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>> Dinner Bell :: By Marshall Stanton on 2001-03-09
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Bong, bong, babong, bong, the reverberations of that confounded cowbell resounded throughout the drainage I had hunted so silently and quietly all morning.   A drought year had gripped the high Cascade Mountains of south central Oregon, and it seemed the forest was a sea of noisemakers.   Wherever I stepped, a resounding crunch or crackle rewarded even my most careful steps in soft-soled high-top hunting moccasins.  My near stealth approach to that drainage was thanks to some well used cow trails leading into and out of the mud wallows in the creek bottom below.   Now, the cattle that created those wide, highways through the woods, were returning from their morning feeding for water, and the whole drainage knew in advance of their coming.

Range cattle roam free on most of this public Forest Service land of southern Oregon.  It is one way that the cattle industry manages to stay alive, by paying the government for grazing rights to given tracts of public land.   Archery seasons and early High Cascade buck hunters must contend with the range cattle being at large during those particular hunting seasons.  This day was the second day of Oregon's High Cascade buck hunt.   A controlled hunt with tags allotted by drawing, and I had drawn a tag for this wonderful hunt three years in a row!  It is perhaps the premium opportunity to harvest a truly trophy Blacktail buck!  Since the tags are so limited, the odds of seeing anyone else in the woods is slim.  Archery seasons have already closed, and this hunt is at least three weeks prior to the general season, allowing a person to hunt these beautiful little deer in the alpine settings of the high Cascade Mountains of Oregon, before winter weather sets in and drives them down to the lower elevations.   This hunt is truly a treasure, and one that is sure to make lifetime memories!  The scenery is without comparison, and to enjoy such a setting without competing with hordes of other hunters is something of a treat seldom enjoyed on public land these days.

Hearing the cattle tromping through the tinder dry underbrush and duff, my disgust and disappointment grew, and I charged down off my ridge towards the creek bottom with abandon, leaving caution to the wind.   My hunt was blown, and the whole morning's efforts up in dry dust!  As I traversed the south slope of this ridgeline through the manzanita and chinquapin bushes that were interspersed with young Shasta Fir and White Fir trees, along with a few scattered Hemlocks, I must have sounded like a freight train busting through that waist high brush!  I didn't care, all my efforts were negated by a bunch of stupid range cows.

When I came within eyesight of the mud wallows at the bottom and the creek that meandered through the lush green semi-open meadows, I froze!  There, eighty yards from me were close to thirty elk, and just beyond them three mature blacktail bucks, a bachelor herd, laying in the shade of a big choke-cherry bush!  I had made enough racket to wake Rip Van Winkle and these animals didn't have a care in the world!  Until they spotted me!  Once visual recognition kicked in, so did their afterburners!   I stood watching an ever rising cloud of dust once those animals cleared the lushness of the creek bottom and headed up the parched ridge to the south.   I never had the opportunity to even raise my rifle, and these animals were gone!

Puzzled and downhearted by the turn of events, I made my way down to the creek, and sat in the shade of the same choke-cherry bush that the three bucks had been enjoying.   As I sat there, taking in the scenery, resting a bit, I could hear the ever increasing din created by that confounded cowbell!  What an annoying sound out in the middle of the Sky Lakes Wilderness area, when I was five or six miles from the nearest road, and still further from the closest ranch!  As those cattle approached, the noise they made!  It was incredible, especially when everything else was so very quiet.... then it dawned on me!

I knew why those elk and deer didn't anticipate my coming.   They were expecting range cows!   That's right, they were used to hearing that cowbell all summer long, of the approaching cattle, and it was a familiar sound that didn't concern them.   In fact, it might have been somewhat of a security factor, hearing the constant, slow paced rhythm of that bell!  When the cattle came close enough, I moved ever so slightly, and they too spooked, like any other wild animal would!   After being on open range for the number of months these animals are every year, they become just as wary as would an elk or deer.   They too have to avoid the same predators as would wild big game.

Why the bell on range cattle?  Well, as I said, these cattle are put out on this open range every year.  Although young cattle are put onto the range every year to fatten up, there are always a couple of older cows that are put there with them.   Their job is to lead the younger animals to water, feed, bedding areas and show them the ways of the woods if you will.   Hence the term lead cow, they lead the herd through the woods, knowing the way and having been there and done that before.  The rancher puts a bell on these lead cows before turning them loose on the open range.   The younger animals learn to stay within earshot of the bell, so as to not lose their way around, and to know where that lead cow is at all times.  As a consequence, there are several of these "lead cows" wandering throughout the open rangeland all summer, and the big game gets accustomed to the annual appearance of these cattle and the resounding bong of their bells.

Now for the inspiration!   Those elk and deer thought that I was a cow, they associated all my thrashing around in the brush with cattle, since they heard the cowbell coming for nearly a mile from up the ridge.   It worked then, might as well make like a cow and announce my presence!   I abandoned the hunt for the day, and drove to Medford, Oregon, and at the Grange Co-Op purchased a rather large cowbell and a dog-leash-style snap swivel and headed back to the mountain.

I reached my camp (I was hunting alone that year), and affixed the cowbell to the snap swivel.  Then I replenished my day pack and prepared for a quick afternoon and evening hunt.  Before leaving camp I clipped that cowbell to my rearward-most belt loop, and headed off, up the mountain toward a remote spring that I knew was still running, it sat at the base of a big glacial basin where I could watch a considerable amount of habitat from one place, hoping to catch a buck coming to water.

I hadn't gone a quarter of a mile (without the aid of nice wide quiet cow trails), stomping my way through the tinder dry duff and slick-leaf brush, when I tromped right up on two cow elk and a yearling calf!  They were as startled as I was!   I was within thirty yards of them when they jumped to their feet out of their beds!   All the while that cowbell is going bong, bong, babong, bong with every step I took!  If this wasn't enough, I'd seen nearly a dozen blacktail deer (two small bucks), a bear and several elk in the course of less than three miles, with that stupid, wonderful bell clanking and bonging away at my rump!

I eased over a little finger ridge about half a mile from the spring I intended to hunt, and there, laying sixty feet below me, in the shade of a rock shelf was a perfect four-by-four point blacktail buck, not even looking my way, as basalt rock clattered from underneath my boots and the cowbell went bong, bong, clank!   I was just another stupid cow!   Well I figured I had rung the dinner bell long enough for one day, and invited that beautiful blacktail buck as honored guest to my dinner table.   He obligingly agreed, and I had my work cut out for me (no pun intended)!

That little trick of the cowbell only worked while the cattle were on open range, but when I was fortunate enough to hunt that early in the season, the cowbell always went with me into the Sky Lakes Wilderness area, be it archery season or the High Cascade buck hunt, when I was drawn.   It also never failed to give me a very unnatural edge.  Talk about fun when I ran into the occasional hunter during archery season, the strange looks I'd get when they would ask "What's up with the cowbell?"   "Oh, that, it's just my dinner bell!"


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