18 November 2009

A New Deer Hunter (at age 70+)

[Notice to sensitive readers: this blog post includes photos of dead animals. -ER]

Frank Ackerman, my colleague in Computer Science, decided to take up deer hunting this year--at the age of 70+. Montana Tech, the little college in Butte, Montana, where I work, is a tightly knit community where faculty are generally helpful and supportive of one another. Frank and his wife, Hwe-Chu Tu, have enjoyed meals of elk, deer, and antelope at our home. Hwe is an excellent cook and became interested in preparing wild game. When Hwe began questioning me about what it would take for Frank to become a hunter, his fate was sealed.

We hunted once for mule deer, walking the steep rocky ridges along the Big Hole River, but did not see a legal buck within shooting range. We hunted once for whitetails at a favorite ranch in the beautiful Ruby Valley and while my hunt was successful Frank's was not. This changed last night as we sat patiently watching many deer for an hour or more--all out of range or at an unsafe angle given nearby houses. We sat patiently watching, the sun dipped below a high mountain ridge, the temperature dropped as cool air slid down the mountain slopes into the valley, and then -- magically -- deer emerged from the safety of dense willows along the river to feed in the hayfields around us .

Frank chose a nice doe, aimed carefully, and fired. The deer dropped and the rest of the herd, startled only momentarily, returned to feeding. "Now what do I do?" (You have another tag?) "Yes." (Shoot.) He did and another deer fell (a spike buck with antlers less than 4"--technically an "anterless deer"). "Now what?" (You have another tag?) "Yes." A third doe died. As light faded from the sky, we gathered our gear, field-dressed the deer, dragged them to the nearby road, and I made a short hike to bring the truck around:

This morning, we hung the deer in their garage prior to butchering. Here are Frank and Hwe with their year's supply of meat (note the deer carcasses are split and propped up to facilitate cooling):

The Ruby Valley is seriously overpopulated with white-tailed deer. Some property owners do not allow hunting, major predators are scarce, and hayfields are planted with tasty alfalfa--a sure recipe for deer propagation. The huge deer population is a problem for cattle ranchers, gardeners and landscapers, and drivers. At the ranch where we hunt, one signs an agreement to shoot at least 3 if possible. It is not really hunting (the best strategy is to sit quietly and watch) but it does require patience, careful watching, and accurate shooting. For a novice hunter, it is a good learning experience and I have started several hunters in this way: my own daughter Emily; "Little Brother" A.J., Howard Smith, and now Frank.

Experienced and novice hunters alike should practice shooting so that are confident of the rifle and the range at which they can consistently hit a small target. Many hunters are terrible shots. There are various reasons: many are too cheap to buy ammo for practice; others are "too busy" to practice; some have never learned basic marksmanship skills. Too many times, I've had even experienced hunters "borrow" my rifle after they missed. This sort of carelessness results in many wounded animals--a terrible fate that any hunter worth their salt should be ashamed of.

15 November 2009

After the Elk Hunt: from ridge-top to pick-up truck

With hunting there is a direct & unmediated connection between the meat on our table and the health of our environment. Since a low point around 1900, when Rocky Mountain elk were market-hunted nearly to extinction, their population has returned to historic levels experienced by Montana's First Peoples (and by early White visitors such as Lewis & Clark). Wolves -- an instrumental predator in shaping the evolution of elk and other large ruminants -- have also largely recovered.
We buy no red meat, and so are thankful for a tender cow elk. Field dressed, each half weighs about 150 pounds (head & legs removed; tenderloins, backstraps, liver, and heart packed separately). Even with snow and a mostly downhill route, it's a lot to move from the kill site to the nearest road almost 2 miles away. So I am also thankful for the help of friend (and former hunting buddy) Dave Carter. Here's Dave, on the first mile of the drag, still up in the timber:

I left the split elk in the hills a few days. Dragging the two halves a few hundred feet from the butchering site and marking the area with my urine kept the coyotes and wolves at bay. Covering the carcass halves with fir branches kept the birds from the meat, although the morning Dave & I returned there was a flock of about 40 Wolf-birds ready to begin feasting (the first raven to find a large carcass purposely calls others to the site--this spirit of cooperation works as a social welfare/survival system).

The dogs join us for elk dragging adventures. Here's JackTheDog working on the gutpile--he's part wolf and you can see that part in this photo:

For MollyTheDog, barely a year old, it's all about play. She runs back & forth between Dave & I checking on our progress and insuring that the elk does not escape. Here she is with Dave, on the last mile of the drag in a broad meadow bordering the road:

"Little Brother" A.J. spent this weekend at hunting camp with a friend & his family, where "hunting" is more about socializing than it is about the pursuit of food and developing an intimate connection with nature. That is OK and it's good for a young person to experience various aspects of hunting culture. In a world dominated by entertainment media, commodities (i.e. "shopping"), and motorized travel, it is getting increasingly rare to see another hunter even a half-mile from the nearest road. I have spent my life as a hunter on a spiritual quest, and am thankful to share that aspect with daughter Emily, A.J., and you as a reader of this blog.

Thank you, and may we all have much to be thankful for as the day shortens, the temperature falls, and the snow deepens.

13 November 2009

Skywatch Friday: Montana Hunting Scenes

Antelope hunting under the big Montana prairie sky:

Dawn, and the moon sets over a mule deer hunter in the rocky hills along the Big Hole River:

Hunting until sunset, the same hunter is rewarded with a beautiful sky:

Another morning dawns, and an elk hunter looks up as the clouds open briefly over Mt Haggin:

Elk's In the Freezer, Let's go Skiin'

[Warning to sensitive readers: this post includes the photograph of a dead elk.]

An hour into the light of a new day. I heard the wings of a Wolf-bird slice the cold morning air and as Raven flew past it quorked a brief message: "This way." I followed and at mid-morning cut the tracks of a band of Elk People that had fed along the edges of a park. Tracking the elk toward the north facing bench where they be, I was not ready the first time. In fact, I was just photographing this track of a cow elk and its calf:

When I looked up, surprised elk plunged into the black timber below. I had not expected them to bed so high up on the ridge edge. I barked a cow call as they bolted. Sure enough, as I learned tracking them into the dense fir and thick deadfall, they ceased their panic and halted to look back after just a few hundred yards. Within a mile, they bedded again. This time I was ready, moving slowly, quiet wool & fleece from head to toe, glassing carefully every few steps. Soon I spotted a flicking ear and then the blond shadows. Less than 100 feet away, a nervous cow stood up from her bed and I shot once:

Raven croaked a happy note, but they are wary of us Human People and would wait to feed on the carcass until after I left. The Wisakedjak People ("Whiskey Jack," or Gray Jay) are much less timid, and I could hear their joyous, raspy calls before I had my daypack off. They cheered me on as I field dressed the carcass, and I rewarded them with some choice belly fat ("suet") from the kidney area:

The mating pair worked together cutting off slices to be cached -- they have a special, sticky saliva -- in hiding places around their small territory:

Meanwhile, I worked on splitting the carcass into two halves that could be dragged easily a mile or two to the nearest road (I'll return with help for this):

And laying out the heart, liver, tenderloins, and backstraps to cool before packing with me on the long hike back to the truck:

Each elk half I dragged away from the kill site and covered with fir branches to keep my Wisakedjak and Raven friends from stealing meat (Hopefully the wolves won't bother it before I return!):

On the 3 or 4 mile trek back (the last mile in the dark, using my headlamp) to where I had parked that morning, laboring up and over a steep ridge with 40 pounds of meat and gear in my pack, I thought about Bernard Dutka. My grandfather's friend and my hunting/fishing mentor, Bernie was about my age when he took me on as his outdoors apprentice. He guided me to the first whitetail buck I killed (I was 12), and in later years he liked to laugh & remind me of how long it took me to aim & fire the little .308 Sako rifle--the same rifle I carry today. Bernie was a crack shot, and I vividly recall him shooting a nice buck that leaped from its bed as we stalked through a slash-strewn clearcut in Wolf Run near Bradford, Pennsylvania. I need to call A.J., and take him elk hunting this weekend.


This cow elk was taken from the Beaverhead National Forest on the Big Hole River side of the Continental Divide south of Butte, Montana.

09 November 2009

Mule Deer Hunt 2009 (Southwest Montana)

[Warning: For my readers who are sensitive to photographs of dead animals, "Little Brother" AJ is shown with his mule deer buck at the end of this post. - ER]

Mule deer are not difficult to hunt, especially for those who (like me) seek a fat little forkhorned buck for the freezer. Bucks with big antlers can be hard to come by, in part because they learn to be wary and in part because public land  is hunted heavily (especially if it's within sight of a road!) in the Butte and Big Hole River area of southwestern Montana. Still, we are spoiled by plenty of public land and an abundance of deer. Mulies do live in rugged country, and I love hiking the rocky, open sagebrush country they call home.

We like to get an early start and hike all day if need be. Here's friend and hunting partner Frank Ackerman starting out at first light in the rocks, sagebrush, and mountain mahogany (click to enlarge all photos):

Soon the moon sets and a frosty morning gives way to a warm, clear day:

Our strategy: walk slowly along the ridge and carefully, patiently glass the open country below. Mule deer have excellent vision. We do not shoot at running deer so it's necessary to spot them first. Often, once spotted, we stalk to get closer. But watch out for that cactus!

Like most animals, mule deer have excellent cryptic coloration. The texture of their coat makes them seem to change color with the brightness of the day and the angle of the sun. If they are facing away from you, their white butt gives them away. Alerternatively you watch for the flick of an ear or a shadow:

Frank and I hunted until dark, saw just a dozen or so does, but never saw a buck. This in a place where we sometimes see one hundred deer in a day, and it's the first time in many years that we hunted all day and came home without a buck. Keeps me humble. And it was a beautiful sunset in this low range of hills, and the towers of a power line remind us that even in a vast landscape with no people, there are many signs of the human footprint:

A few mornings later, "Little Brother" A.J. and I went out again. We spotted a large gang of does at first light and passed up a shot at the dominant 4 X 4 herd buck. I have shot a few larger bucks and found some to be tasty. Rutty bucks can be very strong, however -- almost inedible -- as I found from a monster that friend Brent Patch shot while hunting with me many years ago. I now avoid killing them, instead picking out the "satellite" forkhorns that are invariably hanging around. A.J. spotted one and shot it, and then (Oh, to have 17-year old eyes!) spotted another one which I shot. Here is A.J. with his mule deer buck (note the big ears--like a mule):

It was 8:30 a.m. by the time we field-dressed the deer for the half-mile drag back to the truck. We were home by 10 a.m., when Mrs. Rover kindly took us out to brunch. Now I owe Frank another hunt.

05 November 2009

Skywatch Friday: The View from Elk Mountain

Skywatch Friday: It's elk season, which lasts 5 weeks and is like having a full-time second job. I'm GLAD to see Monday come so I can limp back to work for my 12-hour day of classes. In addition to a freezer full of antelope, white-tailed deer, mule deer, and elk (it's the only meat we eat), there is much more to hunting: a deep connection with nature, and experiencing the mountains from dawn to dusk.

Sunrise, Mt Haggin (near Anaconda, Montana) peeks out from a gray dawn:

Lunchtime at Elk Creek--under the warm sun clouds break up and give way to clear blue skies:

Moonrise, and it feels good to know the truck in only another half-mile or so down the valley:


These photographs are from both sides of the Continental Divide near Butte, Montana.

04 November 2009

Hunting (for Scenery and More)

It's hunting season. I've been out tracking elk a few days, but the old snow has metamorphosized and turned noisy. This week we turned to deer and got out one evening so far with one of my hunting apprentices to bring home some whitetailed deer does--dang if I didn't forget my camera, which is too bad given the gorgeous scenery of the Ruby River ranch where we hunted, as well as the beautiful (and tasty) deer we brought home. Hunting whitetails is only hunting in a technical sense, as it's mostly about waiting patiently at the corner of a hayfield for deer to come out and then shooting well. But it is a wonderful place to hang out for a few hours (photo from a few years ago):

Elk hunting IS hunting in the truest sense. And it is more than honoring the animal and filling the pickup with meat for winter. It is also about the beauty of being out there and seeing the things and places that elk lead you to. Remote as the modern Montana landscape seems to be, a century ago it was a beehive of activity as loggers clearcut the land to feed the Anaconda Company's smelter and shore up the mines in Butte. Old stumps and abandoned tools, like this broken maul, remind us of that:

Nearby, a twisted crosscut saw blade:

Moose share elk habitat (even high barren ridges), and we have seen up to eight in a single day. It's fun just to see their big tracks (note the low dew claws and heart shaped hoof that distinguishes moose from elk tracks):

The limited number of permits available for moose hunters means they are relatively unafraid of people, witness this mother cow and her calf:

In the mountains near Butte, there are always wolves around, too (the elk I was tracking moved two miles over to the next valley after they cut this fresh wolf track):

There's a bighorn sheep ram in this photo, though my camera is getting old and sometimes (like me) has a hard time focusing late in the day:

There be Bear People about too and though shy and seldom seen, they leave their own distinctive sign:

All creatures, great and small. Indeed, says this shy, cryptic cottontail rabbit:

The little downy woodpecker affirms Rabbit's statement:

The Tree People, too, bring their own magic to the moment. Here, early morning frost on the needles of a whitebark pine:

Oh yes, and the Human People, too. Teen-aged Young Men People, to be precise. Like "Littl Brother" AJ and his friend Dennis, who carry their own weight in food:

These vast rations (canned goods!) seldom last beyond lunchtime, and sometimes don't make it long enough to be warmed over the noon fire:

Like hunting grouse with my young dog Molly, this companionship doesn't necessarily make hunting more productive. But it certainly makes it, ah, interesting. And I'm learning to bring extra food for the ride home if I want any of it.


The Big Hole River valley, where I do most of my hunting and fishing, is a half-hour south of Butte, Montana--just over the Continental Divide.