Sunday, 1 April 2018

My First Hunt - White-tailed Deer 2014


I took my CORE in the summer of 2014.  I didn’t grow up with hunting, but we did a lot of camping and fishing when I was a kid. The reason why I decided to get into hunting is because I love meat, I love animals, and I love nature.  I am a foodie and as funny as it seems, Gordon Ramsay got me into hunting.  I love cooking and good food. Watching his show the “F word” made me want to know where my food comes from and make sure it was ethically raised and hormone free.  Also, I thought to myself that if I didn’t have the constitution to go out and harvest it and field dress it myself then perhaps I should go vegan.  The word “vegan” makes me shudder.  I gave myself an ultimatum; I can only continue to eat meat if I can respect animals enough to go out and do it myself.  It wasn’t a hard decision to start hunting.

The other skill I had to learn was how to ride an ATV.  Yet another thing I never grew up with.  It was easy.  Just don’t be crazy and don’t roll it.  It was not hard to get quite confident with ATVs.

So after a winter, spring, summer, and early fall spent going to the range as much as I could afford and dumping probably 100 to 160 rounds per trip into paper targets out to 200m.  I felt confident I had the ability to take a clean and ethical shot.  Now I just had to find a group to hunt with.

My best friend and I took our PAL and CORE together and while on hindsight we probably would have managed if we had just gone out on our own I am so glad I went with an established group of hunters for my first hunt.

Again, I talked to everyone I knew and read as much as I could on the internet to figure out hunting tactics and what hunting gear to get.  Between Canadian tire and a trip down to Cabela’s in Tulalip WA, I was able to outfit myself for my first hunting trip for about $1500.  Between that and my ski gear and camping gear I had enough to get me through my first hunt with an established group.  From my first trip, I would say that the most useful gear I bought was good boots, GPS, and entry level rangefinder.  Obviously survival stuff, maps, compass, etc are an absolute must, but you hope not to need them.

So, in October of 2014 my girlfriend’s Dad kindly invited me to come along on his annual whitetail hunt with his friends as my first hunt.  He recommended that I zero my rifle at 200m so that I would be basically flat out to about 250m.  Definitely minute of deer.  Having no exposed turrets this was a good choice I think.  I went to the range and decided my ammo was going to be the expensive 180gr Barnes Vor-TX and I zeroed it at 200m and was happy with my groups.

When I told some colleagues at work who are avid hunters that my first trip was going to be whitetail they said that whitetail are some of the hardest animals to hunt.  I didn’t let that shake me because I didn’t expect success.  I had read enough and talked to enough people to know that my attitude needed to be to go out and enjoy nature, practice hunting techniques, don’t expect success on your first hunt, and that the experience of the trip should be the reward itself.  If you happen to see sign or a doe then you are lucky and doing something right.  If you are fortunate enough to cut your tag that’s just bonus.

My girlfriend's Dad's 2014 rig.

We left Vancouver for the southern interior in mid November for a 10 day trip.  When we arrived, we set up camp and I met all of my girlfriend’s Dad’s friends and some of their sons.  They already had a beautiful large 4x4 buck hanging and it was taken just south of camp along the road. What a great group of people they are.  I learned everything from hunting etiquette to lots of tips and techniques.   I spent the first four days hunting with a different person for half the day and doing the other half of the day solo.  I did road hunting, ATV hunting, still hunting, stand hunting, glassing, calling, tracking, and lots more.  Saw some sign on the first few days, but not much.

A view of camp
A vestibule made for a great place for the stove and drying gear.  Very creatively crafted by my girlfriend's Dad.

At the end of the third day I was on the ATV heading back to camp as the first snow was just starting to come down when I saw my first deer.  I was driving at a moderate pace in the dark and suddenly there were two doe running along the road ahead of me.  As I slammed on the brakes one of them jumped in front of the ATV and nearly took me out.   When I got back to camp we all had a good laugh about how you spend all day trying to find them and then when you least expect it a doe jumps out and just about kills you.   That night one of the other guys came back with a nice little spiker.   



Spent one of my first afternoons sitting behind a rock on top of a huge boulder with the sun setting at by back
That night I had a nightmare that I had accidentally shot a doe in a bucks only season.  It was an awful feeling; thank goodness it was just a dream.  I told people about my dream the next morning and they said it was better that it was a dream and you learned that lesson that way than the hard way.  I am really glad I had that dream because later on the third day I saw my first buck.  The only problem was that he was a two point mule deer and that season had long closed, also he was two points less than required anyways. My dream about the doe saved me from making a terrible mistake that day.  When I first saw that buck and the two does he was with I couldn’t identify the species because I couldn’t see their rumps.  I am so glad I didn’t do anything until I could positively identify the species. 

Scrape
The next day I was able to find lots of sign in the fresh snow and I was also shown a scrape by my girlfriend’s Dad near where I saw a lot of deer tracks crossing a logging road at the bottom of a slash.  Unfortunately, we didn’t see any deer that day.


My girlfriend's Dad and I still hunted into this spot and waited a while but no deer activity.
One of the other guys tagged a huge 4x4 which is hanging in the back.  Second deer in camp.
On the 6th morning when I woke up I told my girlfriend’s Dad about another dream I had had.  This dream was that I was sitting on the logging road above that same slash and saw a rabbit run out into the middle being chased by a bobcat.   Then the bobcat caught the rabbit and proceeded to eat it in front of me.  My girlfriend’s dad asked me what I thought it meant.  I told him maybe today the predator catches its prey.  We laughed, neither of us believing that dreams mean anything.

Because of all the sign we had seen the previous day I decided to sit at the edge of the road above the slash so I could see out over it to near where the tracks had been.  If anything moved in that slash I would see it. The wind was nicely in my face all morning. I used my range finder to determine the ranges to various landmarks in the slash field.  Where was my 100m radius, 150, 200, 250, and what was outside of what I would feel comfortable with?  I had only practiced to 200m at the range so I didn’t feel comfortable much beyond 200m.  I decided that I wouldn’t take any shot over 200m unless it was perfect and still I wouldn’t even attempt beyond 250m.  I know my skill level and experience level were, and still are, very limited. I decided for me to take a shot it would have to be either off my bipod or somehow otherwise supported, at a stationary target, within my comfortable range, and with a clear shot to the heart and lungs area, and roughly broadside.  That is where my skill level was and still is and as a beginner I thought better safe than sorry.  If that means going home without firing my rifle better that than not being able to recover a wounded animal because I took a shot I am not good enough to make.  Throughout the morning I glassed the field and didn’t see anything. By 10:30 I was pretty cold and hungry so I decided it was about time to go back to camp for lunch and chores. Just then I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye.  Glassed it and saw the rump of a deer vanish behind a stand of trees I knew was 200m away in a gully at the bottom of the slash.  My heart was beating so hard in my chest that I could hear it.  I waited, hoping he would pop out again.  After 45 minutes I was too cold and too hungry to stand it anymore so I started making my way to camp.

As I went down the road to the bottom of the slash I ran into my girlfriend’s Dad.  30 minute earlier he had just seen two does walk down the hill across the slash from where I had been.  He knew I was hunting the slash because we always discussed where were would go each day, so he stayed around the corner up the main road and was hunting the adjacent slash where he could look over and see the hill across from where I was sitting.

We went back to camp and had a hearty lunch.  Me and the other younger guys set to work chopping up firewood and doing camp chores.  That’s a good bit of etiquette I learned.  Help out with, or better yet, do more than your share of camp chores to be invited back.  Apparently those who are lazy or irresponsible don’t get invited back... shocking, I know.

So, that afternoon I was feeling more excited than usual to get back out for the afternoon so as soon as chores were done I hopped on the ATV and booked it.  I went right back to the same slash and parked the ATV off to the side of the road so as not to block the road (another no-no), and started walking to the spot I had been using which had a great stump upon which to rest my bipod.  As I was walking I looked over to where I saw the deer’s rump in the morning and suddenly I panicked.  There was a beautiful whitetail buck there walking with a doe.  Didn’t even need to glass it.  He was probably a 4x4 or 5x5.  What the hell do I do!?  I am standing in the middle of the road at the top of the slash and he is at about 250m where I saw deer tracks crossing the far side of the road at the bottom of the slash the day before.  I can’t take that shot standing, kneeling, or sitting.  On hindsight I could have probably taken it prone right there, but I made the wrong decision and ran to the stump so I could shoot off the bipod.  The deer had not seen me, but in the 30 seconds or so they had moved into some brush.  I could still see them, but they were walking through brush towards that gully at around 220m by now.  No clear shot.  They vanished into the gully.

As I sat there with my heart racing and trying to calm myself down I was struggling with what to do.  Between my girlfriend’s Dad and I, we had see 5 deer head to that gully that day, but it was at the limit of the range I am comfortable with on the far side of the slash.  Do I stay in my spot and hope they come out closer or take a shot at the edge of my comfortable range, or do I move?  Moving would mean I would need to drive down to and then along the road at the bottom of the slash to get to the other side, to a closer vantage point to the crossing.  Would that disturb the deer and chase them away? Well, it came down to what I could live with.  I could live with moving and not seeing another deer.  I couldn’t live with staying put and seeing another dandy buck at a range I am not comfortable with crossing at the same place as the 5 deer we had seen.  I decided to move.

I ran up to the ATV, drove at an urgent, but not overly fast pace down to the road at the bottom of the slash and then over to the other side.  I found a beautiful spot with great concealment and a good rest just within 100m of the crossing point, but looking at it from the other side just below the lower road.  I cut away some branches from the saplings in front of me to get a clear view while keeping a fair bit of concealment.  Just as I was getting comfortable I saw the fog of my breath.  It was moving towards the crossing point. My scent would be all over that place in no time.  Damn! It only took me a second to decide I had to move again.  I quickly picked another spot, this time above the lower road, where the tree line bent into the slash a little, looking at the crossing from same side as before. The wind direction was good, I cut the lower branches off some saplings again to get a good view, and started to get comfortable.  By now it was about 3:00pm and sunset was just past 4:00pm.  Hopefully that would be enough time.

I was starting to lose hope and convince myself that I should have stayed put when at about 4:00pm two does walked down across the lower road at the crossing towards the gully, about 120m away.  I really hoped that a buck would be with them since I had been told it was pretty normal to see a buck following a doe or two around.  The buck usually comes out afterwards the experienced hunters had told me.  My heart was pounding.  I was getting so excited.  I watched them walk to the gully and disappear.  No buck was following them.  I ranged the area and knew the far tree line below the lower road was about 175m, well within my range.  One big red tree that was a little in front of the tree line was in the middle was easy to use as a landmark and it was 165m.  Seven deer had used that crossing.  As the darkness grew closer I knew I would be coming back to this spot tomorrow.

Just then I once again see movement, right at the tree line, heading up from the gully.  It’s a deer, but this time I am not panicking.  I already got that out of my system the previous three times I saw deer that day.  It’s a buck and the antlers look whitetail! Still no panic yet.  Keeping both eyes open I acquire him in the scope of my rifle and he is walking and stopping to sniff the ground every so often so I don’t have a good look at his antlers.  But, then I see his rump when he stops next to the red tree at 165m and there was the white outline to his V shaped tale. I can only describe what happened next as a switch in my brain flipped on the autopilot and my hours of practice at the range took over.  It is like the whole world slowed down.  Reticle on target low and just behind the front shoulder, safety off, natural breath pause, left eyes closes for a moment, squeeze not pull, left eye opens, rack the bolt, reacquire target…nope.  Just as my left eye opened and I was racking the bolt I see the buck leap what must have been over 20 feet and vanish into the trees next to the gully… Okay…here comes the adrenaline and panic. Movement! Two deer run out of the far side of the gully, stop and look back.  Through the scope I see they are does. Safety on.  I learned in my CORE that successful shots can flush out similar looking bucks from the area you saw your buck bolt into, and therefore not to take a shot at them unless you can see its yours and wounded, or never lost sight of yours.

At this point I am full on panicking and shaking.  I am convinced that I definitely missed him.  My scope probably lost its zero when I had a rough go of it on the ATV going over the slash a few days before. Still trembling I pick up my radio turn it on and in a quavering voice try to tell my girlfriend’s Dad it was me who took the shot.  He doesn’t reply.  I give myself a good while to calm down and pack up my gear and hike out of my spot.  It is getting to be dusk at this point and visibility will be poor soon. 


I get on the ATV and slowly drive over to the closest spot I can get to the red tree and park it on some nice flat snow. I walk over to the red tree and look around on the snow.  No blood.  Yep, I definitely missed him.  Damn.  Well, don’t give up, walk in progressively larger circles out from where you think you hit him.  I turn around to start walking the first circle and within three steps there is a 6 inch patch on the snow.  Here comes the panic again…  I call out on the radio that I got him, I found blood.  No reply on the radio.  I dropped a waypoint on my GPS and I slowly start following the trail and then my girlfriend’s Dad pulls up in his truck.  He couldn’t figure out the radios.  Anyways, he had heard the shot and then turned on the radio and heard me say it was me, but couldn’t figure out how to reply.  I should have shown him how to work them.  The Motorola radios are actually not intuitive

We followed the blood drips about 40 feet in a straight line down the gully towards the creek dropping GPS waypoints as we went in case we had to come back another day.  Then the trail ended about 20 feet from the creek.  We looked left, right, forward back, it was starting to get darker and we couldn’t see anything.  Back to the progressively larger circles I guess.  Once again I turned around and took about 10 steps before seeing my deer laying there.
 
Pardon the finger in the top left!
A beautiful 5x5.  He isn’t any kind of monster, but I was pleased with my first deer.  We had walked right past him and weren’t 10 feet from him, but with that brown colouration and being completely still it was impossible to see him even though there was a fair bit of snow around even though we were inside the tree line and down the gully.   At that moment I truly understood how well deer are naturally camouflaged if they remain still.  We thought we were looking around so carefully as we followed his brief trail.  Time for a couple photos before the real work begins.


My first deer
The next challenge was field dressing.  Thank you youtube!  I got right in there.  It was far easier than I expected and by that point it was no longer a deer and it was already venison in my mind. My girlfriend’s Dad just sat back and watch me to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes with my first try at field dressing.  The only mistake was that I cut myself with my razor sharp brand new Buck knife when I was up to my elbows and working blind in the chest cavity to free the lungs from the windpipe.
 
I managed to get the ATV quite stuck.


With the gory bit done we still had a bit of light left as we started dragging him up to the ATV.  We had to take the long way around and up the gully because the way we came was too steep to go up dragging a deer.  We got half way up and decided it was flat enough there to bring in the ATV.  By now it was almost completely dark and my girlfriend's Dad went to get the ATV.  I stood there with my deer listening to him struggle with the ATV.  The wheels were spinning and the ATV was stuck.  I need to go help him get it unstuck.  I dropped a GPS waypoint where I left my deer and trudged up to the ATV.  I had managed to get a craggy stump caught in the front suspension of the ATV.  I swear I had parked on flat snow.  Clearly I was mistaken.  We couldn’t get the ATV off.  We hacked at it for a long while with a small hatchet kept in the ATV’s pannier in case of emergencies.  It was too awkward of an angle and we didn’t want to hack up the front suspension.  After discussing how many opinions there were back at camp about the correct way to get an ATV unstuck we finally decided we needed help anyways.
 


We went back in the pickup truck and got two people and another ATV to help us extricate both the ATV and my deer.  The ATV needed to be jacked up along with the stump so that the stump could be freed from the ATV.  It was well and truly stuck.  When I went to look for my deer in the pitch black I learned again how camouflaged deer are.  Even with lots of light and a GPS waypoint marked we couldn’t find the deer.  We had to be within 20 feet of it.  We drove flooding the area with light from the second ATV and finally found the deer.  I should have used the flagging tape I had with me in my pack.  It would have made it so much easier to find once the GPS got me close.

Loaded the deer on the ATV and started the drive back to camp hooting and hollering the whole way.  Once back we celebrated with everyone and hung him up.  I learned how to skin him from one of the experienced guys and later in the trip skinned out the head for practice and learned why you would want to do that before it cools too much if you wanted to do a full mount.  Skinning out the head when it’s cold was slow work, but doable.  I decided not to do a full mount, just the rack.

That night I told everyone the story, but I made one huge mistake.  I told people from a neighbouring camp, who we had sort of become friendly with, which slash I had my success at.  Wouldn’t you know it, they beat us to it the next day.  Rookie mistake.  Tell the story, not the spot.  In fact I had another dream that night about the slash being crowded before it happened.  Spooky! I don’t believe in premonition other than perhaps your subconscious knowing something you didn’t consciously pick up on.  My girlfriend’s dad started asking me every morning what I dreamt about the previous night.

Most of that fell in a couple days, right before we left. My deer is the smaller of the two on the log on the left, but mine had more tines.


The night before we packed up and headed out it snowed quite a bit.  I won't venture a number because my now father in law teases me that I exaggerate this part of the story. Anyways, we dug ourselves out and made our way back to Vancouver.  It had been two weeks of firsts, hard work, and many laughs spent out in the bush.  I had made a pile of new lifelong friends and it was a trip I will never forget. We said our goodbyes to our Vancouver Island friends in Hope and went home to the coast.  We dropped off the deer the next morning at the butcher and I had to wait agonizing weeks before getting my meat back. We did some sausage, but mostly it was all the best roasts and chops and the rest as mince and stewing meat. The carcass of the deer which we dropped off was 126 lbs on the hook and we got back two large boxes of meat, nicely wrapped and frozen along with the sausage. 


Rare - the only way to cook meat!
 The first taste I had of my venison was with my best friend who had done the CORE course with me.  It was quite a nice thing to come full circle and share my first venison with him even though he was unable to attend the trip.  We had simple grilled chops with salt, pepper, and herb de provence.  It was delicious.  


The classic French dish Boeuf Bourguignon using venison, therefore: Chevreuil Bourguignon
Another great dish I made using my first deer was Venison Bourguignon, or rather en fran├žais "Chevreuil Bourguignon" which follows the classic french recipe of Boeuf Bourguignon, but using venison.  It is without a doubt the best, most time consuming, and most fantastic thing I know how to cook.  I made the beef original version as the first thing I cooked for my now wife (the girlfriend in this story) and it is what sealed the deal for her (or maybe it was the candied mint leaf on the mango sorbet).  The recipe is easy, but takes all day.  I just followed the YouTube of Julia Child cooking this dish.

To honour my first deer I decided to mount the antlers. 



The Completed Mount - Did it Myself



Anyways, I feasted on that dear and shared it with friends and family for the whole year.  I made believers out of many by sharing meals.  Using the great Steven Rinella's coined phase "Venison Diplomacy" I have certainly opened the minds of my non-hunting family, friends, and colleagues to this great organic ethical source of meat that gives you great memories and experiences in the outdoors.  Now the antlers of my first deer hold a place of honour and respect in my home to remind me of the deer that gave its life to feed me and so many people.  Until I became a hunter I honestly didn't understand the whole mounting antlers thing.  But now I get it.  I would feel like I was not respecting the animal if I didn't memorialize it in some way.  At least with a photo and perhaps with a mount.  The important thing is that this animal was well used and appreciated.  I hope in this era of food waste, factory farming, veganism, and habitat loss hunters can find a way through advocacy, story telling, and sharing meals to preserve the habitat that makes these amazing experiences and meals possible.

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