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While recovering from shoulder surgery, I was getting pretty grumpy sitting at home with a hunting license, deer and elk tags yearning to be filled. I had drawn a deer tag for a very coveted area here. It’s 98% private land. Fortunately though, I have permission from many of the farmers around Grass Valley, Oregon to hunt. This is the area I didn’t draw last year, but accompanied my friends on their harvest of several deer . . .

It was three generations, hunting on a fifth-generation wheat farmer’s land. (I did come away with some of the jerky)

The last day of this year’s deer season dawned with a work crew paving my driveway. As I watched the guys work, I got a call from my buddy Sean. He had the day off and would be willing to drive me the two hours in hopes of bagging a buck to partially re-stock my freezer. I had two elk steaks left that I was saving up for an all-natural Thanksgiving dinner.

Still having my arm in a sling, I semi-jumped at the opportunity, making several trips from the shop to Sean’s rig, throwing in my day pack and my loaded .308 FN PBR. We arrived in the unit area with two hours of shooting light left and saw 60-70 does standing around chomping on wheat and alfalfa just staring at us.

Finally, with maybe five minutes of shooting light left, we put the stalk on a nice 4×4 buck. The stalk started out around a thousand yards with some minor hills between Mr. Buck and me. I’m practiced out to 800 yards, but I know bullet performance would be severely degraded at that point so we approached in roundabout ways to get closer.

Afternoon winds are tricky out in those wheat fields. As I came to what I knew would be my final little rise I extended my bi-pod and checked for a round in the chamber. Good to go with 168 grains of SMKHP speeding along at 2,650 feet per second.

As I crouch-walked to the top of the rise, I spied him hopping in that “mule deer way”, straight away from my position. I laid down and waited for him to slow or stop. Nope. He was on a mission to get the heck away from the danger smell. Oh well. The day wasn’t a waste. It ended with this:

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Fast forward a month and a half. The Doc has told me to ditch the sling, and I’ve been released to go back to work full time. Physical therapy is going great and I’m a bit ahead of schedule…maybe due to my pig-headedness, maybe just because I take it seriously.
This is both good and bad. Good because I get to earn a paycheck again.Bad because Elk season is upon me and I’d sure like some time off. In good conscience, I can’t ask for that so it’s a weekend hunt for me.

Not drawing a tag for the unit with the best chance of success means I’m back to the hellish coast range where the ghosts of the woods can appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. I’ve heard that the native Indian word for elk is “wapiti” which means “elusive wanderer.” I have purposely not looked up that factoid to confirm if that’s true. I don’t want to, because I know it is. Or should be.

Friday night means I’m back at my buddy Mike’s man cave (which has electricity and wi-fi. Ahh…manly men doing manly things in a manly manner! That means total relaxation before a total workout.

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The next morning finds us driving to where a herd was last reportedly seen, to no avail. The only elk we saw was was a pretty nice 5×5 standing in the front yard of someone’s home munching on their unkempt lawn. I ask Mike if it’s worth asking them to hunt their five-acre property. He laughs and says, “No, they’re California transplant animal-lovers.” Crap. He was a nice “freezer bull.”

Mike suggests a few light hikes off logging roads in search of signs of the beasts to fill the day while we wait for an evening hunt. Light hikes? Mike is a power pole-hiking, heavy equipment-operating, hiking machine. I have got to get in better shape. Oh yeah. I keep forgetting. I’m in my 57th year. He’s in his 44th.

Then I notice during a hill hump. He’s below me with Pilot Mike. Now Pilot Mike has a bit of an excuse. He was Air Force and currently flies long range for United, so he sits a lot. Ha! I’m above those guys.

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After a few “light hikes” (OMG, my legs are burning), we retreat to the truck. All is not lost, at least so far. We found a few pounds of chanterelle mushrooms. Nature’s golden goodness.

We work out a game plan. Knowing that the 5X5 bull was probably a satellite bull from a bigger herd, we find a trail on public land that loops around and behind the California animal lover’s land, so we begin the hike. OK, now I’m feeling my age. The younger guys are ahead of me. A check of the Fitbit later shows that in less than a mile, we hiked upwards a little over 300 vertical feet. About 3.5 miles into the hike, I find a nice spot in the elbow of a wide trail to sit. I’ve got a great field of fire in three directions with somewhat fresh signs of deer and elk.

Mike and Pilot Mike decide to forge ahead to a known meadow another three miles out. I’m beat. I’ll sit my camo-ass right here and hope for the best.

An hour later I’m peering to my left at my only shooting light that remains. It was also where we saw the freshest elk tracks. I’m seriously thinking about ripping open an MRE for some hot food when movement to my right catches my eye. Mind you, I’m in camo, sitting against a blackened stump in double canopy, at 5:15 PM. It’s pretty darn dark, but still shootable.

My mind’s going at 80 miles per hour thinking of cougars jumping on suspecting food when movement to my right catches my eye.
I shift my head only, as my rifle is already pointing that direction, resting on my right leg. A nice fork horned black-tailed deer comes up out of the game trail and we lock eyes. He is staring. I’m staring. My breath is coming back under control as its not a cougar. It’s also not a Cape Buffalo coming to stomp my ass in to dirt jelly.

He stares, but can’t figure me out. The wind is blowing a perfect crosswind. He can’t smell me. He sniffs the wind…nothing. He looks back at me. Nothing. Then he goes to grazing, but not for long as I try not to stare directly. He sniffs the wind and looks towards me again. Nothing. Then he calmly turns around and walks back down the game trail. After a bit, I pace it off — 21 feet.

I’ve got perma-grin as I realize a wild black-tailed deer has walked the forest, sniffing for predators, looking for food, and stood next to me. I thought seriously about my phone camera, but to turn it on would have illuminated me and likely spoiled the moment.
I was, and am still, completely spoiled by a couple of minutes with a wild animal. An animal that has a brain that tells it that it’s prey, not a predator.

Sunday, I left the coast a bit early because I knew of a few clear-cut spots that I could sit and watch the evening and my hunting season end. I found a nice place to rest my legs, sit and hunt.

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My farthest shot from this vantage point was 600 yards. I had a nice easy-on-the-legs “hunt” on my last day.

So I wasn’t successful in bagging a freezer filler. But it was still hunting. I knew my rifle and my ammo. I knew others’ boundaries and my own. It’s why it’s called hunting, and not “harvesting”.

Oh, and I had a dinner cooked by Mike.

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Grilled ribeye steaks with fresh chanterelles and glazed onions for toppers, baked beans on the side. I may have gained a pound or so.

I hope your weekend was successful, too.

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26 Responses to Hunting the Elusive Wanderer

  1. “I was, and am still, completely spoiled by a couple of minutes with a wild animal.”
    I’m right there with you, and I hope to always be. Gorgeous pics and great writing. I bet you stared at that sunset in the first pic until every bit of it was gone. I know I would have.
    Thank you sir.

    • “Gorgeous pics and great writing.”

      Word.

      I expect any day now for Tom to post that he can’t drop writing like that in TTAG because he’d been offered a writing gig with one of the hunting mags.

      • Ha! Fat chance of that. I’m happy that RF and team let me write right here.
        Thank you Geoff.
        And yes, Jon. We sat on that little knoll till it was head lamp time.

  2. My old man could stalk up so close to a deer that the animal would be embarrassed when he realised how close he was. Seen him do it more than once. He never shot those. He always felt it was unfair to whack one at mob ranges.

    I got a lot of that in me. I’ve probably passed more shots than I’ve taken. Just that time in the wild places is good enough. Once and a while getting some good eating is a bonus.

    • I swear I’ve heard some bucks laughing at me as they have crashed through intervening brush at 30 mph, knowing I was trying in vain to get a good shot.

      • Quail. I swear the damn things can hold a hover and fly backwards. And they laugh as I spend large amounts of expensive ammo for no return.

        I know it sounds unpossible. But one of the little jerks barrel rolled and gave me the finger.

    • I had an uncle that stalked deer in the Vermont woods. He could find them and get ridiculously close. No camo. Ratty jeans, $hit kicking boots, plaid woolrich, smelling of Schlitz, and a 30-30 that he could shoot the tits off a knat with well past 200 yards if he had to.

      I aspire to be half the hunter he was.

  3. TIO, you file about the best posts here. Thanks once again. And remember, someday you’ll shoot something yummy again!

  4. Tom –

    About Mike’s man cave – Are the walls built up with scraps of 2×4?

    If they are, there’s a nearly unlimited supply of those down here, free for the scrounging…

  5. I grew up hunting in the late 60’s and 70’s on a wheat and cattle ranch near Grass Valley, out on the breaks of the Deschutes River. About 10000 acres of private ranch, and another 10000 of leased BLM land, hunting with second generation ranchers. Great times, beautiful sunsets with the Cascades all backlit, and the smell of fresh sage – hunting with my Dad (now gone) and brother. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Great story. For me, it’s never about the shot but it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good result. We managed to get out this weekend to the AL deer camp. It’s between “ruts”. Yes, they have two there and it’s been so damned hot nothing is moving. This means you need to put in a lot of work to locate the deer. The wind went to swirl on me at my favorite ambush point so I retreated my favorite green field with a nice view of the sunset content to just enjoy the evening. A huge doe appeared in an adjacent green field with a couple of smaller does and a spike. I had the wind and stalked to about 100 yards and then waited as long as I could for a buck to step out. I was able to wait a full 29 minutes after sunset thanks to the Leupold. She was DRT at 120 yards with a handload 165 SGK out of my .308 Tikka T3 Lite. Very satisfying hunt and a nice start on the freezer for myself and my son.

  7. Sometimes, the deer that we see and don’t shoot are some of the best experiences.

    I had a yearling walk within 15 feet of my blind one time. It was fun just watching. I was tempted to use the .44 Magnum revolver so that I can say I have taken a deer with it. But I couldn’t bring myself to shoot a yearling — it might have been 60 pounds tops. I figured it was better to let it go and get bigger for next year.

  8. Had the opprotunity this last summer as I wandered a friends property (not that far from Grass Valley) to sit with an old white tail buck that was living out his last few moments. Didn’t stay until the end but sat for 15-20 minutes and pondered things profound. Brings a new perspective to life. By the time I got back by to check on him an hour or so later, he had passed.

  9. Nice story , glad you got out.

    My bow kills average less then 20 yards, this years buck about 10. The 270 dropped one in gun at 60. I can’t imagine those western distances .

  10. Wow what a beautiful country you have there. I thought Ohio was flat, but either I got my geographies mixed up or Ohio is bigger than I thought. Man what views you have, I’m really jealous.
    I also like you’re hunting philosophy, that it is not always important to take the shot, but to enjoy the moment.
    And last but not least, thanks for the great article.

  11. This is exactly what we’ve all come to expect from Tom in Oregon — lyrical prose and a great perspective on the outdoors.

  12. Maybe it’s due to the countless weekends during my childhood, cutting and splitting wood for heat with my dad, but stomping around in the cold, wet woods for hours doesn’t sound like a good time to me. That’s not to say I wouldn’t mind giving a try at least once. Who knows, I might like it.

  13. I used to bow hunt when I was younger. Every year for quite a while we hunted in Colorado for elk. One day I was heading back to camp. It had started snowing, and began coming down hard. I moved off the trail and got under a large tree that had limbs hanging down. Perfect cover. It was quiet as a tomb. I was very well camo’d up. I stood there for a long time, trying to be quiet and motionless. I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and ever so slowly moved my my head to see.
    It looked like something flowing along the ground. I realized it was a big weasel, mostly changed over to his white coat. He was hunting, nose down, looking around, moving slowly. I thought, “There goes Death on the prowl for some small critter.”
    He walked right by my right boot, and just hunted off into the forest.
    It was quite a sight, and I will never forget it.

    • Flowing along the ground is as good a discription as I’ve ever heard. I refer to them as snakes with hips.

      And they are bright critters. Had one ghosting along with me while I was hunting rabbits. He was looking for a chance at the ones I sent his way. Had a coyote do that once. Amazing both times.

  14. Beautiful story and photos, Tom. I am no longer able to hunt, but I still remember many long and wonderful days spent that way. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    Now I have a nuisance herd of mule deer that actually beds down on my back 40 most evenings. I watch the does bring out their fawns in the spring, observing them as they grow. The young bucks appear from somewhere in November, and get chased away by the four and six spike older guys very quickly. Then the snow comes, and the herd resets for another year.

    Early one snowy morning I looked out my kitchen window and saw a very large black and silver wolf just coming up from the bluffs about 50 yards from the house. He walked south toward the bedding area of the deer, then vanished when I stepped out on the deck with my camera. It was a sight I’ll never forget.

  15. I turkey hunt way more than I deer hunt. for me it’s like Church. Sitting quiet and still, waiting. While I’m waiting I can reflect on alot of things and just enjoy the biggest church ever built. I call alot of birds up to my blind and for the most part just watch. Last season I had a rattler crawl thur my blind for a little excitement.(I live in Alabama) Luckly my wife was not with me that day. Had a 20 minute conversation with a momma hen, don’t know what we talked about but she got about 20 feet from my blind before she calmly wandered off. Called 3 Jakes up and 4 jennys but let them go on. I have yet to get a grand old tom in my 3rd year of hunting these very sharp birds but I’m getting better at it and having a wonderful time. Sometimes IT IS about the hunt NOT the KILL.

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