here are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.
Aldo Leopold

30 November 2009

A Canoga Creek Thanksgiving VII

For more photos, go here.

Some recipes from the menu below can be found here.

The story of the squirrel featured in one of the appetizers can be found here.

22 November 2009

Becoming a Lefty: A Bow Hunting Story

I lost the vision in my right eye when I was serving as an infantry officer in the Kentucky National Guard, back in the early nineties. Seems I was specially selected to be a victim, a target of reprisals for the aggressive counter-drug operations we were involved in. In the end, my right eye doesn't work so good-- the rest of the story is irrelevant to the one I am telling now.

With the loss of vision in my right eye came the loss of my ability to shoot a gun, or a bow, right-handed. Try as I might, it was ineffectual. One late summer day, a good friend took me to a shooting range, where he was regaling me with the enthusiasm he had for side by side shotguns. He offered me the gun to "take it for a spin" and predictably, I could hit nothing. The orange clay disks floated away unharmed to land in the grass, like small Frisbees. Then, he encouraged me to try it left handed. I did, and I hit the first target launched, and many thereafter. From that day forward, the shooting sports have been left handed affairs for me.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that the archery set up my wife had given me for an anniversary gift, was worthless to a left-eyed, left handed shooter. I let it go in an auction, and with it went, for over ten years, any thought of bow-hunting.

I spent a decade becoming a lefty. My first shotguns, LC Smith side by sides, became my friends. Their flat sight plane and straight, no cast stocks allowed me to find success despite the awkwardness. Over time, I became a side by side purist, both for aesthetic and practical reasons. Then, I entered into the realms of big game hunting, still using a side by side 12 gauge. As time passed, the big game hunting began to occupy more and more of my thoughts, until I reached the point, last year, of considering attempting to shoot a left handed bow. I wanted to enjoy closer, more frequent buck sightings, and I wanted to have a chance at them before the orange army descended upon every nook and cranny of Canoga-land. So, on a whim, I searched Ebay for left-handed bows, and to my surprise, found a full set up for under a 100 dollars. I bid, and promptly won. Must not be a great market for ten year old left-handed bows.

After a once over, some fitting, and some upgrades, I was ready to fling arrows. Within a few weeks I was passably accurate, and I entered the archery fray, two weeks into the 2008 season. I hunted hard, missed a few deer, wounded a buck (that I eventually recovered in gun season, luckily) and finally found success as the season was closing, taking a young antlerless deer from a treestand at 30 yards. I was hooked. I spent the summer thinking of bow-hunting, strategizing optimal stand placement, and completing broad-head comparisons. By the time this fall season (2009) rolled around, I had upgraded to carbon arrows, had made the move to retractable broad-heads, and was using illuminated nocks. All of this makes my Browning Bridger II a reasonable example of a late 2oth century bow.

Though I missed the first few days of the 2009 archery season (due to travel), I still managed to hunt all but 6 days of the season, if only for an hour on some days. As October came to a close, I began to see an upswing in buck movement around the farm. I was seeing multiple bucks, a 4 pointer, a 6 pointer, a 7 pointer, a big 8 pointer, and a monster 10 point buck. The biggest buck made a point of chasing does in open fields near my stand, no matter where I was located or in what field. He seemed comfortable 150 yards from any cover that I found myself in. Until one windy morning, a morning I almost passed on. At the last minute, I decided to give it a go and was in my stand about a half hour before sunrise. The wind made it difficult to hear anything but the sounds of leaves falling. Within minutes of settling in, the big 10 pointer snuck in behind me. As I slowly rose to get my bow and face the right direction, he covered the few feet from the opening in the thicket to the tree I was in, and began smelling the climbing steps on the tree and licking the air. He was right below my feet, and he was huge. The wind was making him nervous, as was my scent, and I could see he was twitching his tail. He would bolt in a moment. I drew and positioned the shot, straight down. It felt awkward and uncomfortable. All I could see was brown in the peep sight. I opened both eyes to get the precise aim point, and let it fly. Unfortunately, I neglected to check for clearance of my arrow, and the fletching of the arrow hit the trunk of the tree and the tree-stand as it passed, sending the arrow 3 inches off course, completely missing the buck and spooking him. As he ran, and my heart sunk, I saw that he was the biggest deer I have ever seen.

It was difficult to recover from that failure. I was sick about it for days. I sat in the stand the next few mornings, more out of penance than passionate optimism. All I could think was that I had probably just messed up the buck of a lifetime. As I related the story to friends, all were sympathetic and empathetic, and all encouraged me to keep sight of the goal--to shoot a buck, any buck, this season. My personal goal was to shoot a buck that was "four on a side" and beyond the ears. I kept hunting, haunted by the one I missed, the one that got a way.

One morning I hunted a favorite stand, "The Cedar Tree." I have successfully bagged at least one buck and a few other deer, plus two coyotes, out of this tree (with a gun), which overlooks a small, hidden, ten acre field near the gulley. The stand itself is blended nicely in the cedar's branches and needles. There is a fence directly below, the field to the right (north) and a mowed lane way through a dense thicket to the left (south). The sun rises behind you in this stand, which is optimal. This particular morning was cloudy and gloomy, and there was not a lot of activity. I had missed a doe out of this tree a few days earlier. The deer can be heard running or trotting towards the cedar tree over the left shoulder, in the laneway. One must stand and draw immediately as the deer will enter the window for shooting quickly. As soon as the deer is visible in the opening, one must make a sound to startle and stop the deer for the shot. There is only a second or two to shoot. It is a little more than 20 yards. On the doe I missed, I aimed low on the 20 yard pin and missed her clean underneath.

On this morning, I sat thinking about my missed buck, and my missed doe out of the Cedar Tree. I was consoling myself as best I could, and had resolved to play and replay the misses in my head until I knew what errors I had committed, and learned how not to repeat them. At about 8:15, as I was mulling this, I heard over my left shoulder the same sound I heard a few days earlier...a deer coming up the trail. Like last time, I stood and drew. The deer emerged in the shot opening and it was a buck! I stopped him in the window with a vocalization, and in a split second saw four points and some mass, let the sight pin rise a bit, and let it fly. I saw the arrow hit the buck, right in the shoulder. He leaped straight up in the air, double kicked like a bronco, and I watched the arrow pop out and fall to the ground as he scampered off to the south. I stood for a moment with my mouth open, brow furrowed. I couldn't believe it. I heard the buck snort, and he sounded like he was only a hundred yards into the thicket.

I thought better of the tried-and-true strategy of sitting for 30 minutes after the shot before descending, and I quickly climbed down to look at my arrow. The arrow had meat on it, but no blood, and there was hair but no blood on the ground. I heard the buck snort again. I was kneeling down, peering into the brush where the noises were coming from. I realized that the wind was out of the west, so he wasn't winding me. I also realized that I had another stand that I could get to and at least halve the distance to where I thought this buck was now, perhaps lucking into another opportunity. It was a long shot, but the wind was in my favor. If it didn't work out, I would have to come back to the spot where the arrow came out and begin a search for any further sign.

I hustled to the other stand, the "Y-Tree" stand (where I had missed the 1o pointer!) and was up and in within 5 minutes. I had just nocked an arrow and had put down my face mask when I felt that feeling you get when someone is staring at you. I slowly turned my head to the right, and there was a buck. I couldn't believe my eyes. He was 30 yards away, facing me head on, looking in the direction of the tree, but not up. He must have heard the commotion, and was investigating. He took a few steps in my direction and I could see a slight limp. Then, he turned to lick his right shoulder. I could see it was bleeding. Miraculously, this was my buck!

He would take a few steps, and turn to lick his wound. Each time he turned, I would prepare a littel more for the shot. I stood and froze. I turned sideways and froze. I widened my feet and steadied and froze; each time he would look back at the base of the tree after licking his wound, but not up at me. I looked hard at his antlers; they were an interesting brown shade, thicker than I expected at the bases, but not as wide as I would have liked. Just out to the ears, and seven, not eight points. I felt a little disappointed, but then realized that I had yet to bring this buck into possession! I debated drawing the next time he turned his head, worrying that he would present me only a frontal shot and then proceed to walk right under me without ever presenting a shot. But, since he was already at 20 yards, I decided to gamble, and when he turned, I drew. He seemed vaguely aware that something moved, and he flicked his ear. Then, like he read my mind, he turned broadside and presented a perfect shot opportunity. I let an arrow fly at the buck, the second arrow in the span of ten minutes. Rare, if not unheard of. The shot looked great. I saw the arrow go in, not too far back, and felt that the shot was good.

Normally, it would have been time to savor a good shot. But, things had really not been going my way the last few days, and rather than feeling victorious, I felt anxious, worried that this, too, would end up in disappointment. I forced myself to wait 30 minutes, replaying the entire sequence. The shot was good. The arrow was in two thirds of the way as the buck ran off, to the south east. Finally, it was time to find out what had happened. I climbed down slowly, quietly. I walked slowly to the point of the shot. Hair and blood, good. There was a good trail to follow. Easy tracking. So, I went slowly, thoroughly, and was gaining confidence. The buck seemed to be traveling basically south, and there was a good track and blood.

After about 1/4 of a mile, there was a heavier patch of red, and there I found the arrow, broken off. The broad-head was still in the buck, cutting with every step. I felt sure I'd find the buck soon. It had now been an hour since I shot the second arrow... 9:30 am. I followed on, using the arrow as a pointer, tracking well still, but noticeably less blood on the trail. Continuing south, I passed through the deep side gully where the turkeys often roost. The buck scrambled up the other side, and here the tracking was easier. I kept resisting the urge to rush ahead. Just follow the sign, I kept telling myself.

Following the southward trail, I came into the Hoster farm field, this year in corn. The buck skirted the eastern edge of the field, still traveling southerly, along the Van Riper farm boundary. The tracking was getting harder now. Where before there was lots to follow, now there just drops, spaced out over a few yards. The buck veered out of the field and into Van Riper's thicket. Here, I lost the trail for about 15 minutes. Finally, on my hands and knees, I found a drop, and then another, on a leaf. He had made a hard right back into the Hoster field.

He seemed to linger in the corner, where there was a fresh scrape. I wondered if perhaps it was his? Then, his trail was lost to me. I spent 2o more minutes trying to find any sign. After many false starts down "hunch" paths, I happened down the right one and picked the blood trail back up, 15 yards from the last sign. I was getting worried now, and more anxious. The buck's trail took me down into a spur draw, a familiar place for bedding does. This was fitful tracking...here a sign, then a puzzle. It was slow going. I looked at my watch- 11:15 AM. I looked ahead, and there was a large splash. As I began to step towards it, up jumped the buck, bounding away to the west and out of the draw. He crossed the little freshet and I could see that the flow of red had picked back up with his sudden exertion. He was angling south west, headed towards the row of pines.

As soon as I reached the pines I knew I was in trouble. The russet bed of pine duff beneath the boughs left little to contrast with the red, and the fine needles move and roll, covering the blood droplets. I spent an hour in this stretch, on hands and knees yet again, scouring the pine needle bed for any indication of direction. I lay pine cones in a line, and after a while a general direction emerged. He had cut due west. I projected my line and exited the pines to the field edge, to the corn. Here, about waist high, was a splash. Eureka!

I learned that in corn or blond grasses, it is better to track kneeling or squatting down, so you can see the red ahead on the sides of the stalks and connect the dots. It is much more difficult to see from above. I went along this way for some time, following the corn and the trail. He had exited the draw and was working his way into the wind following a grassy drainage rill in the middle of the corn field. As I worked along, I noticed that the splashes were very wet. I slowed way down and peered ahead as I stepped...a few steps and around a corner I could see the antlers through the grass, at an intersection of grassy drainage ways. I crouched low and observed the buck. He was panting, laying down but head up. He had positioned himself to be able to observe his back track. At that moment the buck seemed bigger than before to me, and I wanted him more, too. I looked at my watch. It was noon. I decided to just wait, to back off and let him stay here, having already bumped him off a bed once.

No sooner had I made that decision, then the buck rose and turned, heading west. I nocked an arrow and attempted a shot, but the corn was to thick. Off he went, flag high. At this point, I could not understand how this deer was still going. It seemed he had lost a lot of blood, he had been arrowed twice, and he had covered a lot of ground, bedding down twice. In other places, I saw in the spoor that he was wounded in vitals, certainly. I felt a mixture of awe and respect for his toughness, all the while fretting that I might have just pushed him too hard and sent him out of my area, never to be found.

The tracking seemed to get easier. The buck was crashing ahead now, breaking down corn stalks and leaving good sign. The ground was wet and the mud was heavy in the drainage. I felt that the resistance of the corn and footing must surely be wearing the noble beast down. Yet, we were at the end of the corn field to the west! I began to be aware of panicked thoughts. The little patch of woods he had made for was an island in a mostly plowed field, nearly impossible to track him in. If he continued on, he would have to cross that field and then a road, and then he will have gotten the upper hand on me. I was thinking this as I crawled under the overhanging buckthorn at the field edge, the shrubby barrier to the island of woods.

The trail seemed obvious. He ducked under the branches there and then...where? The trail vanished. I was losing my ability to be patient. It was nearly 1 pm. I searched in circles in the island woods. At one point, a doe came racing by, low to the ground like a track star. It was unnerving. I found one more splash of blood, waist high on a pole size tree. It seemed the buck was wobbling, but I couldn't make sense of the direction of travel. Many more circles later, I decided to give it a break- to return home and eat something, have some coffee, and seek advice and assistance. I needed to back off.

I spent lunch brooding, making my wife miserable. After the telling of the saga she asked,"You do this for fun, right?" sarcastically. She was right... the whole thing is an obsession; significantly more emotion is invested than a mere pastime requires. She looked at me, silently. I felt her taking pity on me. She said "you'll find him."

I called some hunting buddies (Eric and George) for a consultation. After the telling, they both seemed optimistic that we'd find the deer. George shared his opinion about how long one should wait after the shot. We agreed to meet at 3:30 pm and search. When 3:30 finally arrived, it was raining. So much for a blood trail. We drove around to the back of the farm, and split up. We walked toward the island woods slowly, checking for any tracks or other sign, from the west. The thought was, it would be better to push him back into the corn than out the west side and into the plowed field. As we entered the woods, George and his son joined the search. Eric was pushing in from the west, and I was pinching from the south, while George was pinching from the North. We met in the middle, I pointed to the area where the deer entered the woods, and George's son squinted off into the brush. "What's that?" Eric replied "That's a dead deer."

The buck had turned in, to the North, and died. When I left the chase, I was no more than fifty yards from him. At a little after 4:00 pm, I finished what I had begun at a little after 8 that morning. Hefting the antlers, I felt immense admiration for the courageous and tough 7 point buck, and for all his brethren.

The wound on the shoulder was surprisingly deep and severe, given that the arrow bounced out. It was not, however, a mortal blow. The second arrow struck true, but because the buck was slightly quartering away as I shot, the arrow merely clipped the lower left lung, as opposed to hitting both lungs or heart. Then, the arrow hit liver and upper stomach. A mortal blow, but not instant.

In the end, I am pleased with my first left-handed archery buck. It was hard fought, and hard won. And the hero of the story is the buck.