Friday, 21 August 2009

Guest Post: Learning To Hunt

One of the really cool things about blogging is the way that your words become a calling card when reaching out to other people with similar interests. The last time I found someone who started to learn to hunt in 'middle youth' I met Holly the author of NorCal Cazadora and while we've never met up I've had a few hilarious and thought provoking conversations with her and enjoyed watching her journey unfold in leaps and bounds while my own has been a little more, erhm, sedentary.
While searching the 'tinterweb a few weeks back i came across this story written by Mike Skelly, simply entitled 'Learning to Hunt' I dropped him a line and he was kind enough to write back giving me permission to post it here as a guest post. Hope you like it too.

My name is Mike Skelly. And although I am a late starter, I love hunting. I grew up in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in New York State, but I never hunted until I took it on myself to buy a rifle and get my first license as a 20-year old in 1990. Hunting has grown from a couple of weekends in 1990 to a year round obsession in less than a decade, and I cannot get enough.

I had a lot of learning to do. I hunted solo the first year. The closest that I came to getting a shot when I was still-hunting up a small ridge. As I neared the summit, I could hear something moving fast on the other side. A fat doe popped over the top and skidded to a halt about five yards away. I didn't have an antlerless tag, and I'm not sure who was more surprised. She was so close that I could smell her. Our eyes locked, and then she gave a snort and trotted away, while I waited in vain for a buck to follow.

The second year went much the same except that I linked up with some older hunters who took pity on me and offered to help teach me to hunt. We hunted on my parents' 63 acres of rolling fields and hardwoods and these fellows took two nice deer that I pushed to them with many hours of walking while they kept watch. I sure learned a lot about driving, but not much about shooting. Every time that I wanted to hunt the ridges, these guys assured me that deer always stayed in the valleys, and that I should push the swamps to catch them in their beds. I began to think something was up when the same thing happened the next year. I saw a few tails and a few does, but ended up pushing bucks to my companions while my tags went unfilled. They even helped me by filling my doe tag for me on opening day. What pals! After their tags were filled, I began to walk the ridges and without any surprise found good rubs and scrapes wherever it was hard going to get to. I found tracks, beds, and saw a few tails. And I learned where the bucks bedded, but could not sneak up on those ridge bedded bucks no matter how I tried. The one shot I had misfired because the rifle had iced over during freezing rain. Yes, I was already hooked on hunting enough to stay out for hours in freezing rain!

The third year I told the older guys that I wanted to hunt the high ground opening day, but they convinced me to try "just one sweep" in the valley. Sure enough, they bagged a buck and by the time it was dressed and hauled to the house, it was lunchtime. After lunch, I decided to go to the high ground, even though it was the wrong time of day. I figured anything that had been chased out of the valleys might have holed up on top.

It was unusually warm that day. I slow stalked up a steep, shale covered slope in bright afternoon sunlight. I knew that there was a shelf just before the summit and could envision a big buck laying on that shelf watching the valley below. By taking the steepest route I could not be seen from the shelf. I was about 30 feet from the top after a forty minute climb when I thought that I heard movement ahead. Instinct took over and I ran to the top, just in time to see what seemed like a perfect buck gracefully bounding away. Breathing hard from my up-hill run, I put my rifle to my shoulder as the universe slipped into slow motion.

The deer was one bound away from a stone wall at the crest of the hill. If he cleared that, he would be out of sight. I put my sites on him, and took up the slack in the two stage trigger as he gathered himself for the jump. He was in mid air, over the wall, with antlers held high and the sun shining on his coat when I placed the sites perfectly behind, and just below his shoulder and pulled the trigger. It is an instant that will live forever in my memory, a scene so classic it could have been taken from an advertisement for hunting gear, the perfectly placed shot at last instant for a grand trophy. There was only one problem. Click.

That's right, after unloading the rifle for lunch in the house, I had refilled the magazine but failed to fill the chamber! It took 2 heartbeats (I felt them) for the disbelief to be turned to determination. I ran up the last slope, and looked over the stone wall at the disappearing form of my high bounding buck. After chambering the first bullet from the magazine I fired twice more just as he entered brush. The first shot knocked a branch off a sapling between us, but the second sent hair flying beyond him. He kept going, but I was convinced that he was hard hit.

Tracking revealed enough hair to cover a squirrel, and a set of tracks that got lost in a maze of deer trails, but not one drop of blood. Fearful that I had wounded him, I prayed that God would give me another chance at the same buck later.

Two weeks later, I came down sick. Fever, chills, body ache. No doubt about it, it was the flu. I was too sick to go to work, but when fresh snow started falling, I all but crawled outside. It was the first tracking snow of deer season, and I was home from work. You can't pass up a chance like that!

I hunted away from the house on the ridge tops for an hour when I began to wonder what had possessed me to get so far away from the bathroom, then I crossed fresh tracks still filling with snow (about 30 minutes old). I gratefully followed them back toward home. Through thickets, and finally to a just emptied bed in heavy pines when I heard a stone turn on the stone wall I knew was 100 yards ahead of me. Running to the wall I saw a buck cutting broadside downhill. I fired just once. I was so excited that I actually had my first buck (I thought).

I was now within sight of my house and had always heard that you should let a deer lay down and stiffen up if you wound him. 20 minutes later the snow had stopped when I went out again. At the point my bullet had hit him I found exactly one drop of blood. My heart sank. What kind of a hunter was I? But so long as he was wounded it was my obligation to follow. He had lain down about 500 yards away and there was about as much blood as would fill the palm of your hand in the bed, and a few drops every few feet beyond that. I knew by the tracks what had happened. He was walking on 3 legs. Somehow my perfect broadside shot (on a running deer 70 yards away and about 40 feet down hill through hardwoods) had hit a leg that bled when he used it.

If it wasn't for the snow I would never have been able to track him. I followed him for more than a mile before I saw him jump up from a thicket. Determined not to let him get away even if I had to take a shot from the rear, I fired again. That put him down and I put a finishing shot into his brain to end the chase. He had put up a good fight and I still admire that game little buck. He was only 100 lbs. dressed, and had only a pair of wide forks, but I was as proud as if he had been a bull elephant! He was mine, and I did it alone, hunting where I knew was best. He had a strip of hair shaved off his back from hip to shoulder, and I am convinced that he was the same buck that I missed on the high ridges opening morning. God had given me another chance at the same deer.

The next year I humored my aged companions one more time, but after fruitlessly pushing the swamps in two hours of cold rain, we came home to see three doe run across a neighbor's yard. This time I had a doe tag in my pocket. I sprinted to where I would have a shot directed safely away from the houses, and waited for the trio to step into view en route to the woods. I filled my tag with a clean head shot when one paused to look at my friend standing helplessly on the porch open mouthed and empty handed while his rifle lay unloaded on the kitchen table. None of us got a buck that year, but the doe was good eating. Last year my buddies came back to my parents' farm to hunt, but this time I went up the ridges to wait for dawn. I watched the world turn pink, and sunlight creep down the hill toward me as squirrels played and a partridge fed through. At 8 AM I heard the unmistakable sound of deer walking just out of sight, on my left. A short stalk showed me the hind end of a medium sized four point buck following a doe about 50 yards away. I put my SKS's sites on him, but didn't want to take a butt shot. Just as I resolved to take the shot instead of letting him slip away. He turned to look at me and exposed a shoulder. BAM. He went down 5 yards from where he had stood and I had my second buck by 8:30 opening morning.

I told my friends where the doe had gone, and where she was likely to go when I pushed the thicket she was in. I saw three deer bound away (through cover, without offering me good shots) right where I predicted the escape route would be, but my buddies had chosen to ignore my advice and watch other routes. Although I pushed a doe and fawn to them later that day, they let them pass (I would have too), and they did not see another deer all season.

On closing day I took my antlerless tag back to the high ridges and made a perfect heart shot on a little doe as she and 2 others fed along 50 yards in front of me. She folded up so quickly that the others didn't even leave the area until I showed myself and walked toward them. It was the first time that I had filled both tags in one season and the first time that I had taken a deer completely unaware of human presence.

Lessons learned? Follow your instincts. Be nice to your buddies, but make your own choices. If you have put in the time to learn where the deer are, trust yourself instead of someone who thinks they know more. This year, I'm going straight to the top of the hill before dawn. God willing, I'll get a shot at the really big buck that I know is there, but if not I'll hunt to the low ground in the afternoon and give the other fellows a chance at whatever comes out of the swamp for them. I may not have got my trophy deer yet, but every deer is a trophy when you are learning to hunt.

Stay tuned for part two where Mike learns to hunt SAFELY

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