Sunday, November 30, 2014

Deer Hunt Day 4 and 5: Wild Horses

Day 4

We started day 4 out with high hopes. After seeing so many deer the previous day, we felt we had somehow cracked the code and all we had to do was pick a buck. If only it were that simple. We spent the entire day driving to different locations and going for brief hikes, only to see a grand total of 6 does and one 3 point. These desert mule deer seemed to be able to disappear when they pleased.
Midafternoon, we ended up on a terrible road that was overgrown and very bumpy. Rick swore he knew where it would pop out. I was beginning to wonder as the sage brush encroached and the road narrowed. 
Eventually, it led us to a creek-crossing where we would eat our words: "Oh we can cross there!"
I got out of the suburban as Rick made an attempt to cross. The front of the suburban got stuck and so did the back. We only had traction to the front passenger and rear driver tires. Luckily, we had some shovels to dig us out. Forty-five minutes later, we were back on the road and headed in the right direction.
A few miles later we spotted a group of wild horses!

Darkness approached and we made our way back to camp. How could we see so many deer one day and so few the next?

Day 5
We had just the morning to hunt on our last day, so we rose very early and went to a location we had seen deer on day 3. Sure enough, there were some deer; a lot of deer. We snuck to within a couple hundred yards of the big group of deer. The early morning light made it difficult to judge the size of some of the bucks in the group. One buck, however, caught our eye as he rounded the top of a hill in front of us, and we decided to pursue him to get a better look. We snuck to the top of the hill and slowly peeked our heads over. We spotted a small group of bucks very close by, but didn't see the buck we saw earlier that appeared to be a shooter. We kept going slowly, crawling on some occasions, until we spotted him again. We had made it over two more hills when we got a good look at him. It was his width that was impressive. He had to be nearly 30 inches wide, but he only had 2 short points on one side and 3 short points on the other. Rick decided to pass, saying that he would be a prize next year if he didn't get shot by any other hunters. A deer with genes like that should be allowed to see his potential. As the lead buck of a group of does, he will pass those genes on to future bucks.

The rest of the morning turned up nothing. Rick had another trip planned soon, so he would be banking on finding his big buck then. We packed up camp and headed home. It was a great hunt with some exciting moments.
Of course, Rick had to make us feel guilty about him not getting a big buck like we did.
"Sure must be nice to have gotten those big mule deer! I guess I'll just have to  
keep looking..."

The real rewarding work was yet to come. I take pride in processing my own deer and making things like sausage. Here is some mule deer breakfast sausage. What a rewarding end to a great hunt; a freezer full of delicious meat.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Deer Hunt Day 3: Non-typical

Day 3

We awoke early on the third morning with high hopes that we would at least see a deer today. We set off for a different area. Rick knew all the roads in this country and he had big plans for the day. We had only driven a few minutes down the road before we spotted an unfamiliar animal; A deer! 100 yards or so off the road was a group of deer. We stopped and got the binoculars out.
"Third deer from the right is a buck. Looks like a 3 point," Trevor said.
"There's a 4 point behind him. Kinda small though," Rick chimed in.
The group of 6 does and 2 bucks began to walk further away until they disappeared behind a hill. The 4 point was a decent deer, but not what we were after. We knew we had great potential with a hunt this time of year, so we would be picky about what we shot.
"That 4 point will be a dandy next year," I said.

We continued down the road, and a few miles later, we spotted another group of does. We stopped to check them out. This time of year, if you find does, you'll likely find a buck with them. Sure enough, on the skyline, a 2 point appeared. We got out of the rig and walked a little closer. We used our binoculars to pick apart the deer in the group and check the surrounding area for a large buck. We decided the 2 point was likely all that was there, and drove on.

Already, this day was going much better than the last two. We were seeing way more deer on our way to areas than the hiking around we had done the last couple days. We continued down the road to a nearby reservoir we thought would likely hold some deer. The road we were on was littered with puddles from the last rain storm; Some of which looked deep and ominous. The suburban bounced along, dodging rocks and car sized puddles.
"How far is that reservoir from here?" I asked Rick.
"Just over a couple more hills," Rick said pointing.
I looked in the direction he pointed and something white caught my eye.
"Stop! Deer!" I said as I fumbled for a pair of binoculars.
Near the top of a small hill, a couple hundred yards away, a group of mule deer began to materialize. The 3 of us surveyed the hill and identified what was there.
"Doe, doe, doe... I'm just seeing does so far," Trev whispered.
"Keep looking, there will be a buck with them," Rick said with confidence.
Just then, my binoculars spotted him. Silhouetted on the skyline, a set of large antlers appeared.

"Oh, big buck," I whispered, hardly controlling my excitement.
"Yep, I see him. He doesn't seem too bad," Rick said calmly.
"He's wider than his ears," I replied.
"Ryan, do you want him?" Rick asked me. "I think we'd be stupid if someone didn't go for him."
"Yep, he's just fine for me," I said as I grabbed my rifle from the case.

I got out of the vehicle, walked a little closer and took a knee. The big buck froze behind some brush, his gaze apparently on something directly behind him. I imagine he was checking on some of his does. The position he was in gave me a perfect opportunity to stare at his antlers. Looks like 4 on each side and a small brow tine on one side. I took a mental note to myself. I could try to sneak closer but some of the does would likely spook. I just stared at him until I could formulate a plan. I started to see a few does moving behind him. The big buck turned and disappeared behind the hill.
"We gotta go Ryan. Put your bipod out and lets get to the top of that hill," Trev said confidently.
We took off through the brush, swiftly and quickly. I neared the top of the hill and slowed down to catch my breath. My head was on a swivel trying to detect where the herd of deer were. I took a few steps further. Where did they go? I took another couple steps. There! One hundred or so yards away, at the base of the next sage brush covered hill, was the herd of deer. The big buck was near the back of the herd and they all were staring at me. Crap! They began the trot up the hill. Knowing how hard it would be to sneak up on this group of deer in this open country, I knew this was my shot. I ran forward towards a bush, took and knee and shouldered my rifle. I quickly found the buck in my scope and waited for the opportune time... if there would be one. The group of deer stayed tight together as they crossed the hillside. They slowed to a stop as they neared the top and looked down to check on the danger below (Me). In my sights was the buck, but a doe was directly in front of him. Dang it! Can't take the shot with her there. If they keep going, they are going to disappear again! The lead does began to take off, and so did the one in front of the buck. Just before I could center my crosshairs on his vitals, the buck continued after his does. Crap, I don't want to take a running shot! My heart was racing, but I felt steady. I followed the buck in my crosshairs as he trotted near the summit of the hill. He slowed for a second and I squeezed the trigger. BOOM! The buck stopped for a quick second and then started walking forward. I could tell I hit him but I wasn't sure if I got him exactly where I wanted to. Not wanting him to suffer, I centered my crosshairs on his vitals and squeezed the trigger again. BOOM! The big buck took a few more steps forward, began to sway and then collapsed at the summit of the hill. I took a sigh of relief and began to walk to the top of hill. Rick and Trevor caught up to me, and we slowly approached the buck. All we could see were the tops of his dark antlers sticking above the dry grass. As we neared, it was obvious he had passed. We stood there for a moment to admire him. I knelt beside him as I had my little moment with God and the deer. Then we began to take pictures.

We began to field dress and quarter the deer. Rick started capping the shoulders and head for a shoulder mount. Rick is a fine taxidermist and I'm lucky to have him around to show me how to do shoulder mounts for my animals. By 11:30, we had everything quartered and loaded into the vehicle. I was excited to see what the rest of the day would bring!

We bounced our way down to the reservoir to take a look around. We parked the suburban and Trevor and Rick went for a hike. I stayed at the vehicle and closed my eyes for a bit. Rick and Trevor returned about an hour later without seeing any deer. 

We didn't see any more deer until nearly 3 pm. 
"Stop! Deer!" Trevor shouted as we came around a corner. "There's a buck, 3 point. Near the top."
"And another, he's a 2 point," said Rick.
"Where's the big buck?" I questioned.
We got out of the car and crept closer to get a better look. There appeared to be about 8 does and 3 bucks in the group. With a group of deer this large, where was the big buck?
We took a few more steps forward and something caught my eye. It was much lower than the rest of the group. 
"There he is, and he's BIG," I said excitedly.
Forty yards below the rest of the deer, there was a big buck bedded down. He was staring straight at us, not moving a muscle. Rick and Trevor got down and crawled a little ways closer. Rick took his time giving himself a good rest for a steady shot. I watched from a distance through my rangefinder. The deer was 100 yards away from Rick and Trevor. I watched Trevor set up the video camera. The buck continued to lay there and stare at us. I suspected that this deer was tired from the nightlife he had undoubtedly been having that previous week. I kept waiting for the shot but it didn't come. Then, I saw Trevor switch places with Rick. What's going on? I thought. I moved my rangefinder over to the buck just in time to see the shot. BOOM! The buck hardly made an attempt to stand up before he passed. I ran over to Rick and Trevor.
"Good job, Trev!" I said as I shook his hand. "What were you guys waiting for there?"
"He's got kickers out to the side, we both saw them at the same time and knew he was a shooter," Rick informed me. "I let Trevor shoot him because he has less time than I do."
"Now that's fatherly love," I commented.
"Yeah, thanks a lot dad. He's a brute!"

We walked over to the beast and stood in awe.
"What a beautiful animal!" I exclaimed.
"Look at those kickers. I bet he'll go 30 inches with those," said Rick.
"Gosh Dad, thanks so much. And we got it on film!"
"You boys just remember these things I do for you. Next time I may not be so nice!" Rick said with a half serious smile on his face.

We began to take pictures and continue to admire the buck.

After we took pictures, we decided to leave Trevor to his work. Trevor has cleaned many deer and is very self sufficient. We still had another couple hours of daylight, so Rick and I took off to make the most of the evening. We headed to a couple springs, but saw little. I suppose it was unrealistic to expect us to get 3 deer in one day. We returned to Trevor to find he had finished up with his deer. We loaded everything up and headed back to camp. What a day it had been! Now it was Rick's turn.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Deer Hunt Day 2: Mule Deer Country

Day 2

I was awoken by an eerie sound; Coyotes. They were close, very close. By the sound of it, there were at least 5 coyotes howling and yipping away. They have to be less than 200 yards away... I thought as I lay in my cot. Normally you don't have to worry about coyotes, but when there's that many it can be a little scary. I looked at my watch and saw it was 5 am. I dozed back to sleep and before I knew it, it was getting light.

"Rick, did you hear those coyotes last night? They sounded close."
"Yeah they were very close."
Just then, from over the hill behind camp, a coyote howled. Then another, and another, and another! "They are still there!" I said to Rick, with wide eyes. "Shall we try to call some in?"
"I suppose we have time," he replied.

We grabbed the call, a decoy and our rifles, and headed toward the direction we last heard the coyotes. We found a large bush and got into position. I've never shot a coyote, but I love calling any animal in, even if it's to the sound of a dying rabbit...
Rick hit the call. From the hill in front of us, they responded.
"Dang! There are a lot of coyotes around here." Rick said as several coyotes howled. "It won't hurt to get a few. They kill a lot of fawns in the spring."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. A coyote came into view, running directly towards us. It stopped at 40 yards and knew something was up. BOOM! Rick shot and the coyote fell.
"Dang, that was fast." I said to Rick, congratulating him.

We kept calling, just knowing more were on their way. I looked at my watch and frowned.
"Rick, we better get going. We have to meet Trevor. We better not keep him waiting."
After all, we were here to hunt deer, not coyotes. Rick and I stood up.
"There! To your right!" Rick shouted.
A coyote had just started coming over the hill. I shouldered my gun just in time to see the coyote vanish.
"Oh and there's another one coming in to my left!" Rick shouted in frustration.
His coyote also vanished. We looked at each other and shook our heads.
"Trevor owes us some coyotes." I said to Rick.

We packed our gear for the days deer hunt and headed to the designated meeting place. Sure enough, Trevor was late and with every minute that went by, all I could think about was that coyote that was minutes away from my sights. Oh well, I don't care all that much about shooting a coyote anyway. But I'm sure going to make Trevor think I care!

As Trevor pulled into the turnout, Rick and I shot him dirty looks.
"Trevor, you owe us some coyotes!" I said with disgust in my face. "We were surrounded and they were coming from every direction! But I said to Rick. 'We better go. Can't be late to meet Trevor.' And look who's late..."
"Oh I'm sorry! I tried to text you guys. I guess there's no service here..." Trevor said in defense.
"Whatever. I guess I'll never get my coyote." 

Trevor hopped in with us and we drove up the road to a completely different area. This one screamed big mule deer. Old growth sage brush, aspen groves, and steep rocky hillsides. Does it get any better than that?

My legs were not ready for another 10 miles, so I decided I'd take it a little easier today. We parked the suburban, set our individual courses and took off. Trev and I didn't go far before we saw something every big game hunter gets excited about seeing; A RUB! A rub is where a buck or a bull elk rubs his antlers on a small tree, often tearing the bark off. He does this to rub the velvet off of his antlers and to mark his territory.


The height of this one told us it was an elk rub. We were excited to see this, but we were after deer, not elk. We went on further and found lots of elk sign, including more rubs, but little deer sign. Trev and I split up and I hiked up a draw to watch an area for a couple hours.

The day wore on and still no deer. I didn't hear any shots, so I knew Trev and Rick hadn't seen any big bucks either. This was just such awesome country that there had to be some deer. Evening approached and I watched another hillside in another draw. Another whole day without deer? I thought. Since I hadn't seen any deer sign in hours, I got up and made my way back to the rig. Rick was already waiting.
"See anything?" I asked.
"Nope, found some chukars though."
"I didn't see anything either. Just a whole bunch of fresh elk sign, but I didn't see an elk," I chuckled.
Trev didn't show up until about 20 minutes after it got dark.
"There he is," I said.
A headlamp appeared out of the brush.
"He's got something in his hands," I said with a suspicious tone. "It's an elk antler."
Trev approached the rig and in his hand was a large 5 point elk antler.
"In case you were wondering Trev, NO, it's not fair that you found an elk antler. I've never found an elk antler!" I said with jealousy.
"Oh Ryan, I'm sorry. I've found tons..."

We drove back to camp in the darkness. Another day with no deer. I was beginning to wonder if this was a good area to hunt.
"Tomorrow! I just know we are going to see a deer! I can feel it!" I said triumphantly.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Deer Hunt Day 1: The Luck of the Draw

All summer I dreamt of the large non-typical mule deer that I might encounter this fall. Several months later, my waiting was over.

I certainly won't claim to be an expert at big game hunting. I owe my success in the last 4 years, solely, to my fiancés family. Rick, my future father in law, is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to Idaho's backcountry. He's been all over the state many times and seems to remember every road, rock, animal or tree he has ever encountered. That knowledge gives him a huge edge when it comes to hunting. In fact, his intuition is so remarkable, that I hand my license-number over to him each spring to be placed in a controlled hunt of his choice; mainly because if that's where he wants to hunt, I'll want to hunt there too.

Rick put himself, Trevor (my soon to be brother in-law) and I in for a desert mule deer tag that would take place in November. Against all odds, the three of us got drawn! The best thing about our hunt is it's during the Rut: which means all of those big bucks that have been hiding all year magically appear in pursuit of does.

Day 1

Rick and I left Boise early in the morning and headed to set up a camp for our hunt, where Trevor was going to meet us the next morning. We turned down the dirt road and found a suitable spot to set up our camp. 

We were eager to get to hunting, so we hopped into the suburban and drove to the end of the road. We made a plan to split up temporarily and meet at the mouth of a large draw. We would then hunt up the draw and the edge of the rocks. Not far after splitting, I found fresh deer-sign.

I continued towards the draw, seeing more fresh deer sign along the way. After a while, I began to wonder... where were the deer? It was a very beautiful day, maybe too nice; could all the deer be bedded down in the shade?... If they were, they would be very difficult to spot. I kept my optimism up by scanning my surroundings, because if I found some does, there would likely be a buck with them.

Suddenly, I came across a small spring creek that offered up a nice distraction, as I am also an avid fly fisherman. If I were a deer, this is where I would be, I thought to myself as I approached the creek.  I looked into the crystal clear water and... FISH! A big smile came across my face as countless little fish scurried for their lives as if I were a large heron.  I wasn't able to identify the type of fish I saw, but for now, they were safe from me.
I hopped the creek and met up with Rick, who had seen as little as I had. Together we hiked up the draw, and then made our way back to the suburban.
"How far do you think we just hiked?" I asked Rick.
"Probably 6 miles." He guessed.
"You know, that felt good. I think I needed that." I said, after the weight of the pack was off my shoulders. "Too bad we didn't see any deer." I finished saying, as we got inside the suburban.
"Well we've got a couple more hours of daylight, we'll probably see some tonight." He said back to me, keeping the spirit of the hunt alive; but honestly, we were both tired and looking forward to sitting in the suburban, doing some easy road hunting.

Rick turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened. He turned it again... silence. In a hurried fashion, he fumbled towards the lights and turned them off, as if he could reverse the damage. 
He turned to me with a grim face. "Battery's dead. I left the lights on." He said, dismally.
"Seriously?" I asked. 
"Yep." He confirmed.
We sat and thought about our scenario; camp was 2-3 miles away and we had a spare battery there for utilities in the tent. We decided we would take one of the pack frames back to camp, strap the battery on it, and hike back to the suburban for a jump. We only had a couple hours of daylight left, so there was no time to waste.

Having a road to walk on made our hike to camp relatively quick.
I slung the battery and pack onto my shoulders, instantly feeling the fatigue in my legs. "Gosh, I'm getting old." I said. 
"Oh you're funny." Rick chuckled.

The sun had nearly set by the time we made it back to the suburban, and no deer were spotted on the way. We hooked up the jumper cables and Rick got behind the wheel. I waited in anticipation as Rick turned the key. The engine turned over a little, but not enough. Crap! I thought. 

We let the battery sit for a while to hopefully build a charge. Rick tried it again. 
VVvroommm!!! The suburban roared to life!
"Thank the Lord," I shouted!
"Well, there went the rest of our day," Rick said, with sadness in his face.  

Once we got back to camp, we both collapsed onto our cots. After walking over 10 miles today, we were tired, and I knew I would sleep good tonight! As I laid there, I began to think how terrible it would have been if we were 15 miles from camp when our battery died. It was a scary thought, but I was soon dreaming about the next day's hunt... I would walk 20 miles if it meant finding a trophy buck. The thought made me smile as I drifted off to sleep. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Band

It had been over a week since I had been on my last duck hunt, as explained in my previous blog. Needless to say I was very eager for redemption. It was almost November and I had yet to experience a productive duck hunt. I picked my day and decided I was going to hunt no matter what! I was unable to find someone who could accompany me, so I readied myself for a solo hunt. 

I woke up at 4am, wide awake and excited. My alarm was set to go off at 4:30, but I wasn't going to risk losing my spot. I got a very early start. In fact, by 5:45 I had the decoys on my back and I was already marching through the darkness out to "the pond". 

As I neared the pond, I could hear the chatter of hundreds of ducks who were "roosting" on the pond. I slowly approached the water and turned off my headlamp to stand, listening for awhile. I couldn't see all the ducks, but a smile came across my face. I had a good feeling about the morning ahead of me. 

I set down the bag of decoys with the rest of my gear and got ready to set up my spread. I stepped into the water and the pond erupted! The wing beats of hundreds of ducks flushed, quacking as they disappeared into the dark sky. I set up my small decoy spread of 14 decoys. I then made my blind in the bull rushes and sat down to wait for legal shooting light. Some of the ducks I had flushed began to come back to the pond and land in my decoys.  
Legal shooting light came around and I anxiously awaited my first group of ducks. A pair of small, dark ducks came zipping in at Mach speed and landed in the decoys. I got excited for a split second until I realized what they were; buffleheads. You guys are safe from me, I said in my head. The pair hung out for a little while before flying away to another spot on the pond.  A few minutes passed and my first group of puddle ducks appeared. They were already locked and gliding into my decoys. As they came near, I could see that they weren't mallards, but gadwalls. They spilt up and landed throughout the decoys. Not wanting to test the curse of the gadwall theory (see previous blog), I refrained from attempting to shoot any of these. There will be more opportunities, I thought.

As a fly fisherman, I've been programmed to hate wind. But it wasn't until I started duck hunting that I found a practical purpose for wind. A duck hunters worst nightmare is a windless day. Wind helps move the decoys, giving them life. This helps convince wary, keen eyed ducks to land. As the morning progressed, my worse fear started to manifest; little wind. Luckily, I have a trick up my sleeve for such occasions. The jerk chord! I rigged a couple of my decoys up to a jerk cord and sat back in the blind. I gave it a pull and life was restored to my plastic friends! 

As I was pulling on the decoys, some movement caught my eye in the sky. I made out a single, large duck headed straight my way. Here we go, I said to myself. I pulled on the decoys again and the duck responded by locking it's wings, dropping into the decoys. I identified the duck as a hen mallard. Normally I don't shoot hen mallards, but adrenaline overtook me and the way she was dropping in was hard for me to resist. I stood up and shot. BOOM! The duck fell, and I had my first duck of the season! I waded out to the duck and grabbed it. "Sorry girl," I said apologetically. 

I sat back down in the blind and admired the gorgeous hen. Little time passed before the next group of ducks appeared. Ten or so mallards made their way over to my spread, analyzing it. I pulled on the jerk cord and gave them a 5 note hen greeting. They locked their wings and I could tell they were convinced. They quickly descended and began backpedalling into the decoys. I stood up and picked out the greenheads. BOOM! My first target fell. I moved onto my next greenhead. By now they were quickly leaving the scene. BOOM! My next shot missed. But I followed through for a third shot. BOOM! I hit the greenhead but he didn't immediately fall. The wounded duck continued to glide away down the pond to my right. He didn't make it far before falling suddenly from the sky. Must have got him in the lungs, I thought. I ran down the bank of the pond to find him laying in the water. I retrieved him and returned to the blind for the first greenhead I shot.
Both birds were large and healthy. I hoisted the larger one up into the sunlight. The beautiful forest green on the head and the iridescence of the blue-green wing speculum reminded me how awesome these animals are.
I was quite out of breath from my run down the bank of the pond and wading in the mud. I grabbed my water bottle and took a needed swig. Apparently catching my breath was not on the schedule this morning because straight ahead of the blind were several mallards locked and dropping in. I slowly, but surely, closed my water bottle just in time to see 3 greenheads backpedalling into my decoys. I stood up and mounted my gun. Two of the drakes started making their ascent and it looked like their paths might cross. I hesitated a moment. Could I possibly get a double? I thought to myself. The drakes lined up and I shot. BOOM! One of them fell, but the other did not. BOOM! My second shot brought the other duck down. I left the blind to retrieve my greenheads. I trudged through the mud and grabbed the drake that was farther out. Something caught my eye as I approached the second bird. I had to do a double take because I couldn't believe what I saw. The duck had a metallic ring on its left leg. A BAND! I was so excited I let out a loud, "WOOOOOO!" I'd been duck hunting for almost 10 years and I'd never shot a banded bird.   

In case you were wondering, biologists catch and place metallic rings on ducks' feet as a way of tracking the birds' migration. Due to the difficulty of catching wild waterfowl, very few ducks get banded every year. Therefore, shooting a duck that has been banded is relatively difficult. Some hunters go their whole lives without shooting a banded duck, while others have shot dozens. It really comes down to luck. And today, I was feeling lucky! For more information go to

The action slowed for the rest of the morning. Several more groups of ducks showed interest in my spread. However, between ducks landing outside the decoys or bad shooting, I was unable to take any more ducks home. I was more than happy with 5 ducks. Besides, it was a long way back to the vehicle and I already had plenty of gear to carry.
I picked up the decoys and loaded all my gear onto my back. I made my way back to the parking lot. There were a couple pheasant hunters there, and I looked up to see them staring at me with quirky smiles on their faces. I was probably quite the sight to see in camouflage, neoprene, boot-footed waders waddling down the road. I had a vest full of gear, a spinning wing-decoy in one hand, a shotgun in the other, a large bag of decoys on my back and 5 ducks swinging to-and-fro with each step. I walked into the parking lot and said, "This duck hunting is sure a lot of work".
"Well, it looks like it paid off for you," one of the pheasant hunters replied.
"Ha ha, yeah I guess it did," I chuckled back to him.

I loaded everything in the vehicle and drove home with a healthy smile on my face. When I returned home, I called the phone number on the duck band. They told me that the duck I shot had been banded in central California in 2011.
I realized I may not be able to go duck hunting again for a while, but only because my next trip would be deer hunting. This year was going to be special because I drew a desert mule deer tag for November. I could hardly wait!