December 11, 2014: The Hunt
This week has been a bit difficult for my wife and her parents. My wife’s brother, Philip, who was living south of the Boston area when the crash occurred, would have turned 50 four days ago. We have no way of knowing if he’s still alive. From the reports we’ve gotten over the short-wave, Boston was hit hard when the rioting started. Much of the city, proper, was burned to the ground. One ray of hope is that Philip actually lived closer to Cape Cod. While it’s still a very populous area, we’ve heard no specific reports of violence in the area.
My wife’s other brother, Timothy, lived (lives?) in Hong Kong at the time of the crash. We’ve heard some tentatively positive reports about Hong Kong but no real details. Our hope is that Timothy and his family – wife, son and daughter – are still alive and have resources to survive. They, along with Philip and several other family members, are in our prayers every day.
Our supply of fresh meat was running low so we went after some venison today. The weather has turned a bit milder and there are a few bare spots in the corn and alfalfa fields.
My uncle, my brother, Joseph, and I all have scoped deer rifles. Whitetail deer have been abundant on our farm for fifteen years or more. As the deer population in general surged, we got our share. With plenty of cover, food and water, our place became a haven. For several years prior to the crash, both my uncle and I had each taken two or more deer every fall. Every following spring, there was a fresh crop of fawns. We tried to hold our own but our freezers would only hold so much meat and the deer bred like rabbits.
With things the way they are, we weren’t particularly concerned about deer season. Worry about being arrested for poaching deer out of season was pretty low on our list of issues. More than likely, if there was a Game and Parks Commission still in existence, the rifle deer season would be just about to open back up anyway.
We had seen plenty of tracks in the snow over the last several weeks so we had a good idea as to the local deer’s movements. We knew where the bare patches were on the cornfield and alfalfa field. We also knew, from years of hunting the same property, where the deer tended to bed down this time of year.
We rose about 5:00 a.m., ate some oatmeal for breakfast, filled our thermoses with coffee or hot tea and headed east from the houses toward the center of the property going from west to east.
Near the eastern border of our original property is a tree-covered patch of land that comprises about 40 acres. There are two tree plots in this area – one right on the eastern border of our original farm and another just west of it. Between the two tree plots is a breezeway that allows farm implements to get to the alfalfa field to the south of the tree plots. To the east of the tree plots is a prime bedding area. Largely protected from prevailing winds on the north by cedars and firs, it’s covered sparsely in young deciduous trees – mostly cottonwoods and elms – and tall native grasses. The place is like one giant Serta mattress for deer.
The wind was calm – maybe five miles an hour out of the north-northeast. We came in from the southwest. What wind there was blew our scent away from the bedding area. The frozen snow crunched under our feet. The temperature was down around 12° Fahrenheit and there really wasn’t much we could do about the noise of the crunching snow. Our plan was to get into our blinds early enough that the noise of our movements would be a distant memory when the deer started thinking about getting up to feed.
Our plan was to set up in a triangle that covered the northern, western and southern parts of the bedding and likely feeding areas. Joseph, the least experienced hunter of the three of us, set up on the northwest corner of the area. He had good visibility of an open area of grass that ran east-west on the north side of the two tree plots. This wasn’t a likely feeding area but it was commonly used as a “highway” by the deer to get from the bedding area to the feeding area north and west of the tree plots. The deer had tree cover on their south, cornfield on their north and generally felt safe walking through this highway. My uncle and I had both shot several deer in this corridor. They typically moved slowly through the area and often in groups of two or three at a time.
I set up on the west end of the tree plots about 50 yards past the western end of the “highway”. I could see any deer coming down the last 100 yards of the highway as well as those that might choose to take a different east/west route on the southern side of the deciduous tree plot in the alfalfa field.
My uncle, Terry, set up in a blind on the southern edge of our property with a view of the alfalfa field. He had an excellent view of what was probably the biggest “honey hole” on our entire property. Deer would slip out of the trees a few yards to the south to graze on the alfalfa. From about 180 yards away, they generally had no idea that anyone was in the area. They were relaxed and the hunter could pick his shot.
Each of us carried a handheld short-wave radio. We had tried to use FRS radios in the past but they just didn’t have the power to cover the entire area. The batteries for the handheld short-waves were rechargeable so they were a logical choice. We selected a little-used channel and agreed to be careful not to give away our general location – only discussing local specifics as we saw deer and tracked their movements.
About 7:00 a.m. the sun peeked over the eastern horizon. The only thing I didn’t like about my position was that I was looking directly into the sun. I brought along a pair of Wiley X Romer sunglasses with dark amber lenses to help reduce the glare and cut the blue light spectrum down considerably. I had hunted with these glasses for years and they really worked well. I’m relatively certain that they were issued to a number of military units before the crash. Not only did they reduce glare and filter out the blue fog of natural light, but they were incredibly tough. I remember reading about tests where the glasses were shot with a .22 caliber rifle and deflected the bullet. I don’t remember the distance. They were far from bullet-proof but they certainly provided a lot of protection from an accidental stick in the eye or a ricocheting bullet fragment from a distance. They also reduced the natural reflective nature of human eyes. Deer were notorious for spotting the reflection of hunters’ eyes. Once they spotted your eyes, you were busted.
Shortly after 7:00, my brother’s voice came over the radio and broke the silence of the morning. He quietly reported that he could see several deer milling around in the bedding area to the east of the tree plots. The deer had not yet decided whether to take a northerly or southerly route toward the feeding areas yet.
Ideally, we each wanted to shoot at least one deer. If we could each get two deer, the day would be declared an unqualified success. That meant we had to closely coordinate our actions and hold our fire until each of us had at least one deer in our sights. We also wanted to make sure that our shots were lined up in such a way to avoid firing in each other’s direction. That meant that the absolutely ideal scenario would involve deer on both the north and south sides of the trees and shots taken while they were still to our east.
There are two kinds of plans – those that have failed and those that may fail. Our ideal plan “failed”. All the deer that Joseph had spotted decided to move along the north side of the tree plots. Not a single deer went in the direction of the honey hole on the south side of the trees. While this wasn’t uncommon, it was frustrating. It meant that only Joseph and I would have good shots at deer while they were moving calmly. It was possible that deer might take off into and through the trees to the south after we fired our first shots. If they came out of the trees on the south side, Terry might have a shot but it could be in Joseph’s direction.
I informed Terry of the situation. He hadn’t seen a single deer on his side of the trees so he simply responded that he’d be on the lookout for any deer coming out of the trees into the alfalfa field and only take a shot if they were well east of Joseph’s position.
Joseph reported five deer moving in our direction. A buck, probably 3-4 years old, three does and a young, “fork-tine” buck. As a buck gets older, the meat gets more and more “gamey”. A four year-old buck makes good jerky, summer sausage, breakfast sausage – basically seasoned meat – but isn’t ideal for meat that isn’t seasoned. Does tend to be better meat, in general, but older does’ meat can be a bit stringy. Younger bucks and does are ideal. Of course, younger deer are also typically smaller than older deer. Everything is a trade-off.
The deer rounded an outcropping of trees and came into my field of view. I gave them a quick once-over with my binoculars and sized them up. Two of the does were a little smaller than the third. Priority one. Priority two would be the larger doe and the younger buck. I laid out the priorities with Joseph and turned my radio to VOX. This way I could transmit to Joseph without having to press the talk button on the side of the radio.
Joseph and I settled in – our sights on our first two targets. “Ready,” Joseph informed me. “Ready,” I replied. “Three … two … one … fire.” My shot came a split second before Joseph’s. As soon as I pinned the trigger back for the first shot, I opened my left eye and worked the bolt to chamber another round. With both eyes open I could see that both of the smaller does were hit. The three other deer were briefly frozen in position. I quickly switched my position and picked up the right shoulder of the younger buck in my scope. He was facing in my direction but slightly quartered away toward the tree plot to the south. I knew I only had perhaps a second to take the shot. My breathing settled. I adjusted my aim slightly and pinned the trigger back one more time. The buck jumped toward the trees and crumpled onto his left side. Once again, I opened my left eye and worked the bolt on my rifle.
Shortly after, I heard the crack of Joseph’s .270. I saw the larger doe flinch, do a quick crow-hop and turn for the trees. She was moving toward my point of aim. When I shot the small buck, she was behind him and about five yards to the north. I settled my cheek back onto the stock of my .30-06 and quickly re-acquired my sight picture. I kept my left eye open and watched as the doe jumped in the direction of my aim. As the arc of her jump brought her into my sight picture, I squeezed the trigger for a third time and watched as she bowled over sideways similar to the young buck a second or two before.
With both eyes open I could see the older buck’s white tail flashing as he took off through the trees toward the southeast. “Terry, the big buck is coming into your lane,” I almost shouted into the radio. “If he keeps on his current track, he’ll come out on the southeast corner of the big tree plot headed for the small tree plot on the old fence line.”
“Got it,” I heard Terry come back.
Joseph and I stayed put. Terry knew his shooting lane was open if we didn’t move. If we moved we put ourselves in jeopardy. I switched my focus back to the spot where we’d shot the four deer. Even with my binoculars, I couldn’t see any movement.
Perhaps thirty seconds passed. I had lost sight of the bigger buck in the trees. The radio was quiet. Another thirty seconds passed. Nothing. In all likelihood the buck had gone into the middle of the tree plot and hunkered down. Sometimes a frightened deer will run for a mile. Other times they simply drop down where they are and disappear in the tall grass. This buck was smart enough to have survived for three or four years. He hadn’t made any major mistakes … yet.
“Terry, I’m going to see if I can push him,” I voiced my intent.
“Go slow,” Terry replied.
“Will do. I’ll update both of you with my progress so you know when your shooting lane changes.”
I slipped out of my blind and drew my back-up gun – a Glock 20. It would be much easier to maneuver in the dense trees and underbrush than my .30-06. The Glock carried 15 rounds of 10mm. Any one of the fifteen hand-loaded 200 grain hunting loads would easily knock down a deer with a reasonably good shot. Back before the crash I’d hunted feral hog in Oklahoma with this very same gun and ammunition. Anything that could take down a feral hog could easily take down a whitetail.
I crossed the open area of the corn field as quietly as possible. My feet still crunched the snow as I walked. In the hour and a half that we’d been out, the temperature might have gone up a couple degrees. The wind was still light and from the north. I wasn’t worried about my scent giving me away at this point. Actually, we wanted the deer to see, hear or smell me. We just didn’t want him to bolt from his hiding location at top speed. Terry was a good shot but a whitetail at top speed was a tricky target to hit. Not only did they move quickly, but they bounded erratically making it difficult to reliably lead them with your sights.
Most of the trees in the two tree plots are cottonwoods. They grow naturally in our part of Nebraska. In fact, they are the Nebraska state tree. Kansas too … I think. Anyway, some of them get to be pretty large. One of the weaknesses of cottonwoods is their root system. They tend to grow near water and, consequently, don’t put down deep roots. Even some of the largest and oldest cottonwoods can be blown over in a high wind because of their relatively shallow root system. As a result, the tree plot was filled with deadfalls. Dozens of cottonwoods had blown over throughout the years. These were a great source of wood for our wood stoves but they were difficult to maneuver around quietly.
After about two minutes, I had made my way about ten yards into the trees. I reported my progress over the radio so Joseph and Terry could adjust their shooting lanes appropriately. I had seen no sign of the buck. That wasn’t surprising. He had entered the trees about 30 yards east and twenty yards north of my current position. I crouched behind a deadfall and scanned the area ahead of me. The plot was thickly forested but not so thickly that it severely limited visibility. Generally, the trees were a few yards apart. The heavy canopy kept underbrush to a minimum. The snowfall accumulation was much lighter under the cover of the trees. The ground was carpeted in a mixture of light brown and yellow leaves that rustled loudly as you walked and frozen, crunching snow. One of the tricks I learned as a boy was to move in such a way that the sound of your movement mimicked that of a squirrel moving through the leaves – take a few quick steps and stop, a few more and stop again. Deer could hear your approach but if they didn’t see you or catch your scent, the sound would not overly alarm them.
I picked out another deadfall and, keeping my body low to avoid being seen, moved quickly to a spot behind it. As I dropped into place behind the deadfall, I thought I caught sight of the tips of a set of antlers off to my right and ahead of me thirty yards or so. Often times it’s easier to catch sight of something with one’s peripheral vision than it is to see it straight ahead. I settled in behind the deadfall and slowly turned my head in the direction of where I thought I’d spotted the antlers. At first, nothing stuck out. There were a number of smaller trees with branches that could have looked like antler tines but, initially, I didn’t see any antlers. I started to turn my head back to my left and suddenly picked up the tines – partially in my peripheral vision again.
The buck had found himself a good hiding spot. He’d entered the tree plot on its north side, near its east-west center, and probably bounded a half dozen times to a low spot just east of the exact center of the plot. Water used to run through the tree plot during heavy rains before my great-grandfather terraced the farm ground. The erosion had left a cut that ran through the plot from west to east. The cut was anywhere from about ten feet deep on the western edge of the plot to just a few inches deep on the eastern end. The buck had dropped down into the middle of the cut, where it was about two or three feet deep, and hidden himself in a pile of deadfall branches. His hide was nearly the same color as the leaves on the ground. The only reason I spotted his antlers was because they were vertical in a nest of branches that were a bit darker and largely horizontal.
I was literally less than twenty yards from the deer and could barely see him even though I knew exactly where he was hiding. The ability of the whitetail deer to hide never ceases to amaze me.
As quietly as I could, I let Joseph and Terry know my position. I could see the buck’s antlers move as I whispered into my radio. Joseph and Terry both confirmed my transmission with a single click of their transmit buttons.
“Moving east-southeast,” I said.
Click. Click. Acknowledged.
The breeze was still light and still from the north so I moved straight south to get on line with the buck. My squirrel technique caught his attention but didn’t scare him enough to make him leave his hiding place. I stopped behind a large cottonwood. Its trunk was probably three feet in diameter. Peeking around the south side of the tree, I could see the buck’s nose not more than fifteen yards due east of me. We weren’t concerned about mounting this guy on a wall so a head shot was perfectly acceptable. Actually, my plan was to put the bullet into his spine immediately behind the skull. Of course, you remember what I said about plans don’t you?
Deer have absolutely amazing peripheral vision. I moved as slowly as I could to try to position myself for the shot. I tried to time my movements with the branches as the breeze moved them. I don’t think I made a sound. I was trying to get around the south side of the big cottonwood so I could get a sight picture behind the back of the buck’s skull. Maybe I should have gone around the north side of the tree.
That wily buck picked up on my movements; I could tell he was getting nervous. I was close enough that I could see his nostrils twitch. His head was starting to swing in my direction. I knew I had only a few seconds, if that, before he bolted. He might bolt at top speed or at a lope. Either way, it wasn’t going to be an easy shot. I decided to risk a quick “point” shot.
Point shooting is a shooting technique that basically ignores the sights on the gun. The shooter points the gun just as he or she would point a finger. With practice, point shooting is an excellent combination of speed and accuracy. Generally, point shooting is intended for man-size targets at ranges of fifteen yards or less. Although it’s often used in various sporting competitions, its original intent was for defensive shooting. A number of advanced military and law enforcement units teach it to their team members. The theory is if you’re on a “two-way range”, where the targets are shooting back, you won’t have the time to line up your sights and take carefully-aimed shots. If you expect to find yourself on “two-way ranges” on a regular basis, you need a shooting method that makes use of muscle memory more than carefully-aimed shots. You need to shoot quickly – draw and fire in less than a second – and you need enough accuracy to disable your opponent.
I learned how to point shoot in the Army … about 30 years ago. Before the crash, I practiced point shooting every month or two. Usually, I practiced at distances of seven to ten yards. Typically, I practiced placing my shots center-mass – right in the middle of my target’s torso. This shot was fifteen yards and I was going to try to put the round just behind the buck’s skull – a considerably smaller target than the torso of a human being.
The buck lunged upward from his hidden position. I pushed my Glock out from my carry position to a shooting position. I’d practiced this exact motion thousands of times over the course of thirty years. I focused on the buck’s head. As the pistol came into my line of vision, I fired twice, quickly – a double-tap. The buck stumbled and then jumped. He landed with a thud and tumbled forward in what looked like a toddler’s summersault – kind of half forward and half sideways. His legs pumped as if he was still trying to run. He thrashed as if trying to get up. Then, nothing. The buck lay still. I could see that his sides weren’t moving. He wasn’t breathing.
“He’s down,” I said into my radio. “I’m going to give him a couple minutes to be sure.”
“Roger,” Joseph responded. “I’m going to check on the deer we shot over here on the north side.”
“I’ll come around the west side and help you,” Terry replied.
I holstered my Glock and settled onto the rustling leaves with my back against a small elm tree. The buck was only about twenty yards away. He showed no signs of life. I could see a pool of blood forming near his head. The natural sounds of the woods gradually returned. A squirrel scolded me from up in a nearby tree. Songbirds re-started their choruses. The light breeze rustled a few leaves. I’ve always enjoyed this time of the hunt. The deer is down. The pressure to be quiet and hide is off. Nature returns to normal and you can listen with enjoyment as it does.
After about five minutes I got up and approached the buck from the rear. His eyes were open. Did you know that a dead deer’s eyes are never closed? He lay still – no sign of breathing. I picked up a stick as I approached him. The stick was about six feet long and an inch or so in diameter. Normally, I preferred to poke a potentially dead deer with my rifle but I’d left it back in my blind. I poked the buck’s flank with the stick. No flinch. I moved around toward his head and touched his eye with the stick. Nothing. No reaction. He was dead.
From what I could see, only one of my two shots hit him. Most likely the first shot. The 200 grain 10mm rounds that I use for hunting tend to flip the muzzle of the Glock quite a bit. It’s difficult to keep that second shot inside of a target the size of a deer’s skull. The entry wound was just forward of the spot on the neck, behind the skull, where I would have liked to hit him – just under his right ear.
It’s not uncommon with point shooting to find your shots clustered near some feature of the target that stands out. When I first learned to point shoot, we would frequently run friend or foe drills. In a friend or foe drill, you are required to quickly assess a potential target, determine whether or not it is a friend or a foe and engage accordingly. In the early stages of learning to point shoot, my shots were often clustered near the weapons in the foe targets’ hands – especially if the weapon was held in front of or near the body. I was focusing on the weapon. Consequently, my shots were in the vicinity of the weapon. Eventually, I learned to focus on the target’s vital areas. My shot groups moved along with my focus.
In all likelihood I unconsciously focused on the buck’s ear as I acquired my target. As a result my first shot was nearly in his ear. It was an instant kill shot through the skull and into the brain. The buck’s reactions were simply the last signals his brain sent to his muscles before the bullet hit him.
The real work began at this point. The three of us hauled the five deer back to the barn, near the houses. We used a sled that we made from the hood of an old car parked in the trees. We’d used the sled many times before. With enough manpower, it was a fairly easy way to haul deer back across the snow. Even with four wheel drive and good tires, there was no way we could drive through all the snow out to the tree plot. It was simply too deep.
We had attached a rope to the car’s hood that normally allowed one person to pull it. Prior to the crash we rarely shot more than one deer at a time. The car’s hood was large enough to easily handle two deer side-by-side. We decided that we’d stack one more deer on top of the first two and bring back our heavier load first. We also added two more ropes to the rope already attached to the hood. This allowed one of us to pull with the original rope while the other two assisted by pulling with the two newly added ropes.
All-in-all, even with a sore back from shoveling snow for three weeks, bringing the deer carcasses back from the tree plot wasn’t too bad. Although it was about a third of a mile, as the crow flies, we followed the low, flat ground making it about a half-mile trek. With three of us pulling, even the load with three deer on it slid easily across the frozen snow. About halfway into the first load, I was wishing that we had snow shoes. It would have been an even easier job if we didn’t sink into twelve to fourteen inches of snow with every step. By the second load we had trampled down something of a path so the trip was a little easier. Still, snow shoes – if we could figure out a way to make them – would really be nice.
We gutted the deer just outside the barn and then drug them inside to hang them and let the meat cure. The temperature inside the barn was a little warmer than the outside temperature but we’ll still have to be careful that the meat doesn’t freeze solid. Working with frozen meat is no fun.
Although, technically, our plan failed our hunt still yielded a good bit of meat. The two younger does and the young buck would make good roasts and steaks. The older doe and the bigger buck would certainly be edible as jerky and ground meat.
This evening, we sliced the backstraps from the two younger does into medallions and cooked them on the grill with a bit of Lawrey’s seasoning salt on them. After eating turkey for the last week or so … not bad, not bad at all.