Only the Hunter

This is the tale of two ducks.

As a well-worn hunter of waterfowl, I now appreciate quite a few things that I used to take for granted. Tonight, I was reminded of one.

I’ve had several discussions about waterfowl table fare this season. I think it’s somewhat related to the fact that the season has been a bit slim. The number of waterfowl eaten has been limited by take and I’ve dug a little deeper into the freezer of the past.

Ducks that have been in the freezer for two, three or four years are substandard. But I have to admit that I’ve eaten a few of those over the past few months – sometimes in an effort to clear the way for a new season.

However, events have slowed down the progression and I’ve not eaten as many fresh ducks as usual. Today was different.

Yesterday I hung around the Kerry Club long enough to knock down two pintails. Seeing as I can only eat one on any given night, I had the privilege of surveying the two birds carefully.

The first bird was taken at about 9:00 AM. He came directly over the blind at maximum shootable range. I pulled up and increased the lead to about six feet. When I pulled the trigger he died instantly and did a spin down. Which means he spun in circular motion, but did not coast at all. Despite a slight breeze, he hit the water almost directly beneath the spot where he was hit. One shot and done.

Lola retrieved the bird and I noticed right away that its belly-feathers were yellow – almost the same color as Lola. Some say that this coloration is a stain created by hanging out in rice fields. Others say the stain is because these are birds that have been living in the Susuin Marsh where the brackish water stains the birds. This scenario sounds more credible. In either event, this bird had spent some time elsewhere before moving to the grasslands.

The second bird was shot about three hours later and its breast feathers were pure white. Since this is the natural color of pintail, I don’t know where it had been. However, according to some of my knowledgeable duck hunting friends, it is likely that this white bird has been living in the grasslands for a while. In the grasslands it probably has had plenty to eat and has not been overworked searching for food. And, the grasslands water is very high quality.

After I plucked the two birds, it was even more clear that their life styles have been quite different. The yellow-stained bird appeared to have zero body fat and when stripped it looked gray. The snow-white bird had so much body fat that the fat showed through its skin. It looked yellow.

I’ve eaten enough ducks to know that a duck with a layer of fat is much tastier than a duck with no body fat. So when dinner time came, guess which duck I selected?

You got it. I salted, peppered and seasoned the duck. Then I placed it in a convection oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. When I pulled the bird from the oven, it had swelled up nicely and was crispy looking on the outside.

Here’s what a great duck looks like when it comes out of the oven. I sliced the bird to see if it was done. It was – medium rare.

roast-duck

It was fantastic. I ate every drop and finished the last vestiges of meat from the carcass while holding it with two hands and leaning over our sink.That says it all. The second duck will be a let down, but I’ll eat it one of these days.

The moral to the story is pick out the whitest drakes you can and hope for a layer of fat.

Staying Safe

Wednesday I hung out at the duck club waiting for a second sprig. My energy was high and there were enough birds around that I figured it would be a matter of time before my chance appeared.

As a light rain picked up, a few sprig came in and landed. A single drake circled over the open water in front of me. I whistled a bit on my four-in-one call. The drake passed by just out of range and began to settle in about 75 yards out.

Instinctively my calling became more excited. As the rhythm increased, the bird took notice. It began to helicopter in my direction. Then it sped up and came into range. At 30 yards I stood and the bird panicked, but it was too late for him.

After the shot I laid my gun down across the blind next to me and watched as Lola retrieved the bird. When she reached me I bent across the dog box and picked up the bird, noticing how snow-white its breast was.

snow-white-pintail-drake

I decided to take a photo of the bird and my shotgun. Then a photo of Lola and the bird.

And I was done. I packed up and hiked to my truck, loaded my gear, plucked the second bird and headed for home.

Later, I unloaded the truck and opened the gun case, unlocked the gun safe and pulled out the double. As a matter of routine, I opened the breach to assure myself that the gun was unloaded. It wasn’t. There sat an empty round and a fresh round. As I opened the breach further the dead shell ejected and the live shell remained. I removed it and closed the gun.

I stood there in a state of disbelief. Then I realized that I may have carried that gun from blind to gun safe with, not only a live round, but also I cocked gun. Could I have done that? I had a sick feeling in my stomach.

The thought of that live round ate at me as I walked to the house and sat down at my computer. I wasn’t sure that I could admit such a huge mistake.

Then I remembered the photo. Maybe I had put the safety on and my mistake was not so egregious. I downloaded the photo and expanded it. The safety was on. Although I’d not unloaded the shotgun, which was a mistake, at least I’d done a couple of things right.

safety-on

I didn’t feel so bad. However, this series of events points out the importance of following all the gun safety rules. Redundancy is a major factor in staying safe.

Thanksgiving Ducks

Now that my deer season is officially over, it’s time to hunt for something else.

So yesterday I drove down to the Kerry Club which is next to Volta Wildlife Area and scoped out the situation. Almost all the hunters had left by the time I got there and the take was not so good.

The two hunters that were still at the club had killed 14 teal, but they stayed in the blind for nearly six hours and they had one of the blinds that traditionally shoots best.

Other hunters killed a few ducks. Not one sprig in the entire bunch.

I sat and glassed the ponds from camp for about an hour. I never saw a teal and most of the pintails I did see were way high. About a dozen sprig came in and landed. That was it.

Before leaving, I took Lola for a walk. We saw lots of shore birds like curlew and ibis, but almost no ducks. First time I’ve driven all the way to the grasslands and not bothered to try hunting.

Heard from my brother who hunted Friday and yesterday in the Delta. Four of them killed two pheasants, one greenhead and one honker. At least they had something to shoot at.

Time of a change. The one thing about duck hunting is that it seldom stays lousy for the entire season. It’s not even December yet.

Open Zone Tag in Retrospect

Here are some questions you may have about the Open Zone Tag. Of course I am biased, as I’ve coveted this tag for years.

Question #1. How much did your Open Zone (OZ) tag cost?

A: $10,500. When considering price, the purchaser may want to take into consideration the fact that most of the tag cost is a donation. It is a donation because the proceeds go to the CDFW for project funding.

Since I have a lifetime deer tag, I will write off the entire cost of the tag as a donation. I’d recommend you run this by your accountant before you spend the money.

Question #2. Where did you purchase your OZ tag?

A: Santa Rosa Chapter of MDF Banquet.

Question #3. Did the OZ tag live up to expectations?

A: Yes. For a trophy hunter, having the opportunity to hunt in Zones that have a significantly high rate of success on big bucks is always expensive. An added bonus is that, unlike a lot of week-long trophy hunts, an OZ tag holder has the entire season to work with. However for some people, hunting any legal buck gives them as much excitement. If that is the case, the OZ tag is worth little more than any general season tag.

If there is a great tag that you’d like to draw, having an OZ tag solves the problem. After spending half a lifetime wishing, I decided to take things into my own hands.

Question #4. Is there a down side to holding an OZ tag?

Yes. It’s difficult to quit hunting. It was especially painful for my wife who wanted me to stay home. For that reason, I tried to be judicious in the number of days I hunted.

Question #5. Of the zones you hunted, which was your favorite?

The Devil’s Garden hunt (M9).

Question #6. Did you hire a guide?

Not exactly, but I did pay almost $1,000 for information such as maps and other written material. When friends helped me I tried to cover their expenses, like gas money or lunch.

Question #7. Who helped you?

Several friends provided assistance. Rick Bullock was especially helpful regarding the Devil’s Garden hunt.He spent of day of his valuable time showing me around. He drove me around for an afternoon and morning. We counted 199 deer during that period. After that, he traveled to Colorado and bagged a 29 inch typical.

Susanville MDF Chapter Chair, Pete Holmen allowed me to stay in his spare bedroom for several nights and drove me to some of his favorite hunting areas. Pete’s girlfriend, Tara, provided amazing hopitality.

Local guide, John Simpson, provided access to some places where I wouldn’t have been able to hunt and he also had an impressive ability to spot deer.

My long-time friend and former MDF Director, Jerry Lowery drove over from Reno to help find the buck. He was also invaluable in taking care of my buck after it was down.

These four hunters are on the short list of the most knowledgable people on earth when it comes to mule deer hunting in California and Nevada. They also have great credentials. I’ve seen them.

Question #8. What size buck were you looking for?

The buck I shot was exactly what I was looking for. If he had been larger, I would have shot him anyway. He’s (by far) the largest buck I’ve killed.

Question #9. Will you purchase an OZ tag again?

A: I’m not totally in control, and I cannot guarantee that I’ll be able to afford one again. However, now that I’ve done it once, I can’t help but believe that there is another OZ tag in my future. In the meantime, I also enjoy hunting forked horn bucks and maybe I’ll stumble on another great buck. Killing a great buck is not impossible, but it is very difficult.

The process also enlightened me about some hunts that are underrated and achievable in the general draw, but you’ve got to have at least a few preference points – or be extremely lucky.

Day One-Doyle Muzzleloading Rifle Buck Hunt

Met up early with my three hunting partners. A long time friend,  Jerry Lowery drove over from Reno. He couldn’t resist the chance to help find a big buck. He has personally taken some great Nevada bucks. He’s also a former guide and dedicated muzzleloader hunter.

Pete Holman, Chair of the Susanville MDF Chapter and John Simpson a native of the area with lots of local knowledge created our game plan. Both John and Pete guide on the side. Being a stranger in the area, I welcomed their presence and their humor.

We started out by hunting along the Nevada-California border in a howling wind and spotted several four-point bucks with does. But,  a buck with large antlers did not show. We drove back to 395 and shifted our search to the south near the Lassen County line. There we found deer and a few rutting bucks, but nothing of size.

dsc_05791-ruttinh-buck

Noon found us again on the north side of 395 gaining elevation in order to spot something to go after, but the howling wind seemed to be keeping the deer holed up. Not sure exactly how hard the wind was blowing, but I bet it was well over 50 MPH near the top of that ridge.

We continued to bounce around at the higher elevations, encountering winds that seemed to be of hurricane force. Eventually the weather improved as we headed out into the sage north of Doyle.

About 3 PM we found a great buck in an unlikely spot near the valley floor.

I managed to squeeze the trigger and was optimistic about the shot. The buck ran about 40 yards and tipped over.

My best buck ever:

img_2381-richs-doyle-buck-adjusted

He’s 27 1/2 inches wide and 18 1/2 inches tall, with massive bases and great character.

I’m indebted to Pete, Jerry and John for their eagerness to help me succeed. You’d have a hard time finding three guys with more enthusiasm for buck hunting. The day was more than successful, it was just plain fun.

Although November 19th was the first day of the Doyle muzzleloading rifle hunt, it was the 14th day for me scouting and hunting deer in the X Zones. The 14 days encompassed portions of four hunt zones (X2, X5a, X6b, X6a) two special hunts and three of the methods used for hunting deer in California. However, I primarily scouted during the general and archery seasons.

Doyle Muzzleloading Rifle Buck Hunt

M3 is the designation for the Doyle muzzle-loading rifle hunt. In general, the hunt location is a portion of  Deer Zone X6b lying in the southeast corner of Lassen County. Nevada lies to the east and the southern and southwestern boundaries are the Lassen County line. The northern boundary is basically the town of Herlong, its access road and Highway 395 to where it intersects the town of Milford.

Time wise, the hunt extends for nine days – November 19 through 27. Either conveniently or invonveniently, depending upon your situation,  the Thanksgiving holiday is in the middle of the period.

This is winter range. Although there are some resident deer, many of the deer seen while hunting will be deer that have migrated from Nevada to the east, Plumas County to the south or maybe Northern Lassen County. Who knows for sure and some of the biggest bucks are in the neighborhood for much of the year.

dsc_04471-doyle-x6b

Highway 395 divides the area in about half with timber-covered ridges on the west and Great Basin style pinyon-juniper and large sage to the east. Much of the sage is so tall and thick that it would be impossible to see, let alone shoot, at a running  buck.

This country also has lots of antelope bitterbrush (https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_putr2.pdf), a favorite food for mule deer – especially in winter.

Sixteen of the twenty tags for last season were filled and I’m sure that the four, that weren’t filled, could have been. According to the California Big Game Hunting guide, over 60% of the deer killed during this hunt last season were 4X4 or better. That puts it near the top of all California deer hunts when it come to success.

Because I purchased an Open Zone Deer Tag, I can participate in this hunt. Needless to say, (but I’ll say it anyway) I’m  looking forward to it.

Without the Open Zone Tag, it is most likely that I would never participate in this hunt., or even put in for it. According the the CA Big Game Hunting Guide, 18 of the 20 people who drew this tag in 2015 had maximum preference points.  Of the 771 applicants, two very lucky hunters were selected in the random draw.

Ferruginous Hawk

For a while I’ve been seeing a ferruginous hawk along ranch road and I’ve been hoping to take a good photograph of the hawk. A few days ago I took some photographs of a ferruginous hawk on my way to the ranch. I’m not sure if it was the same hawk, but it probably was.

The ferruginous hawks belong to the broad wing family and are buteos  as are the red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks. They hunt from the air or from perches and they glide in the thermals along with the eagles and vultures.

These photographs are not great, but they will clearly show the marking of a light morph ferruginous hawk.

For comparison, here are a couple red-tailed hawk photos.

In California habitats red-tailed hawks are usually the most common large raptor.