“[Kit] Carson gave off none of the mountain man’s swagger….An army officer once introduced himself to Carson, saying, ‘So this is the distinguished Kit Carson who has made so many Indians run.’ To which Carson replied, ‘Yes, but most of the time they were running after me.'” (Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder)
“Cattle-men hate sheep, because they eat the grass so close that cattle cannot live on the same ground. The sheepherders are a…melancholy set of men…with no companionship except that of the bleating idiots they are hired to guard. Intellectually a sheep is about the lowest level of brute creation; why the early Christians admired [the sheep]…is to a good cattle-man a profound mystery.” (T. Roosevelt; Hunting Trips of a Ranchman)
The low point of my thoughts coincided with 1) an elevated wind strength and 2) the appearance of the young buck. On previous hunts, I had only brought does back to our house at Elmdale. This had been fine with my Mom and Dad because, to quote my Father, “They eat better.” However, I really wanted to accomplish what my older brother had. I wanted to take a buck. I wanted to be able to feel the bone-like antlers and to keep them as a trophy. I never expected to be able to shoot a deer like the one my Dad had hanging in the back room of our house. My Dad’s deer had been taken the year before. It possessed a beautiful seven-point rack complete with the graceful antlers characteristic of the Texas Hill Country. The rack carried by the deer in front of me was not that size.
In fact, “my” buck carried only a forkhorn on one side and a short spike on the other. My Dad pressed his arm against me as a signal to raise my rifle. The buck had his nose in one of the bushes that made up a hedge in front of the stand. As he nibbled unconcernedly at some of the remaining fresh growth, I placed the crosshairs of my .243 Winchester behind his shoulder. Just then the West Texas equivalent to a gentle breeze hit like a sledgehammer. My sights swung wildly past the tail of the deer. I swiveled my scope back to the aiming point for a lung shot just as the wind let up and the tree righted itself. The unbending of the tree caused my gun sight to pivot past the shoulder, neck and then jaw of my intended target. “Oh, Hell!”, I would have thought, if I had been allowed to swear. Again I corrected and again the wind hit. Again and again, I watched my crosshairs skim from one end of the deer to the other. I knew I was running out of time.
At last, the buck tired of the browse 20 yards in front of our hide and started meandering down the well-worn deer trail. For the final time I pulled my gun from the rear end of the buck to his shoulder. As the gust began to subside, I tried to keep the gun sights from sliding forward while simultaneously squeezing the trigger. At the report and kick of my gun, the buck disappeared from my view. I had hardly brought my gun down from its slight recoil induced elevation when my Dad began congratulating me on a great shot. He said, “You must have hit him in the spine to drop him so quickly”. I couldn’t believe my skill, but then what should I have expected from one of the greatest eight-year-old deer hunters in the country? My brother would never hear the end of this exploit. I had not only collected my first buck, but I had done so under the most trying of conditions. I had placed the shot almost exactly where I was aiming, in spite of the gale-force wind. As I stepped down from the bottom rung of the ladder, I was already imagining and savoring the sight of the neat hole, a bit higher than intended maybe, but still just behind the shoulder. In fact, I was staring at the exact spot where my bullet must have hit as I drew near the buck. I was puzzled as I slowly knelt by the deer’s side. Where was the wound? My Dad’s voice cut through my musings, “Michael, where were you aiming?” “Just behind his shoulder”, was my reply. “Hmm, well you hit him in the head.” My eyes slid up the buck’s neck to his head and it was then that I saw the evidence of the .243’s work. No wonder he had dropped like a rock.
To say that my brother was unmerciful, is the understatement of the past century. He glibly pointed out that I had only missed my target area by about three feet and from a distance of 20 yards. He also correctly surmised that I might just as easily have shot my buck in the butt. I think my response was that I would rather shoot him in the butt. I really didn’t mind the ribbing too much. I think my Dad summed it up pretty well when he said “Son, you will never lose the enjoyment of taking your first buck”. He was right. The memory of that gusty morning is as sweet 53 years later as it was the moment I carefully stepped from the last rung of my first treestand.
As we rolled to a stop, my Dad carefully opened the door on his 1963 Chevy pickup. I slid across the smooth vinyl seat, under the steering wheel, and stepped through his door and into the darkness of the Texas Hill Country. My excitement this morning reflected three facts. First, I was hunting. Second, I was hunting Whitetail deer. Third, my Dad was taking me into a treestand for the very first time. I felt a thrill as I pondered this new adventure. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would come to love treestands.
There are a number of reasons for my feelings of affection for treestands. First and foremost, I love to hunt by ambush. And there is no better way to ambush than from above. It is often said that people who hunt well from stands have more patience than those who use stalking to pursue game. I don’t think this is correct. I am a poor still-hunter because it drives me crazy to walk slowly and stop often. In other words, I don’t possess the specific type of patience necessary for this form of hunting. Yet, I can sit relatively still in a treestand for 14 hours. I love to wait for and watch animals, both quarry and non-quarry. There is something incredibly fulfilling about overcoming the sharp senses of a wild animal so that they browse or bed almost under my stand. It takes skill and patience to be able to move like a wraith through the wild and thus sneak up on game. It takes the same qualities to discern where, when and why game have passed through an area, choose the ideal ambush point, and then wait for long hours.
On this particular December morning in Texas, I did not realize it, but this would begin my career as a stand hunter. I would sometimes use ground blinds, but I would always prefer an aerie. In retrospect, I suppose this morning’s effort could have put me off hunting from trees for life. That it actually wetted my desire to climb into trees again and again is a good indication of my inborn preference for this type of hunt. I cannot actually remember how tall the tree was that housed our stand. The fact that it was located near San Saba, Texas means that it was unlikely to be much over nine feet from earth, given the short stature of what passes for trees there. However, my eight-year old eyes turned it into a battlement that hovered at least three stories above the ground.
As we settled into the stand, I realized that there was one major problem that might become very evident if I had a chance to shoot at a deer. You see, if God had intended for hunters to sit in treestands in West Texas, He would have made the place a bit less windy. My Dad and I eased into the two folding chairs placed in the stand just as the tree shuddered from a fresh northerly gust. My panicked thought was something like “How am I going to hit anything the size of a deer’s lungs while swinging back-and-forth?” Unfortunately, I had a while to ponder this as we waited for shooting light. As the horizon lightened ever so slowly, I became more and more concerned. I was not the greatest marksman anyway, but the thought of trying to score from the equivalent of a flight simulator that is programmed for “severe thunderstorm”, had me shaking. I could visualize having to explain to my older brother how I had once again missed a deer from short range. I shuddered, but this time not because of the air movement.
Next Week: Treestand Affection – A Miracle Happens
Author (Far left) and Robert Baker (Far right) with two of his Golden Retrievers, flank two other students in front of that day’s game
Even with our self-imposed selectivity, there were so many birds we were able to focus on ducks that would drop on the ground around our blind rather than in the water. As the thud of falling bodies increased in frequency, Sonja dashed in joyful abandon between the downed birds and her master. We were rarely able to fully reload our guns before starting to pick out the next target. In fact, after the first volley my Browning A5 20-gauge never contained more than 2 shells. Through the din of shotgun blasts and duck sounds, I made out Wes’ voice coming from slightly behind and to my left. He was repeating over and over, “It’s carnage, it’s carnage”. It was only then that I realized he had never raised his gun. He seemed mesmerized by the rain of ducks falling from the bird-peppered sky. For a moment I was concerned he was being upset by the activities around him. However, when I turned in his direction I saw his characteristic grin and realized he was enjoying the demonstration of shotgun skill put on by at least Rodney and Robert. We began to slow down our firing as we approached the limit, determined by the points per duck system then in place in Texas. We became even more careful to select only the drakes of our two chosen species.
As we were about to reach the conclusion of our shoot, they appeared. Their coming was as sudden as the rays of the sun that had just topped the fringe of clouds hugging the horizon. There were six of them and they were coming in not more than 30 feet off the lake surface. Black heads and necks extended, their honking was drowned by the incessant calls of the ducks. As the first Canada goose was reaching a 45o angle to where we stood, Rodney’s gun went off. No goose fell. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Robert wrestling with the slide on his pump shotgun. It was only then that I threw my 20 gauge to my shoulder and clicked off my safety. As the second goose began to glide over, I pulled my gun past its beak and slapped the trigger. Its wings folded and it fell as I snapped my second shot at a trailing bird. I don’t know how it is possible to miss such a large object at that range, but I managed. My second target flailed at the air and sailed over my head as I pulled the trigger again, but this time on an empty chamber.
I slowly lowered my gun and watched the retreating silhouettes of the geese. I looked at Robert and he grinned while explaining he had jammed his gun trying to reload when he saw the geese. I always harbored a suspicion that he knew he was watching my first attempt at a goose and decided to let me have a turn. Whatever the truth, Sonja bounced up to Robert with a mouth full of goose. She seemed delighted with the opportunity to retrieve something that took so much of her strength to carry. I breathed in the scene, as I inhaled the lung-burning, knife-edged air. The ice crusted edge of the playa lake, the brilliant blue sky, the neatly plowed fields surrounding the water, the telephone poles with lines that seemed to stretch to the horizon, and the still circling ducks all looked as if they would be there forever. I can’t think of a moment in which I felt more alive or more at peace.
As we each picked up a load of birds, I reached for the Canada goose. I stroked the feathers and stretched the wings to look at the coloration on my first, and to this day, only goose. It is said you can never go home. I think that is incorrect. I believe some experiences produce memories too good to fade. This morning would last. This memory was permanent. This memory was worth the act of taking such a magnificent animal.
Wes Brown, a [very] young author, Rodney Honeycutt and Sonja holding the author’s prize
As typical of the hunts that went on at this favorite site, I remember one that occurred when I was eight years old. We chose our positions carefully and I edged my way into a clump of Johnson grass. I tried not to break the dried stalks so they would close back around me as I slipped in. The levee curved around the east side of the tank and my position halfway down the side of the dam meant that I could not see birds coming from the east until they were on top of me. Just after we settled in, and while my brother was still walking to his position along the creek bed behind me, I saw a group of four dove coming in from the west. At that time, I had a .410, pump-action shotgun, so I waited until they were nearly in my lap before I punched the safety button, stood, threw my gun up and fired. I missed. That was pretty normal for my first shot of a hunting session, because I usually was still trembling from nervous excitement, and was very likely to aim where my intended victim had just been. My lack of musculature meant that I was unable to pump my .410 while it was mounted on my shoulder. Thus, I had to put my safety on again, drop my gun butt to the ground, make sure the muzzle was pointing away from me, eject the spent hull and feed in another round. The speed at which dove can get out of an area effectively turned my gun into a single shot. This was later rectified when my Dad traded my pump in for a .410 semi-automatic. Of course, this did not change the fact that I was throwing very little shot at the birds. That did not change until I gained a few pounds and was given my, much heavier, 20 gauge A-5.
As the birds swung over the levee behind me, I yelled to my Mom on the other side. This was our system for letting the person behind us know that dove were imminent. The obvious weakness with this system was that the person being yelled at almost always looked back just as the dove were flying overhead and thus missed seeing the birds – that is until they once again faced forward and caught a view of their rapidly retreating tail feathers. Almost at once, I watched my Dad across the stocktank turn and fire at some birds coming from behind him. The forward momentum of the now dead, lead bird caused it to fall into the stocktank in front of him. My Dad held any further shots because it would have meant firing directly at me. The three remaining birds were flying almost eye level with my position. I waited until they were sliding just left of me before I stood to fire. This time the leading bird dropped in a burst of feathers and thumped onto the top of the dam. I jogged up the slope and picked him up, all the while listening to the shots from my Mom’s and then slightly later from my brother’s, more distant, hiding place.
Just as I slipped back into my natural blind, I heard my brother fire twice and my Mom yelled “Michael, over you!”. I turned and threw my gun up at the formation as it crested the rise of the dam. I could not get onto the first three of the birds coming over the verge. I kept trying to swing on them, but would almost tip over backwards on the downward slope. Luckily there were five more to come and I finally fired at the sixth in the line. I did not drop the dove, but he did start a leg-down, wounded glide toward my Dad. My father waited until he lit, jumped him and then busted him as he fluttered off. “Well,” I thought, “I guess maybe I can count that as ½ a bird.” The next several shots were solid misses, but on my fourth attempt since the “½ bird”, I knocked a dove into the stocktank. Since it was now getting close to dusk, I left it in the water and watched for more incoming flights. As it turned out, that was the last dove to come my way.
As the sun disappeared, I began picking up dirt clods and lofting them to the other side of the dove floating in the stocktank. In this way, I slowly rocked the body towards my position at the edge of the water. Finally, I lifted the bird from the green slime that always seems to be found along the margins of West Texas watering holes. I dropped the dove into my pocket, feeling it slide down to the bulge made by the other dove. As my Dad came around to join me from his side of the tank, he handed me another bird. He said the ‘glider’ was mine. He said, “I was too impatient to wait for it to sit and die, so I just finished it off for you.” In retrospect, I realize he understood how much each bird meant to his young son.
As we wound back through the gloom of the mesquite woodland, and eventually into our driveway, I reflected on how tired I could become from just crouching in those weeds next to the stocktank. Of course, as an eight-year old I did not understand the relationship between a three hour long adrenaline rush, and fatigue. All I knew was that I could not wait to have the birds cleaned (dark breasts in a large bowl, hearts and livers in a smaller bowl to prevent their being lost down the sink when my Mom rinsed the feathers from the meat), the guns cleaned (my Dad had ‘let’ my brother and me clean his gun along with our own ever since I could remember), and my bath taken. We relived the hunt at the supper table and I listened as my brother retold how he had taken his four birds with six shells. He would always be a better marksman than I. I was usually jealous of his proficiency, but on that night I was very satisfied with my three Mourning Dove. They would be sufficient until the next time we loaded into the pickup for a ride into the West Texas woods.
In my mind dove season in West Texas is a September sport. It could involve some cool evenings, but more often than not I sweated under the not-yet-winter sun while buried in patches of six feet tall Helianthus annuus (the native sunflower). Or I sweated as I walked the dry creek bottoms of mesquite scrub corridors. Or I sweated buried up to my raised gun barrel among Johnson grass next to the infrequent stocktank. No matter what form it took, dove hunting involved sweat.
However, unlike Quail, Ducks, Deer or Rabbits, it felt right to sweat while hunting dove. In fact, the smell of perspiration + musty game vest + dove + old blood always brings a smile to my mouth and warmth to my soul. This olfactory experience evokes feelings in me – solid feelings, real-life feelings, feelings of accomplishment that can’t be equaled by earning money or accolades. Oddly, this sentiment was well-described by one of my non-hunting friends. I had spent an extended time describing to him the process of trip planning, hunting the game, collecting the quarry and then processing the meat for my family’s consumption. He looked thoughtful and then observed that this is something to take pride in, something that our forefathers knew as a worthy accomplishment, something that hearkens back to days before the soul-darkening that marked the advent of the industrial revolution. Each time I hunted, I would be renewed; it was that simple and that significant.
During my childhood, dove hunting involved one of three methods, mainly depending on time of day. Morning and early afternoon hunts took one of two forms, but began in the same way. We would walk through the back gate of my parents’ horse pasture into a mesquite scrubland. We would load our guns, form a line and begin walking through the trees and cactus. I shot more branches and leaves off of mesquite trees than I did dove, but I loved trying to guess what gaps they would go through next and thus have a load of shot waiting. If we were to continue ‘still hunting’, we would follow a tree-lined, dry creek bed that wound for three miles between cultivated fields of grain and cotton. As we walked, we would whistle or call as we lost sight of each other among the trees and thorns. It was inevitable that I would walk straight into a patch of prickly pear cactus, while staring at a nervous, head-bobbing bird in a mesquite. I would try and skirt the patch while keeping my game in sight. As the bird lifted from the branch, I would hear the characteristic whistle and glimpse the awkward, feather-in-every-direction, launch into the air.
Actually, as awkward as it appears, every takeoff by a dove is a marvel of perfect design for getting there-from-here in the smallest amount of time. A trip to ‘there’ almost always began with a dodge to the other side of a tree trunk. However, if my attention did not waver, I would see the telltale crouch indicating the imminent leap. My gun would be on my shoulder and the metallic click of the safety would barely precede the boom and the rattle of my Humpback Browning’s barrel-sliding, ejection system. The dove would disappear into a blizzard of gray and white feathers and there would be a pregnant pause followed by the thump of the deceased on the ground.
Other shots would come as dove whizzed left to right or right to left across the narrow openings between the mesquite trees. I would swing with the bird while they were zigzagging between the trees and slap the trigger when they entered a clearing. Because of their speed, they would, if hit, usually bounce into the next grove of trees and grass. Many times, I would have to call my Dad and brother over to help find the beautifully camouflaged object. Another indelible memory is the way in which my Father would hold his gun and kick impatiently at the tall stalks of grass. I loved the feel of the birds in the back pocket of my game vest, bouncing against my tail bone with each step and making me smile with that sense of shared experience with my brother and Dad. I love hunting alone – the feeling of a successful hunt accomplished by myself – but there is nothing that brings greater joy than sharing a hunt with someone who loves the chase as much as you.
Still hunting dove was not my favorite way to pursue this marvelous animal. Instead, I preferred to wait for them along their flight path between roosting site and feeding site or between feeding site and watering hole. I prefer to wait. Waiting lets me watch for my quarry, but it also lets me watch nature going about its business. I always get a thrill when I watch wild animals that do not know I am there. In the case of dove hunting as a boy, this could involve turning away from the Mesquite scrubland and going to sit in the grain or sunflower fields frequented by hungry dove.
So, the final method that we used to hunt Dove was my favorite. Unlike the first two approaches, this strategy involved first climbing into the back of my Dad’s 1963 Chevy pickup. As a kid, this started the trip off in a grand fashion. What kid doesn’t routinely bug their safety conscious parents to let them ride in the very back of their pickup? The wind would blow, the smell of whatever had been carried most recently in the bed of the pickup would waft up, and any little bits of hay, dry horse manure, etc would land in our eyes, nose and ears – for a kid, this is what dreams are made of. It would only take about 20 minutes to reach what we had named the ‘double-stocktank’; there was a body of more or less permanent water on either side of a 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide levee. My Dad would position one of us on each side of the levee. He would then place another person along the edge of the trees that bordered the north side of one stocktank and the last person on the creek bed leading up to the southern stocktank.
If what we experienced for the next hour and a half of our hunt was shown to me on a hunting video, I would assume that it had been spliced together from several sessions. Gary would call and the elk would respond with grunts and complex bugles. We would move slowly and carefully along the ridge. Gary would call again, and after a brief pause, the elk would answer. Unfortunately, from the sound of the bugles, we were not closing in on the bull. Gary had to decide whether to go after the bull, or try to set up and entice him to us. I know I was of absolutely no help, but we had a short discussion before electing to set up just below the ridgeline.
Gary indicated the tree he wanted me to sit beneath and then headed uphill, and to the right, of my ‘stand’. If the bull came into his call, he wanted him focusing on the caller, not the guy with the rifle. After only 15 minutes of answering back-and-forth with the bull, Gary joined me. It was apparent by the steadily lessening volume of the bull’s grunts that he was leaving the area, and it looked like we were going to need to go after him. To locate the general direction of the departing bull, Gary gave another blast from his camouflaged tube. I almost needed a fresh set of underwear when the bull’s challenge came from a short distance away. Gary changed to the cat-like mews of a cow elk, followed immediately by another bugle from his tube. As the bull once again let loose with his vocalization, Gary whispered, “There’s your bull, he’s a six-point!” With urgency in his whisper, he asked “Can you see him?!” I answered with a rising panic, “No!!” Just then my attention was grabbed by a golden flash in the valley bottom.
The bull stretched out his neck from behind a fire-killed pine and let out a mosaic of sounds. A series of cow vocalizations from Gary caused the bull to turn toward our position. As he turned, he began a series of frustration/question barks causing his ribcage to jerk due to the violent expulsion of air. Gary answered with a long and loud bugle that transitioned into more cow mews.
To this day, I am convinced that it was an eternity before I watched the bull slowly swivel to his left! First, his nose, then his eye and then the base of his antlers appeared. Ever-so-slowly his impossibly thick neck, followed by his massive shoulder, slid into view. The trigger crept and the recoil from the Whelan rocked me back a fraction of a second after the crosshairs rested behind his shoulder. As I worked the bolt of my rifle, the elk froze and then turned slowly to trot into the stand of dead pines that occupied the valley floor. I worked the bolt of my rifle twice more as I followed the elk’s path with insurance shots. Gary threw his arm around my shoulders and exclaimed “Now, was THAT worth the price of admission?!” I could only come up with, “Unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable”.
Both of us felt the shot was good because the bull had frozen, rather than bolting immediately. Gary also thought he had seen the flash of antlers as if the bull had gone down a short distance into the timbers. We waited 10 minutes or so for the elk to expire and then made our way down the slope. As we reached the valley floor, we spotted the bull lying on the other side of a downed tree.
I ran my hands over the long, pitch-stained antlers and savored the sweet-musky aroma. My brother would go on to harvest an even larger bull on this hunt. It did not matter. I had been brought to the Salmon River, this pine forest, to my trophy elk, because of my Dad’s dream.