Well, I’m into my third week here. It’s a beautiful place, and I sure don’t miss the craziness that is the urban Bay Area. But, I do miss my family. I even, a little bit, miss the Internet… especially the Hog Blog. (TV? You can keep it.)
Yesterday, Tuesday the 11th, marked the conclusion of our second guided hunt with clients T. Michael Riddle and Jeff Sheldon. It was a quick one, but pretty danged exciting.
It started on Saturday the 8th, a day earlier than I had planned. I suppose that in the hectic days before the hunt got underway, Dave Allen, Coon Camp Springs President, inadvertently told Michael and Jeff that they could come on up on Saturday instead of Sunday the 9th. Fortunately, the first week clients were done and gone, but I had run back to the Bay Area on a marathon drive to take Dolly (my horse) back to the Bay Area. Dave got them settled in, and after doing two weeks’ worth of laundry and a quick nap, I turned around and drove the 400 miles back up to Coon Camp Springs by early morning Sunday.
On my way out of camp on Saturday, I decided to take one more look up in the front corner where we’ve been seeing so much deer activity, including a large herd of does, and where our client, Bruce Einck, had taken a real nice four-point the previous week. Sure enough, as I rounded a bend, there were the does… only this time, they were accompanied by yet another nice four-pointer! Sure didn’t take him long to replace the previous monarch! He wasn’t as big, but neither of my hunters were trophy hunting. Michael had never shot a mule deer at all, and Jeff said he’d be happy with a forkie. This 4×4 would definitely make either of them happy.
This reconnaissance, coupled with the consistency with which these deer had been using that same area set my plan for the first hunts of the week. On Sunday, after spending a little time at the range to zero rifles, I took the guys up on top of the ridge to one of my favorite glassing spots. On the way in, we saw a ton of fresh sign, but it looked to me like it had all been made earlier in the day… probably during the morning. I found it a little odd, since the spot had been an evening hotspot for the past two weeks. All of my scouting had produced sightings in the afternoon and evening, and Bruce had taken his buck right at last light.
I don’t know what it was, specifically, that changed the pattern from evening to morning. Maybe the weather which had finally cleared up and turned cold, or; it could be the rut which was obviously getting into full swing, or; maybe it was the moon, waxing hard past half and heading for full. Anyway, I decided we’d come in and set up from the other side of the canyon in the early hours after sunrise on Monday, and we headed back to camp for some social time around the fire. I’d slow-cooked a wild boar ham all day, and it was calling to my empty stomach. 14 hours of driving over the past 24 had me pretty worn down, too.
Monday dawned cold and bright. I wasn’t really thrilled with the big moon we’d had all night, but with the rut going strong and the amount of good sign we’d seen, I still felt pretty positive. We piled into Jeff’s old “Willy’s” Jeep and rumbled off across the valley to a strategic parking spot, then laced up the boots and covered some ground to a rock pile where we could glass the flats and surrounding hillsides.
Walking in, trying to be quiet while stumbling over volcanic rock and sage brush was quite a challenge. However, we must have been doing pretty well, because we managed to walk right up on a coyote at less than 40 yards. It was his lucky day, though, as we sure didn’t need gunshots to alert the deer to our approach. We moved on.
I was first to the rock pile, and as soon as I peeked over the top I got a shock! Deer! Seven or eight animals milled around, feeding along the edge of a gully. Through my glasses I spotted a little forkie, then one, two, three, four, five does… and then, a hawg of a buck popped into view. He was easily 22 to 24 inches wide, and his body dwarfed the does and forkie as he meandered from doe to doe, trying to keep them corralled. I turned and gestured frantically to Michael and Jeff to get up here!
They had agreed that Jeff would take the first shot, so he set up next to me. Michael moved up a bit and settled in above him. Unfortunately, Jeff couldn’t get a good rest, and every time he put the scope on the deer, he couldn’t see the buck. He decided to move, and told Michael to go ahead and take the shot if he got it. As Jeff worked down the hill a bit, the big buck stepped out, broadside into the open at about 225 yards. It was a fairly long shot, but very reasonable given that both hunters were shooting big magnums. “Take him, Mike!” I hissed. “Kill that buck!”
It seemed to take forever for Michael to take the shot, and my heart raced as I watched the big deer. Visions of him stepping into that gully and disappearing forever crowded my mind. But finally, Michael’s .300 Weatherby Magnum roared. Everything went still for a moment, as the deer seemed confused by the source of the sound.
“Where’d I hit?” Michael asked.
“I didn’t see it,” I told him. “Shoot again!”
Michael touched off another round. This one sailed just over the deer’s back. It jogged a few yards to round up a confused doe, and stopped again. “Get him, Mike!”
The third round appeared to hit the deer in the front leg, but the hit had minimal effect. “Get him again!” I practically shouted.
I turned to look, and Michael was reloading. I looked down at Jeff and saw him fixed on his scope. “There’s another buck,” he whispered. “Right there!”
“I know,” I answered. “It’s that forkie.”
“No,” he countered. “This is a good deer, a four-point.”
I put the binos on the deer again, and sure enough, the four-point I’d seen Saturday was up in the open, looking around. The bigger buck turned toward him, as if accusing him of being the one who hit him in the leg. If I could have bottled the excitement I was feeling at that moment, I could have put every meth dealer in the country out of business.
“Take him if you can get him,” I told Jeff, then turned back to Michael who had finished reloading and was trying to level his sights again.
Jeff’s 7mm RUM boomed, and I saw the 4×4 turn to the other buck as if to say, “Did you do that?”
The 7mm boomed again, and the four-pointer crumpled in his tracks. “Nice shot, Jeff!”
Michael’s buck was still standing out there. “OK, Mike,” I whispered. “Don’t think about holdover or crosswinds. Just put those crosshairs where you want to hit him, and hit him.”
The Weatherby roared, and the deer scampered a bit and stopped again to look around. Some of the does were finally getting the idea, and began to trot toward the opposite hill. The big buck turned to round them up. When he was broadside again, I told Michael to shoot again. I heard him take a deep breath, then the gun went off. This time it was a clear hit, but the deer turned just as Michael pulled the trigger. The big buck lurched, then began to trot away, dragging his left, hind leg. Through the glass I could see the dark stain of blood running down.
“You hit him, Michael, but he’s still going. Get him again if you can!”
As I waited for the shot, I saw the deer slow and begin to wobble. “He’s going down!” I stage-whispered. “You must have cut the femoral artery.”
The big buck collapsed under a pine tree. I could see his tail switch a few times, then he thrashed and turned over. I blew a sigh of relief, and then the reality of the situation washed over me like a wave. Both clients had just tagged out from the same herd, on the first morning of the hunt. Both had shot good deer, and Michael’s first mule deer was a real trophy animal. Even more, I was pretty much done! The deer were both really close to the road, making for easy recoveries. All that was left was field dressing, then to haul them back for skinning… then a few drinks to celebrate!
The whole scene was pretty amazing. I suppose there were a few factors accounting for why those deer just stood there for all that shooting. First, both bucks were rutted up, and I’m guessing neither was willing to leave those does. I expect that, had we not started shooting when we did, we would have witnessed a good fight. Second, the canyon where the deer were feeding is basically a boxed canyon, with walls on three sides. The gunshots probably echoed pretty good down there, making it impossible to tell where the shooting was coming from. Finally, these deer haven’t been pressured in a while. The regular X3-A hunting season ended in mid-October, and it doesn’t look like we got much poaching pressure on the ranch this year. Whatever it was, I was glad the deer had held tight and let my guys take their trophies.
I told Michael to stay put and give the deer time to get sick and die before going down to it, and then Jeff and I went back to get the jeep. About 20 minutes later, when we got around to the deer, we found that Jeff’s buck had gone down quick from a textbook perfect high-shoulder/spine shot. It sported a nice little 19-inch four-point spread. The horns were a bit gnarly, giving it a lot of character. While not the giant bucks of magazine fame, this was a nice trophy, regardless.
Michael’s buck was simply a hoss of a deer. The 3×3 rack spread to 24 inches, and later on the scale, its dressed weight topped 200 lbs. Conservatively, that made this buck’s live weight somewhere in the neighborhood of 240-260 lbs.
A quick forensic investigation showed that, indeed, Michael’s third shot had hit the deer, but it was a relatively minor wound in the front leg. Windage was good, elevation was off. His final, and fatal shot, caught the deer turning away, so the Barnes TSX bullet entered the hindquarter and passed clean through to exit just behind the shoulder. Internal damage was significant, and obviously fatal. While waiting to ensure he had time to expire was the smart strategy, it turns out that it wasn’t necessary.
One more note of interest. While field dressing, Michael glanced up and saw the little forkie doing his best to corral those does. We’d made his day, and the “big man on campus” was now working for all he was worth to get those ladies under control. Good luck with that, brother…
We celebrated during the evening, and on the second official day of their hunt, my clients drove home… happy and satisfied.