Monday, September 26, 2011

The Moment

"I feel like a heroin addict who just got a fix" I told Joe as I fumbled over a cup of cowboy coffee. The morning was "twilight-zone-still" as the crisp smells of aspen and juniper, mixed with a little dust and french roast, tried to stop my body from shaking almost convulsively. My first Archery Buck was presumably laying somewhere close by in the high desert of Modoc County. The shivers and shakes came in waves, receding to an unnoticeable condition and then peaking in a crescendo of shuddering; the mixture of a chilly morning and the adrenaline rush better known as "buck fever". Joe smiled, a veteran hunter, he knew the feeling well and nodded in agreement and slight envy. The "after shakes" are what motivate us to prepare, practice and perform for months in anticipation of "the moment of truth": that split second when the arrow is airborne, time freezes, and life hangs in the balance.
"Well, it's been about forty five minutes, if you hit him square, he should be ready" Joe observed, staring down in the dust for a hint of fresh track or blood sign. "I heard you hit him-you know. I told my wife you just shot a buck and she asked how I knew. Heard it from the bathroom window just before I got in the shower. Sounded like you hit him good."
"Right behind the shoulder" I commented with a confident aire though doubt loomed somewhere in the recesses. Too many blown stalks, peetered out blood trails and a coyote that disappeared two weeks ago after being hit squarely near the shoulder, have all cautioned me against any kind of early celebration. The buck had been hit well, yes, but I wasn't about to count chickens. All we had right now was eggs.
The night before, Joe showed me the bucks' favorite haunt, a much chewed upon clump of buck brush that the mule deer had been visiting every morning like clockwork. After setting up under an juniper tree where we figured they would meander for a good shot, it was just a matter of waiting for the right moment to present itself. Sleep came sporadically that night and I awakened with a start. The slightest glow of dawn was apparent as I tied up my boots and slipped over-sized socks over them for stealth. I debated a sweatshirt versus my thin scent-lok and opted for the lighter. I hadn't practiced much with a heavier coat and didn't want to snag my string on it during the release so I went with the light pullover. I debated this decision often as I crouched in the soft bed of juniper needles, trying not to shiver.
"The Grey Ghosts" as they are known in this country, seemed to materialize from the terrain. Three bucks, the one you see here, and two others, slightly smaller and still in velvet, but with a few extra points on either side. I don't remember letting my guard down for a second and yet, without detecting movement or sound, there they were in an opening, making their way down the draw towards Joe's guest cabin and the popular clump of buck brush. I ranged them as they passed behind the sparse stand of trees and momentarily contemplated a stalk to cut the distance of 54 yards that appeared on my range finder. Gathering my breath through lips parted to avoid any sound, I thought better of it. Motionless, I was invisible but trying to sneak up on these deer would be a mistake. Their mule-like ears are like satellites, picking up the slightest noise from far off and putting them on alert. Though they don't see well, they are keenly attuned to pick up movement and of course, moving my position might move my scent trail although the wind this morning was all but undetectable. So I sat tight and stayed put, momentarily letting my gaze fall to the ground,When they first appeared, "the grey ghosts" as they are known in this calming myself by staring at rocks rather than antlers. When I looked up, it was like a dream, the buck I was after (completely velvet free, taller more symmetrical, larger bodied) was steadily moving towards me, abandoning the path the first two meandered along which would've taken them all out of range. Afraid to "stare him off", again I averted my eyes and began to make incremental and (hopefully) undetectable movements, setting myself up for a shot under the cover of the juniper. Finally he was in position and looking the other way. Joe had warned me last night to focus on just one and to not worry about the others-"it's like flock shooting, ya gotta pick one out and stick with it." I came to full draw and my upper limb brushed a branch with an audible "scratch". The buck looked up and froze. My sight pins danced. Shaking circles didn't match. I remember to breathe and then caught myself using my forty yard pin instead of my twenty. Time stood still as the Buck seemed to peer deep into my soul, calculating my intentions. Apparently convinced I was a part of the landscape, or at least a vegetarian, he dropped his head and continued feeding. Everything settled into place right behind his shoulder and at the instant he let his guard down to nibble one last tidbit from the buck brush, I released the arrow. "Whack" the impact startled me as it hit home reassuringly. The buck charged off in a stampeding bee-line down the draw. I heard a crashing and a "snap" as the buck stumbled and broke off the arrow somewhere beyond my sight. Tracking the sounds as long as I could and then waiting another five minutes or so after that, I retreated back to the cabin to try and calm my nerves-and put on a sweatshirt.
Joe eagerly and painstakingly picked up the track, intermittently urging me to keep my bow ready, "look ahead!" and then inviting me to check out the tiny drop of blood he found or the slightest fresh scuff of earth, then chastising me again to "keep your eyes up there!" I had to smile because he was as fired up about finding this buck as I was. But still, the blood was painfully sparse. Finally we found where he had "crashed" and recovered the bloody tail-end of my arrow. "Good" blood and some tissue wrapped the snapped end.
"How do you like my tracking so far?" Joe asked with his immutable confidence.
Making sure not to let him catch me looking down at what he had just pointed out I replied, "I like it a lot!" Finally Joe spotted the body (so much for my looking ahead) and after a cautious approach, pictures were taken and the work began. "Grab your knife", Joe said and I looked at him with a dumb smirk.
"That might've been a good thing for me to bring along eh?" Same goes for my little digital camera but then again, I never go anywhere without the cell phone. Joe let me borrow his knife and we had that buck at the butcher by ten a.m. that morning. The "Old West" butcher near Alturas does a great job for an unheard of price. "Buck Burgers" and "Buck Stix" are a popular request from my boys and my wife has even made quite a few crock-pot recipes with the burger. I could live off just the steaks and a little cajun spice. I love that we can enjoy the buck and honor him around our dinner table for months after the hunt. Young, big-bodied and Alfalfa-loving, the meat off of my first Archery Buck is divine. I've never been more popular with my carnivorous buddies.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

South Texas New Year's

I know I'm weird but I can't think of a better way to ring in the New Year than tracking a wounded doe through the Brush Country of famed South Texas. Maya's uncle Andrew has invited us to The De La Garza Ranch along with the rest of the extended family, eighteen in all, to celebrate New Year's. Now, we're on our hands and knees, in the pitch dark, looking for tiny droplets of blood that will lead us to our wounded quarry.
It all started when Maya's Father Mike was remarried in Santa Barbara this summer. Sitting around a fire outside the pepper tree hotel, Maya had the brilliant idea of a reunion at the Ranch over New Year's. I believe everyone in attendance that night was reunited six months later under the lone star around a much bigger bonfire (everything's bigger in Texas). Gazing at the wide open Texas star scape and reflecting into my chilly microbrew I recounted the days events and considered it a blessing to be here.
Our flight out of Sacramento left at 6am that morning, not an easy task with two toddlers, luggage and car seats. I dropped the kids and Maya off at the terminal, sped back to the economy lot and jumped on a tram, not before nailing my noggin on the hatch of the freestyle hastily grabbing tanner's Thomas the Train sweatshirt (which I found once we returned home in the car seat bag, unworn). In the rush I forgot to note the parking location and paid for that later too but hey, we made it didn't we?
We nearly missed our connecting flight in Denver-which would've set us back a day-but instead sprinted (Maya carrying Sage and me dragging a belligerent Tanner) all the way across the airport, only to wait for an hour as crews de-iced the wings. I should probably omit the fact that Maya was ready to give up but I won't because this blog is "The Man's Side" and I'm proud of the fact that I didn't. "We're too late!" she cried, obviously unnerved and embarrassed by Tanner's wailing.
"We don't know that!" I retorted with my best Nicolas Cage impression. "We've just gotta get there!" The portly attendant asked us if we had heard her paging us as we breathlessly arrived at the gate, 15 minutes after the scheduled departure time. We chuckled to each other, giddy that the plane hadn't left us for a day in quickly-freezing-over Denver. We couldn't have heard a siren over Tanner's wailing.
We arrived in San Antonio two hours late but Aunt Andy was there with the De La Garza's Suburban and we were off for Catulla, home of George Strait and ground zero for big oil speculation. On the ninety minute car ride we witnessed no less than three accidents, one of which unfolded in front of our eyes in a cloud of smoke. It seemed obvious then that "The Big Guy" was definitely looking out for us. Welcome to Texas Baby! Let's go hunting!
If you've never been to South Texas, the landscape is thoroughly monotonous and impressive only for the fact that it seems to stretch endlessly into the horizon, an ocean of tangled branches. "Brush Country" pretty much sums it up. Different shades of gray interspersed with the occasional jolly green of a prickly pear cactus, smothered in a tan layer of dust, rolls out along lonely stretches of highway. Unimpressive of course, unless you are a hunter. The particular area where the De La Garza Ranch is situated is a world-renowned Whitetail Deer hunting haven, legendary amongst even the most casual hunting enthusiast. Hardware stores showcase feeders and box blinds on tall "quad-pods" that tower over even the tallest of camo and winch-equipped, four-wheel-drive trucks.
Word got out amongst the family of our harrowing airport travails and we were greeted as heroes at the ranchhouse, a white-washed and red-trimmed affair that seemed to sprout right out of the desert. Complete with snake-proof fencing it spoke to the weary traveler, beckoning him to a desert outpost after a long journey.
Uncle Andrew is instantly the friendliest guy you will meet and yet underneath runs a strong current. He is constantly on the go and always seems to have everything under control. His wife Christine belies the same electricity, a top OB/GYN, non-pareil amongst her peers, she epitomizes Texas warmth and hospitality. They make us feel welcome at once and Uncle Andrew is kind enough to broach the subject of hunting. "Oh Yeah, we'll set you up in the Rock Blind tomorrow. You should see a lot of game. Deer, Hogs, turkey, maybe even a bobcat or cougar."
The next day Aunt Karen and I post up in the rock blind before dawn breaks. The whirring of the feeder sounds off at 7am and ratchets up the anticipation. Something will be coming by soon it says. A doe materializes from the mist. A low fog has settled over the horizon and descends and recedes like the pulsing of a tidal swell. I set the .270 rifle up on the window and get a good look at her. The De La Garza's have a strict management strategy for their property. They harvest only one mature buck each year that meets their specifications. As such, it's important to harvest a few mature does each year to keep the buck-to-doe ratio up and thin the herd appropriately. The trick is to find a mature doe that isn't trailing fawns. Just as I started to seriously consider taking the mature doe, a young fawn stepped out from the mist. I told Karen that we wouldn't take this one and she thanked me for sparing her the agony. I teased her later that she was "holding me back" but after seeing the fawn, it wasn't a question. There is just too much game around the ranch to take anything other than exactly what you're looking for.
For the next two hours we watched a family of deer mill about, at times spooky and staring at the box blind, other times browsing contentedly only yards from our location. I noticed that the fawn had "nubs" and the other two deer were bucks. One was a small 2x3 and the other -"Daddy" we called him- had an identical but much larger and taller rack. There's nothing like observing wildlife from a hidden vantage point. I could tell that Karen enjoyed playing "hide and seek" with the family of deer and just watching them in their natural surroundings. Although we didn't find a doe or a hog that was suitable for taking, we definitely gained a better appreciation for the nature that surrounded us here in South Texas.
To be continued....