Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Rocket Buck

We arrive at the cabin just as the sun settles over Warner Valley Rim north of the little town of Chester, Ca. near Lake Almanor. It's opening day for deer in zone C4 and our camp is brewing with excitement. I lay out my maps on the table and we start the discussion.
I had come up about a month ago and scouted the area so I shared the little I knew. The best info I got was from a local named Samuel Cousins. He overheard my conversation at the forest service office with one of the ladies in there. "Deer Huntin eh? I guess I could tell you all the places I DONT HUNT!", he joked with a California country drawl. I let him keep talking. The more he talked, the layers of misinformation began to peel away. He told me of just about every spot he'd bagged a buck, or seen one for that matter in the last 30 years, save for his favorite "honey hole". I thanked him and returned to the log book with all of the filled tags signed off in that office for the last five years. Swanson's ridge kept coming up and I asked the lady about it.
Old Samuel perked up immediately, "You can't hunt there, that's my honey hole!" Bingo.
"Hey, I'm just exercising my right to access public information" I replied defensively.
"Alright" he capitulated. "The thing about Swanson Ridge is that you've gotta go there on a weekday. Weekends it's a madhouse." I marked it with a slightly bigger x than all the others I was amassing on my forest service map.
Because of this chance encounter and about 55miles logged driving-hypnotically-slowly down endless back roads near the vicinity of Heyman's cabin, along which I spotted a pathetic 4 does and one decent buck, (all but one of which were running full speed to another county); I was elected to play deer guide on opening morning.
Terry and Gary are friends of Heyman's from way back, twin brothers who finish each other's sentences and compete over who gets to tell the next story about "scoring" a crucial piece of sporting equipment from a grieving widow at a yard sale or a clueless clerk at a tackle shop clearance. Occasionally they will unleash their power and pester large corporations into sending them new and more expensive gear, wielding emails and handwritten letters complaining of the inferior product they were sold. "Cheap" stuff they probably should've known better than to buy in the first place. When they started to tell me about the shotguns they stole off of unsuspecting ebay vendors, I started to question the prices they paid. A benelli M2 for $1100 bucks! I saw one advertised at the guns n more for $1300. Benelli Nova for $400 dollars? I thought that's what they went for? Anyways, at least there was no paperwork and now the government won't be knocking at the door, repossessing in the middle of the night.
The truck's headlights illuminated the tracks of all the other trucks that came before us. An endless curving maze of dirt road bordered in buck brush snaked before us. Heyman questioned every turn but I found the spot where I had seen fresh sign on my previous scouting escapade.
The twins insisted on walkie-talkies and so we check the channels. Loud beeps permeate the predawn silence, sending any buck within a half mile into opening day hibernation. Despite this, they insist on whispering and moving everywhere in absolute silence.
We went our separate ways. Heyman took a stand over a small opening. I elected to move farther around the mountain, every step sending a loud "crunch alarm" through the forest, the floor littered with dry debris. We saw little sign and no deer. My spot was a bust. We decided to head back to the truck when what would be a familiar pattern first reared it's ugly head. We started playing "where are you" over the walkie talkies and spent more time trying to determine the whereabouts of our partners than to just use common sense and back track to the truck.
"Brian come in"
"Yeah I read ya"
"Have you patched that boulder patch?"
"Which one?"
"The second one to your east."
"No, I'm by that big thick clump of trees to the north"
"Should I keep heading south?"
"Head west first and then south"
And on and on. I just turned off my walkie talkie and looked around, waiting to respond until I got to the truck. I waited there for about twenty minutes until Gary and Heyman came down the road. Terry likes to take his time and we noticed that he was always the last to gear up and leave and the last one to make it back to the truck. It seemed he enjoyed immersing himself in nature's awesome house and I envied this connection he conjured up, watching him slowly return to the artificial environ of the truck cab, refusing to lift his eyes from the dusty track he followed. He wanted to stay "in the zone" as long as possible.
We headed back for lunch and decided we would hit Swanson's Ridge that afternoon. Mad house be damned-we would probably find hunters everywhere but there might be deer as well.
As the truck crawled up the forest service road into the Swanson's Ridge area, we knew there were deer in the area-lots of deer. The dusty road was littered with tracks. Many covered the tracks of the last truck that came before us. We split up at the top and began to hunt. Heyman is an amazing specimen. I wore sturdy hiking boots and still had trouble "off road". He was equipped in pull-on, ankle-high, morell-style slippers and still crunched through the brush like a native lumberjack. I called them his moccasins. He was off in the brush and I walked the road, hoping he would jump something my way, when it happened.
I caught movement not 50 feet ahead. In an instant I spotted two deer ahead, frozen and giving me the stare down. It was the moment of truth. They saw me and I saw them and my blood pumped. They must've been thinking: "Oh shit there's a hunter with a rifle."
I know I was thinking, "Oh shit there's two deer and One's a Buck!" I quickly shouldered my rifle and slid off the safety. I picked up the antler's, a nice tall forked horn, and tried to follow the deer's dance of panic. The doe bolted right at me and in that instant I moved with her slightly. The buck turned back the way it came, made a crouching spin and then shot off like a rocket. Airborne, I picked up mostly it's antlers in the scope; a rookie mistake as I should've been focused on a patch of skin next to the vitals. I elected not to shoot at a flying target, waiting instead to let it to land but alas, the cover on the far side of the road was head high and I could only see the tips of antlers bobbing off as the buck darted to and fro to it's escape. Mind you this entire scene took place in under three seconds. I put the safety back on, followed quickly and climbed a stump for a better vantage point but they were gone. A sick feeling came over me as I knew this might be the only buck we would see all weekend.
I took a moment to reflect and couldn't help but be amazed and awed by the buck's astounding agility. I walked to the scuff mark in the road, the buck's launching pad if you will and then tried to gauge the distance and height to the landing zone. A conservative estimate: 8 feet into the air and twice that in distance. Truly a rocket.
Although I will probably always wonder what if I had squeezed off a shot, would I have hit him, I'm consoled by the facts of what I know. I know I didn't take a careless shot and risk wounding and losing such a wonderful animal. The memory of that airborne rocket will have to suffice until the next season, keeping me company with the promise it holds: they're out there and they can pop out and disappear at any time making a fool of you. But if you're present and aware enough, and in the right place at the right time, you just might be rewarded.

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