TALES FROM CECIL'S HILL

Most of incidents related here took place some years ago on a farm to which I once had routine access. I've aggregated them into one place, and hope my readers enjoy them. "Cecil" was the owner of the farm, now regrettably deceased. I no longer hunt there, but it remains in my memory as one of the finest places I have ever hunted.


SCORING AN ASSIST

This happened some years back, when I was still bowhunting, something I've given up.

It was a High Holy Day, the first day of the early bow season: I took my gear and headed for Giles County with my regular partner, Rick. We set up about 6:00 AM on opposite sides of a big pasture on the top of Spruce Run Mountain.  I was in a spot I liked on the edge of the woods, hidden behind a rail fence.  Rick had gone, at my recommendation, to a grove of white oaks where I'd been seeing deer and killing squirrels for the previous few weeks. Three or four weeks before I'd seen a five-buck bachelor group out there, and had spotted individual deer several times so I figured he'd get a decent crack at something.  He brought along his climbing treestand, and hung himself up in a small oak overlooking the trail I thought the deer would use.  We planned to stay out till about 9:00 and then knock off.  I was about 500-600 yards away, on the other side of the pasture, and couldn't see him at all.

But about 7:45 or so, I saw him come down the hill, headed for his truck, so I figured he'd wanted to come in early for some reason.  The only deer I'd seen was a doe running with her tail up, just before he started down the hill.  She never came within 75 yards of me, and as it turned out had been spooked by Rick's descent. I walked down to the truck and asked him if he'd put an arrow into the doe, thinking he wanted to track it.  "No," he replied, "I'm looking for the buck I put an arrow into forty minutes ago."

It seems my space-time predictions had been right on; a buck had come out at 7:15 and presented him with a shot at a distance he later paced off at 32 yards.  He shot and saw the arrow hit, the deer running off with it sticking out of his right side.  So off we went to look for a blood trail, and to find the deer.

There was no blood.  I mean, NO blood.  Zip, zilch, nada, zero.  We quartered that end of the pasture for a good hour and never found a speck, not a drop.  So we went back and started again.  The deer had run downhill from the point where he'd been stuck. I said, "Look, his instincts are that he would run for cover; and cover around here means the woods.  Let's look along the line he ran again, and see if we can find any indication he went deep into the woods beyond the fence." 

About 15 minutes later I spotted some indications that the buck had made a beeline for the forest; there were tufts of grass and hay debris, all of them scuffed and pointing towards a fence at the edge of the field. Then I found a mark that looked like a hoof being dragged.  Rick had said that the buck was limping, and I felt sure we'd hit his trail, despite the lack of blood. The scuff trail ran up to a chest-high wire fence. We crossed it and picked up the marks again on the other side: still just scuffs and drags and footprints, not a single speck of blood anywhere. Not anywhere at all. But about 300 yards into the woods, Rick spotted him.  He was still mobile and got up to run! 

The wounded deer ran along the bank of a stream with a hill on his left; I climbed the hill to divert him back towards Rick, who took the low road right in his tracks.  Another 300 yards on, Rick eyeballed him a second time in a bramble patch near another fence.  He put another arrow into him, and that ended it.  That deer went a total of 600 yards with the most hellacious wound I have ever seen.

After the buck had been "reduced him to possession," as the regulations put it, we dragged him all the way out, heaved him over the fence, and put him in the truck. Then we then took him home to skin and clean him up and do a post-mortem. He was a big 4-1/2 pointer who'd have had a full 5th tine but he look like he'd been boinked while in velvet and it was deformed. Rick had thought the first arrow had hit just behind the right shoulder; but it had in fact struck low, angling forward beneath the diaphragm.  It was a classic gut shot, opening up the paunch but missing the liver and all of the large arteries that serve the gut. The arrow had gone all the way across and the broadhead had lodged in the muscles of the left front shoulder. 

When we found him, a big wad of gut was hanging out of the entry wound, effectively stopping up the hole, so no leakage of blood was possible; hence the total lack of a blood trail.  We think he may have snagged the arrow on a bush and dragged it out a bit backwards, pulling a loop of bowel with it. The broadhead embedded in his left shoulder muscle had made the worst wound I have ever seen, and believe me, I have seen some grisly wounds in my time.  It had shredded the musculature into hamburger, whacking pieces out of the muscle as if it had been done with a cleaver.  This almost certainly happened when he was running and before the arrow had been pulled backwards: the pumping up and down sliced-and-diced that meat to mush. There was a chunk the size of my fist missing from the outside of the shoulder, and terrific slashes all through the rest. 

Here's the interesting bit:  the blood was entirely contained.  He'd bled massively into the subcutaneous fat and connective tissue but he hadn't leaked a drop out of that horrific wound.  The shoulder was totally unusable: it was dog meat and not very good dog meat at that.  It looked like it had been hit with some sort of high-speed magnum bullet at close range, all blackened and bloodshot.  I've never seen any bullet do that much damage.  It gave me a healthy respect for broadheads that went beyond any purely intellectual appreciation of their lethality.

The second shot was damned near perfect. It entered just above and cranial to the shoulder on the right side, then perforated all the way through, including the left shoulder, to emerge on the left side.  The entry and exit wound were both big enough to put several fingers in, and it bled that poor guy out.  All of his blood ended up in the body cavity.  The only blood we ever found on the trail—and not until after he'd been spotted—were a few flecks on the ground where he'd laid down after the first hit.  Had he taken that second hit first, he'd not have got 100 yards, let alone 600.

That deer was game, in every sense of the word.  He fought hard in a fight he was bound to lose: I'm sure his last hour was one of agony.  I'm glad I had a part in bringing it to an end sooner than might have been the case.  In a very Druidic way, I hope that some of that buck's gallantry was passed on to me.

If I've ever had a hunting experience that taught me that the animal is my equal in every way, it was this one.  It also helped allay some of my concerns. In all my years of hunting, I had never had to track a deer before and I'd had some doubts about my ability to do so; but while this was a very hard track, I was pleased with myself that I managed to spot the signs, go in the right direction, and help bring him to bag. 

It was a long, long day and a sobering one, in many respects. The emotional and physical strain was considerable, and there was a challenge in it I think I can say I met.  I learned a lot about myself, and about deer, that I didn't know before.  This essay is in a way a salute to that buck; my wife wouldn't understand why I shed some tears over him. I hope he passed on his genes before Rick killed him, so that I can someday match wits with his offspring...and prove myself worthy of doing so.


TWO BABY SQUIRRELS

Strange things happen when you take a nap in the hunting field. Don't ask me why, but it seems that every time I doze off, animals start wandering past me.  Many times I have awakened to find myself staring at a deer, and sometimes I have actually shot one that way.  Maybe it's the snoring?  Who knows?  In any event, of all the strange things I've had happen doing this, this one was the strangest and most fun.

I woke up about 4:30 PM, and saw a grey squirrel near the base of a tree: just its head.  He was close, so I pegged a shot at him with the .22 barrel on The Lightning Death, but I missed him by a whisker.  The bullet made a puff of dust as it boinked off the tree, so I thought perhaps I'd winged him, and went to look.  I know enough to look around the back of a tree where there's a squirrel, and sure enough, there he was.  He was completely unhurt, and what's more, he was a baby.  An honest-to-gosh baby grey squirrel, all of 4" long not counting his tail, which was about the same length.  He shuffled around and eyeballed me, mostly keeping the tree between us, but plainly curious about this strange giant; and surprisingly, not much afraid.  He didn't even try to go up the tree, which really amazed me.

As he and I played ring-around-the-oak-tree, I knew (and he did, too) that I wasn't going to kill him, after all.  Then, as we did our dance, I spotted another baby, coming down the tree right next to the one we were circling.  This little guy was obviously a litter mate. He was a brave one, too.  He was so unafraid, he came down and looked at me from shoulder height, on my side of his tree, checking me out carefully, and making a sort of chuckling noise.

Then I thought to myself, "I wonder if he'll let me touch him?" and sure enough, he made no objections at all.  Quite the reverse.  He enjoyed it.  I stroked his tail, which was much softer than an adult's tail, and scratched his back and his neck and between his ears.  He loved it, reacted just like a cat.  Then I put my hand out like a platform, and damned if he didn't climb onto it!  I held him and tickled him for a few minutes, and he relished that, too.  He purred like a cat, a sound I've never heard a squirrel make.   

By this time, Primo had figured out that I wasn't dangerous after all, and had come down on my side of his tree.  So I carried Secundo over to his brother (or sister; Secundo was a male, but I didn't handle the other to see) and set him down on the bark.  Those baby rats played and scampered in the grass for another half hour, four feet from me, and went up and down the trees.  They nuzzled each other like dogs, and I saw Secundo groom Primo's tail with his forepaws. It was like watching a pair of pups, and just as much fun.  They didn't like to be separated from each other.  Whenever they were out of sight of each other one of them would give a cheep-cheep-cheep like a chipmunk's alert call.  Not a distress call, and certainly nothing like the noise those "squirrel whistles" make.  More of a "Where are you?" sort of noise.  Eventually they may have heard their Mama calling, because they went up Primo's tree and disappeared, presumably into their home den.


THE UNWISE FOX SQUIRREL

I was settled into a spot overlooking a bottom where a creek at that end of the farm is flanked by oak and hickory trees.  Just before 6:00 PM I spotted a big fox squirrel in the pasture, headed for the base of a single hickory.  I started to walk towards it, perhaps 100 yards away, and the squirrel ran up the tree, and did its disappearing act.

Now, this was a very serious tactical error, and a violation of Squirrel Survival Rule Number One: Never let yourself get stranded in a tree that's too far from another tree to jump.  That's what this one did.  Up that big hickory with not another tree within 30 yards, all alone, and no way to escape except waiting me out.

I put into effect a rule I've developed over the years: when you have been spotted, sit down.  I have a belief based on my experiences with this rule that prey animals have a "search image" for Man that includes erect posture.  Anything with a certain height:width ratio is automatically put in the "potentially dangerous" category, and if it's moving and below about two meters in height, the "probably a Man" subcategory.  I think this innate suspicious attitude is bred into them, hard-wired into their brains, the way the silhouette of a hawk is fixed into the brains of some ground-dwelling birds before they are hatched.  I don't think only squirrels have this behavior pattern either. I think any animal likely to have been hunted since time immemorial has it.

But if you sit down, even in plain sight, you change your height:width ratio drastically.  You no longer fit the visual profiles "probably dangerous" or "probably a Man," and if the animal hasn't been educated to know that Men don't always fit the pre-programmed image, they simply don't know what you are. If you give such an animal time, and if it hasn't been too alerted by your approach, it will come out again.  This trick works for groundhogs: many times after spooking one into a hole I've sat on the ground in the open 15 yards from the hole, and blasted him with a shotgun when he stuck his head out to see if I had left.  I've had it work with deer, too. It almost always works for tree squirrels in areas where hunting pressure is low.

I also think that when a critter is watching you, if it sees you watching back it's much more likely to be wary than if you are apparently paying no attention.  After all, they know what eyes are for—they have them too, and squirrels have good ones—and a visually-oriented animal almost always interprets a stare as a threat.  Sitting down and looking up at a tree is a sure way to keep that squirrel from coming out.  He wants to know just what the heck you're up to, and why you keep staring at him, and he will eventually put two and two together.

I knew this squirrel wasn't going anywhere, at least not without my seeing it, thanks to its foolish choice of trees. Since there hadn't been any real alarm evident in its movements, I just plunked myself down about 15 yards from the base of the hickory.  Pulled out a book, laid The Lightning Death ready to hand, and started to read.  Sure enough, 15 minutes later, I heard cutting noises, and hickory nut shells started falling from the tree.  I picked up The Lightning Death, flicked the barrel selector to the shotgun, and put the crosshairs on the head.  BOOM, and THUD, down it came, dead before it hit the ground.  A big female, this one was.  Not lactating, though obviously sexually mature, since the teats were well developed.  But I think it hadn't yet had a litter. 

There were a couple of holes in the head and one through the pinna of the left ear, also a few here and there in the butt.  This hit pattern is typical of that sort of high-angle underneath shot.  The middle of the squirrel is protected by the branch; the head and hindquarters are exposed, and most of the pellets hit the ends.  A lot of shot gets deflected by leaves and twigs, and it's surprising how few actually hit the squirrel.  I picked about 6 or 8 out of this one, and that's about average.  A very small percentage of a one-ounce load of 6's, but enough.  If you use a shot size with decent mass and good pattern density, if the squirrel isn't running, if it's within range, and if you wait until the head is exposed, the almost-certain result is an instantaneous kill.  Exercise this sort of shot discipline, don't rely on the shot pattern to make up for aiming errors, and the odds of a clean kill are nearly 100%. With a shotgun used this way, cripples are very, very rare. 

After cleaning the squirrel I figured I'd better be getting home, as my neighbors were coming for dinner.  I rolled into the driveway to find they had already arrived, and to my delight, their 17-year old son was with them.  He's a priggish little left-wing bigot, and, he is quick to tell everyone, a vegetarian.  His father is my regular hunting partner, and so, naturally, I made it a point to show Dad the kill when I came in the door.

I weighed her before skinning her.  Eviscerated, with the tail cut off (I give them to a fly-fishing neighbor, who's delighted to get them, and it's good pro-hunting PR) she weighed 1 pound 12 ounces.  A big lady, at least 2-1/2 pounds on the hoof, possibly 3. I've seen fox squirrels that were bigger, but typically they were older animals.  I doubt this lass was much more than a year and a half old. Her fat was white, not yellow, and her fur didn't have the white patches and grizzled look of an older fox squirrel. I suppose she would have been in her first breeding season had she lived.  She was sleek, clean, and in excellent condition, an indication that the food supply is good in that vicinity.

All in all, then, it was a pretty good afternoon, and an ending to a day that started off--well, not badly, but not with much promise for enjoyment.  We had been threatened by dire predictions of disaster from Hurricane Frogface, or whatever its name was, but it didn't get here; the newspapers were crying Doom and Death but we had  two gorgeous days in a row, and two more came that weekend.  Could have been be worse!


ONE THAT GOT AWAY

The first day of squirrel season is a High Holy Day. One year it was warm and wet, but my friend Erik arrived at 5:15 AM to go out into the field for the Hickory Tree Services. It was only drizzling in Blacksburg, but when we went over Gap Mountain to Giles County the rain picked up and it was on-and-off rain all morning.

Squirrels do come out in the rain, but they're not fond of getting wet without a good reason, so they tend to stay in their holes longer.  Erik and I picked out a couple of trees and were parked under them by 6:00 AM. Legal time started about 6:30, but it wasn't until 7:00 or so that you could even see anything because the overcast was so thick.  I sat in my spot under a hickory until about 8:00, getting soaked and seeing nothing.  Moved to another spot in an oak-hickory grove about 500 yards away, and spotted one fox squirrel about 8:15.  I had no luck, though; he saw me too and did the Vanishing Squirrel Trick.  I got bored waiting him out and about 9:00 I walked down to the truck, near where Erik was sitting under a huge oak and a couple of hickories near a spring.

About 5 minutes after I reached the truck, he stood up and started to come out of the woods, and spooked a big fox squirrel into movement, in a tree right over his head!  I called out to him, and he stopped, but by then the beast had gone into Invisible Mode.  We knew he was in that tree though, so we spent about half an hour trying to get him to move.  We walked around it, making sure that one of us was always on each side.  The allegation that this will cause the squirrel to move and the hunter on the opposing side will get the shot is a baldfaced lie.  This guy wasn't about to budge without some serious encouragement.  He must have squinched down into a cavity between the main trunk and a big branch, because he was just absolutely invisible, even though we knew he was in that tree.

I thought maybe I could scare him into moving, so I told Erik to stand by, and fired a load of 6's into the branch about where I'd last spotted him.  No dice.  This was one cool customer and he clearly knew better than to stick his head up under fire.  At that point I hoofed back to the truck, and pulled out my monocular.  I started scanning the tree as closely as I could, but the leaves are still very heavy (they hadn't even started to turn colors yet) and it wasn't much of an effort I was able to make. 

However, I did see something that I thought might have been a pair of squirrel ears sticking up behind a branch, so I tried another shot.  I had hoped he'd come tumbling down, but nope, nothing happened for about ten seconds, and then Erik started to move.  That got him to move, and as mark Twain might have put it, he "...he lit out for the Territories," leaping from the tree we'd cornered him in to the next, screaming flat out up the hill as fast as he could go, which is damned fast.  I loosed off another charge as soon as I could see him, but by then it was a Hail Mary shot, and he escaped unscathed, laughing his head off at us.

At that point we had to come in: Erik's a cop and works a late shift, and he had to drive back to Roanoke; I'd been up at 4:00 and was more or less dead on my feet anyway, so we gave it up, as it was still raining.  That afternoon the sun came out and everything was dry and beautiful, damn it, and I wasn't able to get out again.  Well, there are always more weekends.

The day wasn't a total loss.  I bought a beautiful little Ruger Single-Six Convertible .22 with extra cylinder, complete in the original box with all paperwork and in like-new condition.  At that point in my life I needed another .22 handgun like a squirrel needs a spare tail, but it was too good a deal to pass up.  Later that season I tucked it under my coat with a cylinder full of Shorts during deer season, and popped off a few. That's when I see a lot of squirrels!


BLACK POWDER BUCK AND BALL

Some years back I bought a 12 gauge Pedersoli black powder double. This is a real “classic,” though new made; it has “rabbit ear” hammers and is beautifully fitted and finished, far nicer than it ought really to be for the modest price. One very nice thing about a muzzle-loading shotgun is that you can shoot from it just about anything that will fit down the barrel ahead of a safe load of black powder.

Back in the Not-So-Good-Old-Days, it was a fairly common practice to load one barrel of a double with buckshot and the other with a single projectile, called a “pumpkin ball.” So in a spirit of adventure and curiosity I thought I ought to see how my Pedersoli would do with this combination. I purchased round balls from Ballistic Products, who can provide them in either 0.695" size (intended to be used with a patch) and in 0.715" size, which is what I opted for.  The larger balls will pass through an IC choke tube but not a MOD tube, I found.  In retrospect perhaps the 0.695" size would have been better, as I think the patch would have held the ball better centered in the bore. 

I had a bag of plastic 12 gauge gas cups. My starting load was a gas cup over the powder, a 1/2" fiber cushion wad on that, then the ball, all held in with a thin over-shot wad.  I used 90 grains of FFG, about 3-1/2 drams worth. Since double shotguns typically will shoot each barrel to a different point of aim (unless they're expensive enough to be properly regulated not to, that is, and I wasn't expecting the Pedersoli to fall into that category) I shot a few balls from each barrel.

Recoil wasn't at all bad, even though the balls weigh 550 grains.  I fired a few off the bench and then offhand, about 10 rounds from each barrel.  The combination of a smooth bore, loose-fitting projectiles, and no sights precluded real accuracy, but I was able to keep all my shots in "minute of deer" at 25 yards, the farthest I would attempt a shot with this gun on an animal. The shots were all about 3" or so below my aiming point.  And so far as I could tell, to my surprise both barrels seemed to be set up so that elevation was the same. While there was perceptible grouping to either side of the mark, it wasn't much.  I would have confidence in shooting a deer at that range or closer, and those big balls would certainly do some damage on impact.

I tried using standard cup wads.  I found the 0.715” ball would seat in the wad's petals if I dropped it down and tamped it with the ramrod, and reasoned that this would center the ball and perhaps improve accuracy. I couldn't see any difference, but it does make loading a bit simpler, and perhaps makes the ball more secure under recoil.  These loads I shot only from a cylinder bore, because I was unwilling to trust that I wouldn't bulge an IC tube.  I think, though, the 0.695" balls would probably work through an IC tube with the wads, and they might shoot a bit better because of it.  I'll try that—along with some Foster type slugs—next time.

Next I tried buckshot.  I use #1 buck in .31 caliber black powder revolvers; I loaded 12 of these and tried both barrels with various degrees of choke.  Best results seemed to be with a MOD tube.  I could consistently get 9 or 10 pellets on the target at 25 yards, and when I moved it up to 50 feet, was getting 100% patterns.  They were as uniform as buckshot patterns ever are, which is to say, not much.  Also hitting a bit low.  I suspect this is the result of the way the gun is stocked, but I'm not about to do anything about that except perhaps to put a cheek pad on.  In any event, any one of my buckshot patterns would have killed a deer in dense cover, though with un-buffered pellets I would not like to try a shot much beyond 20 yards.  Nevertheless, with ball in one barrel and buck in the other, I certainly think a deer would have big problems if he were so foolish as allow me in range.

Those of you who've never tried BP shotguns, I will add that they are much easier to reload than the rifles are.  The problem of balls getting stuck in a fouled bore isn't there, as a smooth bore retains far less fouling than a rifled one does.  The first time I tried a black powder shotgun I was struck with how much easier they are to reload than rifles, and I understand why the military (and many civilians) clung stubbornly to the smoothbored musket in the days before breechloaders.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that breechloading made rifles a practical proposition, but there certainly are some distinct advantages to a smoothbore in a muzzle-loading gun...though pinpoint accuracy isn't one of them. Cleanup was routine.  I think there was some degree of "flaking" of the plastic cups and gas seals, but nothing stuck on the bore.  Plastic shot cups are perfectly practical in this shotgun, I've found, and work very well for small shot, too.


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