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.

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.

DSC_0961

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.