Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Hens

For a several seasons I gunned for a chance to hunt the Christmas hen stocking in Lycoming and Union county's State Game Land 252. In years prior my brother George and I had made it out post holiday, and we usually harvested several rabbits and if we were lucky, a single female pheasant.  For the first time I was able to hunt on the day of the stock, and it was well worth it. My friend and colleague Spencer accompanied Daisy and I on the hunt. It was a beautifully chilly mid-December afternoon and we arrived with just over 3 hours of winter sun remaining. Daisy set out to work quickly, and for once I purposely steered her into the wheat fields instead of the hedgerows hoping to flush birds as opposed to rabbits. She didn't disappoint us. Nearing the edge of a cut field Daisy began to show the frantic signs of a nearby bird. Spencer and I readied ourselves and a nice double flushed between us before splitting in opposite directions. Spencer took the low flier with a nice head shot, and I marked the high flier down in the distance.

Daisy made quick work of the recovery efforts for a second flush—the bird rose not more than ten yards to my left above the blond grass, and my 12 gauge pump dusted it into a pillow explosion of feathers.  With two birds in tow the frustrations of other less fruitful days afield ebbed away in a heartbeat. The sun warmed our faces and we crossed some brier filled woodlots. Upon crossing a low stone wall and reaching the edge of a remarkable field of winter wheat, Daisy plunged into the middle—hot on the scent of another bird. Half jogging, half running behind her, we scanned the edges as she attempted to reign in the bird we could not see. Slowing to a walk and preparing for a shot I knew would come, a hen suddenly burst forward above Daisy and climbed right to left presenting a quartering 35-yard target.  In a relaxed swing I squeezed off a shot and the bird folded in one smooth swoop.  We broke for water and simply to enjoy the beautiful setting and satisfaction of an enjoyable hunt.

Eventually,  Daisy tired of our so called bird hunting, and decided for herself to pursue her favorite target—the cottontail rabbit. It was the last half hour of the hunt, so I indulged her.  Delving into a mess of tangled bramble she was rewarded with a running bunny.  After a cat-and-mouse-like scamper in the thicket, the cottontail sprinted for open field before comically breaking and streaking in the opposite direction. Somehow, the third shot I squeezed off found its mark, and Daisy had herself an early Christmas present.  We enjoyed the early winter evening as we ambled toward home—vests heavy with game.

Daisy's bird count: 27 (new record).

Long Shot

The 2010 rifle season was trying to say in the least.  Having hunted hard for most of the two weeks without success, I decided to call upon a favored spot for our last day afield in pursuit of whitetails.  The more I study and read about whitetail deer, the more impressed I become with them. Reading scouting tips and tracking advice is one thing, but applying it in the field is quite another. Yet, as I maneuvered my dad into position on a cold snap Saturday morning, I attempted to solve another puzzle. The deer were moving. They slipped between and around us in the predawn light, but the snow provided their calling cards. Dad was placed beneath a high pine atop an outcropping that once used to be the gateway to a now dried up lake cove.  Shaver's Creek still meanders its way through the open field that once was Lake Perez.  It is a good vantage point, and one that is uncommon in the eastern woodlands. One can see upwards of 500 yards in multiple directions.  Opposite our location is an impressive heavily brushed hilltop that harbors scores of rabbits and grouse—it's also a prime bedding area for the whitetail. A man can be within a few yards of a deer in the mound's confines and not even realize their presence. Yet, I knew that if I could push the deer off the south facing side of the hill, they might expose themselves to an unobstructed shot from across the old cove where my dad rested in evergreen shadow.

Deer sign was everywhere—buck sign included.  Slipping along the northern edge of the hilltop, I dropped over the crest and into the bramble—weaving my way back and forth hoping to send a group of whitetails bounding into the open. As I worked my way down the slope, I slid, I crawled, and did my best to navigate the treacherous thicket proficiently. Grouse flushed and rabbits ran, and on most days, I would have been delighted by the sight of small game, but on this day we were chasing the more elusive royalty of the wood. Nearing the base of the hill, I began to swing back to the lake trail in order to rejoin my dad and figure out if we were going to pack it in for the season. We planned to hunt until noon, and we were already biting into our last hour.

That's when the shot rang out. Shocked, I tried to place it, initially thinking it had come from another direction, I suddenly heard the sound of a rifle chamber working itself open, and then I knew it was my father who had fired.  Having just enough time to reach the edge of the open cove, another round was fired, and I stood still taking in the scene of the shooter—now standing upwards of 100 yards to my front and nearly 200 yards beyond him—a pack of deer running through the open lake bed. Deer that galloped from the cover of the hill.  My breath rose visibly in the cool morning air as did the smoke from the chamber of the firing rifle. Angling for a leap over the stream, the deer sped onward and a third shot exploded beneath the watchful eye of a hazy sun. I could no longer see the deer by the time the fourth shot echoed across the land, and I had no idea if any of the bullets from the .30-06 had hit home. By the time I had scrambled through the brush and into the cove, my dad was working his way across the the stream and deeper into the lake bed.  Upon reaching him, I wasn't sure if we were going to be looking for the body of a deer or not. After searching for 15 minutes or so with no positive sign of a hit, we searched for the tracks in order to retrace the graceful leaps of the quarry.  We had just turned to head back to the start when dad spotted the spray—a good lung hit. We excitedly scoured the area and followed the blood trail. It stopped at the stream, and just as we began to wonder which direction to travel, dad shouted, "There he is!"

The body itself was under water. An almost ghostly appearance, and at first, I didn't even think it could have been the one fired upon, but as I dragged him to land, it clearly was the same deer—a medium sized button buck.  The round had found its mark from 200 yards away—an admirable shot.  A long shot. The longest my dad had ever taken on a deer.  One that he had fired from a standing unsupported position—straight out of the Jeremiah Johnson movie he used to make my brother and I watch when we were kids.

A few weeks prior my brother George had said, "We've got to get dad a deer this year.  It's been a long time." Rewind to the October grouse opener, and my brother and I had literally stood in the exact spot from which my father had fired.  On that autumn afternoon I had explained to him that I was thinking about placing dad in the said spot for deer season. And so it was that on the last day of the 2010 rifle season, I saw the work of it all come together in the form of my father's first deer in 18 years.  It was well worth it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thursday Night Buck

By 4 p.m. I was hiking into my stand wishing for a good evening hunt.  I had previously scouted the area a few evenings before the opener of deer season—this included study of aerial maps. Because I had hunted rabbits on the same land twice before, I knew the layout well. Choosing a bramble covered hillside splitting an  open forest and a brushy field for my stand site, I counted on working the edge for arriving and departing deer. The spot provides a good view of the forest and covers a a few trails leading into the thicket. 

After I figured out the quietest and quickest way to my stand, I slipped into place with a feeling of relief. It always feels great to lift my feet off the crunching leaves that I always fear alert deer to my presence.  Fifteen minutes passed and I spotted a blaze orange figuring doping around the opposite hillside.  Experience has taught me that hunters on the move can be allies when sitting on the stand. This gentleman had no idea of my presence until he was literally 25 yards away from me. When he finally spotted me, he actually jumped.  He apologized vocally while I waved him over frantically hoping he'd stop talking.  When he was close enough I whispered to him, "No worries," and we worked out a plan for his exit.  He agreed to depart above me in the open field and circle all the way around the perimeter of the land.

About five minutes later a shot echoed from his direction. I wondered if I had just walked him into a large buck. Nearly half an hour later those worries were alleviated when I saw him crest the far ridge with nothing in tow.  Darkness was creeping in rapidly, and I glanced at my watch.  4:57 p.m.  I had about 17 minutes left.

The great thing about an evening hunt is that it is much easier to stay in place until the very end of the hunt. The cold doesn't have a chance to freeze the joints stiff.  Five minutes passed, and I began to think that there just had to be a deer or two on the move with many hunters calling it a day and beating it back to the warmth of their vehicles for the drive home.

Crunch, crunch! Crunch, crunch! My eyes strained to see movement in the draw below. It better not be another squirrel.  Those little heartbreakers drove me crazy on opening day.

A dark shape moved, and then another, and another. Deer! Headed right at me! My heart hit a higher gear and I remained motionless. It was a race against twilight.  A large doe led a small pack.  She was following a trail that seemed to lead straight toward my tree.  Behind her was an equally large doe, followed by a smaller doe, and then a fourth deer.  Checking down the triumvirate, I concentrated on the one bringing up the rear. A shiny antler seemed to glow behind his ear. As he turned my mind confirmed it: a buck!

He was only 15 yards away, but I could not see anything more than a spike set. As he turned broadside, I thought I spotted another point, but he couldn't have been more than a four-pointer, most likely a three-pointer. Yet, I wasn't devastated. I shifted my rifle slightly just to place the scope on the antlers just to be sure. He detected some movement and squared me up, but he didn't spook. The immense tree at my back broke up my profile and the Scent-Away I had sprayed on myself did the trick. None of the four seemed aware of my presence.

As I observed him I noticed all the classic signs of an immature buck: thin neck, shallow chest, and long, narrow snout.  The spikes were a nice long set, so I bid him farewell in hopes of seeing him next season.

Strapping on my headlamp after waiting another ten minutes so as not to chase off the pack, I began my short trek homeward.  It was an exciting hunt.  I was thankful to see some deer, especially so close to my stand. Confidence in the spot increased, and I am already looking forward to spending some more time there in hopes of intercepting a good buck.