by John Woolfolk
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Once on top, we'd sit a bit and let the day warm up so that the air would be rising. The weather forecasters claimed it was to be one of those warm, sunny fall days often called "Indian Summer." When the air had stopped draining downhill, taking our scent with it, we'd start ridge busting. This meant that one of us would head out one way along the ridge while the other two would work the other direction. Each guy would move back 50-75 yards along the ridge. Then he'd slip slowly over to the edge, keeping behind a bush or alongside of a tree to break up his outline, and peek over the side.
Big bucks tend to bed near the crest of a ridge where they can look down and see anything moving below them. If they see something, they just slip over the top and are gone. They don't expect you to be above them when there is so little "above" for you to be in. This is a neat hunting method that has served me well whenever I could find a piece of real estate which fit that style of hunting.
I called my neighbor-buddy on Wednesday to set up who was bringing what. Oooops! His boss was sending him out of town on an emergency repair job. Oh well! Two of us can hunt that area nearly as well as three.
I called my old rendezvous companero. Ooops! He had discovered that the area we were to hunt was not in the 100M muzzleloader boundary. He was not legally able to hunt in the modern rifle area. (In Oregon, you have a choice of one or the other - not both. I had chosen to hunt with the "suppository-gun" shooters that year.) After grumbling that I had asked him about that problem a couple of weeks ago and getting, "I misunderstood" for a reply, I came to the realization that this would be a solo hunt. Rats!
I got out my Forest Service map and briefed my wife on just where I would be hunting, where the truck would be parked, when I planned on being back, and when to send out the search parties if I failed to get back. Lots of things that can go wrong on a hunting trip are no big problems if you have a partner, but can be deadly if you are alone.
I packed the pickup and headed out early on Friday afternoon. No need to wait for those two guys to get off work. As I swung off the main road onto the logging road, I was greeted by a big railroad-iron gate across the way. I had not read that this area was to be closed to vehicle traffic. Dang! Hidden Lake was still several miles from me. All up-hill! A far piece to hike into and too dog-boned far to pack a deer out. Some days it just doesn't pay to get out of bed.
I was in the process of turning my pickup around (gotta be careful - old "Timex" is really reliable, but will get stuck on a squashed slug), when a logging company pickup came down the road on the other side of the gate. As they opened it up I called: "Any chance of my getting in there to hunt this weekend?" The guy grinned and replied, "Sure, we're locking all gates in this area open for the weekend." Finally, good news!
I drove up to where I thought the cat-road below Hidden Lake forked off. The lake is well named. Most maps do not show it, and you can see no reason to think there is a lake on that ridge-side. A small draw was blocked many years ago by a slide. A lake of about an acre-and-a-half had formed behind the slide. The material that makes up the dam is so rocky and porous that no outlet stream has ever formed. Drainage is underground. Tall Douglas Fir surround the lake, hiding it so well it is hard to spot even from the air. I've tried!
After several abortive attempts, I found the right road and parked the pickup in a cluster of red alder that was growing like bamboo in and around the old cat-road. The stump with an old can lid nailed to it identified the start of the route to the lake. There was no other sign of a trail. It is not well known or heavily used.
I am always uncertain as to which is the best way to leave a vehicle - on the road side where it can be seen, in the hopes that visibility will prevent vandalism, or hidden where it is hard to find but can be ruined at leisure if happened upon. My choice was to hide my ancient Dodge in the alders.
I had already stuffed my back pack with extra long-johns and wool socks, a sleeping bag, fire-starting gear, a tarp, first aid kit, a waterproof packet of emergency ammo, a canteen of water, belt axe, 6 x 35 lightweight binoculars, and rations. A closed cell foam pad was rolled and slung under the pack bag, and a wool cruiser jacket slung over the top. Putting on my padded vest and shooting pouch, I swung the pack into place, buckling the waist belt. My old felt hat went onto my head, a .53 caliber Santa Fe Hawken into my hand, and I was on my way. Not primitive gear, (more like crude) but effective, light and comfy. Well, sorta comfy.
I had considered using my beloved .40 caliber flinter on this trip, but had remembered that this kind of hunting could involve some pretty long shots. A .40 works amazingly well if you keep your range fairly short and place your shots. However, starting a 95 grain ball at over 2,000 f/s does not mean it has much oomph for long. That ball loses speed as if it had a drag-chute. I don't like to use it on large animals much beyond 75 yards. On this day, I fell back upon a rifle I've had for nearly twenty years. It is a very close copy of a J & S Hawken, and with a 218-grain, .522" ball in front of 140 grains of 2f Goex, it is highly effective.
The first half-mile of the hike was not fun. The slope was steep and brushy. The area had been clear-cut several years previously and was getting quite overgrown. After a sweaty struggle, I entered the timber, and travel improved. The old trail was discernible again, and there was very little brush to impede the hiker. Instead of slippery mud, the trail was thick with duff. I soon topped the slope at the edge of the lake. Time to set up base camp.
Using my belt axe to cut poles from the branch, I turned my tarp into a small, sideless Whelen tent, with part of the tarp folded under to act as a ground cloth. An old fire pit was dug out with a stick, and dry firewood chopped or broken off an old windfall by the lake. With my pad unrolled and the sleeping bag fluffed, I was ready for the night. The trouble was....it was still daylight.
The rest of the day was used to scout the draws that I might work in the morning and refresh my memory as to the best route. As darkness fell, I heated and ate a pouch full of GI rations, drank a little water, and hit the sack.
Sometime in the middle of the night, I was awakened by crashing in the brush, snorts, mewing sounds, and a lot of heavy stomping. At this point, I wished that I had remembered to take the flashlight out of the truck's jockey-box. Listening until I was sure that the noise was a group of elk and not a visit from Sasquatch, I went back to sleep.
My sleeping bag (an ultra-light little down dandy which was 90% advertising and 10% warmth) was rated to zero degrees, but it tended to freeze me out by morning at anything below about forty degrees. I was up early, boiling water in a canteen cup to heat my packet of the GI version of ham and eggs and to make hot chocolate. As soon as it was light enough to see to shoot, I left all non-essentials in my tent or hanging from a tree limb and headed up the draw. The hunt was on.
I did not expect much success in this first phase. One guy alone in this country cannot hunt draws with much hope of getting a deer. If you work the draw to push the deer out, you will probably be in deep brush when the animal breaks loose, if it does. When you climb the razor-back, you do not get close enough to the bedded animals to move them. Blacktails tend to stick to their beds like a tick on a hound.
I decided to try splitting the difference by walking the side of the draw. This meant that I had to climb a grade of about forty-five degrees while walking on a side-slope of about the same angle. To make things worse, the ground is loose, rocky and muddy. Not great fun!
About 200 yards up the slope, I spooked a deer out of its bed...after I had passed. I heard it go thumping over the hill behind me just in time to turn and see it go pogo-sticking across the razor back. I thought I saw antlers, but could not be sure. I was too busy trying not to slide down the rocky slope.
Working on up, I heard something moving through the brush ahead of me but never saw it. Then, I pushed a small heard of does off to one side. The rest of the way to the top was just work. I saw no more deer.
Once on top, I sat down and caught my breath. It was a tough climb, but a beautiful view. My pack was now adorned with my jacket and hat. I swear that steam was coming out from my collar. And I had climbed slowly, too! By the time I had consumed a piece of homemade jerky and some water, I was back to normal temperature. Indeed, I had to put my jacket back on. The breeze coming across the ridge was cold. Time to start ridge busting.
The main part of this hog-back is about seventy yards wide at the top. Within about a half-mile, it has narrowed to about twenty yards and breaks up into a series of eroded ridges and gullies on both sides. The top was timbered with fairly sparse old growth, while the sides were brushy and contained some "seed trees" left at the last logging. I started near the top end of the ridge and worked my way down to the end where everything fell off steeply toward the river below.
Pulling the cap that had been on my rifle all morning, I wiped the nipple with my handkerchief to dry it and then with a neat's-foot-oil treated shooting patch. This removes any moisture that might have built up, and the oil insures that surface tension will form any new moisture into droplets instead of letting it wick under the cap to destroy its ability to ignite the powder reliably. Seating the new cap, I eased up to the edge in a crouch, then on hands and knees until I could see some of the slope below. With the binoculars, I carefully started to examine potential bedding spots. Almost every stump had a flattened spot above it where some animal had lain. After looking over all the potential beds I could see, I worked slowly farther forward so that I could view more of the two ridges below me and the draw in between. Lots of beds...no deer.
Pulling back and crossing the ridge, I did the same thing on the other side. Still no deer. An hour of this criss-crossing and searching finally brought me upon a smallish forky lying in his bed about eighty yards below the crest. I glassed him over with care but decided that he was too small and left him to snooze undisturbed.
Crossing back over the ridge, I worked out to where I could see the next razor-back, and there he was. A big four-point (ten point, eastern count) was sleeping on the top of the spine behind a small stump. Glassing him over showed me that he was a real prize. Lots of steaks, roasts and backstrap there! The rub was...he was a good 250 yards from the top of my ridge.
No prob! The warming air was coming up the hill and the breeze was from him to me. He could smell anything coming at him from below and could see half-way to China, but I was above and down-wind. He raised his head every few minutes or so, looked about, and smelled the air. For some reason, he was on high alert.
After glassing the lay of the land to plan my approach, I slipped back, shucked off my pack, and started the stalk. It took me over an hour to get into a shooting stand within about a hundred yards of that big fellow. At last I was able to ease myself up into position, my left shoulder against a stump and my outline broken by a huckleberry bush; I silent-cocked my rifle and set the trigger. Lifting my head slowly, I looked right into his...empty bed. I had the right stump. The landmarks were all correct. There just wasn't any deer there. He had sensed me, gotten worried and moved on, or had just become hungry and gone out for a bite. One way or another - no meat for me!
I slowly worked that ridge for another hour, hoping that he had simply changed beds, as deer often do, but I never found hide nor hair of him, so I climbed back to the main ridge and ate a little lunch. Then it was back to ridge-busting for the remainder of the day. I spotted two more bucks. Both were small and out of range. Dusk found me dragging into my camp by the lake. That evening, I ate homemade shrimp gumbo that had been frozen in a baggie and stored in my extra socks to keep it from thawing to soon. It was good...but backstrap it wasn't!
That night I slept like the proverbial dead. No elk or Sasquatch disturbed my slumbers. I was pooped! Having built a fire reflector of wet logs and laid in a good supply of dry wood, I was able to sleep warmly until first light without any problems. This is guaranteed to improve your outlook! That morning was pretty much a repeat of the first, except for the fact that I saw no deer on my way up to the ridge.
Upon reaching the top and checking the wind, I went to hunting. Walking rather casually over to near the edge of the ridge, I got down on all fours and crawled to a stump, peeked around the edge, binoculars in hand, and spotted a deer before the glasses ever got to my eyes. Putting the binocs on the animal showed me that he was, quite possibly, my leery buck of the day before. He lay on a level patch of ground behind a stump in plain sight from my position. Slipping my rifle up and into place, I put my front sight on him, and using it to estimate the range, put him at 125 yards if he was about twenty inches high in the chest. With his rump towards me and his head curled around his body, he presented a big target. However, when hunting with a muzzleloader, one must always be aware of the necessity of careful bullet placement. Not only for a clean harvest, but also I didn't want him to go roaring down into one of those brushy draws to die. He was going to be enough work as things were.
I eased back, cocked the rifle, and set the trigger, and settled myself for the shot. As I did so, the deer raised his head and looked about. Putting the tip of the front sight at the base of his neck, I touched the set trigger. There was virtually no cross-wind. The ball left at a known velocity of just under 1800 fs. Sighted at 100 yards, it should be about five inches low at 125. However, because I was shooting downhill at about thirty degrees, the drop would be less.
As the smoke cleared, I saw that his head and neck lay out straight. Otherwise, there was no indication that he had moved. After reloading, I worked cautiously down to him. He was quite dead. The ball had entered his right side, traveled diagonally through his right lung and smacked the lower curvature of the spine, deflected downward, and exited through the left front shoulder, cutting the main artery there.
Digging in my pack for my camera, I made a disgusting discovery. I have little shutter/lens gadget that snaps onto a roll of 35 mm film to turn it into a mini-camera. Not fancy but very effective. I always keep it in my pack. Yup! It was not there. Aaarrrrgh!
There was nothing to do but set to work cleaning, skinning, and boning him out. He was far too big to drag out, and no way was I going to climb back up to that ridge from where the pickup was parked for a second load! One trip would have to do it.
A professional butcher would have had that deer boned and packed, ready to go in minutes. I'm not a professional. In fact, I'm not a very good amateur, it seems. By the time I got him boned, stuffed into cotton meat bags, and in the pack and ready to go, the day was getting a bit long in the tooth. Slipping and sliding down the mountain with that load was anything but fun. I made a brief stop at the lake to wash up, pick up my gear, and go on. One nasty slip on a muddy, gravely slope gave me a foul mood and a sore hind-end, but the mood improved greatly when the truck hove into view.
As I started to unload, I spotted my mini-camera setting on the truck seat in plain sight. I don't remember leaving it there! Double-aarrgh! Tossing my partially unloaded pack back on and grabbing my rifle, I rigged the camera to a stump with fishing line and set the shutter to function remotely with some of the same line. Then, with the camera aimed where I hoped to be, I plopped down by the marker stump and took a couple of pictures. It didn't work too badly, but the resulting pictures are nothing like they would have been up on that high ridge.
As I pulled into the yard that evening, I was bone-tired but felt rather smug about having a goodly amount of venison to go into the freezer for the winter, and I had done it all by myself!
Sad to say, the logging road to Hidden Lake is no longer left unlocked during hunting season. Too many vandals and log thieves. The ridge has been clear-cut and the brush has grown so thick that it would take a bulldozer to get through. Ah well, they were grand days while they lasted. (And there are other ridges to hunt!)