Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Notes from the field

Last week I hunted a small parcel of land with my recurve bow and a wooden arrow. I moved slowly, knowing I've only got a 25-pace range, and I stopped quite a bit and sat, nervously, wondering if I should stay or move on a little more.

I found a good-looking spot next to a pine tree and dragged a couple of downed limbs to me for a makeshift blind. It took about twenty minutes, and just when I’d settled in, after scraping out a place for me to move a bit without crunching and snapping, I noticed first one, then another, then a third and more, very large ants crawling out of the forest duff, interested in this new creature. Was he tasty? Nutritious? Or merely a threat to be wiped out? I left, a bit frustrated that I'd spent a good chunk of the morning effectively playing in the dirt. But I also laughed at the notion of the hunter getting moved by, if not the smallest of creatures, still a tiny forest denizen.

I slowly worked my way down a familiar deer trail, remembering times I'd seen deer here while turkey hunting. They had always come from the East, they had always ratted me out to the turkeys (one doe in particular), and they had always been loud, advertising their presence like everything else out here in the hillside of corn flakes that is the California oak leaf in August.

Mule deer and blacktail stot: they jump on all fours when running from danger, a la' Pepe le Pew. This sound bears a striking resemblance to the kid-in-a-ball-pit antics of a grey squirrel through the fallen leaves when compounded by my over-reliance on my ears (I'm nearsighted). Towhees, too, make a scratching noise that, when first heard through the morning quiet, can sound just like a four-point buck. Needless to say, I get a tad twitchy when things start waking up. Add here the image of me hunched over the trail, following tracks and avoiding twigs, and you can safely throw out the imagined platonic form of some great square-shouldered, straight-backed hunter; I probably look more like an 80 year old with St. Vitus' dance.

Not to say that I'm dangerous, especially to my prey. I'd make a horrible second to the intrepid safari guide, as my first instinct isn't to pull my gun or draw my bow; usually I just make a grandiose head-swivel in the direction of the noise while the rest of my body stays stock-still. I get neck problems sometimes, but I've never drawn on an animal I didn't recognize by sight as legal.

I take that back. I did pull my gun up, once, after finding and following (it was the only way I could go) fresh, big mountain lion tracks for a couple of hours. Something came blowing through the brush straight at me, easily big enough to be a puma. I shouldered my rifle, but it was a doe that blasted through the bushes, about 8 feet away. She wheeled and took off when she saw me, and I never fired, which brings us back to why I wouldn't be good for a back-up gun on safari.

After finding and sitting for a spell in a couple of spots, I poked my way uphill into more open oaks, rimmed by a thick manzanita forest. I scratched out another spot (this time no ants) against an oak and, sheltered from the deer trail, I sat. Too comfortably. I didn't take the time to set up another blind, partly because it was well into daylight now, and partly because there weren't any downed limbs. I crossed my legs (bad), propped my back against the tree, and in a very short period of time, heard the unmistakable sounds of a deer, just over the ridge, and, of course, directly in front of me. I guess he hadn't been shown the perfectly good deer trail he was supposed to walk.

And it was a he. A tall, 3-point rack peeked over the ridge first, followed quickly by the rest of his lithe body. He wasn't a large-bodied buck, but he had a rack bigger than any deer I'd ever shot. Okay, that's cheating, I've only shot a doe in my illustrious hunting career, but still, he was nice. He proceeded to walk broadside to me, at about sixty paces, then a bit closer, and still a little bit closer, until he was inside of fifty. There he turned, and looked down the hill away from me, licked his side, and lay down. There, amidst the corn flakes and firecrackers that cover this forest floor, he slept.

Oh, he moved a bit from time to time, chewed his cud and twitched at some biting bug or bother. And he looked up, seemingly in my direction, a disconcerting number of times. Where he had chosen to lay was a perfect spot, and if I hadn't seen him come up, I'd have never seen him. His antlers looked exactly like lower branches, and his brown fur melted into the background.

Me? I couldn't move a muscle but more than an inch a minute, it felt. I was completely exposed. Over time, my left cheek (and not the one getting sunburned) slowly lost all feeling, then proceeded to complain about it. Occasionally I would shift a bit, especially when the wind would rise and rattle some leaves to cover my noise, but for the most part I remained alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, awed and very pained.

After about an hour and a half of this, I heard, again, sounds of deer approaching, from the same general direction as the buck had earlier arrived. The West, of course. Over the hill, closer to the deer trail, came two does and three bucks, one spike, two forks. There was no way I could stand, not with the three-point, who by now I'd noticed had three on one side and two on the other, right in front of me. So I watched the drama play out. The bucks were pretty dumb, loudly prancing and bouncing around, oblivious to all but one thing: The wary doe. I knew her, as she had ratted me out on many occasions while turkey hunting this hill. She’s large (bigger-bodied than the three-point), light tan with gigantic eyes and bigger ears. All the better to see and hear me, my dear. Deer. She moved across to near the three-by-two, then looked right at me, not through me, but right at me, and began a stilt-legged series of one steps, closer, closer. Closer.

Did I mention you aren't allowed to shoot does? At eight yards her nose finally caught scent of me (not hard to do, regrettably), and she snorted, stomped, and the end. Her herd shot over that hill right quick, though she stuck around for a bit. The three-by-two, he stood up, and stepped closer to me, too. Quickly inside twenty-five paces. I tried to draw the way I was sitting, but no way. He stayed. I rose, and started to draw, and he stotted over behind the manzanita, snorted, and stopped. I followed, slowly, my blood complaining as it rushed back into my legs, my heart pounding and my arms shaking from the adrenaline. But as I came closer, he left. Down a gully and up, and over into the manzanita forest, and gone.


Phillip said...

Good work, Josh!

As I mentioned in my earlier email, I'm liking what I'm seeing here. Great writing, excellent thoughts, and some good hunting too!

Good luck with that recurve. I finally put mine on temporary reserve until I have adequate time and place to practice daily again. I just don't have the confidence or consistency to hunt ethically with it right now. I picked up my first compound, though, and I'm pretty blown away by what it will do.

Hunting traditional archery has definitely made me a better hunter, though, I can say that much for it. You don't know getting close, until you realize you have to be within 15-20 yards before you even consider taking a shot. And then you have to be able to raise and draw the bow without alerting the game... no mean feat since, unlike the compound, you can't just hold it back all day.

I look forward to reading about your success!

Native said...

Thoroughly enjoyed reading "Notes" it brought back many memories of when I hunted with stick and string.

Alas, I must receive rotator cuff surgery before I can hunt archery again (Too much hod carrying and mud slingin' in my younger days) but will get around to it soon enough.

Great description Josh as it put me right there with you!