Sunday, November 29, 2015

Water Retrieve

It has not been a great hunting season here in Maryland. Early waterfowl efforts were beset by unseasonably warm weather, which otherwise normal people seem to enjoy and encourage. But hunters need cold for success. Cold forces animals of all kinds to move, to find food and shelter, and ups the odds significantly that they'll wind up in range of our weapons. But warm weather makes game animals complacent and content to loll around with a noticeable lack of urgency. The geese of the Chester River on a seventy degree November day are a good case in point, they appear for all intents and purposes to have the mindset of midsummer beach-goers.

The deer haven't been much more compelled, although their habits and their basic presence on the local landscape aren't quite as hardwired to the forecast. I hunted a warm early muzzleloader season in mid-October that saw visibility and shooting lanes limited dramatically by the leaves that were still in a September state of mind, having been bitten by only the lightest of frosts maybe once or twice. The deer in such a situation, unstirred by hunger, as yet unpossessed by their annual mating rituals, moved only sparingly.

So with a hacking cough and a sore throat, I climbed the tree on the opening morning of modern firearm season with moderate optimism and an empty freezer. The two does I had killed last year all but consumed at the family dinner table. Almost as soon as I got settled in 15 feet high in my tree stand, I notice the gray outline of a deer popping out of the heavy brush that borders the bean field I am hunting. Far earlier than shooting time, I shoulder my slug gun to peer through the scope, instead of digging loudly through my backpack for my binoculars. The scope gathers what little light there is well, and I see the deer clearly in the scope. I watch this early doe poke around in the field for a few minutes before another deer walking briskly along the edge of the dense cover catches my eye. I notice the neck: it is huge. Legs that look too short for the animal's body. All the signs of a large buck.

And as I put the scope on the animal to take a look, I saw that it was indeed a bruiser. Likely better than 8 points at the tips of tall tines, although it was still too dark to get a great look at him. He was the dominant animal, and his presence made the other deer nervous. And so was I, my heart racing in the hopes that he would hang around until legal shooting time, which was still 30 minutes away by the clock.

But in order to get that big, a buck has to have some nocturnal habits; this wasn't a deer that moved around much during the day. And he never stopped walking for the minute or so I watched him, as he ducked right back into the dense cover 45 minutes before official sunrise, the place he would likely stay until the sun went back down.

90 minutes later a small yearling doe popped out into the field and spent 20 minutes feeding alone without so much as a wink of caution. A second small deer, her twin perhaps, came out with her; they had the typical giveaways for young deer: the rounded look of the head, the short snout, and a belly that doesn't seem deep enough for a mature animal. But then two does that looked shootable entered the field at about 100 yards south of my stand, eyeing the two yearlings nervously. After a few minutes that felt more like an hour the two does started towards me at a fairly quick gait, but the larger of the two, stopped broadsides about 60 yards in front of my stand in a clear shooting lane. With the crosshairs of my scope just behind the front shoulder, I took the shot.

The deer jolted from what I knew immediately was a kill shot, and ran to the northeast, towards the woods. When I started to track her about an hour later I didn't think I would have to walk very far, but I didn't see her nearby. A clear, abundant, and very bright blood trail followed for about 100 yards, maybe even more, and ended, very frustratingly, at the banks of Southeast Creek. Where was this deer?

I started to walk the boggy shoreline, expecting a dead deer at any minute. But the blood trail left me, and I was left to do little more than hope and scratch my head. As I looked up and down the shore, what on any other day would have struck me as a log, I saw what appeared to be a deer, dead, 30 yards from the shore in the middle of the creek. After a quick call, the boat from duck camp was zooming up Southeast Creek, and together me and a friend were able to lasso the deer and tow her to shore, where I could start the process of field dressing. In probably 25 years of deer hunting, I have never had to retrieve a deer from the water, let alone one that had somehow got out into the middle of a fairly large tidal tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

I am glad I was able to successfully find the deer and fill my tag, but the shot had me fretting. In years past I had shot a Winchester Partition Gold slug through an H&R Ultra Slug 12 gauge, which I had borrowed from my dad. I had kept buying the slugs he had sighted the gun in with, and deer never went very far after the shot. Indeed, the gun worked so well that this fall I had bought my own H&R Ultra Slug, and had sighted in with Hornady SST slugs in 2.75 inch, in order to attempt to cut down on felt recoil on the shooting bench, which was substantial with the fat Winchesters.

The decision to hunt with the SSTs looks to have been a bad one, as what should have been a very rapid kill shot turned into a track of nearly 200 yards, that included the animal wading through the water for quite some distance, since I don't think any tide or current carried her very far. Upon inspection, the shot was true to the vitals, and at 60 yards, I think the old Winchester Partition Golds would have knocked her down for good on impact. While the Hornady SSTs were fantastic at the range, I think I have given up something in energy on impact and expansion. I am not in the ethical business of losing deer if it can be at all avoided, so it looks like a return to the big Winchesters may be in order.   


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