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Saturday, November 12, 2016

2016 Deer Camp Buck

Panoramic view facing the ridge. 
For nearly twenty years I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a deer camp in southeast Ohio. We see each other a couple times a year, sometimes more sometimes less, but whenever we gather it’s like we never left. Deer camp creates a unique and special camaraderie. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to experience a hunting camp then this kinship is understood. It can’t be replicated in anything else I’ve experienced. Likewise, describing our somewhat tribal connection with deer camp to those outside the hunting circle is difficult to translate.

Our camp hunts public ground consisting of mountainous (by Ohio standards) big-woods, briar choked clear-cuts and winding river bottoms. The terrain varies widely across the different sections as does the hunting pressure. Through years of trial and error we’ve learned which spots produce and which ones are gar holes. Yet each season we explore new ground discovering potential spots to ambush a whitetail. Now, we hunt smarter using map technology to take the virtual first steps for us instead of trampling the hillsides like we used to do.

Preparation for this year’s deer camp began weeks in advance, scouring aerial and topographic maps on my onXmaps hunt and ScoutLook apps. These apps are a crucial piece of hunting gear, no different than the knife I keep in my pack, each used for a specific application. With potential new spots marked on my maps and previous stand locations saved I’m able to scout without alerting deer. With limited time to be in the woods I want to make the most of it hunting, not wandering aimlessly.

I arrived in camp on Sunday to find the first deer hanging from the gambrel. It was a nice sized doe, the very first for our buddy Marc who has joined us at camp for years. Initially he joined us for the food and fellowship, now he has a deeper connection to camp. It’s exciting having a new adult-onset hunter discover this pursuit as a truly honest way to put healthy, free-range meat on the table.

After trading stories and hearing about the hunts experienced over the weekend, we all decided which directions to go that afternoon. Alan and I were heading to a huge section known in camp as “The Secret Spot.” I had a ridge location already marked from my cyber scouting but it was meant to be accessed by canoe. Hiking back that far was one thing, getting a deer out would be altogether another. Looking at the topo maps I picked the next parallel ridge that was perpendicular to the main ridgeline. It was still a good hike to get to, hopefully meaning hunting pressure would be lower that far back.

With our customary good luck fist bump, my buddy Alan and I split up. Temperatures were in the lower 60’s. I’m trying not to sweat packing my treestand, backpack and bow while clipping through a wall of briars. Even going at a snail’s pace sweat dripped off of my nose. Along the way I had a close encounter with a button buck. The wind was obviously in my favor as he worked to within ten feet of me.


Finally summiting the ridge, the terrain flattened and opened with oak and hickory trees dominating the high ground. Turkey sign and squirrels being squirrely meant that this likely travel corridor was also a buffet. Some decent deer sign combined with well worn trails and the afternoon getting late gave me confidence to stop pushing further and hang my stand. Within a few minutes I was pulling up my bow and nocking an arrow.


The sweat had evaporated and I settled in for the afternoon sit. A text from my sister buzzed my phone…


Finishing my response I could hear what sounded like chasing on the ridgeline above me. I hit send, slid the phone into my pocket, stood up and grabbed my bow. Staring into the woods to find the source of the action I could see brown fur dashing back and forth. Quickly that movement was accompanied by grunts of a rutting buck. With the doe playing hard to get, she followed the ridge toward me. In the blink of an eye she was passing through about 50 yards downhill of my stand.

The buck chose the higher ground. Keeping his eyes downhill on the doe, he followed the ridgeline but he wasn’t planning on stopping to browse on any acorns. I pleaded with him to stop, letting out a doe bleat, “mep.” Followed by a second, slightly louder “Mep.” Already anchored, holding at full draw, the third and final, practically yelling attempt, “MEP!!” halted the buck. His front legs skidded to a stop like a driver slamming their brakes before a yellow traffic light turning red. He should’ve run the light.

The green pin on my sight hovered behind his left shoulder, aligned with his opposite right leg my arrow was on it’s way. The world that had gone silent for a nanosecond erupted with the buck racing down the hillside and into the tangles of briars below. I could see him stop but then lost him through the foliage still clinging. In my mind I replayed the shot and believed the deer to be dead, but uncertainty creeps in when you don’t see them fall or hear them crash.

Hanging my bow up I reached for my phone to text my sister…


I remained on my feet watching the woods where I last saw the buck. Subtle movement caught my eye. A patch of white or perhaps an antler appeared to have moved. It was now motionless. I watched the spot, identifying the location by the bright orange leaves not yet blown from the branches. Seemingly the only leaves glowing from the afternoon sun. Still no movement from the patch. After enough time passed I quietly climbed down to inspect the trail.


Disturbed leaves exposed bare earth marking the point of impact. The trail quickly became easy to follow with the bright, bubbly sign that only lung shots can provide. The deer laid ahead, right where I saw his last movement and below the glow of orange.




Monday, May 16, 2016

Smoked venison backstrap

With every bite of wild game, memories from past hunts combine with flavors of that particular meal. There aren't too many more satisfying moments in life than combining the aspects of hunting and eating. When you make a meal that would qualify for a culinary Boone and Crockett it's worth sharing. I hope you enjoy what I consider a trophy-class dry rub recipe!

Dry rub mixture:
2 tbs paprika
2 tbs brown sugar
1 tbs chili powder
1 tbs garlic powder
1 tbs sea salt
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp crushed rosemary
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp onion powder

Apply the rub to a venison backstrap a few hours prior to smoking.

Preheat the smoker to 250 degrees.

Place the backstrap in the smoker and cook until the internal temperature reaches 130 degrees.

Remove from the smoker, wrap in foil and let it sit for 20 to 30 minutes.

Slice, smile and enjoy...


Sunday, December 6, 2015

There's only one first. 12.05.15

The first deer I ever shot came several seasons after I was first able to purchase a hunting license and go afield with my uncle Paul. Although that memory occurred many years ago, it might as well have happened yesterday. Yesterday was also a day that I will be able to recall for as long as I'm on this side of the dirt. It was the day that my son, Caleb, shot his first deer.


My son and I have been hunting deer together for several years, but this was the first season in which he was prepared to be on the trigger during a deer hunt. Saturday afternoon found us hunting with our friend Nick after he extended us an invitation. After several hunts with limited sightings, we graciously accepted the offer with high hopes of at least seeing some action. A shot opportunity would be a bonus. 

At 2:00 pm, we pulled into the farm, reviewed the game plan and headed out to hunt. We slowly followed the terrain along an overgrown ditch which lead us to the treeline we would eventually settle into. Along the way we spotted a doe who was already watching us before we realized. Uncomfortable with our presence, she bound off when we paused and looked her way. 

A little farther up the treeline we brushed our position in with a few fallen limbs to help break up our outlines along the hilltop, then settled in for the afternoon. I was in the cover to the left with Caleb seated field-side on my right. The shooting sticks cradled the muzzleloader barrel, aimed toward the inside corner identified by the white-barked sycamore. This is where we expected the deer to appear. Right at the twelve o'clock position. 

On cue, the sun settled below the barren treetops behind us and the deer appeared. The only issue was that they appeared at the two o'clock position off to our right. The deer browsed comfortably in the bean stubble 130 yards away. A young buck soon popped out next with November still on his mind. Thankfully, he pestered every doe he saw which eventually caused two of the deer to break away. 


The two annoyed deer were headed into range but we had to adjust the shooting sticks. The deer moved farther to the right, now at about the three o'clock position. We tried to move only when the deer were distracted. Several short moves put us into shooting position, but the target deer was on to us. She knew something wasn't right. She saw something but wasn't quite sure what it was. We would later learn that the wind was in our favor due to the evening's falling thermals. Unable to catch our scent, curiosity kept her wondering.

I thought for sure we were busted as the deer closed to within 70 yards. Determined to cause us to move, she gave us the infamous deer head fake. She had us pinned down. We couldn't move. I kept whispering to Caleb, "Don't move. Stay still." She was at about the four o'clock position now. Too far to the right even after moving the shooting sticks. She should have continued off to the right, leaving the area, but she didn't. Still fixated on discovering what we were, the deer walked back toward the hilltop and into our shooting area. 

Back on top of the knoll I talked through the situation with Caleb. He was anxious to shoot but we had to wait for the right opportunity. She stood facing us for an eternity. "Get ready. Keep looking at her trough the scope. Keep your head down. Just be ready." Finally the deer turned broadside and the gun's safety was slid to fire. "Shoot her as soon as you're ready. Shoot. Shoot." 



The muzzleloader blast instantly cleared the field as the doe dropped in her tracks. The deer was down. A congratulatory smack on the shoulder was my first reaction, followed by fist bumps, high fives and hugs. The expression and excitement on his face was priceless. Smoke from the muzzleloader now drifted down the hillside as we walked toward to downed doe.  It felt spiritual in that moment.


The teaching moments continued as we approached the deer and throughout the entire field dressing process. It was exciting, emotional, powerful and indescribable all at the same time. I couldn't help but think about my Grandpa looking down upon us, smiling from ear to ear. I could hear his voice, "Atta boy Caleb!" Atta boy indeed. 


You have to get a tailgate picture with your first deer!



Thursday, December 3, 2015

2015 Archery Buck 11.20.15


There was nothing particular about this day other than I was itching to get back into the woods. The inside corner pinch point that I was hunting produced an exciting hunt several days before, with lots of does active in the area, young bucks cruising, active scrapes along the edge of the woods and plenty of rubs inside the treeline. The dropping temperature and favorable wind made the decision a no-brainer. It's November and I'm playing the rut lottery, hoping for a winning ticket.

The first sighting of the morning was a young buck that worked perfectly through the woods at twenty yards. With the wind in my favor and his nose preoccupied on the ground, he bird-dogged his way around trees, clearly on a mission. It was exciting to watch and my mind couldn't help but hope that more deer would follow the same script.

An hour and a half later I heard the telltale cadence of deer hooves shuffling through the leaves. Instantly reaching for my bow before I made visual contact, I knew it wasn't one of the squirrels that had kept me entertained. With my release automatically clipped on the string, the deer had already crossed into shooting distance but paused facing me. No shot.


If he maintained the same line I would have a shot. Set in motion again, I drew my bow back while he stepped behind a cluster of trees that blocked my movement. The deer was at 15 yards, paused again, quartering toward me. I needed a little better angle. A few more steps were taken and a perfect window to his vitals was open through the intersecting sapling branches. Picturing my arrow's exit path the pin hovered tight to his right shoulder.

It's this single moment, frozen in time, that is forever tempered in my memory. The seconds just before the release surprised me, everything is silent. My eye captured the flight of the arrow burying through the fur of the deer. Then, as if a hypnotist snapped his fingers everything awoke in commotion. The deer jumped and quickly fired off like a rocket through the woods. I lost sight but still listened intently. Nothing.


Analyzing the arrow I was confident it was a good shot, but the lack of blood in the immediate area told me to be patient. I texted my amigo John. An hour later we met at my truck and prepared to take up the trail. The blood was visible but less than impressive. Certainly not a trail that Helen Keller could have followed but we managed. Periodically we lost sign then picked it up again. This pattern repeated several times. Finally we lost it for good. Another drop could not be found. John continued to micromanage every square inch while I lost patience, ready to start a grid search.

We looked at the aerial map on my phone and planned the next steps. About three steps later John said to me, "Hey, look over there!" Immediate relief lightened my mood. The buck laid piled up in a slight depression, not twenty yards from where we lost blood. The arrow passed completely through but the exit hole had plugged up. The shot was lethal as the deer didn't make it a hundred yards before sliding to a final stop. I felt complete gratitude for the great hunt, deer and friend to share the moment with. Smiles, hand shakes and pictures were next. Then a trip to the Mexican buffet.




Thursday, October 15, 2015

Hunting with Grandpa


My Grandpa passed away on October 14, 2011. He was a huge part of my life and his influences are felt everyday. I knew before I answered the phone that day what news was waiting on the other end. It didn't make it any easier knowing that he was gone, but I had prepared myself and knew how he would expect me to carry on. The next morning I went duck hunting, and he was with me.

Since then, I've always tried to be someplace outdoors on October 14. As the man who really introduced me to the outdoors, he is always alongside me one way or another. My time in the treestand yesterday was peaceful, just what was needed. I didn't see any deer, and missed a shot I took on a squirrel, but some days just being out in the autumn woods is satisfying enough.


As the setting sun was forcing my hunt to a close I decided to return in the morning if darkness arrived without any last-minute action. I admired the stars on my walk out to the truck. It's always prettier the farther you can be from the light pollution of the city. 

Morning rolled around and I was again looking toward the stars as I crept along the field edge. The wet grass soaking my pants from the knees down. With the quietness of my steps and the breeze in my favor, I walked within 15 feet of a deer as I turned to enter the woods. The loud wheeze made me jump as the deer stomped it's foot and blew again before bounding off a few more feet. Pausing for a while, I shrugged my shoulders, took about ten more steps and began ascending the tree. 

As the sun lit up the morning sky the day officially started as deer were moving from the woods out into the standing beans. Likely the deer that blew at me 45 minutes earlier. She was joined by several others and before long they were all browsing along the field edge. 


The urge for acorns must have been too strong to stay in the beans or work toward the corn. Soon the group was heading back into the corner pinch point where the oaks dropped food on a constant basis. 


In range, then out of range. The dance seemed to go on for a while. I was drawn once but as the deer turned broadside it also turned behind a tree. As she walked away I let down, then took a seat as the group was drifting off toward the bedding area. 

Minutes later three of the does decided they weren't done eating, circling back around and heading into an area with several shooting lanes to my left. I was picking the spots as they were heading back into range, drawing and holding for the right moment. 

At about 25 yards the right moment appeared as the biggest of the does stepped into a clearing. I held the pin behind her shoulder and waited for her to stop. "Take your time. Follow through" echoed through my head as my body went into autopilot. I can still see the arrow flying in slow motion. The white vanes and red nock almost glowing from the morning sun. 



Fletchings disappeared. The deer leaped, kicked, and dashed off. Coming to a stop seconds later at the field edge, pausing behind a giant oak. The next steps out into the open field were wobbly as she bedded down for the last time. It's moments like this that I want to call my Grandpa the most, to relive the story and hear his voice ask questions about the hunt. 



Sunday, October 11, 2015

Youth Waterfowl Season Success



Sunday October 4, 2015 was the second day of Ohio's special youth waterfowl season but the first day that my son and I were able to hunt. Saturday was a complete wash between the weather, other youth sporting events and family commitments filling the schedule. Getting kids out is tough and getting tougher it seems. It's no wonder that youth participation and recruitment rates are struggling to keep pace with so much going on in our lives these days, but I digress.

Thanks to an offer from a good friend to catch the sunrise in the marsh, my son and I were out the door at 5:00 am with everything needed to shoot and retrieve any legal waterfowl that crossed his gun barrel. The safety discussion was had, the decoys were set and we waited patiently as the dawn approached.


Silhouetted wood ducks lifted from the opposite shoreline, calling to each other as group after group erupted from the cattails. None of them interested in responding our calls or decoys however.  An impatient dog trembled on the platform behind us, sending ripples into the water with every exhale. Probably wondering why we weren't shooting at anything yet. 


It wasn't too much longer before a lone duck returned to the marsh, splashing down on the opposite shore, near the area the wood ducks had roosted for the night. I'm not sure how long the duck hung out by it's lonesome self before it decided to fly over to the decoy party across the way, but I'm glad that it did. The teal crashed the party, plopping down in the duck weed covered water. Simultaneously, my son was shouldering the 20 gauge. Click, BOOM! 

"Shoot it again!" shouted Mike. 

BOOM!

"Timber, fetch 'em up!!" The dog super-manned off the platform straight into the water. Wrong way. Maybe the handler should've lined him up better since the cattails obstructed his view of where the duck was shot. 

"Timber! NO!! Timber, over!!" 

After a quick correction, Timber locked onto the location on the downed bird and finished the retrieve. It was an awesome moment with both of my boys. One that I know I'll never forget, and one that I hope my son will carry in his memory for years as well. 


The rest of the morning was spent telling stories, making jokes and doing things that guys do when they're duck hunting. It was a perfect morning even though we didn't have any other birds join the decoy party. We hunted a few hours, picked up the spread and finished things off with a hearty breakfast at the local diner. Life is good. 





Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Daddy Daughter hunt

This weekend was completely dedicated to getting the kids outdoors. It was my daughter's turn first, and we crafted bowhunting plans throughout the week for a Friday afternoon adventure. I had the truck loaded up with the few necessities required so when she hopped off of the school bus all that was left to do was change clothes and hit the road.

A short drive later we arrived at the farm where three weeks earlier a ground blind, some corn, a trail camera and a little wishful thinking were all set up. A quick conversation with the landowner raised hopes as he had been seeing deer in the field somewhat regularly. The wind was favorable and the light drizzle couldn't dampen the excitement as we came around the barn to see a deer feeding a few hundred yards away.

We eased along the fence row with the wind in our face and the deer oblivious. It stood between us and the ground blind so we decided to try to make a stalk. There was a one in a million chance that this deer was blind and wouldn't pick us off, so after a quick conference we dropped our gear and began the stalk. Ainsley was tight to my side checking the rangefinder to let me know the distance. At 120 yards, she wondered if we were in range.

"Not quite yet. We need to get closer." We conferred again, then slowly pressed forward, low to the ground and moving only when the deer would face away from us. 80 yards was the next distance check and I could see the excitement in her eyes. For a moment, I thought this might actually happen! Those thoughts quickly faded as the deer looked our direction, wondering where the two camouflage blobs in the field came from. It raised it's tail, flagged it back and forth a few times, then calmly trotted off into the woods. We sat in the open field, smiled and fist-bumped from the fun we just experienced and headed to the blind where snacks became the priority.


A short time later we spotted our deer again as he returned to the field to feed some more. Ainsley's attention was as sharp as ever. She quickly resumed her job as the rangefinder consultant marking him at close to 100 yards. 


Both of our hopes were high as the deer was now grazing his way closer to the blind. Maybe this is going to work after all.


However as things often do, the script that was written wasn't matching up with what we were wanting. The button buck never came closer that 79 yards before he casually worked back into the woods with a belly full of alfalfa.


A mole that entered and exited the blind all afternoon kept us entertained while the deer were feeding elsewhere. We hunted until dark without spotting another deer, but the time spent together was perfect. We talked about whatever it was we decided to talk about. Some silly stuff, some serious stuff, it didn't really matter. We just got to spend some time together and that was really the important accomplishment that day. These simple times won't last so I will strive to make the most of the opportunities as often as I can.