of the fact that we knew about where the buck should be.

I was cautious, examining everything. There was an unnerving lack of sign. My full confidence in the shot and the fact that my rest was solid provided comfort, yet mistakes when we least expect them. The .243 is fast and accurate, but an eyelash can knock it off course.

The author with his Clearwater canyon muley buck

With no obvious evidence of a hit, we walked his approximate track to our last visual. The location was unmistakable, marked by a small greenbrier bush nearly chartreuse in color. Quite the contrast against the dark orange and black of the fallen ponderosa boughs.

As I scoured the brush for sign, Larry pointed down ridge to a spot where the pine boughs were piled up exposing fresh soil. Guardedly, I move down, noticing a large patch of gray hair on a nearby pine trunk. To our left was a house-sized boulder outcrop, and as Larry and I worked our way around the face of the boulder, something caught my eye.

Stopping Larry in his tracks, I picked up the binoculars and focused in. Concerned over the lack of sign, I wanted to be sure we didn’t make a novice mistake like jumping a wounded buck from his bed. After heavy scrutiny, I breathed a sigh of relief. The large, gray object was in fact a sizeable mule deer buck lying on his belly at the base of a ponderosa. Approaching to about fifteen feet, I made a final examination.

Emptying our rifles, we eagerly approached the large four-point beam rising from the pine boughs. Lying before us was about a 200-pound, ghost-gray mule deer buck with a broad nose and white face. His neck was swollen to about thirty-six inches in circumference from the raging hormones of rut. His chest was nearly three feet deep and his dark chocolate, 4X5 rack rose impressively above his thick, roughly furred brow.

The orange pine boughs complimented by the green of the pines and the gray granite boulders covered in brilliant jade moss made for an awe-inspiring scene. One that will forever remain seared into memory as Larry nor I packed our cameras or cell phones. Unbelievable. And that’s not the worst of it. I must have forgotten my brain this morning as well, for I found I was without a knife and only had my day pack and snacks. Luckily, Larry was smart enough to remember a knife at least.

With the buck dressed, Larry suggested we drag him down the mountain as far as possible. If we could get him close enough to the river, we may have been able to go for the camera and get photos before packing him out, but it was not meant to be. The riverside bluffs were too treacherous.

Leaving the buck, we snaked our way along the canyon wall, Larry ingeniously flagging our trail out with survey tape until we found a way around the cliff faces to the river and derelict rails below. Forty minutes of uncertainty passed as we stepped over crevasses and skirted rimrock sufficient to make a mountain goat pucker. Following a final thirty-foot side down a flat rock face to the tracks, the endeavor was nearly complete.

Scaling the face and returning to the buck, I worked to get him quartered, while Larry headed for the ATV that was about three miles east on the tracks. Once at the ATV, He would go for his son, Dean, and some frame packs. My final gaze upon the buck was lost to my urgency at quartering and packing to the top of the bluff above the river, but I shall never forget the moment I first laid hands on him.

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With the quarters, backstraps and tenderloin laid out, I donned my day-pack and agreed with myself a foolish buffoon for leaving my frame pack and necessary items at home. Upon completing three trips for the rack and quarters, I stashed them at the top of the bluff above the railroad and savored a brief water break before the unmistakable hum of distant ATV bled through the roar of the river. As Dean and Larry arrived, I heaved up my pack, snagged a hind quarter and rack, and started down the precipitous incline that led me to flat ground.

Dean offered gracious congratulations and a fresh bottle of water, while Larry hurriedly took my .243 and ran back up the tracks after spotting a decent muley buck while returning for me (at least I didn’t leave my rifle at home). Dean and I grabbed the packs and clawed our way up the 100 vertical yards, grabbed the remaining quarters, and skidded back down to the tracks.

Trophy hunting has never been my thing, but big muley bucks have captivated me since I moved to the northwest in 2011. I set my sights high and was lucky enough to punch a tag on a muley buck that I am still proud of. The entire event was built around tremendous luck, but you can’t get lucky without effort.

Basking in the memories, I am reminded that engaging in the hunt is far more rewarding than securing antlers and venison. The experience welds a permanent patch in our minds and souls. A minute flicker in time where the world around us fades into the background. The only beings in existence are the hunter and prey. The rest is gravy.  

A Tag for the Table

It was one of those years. Forced to fall back on “Plan B” for every hunt led me to lackluster locations and conditions with equivalent results. The general rifle deer season in southeast Washington is a predictable warzone. Public lands resemble a pumpkin patch as hunters push the open country. The silver lining was the limited draw whitetail doe (“second deer”) tag in my pocket, of which it was the opening day.

A suffocating fog blanketed the morning, which I swam through with hopes of tripping over a doe in thick cover. And true to “luck of the draw”, I busted several decent bucks at point-bank range, nary a doe to be found. A stark contrast to the years where I held a limited draw buck tag.

By evening, the fog had cleared and I found myself hunkered beneath the shelter of mature pines in a deep canyon where does frolicked carelessly during buck hunts past, yet only a few does fed in a distant wheat field. With sunlight fading, my backside urged an early hike west to a pea field to glass a timbered edge. Turns out, my backside harbors keen instinct as I quickly spotted two does and began the stalk.

With nothing more than failing light for cover, I pursued the perfect doe as she plodded along, stopping just long enough that I could settle the crosshairs. Quartering slightly away, then broadside momentarily, I squeezed the trigger on my heirloom .243 Remington 700, but the gun never fired. She moved too soon to touch off a round, forcing me to pick up and shuffle after her.

An eternity lapsed as we waltzed across the slimy harvested field, watching her body fade to a near silhouette behind the crosshairs until she finally stood perfectly broadside long enough for my index finger to activate the firing pin. Had she had turned or stepped once again, the decision was already made to pack up and hike out. Literally, not another 30-seconds of shooting light remained.

The shot was textbook, high-shoulder, dropping the year-and-a-half doe in her tracks. She fell behind a slight rise, high enough to conceal her, save for the white belly beacon. A tough season behind, I reveled in the moment, giving thanks on one knee with a hand upon her hide.

We’ve all heard it said, a trophy is in the eye of the beholder. Continuing to kneel, gently stroking her thick winter coat, I admired the blessing given for my nourishment. She was the perfect age and health, gifting our table with quality and quantity.

Reaching into my pack, I pulled a skinning knife, quartering knife and bone saw, laying them on her still ribcage. Draping my elk quarter bag across my pack frame made for clean and easy loading.

As blade struck hide, I methodically skinned from spine to knee. I can reasonably average forty-five minutes from start to finish on any given deer, precisely the longevity of my headlamp batteries this particular evening. Having triple-checked that I packed my tag apparently drained all other cognitive ability to throw in a few spare AAAs.  

Adding the final quarter and stew scraps, I tied off the quarter bag as my headlamp faded to black. With cell phone in-mouth, I secured the bag and gear to my frame pack, hoisted it to my shoulders and embarked on a moonless, black-as-a-pine-box, 45-minute hike beneath a billion glorious stars.

As a boy in Appalachia, hunting does was a way of life. Table fare and the accomplishment of the harvest was never lost on antlerless deer. Most folks I know in the west wouldn’t dare work for “just a doe”. But the harder the work, the sweeter the reward and adventure. The loss of my headlamp simply tested my navigation skills and revealed an incredible unfettered view.  

Slogging through the soft, rich mud along the field crest, I gazed at the city lights of Walla Walla to the west. The glow was faint, but bright enough to silhouette some large firs. Keeping time with a cacophony of distant coyotes, my only startle came from a small covey of Hungarian partridge busting from underfoot.

Approaching my truck, I longed for the shot of water and snack that I had stashed in the cab. Reminiscing of the hunt, I looked forward to reviewing the memories of the evening, burned timelessly into mental film for decades to come, the good Lord willing.

Sliding my pack into the bed and climbing into the driver’s seat, the Tundra roared to life, set in motion to the northeast toward home. The prospect of fresh tenderloin urging me on.

Black Powder Pursuit of Mule Deer in the Foothills

Published October 17th, 2020

I’ve never experienced anything quite like spot and stalk mule deer hunting in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. The open expanse of golden wheat stubble and grasslands pressures a hunter into honing their creativity in the use of wind and terrain.

Having pursued my fair share of mule deer with the stick and string, I’ve found the muzzleloader season to be the most exciting. The modern smoke pole is highly accurate and provides a distance advantage over archery (at least it used to), but the relatively light weight stocks pack a wallop of recoil. Coupled with the old-fashioned fork sight, making the mark is something of a science. Being a scientist by trade, you would figure I’d have the game figured out by now.

October 3rd, my buddy Dean and I wandered onto an eastern Washington “hunt by reservation” parcel as the first hint of dawn cracked amber on the eastern horizon. We picked a long ridge spine angling toward the furthest point from the road. Deer were scarce in the early dim, but as the sun climbed higher, mule deer appeared and vanished like phantoms of the prairie.

By 7:00am, we spotted a bachelor threesome with two legal bucks, one of them better than average. Spying with the spotter and putting them to bed for the morning, the game was on. Dean kept watch as I made a wide loop, circling through the canyon and crawling over the top from behind. I would ooze down to their bedding area for a short-range shot. But the best laid plans are destined to be flawed.

Of the 16 does I slipped through traversing the canyon floor, a single doe-fawn pair ran the entire length of the canyon, blowing the bucks from their bed. Luckily, Dean kept an eye, watching them bed again as I hiked a different ridge, still-hunting to the bottom into a bedding area wrought with powdered soil dugouts on the shady side of blooming rabbitbrush.

I studied the cracked soil between bunchgrass tufts as I hiked; my mind wandering back to the days before white settlers arrived. Pondering how many native Americans had hunted the same hills, what game they had taken and how they may have tried to pull a fast one on those bedded bucks. I always glance for stray arrowheads but never find them.

At the foot of the spine, the throaty percussion of a nearby muzzleloader seized my attention. Dean had apparently slipped in on the bucks while I devised my next move, taking a steady, calculated 90-yard poke at the bigger buck. As the smoke cleared from his shot, I propped my gun on the sticks in preparation. A wide rim separated us, and my gut suggested those bucks may escape in my direction.

Not 60 seconds later, three deer appeared, trotting the base of the rim and directly toward me. All three were healthy and largely unhurried. Peering through the binoculars I found the lead buck to be the big boy. But that fact became abundantly clear as the trio barely changed course, passing broadside at 40 yards, justifiably ignoring my very presence.

Tracking the lead buck with an unusual calm, the fork sight held at the point of the chest when the bolt broke free, crushing the musket cap and igniting the charge. The fork sight never left the buck, despite the heavy recoil. He was as good as mine. I had done everything right. Save for my (mis-) calculation of the collision point between lead and hide.

My main assumptions of bullet and mule deer velocity resulted in a clean miss, yet the soil beyond my moving target was wounded severely. I suppose muzzleloader loads carry some haste at close range, enough to have shot in front of the deer.

Dean appeared on the horizon as I gathered my thoughts and headed for higher ground. It was about noon and 85 degrees, so we headed for the rig. Among the wafting bunchgrass and the sting of starthistle stabbing through my Carhartt pants, I recalled a past season where I had calculated everything to perfection from stalk to shot, securing my only velvet buck, the skin and fuzz dried hard on the antlers on October 6th. A beautiful 4X4 with a small bifurcation on the left G2 tine. I can still feel the strain of the pack straps against my shoulders and the burn in my thighs as I trudged with the quartered buck and rack packed neatly in one load.

A unique October velvet mule deer taken with the smoke pole in the Blue Mountain foothills.

The foothills offer what feels like a true western mule deer hunt, providing the expansive views and glassing opportunity that come to mind with dreams of sagebrush, hill country and the charcoal gray and forked-antler racks of Odocoileus hemionus. Early fall bucks can be predictable and the stalks exhilarating, punctuated with ample opportunity to fail, courtesy of being human. I could hear the echoing laughter of the native American spirits as I climbed with an empty pack.