No buck, but still a successful hunt

By Jeff Barnard, AP environmental reporter in SW Oregon for 30+ years (now retired)

No buck for me during the Western Oregon general rifle season. The only ones I saw were when I was sitting in my hot tub before dawn with a cup of coffee, or driving through settled areas. That bit about the elusive ghost of the Northwest woods doesn’t much apply except in the places I was hunting. But I still feel my first attempts at hunting were a success.

This slope on the flanks of Anderson Butte in the Applegate Unit looked good for deer, but we never saw any crossing the open.

I found that walking three to five miles through the woods in a day, carrying lethal force in my two hands, with every sense alert to everything around me — my footfalls, the direction of the wind, tracks, droppings and brush stripped of leaves — amounted to an intense meditation, which left me physically tired, but mentally light, refreshed and unusually happy.

It was a completely unexpected result.

When I mentioned it to my friend Ben Neary, who has hunted most of his adult life, lately in Wyoming, he advised that the reason lay in a passage in the late Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset’s “Meditations on Hunting,” written in 1942. It is kind of tough going, and has become overused in the world of hunting writing, but it still rings true:

“In our rather stupid time, hunting is belittled and misunderstood, many refusing to see it for the vital vacation from the human condition that it is, or to acknowledge that the hunter does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, he kills in order to have hunted,” he wrote.

I didn’t kill anything, and didn’t even get a shot. But I still feel I hunted, though you could argue it was not done well. I immediately understood what the philosopher was saying, in a way I suspect I never would have without having hunted.

So for that reason, my first hunt was a success.

I learned a lot, and have a path to make next season better.

And it’s not like most people succeeded where I didn’t. The success rate on the Applegate unit where I spent most of my time was 27 percent last year, down from 30 percent the previous year.

I hunted one day a week for the season, with my new friend Jim Kababick. He is a local scientist with his own lab, who read my blog and called to say he was trying to do what I was doing, starting to hunt late in life. So we teamed up. Our first day was up Silver Creek off Bear Camp Road. We heard a crashing in the brush we hoped was a buck, and saw a very surprised doe emerge from the thick brush as we did our best to walk quietly on an abandoned logging road. We also saw lots of tracks, scat, trails up the road cut, and nibbled brush.

Our later efforts were focused on the Anderson Butte area of the Applegate unit, outside the gold mining ghost town of Buncom, and up Star Gulch. A friend of Kababick’s advised he had taken many deer in these areas over the years. We walked up gated and bermed logging roads that were overgrown by madrone and Douglas fir. We drove remote, winding, potholed roads. We bushwhacked up steep slopes in the dark before dawn, our way lit only by headlamps and a GPS. We used a rattle bag to imitate the sound of two rutting bucks fighting, meanwhile intensely glassing the tree line. But we drew nothing in. We saw lots of tracks, including a fresh big set in mud complete with the dew claws that typically signal a buck. We saw piles of scat, both fresh and dried out. We examined clumps of young tanoak sprouting from stumps that had been stripped of their leaves by feeding deer. We saw a grouse, a bobcat and dozens of does, and surprised one buck while driving. But he scrambled up a road cut and disappeared up a steep hill into the dense timber.

Our final day, we hiked up a cat track along a creek blocked every 10 yards by a berm, and surprised a big doe and her yearling browsing in a timber thinning project. We could have filled our tags if we were hunting the late muzzleloader season. After they disappeared into the dense woods, we saw them again, farther up the cat trail, calmly munching brush. Though we were just 15 yards away, the two deer kept eating, and serenely made their way through the woods. A creek flowing by apparently masked our sounds and the wind was blowing the right way. We were close enough to throw a spear, let alone take a shot. I will remember that big doe looking right into my eyes with absolutely no fear for a long time.

We came across this big buck track, complete with dew claws, on a ridgeline near Anderson Butte on the Applegate Unit. It was exciting, but we never saw the buck.

Here is a list of books I found helpful.

The most straight-forward and easy to understand book for me was “Hunting Black-Tailed Deer, an Oregon perspective,” by Louis G. Terkla. He goes over habitat and deer behavior, what clothes to wear (wool, quiet and warm even when wet), sighting in your rifle, physical conditioning, what to carry in your pack, hunting techniques, caring for your kill, from field dressing to packing it out and even how to fold the hide so the bloody side is in, how to keep the meat fresh in hot weather, butchering, recipes, and reflections on what it means to hunt. All that is packed into 162 pages.

I also read “Trophy Blacktails, The Science of the Hunt,” by Scott Haugen. He has done a bunch of TV shows and magazine articles on hunting. He has also recently been on ODFW’s Facebook page with Live broadcasts of hunting tips and is putting together a program on hunting deer in Oregon for ODFW. His website says he also does seminars at outdoor shows. There was good information in his book, though it was more chatty than Terkla’s book.

Jim Kababick found another book, “Blacktail Trophy Tactics,” by Boyd Iverson, that he liked a lot. I will check it out over the winter.

I read some other books that I found helpful in exploring my emotions and motivations about hunting. “Heart and Blood, Living with Deer in America,” by Richard Nelson. “A Hunter’s Heart, Honest Essays on Blood Sport,” collected by David Petersen. “The Mindful Carnivore, A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance,” by Tovar Cerulli. “Call of the Mild, Learning to Hunt My own Dinner, a Memoir,” by Lily Raff McCaulou. If you have never killed anything that is warm to the touch, you may want to get an idea what that means.

This thinned slope near Star Gulch in the Applegate Unit showed signs of deer feeding on newly sprouted tan oak shoots, and lots of droppings, but we never saw any deer. Someone had dropped a salt lick nearby.

There is also some gear I will be getting that I don’t have now. If I had killed a buck, I would have had a hard time getting it out. So I will get a hunting pack that I can use to pack out my kill and carry what I need. I already bought some meat bags. I will also get one of those little squeeze bottles that sends up a wisp of smoke to check the wind. I think lack of attention to my scent and wind direction probably spooked a lot of deer.

The GPS I bought has a screen about the size of a matchbook, so I will be looking into upgrading that. It is really tiny for looking over maps. We found GPS very useful in reaching a location in the dark and finding our way home after driving a maze of logging roads. I have all the maps I need.

I will be looking at upgrading my binoculars. The ones I have are 7X35 and 60 years old and have a Ted Williams autograph on them. They are sharp, but I would like a little higher power and bigger aperture.

I also plan to buy a couple trail cameras that can take pictures in the dark. There is a risk of losing or having them stolen, but like one blogger wrote, they offer hard evidence, with times and dates, like none other you will get.

I will be looking into hunting some more open country. I didn’t do a very good job about identifying clearcuts and burned over areas to hunt, despite the advice I had to do that. All of the country I hunted held deer, but it was so dense I could never see them, except on the road, when it was too late.

I will be applying for some controlled hunts and tags, particularly the Applegate muzzleloader hunt. That one has a success rate of 60 percent, but it takes three points to expect to get one, so no need to spend the money on a muzzleloading rifle yet. Except perhaps to practice. The system for controlled hunts is not set up for new hunters — it can take years to accumulate the points needed. And I am getting a late start. But I did buy one point before the start of general rifle season, so I will have one point going into next year.

I am intrigued by the idea of bow hunting, so will be looking into that.

I will spend more time studying how to field dress my kill. The butchering class I took offered some pointers, but we started with a dressed lamb carcass. I will need a better understanding before trying it for the first time. There is even a way to do it without opening the body cavity, though that would mean leaving behind the heart, liver, and kidneys, which game cookbook author Hank Shaw relishes.

The hardest part for me was figuring out a place to hunt, and a strategy going in. So I will spend more time on that.

One thing I would suggest, if anyone wants to really promote hunting, is to establish some kind of mentor program for guys like me, not just kids. I don’t know of any. As one hunter told me, not many experienced hunters want to take out a newbie unless it is a son or daughter. So next year I will be more brazen in asking experienced hunters to go out with me. Forty years as a newsman taught me, the only way to find out is to ask the question, so get over your shyness.

It was nice having someone else to hunt with, and safer, too, so thanks Jim Kababick.

There is a lot to study and think about over the winter, spring and summer. I would urge someone like myself, 66 years old, retired and reasonably fit, to give it a shot. It is by no means easy and I don’t think one day a week is really enough. Like steelhead fishing, you have to put in your time.