Thursday, August 29, 2013

My First Deer Hunt

By Rob Watson

About the age of 13, my father thought it would be good to introduce me to deer hunting... At the time, deer hunting season in State was the week of Thanksgiving. The first two days of Thanksgiving week was also the time of the state teachers convention in the capitol. Therefore, school was out all that week. Daddy had a customer who would let us hunt on his land. Daddy even bought me a box of slugs for my shotgun. (I still have that ammunition, five .410 gauge slugs. I have often wondered, when I come across this box, whether anything short of sticking the gun in the deer's ear would cause it more than a minor irritation.) In any case it did not matter. The fish and game people canceled the deer season... I heard because they wanted to punish deer hunters for using dogs. (highly illegal in State)

Twenty or so years later I finally got the chance to go deer hunting. I was working for a large computer/electronics company teaching technicians how to troubleshoot and repair their computers. A coworker. (who has become a lifelong friend) invited me to join him and his family on their deer hunting lease out in West Texas. (You can find the area on the map of Texas, just northeast of the Big Bend National Park.) Twenty miles south of Sheffield Texas. (the next year the hunting leases were sold, rumor has it, to a vineyard... I had a chance to visit Sheffield a year or so ago. With the hunting gone, and being bypassed by the interstate highway, Sheffield is a sad shadow of it's former self.)

While I still had my trusty .410, I purchased, for no good reason, three other fire arms. One was a sporterized  Mauser '98 in 8mm. The second was a old 1903 Springfield in 30-06. The third was a Remington .221 fireball. (an exotic looking pistol.) When the invitation to join the hunt came, and I had paid my share of the lease, I began to develope hunting loads for my toys. When the truth is told, it will be clear that I had very little idea about what I was doing, but I did get lucky.

As in former times, hunting began Thanksgiving week. We departed some hours before daylight and breakfasted about dawn in a small Texas town. The rest of the day was spent driving across the vastness of the Great State of Texas. Near sundown found us in Sheffield. We ate a steak dinner at a nice restaurant there. I was told this would be our last good meal for a while. ( it was a lie, we ate like kings the whole time.) After dinner, we drove the 20 miles to the lease. We set up our popup camper. The rest of the family was delayed as one of the nephews was playing in a championship football game. They bought a moderately large camping trailer. It became the center of non-hunting activities.

On this first night I learned a lesson that was to serve me well over the next many wilderness hunts. Do not drink a lot of beer ( or any other liquid) before going to bed. My bed consisted of a thin sheet of plywood suspended four feet (1.3 meters) in the air, a thin bit of foam rubber, and a thin sleeping bag. (that had served my brother on his geology expeditions twenty five years earlier.) Here you might think  it would be relatively warm in late November this far south (You did look this up on the map, Right?) But, you, like me, would be wrong. In Texas they have a saying: "That wind is blowing straight off the North Pole and the only thing in the way is a barbed wire fence... and I think one of the strands is down."

Nature called me three or four times during that night. To speed up the process, the first time, I went out in my undies. It was cold in the popup. It was really cold in the icy wind outside. Things got so cold they did not want to work... if you know what I mean. By the time I got back inside I was near hypothermia. Later calls went no better. Putting on freezing clothes before going outside took away any body heat accumulated in the interim. (The potty being a nearby bush) By the time I had warmed up enough to go back to sleep I had to go out again. Lesson Learned!!

I have decided to tell the whole story of this adventure. You should plan to be reading for a while. The first day was Friday. Deer season opened at daylight on Saturday. ( I shall call my companions Carl and Carl Jr.) But Quail season was open so Carl Jr. and I set out to find supper. Fortunately there was backup in the ice chests. We chased Scaled Quail all over a good portion of West Texas with no result. (if they could, these birds might borrow a quote from Winston Churchill: "Nothing is more exhilarating than to be shot at without effect.")

For weeks Carl had been warning me that the hunting would be tough. We would start out before daylight and return after dark. There were mountains to climb, rivers to cross, and all manner of hardship. I took his advice and planned accordingly... backpack, food, water, emergency equipment... etc. To be fair to my friend, he was right about the start time that first day. And, he was right about when we came back after dark. We wandered around in the dark until daylight, hunted for a couple of hours then came back to camp. After resting a bit we went out for a couple of more hours then returned for lunch and a siesta.

After the siesta we, the 13 of us, discussed the lack of animals and the best way to hunt during the afternoon. There was a lot of finger pointing and directions... which I obviously did not understand. Each person took up his equipment and struck off in his assigned direction. After about 30 yards (meters) we hit heavy brush. When I came out the other side I was very much alone. I picked a trail up the side of a mesa and stopped to look around when I got nearly to the top.

Half a mile ( about 1 kilometer) west of me I saw a number of the others walking along the high side of a gully full of brush. In the gully, three deer crept carefully past the hunters. I shouted "Hey... where... are... you... going...?" The reply, an informative: "You're... going... the... wrong... way!!" My direction was irrelevant, but the deer seemed pleased with their choice of direction as they made their way to safety.

As in all cases, where I go wandering in the wilderness, I had memorized the topo maps of the region. I knew where I was, I could see the camp clearly from my elevated position. Landmarks abounded. I decided, as is usual with my sometimes obstinate nature, to go my own way. Therein lies the tale.

On top of the mesa I wandered along until I came to a well used trail. The trail had numerous cloven hoof tracks and pellet like droppings, just like any good hunter would expect to find when hunting deer. (However, one should also know sheep leave exactly the same signs.) I decided to follow my "Deer" sign and see where it lead. After a few hundred yards (meters) I saw three doe. They saw me as well and dashed off into the scattered brush of the mesa. These deer had been following this trail.

I wandered off into the brush to look for my game. Then a bright idea took root. If these animals were following the trail, then others might follow it as well. I found a comfortable looking pile of rocks and sat down to ready my ambush for the next travelers to come along... and shortly thereafter fell fast asleep. When I awoke, the three doe were about 50 yards away, checking me out. I had the 8mm Mauser in hand, not pointed in the proper direction. As I moved, those doe decided they had seen enough of me and hightailed it back into the brush.

Still laying in the rocks, I looked around. A nice buck was about 90 yards away looking directly at me. I froze. He apparently did not know what a human was if the human was reclining. (I experienced this same reaction among Wyoming Pronghorns.) When he looked away I slowly began to move the rifle. He took a long look back at me, then looked away over the canyon, perhaps to look in the direction my companions had gone.

I very slowly raised the rifle, took careful aim, and fired. He toppled over without taking a single step. I lay where I was for several minutes, allowing him time to die. The precaution was unnecessary this time as the bullet cut all of the blood vessels from the top of his heart. He had died instantly.

After my experience of the morning, I prepared for the afternoon by leaving my carefully prepared pack behind, taking only water. When I got to the buck I realized I had no equipment except my pocket knife and absolutely no knowledge about how to field dress a deer. Hey, I took Biology. There can't be a great deal of difference between cleaning a chicken (A skill, practiced many times under the watchful eyes of my parents.) and field dressing a deer. Plus, there are no feathers to pluck. And, it is so.

After dressing the deer I tried to pick it up to carry back to camp. It was a no go. Many West Texas deer are about the size of a large dog. Easy to lift, easy to carry long distances. Mine was almost too large for me to lift. Once I got him up, I looked down and saw my rifle and the knife. It became clear there was no way I was going to carry all this and the deer the half mile back to camp. After a considerable struggle, I was able to hang him in a tree.

As I pondered my situation, I heard my salvation coming across the mesa toward me. One of the hunters, an older gentleman with one good arm and half another, was driving his jeep, with a companion, directly toward me. To make sure they saw me I climbed upon a rock, about four feet tall, took off my hunters orange jacket and waved it over my head. About 200 yard away they turned right, and seemed to be going away. To attract their attention, I pointed my rifle into the ground in their direction and fired. The muzzle blast of a high powered rifle was bound to draw some attention. They kept on going and did not turn back.

In reconsidering my dilemma, I walked back to camp to get some help. I found Carl Jr. and asked him. He agreed. The older gentleman was there and offered to help, riding being better then walking, we agreed. The event I relate here is summarized in my post "Fear".  Our driver had been drinking a fair amount before we started. He took another beer, holding it in his good hand, and driving with his stub of a arm. He took off at high speed over rough and rutted roads. At the edge of the mesa we came to a road directly up the side. The road was narrow with steep drop offs of fifty or more feet on both sides. With time to think, I decided I had a great chance of dying then and there. I said a prayer, asking God for forgiveness of my sins, closed my eyes and expected to die.

Much to my great relief, we reached the top of the mesa. I knew about where we were and directed the driver toward the deer. When we got near, there was a field of large rocks. I suggested Carl Jr. and I go get the deer. Our driver, ignoring my warning that he might damage his machine, drove into the boulders and promptly broke his steering rod. Being familiar with the steering of that jeep, I crawled under it to examine the damage. It was broke and would need a new part or a skilled welder to fix. The driver wanted me to tape it back together.

Carl Jr. was a distance runner in track and volunteered to run back to camp to get help. Unfortunately, he decided to stop at the edge of the mesa and shout down to the camp. In camp, four guys got into a four passenger Bronco  to bring us the gasoline. The last of the daylight was fading when the rescuers arrived. The older gentleman got in the front seat. Carl Jr., the deer, a spare tire, a can of gas and myself shared a space roughly two feet by five feet by four feet tall.

The entire eastern edge of the mesa was bordered with a fence and a road. Go east, you get to the road. The rescuers drove around until they got to the edge of the mesa, turned around and drove until they got to the edge of the mesa again. On the third trip to the edge of the mesa I got out. I told them I knew my way back and I was going to walk. Carl Jr. jumped out as well and said; "I'm going with Mr. Watson." There was a fair amount of shouting about the two of us getting lost. I took a minute to show my young companion how to find the north star and told him, if we walk North we would get to camp. Our rescuers would have none of that. More shouting. Finally I decided I had to save everyone myself. I showed Carl Jr. the Seven Sisters constellation (Due east at the time)  and began to walk that direction. More shouting. At last, I told the driver of the rescue truck he was pointed east. He must not turn his wheels or he would get lost. We got back into the truck, drove 50 feet and came to the road.

Back at camp, around the campfire, I found the two who had passed me up on the mesa in the afternoon. "You boys didn't see any deer up on the mesa this afternoon, did you?" They answered, "No, we didn't see a single one." "I can explain that," says I. "Anyone who cannot see a six foot, 200 pound man standing on a four foot rock, waving a bright orange jacket and firing a rifle at them, Ain't gonna see any deer either."

A day or so later I was charged with cooking the chili. After throwing everything together, Carl mentioned that his wife had given him a pint of jalapeno peppers. On a normal day I might have added a few. This time I just dumped the whole pint in the rather large pot of chili. It came out a little hot. (OK, OK, the cast iron pot glowed a cherry red from the heat, it was hot stuff) Next morning, for some reason breakfast was light. and a number of the hunters were dallying about the table when one asked if there was any chili left. There was. I was still hungry so I asked for some. then other men asked for a bowl as well. With us were three or four adolescent boys. You could tell from the looks on their faces they would sooner pick up a rattlesnake than eat another bowl of that hot stuff. However the pressure to be like the adults was too great and after a delay they each asked for a bowl.

Carl's brother in law was a jokester. He made a point of laughing up any goofs made by the people around him. One morning as four hunters drove of toward the mesa, a very nice buck showed himself beside the road. One hunter jumped out of the truck, took aim, and pulled his trigger... Snap... he had forgotten to load his gun. BIL retold the story a number of times at the expense of our companion. Next day, again driving toward the mesa, a number of quail appeared beside the road. BIL jumped out, with his shotgun, declaring he would get us some fat birds for supper... Snap, Snap... went his double barrel shotgun. It also ended the jesting at other's expense. 

At the end of four days hunting I had gotten my two deer. Carl and Carl Jr. each got one and one other man got one. Everyone else went home empty handed. There is more to this story but I am headed to bed. Will have to write it later.

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