September 6, 2008, Opening Day

For once, Opening Day for squirrel season wasn't a bust!  Last year I'd bought a little Stevens Favorite .32 and killed a squirrel with it at the very end of the season, so this year I decided to use that rifle to start this one.

Now, in September the trees are in leaf and the acorns or other mast hasn't yet fallen to the floor of the forest.  There may be squirrels around but often you can't see them for the leaves, and they stay up high.  If you do catch a glimpse of shadows flitting through the treetops, usually you can't get a clear shot.  So most people use a shotgun.  Choosing to use a single-shot rifle was, as Rush Limbaugh says, doing it, "...with one hand tied behind my back, just to make it fair."  The final score was Rodents 5, Outdoorsman, 1.

I dragged my aging carcass out of bed at 6:45, three-quarters of an hour later than I should have, but as early as I could manage to get vertical and remain conscious.  Stopping by the local Hardee's for a bracing cup of scalding hot liquid alleged to be coffee, and a greasy but tasty smoked sausage biscuit of which mrs outdoorsman would had heartily disapproved (had she known about it) I managed to get to The Valley of A Thousand Rodents in Giles County by about 7:20. This was early enough, since the day was overcast and when that's the case the squirrels tend not to come out so early.

Conditions were perfect.  It had rained a bit the previous night and the woods were wet, but not sodden.  It made for very quiet walking.  Better yet, there was just enough water on the leaves that when a squirrel moved, he caused a little shower of droplets to fall, alerting me by sound to the his presence.  There was zero wind, another factor that has ruined some Opening Days for me in the past: windy days tend to keep the trees moving wildly and the squirrels wisely stay indoors rather than risk a fall.

I saw one on the way up the hill I have to climb to get to the VOATR.  Did a nice stalk, and he gave me a shot, which I missed at perhaps 30 yards.  Damn and blast open sights, aging eyes, and poor light!  This guy was—as most of them are this time of year—very naive and even allowed me to miss him a second time before he did The Vanishing Squirrel Trick, and I moved on.

I parked myself under the big beech tree in the Valley, always a good spot, about 7:30.  Not too long after that, along came a squirrel, way up high, and obscured by leaves.  Of course, with the leaves on the trees, they can't see me, either. Their obscured view of the ground facilitated my getting into a position for a shot...which, again, I missed.  At a dollar a round for .32 Long Rimfire, this was getting a bit expensive!

I dozed a bit now and then...but was awakened by the noise of water dropping from the leaves: behind and above me was another one.  I stalked him up, and fired, and he fell straight down, perhaps 50 feet, WHOMP! to the ground.  Then he got up and ran to a nearby tree!

I must have cut the branch he was on with the bullet, which I'll bet surprised the heck out of him.  Clearly the fall was disorienting and took his wind away, because he ran up the tree maybe 10 yards from me, and stopped to look at me.  A fatal mistake: that time I didn't miss, putting a bullet behind his right shoulder and out his left.  He was kicking on the ground and I gave him the coup de grace with a .22 Short from a little RG-10 revolver that's undoubtedly the worst gun I ever owned.  That was that.

By that time it was about 9:00, and I went back to the beech tree.  Waited another couple of hours, missed another squirrel, and called it a day.  I can't remember the last time I wasn't skunked on a squirrel opener.  If I'd had a shotgun I'd have limited out.  Maybe this will be a banner year!

November 4, 2008

My mother used to say that,"Good things come to those who wait," and if Opening Day of the black powder season was anything to go by, she was right. I went up to Amherst to hunt Three Oaks Farm, and since my regular hunting partner Rick wasn't coming I decided I wouldn't impose on his parents' hospitality too much. Rather that go up Friday afternoon and spend the night, I hit the road at 3:15 AM Saturday morning for the two-and-a-quarter hour drive. I was in the woods by 6:30, not much the worse for wear. 

I went first to The Ravine, a place where Huff Creek runs along in a deep cleft on the edge of Bill's property. There's a crossing point where the grade is level on both sides of the creek; deer coming down off the road as they return from feeding in from the fields cross the creek there as they head for their daytime cover. Last year I shot a doe there very early in the morning and it's a very "deery"-looking spot. 

I sat on my stand until 9:00, but never laid eyes on a thing except two squirrels. By then I was a shade tired so I went back in to doze for an hour and a half; then went back out to The Rock, a spot where I've killed several deer. It's about 200 yards from The Ravine, at the confluence of several trails leading to and from staging areas and feed plots. No luck there, either. I stayed put until 2:00, by which time I was running out of steam and needed something to eat. I went in again, scarfed down some cold corned beef hash, and snoozed for another hour. 

At 3:30 or thereabouts, I decide to make one more try at The Ravine. I went back to the same spot, reasoning was that it was late in the day; the deer hadn't been moving much if at all, and the moon had risen about 11:30 AM, so they ought to be thinking about getting up and searching for food and poontang. 

Perched on my portable stool, I went into my hunting trance. This is something like being in that half-way state between awake and asleep; I can't describe it any better than that. My eyes are closed, but I'm aware of the surroundings and my ears are "on alert" when I do this. I almost always hear a deer before seeing it. The woods I hunt are so dense I can't usually see anything much over 30-40 yards away, and vision is of no use to me when a deer stops moving. Furthermore, I believe that the neural mechanism that keeps sleepers from falling out of bed is in operation: in the trance I remain completely immobile, which greatly improves concealment, because deer are very alert to movement. Whatever it is I'm doing, it works and it has worked for me for years.

At a little after 5:00 I heard a noise, but couldn't see anything moving. I always wear a face veil, which helps a lot in being invisible—a pasty-white face stands out as a blob in the dark background, and is easily spotted since you can hardly help moving your head—but it also interferes with vision a bit. I lifted the veil and lo, there was a deer sneaking through the ravine some 60 yards to my right. At first glance it was hard to tell if it was a doe or a buck—not that it mattered, either sex is legal in Amherst County, and my policy has always been "the first legal deer to come by gets it"—but as it came closer I could see it had horns.

I put the veil back down and sat stone-still. Sure enough, it was a buck, nose to the ground, and completely oblivious to his surroundings. When he was 30 or so yards off I could see through the brush that he wasn't a spike, and was at least a 4-pointer. He passed behind a bush while I slowly brought up the rifle, and when he stepped clear put the bead on his left side just behind the shoulder and fired. 

Surprisingly, he didn't drop on the spot. At first I thought I must have missed, because he immediately turned and started up the hill moving to my right, seemingly unconcerned. That isn't supposed to happen: deer shot with my New Englander .54 usually drop in their tracks. Not this guy, though. He casually sauntered up the hill as if he were unaware of a shot being fired and he had not a care in the world. I watched, open-mouthed with amazement that he was so calm...then I saw him wag his tail. 

When a dog wags his tail in a rapid rhythm, it means "I'm happy," but when a deer does it, it means, "I'm dying." I knew at that moment he was hit; but how hard I didn't yet know. Not being sure of what was going to happen I had to reload; he was facing away from me, behind a tree, so I did so...and let me say right here that it's not easy to reload a muzzle-loader stealthily while you're squatting on your haunches, especially if encroaching senility has caused you to leave your ball starter in the day pack instead of putting it in your pocket. I managed it, though, but while I was doing so, I knew I wasn't going to need that second shot. 

I had started to hear a "schloop-schloop-schloop" noise coming from where he was standing still, no longer moving uphill. As I watched he started to wobble and stagger, quite obviously hit very hard. A minute later he toppled over. When I went up to him, there was blood all over the leaves: it had been a double lung hit. The noise I'd heard was a sucking chest wound where the ball had exited.  Interestingly, I backtracked the blood trail to where he'd been standing when I fired, and there was no blood whatever at that spot, nor for about 10-15 yards; then just a few drops. The massive spray started halfway up the hill. I'd have had no trouble tracking him if I'd had to, but with that hit there was no way he was going very far. I'm a little surprised he got as far as he did.

He'd been moving right to left when I shot him: I put the sights just behind the shoulder but I hit him a few inches farther back than I intended. I think my rifle may be shooting a bit to the right and need to check my sights, but at 30 yards it wasn't enough off to make a difference. The ball passed through both sides, leaving an exit wound only slightly larger than the entry wound. It entered about the sixth rib, and exited two ribs farther back on his right, because he'd been at a slight angle to the shot. 

He was a lovely fat little 6-pointer, with a couple of nice brow tines. Had he lived another two years I think he'd have been a bruiser, but it was not to be. I had to expend some effort getting him out even though it wasn't far; it was, however uphill about 100 yards, and he was a lot heavier than he looked standing. Once I had him out of the brush I availed myself of my host's lawn tractor to get him the next hundred yards to the truck. He wasn't the rangy type of buck: his legs were fairly short but the body quite massive. His dressed carcass was at least 100 pounds. 

That New Englander now has nine one-shot kills to its credit (not including one fox squirrel that was not so much killed as obliterated), all of them with round balls, too. If you believe Cabela's catalog ad copy you'd think a deer couldn't be killed with anything less than 150 grains of Triple Seven and a 400-grain conical, but not so, not so. Those balls have astonishing penetration, and hit like Thor's Hammer. 

After I'd got cleaned up and was on my way over to the main house for dinner, there were two more deer on the front lawn! They were twin Spring fawns perhaps half the size of the buck, and totally naive; they stood there while I watched them from 20 yards away, curious about this strange apparition. They're used to seeing Bill around the place and not yet "educated" about people, but I expect at least one of them will be soon. I had the rifle to hand and ready, and actually picked it up, but decided to let them go. The limit in Amherst is two per day, but I wasn't up for cleaning a second animal at that point.

This year has gone pretty well, both for small game and deer. Starting the season with a bang! 

November 11, 2008

I seem to be entering the "methods stage" as a hunter.  A year and a half ago I bought, more or less on impulse, a Thompson/Center Renegade .54 flintlock rifle, "just because."  (Maybe because at age 9 I was a full fledged member of the crazy-over-Disney's-Davy-Crockett group, but who needs a reason?)

I scored on Opening Day in Amherst using my T/C New Englander .54, and as last Monday was a "doe day" in Giles County, where I also hunt, I decided to give the flinter its turn in the barrel.  I managed (with the aid of a Hardee's smoked sausage biscuit combo that my wife must never know about) to get to the site I'd picked out about 6:30 AM.  This is on the side of a steep hill just below a woods line and alongside a wire fence. "Steep" means 35-40 degrees, pretty much like anywhere else in Giles County.  There's a long clump of woods halfway up the slope, which parallels the woods line and makes a natural "funnel" by which deer can come down out of the clearing and woods at the top of the hill onto the sloping pasture without exposing themselves to view.

The slope has a number of large white oaks on it, and last year I saw signs that the deer had not only been using the protected area as a travel corridor, they'd been bedding in the clump of woods.  It seemed a promising spot, though there aren't many places I can sit to see the whole length of the corridor, and still be in cover. Cover is not really much of a concern for me anymore, though.  I've found that when I'm being invisible I can't even see myself; and many a deer has come within touching distance of me while I was out in plain view.  Their eyes aren't very good: if you're sitting (not standing), perfectly immobile, and the wind is right, they simply don't know you're there.  So I picked out a nice big oak about 20 feet from the wood line and fence at the "outlet" of the funnel, where I could see any deer coming along.

Around here winds usually blow up the slope as the ground warms. For the first session that was the wrong direction; about 7:40 AM a doe came through the woods behind me and caught a whiff, then started snorting.  I saw her, but before I could think about getting off a shot, off she went, tail up.  Shortly thereafter I spotted two more does moving through the woods on the opposite slope, but they were 200+ yards off and way out of range.  I waited until they were behind some outbuildings and then tried a sneak, without results, never laid eyes on them again.

About 8:30 I decided to check out the Valley of a Thousand Rodents a few hundred yards away, where I have killed two or three deer and seen many more. I hoofed it up through the funnel, through the clearing, then down through the woods on the other side into the Valley. I wanted to examine a sumac bush that has been a buck's rubbing post for several seasons now.  No dice, nobody home.  By then it was 9:30 and time to get back home briefly.

I had lunch, took a brief nap, left the house again about 2:30. Got back to my stand just before 3:00. I reasoned that the deer would be moving late. We had a nearly full moon last night and the rut is on, and in my experience deer bed up early and start moving shortly after mid-day under those conditions. It was a bright clear "bluebird" day and temperature in the high 40's: they'd be out there making more fawns, for sure, as soon as they woke up from the previous night's orgies. I went back to exactly the same spot as I'd been to in the morning.  (One spot's as good as another around here, really: if you sit in one place long enough someone will walk past you, and I still liked the looks of that corridor.)

Not long after I settled down, sure enough, along came a doe; she trotted out in the far end of the funnel, then started jumping around, eventually scampering off into the woods without ever giving me a shot.  I'm sure she didn't see me and I doubt she smelled me, as she was 60-70 yards away, and the wind was behaving.  Whatever it was she was excited about, she had her flag up.  But she was the fourth deer I'd seen in that spot in a few hours, so I decided to sit tight and see what developed.

About 4:45 I looked over my right shoulder, down into the swale, and lo, there was a smallish buck standing not 60 yards away!  He was broadside to me and I'd have had an easy shot, but I was turned the wrong way. I was slowly easing my way around when he started to move up the hill, from my right to my left, and entered into the clump of woods halfway up the slope.  He must have been tracking the doe who'd passed through two hours before, he was following the same route she'd taken.

With him in the brush I had a chance to cock the rifle silently and get it in position, and when he stepped out, I fired.  The ball took him in the left side of the neck and he went down instantly, kicking a bit but obviously mortally wounded.  Later I paced off the shot: 80 of my steps, call it 53-55 yards.  A long shot, most of them are much closer: but that ground is relatively open compared to the Valley and other areas of the property.  And with open sights: my eyes aren't what they used to be, and I'll put a peep sight on the Renegade as I did on the New Englander.

As I was calling to check him in, three more deer ran through the woods behind the wire fence!  By then it was almost 5:00. I gutted him out and then went down to get the truck. Although it would havce been a downhill drag (primary rule: never shoot a deer that's downhill from the truck) it was a good 400 yards and there seemed no reason I couldn't just drive up and save some effort.

One minor hitch occurred: my hostess has a white mare who is absolutely the stupidest horse in Latin Christendom. When I opened the gate to drive in she wandered out through it.  This nag is 20-25 years old, and ready for the dog food plant, but I didn't fancy having to explain to the landowner that her kid's pet horse had wandered out and been killed on the road. I had to get her back into the paddock before I did anything else.  Luckily, this beast isn't wild, and she's seen me before. At first she shied off when I got too close, but after half an hour of cooing and schmoozing I managed after some effort to get a loop of rope around her neck. I was able to sweet-talk her into the paddock again. She was a little recalcitrant to move at first, but I did the Horse Whisperer stunt, and damned if it didn't work! Robert Redford had it right in the movie. Once she got the idea of what I wanted her to do (and since she was too stupid to realize she was much stronger and could have pulled the lead out of my hand or killed me any time she wanted to) she walked along very nicely and I got her back behind the gate, much to my relief.

That slope was even steeper than I thought as I found out when I drove up. Rocks barred a straight-up run, so I had to shift into 4WD and switchback up to the deer. This entailed putting the truck lengthwise along a slope so steep that several times I came close to tipping over; coming down was even worse.

Once up there, I commenced the struggle to get the buck into the truck bed. I'm not so young as I like to think I am, I guess: it wasn't a very big buck (a yearling 3-pointer) and 20 years ago I'd have just lifted him bodily and put him on the tailgate.  Not this time.  Even with a plywood ramp it was a struggle to load him without help.  I'd put one end on the ramp, get him halfway up, then when I'd try to put the second half on, the first would flop off.  There's nothing in this world floppier than a newly-dead deer.  I took off the tailgate, and somehow managed to get him in, but I'm going to put a winch in next year.

I inched the truck back down the hill, and (being careful not to let the horse out again) drove out the gate.  I cut my first deer this year myself (I always do one, just to prove I can still do it) but this boy went to the processor. He's now #143 shortly to be turned into Bambi-burger.

It was a longish day, but so far this has been the most consistently good season I can remember.  The black powder season has a few more days to run, but there are no more "doe days" left in it, so I'm out of the field until rifle season begins on Saturday. We can only take one antlered deer during BP season west of the Blue Ridge (the first one was in Amherst, which is east of it).  Actually, I'm down to my last buck tag. If I shoot a third buck in rifle season, I'll have to stick to antlerless deer for the rest of the season.  I'm not complaining, mind.

And I did it "the hard way," too.  I have a lot of experience with percussion rifles, but flintlocks are relatively new to me.  I have been playing with the Renegade and trying to figure out what it likes and doesn't like, maybe I have it figured out.  It shoots straight and it hits like Thor's Hammer—love that .54 caliber!—and now it's got a notch in it.  It will go out with me again;  most of the time with a new rifle I use it 2-3 seasons before I make a kill with it, but I have a feeling this is a "lucky" gun.