September 3, 2011

Today was Opening Day,  the first day of squirrel season and therefore a High Holy Day of Obligation.  As is my wont I went to the Valley Of A Thousand Rodents, to perform the obligatory rites under The Beech Tree. As is their wont, the Rodents failed to show up.  Nary a squirrel did I see, but it was a good day anyway.

I took my little .32 BP rifle, which has yet to be "blooded."  I've used it for a season, and it's very accurate: quite good enough to hit a squirrel in the head at 25 yards, has open sights.

Now, we Gentlemen Of A Certain Age have a real issue with open sights. The ravages of Time affect our eyes, as well as other parts: and by the time you get to Intermediate Level Geezerhood, as I have, seeing the front sight is not just a problem, it's virtually impossible. Since the key to hitting anything with an open-sighted rifle is focusing on the front sight, accurate shooting is...well, literally hit or miss. Mostly miss.

There is an answer, however. I had a special pair of glasses made, with a segment that is specifically designed to allow me to focus on objects a few feet away, i.e., on the front sight of my rifle. This really does work: and using an old pair of glasses it wasn't all that expensive, as I only had to have one lens made.

The lens maker was himself a shooter, and understood the issue. He ground a segment for close focus that sits up in the nasal quadrant of the lens for my dominant eye (the right one) and if I hold my head in just the right way, I can see the sight clearly! The target is a bit fuzzy, but not so much so that I can't tell what it is I'm shooting at; and I can still distinguish one end of a squirrel from another. These new lenses really do work: without them I simply couldn't use open sights any more. As to scoping the gun...well, quite aside from being an act of sacrilegious nature to scope a side-lock muzzle-loader, if I were going to do that, I'd use a .22 instead.

This was the first time I'd taken them out hunting, having previously only used them at the range. They are in fact a bit of an annoyance in the field, as the edge of the special segment is right at the edge of my "distant vision" field and gets in the way if I hold my head at the wrong angle. I also found that it's impossible to read a book while wearing them as the left lens is a progressive bifocal still, and the other is not. The larger portion of the right lens is for distant vision. When I try to read (I always read on a stand) it feels like my head's being twisted, and I have to take them off and use my Mark I eyeballs.  Of course when I do that I can't see any detail beyond ten feet.  But I'll still use them whenever I have a gun with open sights because with them I have a chance at hitting something if the opportunity is there. It wasn't today. 

I got to my stand under The Beech Tree about 9:30. This was later than I'd planned, but I state in my own defense that it's "within tolerances" for an old fart who's out of practice in the art of getting up at the crack of dawn. Haven't done it for a year. 

The day was very warm and humid, and totally windless.  Surprisingly there were no bugs to speak of: I didn't even need a head net, which I usually do in the early season.  The trees are in full leaf and there were lots of acorns on the ground but in my experience, the squirrels spend most of their time high up, coming to the ground only after the acorns have ripened and fallen. If you're an arboreal rodent, life is a lot safer 40 feet up. There may have been squirrels I couldn't see: several times I thought I heard rustling of leaves and that might have been one moving from one branch to another. But nobody took the chance of coming down to my level.

I saw something better.  About 10:15 I heard a noise and thought it might be a deer.  I looked to my left and saw a dark shape moving along...then another, then another, and then another.  It was a sow bear and three cubs!  They were perhaps 50 yards away, completely unaware of my presence, as there was zero wind and the leaves had been dampened by a bit of rain, so everything was quiet.  I watched those bears for 20 minutes as they ambled along doing bear things. I suppose they were digging for grubs, turning over logs, or eating the fallen acorns.  They made almost no noise. It's surprising that such large animals are almost silent in moving though fairly heavy cover.

Mama was perhaps 150 pounds, but that's a wild guess. I have so little experience with bears, and they're so furry, it's hard for me to judge how big they are. I always think in terms of dogs and this sow was easily the size of a large mastiff. The cubs, all obviously from the last Spring's crop, and clearly littermates, were about the size of my Labrador Retriever.  Cute little guys, maybe 60 pounds or so.

The DGIF says Virginia's bear population is thriving, and if what I've been seeing out around Newport is any indication, they're right.  Last season I saw a bear in this same location, the first time I'd ever encountered one in the woods in all my hunting in this region.  Now I see four more. Obviously there had to be a Papa around somewhere (though only in Disney movies do bears form a nice nuclear family unit) so there are five of them in the vicinity. Mama is old enough to have had at least one litter. I assume from that fact that she (and they) must be getting adequate nutrition. Everyone was clean and sleek looking.

Last year was not quite a record bear kill: according to the DGIF 2211 bears were checked, down from 2009 by 3.6%.  Giles County isn't on the "Top 10" list for bear kills: most of those are in the highland region. But Craig County, northeast of Giles, is on the list, so some of them are probably moving into this area. We're also very close to the West Virginia line, and WV has large numbers of bears. In the years to come, assuming good nutrition and habitat, they'll undoubtedly become more common.

This is just fine with me. I have no desire whatever to shoot a bear and wouldn't ever do so except in self-defense. I doubt that will ever happen to me. But I do like seeing them and really hope this will become a regular happening. In this part of the world black bears aren't regarded as very aggressive, but I was speaking with a student from Alaska and she tells me that up there the black bears are regarded as more likely to attack than grizzlies! If that happens...well, que sera, sera.

After this exciting morning at the VOATR I packed up and went to Sunrise Farm for the afternoon shift.  Things there were utterly dead, too.  There were even more acorns, though. These were mostly white oak ones, so I think this will be a good spot for the deer season, which opens in early November for those of us who don't bowhunt.

November 5, 2011

Went to Three Oaks Farm in Amherst with Rick and Wayne.  I drove up Friday night (a 2-hour trip) and arrived about 11:00.  Rolled out of bed, groaning, at 6:00 to have some caffeine and suit up; then out to my stand.

This place is small but there are some reliable spots.  One is The Rock, where I have killed about 8 deer.  Another is The Ravine, where I've killed a couple including a nice 6-pointer.  I opted for The Ravine, and sat down about 6:40 to wait for some deer to cross the road above and come down the slope.

I did see some deer: a doe being chased by two bucks went past in a flash, running UP the hill, never gave me a shot at all.  The Amherst County Chapter of the American Grey Squirrel Association was holding its weekly meeting: there was never a moment from dawn to 11:00 when there weren't one or two in sight, playing grab-ass or foraging in the leaves, making deer-like noises.

At 11:00 I needed more coffee and went in for a bit to warm up.  Then spent the afternoon at The Rock.  Wayne had been about 200 yards from it and said he'd seen six deer walk past it!  It hadn't been a productive morning for him: he'd missed a doe.  But Rick had dropped a 7-point buck at 7:30 (15 minutes after opening time) and a nice fat yearling doe an hour later, so he was limited out for the day.

I spent the next few hours on The Rock, patiently waiting.  There'd been a 3/4 moon the night before and when a bright night happens, deer bed up early and start moving late the next day.  I went into my trance, periodically being disturbed by squirrels—including a fox squirrel, the first one of these I've ever seen there—and about 2:45 was snapped out of it by a sound of someone walking through the leaves.  I looked up and there was a button buck, not fifteen feet away!  He had been sauntering past and didn't notice me until I moved.  We looked at each other and both of us said, "HOLY SHIT!" at the same time.  Unfortunately my rifle was leaning on The Rock next to me: and by the time I had it up and cocked he was 35-40 yards away in some brush.  Knowing it was futile but hoping against hope, I popped a Hail-Mary round at him.

I was right the first time: it was futile.  I reloaded and went to look for evidence of a hit, of which there was zero.  I'd hope, I guess, that I'd knock him down and be able to finish him off, but it was not to be.  Back to The Rock.

At 2:45 I heard a noise behind me.  This time I had the rifle ready, not that it did me any good.  A doe had sneaked in behind me about 30 yards away, and she put up her flag and was gone.  I doubt she knew I was there, something else set her off.  I hoped it was a buck, and that he might come along, but nope.  Nada.

That was it for the day.  Nobody else was interested in getting killed, so at 6:40 PM I checked out.  Rick by then had cut some backstraps from his doe and we had those for dinner.  I left about 9:10 and was back home a little after 11:00.

Going out again locally on Tuesday and Wednesday.  There is time.

November 10, 2011

It's been a bad black powder season.  After getting skunked in Amherst, I went to Sunrise Farm on Tuesday and sat freezing my butt off all morning, finally giving up at 11:00 AM to eat something and warm up: and of I stood up a doe popped out of a bed 100 yards away (and 35 yards from my truck!) and ran off. I had to come to vote, but after saving the Republic, I went out to Giles County and sat on a hillside for the rest of the day and saw zilch.

The next day, Wednesday, I went out to Giles County. I didn't go to the VOATR, but rather to the crest of a hill opposite it. I have visited this spot before, and had seen signs of the presence of a buck or two: and another fellow who hunts this place had told me he'd set up a stand on the top of the hill. Sure enough, I found that spot. I don't "do" stands of any kind, and while I suppose he'd have been miffed to find me out there sitting 30 yards from his, I knew he was at work all day and wouldn't be out. The only thing that happened that day was that I confirmed the presence of fox squirrels in Giles County, another place where they seemed to be fairly scarce until this year. At 5:45, still and with a sore butt, I packed it in.

Today was Thursday. I had a meeting at 4:00 PM but decided to play hooky in the morning. After 2 days of 4:30 AM wake-ups, I was pretty well run down this morning but managed to crawl out of bed at 6:00. This time I did go to the Valley Of A Thousand Rodents, and sat under The Beech Tree.  I set up a little late, about 7:10 or so, but the moon has been full and bright and in my experience when that's the case the deer stay up all night carousing and wenching and bed up early, moving later in the day.

At 8:05 I spotted a buck moving though the woods to my right perhaps 40 yards away.  I didn't have a clear shot, but waited patiently since he was clearly unaware of me: he had his nose down and was undoubtedly tracking a doe. He came from exactly the same place and direction as two other bucks I've killed out there (both of them bruisers in the 190+ pound class). No doubt, this VOATR is a hot spot for bucks: I've killed five there but never a doe. So I was feeling pretty good about this fellow, who looked to be about a 6-pointer. He kept coming across and finally got to a point where I could justify a shot, though it was a bit longer than I'd have liked, maybe 50-60 yards.  He was quartering away from me when I fired.

At the shot he dropped, apparently hit hard.  He was kicking a bit and then lay still.  I said to myself "OK, he's not going anywhere, but I'd better reload, he'll need a finisher."  As I finished reloading, he managed to heave himself up and started staggering away!  By the time I got on the move after him he was on all fours and ran up a hill without any real evidence of major injury.

Of course, I knew I'd hit him, so I went to look for him.  I walked up the hill following the way he'd gone, saw no evidence of him at all.  Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I then circled back to the starting point and went to the spot where he'd been when I shot him.  Sure enough, there was blood, and I began to feel a bit better.  A blood trail—even I can follow one of those.

The blood was bright red—it obviously wasn't a gut hit, thank God—but not at all copious.  It was not more than a few splashes maybe an inch in diameter, and then a few drops here and there, running up the hill.  I followed the drops, which got smaller and smaller. In fact, none of them after the initial ones were much more than a millimeter or two in diameter. That's when things got unpleasant. The blood trail finally ended completely, about 60 yards up the slope.  I could not find any more blood, not even a speck. 

But at least I had the direction and so I bulled on along the path he'd taken, hoping to jump him out of a bed somewhere, but never saw him again at all.  I spent the next two hours looking for any more evidence of a trail, coming back to Ground Zero twice more, and  every time, the damned drops petered out at the same place. Not so much as a pin-head sized speck of blood. I'm nowhere near enough of a tracker to have followed his path in the leaf litter beyond where the blood ended: I saw some places where I thought he'd displaced leaves with his feet, but anyone who's tried to track deer footprints in leaf litter knows how hard it is. I conclude that I must have hit him in the left hind leg:  at the shot he went down on his left side.  The absence of any indication of a gut hit and the very small amount of initial blood makes me think he must have been grazed by the bullet, or perhaps I clipped a leg with it, knocking him down and momentarily stunning him.   

If there ever was a situation that called for a tracking dog, this was it.  Regrettably I had none, nor could I have used one had I had one.

I have "convinced myself" he's going to be OK, that he received a minor wound, and that while he may be hurting, he's going to survive.  If the injury is to his lower left leg, he isn't going to be mounting any does this season unless it's very trivial.  It may well be: at least I hope it is.

This is the first time in 24 seasons here and 3 in New York that I have lost a deer shot with a rifle.  I lost one shot with a crossbow about 4-5 years ago, and gave up bowhunting after that.  I'm not (yet) ready to give up on muzzle-loading season.  The T/C .54 I used has a long and stellar track record on whitetails. I took to Namibia with me and killed a warthog.  Everything up to now has been a one-shot kill.  I blame myself for the poor hit, not the rifle. When I do my part, that rifle hits like Thor's Hammer.  But I have to say I am very, very unhappy and that it's been a very lousy day (though no doubt that buck is having a worse one) in consequence of the muffed shot. 

Once, many years ago, I fired a charge of #1 buckshot at a moving doe 25 yards away, and have wondered to this day if I did in fact hit her.  I've replayed that shot in my mind for 20 years.  I suspect this one will be re-run in my memory for at least that long.  Unless I or someone else kills that deer I'll never really know what happened, though I think my theory is correct.  Or maybe I'm just fooling myself. The law says I have to make a "reasonable effort" to follow up and retrieve a wounded animal.  I have more or less managed to convince myself I did so.  I'm not sure what more I could have done without a dog.  But I don't like it, not one bit.

November 11, 2011

In some discussions of this incident with hunting colleagues, it's been suggested to me that what might have happened is that I hit him high, across the back; and perhaps nicked the top of a vertebral process. This makes a lot of sense, and it's exactly what happened once in Africa (see "The Curious Adventure Of The Two Wildebeest"). Supporting this idea is the small amount of blood at the site where he fell: the immediate drop on impact; and the fact that he ran off, leaving almost no blood trail, and on all four legs. I'm certain of that last point. He was absolutely using his left hind leg, and didn't appear to be limping. If he'd been hit in the foot or the lower leg there would have been some easily visible gait deficit.

I really hope this is what happened. It would be a very minor wound and he'd almost certainly recover from it rapidly. An inch lower would have broken his spine and anchored him permanently...but a shallow crease across his back would produce exactly the observed reactions. A nick along the back would also bleed very little, clot rapidly, and what blood was lost would be clumped in his hair, not dripping on the ground. If in the future I kill a buck in this region I'll be sure to look for such an injury.

November 15, 2011

Went out to Sunrise farm this morning, another %#^^@^@#$! 4:30 AM wake-up, as it's a 45-minute drive.  I always see deer there, and today was no exception.  as I rolled in well before shooting time began, five of them ran in front of my truck.  I stayed in the truck for about 45 minutes, partly because I couldn't shoot before 6:45 and partly because it was raining.  Somewhere between a wet mist and a drizzle.  Then about 7:00 it let up and I went to a spot I'd picked out, having seen a deer near there last week; it's on a well-traveled route.

No sooner had I sat down than the rain began again, this time midway between a drizzle and a gen-yoo-wine shower.  This did not make me happy, because it's still black powder season and I am using my T/C .54.  Not the flintlock, but even so, and even with a nipple cover, I was unhappy about getting the thing wet. The rain was getting heavier and I decided to go back to the truck.

I made it back to the truck and sat out the shower, then back into the woodlot to a different spot.  This place has any number of big fox squirrels, the kind with the white nose. One bruiser with a black face mask like a raccoon and a nose like a searchlight, spotted me and started to bark his fool head off, but seemingly no one was alerted.   That was about 8:00. Shortly thereafter a deer came into view on the slope opposite me, 50 or so yards off.  It would have been an easy shot, but he stared at me, so I froze, not even daring to put down my face net.  The deer trotted off, on the general principle that it probably wasn't a good idea to hang around anything suspicious, but not overtly alarmed; tail was down.

Managed to stay still until about 10:00, when it was time to leave, as I have to do something for work tonight.  On the way home my truck started acting up.  A quick stop for a charging system check—all OK—a call to the man who replaced the engine, soliciting the opinion that it was likely the EGR valve, and a trip to the auto parts store for a new one ($85 for an EGR valve!!) and back home to work.  More rain predicted tomorrow.  Phooey.

November 17, 2011

I had classes in Roanoke this morning so it was another 4:30 AM wakeup. After pushing back the frontiers of medical student ignorance I returned to Blacksburg and thence to Sunrise Farm. Landed on my stand about 2:00, just as the temperature was dropping.

It was effing COLD out there and the wind was brisk. I made it to 3:30, when I had to come back to the truck to warm up for an hour or so. At 4:30 I went back out, and saw nothing until just after 5:00 when a doe sneaked in past me. I spotted movement out of my peripheral vision to my right—I was, of course, looking to my left—and there she was, not 20 feet away, behind a shoulder-high pile of scrap wood. She spotted the movement, and immediately returned whence she came. Not terribly alarmed, but alerted.

Well, I'm seeing deer, which is more than can be said for last season. If I had been looking in the right direction, this one would have been deerburger by now. Phooey. At least the new EGR valve I installed in the truck seems to have fixed the "Check Engine" light problem.

November 19, 2011

If it weren't for bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all. This was Opening Day of rifle season. I went to the VOATR this morning, arriving on my stand about 5:45.  Got a cell phone call from the other guy who hunts the place, the one who killed the bear.  We settled who was to be where, and I went in and sat down.

As soon as I arrived, an owl flew in and sat in a tree looking at me.  It was still dark, and I couldn't tell what kind it was, but he was nowhere near the size of a Great Horned Owl or a Grey, so I assume it was some medium-sized one.  The Romans were wont to look on owls as omens, and I suspect they were right.  The events of the day showed this one was an omen, though I don't know what kind, good or bad.

I heard a few desultory shots, all far away, starting about 7:00 AM.  About 5 minutes before 9:00, I spotted three deer skulking through the brush maybe 50-60 yards off, but never had a shot.  It looked like a doe with a buck trailing her; and a young-of-the-year fawn hanging around Mama and her boyfriend.  I hoped my luck was about to change, but no way.  They wandered off and I never saw them again.

An hour later, just before 10:00 I heard Dustin (the guy who killed the bear) shoot.  Ten minutes after that someone else fired, very close, and in the direction toward which those deer were moving.

Not much else happened until sometime in the mid afternoon, when I heard a terrific racket of sirens on the highway maybe three-quarters of a mile away; and an hour after that I smelled smoke briefly.  That made me think there was a forest fire somewhere.

The rest of the afternoon was dull, dull, dull, nothing at all.  No deer, no birds, just a bunch of fox squirrels who seemed to take exception to my presence and who barked at me. The group included one all-black bruiser with a white nose;  Had he been within range I'd have slipped some 6's in the drilling and collected him, but it was not to be.

I quite at the end of shooting light about 5:40.  On the way home there were half a dozen fire engines on Route 460 westbound and a bunch of police cars, explaining the noises I'd heard but didn't tell me what had happened.  I still don't know if it was an accident or a forest fire, or what.  I called my wife and asked her to check the local TV stations but she reported that all of them without exception, were showing football games.

I had the drilling with me.  This gun is undoubtedly no virgin, but I haven't made a kill with it yet.  I'll use it for the rest of the rifle season, and if one of those squirrels wanders into range, he's going to end up stuffed in my office.

November 23, 2011

The saga continues: and the deer are still winning.  I spent all day Monday and Tuesday in the woods, and most of today.  Tomorrow I'm being dragged kicking and screaming to a family Thanksgiving dinner (at least it's with those members of my family whose pictures aren't on the wall of the Post Office) and won't be able to hunt; worse, I have to work the following week.

I have been seeing deer, except for yesterday, when the woods were deader than Disco.  Not even a squirrel was moving around.  On Monday I had three deer walk past me within range but in deep brush; never saw them again.  Today (Tuesday) I actually bumped three out of their beds when I went in at 6:45. I saw them again half an hour later.  Almost had a shot on one, but the damned things melt away when they stop moving. It's simply amazing how an animal that size can vanish like a puff of smoke.  That was it for today.

Monday on the way home I spotted a unusually beautiful fox squirrel.  He was mostly off-white, with a hint of cream in his fur.  His head was ivory and he had streaks of grey on the body, but his tail—which was well over a foot long—was pure, snow white.  I have seen albino squirrels but this was no albino.  I suppose he was some sort of piebald mutant but whatever, he was gorgeous.  I hope those genes get passed along.

December 11, 2011

The rifle season has come and gone and I am still deer-free. I lost half of the season to social obligations I didn't want to make, but I've been married for more than 36 years and I know which arguments I can win and which I can't, so off to northern Virginia we went for the "holidays," including three either sex hunting days.

I had received a flyer from Summit Springs Shooting Sports and Holland Shooting Preserve, for a "Clays and Quail" event on December 10th, a combined half-day shoot on put-and-take quail and a round of sporting clays, for a reasonable fee. I have never before hunted over dogs, but Holland provided a guide and trained dogs in the price.

I actually made the first kill. The dogs put up a chukkar and I fired more or less instinctively and nailed him good and hard. In the course of the day I managed to hit several quail, and at least one more chukkar. Sometimes the shooting was so fast I lost track, but the three of us racked up a total of 36 quail and 4 chukkars. I did make The Shot Of The Day, however: a quail dodging through the trees, neatly dumped stone dead from 30-35 yards. I'm certain I killed at least 7 quail, perhaps a few more; and two chukkars. Not bad for a guy whose last experience with wingshooting was 10 years ago on barn pigeons.

Then it was time for the Sporting Clays round at Summit Springs, where I thoroughly demonstrated how NOT to shoot. My issue seems to be that if I have time to think about what I'm doing I miss: with the live birds I hit more often than not, since I don't have time. Just shove the gun forward and shoot.