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.

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.

A Tag for the Table

September 15th, 2020 – A Tag for the Table | Harvesting Nature

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.

Upland Pursuits: 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.