Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Getting my First Deer

About 5 years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn to hunt.  I'd grown up fishing, but my immediate family didn't hunt.  And not only didn't we hunt; we didn't have many firearms (only a bolt-action .22 with birdshot to discourage chicken-stealing, wandering dogs). As a dedicated omnivore, I decided that hunting would allow me to participate directly in the harvest of meat (even more directly than raising and selling grass-fed lamb).   Just over 3 years ago, I finally got my act together and completed a hunter safety course, which allowed me to purchase a hunting license and my first ever deer tag.  I also purchased a Marlin 30-30 rifle (and received a scope from my sister that Christmas).  That first fall I hunted several times in Colfax - always by myself.  I didn't get a deer, but I learned to appreciate the benefit of being alone and quiet in the woods - I saw some amazing wildlife - including a bear that followed me on one of my early morning hunting trips.  Last year, I again hunted in Colfax - and I also got to hunt with my friend Eric Lopez and my brother-in-law Adrian Lopez (both of whom are more experienced hunters than me).  Eric got a deer on one of our trips.  On the last day of the season, I nearly got a shot at a buck, but decided that I wasn't comfortable firing my rifle so close to the property line of the ranch where I was hunting.  This year, I've been to Colfax several times, and once to the Magonigal Pass area of Donner Pass - and I didn't see a buck in either location.  Last weekend, however, was different!  Adrian and I camped near the top of Carson Pass - and on Saturday, we both got a deer!
Looking northeast from our campsite.

We got our bucks at the base of the bluff in the background.

We arrived at our camping spot somewhat by accident.  Adrian lives in Columbia, and I live in Auburn - so Carson Pass (up Highway 88) is about halfway between us.  We met in Jackson, got our groceries, and headed up the hill.  After buying a map at the ranger station near Pioneer, we decided we'd check out the Silver Fork of the American River.  Fortunately for us, we missed the turnoff - and we decided to keep heading up country.  We saw a campground symbol on the map further up the pass - and found a beautiful spot to camp.  As the sun was setting - making the aspens and the lava-cap mountain behind them glow - we set up camp.  We were amazed that the small creek still had water running (an auspicious sign, as you'll see).

We were not up as early as some hunters on Saturday morning - I heard 4-5 trucks go past camp while it was still dark.  Nonetheless, we were up at daybreak.  We grabbed a quick snack, filled our water bottles, and headed up the mountain.  We crept through the forest, trading places taking the lead.  As we neared the top of the little watershed we were camped in (near the lava ridge above us), we heard several rifle shots (which seemed a ways off).  We crossed the creek, and Adrian suggested we stay below the ridge dividing our creek from a tributary (so the low sun wouldn't throw our shadows too far).  About that time, we heard barrage of 8 or 9 rifle shots - we lost track, but it sounded like target practice!  We heard voices above us, and Adrian saw one of the other hunters up in the lava bluffs.  We decided to start making our way back down the ridge.

We'd only been walking a few minutes when we both heard something coming down the hill through the brush and trees towards us.  Adrian said, "That's a deer," and sure enough, a small forked horn buck was walking quickly through the trees in our direction.  We both looked through our binoculars, and Adrian said, "He's legal - take him."  My inexperience nearly cost me the opportunity!  I had loaded my 30-30 lever action rifle, but I hadn't yet chambered a round.  I quickly rectified that situation and took off the safety - and the buck still hadn't seen us!  At this point, he was about 50 yards away, quartering towards me.  I looked through my scope - and couldn't see a damn thing (Adrian later showed me how to adjust it).  Finally, with the deer about 25 yards away and broadside to me, I fired - and made the perfect shot you would expect with a deer so close!  The buck made one or two jumps and it was over - I had my first deer!

When we were sure the buck was dead, I dragged him into a small clearing about 20 yards down hill and started filling out my deer tag.  I hadn't even attached the tag to his antlers when Adrian said, "Something else is coming down the hill." We turned to look - and a slightly larger buck was coming down the same exact trail!  Being a more experienced hunter, Adrian was prepared.  In the space of less than 5 minutes (and within 20 yards of each other), we both had a deer.

Now the hard work began!  We were more than a mile away from camp - and the only way to get our deer back was to drag them down the ridge.  We kept to the high ground as much as possible (gravity became our friend), but it was a long and tedious trip back.  After a quick snack and a very cold (and tasty) beer, we began the work of cleaning our deer.  I've dressed out sheep before, but I had never done a deer by myself.  Adrian patiently walked me through it - and cleaned his deer at the same time.  I asked if we were going to skin the bucks, but Adrian suggested that the butcher in Jackson would do it for a small fee. As we were working, the hunters we'd heard above us walked into camp - they'd also shot a deer and had followed our trail down the ridge.  We compared notes and realized that they'd driven our deer off the lava ridge - and right to us!

About 90 minutes later, we arrived at Swingles Meats in Jackson - and learned that they no longer skinned deer.  So we went back to work!  Skinning a deer in the back of a Dodge pickup isn't ideal but it can be done.  Our work finished, we headed back to camp.  Since I had a second tag, we went back out the next morning, but our hunt was mostly exploratory - we climbed into the cliffs where our deer had been flushed the day before, and were treated to some spectacular views.  Then it was back to camp for lunch, loading up, and the trip back home.  For many reasons, the trip was one of the best outdoor experiences I've ever had!  When I told my friend Eric what had happened, he said, "You guys are lucky ----ers!"  And he was right!
A shot from our exploring on Sunday.

Adrian checking for deer signs in the bluff where our bucks had been the morning before.

I learned so many things on this trip.  First, I thoroughly enjoy being in the mountains - by myself, yes - but even more with someone who shares my appreciation for and love of the Sierra.  And Adrian and I both love seeing new country - we'd never camped on Carson Pass before.  Second, I enjoy learning something that can ONLY be learned by doing - no matter how much I'd read about hunting and deer behavior, I think the only way to learn how to hunt is to do it (hopefully with the help of someone more experienced).  Third, I appreciated hunting with someone as respectful as Adrian - we both hunt, ultimately, with the idea that we're feeding ourselves and our families.  While my family doesn't rely on my hunting abilities for sustenance (thank goodness, given my lack of success the last two years), we do believe that we're ethically required to consume the animal whose life I took.  Adrian and I ran into some other hunters on Saturday afternoon who were only packing a trophy out - they'd left most of the meat.  I couldn't hunt that way.  Fourth, the circumstances that led to both of us getting a deer in such a short time frame were instructive.  I assumed when I'd heard the shots that any deer in our proximity would be gone.  Because we remained alert, we had an opportunity.  Finally, the importance of taking a shot that you're sure about hit home for me - I'm not a good enough marksman to take long-range, iffy shots at this stage of my hunting career.

When I got home, I called my folks - they'd already heard about our success.  While my Dad is not a hunter, both of my parents made sure that we had plenty of outdoor experiences as kids.  I mentioned to them that I had realized on this trip that I could camp comfortably with minimal gear, my Dad said, "Well, you've done it all your life."  I came home with a new appreciation for how I was raised!

Finally, I'm not posting any photos of the buck.  To me, they're private - but I don't object to other people's photos.  I will probably post some photos of the meals we enjoy along with our favorite recipes.  Most of all, I'm looking forward to picking up my venison in two weeks - Adrian and I will hopefully be able to meet up in Jackson and perhaps have a beer!  And, I'm looking forward to many more autumn days spent being quiet in the outdoors.

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