Tree Rides, a Hair Trigger and a Very Bloody Flashlight

That’s right; it was varmint control (hunting) season, also known in my house as step-one-food-processing season.  So this is a month late (and I’m sure you all were chomping at the bit for it).

It was windy on the first day of muzzleloader season and the deer tend not to roam or forage as much in high wind, so I saw nothing, but I did get a nice “tree ride”.  I wrote a little song while swaying this way and that in my tree stand;

Rock-a-by hunter
In the tree top
When the wind blows
The tree stand will rock
When the bow breaks
The tree stand will fall
And down will come hunter
Rifle and all

But later I realized that thousands of tree-climbing hunters must surely have thought of those exact words over the years, and so I can’t claim patent rights to the song.  Anyway; I’m not sure you can call it “hunting” when all you’re doing is sitting there waiting to snipe a deer.  “Waylaying” maybe, or “Ambushing”.
“I’m going ambushing, Honey.  I’ll be back after dark.”
“OK.  Good luck, Deer.”
“Wait.  What?  No– it’s good luck me, bad luck, deer.”

Thanksgiving evening I saw a nice buck come in from the wheat fields (our deer feed off of the farmers’ efforts most of the year in these parts).  Now I never thought I was capable of doing this – you only take a shot if you’re going to make the shot, right?  Therefore you don’t miss.  That’s been my understanding and my experience up until now.  In practice I’ve hit a target the size of the kill zone virtually 100% of the time, and in hunting previous years I’ve always put the ball close enough to where it belongs.  So much for that as an axiom.  I attribute it to a combination of a hair trigger on this percussion lock and cold fingers, but mostly to a timing error of the brain at that moment when timing is everything.  Line up the sights under the target so you can keep the target in view the whole time, raise the front sight up to the A zone, fire.  1,2,3.  Steps two and three ended up reversed somehow, such that once I got onto the A zone the ball had already escaped my control.  The shot went right under the brisket, he jumped a little at the flash, the huge smoke cloud and the horrific blast, and went sauntering off unperturbed, flipping his tail and sniffing the ground.  Moseying even, as if to show me how little he cared that I’d just shot at him with a fifty caliber rifle.  Bloody show-off.

If that weren’t enough, I did it again with a nice doe two nights later, so a range session was in order the next morning.  100% “A” hits from standing unsupported.  Two holes touching at 50 some yards, and a third right where I knew it went without using the binoculars—I’d pulled slightly low, but still a good shot.  What the hell?  I adjusted the lock for a slightly heavier pull, gritted my teeth, and kept climbing the tree.

The Tree is on a very steep slope between the farm fields and the Palouse River, and it’s a slog through brambles and fallen branches to get up there.  Very good exercise that, and I feel much better now thank you, but one piece of advice; fighting through brush and thorns with very long hair is a problem.

More advice as if you’d asked for it; Doe urine is attractive to deer of both sexes.  We humans tend to think of a urine smell as something to be avoided, but deer find it fascinating and it makes them relax– “Someone’s been peeing around here.  Cool!  I think I’ll stick around.”   I once had two does trot in, calling to the non-existent doe that they’d smelled from downwind.  They then stopped to hang around for a while and chew some cud.  Urine is good stuff.   I won’t tell you how to acquire doe urine.  If you’re not interested it doesn’t matter, and if you’re interested enough you’ll figure out on your own.

Fifth day of season, fourth day out.  The weather is too good this evening – no wind.  No tree ride, but the chance of a close encounter is very good.  Right on schedule, the huge covey of quail came chirping and fluttering in to roost just below my stand after sunset.  As if on cue, a doe comes in through the brush with another full-sized doe and a smaller one following.  Good enough.  I’ll take the lead doe.  Not gonna touch Mr. Trigger until the time is right. Full cock, ready to fire, taking aim.  A quail explodes just under my target doe, causing her to leap reflexively, then settle down to a walk again.  She’s more alert now.  Damn.  Why can’t this be easy?  No.  It is easy if I do everything right (that’s good advice there – marble sculpture is easy too, and eye surgery, so long as you do everything just right, see).


“And…There!” I thought to myself.  “Good let-off.  That’s a hit.”  No wind, so the smoke cloud lingers and I don’t see what happened with the deer.  She’s just gone.  But then I see all three deer just standing there off to my left, with stupid looks on their faces.  These must be Republican deer– no ability to understand the situation and react appropriately for their own benefit.  OK then, one of  ’em’s going to expire right there, ’cause she’s been shot good, but I can’t just sit in the tree and do nothing, hoping.  I’ve taken to reloading after a shot no matter what, so the rifle was charged as I lowered it on a cord and then climbed down.  Prime the nipple.  The three deer are still standing above me, very close at the top of the slope, as if caught in your headlights (Republicans alright) so I walk toward them.  They just walk off, slowly, so I follow at a distance, waiting.  One of the two larger does is hit, but which one is that?  A little farther along the ridge now, and they’re all in view, all standing still, looking.

Now here is an ethical question for all hunters to ponder.  You have one tag and three easy targets.  One of them is hit for sure but you don’t know which one at the moment because in the smoke and confusion they shuffled and relocated.  Light and legal hours are expiring fast.  Do you, a) simply wait for the hit deer to expire, which risks having it run away first when you know you can’t track it worth squat in the coming darkness and the thick foliage, b) shoot the nicest looking deer and possibly let the currently injured deer get away, or, c) …..

It’s like phase two in the underpants gnomes’ plan (“…..”) yet the the only good choice I can think of is the technically non existent one.  I’m not trying to be funny about it either.  I have the gun up, ready to fire; eeny meeny my-nee moe…which one is my target doe…

“Use the Force” is as good a bit of advice as anything.  It doesn’t really help but it might make you feel better.  Actually that didn’t come to mind at all at the time.  “Why doesn’t she go down?” came to mind.  Gun up.  Good backstop. They’re all standing broadside, like statues, presenting themselves as perfect targets, waiting for something to which they might react (Republicans for sure and for certain).  I need a sign.  Then two of them bound off, high-tailed, and one stays locked in place, head lower than normal alert status, maybe darker at the mouth.  That’s her.  Good backstop.  Good angle.  This one’s going right through the bioler room.


Good sight picture, good let-off.  She is double whacked, and hard.  Still there is no wind and the big smoke cloud lingers.  Again, no deer visible when the smoke clears.  Just plowed Earth.  I’m beginning to think muzzleloaders are a pain in the neck.  Hope for some crosswind if you’re going to do this.

It’s getting dark – about 4:20 PM.  That shot has kilt that doe plenty dead here at the top of the ridge on plowed ground, but she’s simply gone.  The ridge falls off right here though, with brush and trees below.  I am not happy as I don’t know which direction to start looking.  In the undulating hills of the Palouse loess farmlands, you don’t have to go far to be over the horizon, and this spot is a prime example of that.  My head’s on a swivel as I’m trying to decide where to go from here.  Worry.  Doubt.  It probably would have looked comical for a couple seconds— one of several examples of why smokeless gunpowder is superior to black, but I soon find the two other does lingering in the bushes down the slope.  OK.  Search in that direction.

Below them is my target doe, dead as a hammer, belly up against some bushes at the bottom of a steep clearing.  Relief.  All is well.  That first shot had gone in behind the diaphragm, busted the gut, busted the liver, penetrated the diaphragm on the far side, nicked one lung and busted a rib.  Certainly lethal.  A liver shot will bleed you out for sure, but too slowly to stop a deer before it gets some distance.  The second shot went in right behind the left shoulder, wrecked both lungs and exited through the right scapula, busting ribs on both sides.  A classic hit.  She couldn’t have taken more than a bound before dropping a few yards from where she stood and then sliding down the incline.  In hindsight, the second shot probably was not strictly necessary, but I had no way of knowing for sure at the time.  A standing deer is still a target, I figure.  From the first shot to finding the kill couldn’t have been more than four or five minutes.

I call several times on the radio for Son to bring the pickup.  No answer.  No answer on the cell phone either, but almost no coverage.  Crap.  Coyotes are numerous in this area and I don’t want to leave the kill.  Texting works OK with a poor signal, but everyone’s at jazz band rehearsal I bet.  Nothing for it.  I tag the deer, then half drag, half carry it down the slopes and through the brush and thorns (did I mention that very long hair really sucks in this environment?) and run home with my gear.  It’s down and across the river on a bridge and then up to the house (I said this was good exercise and I meant it) then a drive back to the bottom of the slope, panting like an over-worked sled dog, windows open to the 30ish degree air so I can cool off, back the tailgate against the slope and slide the carcass into the truck.

Cleaning (gutting) a deer in the dark is even more unpleasant than doing it in daylight, and that Maglite you hold in your mouth all the time so you can have both hands free– Na ga dah when it’s covered in blood and gore (I know – head mount – sure – you know everything).  Son was home by then so he got flashlight duty.  Hours after the first shot I had the cleaned carcass hung tidy in the garage, I was cleaned up, showered, and had a plate of really nice fried venison liver (the best in the world, and if you don’t believe it I don’t care) with home-grown mashed potatoes and leftover turkey gravy.  That and a pint of homebrewed pumpkin ale, still pretty flat having been bottled only three days before, but still wonderful especially after not having eaten for ~12 hours.

It’s been a disconcerting and humbling season (knocked me off my high horse) but I’m happy with the outcome.  The deer have to cooperate as I’ve said before, and this season was a good example.

Here’s where I get criticism, I suppose, for making what was technically a gut shot (plus I could have mistaken the deer for that second shot and had two dead deer with one tag).  I could have simply omitted those details, had a fairly clean “true” story and elicited some praise, however I know from talking with more than a few hunters in private over my 50 some odd years that it can and does get uglier than that, and I figure you should know how it is in addition to knowing how it is ideally.  I stand by my choices and actions.  So there.  Last year’s buck went down in its tracks due to a CNS hit, in turn due to the angle of the shot, but I was simply aiming for, and hit, the heart/lung cavity.  That the ball grazed the spine on the way out was an unplanned bonus.  One dead deer hung in my garage, was planned and that’s what I got each time.  Primitive weapons and iron sights in low light are considered primitive for good reasons.  A modern high velocity rifle round, say in the 6 mm to 30 cal range will cause far more trauma and therefore kill faster than the 50 caliber smoke pole, all else being equal, but even then a classic A zone hit with a modern system will often result in the deer running 40 yards or more before expiring.  Expectations regarding the effects of gunshots have been taken completely away from reality by Hollywood types, and I dare say by gun writers and advertisers too.  Killing is not a clean or tidy business.  I don’t know; maybe next year I’ll try my luck at modern season.  I’ve avoided modern season so far because I don’t like the extra company in the field, and because I can take a doe if I like.  Some hunters go for neck shots, which will put them down quick and don’t risk destroying a picnic roast.  That’s another option I guess.


6 thoughts on “Tree Rides, a Hair Trigger and a Very Bloody Flashlight

  1. I always figure, the better things go, the easier life is while it’s happening.

    The worse things go, the better the stories are later.

    The best life seems to be a proper balance of boring, everything according to plan times, and chaotic, what-the-heck-just-happened-and-how-do-we-fix-it moments.

    Good write-up, glad it’s in your freezer.

    Around where I hunt, the deer population is WAY down, and the cougar population is WAY up, because they outlawed hounding for cougars a few years ago. A waitress at one cafe I had dinner at told me only one rack had shown up for submission to their big buck contest they run every year – and I was talking to her on the very last day of the regular season. One hunting club (a collection of farms that sell hunting rights to people) that usually has hundreds of mule deer bucks taken each year had only 22 shot this year.

  2. Great telling of your story. As Rolf said, hunters don’t want to hear about the perfect shot that dropped it in its tracks, we want to hear about the just-barely-mitigated disasters.

    I got lucky with the last buck I took (whitetail here in Minnesnowta). A standing broadside shot at 40 yards with a .30-06, crossing the lungs and heart. The bugger still went 25 yards down the edge of the clearing and another 25 yards into the swamp before wrapping himself around a tree. I have no idea how they can go so far with that kind of a wound. I will say that a 12-gauge shotgun slug at close range (less than 25 yards) drops them a lot more effectively…but also has a tendency to ruin more meat with a badly-placed shot.

    I am a little curious…I usually gut the deer as close as possible to where it dropped; if there’s a small hill nearby I like to start at the base of the slope, get the animal opened up, and then spill everything downhill. I can then drag it a little further up the hill and finish the cleaning-up and tying-off of the colon/anus for later detail work. I keep a headlamp in my hunting day-pack, since it always seems that I get my deer just before end-of-shooting in the evening, and it’s pitch black by the time I’ve tracked it and dragged it to a good cleaning spot. I was wondering why you didn’t gut it out before dragging it all that way; gutting ’em drops the weight you’ve got to pull quite a bit.

    No venison for me this year…bad weather on opening weekend for firearms (the only time I could get out), with 30 MPH winds stirring everything up. Usually it’s so quiet that you’d swear the squirrel bustling around in the leaves was an elephant, but both days you could have herded a troop of elephants through the place without being able to hear them.

  3. Black; I’ve gutted them in the field too. Not that it matters a lot, but there are two reasons I didn’t do it this time. 1. In that same area I’ve come back the very next day to find the guts 100% gone. No trace. Coyotes. I don’t want to feed them if I don’t have to. 2. It was a short hop downhill to where I could back the tailgate and slide the carcass down onto it. Then I can gut it at home, on a slope, rolling the guts down into a bag where they can be disposed of with the garbage.

    A couple years ago we had to haul a buck up over a hill, several hundred yards. You can bet I had that one gutted, and I cut the legs off at the knees to lighten the load. Coyotes had a feast that evening no doubt. So it was all about location.

  4. Lyle:

    Thanks for the response! We’ve got plenty of ‘yotes here too, but I’ve found that gut-piles are eaten by durn near everything in the woods and swamps around here. Woodchucks, raccoons, skunks, mushrats, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, voles and even other deer (!) all make that pile of nasty stuff disappear with amazing speed.

    Back when I was hunting in southern Minnesota (shotgun only zones) we’d shoot from a stand at the top of a small ridge. Wounded deer (if there were any) almost ALWAYS ran downhill. rather than across level ground.

    One interesting fact of physics that I think somebody ought to explore is why a deer at the bottom of a swampy hill weighs twice as much as it does when you’ve finally gotten it dragged to the top of the hill where the trail starts. I’m guessing the same thing comes into play in Idaho, except that your “hills” are actually friggin’ mountains, and the tallest hill in Minnesnowta looks like a bump out there. I have a hard time imagining dragging a deer, particularly one of your big mulies, over the kinds of elevation changes you must.

    Have a happy New Year!

  5. Lyle: Gravitational attraction falls off with the square of distance, so there’s a very good reason in Physics why the deer weighs more down in the swampy bottom than it does on the hilltop.

    Glad to hear the liver hit left enough to eat. Venison liver is one of my favourites too, and my initial reaction to “the shot broke the liver” was “Aw, dang!”

  6. John; The .595″ lead ball (MV of around 1600 fps with this load) pretty much drills a straight hole through & through (entry and exit look about the same). The liver is always an exception, and sometimes the heart. In the liver it makes a star-shaped wound about 2″ to 3″ across. That leaves plenty left to eat. A direct hit to the heart opens it up, such that you can lay it out flat like a pancake. We don’t eat a heart that’s been blown like that. This one was untouched, so it’s in the freezer.

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