Back when I was in high school, I hunted both Southern Oregon and Northern California. By Northern California, I mean Siskiyou and Modoc Counties. That area locals call the State of Jefferson! A good friend of mine, Dale and I hunted nearly continually once Archery Season opened in mid-August in those days.
This particular year had been a drought year, and was extremely dry and unseasonably hot. There had been some huge local forest fires, and one of my favorite places to find high plateau mulies is in an area of recent fire, as the deer flock there for two reasons, one the new growth shoots that come on even days after a fire goes through, but primarily to roll in the wood ashes. The natural lye in the wood ashes will kill the ticks that plague deer late in a hot summer.
It was here, in the wake of the Badger Basin Fire, that Dale and I chose to hunt opening day of archery season, looking for our trophy mule deer buck. We weren't disappointed. Daylight came with us in the middle of the 25,000+ acre burn, with a slight frost on the ground, the first of the season for the 6,500 foot elevation we were hunting. The day dawned clear and bright with the musky smell of chinquapin brush in full blossom in pockets untouched by the fire.
We were alone. The other hunters must have figured that game hadn't moved back into the area yet, which exactly what we had counted upon. Before noon that day we had seen sixteen mulie bucks of three points (western count) and better. Dale shot a nice four by four buck the first hour and a half of daylight. The place was over-run with deer! Tracks were everywhere, they looked as though sheep had been grazing in the burn from the abundance of sign.
We hunted until about noon, then cut a load of buckskin doug-fir firewood and had lunch. Somewhere during the morning hunt I had lost my release aid, and I didn't have a shooting glove with me. My compound bow was set up for an overdraw and use of my release aid. I was in a pickle. To make matters worse, I couldn't borrow Dale's bow, as I shoot a bow left handed.
I had brought my old Ben Pearson Cougar recurve bow with me just for a backup. This was the time! After eating lunch, I strung up the old bow, and shot about two dozen arrows through it shooting bare-bow into a sand bank. Satisfied that I could connect with a buck if under fifty yards, we headed off in search of the perfect place to hunt for the evening.
A slight south-west breeze kicked up, making the late afternoon very pleasant. We saw many deer bedded down in the shade of big pines, typical of mulies out in the big middle of nowhere on little knobs where there was nothing to hide either a predator or hunter on an approach. Several of these deer were very respectable bucks. It was hard to believe that we had seen well over a hundred and fifty mule deer and only one other hunter on opening day of archery season! As afternoon faded to evening, the deer began moving around and feeding, wandering almost aimlessly through the burn, going from one burned out brushy root clump to the next feeding on the new green shoots that had shot forth in the month since the fire had ravaged the landscape.
About two hours before dark we spotted a beautiful 4x4 mulie buck with respectable, but average mass and height. He was no Boone and Crockett trophy, but a really nice mature deer none-the-less. After parking the truck over a rise, and working among burned out pines and scant screens of manzanita brush I kept the wind in my favor and enjoyed the silent attributes of stalking in ankle deep fresh ashes. The buck really wasn't too wary, they hadn't been pushed, and his only concern was filling the void in his stomach. I slipped within about thirty yards of that buck after about forty-five minutes of careful, silent stalking.
I was finally within range, and I had just fifteen feet to go before making it to a nice, unscathed mature manzanita bush that would screen me from the buck as I rose up from my crouch to draw and shoot. The wind shifted, and my buck looked directly at me! He had me, dead to rights. I froze, daring not to meet his stare. I looked at the ground seeing him in my peripheral vision. After what seemed like an eternity, (probably all of four minutes), the breeze once again began to blow a very steady southwest flow in my favor, and cautiously my buck resumed feeding. Moving in freeze frame slow motion, I eventually made it to my manzanita bush. I rose up slowly, and peered over the bush at my buck which was now only twenty-five yards away and broadside. I slowly and fluidly drew my 55# bow back to full draw with bare fingers, the bow at a slight cant, and let drive with the Bear Razorhead tipped cedar shaft arrow. I watched bright baby blue turkey fletching speed towards it's mark. Then I heard the distinctive schwa-schlock as the arrow struck true in the ribcage then passed through, resting in the ashes beyond the majestic buck.
The buck jumped three feet straight into the air, humped up and wheeled all in the same motion before running full throttle over the little rise behind him. Dale had been watching from a distance and heard the arrow strike home. He said it was a perfect shot judging from his vantage point which was just a little to my south, he could watch the arrow from a quartering angle actually hit the buck. We both went to the place he was last standing when I shot. The arrow was covered with bright frothy lung blood. Venison in the freezer, and a tag on the rack! We decided to give him a half an hour to lay down before persuing him. this was very open country except for the very irregular and uneven ground that rose and fell thirty feet at the swale, much like an ocean with heavy swells.
We drove about three miles to a place we were prospecting for a hunting camp, and along the road met a couple of folks driving homemade brush buggies. They were made out of Volkswagen pans, engines and transaxles, neat little go anywhere buggies with wide paddle tires on the back and shortened pans that could turn around in the middle of a one lane forest road! This was before three wheelers and quads, so these chaps were the epitome of high-tech rednecks. We talked with them for a few minutes, but never mentioned our downed deer. We parted company to go look at a campsite for a later hunt.
As we continued down the road, we noticed that these buggies had been everywhere and anywhere all at once. There were buggy tracks in the ashes all over the place! These guys didn't stick to the roads, but were all over the landscape, hunting from their buggies. We were both surprised and disappointed at the same time that our private hunting grounds had been violated! Yes, selfish I know, even when it was all National Forest Land!
Well, about 45 minutes had passed since I shot my buck, and darkness would be about an hour away, so we decided to go retrieve my trophy. When we arrived back to the scene, it appeared that the buggy drivers had seen our tracks, and explored where we went. They drove right to the place I shot the deer, and over my tracks of stalking him! We followed buggy tracks over the next rise, where my buck had gone, and followed them to a warm gut-pile and four lower deer legs! My buck had been scammed!
They knew we were the only ones in the area, and we never did find their camp. I don't know where they came from, or where they eventually went, even though we followed their tracks for miles in the burn. The fact remained they had my buck, and I didn't. Perhaps it was my fault for not telling them that we were merely waiting for the buck to lay down, and that we had a deer down. They could have surmised that we assumed we had missed and they had found a deer that was lost. It well may have been an honest mistake. But, I was sure a steamed up crab for the next several hours!
The Lord showed me a thing or two through that hunt though. I guess that one, was that secrecy isn't always the best path to pursue, especially when dealing with other outdoorsmen. Also, the importance of not leaving an area once you have hit an animal, even thought there is no chance of losing the spot. I've never left the scene of the place where I've shot an animal since, at least until I make recovery and put a business card in its mouth and field dress it.
Even today, that hunt that day brings up some really great memories, and after all, isn't that what it is all about. Enjoying what the Lord has given us, and making milemarkers in our lives, that some days stand out by their memories, keeping them from being lost in humdrum oblivion of everyday life.