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.

Outsmarting River Bottom Roosters

December 15, 2020 – Outsmarting River Bottom Roosters | Harvesting Nature

Picture an expansive river bar with a variety of cover and vegetation types, and terrain ranging from flat bottomland to steep and brushy slopes topped by shallow soils over basalt formations. Riparian cottonwood and willow present with sparse, brilliant canary yellow and amber foliage, shedding gently into a light breeze. Golden waves of wheatgrass and other bunches flank wealthy corn, canola and sorghum food plots separating the riparian from the uplands. And a rooster cackles as you unclip your pointing dog for a morning match of wits.

This well-loved public parcel sees a wealth of upland hunters and canine breeds over the course of the bird season, my setters and I included. The pheasant are wily, highly educated, stretched tighter than a banjo hide, and easily qualify for the Olympic 400-meter sprint. Pinched birds are prone to startle the hunter into cardiac arrest as they rarely sit for a staunch point and flush from behind at every opportunity.

Finn hunts the high ground on our favorite river-bottom public land.

Humans succumb to routine, of which hunting method fall victim. The parking area and access points are low on the property and lead to the tempting food plots and thicker riparian cover. Walking the road or hunting the lowlands right out of the gate is a natural tendency, yet ensures an early day, and not due to a limit of birds.

Pheasant naturally emerge from thick roosting covers before sunrise and head to the high ground and crop fields for breakfast. Pushing through the roosting cover often produces a productive point or two, but if you step aside to observe bird behavior beyond the range of your pointing dog, you may notice birds escaping far ahead, possibly beyond the public boundaries. And once these birds decide to go, they generally waste no time.

A simple solution is to hunt the high ground immediately. Birds heading out from roost are more likely to hunker down or flush back toward roost cover. Making a high pass and circling low for the return lap ensures a few more birds are occupying good transition covers and may be less sure of themselves as you approach from a different direction than most others.

Kea locks in beneath a hillside hawthorn.

Hunting large tracts with birds possibly scattered throughout is best accomplished with partners and multiple dogs. Beware of the company you keep, however. Pheasant are highly attuned to sight and sound. I have witnessed birds escape an onslaught more than a quarter-mile ahead as whistles, beeper collars and voices echoed, alerting all life to the presence of the orange-clad cavalry.

Instead, keep quiet, collars silent, and leave the whistle in the truck, if possible. Use hand signals to communicate with your buddies and canines, and spread across the terrain with a couple of good working dogs to catch the birds as they try to duck between and around the mammalian search party.

Another consideration is the severity of disturbance the birds experience. A similar but much smaller creek bottom property I visit has relinquished several roosters to my girls and I over the years, some coming directly on the heels of other hunters. When pheasant are gently pushed out, even speeding ahead of an errant shot wad, they may only travel a short distance into more challenging terrain if not further pursued.

Recently, at the conclusion of significant rainfall, I made the creek bottom for the final hour of daylight, only to pass parting hunters on the road. Not 10 minutes prior did they deposit spent shells and boot tracks in the bottomland mud. 

Upon spying the aftermath, my youngest setter, Zeta, and I turned up the adjacent draws, traversing the hillside bunchgrass, flanking the edge of a wheat field a mere couple hundred yards off the creek. Because the property is so small, other hunters rarely venture up the grassy draws. Pheasant that flush to the extent of the cover and experience no further pressure over time are largely content to sit tight, waiting for the typical brush-busters to push through and vacate.

Zeta with her rain-soaked late evening rooster from the top of the draw.

This particular evening, Zeta put us on a couple pheasant that sat beautifully for her rare and stylish point. She needs a cure for her addiction to putting birds on the wing and careening madly in their wake. Yet, as we surprised these birds, she did her job well, and the flush presented an easy shot.

Hunting pressured public land pheasant can be challenging, particularly coming into the late season, but alternative approaches playing on pheasant behavior and property boundaries can be surprisingly productive. Keep quiet, always anticipate the flush, and trust your pup’s instinct. It may take some time to pin a bird, but when the point is true, circle in, ready for action, and savor the hard-won success of an educated public land bird.     

Short-eared Owls of the Plains

Published March 4th, 2021 in The Waitsburg Times.

Glimpses of white flashed through the heavy sagebrush as Finn dashed across the scablands. There were Hungarian partridge and valley quail hunkered somewhere among the sage sea and She was working her best to locate them. A carpet of spent grasses and forbs provided ample food sources for upland birds, which were inexplicably absent from the flood-scared landscape.

Circling a small basalt butte, I recalled the last flash of white being off to the left about 30-yards. Starting in that direct, my handheld locator alerted me that Finn was on point, simultaneous with my catching another glimpse of white between the waist-high brush.

Rushing on for a flush, a single bird levitated silently, catching the wind and flapping lazily to perch on a lichen-encrusted fence post and peer judgingly back at us. Its round head and exaggerated wingbeats gave it away instantly. A short-eared owl, I would come to learn.

Over the years, my setters and I have flushed short-ears a number of times on the Palouse. Occasionally pairs emerge. When hunting covey birds, there is no concern over drawing a bead on one of these peculiar raptors that can be downright startling, but when chasing something like sharp-tailed grouse, expecting a brown and white bird of similar size can be momentarily confusing.

Short-eared owls are brown spotted with a buff, streaked chest and white under the wings, resembling dried grasses. Their pale face is clearly defined with large golden eyes, outlined in black as if they are wearing eye liner.  And if you really want to dive into the minutia of detail, a dark comma-shape is prominent on the white underwing.

An owl’s “ears” are the lateral feather tufts on the head. The great horned owl boasts magnificent “ears”, but they are far less conspicuous on the short-eared owl. Only when on the defensive are the short-ear’s tufts erect and visible, hence, its namesake. 

Aside from their unique, exaggerated flapping and flight that the Audubon Society describes as “buoyant” and appearing like a “giant moth”, I’ve come to read the dog in the instances they point before the owl appears. They must possess a unique odor as the dogs know it’s a bird, but it just doesn’t smell right. Their points are tentative rather than rigid and confident, and when the bird levitates, the dogs peel off with no desire to pursue it.

Our numerous encounters with short-ears on the grasslands comes from them being the most wide-spread owl species in the world, occurring on every continent. Their North American range spans the entire continent nearly to the Arctic with year-round residency and breeding approximately across the northern band of the contiguous 48 U.S. states.

While most owls prefer some form of dark cover and timber, short-eared owls inhabit the open plains, shrub-steppe, tundra and marshlands, where they roost and nest on the ground like upland gamebirds or waterfowl. When nesting, the female selects a high spot and scratches out a bowl-shaped depression similar to what you might find a pheasant using as a dusting bowl. She fills the bowl with down feathers and grasses for soft, warm brood rearing. Nesting and breeding occurs March through June and peaks in April in the northern hemisphere.

Short-eared owls hunt mainly by sound, listening for rodents scurrying and scuffling in the prairie or wetland duff. While they hunt at night like other owls, one of most unique traits of short-eared owls is their common daytime activity. Short-eared owls are very active in the crepuscular periods of the day and can be seen most any other time of day.

Although these medium-sized owls are common locally and worldwide, my encounters with them have always been on large tracts of shrub-steppe. The patchwork of draw-bottom habitats dappling our wheat local wheat farms typically supports species of alder, cottonwood and black locust, more enticing to great horned owls who would whoop the shorts off the short-eared owl if it desired the shade.

Short-ears are easy to photograph and easily approachable. Finding them is the real challenge. A hike through public lands west of Dayton or the central Washington scablands near Odessa are areas where I commonly see these pale-faced fowl. A canine companion can increase your odds of discovery, but the camera must be at the ready.

Once spooked, Short-ears typically remain close, perching quickly, but the slightest additional human movement can put prompt distance between you. Select a fast shutter speed for the moving target. Upon the flush, train your focus on the bird and try for that perfect in-flight shot, then wait for the owl to settle and capture that wide-eyed glance of incredulous judgement born only of a meal or midday snooze disrupted.