Tag Archives: hunting

Deer Hunting: Five Levels of Alertness

mule-deer-1

Beginning hunters think there’s two kinds of deer: spooked deer and un-spooked deer. What they learn over time is that there are many different levels of spookiness, or alertness.

When you encounter a feeding or bedded buck–which hasn’t detected your presence–you’ll immediately notice his relaxed appearance; ears low, eyes calm, head low, etc. When you encounter a buck that has busted you, it’s the opposite. All you’ll see is “dust and butts.” But somewhere in-between these two opposites is where most bucks reside.

The reality is that when the hunt starts, 99% of all bucks know it! They’ve heard the trucks and ATVs roll in, they’ve smelled the hunting camps, and more importantly they’ve been alerted well in advance simply by the angle of the sun and it’s relationship to the buck’s internal clock that sounds the alertness bell (right around mid-August in Utah). Also, if you’re hunting an area that has lots predators, the buck will be somewhat alert most of the time, even at night.

My few encounters with big bucks last year got me thinking about this. What I concluded was that in high-pressured public lands all big bucks live a daily life of alertness. The only times they aren’t on high alert is at night, or pre- and post- hunting season. Why is this important to know? Because your method of approach/stalk must be based on your accurate assessment of the buck’s level of alertness. For example, if the buck is bedded AND alert, then your approach will be much slower than if the buck is bedded and dozing off.

Based on this knowledge, I’ve developed a level of alertness system. It ranged from 0 to 5. Level ‘0’ means the buck is carefree and happy, there’s little predator presence, and there’s no hunt going on. Level ‘5’ means he’s turned inside out and running for his life! Your job as a hunter is to estimate which level the buck is at, and then adjust your approach accordingly. The following is a breakdown of levels:

Level 0:
-The rare state of big bucks indeed. Only occurs pre- or post- season, like during scouting trips. (As described above.)

Level 1:
-The hunting season has begun, but the buck is bedded in a secure area with the wind at his back. His eyes are closed, ears pinned back, and chewing his cud. Or maybe he’s sleeping with his chin on the ground. Otherwise, he’s up and feeding, alone or with a small group, and has his head buried in the bush for long periods of time. Or perhaps he’s rubbing a tree low to the ground without stopping to look around.

Level 2:
-The buck is bedded but his head is up and looking around. He may have heard or smelled something, but not 100% sure. Or maybe he’s feeding sporadically, often lifting his head to scan the scene. Also, a buck on the move–like when he’s looking for a bedding or feeding area–will always be at level 2 or above because they’re always alert when moving from one point to another.

Level 3:
-The buck has heard, smelled, or seen something out of the ordinary. He’s staring in a particular direction for a prolonged period of time. This is often the case when a squirrel fires up, when forest birds go silent, or when there’s increased road noise in the area. Maybe he suddenly stood up in his bed. This is an alert buck scanning for danger. His head is high and his muscles are tense. In his mind he’s planning the safest possible escape route. However, if the threat never materializes, he may go back bed or feed.

Level 4:
-The buck is tense and ready to bolt. His eyes are wide, head is high, and ears are pinned forward. Sky-lining yourself, even at great distances, almost always triggers a level 4. Otherwise, he’s probably caught some of your movement or scent, or heard a non-natural sound, i.e. clanking of an arrow or breaking of a twig. Either way you are pinned down and he won’t stick around much longer. You either have a shot or he’s gone.

Level 5:
-It’s over; dust and butts! You are busted; the threat has been verified. You probably won’t see this buck again this year. This happened to me three times last year, and no, I did not see the big bucks again.

In future encounters with bucks I urge you to practice assigning levels of alertness. It’s a fun and handy tool, especially when hunting with other people. For example, when hunting with my wife I often cite the current assessment level of the situation. She may think I’m some kind of obsessive buck-nut, but she also knows what I’m talking about and will apply it to the stalk-situation at hand.

Trophy Hunting: Good or Bad?

mule-deer-5

I’m a trophy hunter. On average I spend around 23 days a year beating myself up in the mountains just for a shot at a giant trophy buck. Most years I come home empty-handed or with a “settlement” meat buck. What can I say; I just love giant bucks! I love big bucks primarily because for the great challenge they provide to a seasoned hunter like myself. I also think they’re beautiful, cunning, and beyond exciting to chase with a bow.

Anti-hunters hate trophy hunters. They think we target big bucks strictly for their headgear and with little regard for meat or sustenance. This may be true of a misguided few, but for me every ounce of meat is considered sacred, and great pains are taken to pack it off the mountain.

This negative attitude towards trophy hunters isn’t just held by ignorant liberals, but by some hunters as well. I was conversing with a hunter last year about the decline in big bucks over the years. Knowing that I was a ‘trophy hunter’ he said, “Well, if people wouldn’t shoot all the big ones, there might still be some around.” At first I thought he was kidding–which he wasn’t–and then responded, “Uh, isn’t that the point? To take the biggest buck you can?” I don’t remember the ignoramus’ response…

Anyhoo, this got me thinking. While in the woods last season I asked myself, “What are the pros and cons of trophy hunting? Overall, is it more beneficial to target trophies, or more harmful?”

As it turns out, trophy hunting is very beneficial, both to the deer herds AND to non-trophy hunters. Here’s the list I came up with:

Trophy hunting does all of the following:

– Provides larger, more mature animals which better fills the freezer and feeds the clan.
– Removes old, declining, and territorial bucks from the herds which allows greater opportunity for younger bucks to mature. In effect, this allows greater opportunity for non-trophy hunters AND expansion of the deer herd.
– Research shows that 80% of bucks 5 years and above will die of old age, NOT harvest. Since these bucks are essentially un-huntable, then trophy hunters don’t compete with non-trophy hunters.
– Trophy bucks provide a far greater challenge to seasoned hunters who choose to pass up small bucks–often every single day–for an opportunity at a trophy. Since trophy hunters are most often UN-successful, this leaves more animals in the woods which means greater opportunity for other hunters. This also allows younger deer to reach maturity. It’s a win-win situation for everyone!
– Instead of shooting the first buck he sees, a trophy hunter passes up many bucks. Consequently he spends many more days afield. This equates to a longer season and many more deer encounters, and in my opinion that’s the best part of hunting.
– Don’t be a “baby killer!” Being a trophy hunter means you’re not killing yearling or two-year-old bucks. Young bucks haven’t gained enough experience to effectively evade predators and hunters yet. It doesn’t seem entirely fair to kill these “babies” before they have a fighting chance. Several years ago there was a kill-anything mentality around our elk camp. On the last day of the season I had a young elk calf approach me unsuspectingly at 20 yards. I drew my bow, but then took one look at it’s cute, fuzzy face and just couldn’t release the arrow. I got some razzing back at camp, since “calves have the most tender meat,” but for me it just didn’t feel right.
– Oh, and let’s not forget the greatest benefit of trophy hunting: A big, beautiful rack displayed on the wall in magnificent glory to serve as a lasting reminder of an unforgettable hunt! Nature really is the BEST art.

In conclusion, I can’t think of a single disadvantage to trophy hunting; well, other than frequent failure. But oft-found failure is easily overshadowed by the occasional harvest of true monster-buck.

Happy trophy hunting this year!

2015 Winter Bow Hunt 1 of 3

The following photos are from my Utah extended archery hunt in October and November. The hunt ended on November 30 and I did not shoot a deer.

As a trophy hunter, I was holding out for real record-class buck. Also, my wife already shot a huge bull elk, so meat wasn’t a big factor, but rather I was looking for a challenge. All told, I could have shot close to 30 bucks, the most buck encounters I’ve ever had. Of those bucks, half were young two- and three-point bucks, and the rest were either too small or too smart! It WAS a challenge INDEED!

Saddest day of the year: watching the general hunt come to a deerless end.
Saddest day of the year: watching the general hunt come to a deerless end.
I spent some time in October exploring the steep local mountains. Extreme terrain, very few bucks.
I spent some time in October exploring the steep local mountains. Extreme terrain, very few bucks.
Spent some time scouting new locations on a mountain bike. Note: Going uphill, bikes aren't much easier than walking, but saves tons of time going downhill.
Spent some time scouting new locations on a mountain bike. Note: Going uphill, bikes aren’t much easier than walking, but saves tons of time going downhill.
In early December I entered the freezing mountains, spending many days alone between 7500 - 9000 feet.
In early December I entered the freezing mountains, spending many days alone between 7500 – 9000 feet.
Another freezing day at 8500 feet.
Another freezing day at 8500 feet.

100th Blog Post Celebration

Nate2015a
Hello Zenbowhunter blog readers. Today marks my 100th blog post. After a year and a half in the making, my little archery/hunting blog is still going strong thanks to you, my loyal readers. My sincere hope is that everyone has enjoyed at least some of my articles and posts. I truly believe there’s something here for everyone, not just hunters.

One of my greatest passions in life is seeking self-improvement through archery. Archery is an individual sport, which means each person learns and grows at his own pace. There is no competition or pressure to succeed, except from yourself. Most people find archery (and bowhunting) to be a wonderful, meditative way to achieve clarity and peace and even Zen. After all, Zen-through-archery has been taught in Japan for a thousand years. My goal in this blog is to help you succeed in both Zen-archery and in life. Once a person achieves ‘Zen’, he realizes he can do anything he puts his mind to.

On a personal hunting note, we are now entering the peak of the mule deer rut in Utah. This means the biggest bucks will be climbing out of the high mountains to participate in the annual mating ritual. For those of you that still have an unused archery tag, it’s going to be an exciting (and COLD) month. Maybe I’ll see you in the hills.

Best of luck in your own endeavors, and may the Zen-force be with you!

Scent Control vs. Scent Reduction

deer_9
Understanding how to control or reduce human scent is key to success in bowhunting. Unlike humans, with our flat faces with cute little noses, the deer’s entire face and head is built around one gigantic nose and several inches of nasal passageway. Deer use their nose continually to survive, first by detecting danger at far distances, second to sniff out food, and third to sniff out a mate. But don’t despair. The fact that deer have such amazing sense of smell is the only reason they even still exist at all here in the future. As hunters we should admire its prowess and design. We want deer to survive…so that we can hunt them!

Human scent—or odor—is managed in three different ways: Scent masking, scent reduction, and scent control. Scent masking means using other scents—such as deer urine, pine extract, or sage—to cover up human odor. I rarely use scent masking so I’ll leave it out of this article. Instead let’s look at scent control verses scent reduction.

First off, total scent control—aka “scent elimination”—is really impossible. No matter what measures you take to eliminate human scent, you’ll still ooze some amount of odor, especially after a few days living in the woods. The only fool-proof way to control human scent is by using the wind to carry your scent away from your intended quarry. After 25 years in the field I’ve come to realize that scent control is impossible by any means other than wind. But winds can and do change direction. Therefore, 100% scent control is still impossible. That being said, I’m a firm believer in scent reduction.

Scent reduction means using commercial chemical or enzymatic odor neutralizing sprays, soaps, wipes, and special clothing to neutralize odor on your body and gear. In my experience scent reduction efforts are only marginally effective, but it does give me a little peace of mind.

Use scent-eliminating laundry soap before each hunt.
Use scent-eliminating laundry soap before each hunt.

For many years I’ve washed my clothes and body in scent masking soap before each hunt, and then used scent neutralizing spray at camp. Yet I am continually amazed at deer’s ability to pick me off no matter what precautions I use. When the wind is bad, it’s over, plain and simple. Your slightest human scent can blow out an entire canyon before you even step foot in it. Although I can’t completely eliminate my scent, I know that a reduced scent won’t travel as far, and if the wind changes momentarily, perhaps it will be diluted enough to go unnoticed, allowing me edge a little closer to the buck.

One reason we have such a hard time eliminating odor is because of the tremendous amount of gear we carry into the field that hasn’t been adequately washed down with scent control products. I recently began taking inventory of some of these items:

• Wrist watch
• Belt
• Boot insoles/lining
• Gum
• Every single content of your backpack
• Wallet/keys
• Chapstick
• Water bottle
• Food/snacks
• Phone/GPS
• Binoculars and harness
• Rangefinder and case
• Bow
• Armguard/Release aid
• Sweat/skin/hands/pores
• Hair
• Mouth/Breath/Lungs

Did I miss anything? Probably. Now let’s look closer at some of these items:

Mouth: To keep my mouth from running afoul, I chew gum in the field. But I don’t brush my teeth in the field, and I’m always breathing. Does the inside of your lungs have an odor? Not to you, but probably to the deer. Just by breathing you are continually announcing your presence to the woods.

Boots: No matter how much scent masking spray you use on your boots, the boots still breathe with each step. Go ahead and stick your face in your boot. Do you smell your sweaty insoles? Does the lining or the leather have an odor? Probably. And the deer can smell it too.

Skin: Your skin has pores which seep sweat and oil continuously. Even if you wash your hands before going afield, an hour or so later they’ll be dirty again. And a few hours after that, they are grimy and stinky. Fortunately, several companies sell special scent wipes for field use, but I don’t use them. I have enough junk in my pack already, and even then, your hair is continually accumulating oil and dirt just by sitting there.

You get the idea.

So, what can you do? Don’t obsess over scent control. Trust me; you’ll go nuts trying to mask everything. Really, how fun is it to spend hours washing and wiping down your Chapstick, keys, binos, arrows, wallet, etc?! The deer will still sniff out something else.

It's a good idea to use scent-eliminating spray on your boots and outerwear while in the field.
It’s a good idea to use scent-eliminating spray on your boots and outerwear while in the field.

Since pure scent elimination is really impossible, efforts to reduce scent are two-fold: First, keep the wind in your face and plan your stalks according to wind direction whenever possible. Second, use commercial scent masking products such soaps, deodorizers, and sprays. Go ahead and use whatever magical scent masking product you wish, but don’t count on it to save the day. My advice is to spare your obsession with scent control and focus on hunting skills instead.

Luck in Hunting

In reviewing my last few stories I realized that the common thread was luck; both good and bad. Luck vs. skill is a constant struggle in hunting, so today I’ve written some of my ideas concerning luck:

Never let someone tell you that hunting is all skill and no luck, including me. It seems that all I write about is acquiring the innumerable skills necessary to be successful in bowhunting, but rarely do I speak of luck. Today I’m speaking strictly of luck.

I had kind of a push-pull type of conversation with a friend not too long ago. He said that hunting had a whole lot to do with luck, which was something he generally lacked. Taken a bit back, I retorted that hunting also has a whole lot to do with skill. He replied, “Yes, but luck is definitely a factor.” I replied, “Yes, it’s true; you have to have some luck on your side, but you need skills too; it’s not a 50/50 split. I’d say it’s closer to 80/20; Sure, a guy is will occasionally stumble into a big buck, but without some decent skills he won’t be consistent from year to year.” We left it at that.

I’m sure you’ve heard all the motivational sayings, such as Stephen Leacock’s, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Or Emerson, “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” These adages imply that there is no luck, just hard work. But hunting is a little different. Hard work doesn’t necessarily guarantee you anything.

First off, you need to remember that there are two kinds of luck: good luck and bad luck. In hunting, there is a lot more bad luck than good luck. This is because of the innumerable variables that are beyond your control in nature. As a result, bowhunting success is generally less than 25%. Therefore a bowhunter must acquire great skills in order to swing the odds in his favor. Occasionally a person will luck into a big buck, but more often than not he’ll luck out.

My primary motivation for this article is reflecting on yet another difficult hunting year and a failed deer hunt. Certainly I had some great opportunities–due mostly to experience and skill–but in the end it was sheer, uncontrollable bad luck that accounted most for my failure. Here’s just one example:

It was just another super-hot, super-dry day in the woods. I quickly realized that still-hunting was a terrible approach because the ground was so dry and loud. Worst of all, the drought-like conditions seemed to irritate the squirrels more than usual. The squirrels are always bad, but the hotter it gets, the more cantankerous they become…just a theory. Anyhoo, I was traveling from one bedding area to another. For once the wind was blowing hard and constant in my face, so I really didn’t have to be quiet. However, the squirrels were ferocious. As soon as I left one squirrel, another would fire up ahead of me. Their constant barking was driving me nuts! It didn’t really matter though, since there were so few deer in the area. I was hunting my 5th choice unit after all, thanks to the living nightmare of not being able to draw a decent tag in my own state, which is quickly becoming a dreary reality, but I digress… So, I was approaching a known bedding area with little hope. A squirrel fired up as soon as I entered the woods, and I thought nothing of it. As I rounded a pine tree, my eyes latched onto a pair of big, floppy ears rotating in the woods. I froze. In the dense tangle sat a big, heavy-horned 4×4, 170-class buck bedded facing away from me at only 30 yards. My dream was about to become a reality! But as I slowly reached for an arrow, another squirrel up ahead suddenly lit up into a full nutty rage. The smart old buck stood instantly and walked into the woods. He paused for a second to look back, then disappeared out of my life forever. Needless to say, I was enraged. I vowed that next year I would go into the woods two weeks before the hunt and kill every single squirrel on the mountain.

It’s easy to blame bad luck for failure, the same way that it’s easy to blame great skills for success. The trap you don’t want to fall into is relying on sheer luck, good or bad. Blaming a bad hunt on bad luck is an excuse to stop trying. Same with blaming success on good luck.

If you had an unlucky year like I did, you must remember that luck changes often. It’s like in poker: some nights you can’t get any cards, and other nights you can’t lose. In hunting you might go five years without bagging a buck, and then suddenly you bag one every year. The point is to never give up.

Today I believe success in hunting is an 80/20 split. An 80/20 split means that you’ll be successful 4 out of 5 years because you’ve acquired the necessary skills. The one year that you fail, you can go ahead and blame on bad luck. With great skills it doesn’t matter how much bad luck you have because when your luck changes, you are going find wonderful and consistent success!

Trouble with Turkeys

turkey-sized

I never thought much about turkeys. I love bowhunting more than anything, but it was my wife Esther who took an active interest in the turkey. So I promised I’d take her.

In spring we drew turkey tags for Southern Utah. In recent years we’d come across plenty of turkeys while hunting deer in the Beaver unit, so that’s where we applied. Getting tags was easy enough, but that’s where easy ended.

First off, we decided to do it with a bow. I don’t do guns—I am a bow-snob…I mean purist—so now we were hunting unfamiliar prey with light tackle.

Second, Esther couldn’t get any time off work. Her work schedule is a consummate nightmare, but somehow she secured a weekend towards the end of the season in April. Now this proved to be a problem because the turkeys we ultimately hunted were already people- and call- wary. Can you say sloppy seconds?

Third now, the weather report called for heavy thundershowers and snow. Oh well, we were going for it.

We left late Friday night and already it was raining. Four hours later we set up camp in the back of the truck and went to bed. The morning was cool and lovely. We ventured across a small river and up the mountain. I decided to make a video of our ordeal, so Esther carried a bow and I carried a camera. I would be the caller for the first couple days, and after she got a shot it would be my turn.

turk1

We hiked for a few hours, made turkey calls, and got no response. A while later, we heard a turkey gobble out of the blue, so we set up a decoy, dropped back, and began some calling sequences. The turkey moved off and didn’t respond, so we kept hiking.

turk2

Later in the afternoon, some thick, black clouds rolled in so we began working back down the mountain. Well, about half a mile from camp, a gobbler fired up pretty close to us. We holed up under some junipers to devise a strategy, and that’s when the rain started. We pulled out our raingear and pretty soon it was a downpour. At some point I realized we were on the wrong side of the river, and if the rain continued we might get trapped on this side. So we bagged the hunt and made a run for it.

turk4

By the time we reached the truck the rain had turned to heavy snow. Later in the afternoon the snow let up so we ran back up to where we heard the gobblers. But they were gone. For the rest of the evening we hiked all over looking for tracks in the new snow, but found none. The turkeys had flown the coop! Makes sense though, since their ground-dwelling food was now hidden beneath a fresh blanket of snow.

Untitled-4

The next morning we woke to a full-on blizzard. Around 10 a.m. it subsided so once again we crossed the river and headed up the mountain. We hiked from four inches to six inches of snow. We covered an immense amount of ground, but heard no gobbles and saw no tracks. The turkeys were gone.

Well, it seemed to me that the only direction they’d go was downhill, so we packed up the truck and headed to the bottom of the mountain.

It rained most of the day so we spent several hours driving the low-elevation dirt roads and scanning the hillsides for black blobs in the snow. We found none. In the late afternoon we decided to find a place to camp. I remembered a dirt road that gave access to the low-elevation drainage that we’d been hunting in, so we went there. As expected, it was very muddy. Basically, the steep dirt road drops into a bowl before turning back up the mountain. Well, half-way to the bottom, the truck started sliding sideways and I struggled to maintain control. We got to the bottom okay, but now we were really stuck. We slopped to a flat spot to camp, then, with a break in the storm, hiked up the mountain to see where we’d be spending the last day of the hunt.

Things began looking up.

Almost a mile up the muddy mountain, we heard a gobble. With a couple hours of light left, we rushed in, threw out the decoy, and made some calls. There were three gobblers, all struttin’ around us, but it was too thick to see them. I kept dropping back and making hen calls, but they just kept circling us nervously and gobbling every few minutes, but never showing themselves.

We pulled the decoy and repositioned in a better clearing, but they still wouldn’t come in. We pulled the decoy again and rushed toward them. We were getting close, and so was nighttime. Well, as we sat there trying to figure out where to plant the decoy, some big red heads came bouncing and bobbing through the sagebrush. The toms were about to pass right in front of us at only twenty yards! Esther nocked an arrow. The turks went behind a juniper and I whisper-yelled, “30 yards!” When they broke into the open, Esther let an arrow fly…and missed! The arrow sailed right behind the first turkey and the second turkey jumped straight into the air. Somewhat alarmed, they all trotted out of sight.

It’s funny how thin the line is between failure and success. In this case, it was both. After two hard days, Esther miraculously got a last minute shot. Although she missed, we were excited to finally be into the turkeys!

On Sunday we got up early and hiked to where we left the turkeys. We were excited, and I even carried a bow this time. Sure enough, we were greeted by gobbles. Several times we set up the decoy and made calls. The toms responded diligently, but wouldn’t come in. Instead they continued up the mountain and we followed.

Now this is where things get real bad; where Nate and Nature have a serious falling out.

With plenty of new snow, it was easy to follow their tracks. We spotted the turkeys a hundred yards ahead of us. I quickly set up a decoy and dropped back to call. Just as I started calling, a small herd of elk came running through the oak brush. The elk had caught our wind and ran right through the turkeys, nearly trampling them! The turkeys spooked farther up the mountain and we followed.

We caught up to the turkeys moving ahead of us in some boulders and brush. Squatting low to the ground, I trotted up and planted the decoy. No sooner had I started calling, some coyotes suddenly lit up howling like crazy a short distance behind us. The toms made one last gobble, some other turkeys across the canyon gobbled back, and then everyone shut up. Those were the last gobbles we heard. Esther and I followed the tracks way up the mountain into the deep snow, but they were moving too fast. Eventually the tracks led out of the huge valley, over a saddle, and gone forever. Stupid coyotes!

Frustrated, we turned back. While on top of the mountain, Esther decided to call into work and let her boss know we were stuck in the mud and may not get out by tomorrow. Her boss wasn’t in, but the nice fellow who answered the phone informed her that her 23-year old work-friend had crashed his motorcycle and died over the weekend. Now we were super-bummed for the rest of the day.

With the day slipping away, we had no choice but to make our way back to where we started. Who knows; maybe we could find some new turkeys.

We did! Half-way back to the bottom I spotted a hen walking in the sagebrush. I made some calls and some new gobblers fired up. I snuck out to the open and plugged the decoy in the mud and snuck back. I could barely make out some large, strutting males wandering back and forth in the trees ahead.

We started calling and this time a herd of nine deer came bounding out below us. Now, these deer were hell-bent on going uphill, and did so by running right through the turkeys. All the commotion spooked the turkeys off and again it was silent. You gotta be kidding me! First elk, then coyotes, and now deer!

With no other choice, we followed the toms into the dark timber. The snow had melted at the lower elevations, so following tracks was no longer possible. Fortunately, a short while later, we got them gobbling again. The problem was they refused to come in. Instead, they bedded down and expected us to come to them. We called for more than an hour with no luck.

turk6

Frustrated, I decided to make a move. I told Esther to hang back. I’d sneak above and around them, and if they spooked, they might run back towards her.

It didn’t work out that way. Instead, one of them busted me and all three toms slipped away down the mountain. I went back and got Esther. With only a couple hours of daylight, we decided to make one more setup at the bottom of the canyon.

After half an hour of futile calling, I couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t going to watch it get dark on my hunt and just give up. I told Esther I was going to enter the dark timber and sneak around for the last hour of light. She would stay in the ravine with the decoy and continue calling occasionally.

I worked very high up into the steep timber. I’d gone a little ways when out of the blue I heard something. “Cluck—-cluck—–cluck.” Well, this was new! I pulled an arrow. Sure enough, 40 yards below me, a huge chicken—I mean turkey—came sneaking through the woods alone and completely oblivious to my presence, clucking as it went. As it rounded a tree I let my arrow fly.

The arrow hit the giant black bird perfectly broadside and dead-center. The tom’s wings flapped wildly as it sprinted out of sight with my orange fletched arrow sticking straight out of its side. I was super excited as I dropped down to see my trophy…which was gone. I found a couple clipped feathers and some torn up dirt, even a speck of blood or two. I followed in the direction the stupid bird ran, found another feather, and then lost the trail. I started walking circles. I called Esther on the walkie-talkie to come help. She showed up and we search up and down and all over. The turkey was gone; run off to who-knows-where with my arrow. The problem with turkeys is two-fold: they don’t leave a blood trail, and they can SURE take an arrow!

It got dark and we put out our headlamps on. With no trail to follow we had no choice but to give up. I was so deflated as I walked back to the truck. Few words were spoken.

The next morning we somehow slogged the truck out of the mud and drove home with nary a feathered foe for food.

Later studies and videos proved the turkey’s can surely take an arrow. Basically, their stiff wings, when folded against their body create a sheet of armor, like a stack of zip-ties. It slows and even stops a sharp broadhead. In most cases it eventually kills the bird, but only after a lengthy sprint. A head/neck shot is really your best option.

The story ends here. But it also begins here. Next year you’ll find me and Esther in the same spot, early in the season, with both heavier arrows and a little experience in our quivers. When facing nature one-on-one, the mountain and its infinite variables most often wins. But this particular mountain still owes me a turkey, and I’ll never give up.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Travails from a Frozen Mountain

IMG_1853

In 2013 I bagged a giant 200-inch buck. I was determined to repeat this feat in 2014. But dreaming too big doth a nightmare make!

The regular season was a frantic search for non-existent superbucks. The biggest buck I saw grossed well below 190”, and all told I passed up more than a dozen smaller four-points..

Fortunately, Utah offers an extended bowhunt which lasts from mid-September through November, and I’ve seen a few great bucks in recent years.

A week after the September general hunt ended I took a two day trip into the woods above Salt Lake City. I had both an unused elk tag and deer tag, as well as a floundering bowhunting blog dangerously void of hunting success. In the end, that trip sucked! Everywhere I’d seen deer in the past I found nothing but old tracks and other hunters. The biggest problem with the extended hunt is the pressure from hundreds of fools-like-myself who can’t get the job done in the regular season.

So I was patient and waited for November when the big deer come down from their snowy, high-country haunts to participate in the rut.

On November 5 I hiked a few miles up a steep canyon and pitched my tent beneath an old pine tree. For years this was the place to be during the rut. I once saw five 4-points all fighting for a small group of does. But this year there was very little snow, so I was a little skeptical.

IMG_1860

I was feeling a little ill on my hike in. In bed that night I was suddenly gripped by a fever and sore throat. I tossed and turned all night, and by morning I was sick as hell. I went hunting anyway. Sadly, there wasn’t a single buck in the whole canyon. I spotted a couple decent elk in the distance, but passed them up in hopes of finding a good buck.

The second night was a disaster. I shivered and tossed all night with a full-body fever, sore throat, and coughing. I woke up dizzy and sore, but clambered out of my tent anyway. Determined to hunt through my illness, I somehow managed to hike even farther, covering 1000 vertical feet.

Finally, I spotted some deer rutting across a canyon: bits of antler, fur, and deer prancing around in the trees. Excitedly, I stood up, took two steps towards them, then reeling with dizziness, flopped back to the ground. My hunt ended right there. I dragged my bent-over body off the mountain, swaying like a zombie. Each step pounded in my head; every muscle and joint wrenched with pain. I passed a couple hikers on the way out. They said, “Hi,” and I could barely croaked out a sickly hello.

Ten days later I crawled out of bed and headed back up the mountain. Still weak and feeble, it took three hours to reach my lonely tent under the pine tree. The weather had turned bitterly cold that week. The cold air streaming down the canyon stung my exposed skin. This was going to be a cold hunt!

IMG_1912

It was so cold that I could hear things freezing in my pack. By the time I crawled into bed, my water jugs were mostly frozen, my pile of boiled eggs froze solid in my pack and split open, my energy shots froze, as did my scent spray, Visene, and water filter. When I moved in the night, flakes of frozen condensation snowed down on me. I stuffed every bit of clothing I had into my sack and wore six layers of uppers including my down coat.

Cold be damned, by morning I was out hunting. I squinted through freezing eyeballs and couldn’t sit still very long before catching a chill. I wrapped a game bag around my neck and stuffed everything in my pack into my coat pockets just to trap in the heat. My lungs, heavy and tender from illness, coughed and wheezed in the frigid air.

IMG_1856

There still wasn’t enough snow to push the deer down, so I hiked farther and farther up he canyon. On the evening of the second day, I finally located both elk and deer near the top. Unfortunately It got dark while trying to close the distance in the loud, crunchy snow.

I was planning to hunt three to four days, but was running dangerously low on food. I failed to anticipate the amount of calories my body would burn just to stay warm. On the third day I had no choice but to pull out early.

The following week, on November 22, I headed back to the hills for one more big push. The forecast called for heavy snow and blizzards, which I welcomed with open arms. Hopefully it would push the deer down lower.

The next morning, while hiking up the steep ridge above camp, the skies began to darken. Just as I was reaching the upper “elk zone”, I spotted movement way back down where my tent was. An entire herd of elk had moved in, including a few good bulls. Still trying to catch my breath, I began my descent. Halfway to the bottom, some damn hunter appeared and spooked the whole herd off.

It started snowing around this time. I followed the elk tracks for about a mile and a half until they left the canyon. Luckily I ran into a bunch of new deer tracks. The snow was really coming down and the wind howled through the aspens and pines. Pretty soon the unrelenting snow was blasting horizontally and stinging my eyeballs. I scrambled from pine tree to pine tree, ducking and diving for shelter from the blinding snow. It was late afternoon and I was nearly two miles from camp in a violent blizzard. The deer tracks soon disappeared under a fresh blanket of drifting snow, but at this point, shear survival took precedence over hunting.

Hoping to catch a break in the storm, I holed up under the bows of a huge pine tree. To pass time I pulled out my little video-poker game and poked away at the screen. I heard a scuffle nearby and looked up. Ten feet away stood a little 3×3 buck peering into my tree hollow and wishing I wasn’t there. He spooked out to 50 yards and stared back at me. Apparently I’d found the most coveted shelter in the woods because that poor buck stood there for 20 minutes turning completely white in the snow. With the end of the season nigh, I considered shooting him, but changed my mind. I envisioned myself out there field-dressing the thing, and then having to climb into its body cavity for warmth. No thanks!

With the storm worsening and evening falling fast, I had no choice but to make a run for it. I headed straight into the blasting snow, but hadn’t gone very far when up ahead, through the murky twilight, I caught the movement of a large buck chasing some does. A second later the wind swirled and blew them out.

My knee was killing me as I hobbled into camp that night. My clothes were soaked and I was starving, but at least I’d brought extra food this time. Tomorrow would be better.

The blizzard didn’t let up all night. Every couple hours I’d wake up and bang snow off my collapsing tent. I slept in until about 9:00 when the storm finally broke and the sun lit up a winter wonderland as I’d never seen. I burrowed out of my tent and dug my bow out of snow. It was caked with ice and wouldn’t draw even one inch. I worked on de-icing it with my breath and hands throughout the day.

IMG_1902

The snow was well over my knees as I trudged up the mountain in search of that big buck from the night before. Later on I spotted a group of deer way up high and spent several hours working towards them. The higher I climbed the deeper the snow got and eventually I was forced to abandon the stalk. Completely exhausted from plowing snow, all I could do was head for the trail at the bottom of the canyon. When I got there I was surprised to see a beautiful 4×4 buck chasing some does on a nearby slope. Finally, some hope!

IMG_1902a

While contemplating my approach, a dog appeared out of nowhere and began barking up a storm. There was a cross-country skier coming up the canyon and his dog had run ahead, noticed the deer and went crazy. The deer splashed away through the snow and out of sight. In my weary state I knew I could never catch up to the spooked deer. Disgusted and exhausted, I hiked back to camp, threw my tent in the sled, and headed for home.

On November 28, the weekend after Thanksgiving, me and every other hunter with a tag headed for the hills. The Black Friday hunting pressure had pretty much blown out the entire mountain. I never saw it so bleak! I hunted a new, different canyon that day, closer to the road. Partway up a side draw I jumped a little forked-horn buck. He ran to 50 yards and stopped, just in time to catch one of my arrows through his chest.

01Nate2014

My last chance buck didn’t come anywhere near my 200-inch goal; hell, it barely broke 20-inches! But I gained something. Actually I gained a lot. I gained venison. I gained humility; grim humility bordering on disgrace. I also gained strength; both mental and physical strength beyond measure! Never again would anything be too difficult; never again would any mountain seem too steep to climb.

You might be wondering, would I do it all over again? The answer is a decisive YES, starting this November.

It’s Story Time!

Aug_Hunts 080

The benefits to living an outdoor lifestyle are many: beauty, experience, clarity, peace… It’s endless, really. But the greatest benefit seems to be the stories. Insert yourself regularly into the harshness and vastness of the wild and you will come out with some dramatic stories for the ages!

Since I’m currently in the midst of a continuing bowhunting adventure, I’m taking a break from mule deer talk and tactics and focusing on past stories that I haven’t published yet.

The next few posts will be stories from the past; stories of success and failure; stories that beg to be told…

Hunting Goals and Priorities

deer_skyline

I didn’t shoot the photo above, I borrowed it from the Utah DWR. HOWEVER, it’s the perfect image to capture what goes on in my mind 25 hours a day, 8 days a week, 366 days a year.

The Utah archery hunt (bowhunt) opens this Saturday! After that, I have 4 weeks to accomplish the one thing I dream about continually. In this informal article I’d like to talk goals and priorities and how they relate to life and hunting.

Goals

Each bowhunt I go through the same process: A grand, ritualistic prehunt meditation consumes my whole being. My mind has been reformatted. Time has expanded to include the present, past and future simultaneously. I am already in the woods. For the last couple weeks, in every facet of my life, I have become useless. My soul is set upon a nearly impossible goal that consumes every minute of my day. My phone rings, people talk, I talk, I walk around, but it is all background noise. I cannot focus on anything but the glorious task before me. This is my birthright.

As the hunt nears, I also become overly hopeful. Last year my goal was to shoot my third 200+ inch deer in five years. I hunted harder and for more days than ever before, and I never did see a 200″ deer. The best I saw was a 180″. Half-way through the season I started to realize that ANY big four-point was the best a bowhunter could hope for these days, particularly because there just aren’t many big bucks left. Thanks to greater and greater human expansion into Utah’s winter range, not to mention a whole new onslaught of statewide poaching and highway casualties, fewer and fewer bucks live to maturity. So the odds of success are always declining. Does this mean I set the bar lower? The answer is maybe. When that deer steps out, I’ll decide. This has been on my mind since last season ended.

Priorities

Professionally, as a photographer, archery instructor, taxidermist, and writer, this was the busiest year of my life. I worked every single day in July, mostly out in the hot sun, some days 10 hours without a break. As busy-ness began to wind down, I was discussing work with an associate of mine. He reminded me that, hey, at least the money is good, right? I said: “You know, the only reason I work so hard is so I can take off and go bowhunting. Bowhunting is all I care about. Every single thing I do, the reason I even get up in the morning, is so I can go bowhunting. Everything else is secondary. When my wife asked me to marry her, I tried to warn her. And she married me anyway. (ha-ha). I know what my priority in life is.”

There’s a saying: People like what they are good at (and people despise what they are bad at.) A couple years ago I had an epiphany: I’m good at lots of things (archery, photography, music, taxidermy, etc.). BUT, I am great at only one thing: Bowhunting. I didn’t choose it; it chose me.

Many years ago I stunk at hunting, so I  would only commit three or four days to it. Nowadays I commit several weeks, mostly because I realize that quality bucks take a lot of time, skill, and yes, even luck. And the best way to be successful and lucky is to be in the field, not at home, not at work, not golfing, etc. I know my top priority and I’m sticking with it.

I also know a whole lot of very unsuccessful hunters, many whom are close family and friends. Most of them say that I’m lucky and they’re not. Maybe they’re right, but I’ll tell you right now: while I’m alone in the woods from Tuesday through Friday, or trudging five miles up some frozen canyon in three feet of snow, those people are sitting at work or in front of the television, waiting for me to get lucky. And then I stumble into some unsuspecting giant…

Conclusion

Long story short, trophy hunting isn’t for everyone. Most people would be happy with any deer, or at least some sort of annual consistency, some two-point for the pot, or whatever. But they can’t even accomplish that because they put other priorities ahead of hunting. They have loftier goals that have nothing to do with deer and sleeping in the woods. And that’s fine. Family first, faith first, work first, T.V., golf, meetings, music, photos, friends, fun, guns… I understand! I think that’s great. I believe everyone get’s ONE THING. One big thing that they’re GREAT at. That’s what life is about: finding that one thing! That is your big purpose for living! But don’t expect a deer too, because in the deer woods it’s all or nothing. You either commit to the task 100%, loooooong before the season opener, or fail. Hit or miss. The season blows in and out, haphazardly.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then maybe this blog can’t help you. Because this blog is about one thing: Successful trophy bowhunting. I truly believe that success in hunting is a decision. That anyone can set a lofty hunting goal and accomplish it year after year. You just have to put in the time, but most importantly, be open to new information. When I was just starting out as a photographer, I made a conscious effort to learn only from the greatest photographers and study only their methods. Yes, there were tons of ‘good’ photographers offering advice, but great photography can only be learned from the greats!

I don’t know that I am a great hunter. But I do believe in the method I stumbled upon, that I followed, and that has led to unimaginable success. I also believe that the greatest teacher is the woods itself. I know there is a natural law and how to follow it. I know how a mountain lion hunts and how it must survive by successfully taking a deer every nine days of the year. I watch predators hunt and learn from them. They are the ‘greats’ of the hunting world! And finally, I believe that the roadmap to success is fully integrated into the text of this blog. I’ve left nothing out. I don’t know how much more I can offer, but I will keep trying.

Good luck this year!