Sunday, September 30, 2018

Why hunt?

One of the things I don't think I realized when I started hunting was just how much better animals are at hiding than humans are at finding them.

When I started hunting last year, some church friends gave me permission to hunt on 40 acres of their property. Their parcel is in a fairly rural area, and was recently logged. It's on a slope that backs up against a steep hill and provides access to thousands of acres of public land. It's a gorgeous hillside, with a perfect mix of deep timber, recent clear cuts, deciduous trees and evergreens, and lots of blackberries.

I've since spent most of my time in the woods focused on scouting and hunting that area - hundreds of hours, in all seasons, in all weather patterns, and using every technique I can think of.

The reason why is that there are animals there. There are bear and cougar and bobcat and coyotes.

It's full of deer beds, deer browse, and trees that the bucks have been knocking the snot out of.

There are enormous tracks and deep trails and huge piles of scat.

I've got three trail cameras out there, and I've been able to identify at least six different bucks, from tiny spikes up to really nice five points. Given typical buck:doe ratios, if there's that many identifiable bucks, it means that there are probably 30 or more deer somewhere on that hillside.

It's a rich, rich area.

And in all that time, I've seen exactly four deer.

Four deer. That's all. And all does.

Only once would it have been legal for me to take a shot, and they were gone before I could think. I never once drew back my bow with an animal in my sights.

The only way I can square what I'm seeing - the sign and the trail camera pics - and what I'm not seeing - actual animals - is that blacktail are really, really smart. I've come to the conclusion that if you’re in the woods, it’s generally a safe assumption that every animal for a quarter mile around knows exactly where you are.

Hunting is like playing hide and seek in a 27 million square foot house, with hiding places everywhere, trying to find someone who runs faster than Usain Bolt, hides better than John Rambo, smells better than a bloodhound, and moves as quietly as the grass grows. And who knows that his life depends on you never seeing him.

It's frustrating as hell.

And yet it's been an amazing experience. I’ve been a hiker and backpacker all my life, and have spent a lot of time outdoors, but I’ve never paid attention to the forest the way that I do now. Have you ever seen a billboard from a long distance off, and you can’t quite figure out what the picture is of? It’s just a blob of colors. But then you get closer, and suddenly it resolves itself into a recognizable image, and now you can’t not see it.

It’s that way for me with hunting. The woods were all one kind of big blob for me before. Now, I see signs of animals everywhere. I see where they’ve been walking. I see where they’ve been eating. I see where they’ve been sleeping, hiding, fighting and courting. I’m seeing the forest in three dimensions finally. I’m inside the woods in a way that I never was when I was just walking through them. If you’re a gardener, you know how different it feels to eat food you’ve grown yourself instead of just bought at the grocery store. It’s something like that: it turns out that the natural world has a texture and history, a structure and substance, that I had never understood.

When you’re sitting in a stand, the whole world feels different. You’re silent and still. You hear everything: the guy starting up his chainsaw two miles away, woodpeckers across the draw, a Douglas squirrel yelling at who knows what, crows arguing, leaves falling. You see birds flitting through the bushes, squirrels in every tree, chipmunks skittering across your boot. You know exactly where your scent is blowing, you notice every gust of wind, and grimace when it changes direction. But you’re not asleep, or even tired, because every moment you’re living in hope, you’re scanning the treeline, looking through the brush, listening with everything you can, waiting for that one moment - the one that in your heart of hearts you know you’re going to blow - when the deer you’ve been waiting for shows his head.

Some thoughts on blacktail hunting (from a total noob)

About three years ago, I bought my kids a couple of toy bows - some of those $30 jobs that you can find at any sporting goods store, which pull maybe 15-20 pounds, and shoot about as straight as Liberace. We couldn't hit anything with them, but it was fun plinking around. As a kid myself, I had borrowed the tiny wooden longbow my own Dad had as a kid, and loved it, but I think it came with maybe 1-2 arrows, and I quickly lost those. So this was my first chance to actually experience anything like archery.

After a year or two, I was still enjoying it enough that I wondered what it would be like to shoot a real bow - something dangerous enough to actually warrant the anxiety Galena had been lavishing on the toy bows. I knew that real archers actually sometimes hit what they were aiming at, and I was happy to blame my repeated failures in that regard on my equipment.

So after some research, and on a weekend when Galena wasn't paying too much attention, I found myself walking out of our local bow store with a new Hoyt PowerMax and all the fixings.

Not surprisingly, I found myself actually able to hit stuff. Not at all well, mind you - I was shooting something like 8" groupings at 20 yards - but way better than anything I'd been able to do with the kids' bows. And I loved the thunk that the arrows made sinking into a target at high speed. It was cool.

I didn't know enough to know that I shouldn't be impressed at this grouping

After a month or so of that, I started wanting to shoot at more than just targets in the backyard. Which got me thinking about hunting.

I was pushing fifty, and hadn't hunted since a family friend took me a couple times in high school. But I remembered the feeling of excitement and power that came from walking through the woods with a weapon in my hand. And I figured that if I was going to try for a mid-life crisis, this was about as innocent a pastime as Galena could ask for.

The first problem is that I really had no idea where to start. I was a complete newbie - I couldn't tell you the difference between a blacktail, a whitetail and a mulie, and had no idea which ones lived anywhere near me. None of my friends hunted, and none of the hunters in my extended family lived close enough. Just reading the Washington state hunting regulations was an exercise in frustration. But I started watching Youtube videos, reading hunting websites, and hanging out on hunting forums, and that got me hooked.

In one sense, those resources were invaluable. I had no idea, for instance, that if you shoot an animal with a bow, you're not supposed to jump up and run after it. I'd always thought that an animal shot with an arrow would act roughly the way a human in a movie does, and fall down with a dramatic thump. It wouldn't have crossed my mind to think that they would nearly always simply run away, like they'd never been hit. And I was a bit surprised at how seriously the hunters on the videos treated the wind. I had some vague theoretical notion that animals had a better sense of smell than humans, but I had never thought to pay attention to which way the wind was blowing.

In another sense, though, the resources weren't all that helpful, for several reasons. First, the vast majority of deer hunting resources are targeted towards whitetail hunters. I haven't yet had a chance to go after a whitetail, but after two seasons of hunting Columbian blacktails, I can tell you that they ain't nothing like their eastern cousins. I'll get into the details in later posts, but suffice to say that techniques which work well on whitetails are nearly irrelevant to the sort of hunting available in western Washington. Second, and this is just what you'd expect, the videos are nearly always about successful hunts. At best they'll mention the months of scouting and the fruitless weeks spent in a treestand, or even throw them into a montage, but that's not what they show. And that gives you a very different feel for what hunting feels like when you're actually doing it, especially in an area where deer don't travel in herds, spend nearly all their time in thick undergrowth, and are unlikely to ever be seen in significant numbers.

So I've been thinking that I'd like to throw up a few blog posts about my experiences as a total newcomer to the sport. It should be obvious that these are not going to be the authoritative pronouncements of an experienced hunter. (I've been hunting for one and a half seasons, haven't harvested anything bigger than a rabbit, and have taken a single shot at a deer - a spike - and missed clean. I'm in no position to be giving advice to anyone.) It's mostly a way for me to collect my own thoughts, and maybe help other newbie hunters who were in the same spot I was. And if you happen to be reading this, and can spot something I'm doing wrong or have totally missed - please, chime in!