OPENING DAY 2007, AT LAST

August 31:

Tomorrow is Opening Day, at long last.  Between work, some medical issues, my elderly father's needs, and other obligatory performances, my schedule this Fall is so crammed with must-do's that I'm going to be hard put to find time for wanna-dos, but by God, I'll be out there. 

Opening Day is one of the High Holy Days, and my wife gets put on notice every year that I'm not available for any purpose on certain dates in the Fall.  Unfortunately, I've lost two reliable hunting places in as many years: one a farm in Botetourt to a sale; and the other, Spruce Run Farm, to a @$#@%$!^%$^ bastard who came in and leased it up, forcing me off it after 18 seasons. Leasing is immoral, indefensible, and bad for hunting. It should be illegal, and God willing, one of these days I'm going to start a campaign to do that. It's already illegal in several Canadian provinces, and it should be here, as well.

I still have a few tricks up my sleeve WRT sites on private land, and won't lack for a hunting spot this year, and tomorrow, Der Tag, I'll be out there.  I never get anything on Opening Day, but I'm READY to kill something.  I plan to be under a beech tree in the Valley Of A Thousand Rodents at dawn.


September 1st

Things are looking up: this was a much better Opening Day than usual. Most years I get skunked, but not this time!

It gets harder every year, but I managed to drag my weary carcass from bed about 5:40 and by 7:00 I was getting out of my truck on a cool, somewhat foggy morning in Giles County.  Everything was wet, enough so to make walking silent, not enough so to be a problem.  The wind was very mild when it blew, maybe a 3 MPH breeze, but it was mostly calm. I went to the Valley Of A Thousand Rodents, a mixed hardwood grove that belongs to a friend.  It has many mature beeches and hickories, and both white and red oaks, as well as a lot of very tall tulip-trees.  I have killed two deer on this spot, one of the a nice 10-pointer that will probably remain the only one whose horns I've ever bothered to put on a wall plaque.

There have been years when the name I gave it was appropriate: about three years ago I spent an entire day there and between dawn and dusk there were never fewer than 6 gray squirrels in view. There are only grays: I've never seen a fox squirrel there, though I've seen one on the road leading up to the property, so they are in the vicinity.

The size of a Fall squirrel population is determined by the previous year's mast crop. A good mast crop means better breeding conditions, better survival of the young, and more squirrels who make it to independence from the nest. Squirrels can have two or even three litters in a single season, so if the crop is good, the potential to double or triple the size of the local population exists in a single year's breeding cycle. Not all of the Spring-born litters make it through the winter, but until the weather gets really harsh (which it hasn't recently in the New River Valley) if there's enough food most of them manage. The best year I can remember was 1990. In that season there seemed to be squirrels everywhere you looked, no matter where you went. At that time I was still mainly hunting them in the Jefferson National Forest, where one spot yielded four to my Mossberg in about 15 minutes, despite being easily accessible from the road and hence the subject of intense hunting pressure. Although squirrels are nowhere near so numerous as they were in Colonial times (reliable reports of hundreds of thousands of them, perhaps millions, passing a single spot in a day exist) if the food is there, they'll do their best to bring the numbers up. We had a decent hard mast crop last year, there are plenty of squirrels around. In fact, I saw more today than usual.

To get to the VOATR I have to trek up a long, steep, hill and down again into the swale on the other side of a ridge.  I took my time doing so, spending most of an hour covering the distance at a two-steps-and-stop pace.  It's perhaps 500-600 yards from the parking site to the VOATR, easy walking on a good trail, though the first part is quite steep. 

On the way in I saw several squirrels but never had a shot. I chose this year to hunt with my Remington Nylon 11 .22 rifle, the gun my father bought me in 1962 after I nagged him for weeks and weeks. He did it just to shut me up.  I've had that little rifle 45 years now, and it's as good as the day it was made: very accurate and reliable, even though it's fired tens of thousands of rounds. You can't wear out a .22 by shooting it, and cleaning the barrel is actually bad for it. The external lubrication used on the heeled bullets in rimfire cartridges leaves a protective film that prevents rust. If you see a .22 with a shot-out, rusty bore, it will be an old gun that was used with corrosive primed ammunition or black powder. Since none of this has been made for nearly a century, it's exceedingly rare to find a .22 made after about 1925 whose bore is in bad shape. The shooting-gallery .22's of my youth fired millions of rounds in their working lifetimes but most of them are still in good condition, with excellent bores, today.

It's amazing to contemplate, but the bolt-action and lever-action Nylon series rifles are hot collector's pieces these days. I've seen guns identical to mine go for $400 and more on Auction Arms.  I'd never sell mine, at any price, because it's worth far more than mere money to me; but I have to admit that I think anyone who pays four bills and up for a Nylon 11 probably needs psychiatric attention. 

The Nylon 66 autoloader was immensely popular, made by the millions until the molds wore out (at which time Remington sold the tooling to CBC Brazil, who continued to make the guns under their own name for a long time). But the bolt-action Nylons were only made for a couple of years, with about 22,500 Nylon 11's in all being produced between 1962 and 1966. Remington says they were serial numbered, but if there's a number on my gun, I've never seen it. Pre-1968 .22's were often unserialized (the law requiring serial numbers didn't go into effect until that year) and while Remington's products usually are, mine isn't.

The Nylon series is a variant on Remington's standby 581 rifle. Actions are identical except the bolt handle on the Nylon guns is a "butterknife" shape, lacking a knob. The Nylon 10 was a single shot, the Nylon 12 a tube-fed rifle, and the Nylon 11 (the most common of the three) is a clip-fed repeater that will reliably feed all three lengths of standard .22 cartridges. I haven't laid eyes on a .22 Long in decades. The Nylon 11 will feed Shorts perfectly, something that not every bolt-action .22 can do. For most of its life it has worn an old Weaver B-4 scope, but the tip-off mount required removing the rear sight. Since the prospect of losing that sight bothered me greatly (they're scarcer than frog hair) last Winter I mounted a 4x fixed-power scope I bought from the original Herter's in about 1968, marked "Hudson's Bay." It was made in Japan but I have no idea who made it. As I recall it cost me $25, which was quite a lot for that time. The rifle didn't cost much more than that when my father bought it. The scope is clear and has the plain fine crosshairs you can't get anymore on 1" tube scopes at all. At 25 yards this combination puts every round into a space the size of a dime.

I like CCI's high-velocity Short HP's for squirrels: they're very accurate and they make no more noise than a pellet rifle. Short HP's are perfect for an animal that hardly ever weighs as much as a pound, and of the brands I've tried the CCI is uniformly the most accurate in my rifles. They kill reliably, with the bullet always going all the way through but almost never doing any significant meat damage.  I've heard of people using hyper-velocity rounds like CCI Stingers, .22 WMR's, or worse, the various .17 rimfires on gray squirrels. Any of these is a sure-fire way to make squirrel-burger; even a moderate-velocity .22 LR hollow point is very destructive on these tiny animals. (If I have to use .22 LR's on squirrels I use Remington's Subsonic stuff, also very accurate and quiet.)

I walked as quietly as I can (and I can walk very quietly indeed when the leaves are damp) into the VOATR, and took up a standing position near a large beech tree when I saw some squirrels playing grab-ass around a big hickory.  They were doing that run-in-circles-around-the-trunk thing. I figured them for a male and a female, as the Fall rut for squirrels is pretty close to starting.

Early season squirrels are terminally dumb. Almost all of them in deep woods are naive and many have never seen a human. The one in the lead stopped and gave me a perfect shot, which I missed from the offhand position.  But one advantage to early season is that they're dumb enough to let you try again.  This one was.  It said, "What the HELL was that?" and stopped again to look for the source of the noise.  The second shot didn't miss. Off the tree and onto the ground, plop, there it went. Squirrel #2 then stopped and said, "Hey, what the hell?  Why you lying on the ground? Come on back up h—"  and that was HIS fatal mistake.  Three shots in less than two minutes, two beasts in the bag.  It was 8:05. Both were males, a bit of a surprise. I expected one of each sex but maybe one of them was a squirrel with an Alternative Lifestyle? Who knows? They were a couple of cocky teenagers, and while I suppose I ought to feel guilty at shooting such easy targets, I like to think of it as helping to weed out the less intelligent members of the population. Projectile-driven squirrel eugenics; or dumb-rodent contraception.

After that I camped out by the base of the beech and waited, spending the rest of the morning there. I saw lots more squirrels in the trees but never had a shot. This time of year with the trees in leaf, it's very hard to get a clear view of the critters as they scamper around, and they're usually feeding way up towards the top. I have a theory that squirrels eat from a tree top to bottom. Perhaps the upper nuts ripen first? In any event, it's a certainty that they don't spend much time on the ground if they don't have to, and early in the season they don't have to. The food is up high and that's where the squirrels are, too. Later this year, when all the acorns and beechnuts have fallen, they'll forage on the ground. Most people use a shotgun in the early season and historically I have too, but this year I thought I'd give my boyhood rifle its first outing in a long, long time.  If I'd been using a shotgun or The Lightning Death, I could easily have collected several more. I passed on several dubious propositions, but that's OK, they'll be there again.

I may have dozed a bit...well, yes, I did, because I'd had about two hours of sleep, the weather was right, and I was comfortable. Squirrels were active most of the time I was under the beech: I saw at least four more but never got another shot.  When they're up in the leaves, you know they're there because you can hear them cutting and scurrying around—sometimes they drop nut cuttings on your head—but usually you can't see them. 

At noon I ate lunch and headed for the range to sight in a couple of guns. By the time that chore was completed it was 4:00 PM, the first Virginia Tech football game was over and the traffic thinned out, and I was whipped. Headed for the barn, cleaned my kills, had a wonderful Chinese dinner cooked by my WASP wife, and will hit the hay early.

God, I wish we could hunt on Sunday in Virginia...someday, please God, before I get too old to do this, get the clowns in the General Assembly to see the light. If Ohio can do it, so can Virginia.


NO MORE BOWHUNTING


I've been bowhunting for the past 15 years or so.  I started with a compound bow, and hunted with one for years.  The change in Virginia law that allowed "handicapped" hunters to use crossbows allowed me to switch over, since I have a bum left shoulder; and I've used a crossbow for the past 7 years or thereabouts.

In that time, I have had a total of four shots at game.  I made a clean miss on a deer with one of my compound bows—my fault, I used the wrong sight pin—and once I clipped a wing feather from a turkey with my crossbow.  I shaved hair off a doe's ass without even nicking her skin with a crossbow bolt three years ago.  Until Friday, November 2nd, that was pretty much the pinnacle of my bowhunting success, unless you count the squirrel I killed with a blunt two years ago.

That afternoon I was in Amherst.  I was really there for the black powder season opener the next day, but it was a bow season day and I decided to bring my crossbow along and try again.  I'd pretty much decided that if I didn't connect this season, I was going to just bag the whole bowhunting thing as more effort and time invested than it was worth.

Well, I connected.  In fact, I did everything right, and it all fell into place, with one minor hitch.

At 1:42 PM Eastern Daylight Time, a small doe was foolish enough to stand in front of me, broadside, posing as if she were a 3-D archery target. She was about 30 yards off, well within my range of confidence—my crossbow will put every arrow into less than 2" at that range—so I set the red dot on her a wee bit high, and fired.

The arrow hit her exactly where I intended: about 6-8" below the topline, behind her right shoulder.  I SAW that arrow hit and penetrate, saw a puff of dust fly up from her coat, heard the "thwup" it made as it hit.  It was a perfect shot, and undoubtedly took her life.

Needless to say, she immediately ran.  I watched her go, as I was supposed to, and followed her out of sight as she ran down into a patch of woods.  "Well," I thought, "better go get the arrow." 

There was no arrow.  I didn't get pass-through, though I should have.  Worse, there was no blood.  Absolutely, positively, not a single drop, nowhere in the vicinity of where she'd been standing.  I spent a good hour looking for any sign of that hit that I KNEW I made.  I found NOTHING.  No hair, no blood, no body fluid, nothing.  I KNOW I hit her, and I KNOW she ran off with the arrow embedded in her.

I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to find that deer.  I must have returned to the start point a dozen times, moved out in widening circles, checked under bushes, walked the entire length of Huff Creek in case she'd gone into that, scoured the property for hours, with never a sign of any kind where she'd gone.  I found no blood, none, anywhere.  I assume that the retained arrow plugged the wound and that the blood loss—of which there must have been a lot—was internal.  I covered the ground as thoroughly as I could, checked bushes at nose level, examined every damned leaf on at least ten acres of lawn, and there was exactly nothing.

Now, I KNOW that deer is dead, and I'm pretty sure it didn't take her long to die.  I am certain the hit was a good one, though why the arrow didn't exit I'm not sure: perhaps it fetched up against the offside scapula or something.  The position of the entry wound almost certainly meant she got hit in at least one lung.  My visual impression was that the arrow buried itself up to the fletching (in fact I thought it had come out) and I have a very strong visual memory of seeing that arrow hit.  I didn't hit her in the right shoulder, I hit behind it; and I'm also certain I didn't gut-shoot her.  Perhaps a  pre-Columbian Indian could have found that deer, but it was beyond my tracking skills.  She's under a pine tree somewhere feeding scavengers, I'm certain.

Virginia has a telephone check in system, so I felt obliged to report the kill.  I logged her in as a datum point for the DGIF guys, anyway, and notched the tag on the license.

I have NEVER lost a deer I've shot with any firearm: in fact I've only once had to track one I've shot with a firearm.  Only twice has one I've shot gone so much as 50 yards, all the rest have simply dropped in their tracks.   My bow is a good one: an Excalibur Vixen 150-pounder.  I'm using premium-quality graphite bolts with mechanical broadheads that shoot exactly to the point of aim.  I hit that deer where I intended to do so, and I still lost her.  I am unwilling to do this any more. 

If any of my readers would care to have this bow and all the remaining arrows, plus assorted other archery gear, let me know, I will make you a smoking deal on the entire thing.  No more bowhunting for me. You can contact me through the opening page of this site.