Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My First Opening Day - 20 Lessons from a Beginning Deer Hunter

As stated in my bio, I did not grow up hunting.  Other than dove and duck hunting a few times in my teens, I did not start hunting until my early 30s.  A friend invited me to go turkey hunting in Seguin "Chigger Capital of the World", TX.  “Sure” I said, “I’m always up for a new adventure”.  We called many turkeys but killed exactly none.

But something awakened in me during the trip.  Hunting, I found out, along with the general campfire camaraderie, was an absolute blast.  I was actually angry I discovered this later in life but planned to make up for missing it in my youth.

Ignoring the fact that I had NEVER been big-game hunting in my life, about a year later, 3 of us went in as partners on a small piece of recreational hunting property North of Houston.  (I’m still shocked all three wives agreed to this).  For months, we worked at the camp, built a few crappy stands, and generally got all “geeked up” about the up and coming hunting season.  The other two partners had hunted all their lives so I tried to follow their lead.  I also read just about every book or magazine I could find along with making a nuisance of myself to anyone who would listen and answer my questions.  (Thank again Bob for your patience and help.)

I researched deer rifles and actions.  I researched calibers and cartridges.  I learned that asking 2 people at the same time which caliber was “best” will elicit more opinions than seeing Nancy Pelosi in a bikini.  I studied whitetail diets, habits and mating rituals.  I crawled all over that little parcel of land looking for 'sign'.  I knew where deer crossed Creek #1, Creek #2 and the back fence line.  I purchased knives, coolers, saws, boots, camo, water bottles and a bit more camo just in case.  I purchased a beautiful stainless steel Ruger M77 in .270.  I bought premium ballistic tipped bullets.  I went to the rifle range and practiced... a lot.  I WAS READY!!!!

Many people warned me not to get too ambitious and reminded me, more than once, than many people go years and years without even seeing a deer, let alone a nice buck.  (We call this “managing expectations” in my line of work.)  Fine.  I understood that but I wanted to increase my odds of success in every way possible.  

It was finally here.... Opening Day was just a few short days away.  Unfortunately, two small problems arose.  Dave was being forced, under duress, to attend a wedding.   (Hunters HATE Fall weddings BTW).  Genaro had a family medical emergency.  Neither of these two experienced hunters were going to be able to make Opening Day!!!  Well, after all this planning and dreaming, I was not about to NOT go.

Saturday morning finally arrived.  I woke up, packed and hit the road at 3:45AM to make the 2 hour drive and give myself plenty of time to get in the stand.  I arrived and immediately headed to the world’s crappiest platform blind I had built between two trees.  (It was about 5’ off the ground and leaning about 15 degrees).  I climbed up, sat down and waited.  After all this time and all the dreams and preparation, I was finally,.... officially,.... deer hunting.  I was stoked.

Not 20 minutes after sun up, a caught a split-second glimpse of a LARGE deer running through a neighbor’s field.  Very cool.  Nothing like seeing game.  After about an hour, I realized the human butt is not, after all, a good cushion for prolonged sitting on 15 degree-angled-wood.  I had not thought to bring a cushion or small chair.  It was just my butt, a couple of layers of clothing, and an exceeding hard piece of pine which apparently had dreams of becoming a proctologist when it grew up.

With my lower back and posterior screaming, I had to move.  Stretching my feet was not helping any more.  The only thing I could really do was turn around and face the other direction for a while.  Under my breath, I cursed all 2x4s and made a mental note to buy a cushion.  

An hour and 20 minutes into my first ever deer hunt, I saw it.  Slinking along the underbrush of Creek #1 was a deer.  A really big deer.  It just appeared.  This was sooo cooool.  It was a doe so I just watched (there was no doe season).  When she moved behind a tree, I lifted my rifle so I could look at her through the scope.  This was soooo cool.  Upon studying “her” head, I noticed “she” had two little bumps.  “That's odd” I thought.  Then it hit me.  This is a buck and the little bumps are small (like the end of your pinky fingers small) antlers.

Now keep in mind, I had sighted in this rifle 2.5” high at 100 yards with premium grade ammo so I’d be “good to go” out to 300 yards.  The irony of this did not hit me until after I shot the buck at the impressive distance of 47 feet.  At that range, I think the muzzle blast literally scared him to death with the bullet catching up after the fact.

“Wow” I thought.  “I killed a deer.  I actually just killed a deer!!!!”  He had nothing as far as head gear but he was huge.  Not sure why everyone warned me about how long this would take.  It was fairly easy:  Climb in stand, wait an hour, shoot deer, go home.  

In spite of my interviews, reading and dreaming, my education was about to begin.  Theory was about to be trumped by application (FYI:  Hands-on application ALWAYS wins over theory).  Over the next 4.5 hours, many, many lessons were learned.  To “share the wealth” of my “knowledge” and perhaps make this easier for someone else in the future, I’ve included these below.   

Lesson #1 - Deer are heavy.  

Lesson #2 - A deer will increase in weight by approximately 50% upon dying.  This is counter intuitive but the life-force of living animals is apparently made of anti-matter.  Upon leaving the body, it no longer counter balances the true weight of the animal.  This is the scientific explanation behind the term “dead weight”.

Lesson #3 - There is not one, good, convenient place to hold onto a large, nearly antlerless buck.  The head is bumpy with no good handles.  (Having later killed bucks with antlers, I realize that is the biological purpose of them - handles.)  Dragging it by the front legs results in the head catching on everything attached to the forest floor within 100 sq ft of the body.  Dragging by the rear legs and against the grain of the hair increased friction by approximately 370%.

Lesson #4 - There are places on bucks you should never, ever touch.  While experimenting with the best way to drag a dead deer (see Lesson #3), I grabbed, firmly and with both bare hands, the tarsal glands on the inside of the back legs.  Of course I did not know what these were called or where they were located at the time.  I missed that one in the books too.  (For readers who do not know, tarsal glands are on the inside of a buck's "knees".  They urinate directly on these when marking scrapes, etc.  They are oily and smell worst than an old lady's house full of 27 cats with urinary tract infections.)

Lesson #5 - You cannot wipe tarsal gland scent off your hands.  Do not even bother trying.  The skin has to die and slough off.  A belt sander might speed the cleansing process.

Lesson #6 - Like with “dog-years”, there is a multiplier that needs to be taken into consideration when determining distances before and after killing a deer.  The kill took place ~1/3rd of a mile from camp.  The distance I had to drag the deer back to camp was approximately 8.7 miles.  The technical term for this phenomenon is “deer-miles”.

Lesson #7 - Do not waste your time trying to build a deer-drag-cart out of two mismatched 2x4s, some rope and the plastic wheels off of a decommissioned gas grill.  It will not work.  The deer will slip off the 2x4s several times into the mud before the plastic wheels break.

Lesson #7.5 - Mud adds dramatically to the weight of a dead deer.

Lesson #8 - (stated in the form of a word problem) - How long will it take a 147lb, 5’6”, 34 year old, inexperienced, slightly out-of-shape male to drag a dead, ungutted, nearly antlerless buck 1/3rd of a mile (8.7 deer miles), slightly uphill, through mud and heavy brush after failing to build a deer-drag-cart out of 2x4s and plastic wheels?  Please show your work.

A.  30 minutes
B.  2.5 hours
C.  4 hours
D.  All day

Lesson #9 - Deer should be gutted as soon as possible.  Bad things happen in the GI tract if you wait approximately 2.5 hours.  ("Bad things" is defined as a face full of bowel gas upon opening up the deer.)

Lesson #10 - You WILL become angry when trying to call friends on the cell phone for real-time “deer cleaning advice”.  They will NOT believe that you killed a deer on your first deer hunt and will not believe you are so naive as to have to call someone to “walk you through it”.  Be prepared for this emotion.  (Thanks again Tim!)

Lesson #11 - It is impossible to keep sticks, branches, dirt, debris, ants, and sweat out of the first deer you are trying to clean while the ungutted deer is on the ground having expired ~3 hours beforehand.  The hide you very carefully peel back to keep the meat off of the ground will shrink.  One look into the cooler at the “victim” and the butcher simply stated “I’m going to have to charge you an extra “clean up fee“ ".  I did not protest.

Lesson 11.5 - The going rate for an extra “clean up fee” is $20.

Lesson #12 - The human lower spine can only take so much abuse.  After sitting for 1 hour and 20 minutes on an unimproved piece of pine, dragging a dead deer for 2+ hours in 3-10’ increments for a 1/3rd of a mile (8.7 deer miles), and standing over a dead deer for 2+ hours, bent at the waist, trying to clean it while keeping out the debris, my back was literally killing me.  I could barely move or stand straight.

Lesson #13 - It is barely possible to dig a hole for the guts without moving your lower back.  I could put pressure on the shovel and get some dirt in it but could not bend over to lift it and dump it out.  It is best to use the outside of your foot to sorta “flick” the dirt out while standing straight up like you have rods in your spine.  This is not an efficient method of digging.

Lesson #14 - You NEED to believe your buddy when you call to tell him you finally have the deceased in the cooler and are about to leave and he asks about the head and explains that you MUST take it with you or you’ll get a gigantic ticket from the game warden for not having “proof of sex” with you.  

Lesson #15 - When burying the remains of your first deer in a shallow grave, DO NOT put the severed head at the bottom of the hole underneath the guts, hide and 2 feet of dirt.  It is much better to keep the “proof of sex” with the body of the deer.  As an aside, it is much easier to dig through recently disturbed dirt and ant/debris-covered deer guts than through fresh, virgin, undisturbed soil.

Lesson #16 - Before you stop at Starbucks in Huntsville, TX to get a cup of coffee for the road and to “clean up a bit”, wash off most of the blood, sticks, debris and ants at the camp, not in their restroom.  

Lesson #17 - When you go into ANY Starbucks looking like you killed a family of 5 with a ball-peen hammer, people will give you a wide berth.  This apparently is very normal.

Lesson #18 - Sticks, branches, dirt, debris, ants and sweat do not affect the taste or quality of the sausage.  As a matter of fact, that was easily the BEST venison sausage I’ve ever had in my life.

Lesson #19 - 4 wheelers are cheaper than spinal fusion surgeries.  I’m now the proud owner of a Honda Rancher.

Lesson #20 - Learn from your mistakes, share them with others and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself.

Larry - A Man in the Woods

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