Reptile Survey

One of our management practices on the ranch is to monitor for reptiles and amphibians. May is reptile month as the snakes respond to warm weather. Today was my day to survey for whipsnakes.

Although I didn’t find any whipsnakes, a few other critters found the eye of my camera.

The weather was cool and mostly sunny. Here are a few of the creatures I observed.

lizard-cropped1

 Western fence lizards are a primary food source for whipsnakes.

valley-quail-2-cropped-and-resizedValley quail were mostly traveling in couples, apparently mating has begun.

garder-snake-cropped-and-resizedNext to a pond I found this garter snake under a piece of wood.

checkerspot-croppedThis checkerspot butterfly was a pleasant surprise.

horned-lark-male-cropped-and-resized1

Horned larks chased bugs in the short grass on the ridge top.

young-buck-cropped

I bumped into this young big and a larger buck as they fed on the open ridge at mid-day.

All and all it was a good day at the ranch, even without a whipsnake sighting.

Donated Turkey Hunt a Winner for All Hands

I’ve “donated” a few hunts to fundraising events over the years. Most of the time I ended up being the benefactor.

In about 1991 or so, I donated a duck hunt to the CWA Youth event at Comanche Hills. The hunt was a guided hunt on the public waterfowl hunting areas. Many people probably laughted at the idea of paying for somebody to take them hunting on the public areas. I can hear them now, “The audacity of that guy…”

I didn’t think I was making any kind of statement. I just wanted to take somebody hunting who was also willing to help raise some money for CWA. Surprisingly, the man who purchased that hunt, for he and his son, has become one of my regular hunting partners. He’s one of the nicest and most considerate people I know and his name is Tom Billingsley.

Not only did he and his son hunt with me at Mendota that year, they still hunt there to this day. And, Tom frequently hunts waterfowl, pheasants and even deer with me. The donated hunt was the start of a lasting friendship.

tom_s_buck_8_12_06-croppedTom Billingsley

This weekend I took two young gentlemen turkey hunting. A good friend of theirs and mine, Pamela Atwood, purchased the turkey hunt at the Mule Deer Foundation banquet in San Jose and gave it to them. They had not been turkey hunting previously and she has been a hunting mentor for them, especially Eric, who was introduced to hunting by winning an SCI essay contest at the age of 13.

Eric and Michael Maida joined me at 5:00 AM on Saturday and we headed for turkey country. Our first stop produced only one long range gobble. However we did see quite a bit of wildlife including three blacktail bucks. One of them was a keeper and we watched him for a few minutes before we concluded we’d have to scare him off to get back to the truck. It was a beautiful morning, but by 9:30, it was obvious that we’d better move to another spot. We were hunting on a ranch managed by a friend of mine because I could find only one gobbler on our ranch and what good would a two-person turkey hunt be when there was only one trophy.

Anyway, we  shifted to another part of the ranch and hit paydirt. After a little hiking and calling we had two birds down – a double.

eric-and-mike-cropped-and-resized

After our success on Saturday, we headed to camp on our ranch and hunted for pigs in the evening. Finding no pigs, we ate barbecued mallard and slept out near the canyon where the turkeys live. In the middle of the night, (2:41 AM exactly) one of the bulls penned in the field next to our sleeping spot decided to bellow repeatedly about 50 yards from where we were sleeping. It was quite a wakeup call.

We rose about 5:30 AM and within minutes a gobbler began sounding off in the canyon below us. We set up early in the howling wind and chilly temps. I failed to impress him with my hen turley impersonation. We followed him for a couple hours, finding the old bird stutting in an open bowl, but we could never get closer than about 75 yards. Eventually he walked off leaving us frustrated.  But it was a great hunt.

ranch-road-gobbler-cropped-and-resizedOn the way home we drove past a nice gobbler as he fed along side the road.

Eric and Michael were great hunting partners and I haven’t had more fun on any hunt since I was their age.

mike-and-turkey-cropped-and-resizedMichael

eric-and-gobbler-cropped-and-resizedEric

Thanks to Pamela and Stan Atwood for setting up a great hunt.

First Elk Hunt

The first time is often special.

 

My first hunt for elk was one of those times. It was an experience that inspired me to start writing about my outdoor experiences.

 

The hunt took place in September of 1985. My brother, Rob, and I hooked up with some friends who lived in Council Idaho. They pointed out some good elk habitat along the western border of Idaho and set us free to explore and learn about bugling for elk.

 

First Elk Hunt

 

I bow-hunted for elk this year. It was my first time. If you’re like most of my friends, I imagine that you’d like to know if I got one. My usual reaction to this question is a quick reply that leaves my mouth before I even have time to think. In this case, I think we’ll both enjoy it more if I tell you my story first, because the answer is the story.

 

My elk hunt was two weeks long and my brother Rob and I planned this hunt for almost a year. We started out with absolutely no elk-hunting experience. All we knew was what we’d learned from my Larry D. Jones elk-hunting tapes and what our friends had told us. Our friends lived in western Idaho and they knew their territory well. At least we had somebody to show us around. During the course of the first week we didn’t hear any elk. We hunted for three days before we saw one and that was in the middle of a snow storm. We were told that elk hung out in the timber and that they didn’t come out much during the day  – we were convinced of that after a few days hunting.

 

On the fourth day, Rob shot a bull which had four points on each side. It was giant compared to the mule deer and blacktail deer that we generally hunted. The bull had walked right up to him and posed for two broadside shots, the second of which hit him in the heart. The fact that Rob had been successful fueled my desire even more.

 

At the end of the first week I heard my first genuine bugle, and it captivated me. I could hardly stand it. I called home, cancelled everything and said I was staying for an additional week. It didn’t matter what anybody else wanted me to do, nothing was going to take me away. My brother and Idaho friends were done hunting and had to go home, but I didn’t let the bother me. I told my friends in town that I’d be out there at “No-tellum Creek” hunting and not to worry. I’d stop in every couple of days and tell them how it was going unless I got one, in which case, I’d ask them to help me haul it in.

 

It got a little quiet out there at night, but I kind of liked being alone. During the day it was great. I could do anything I wanted so I spent a lot of time sitting and listening and blowing on my bugle, making all kinds of crazy sounds, trying to sound like an elk. Hunting with a group had been great, but hunting alone was even better. Just about every day I’d hear one of two bull elk calling off in the distance. I couldn’t tell how far away they were. Sometimes it sounded like they were miles away and other times it sounded like they were right next to me. For the most part I could bugle and get them to bugle back from within a few hundred yards. Calling to them was pretty exciting, but after a couple days of frustration, I realized it wasn’t going to be easy to get closer to them. I chased ‘em up and down, tried to get down wind of them and even tried to get up wind so that I could get in the right spot when the wind would shift. I tried to hunt from above them and tried to hunt below them. I only had occasion to see elk three times, and that was only a glimpse as they departed from thirty to forty yards away into the brush. I hadn’t even seen a horn until after ten days and that was a twenty-five yard glimpse of a herd bull that got my scent and ran off.

 

It got down to the last day of hunting and I spent the morning listening to a couple of bulls bugle back and forth. I lost my nerve when they moved downwind of me. A grouse rustled in the brush and threatened to flush at any moment. The forest was bone dry and every step I took crackled and popped.

 

 Finally, I sneaked away making sure that I didn’t spook them. I figured that I’d have another chance at them in the evening. When I got back to camp, I was pretty tired and decided to rest. It was maybe ten or eleven o’clock in the morning, and I wanted to save  energy for the evening hunt, so I loaded the jeep and got everything ready to go because I knew that when the evening hunt was over, I’d be heading home.

 

I decided to drive the jeep up a rough little road half way up the mountain, get up where it was pretty close to where I’d been hunting, lay down in the shade, and take a few pictures of  birds and maybe take a nap until hunting time. The wind was starting to blow pretty hard and it was getting kind of cool. It seemed like winter-time, in fact, it felt like maybe a little snow storm might be about to hit. The birds seemed to be all gathered up in flocks, bunches and mixtures of birds: warblers, grosbeaks, juncos, a few sparrows. .. I sat there and tried to take a picture. About all I could capture on film was a junco. The warblers wouldn’t stay still, even though they were close.

 

A couple kinglets got five or six feet away, but they wouldn’t stay still either. The wind was howling and I kept thinking about how hard it was going to be to hear a bugle. Hell, for the last week, I’d been hearing elk bugling all day long and had a hard time figuring out whether it was really elk or just my imagination. I lay down on the mattress, but had a hard time relaxing between thinking about hunting and wondering whether I should be on top of the hill. Whenever I did manage to get elk off my mind, a bird would fly by, and I’d attempt a few more pictures.

 

I kept hearing a sound off in the distance. It didn’t really sound like and elk, but it could be. One note, then another, it was the right pitch. I even thought it might be a hunter playing with his bugle or wind whistling in the trees, maybe nothing at all. Then I sat there a while longer and figured that if it was an elk, it wasn’t going to go anywhere so I kept resting. The sound kept on coming – over and over again. It was a high whistle, two notes long, drawn- out notes. And, then the wind blew a little harder and it seemed a little colder and it was obvious that winter would be here soon.

 

All of a sudden I concluded that the sound was a signal for me to get up on top of the mountain. I grabbed my mattress and threw it in the jeep, grabbed my pack and adjusted my clothes the way I liked to have them. I figured that I’d better get up there. I couldn’t sleep anyway, so what the hell. I grabbed my bow, my bugle and made sure I had my diaphragms. I put my face paint on hastily and suddenly felt invigorated….thought I had a chance. There was no need to hurry. It wasn’t that far too where I wanted to hunt. A few hundred yards up the hill I came to a spot where an elk had been thrashing around in the trees. There were about five little trees with bark rubbed off. I decided that this might be a good spot to bugle, so I sat down, not in a big hurry. The elk weren’t in a hurry.

 

I bugled a couple of times over the course of five or six minutes. Nothing happened so I sat there for another couple of minutes. Sometimes it took ten or fifteen minutes to get an answer. I waited about fifteen minutes and nothing happened so I decided to head on up to the top of the ridge. Normally, the wind would be blowing up the hill this time of day, but it seemed as if the weather change was causing it to blow a mixture of up-hill and side-hill. Maybe that would be an advantage – maybe not. I got to the top of the hill. It was hard to say what time it was. I didn’t have a watch, hadn’t known what time it was for a few days, but it was maybe 3:30. Anyway, it seemed like a pretty good time for elk bugling.

 

At the top of the ridge, I pulled out my bugle. I’d pretty much forgotten about the sound that I’d been hearing earlier. I blew a little elk tune, just a couple notes. Sure enough, that sound came again, and it didn’t sound too far away either, maybe three to four hundred yards around the hill. I put the bugle back in my jacket, got up and walked up along the top of the hill, being careful not to go too fast, making sure to stay out of sight. I didn’t want to take any chances, because this was it. I felt like it was the shootout at the OK Corral…the time had come.

 

So, anyway I got up there moseying along the top of the ridge. I had a feeling that the elk would be straight down below me. Sure enough, I didn’t even have to blow on my bugle – the elk started singing away. It was making all kinds of crazy sounds. First he would make a whistle with a little toot on the end, then he’d’ go for a while and sound like an entire orchestra. Eventually he would go back to the little whistle again. In the meantime, it was making a good opportunity to sneak down the hill. I wanted to try to get ahead of him a little bit and make sure the wind didn’t favor the bull.

 

When he bugled straight down the hill from me, maybe 150 yards away, I knew that this was going to be a heck of a chance. In the previous two weeks, I had done just about everything wrong that I could do. I’d fallen apart a few times in the last couple of days, but now everything was in my favor. The elk didn’t know I was there.

 

I had the wind to my advantage, good quiet grass to sneak on, big trees that shut out almost all of the bright sunlight. No excuses now. If there was ever a time that I was going to get him, this was it.

 

Get it?

 

I was ready. Two weeks of preparation was about to pay off.

 

I took painfully slow steps, six inches a step, maybe four inches a step. I put my foot down, heel first, then the middle of my foot, then my toes. I took one step at a time, looking to the right, looking to the left, not moving my arms, barely moving my eyes. Maybe fifteen minutes went by when I sensed that I was at the spot where the elk had last bugled. Hardly moving, I went for ten more minutes straight down the hill nearly motionless, maybe as quiet as the elk. Then I realized that I hadn’t heard him for fifteen minutes, maybe twenty.

 

The thought came to me that he might have sped up. I didn’t think that he could have scented me, but I’d been mistaken before. The way the wind would gust, you’d never know for sure. I looked around carefully. The wind had stopped and, for a moment it was stone silent. I looked everywhere, but the elk wasn’t in sight. All of a sudden I began to worry. Maybe he’s gone. I reached for my bugle and realized I didn’t have to blow it very hard. In fact, I preferred not to blow, but decided it might be best to toot out a soft bugle. I puckered up and put my tongue on the diaphragm. After two weeks of practice, I had it down pretty good. I put the top of my tongue on the diaphragm and let out a perfect little bugle, just two notes. One, then another a little higher, it couldn’t have been better. Everything was perfect.

 

That last note had barely escaped my tube when the bull elk let out a roar that could have put a lion to shame. If I had been a bull elk, I’d have gotten the hell out of there. You could tell that this guy meant business. That elk had been standing in the brush, maybe forty yards from me. His roar totally unnerved me. I forgot everything I ever knew about elk hunting, probably wouldn’t have even been able to remember my name. I began to make a series of errors. I ran to a tree to hide, couldn’t even think to draw my bow and shoot. The elk came running and stopped right in front of me, at about twenty-five yards – looking around for his adversary. The minute I moved a muscle it was over. The big bull saw me, turned, trotted a few yards and then stopped at about forty yards and looked back over his shoulder displaying what, to me, were massive six-point antlers.

 

There I stood squealing away on the bugle like and idiot. His horns looked like they were four feet high and three feet wide, an awesome sight. Only the second bull elk I’d every seen, and it had taken me two weeks to see it. In thirty seconds it was all over. As the bull walked up the hill and silhouetted himself on the horizon, I realized that if I’d kept my cool a little longer, I might have tagged him.

 

Now I’m sure that there will be more close calls before I actually bag a big bull and who knows how long it will take. But one thing’s for sure, I’ll be out there trying with everything I’ve got. My hunt this year was a satisfying as any hunt I’ve ever had, successful or not. I entered the world of a bull elk for a few minutes. For those few minutes I was a bull elk, bugling and grunting swaggering through the woods daring other bulls to come near and I’d been put rightfully in my place by the King of the Mountain.

 

That’s was the end of story for that year.

 

Rob and I archery hunted for elk, self-guided, in Idaho, for the next sixteen years. Before we gave it up, we managed to take home several nice elk including three that qualified for the archery record books. After we reached camp, with the meat and horns of the bull Rob killed in 2001, we agreed that our self-guided elk-hunting days were over.

 

Elk are almost always found away from the road in a remote spot. Hunting them with back packs is for young men with stout legs and healthy feet.

The Mule Deer Foundation supports SB 589

On April 9, 2009, the following letter was sent to the Honorable Fran Pavley, Chair of the California Senate Natural Resouces and Water Committee. 

                 

RE:     SB 589 (Harman) – SUPPORT

 

Dear Senator Pavley:

 

On behalf of The Mule Deer Foundation (MDF), I am writing you to urge your support of SB 589 (Harman), which would provide greater accountability and transparency over the use of hunting license tag and stamp revenues.

 

MDF is a 501c3 non-profit organization whose mission is to conserve mule and blacktail deer and their habitat. MDF believes that hunting license tag and stamp revenue is critical to the preservation and enhancement of habitat for deer and other California wildlife.

 

SB 589 would require that hunting license tag and stamp monies be used for game species conservation and related purposes.  In addition, the bill would require that MDF and other sportsmen’s groups have an opportunity to review and provide comment on proposed projects funded with the monies.

 

It should also be noted that the bill, through account consolidation, improves efficiencies in the use of the monies and also helps ensure that there are sufficient funds available for each big game species, regardless of the number of tags sold for a particular species. SB 589 would also facilitate greater assistance with habitat projects by nonprofits, like MDF, who specialize in game species conservation.

 

Please support SB 589 when it is considered before your committee.

 

Sincerely,

 

Rich Fletcher

State Chair

The Mule Deer Foundation

The Snakes of Spring

 

 ranch-spring-day-116-johnny-jump-ups-cropped-and-resized

On our trip to the Ranch last Monday, we observed many of the rights of spring, golden eagles feeding their young in a roadside nest, vulture eggs inside a hollow oak, a turkey gobler strutting and gobbling, trout smolt heading downstream, a gopher snake in the road, plump does ready to give birth and zillions of wildflowers.

ranch-spring-day-036-shooting-stars-cropped-and-resized1Shooting stars.

ranch-road-gobblers-cropped-and-resizedRoadside gobblers are scarce this year. Maybe last year’s dry spring took it’s toll on them.

The warm of the sun was having it’s affect upon wildlife. Nothing seems to be more affected by the warm spring rain than snakes. One of the highlights of the trip was a rockpile home of a den of rattlesnakes.

They are always impressive and my friend Joe DiDonato has shared with me several of the photos he took was the group watched the snakes laying in the warm sun.

4-resize-of-p1000854The brown snake is the larger, but the black snake has at least 16 rattles. I wonder how old it is.

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2-resize-of-p1000870

1-resize-of-p1000827-joes-rattlerThe black snake is the smaller of the two – not sure which is the male vs female.