So there I was…
…There is a game management unit near Divide, CO where I have been trying to get a deer hunting license for the past 15 years. This year I finally drew a doe deer tag during muzzleloader season. Let me start by saying I’ve never hunted trophies; I always hunt meat. My brother always says, “You can’t eat antlers,” and I agree. I figure there are at least seven or eight does to every buck, so my odds of harvesting an animal go up exponentially by drawing a doe tag. And once you have a cooler full of sausage and jerky no one knows whether it was a buck or a doe, anyway.
Then you have idiots in the woods. I hate idiots in the woods, especially when they are carrying a firearm. Given the limitations of a muzzleloader compared to modern centerfire rifles, I believe the percentage of idiots is lower; it simply takes more time, dedication, and knowledge to make it go bang, and the average idiot doesn’t bother with any of those things. Coupled with the fact there are simply fewer people who hunt with muzzleloaders than with modern rifles, I figure my chances of having an idiot-in-the-woods-induced-mishap are lower simply by hunting during muzzleloader season. Plus, let’s be honest, they are really fun to shoot.
“But you only get one shot” people tell me. You only get one shot with a modern rifle, too, because if you miss, that thing is gone before you’ll get another one off. Make it count. Put a bullet in the breadbasket and make them go down before they ever knew they were shot.
I’ve owned this particular muzzleloader for 29 years, ever since I was a teenager. It’s a Lyman “deerstalker” .50 caliber, percussion lock. Colorado does not allow scopes, in-lines, pelletized powder, or even sabots during muzzleloader season. Those things can be used during regular rifle seasons, but muzzleloaders are muzzleloaders here, not any of the newfangled stuff that essentially turns a muzzleloader into a modern rifle. So I have iron sights and my hunting load is a .490 round ball over a lubed .017 patch and 90 grains of fffg. I use “three f” instead of two because I have found it to ignite more reliably. The amount of powder I use may seem a bit heavy, but it groups the best and I want to hit the animal with as much punch as I can to ensure a clean kill. For hunting purposes, I’m good with that gun up to 100 yards, which is more than enough in the rough, thick-timbered terrain in which I hunt. I think my longest shot at a deer has been 75 yards.
One of my friends owns a piece of unoccupied property near where I planned to hunt the public area, and offered to let me hunt his ground. I gladly accepted! There is a road that cuts through his property – two acres on one side and eighteen acres on the other, surrounded on three sides by public land. Nice, I figured the people stomping around on the public land who bump the deer to the private land where there would be no one but me.
The night before season began, I drove to his property and pitched my tent on the two acre side, planning to hunt the larger swath across the road. A stream cuts through the larger patch, and when I had scouted it out the previous month I had discovered a lot of deer and elk sign leading to the water. I was going to post up on one of those trails leading from the public land to his water.
As night fell, I set my alarm clock and went to bed, planning to get up at 4 am and begin my hunt. Around midnight I was startled awake. My heart was beating rapidly as the fight-or-flight syndrome in this combat veteran kicked in. After a second or two, I realized what had startled me – the bleeting of a cow elk very near. I sat motionless in my tent and listened while an entire herd of elk loudly crossed that little river across the road and strode into my camp. The cows were all bleeting every few seconds, and one time a bull bugled. It was an amazing experience, but I peeked out of my tent to catch a glimpse and found it was simply too dark to see any of them. They were no more than fifty feet from my tent, judging by the sound, and surrounded me on three sides. Funny enough, they found the campsite as hospitable as I had and bedded down for the night, apparently having no idea I was there. It is amazing to write about, but they annoyed me all night with their constant noise. Finally I drifted off back to sleep.
When my alarm went off at 4 am, I quietly got out of my sleeping bag, went over to my pickup, and began getting dressed as quietly as I could. My guests were all still there. Even though it was too dark to spot them, I could still hear the occasional bleet and one of them moving around every now and then. I managed to get completely dressed and my muzzleloader charged and capped without scaring them off, and they were still very close. I was even wearing a headlamp that didn’t seem to bother them.
But, I had to eat before I started my trek into the woods, and there is no way I function without coffee. Colorado is under a statewide fire ban right now due to dry conditions and forest fires. Normally when I’m camping I’m an outdoor gourmet, especially when it comes to Dutch oven cooking and baking. But with a fire ban and the fact I was hunting alone, I simply didn’t have time for my normal outdoor cuisine. I was using backpacker meals – simply heat some water and add it to the food, wait ten minutes, and eat it right out of the bag. Most of them aren’t bad, but it wasn’t long before I began missing my small fleet of Dutch ovens. As soon as I fired up the propane stove to heat the water, I heard the elk slink off into the woods as quietly as they could.
Man, I told myself, If I had an elk tag, I would have just sat here until there was enough light to shoot one of them. But I didn’t have an elk tag, and I can’t imagine trying to extricate one of those by myself, anyway! So I wolfed down a bag full of recently-rehydrated scrambled eggs and a mug of cowboy coffee, and then started off into the woods.
I slowly made my way up a ridge, looking for the spot I had previously chosen. I figured the deer would be bedded down at the moment, but would eventually move through the thick timber in one of the draws on either side of my ridge, so I walked where I figured they wouldn’t be. After a half-hour or so, I found my spot and set up in a little thicket to conceal myself, and then waited for the sun to rise, which wasn’t due to happen for another hour-and-a-half (but that time only counts when the sun itself crests the horizon, not the light you get prior to it).
After a few minutes, I heard the faint rustling of something sneaking through the timber in the draw to my left. It was probably the elk who had camped with me, but it could also be a deer. I sat absolutely motionless, not wanting to spook off any deer and not wanting the spooked elk to scare away any deer in the area, either. I even tried to breathe more quietly, but the cold nighttime temperature started making me shiver because I had been sitting still for a while.
The seconds ticked by, and every now and then I could still hear the rustling. It moved from the draw on my left around to a draw in front of me. After a half-hour of this, I suddenly saw a pair of eyes in the dark, maybe 50-60 yards off. I quietly cocked the hammer on my muzzleloader, praying for the sun to come up faster. I couldn’t make out an outline of the animal yet; all I could see were the eyes. Then, just as suddenly, there was a second pair of eyes. The two pairs of eyes were looking around in every direction, and then suddenly they both focused intently on me. I had been spotted. I was absolutely motionless, silent (no longer shivering due to the excitement), and hidden in a thicket. But somehow they managed to spot me in the absolute blackness of night miles from the lights of a city. We sat and stared at each other for what seemed like hours. I didn’t move because I still didn’t know what the animals were, and even if they were not deer I didn’t want them to spook and scare off any deer that might still be nearby.
Time passed slowly, as if God had slowed down the world and played it in front of me in slow motion. The eyes occasionally looked around, but always came back to me. Eventually, the sun started thinking about coming over the horizon and the world got just enough light for me to see the outline of the animals’ heads. Cow elk, I told myself. They were slightly down in the draw where only their heads and necks were exposed to me, but the shape of their head is vastly different from a deer’s. I knew enough not to shoot them; the idea of going to jail for something as stupid as shooting the wrong animal is rather unappealing to me. The had enough of staring at me in the dark, and slunk off down the draw and out of sight. I gently decocked my rifle and waited for a deer to come within sight.
Nothing happened the rest of the day. I didn’t see or hear anything, and I tried hunting three different locations. It was unseasonably warm – in the mid-70s – so the hummingbirds were out. I learned they sometimes mistake a hunter orange hat for a flower and got buzzed a few times, but those were the only things moving the rest of the day. As dusk fell and shooting hours ended, I made my way back to camp and ate another backpacker meal.
I planned to go to bed around 8 pm, because it was already very dark and I had nothing else to do, no one to talk to, and because I was going to get up at 4 am for the next day’s hunt. I had a plan for the following day all laid out in my mind. I spent a few minutes browsing through the hunting license regulations brochure with my headlamp, which I had already done dozens of times before, when something on the map jumped out at me. I’m out of my licensed area.
The state is divided into different game management units, and my license was good for three of them. But the Western-most unit allowed on my license ended about ½ mile to the East of where I was hunting. Earlier this summer when I had planned the hunt, I had misread unit 59 on my license as 50, where I was hunting on my friend’s private property.
Oh boy, it was a really good thing I never saw anything that day, because, like I said before, I don’t need any legal trouble. I’m not sure what the penalty would be, but I’ve heard stories about people having their pickups, guns, and other property confiscated. Let’s also not forget I have a security clearance through the military, and if I ever got any criminal charges levied against me I would lose it, and therefore be unemployed. None of that is worth a deer!
Ok, new plan. I’m going back over to the public land I had originally planned to hunt anyway. I haven’t scouted it out very much, but at least it’s legal. I had a massive headache (I was probably dehydrated after the unseasonably warm weather), so I decided I was going to sleep until I woke up and then go to my legal hunting area after sunrise to avoid stomping around unfamiliar ground in the dark. Hopefully a good night’s sleep would get rid of the headache. I went off to bed, thankful I hadn’t shot anything that day.
I woke up around 6:30 and ate another backpacker meal. The sun was up, and I drove around to where I was legal to hunt. I found a place to park the pickup along the county road that bordered national forest, capped my muzzleloader, and slowly trekked off into the woods. I tried to be as quiet as possible so as not to upset the hunters who were prepared enough to get into the woods before sunrise, and looked at the ground around me.
If you know anything about me, you know I’m an academic. I do everything intellectually. I’ve studied deer and their behaviors, and tried to figure out where they might be. It’s unseasonably warm, there are hunters in the woods, and it’s daylight. They’re going to be in the deep, thick timber in the low areas near water. Today is more about getting the lay of the land, but if I have any chance at all, it will be where dark timber abuts up against a watering hole.
I followed a path through open areas leading along one long ridge deeper into the woods. There was a valley between the ridge I was on and another ridge that ran parallel to it, and my path was about half-way between the top and bottom. I kept going and going, avoiding the dark timber because I figured sensible hunters were already there and would be upset at me traipsing through. I wanted to find a spot where the dark timber met a watering hole, so I kept trekking along looking at the valley for just such a place. About two miles in, I found one.
I quietly stepped into the dark timber and, sure enough, found at least 8-10 heavily used game trails that all converged where I was standing, just a few feet from the water’s edge. I was standing at the deer equivalent of an interstate interchange. I couldn’t see more than 20 feet, but I figured deer would only move to get water right now anyway. I sat down and waited for one to come along. I waited, and waited, and waited. You know how hunting goes – hours or even days of absolute boredom followed by a split second of excitement.
After a few hours, I heard some idiots in the woods on the ridge line across the water from me yelling at each other and stomping around. They were probably ¼ of a mile away, but they might as well have been ten feet away. Holy smokes, I told myself. If anything was here, it’s gone now! If you are familiar with a deer “drive,” I’m not sure that’s what they were doing – it seemed like they were extremely inexperienced and just making noise. Not to mention, a drive is very uncouth on public land where there are other hunters.
I got up and started to walk back the way I had come, planning to walk the two miles out and find a different ridge / watering hole to post up on. If I was lucky, I would be in position before the evening hours when deer would start to move around again. After 50 yards or so, I happened to glance through the thick timber in the watering hole – which wasn’t much more than a swamp – and saw the eye-catching glimpse of a deer’s ear twitch. I froze for a few seconds, and then slowly moved my head to look past the timber that was blocking my view, and there she was, a doe deer, just on the other side of the watering hole about 40 yards from me. She and I made eye contact and I slowly cocked the hammer on my muzzleloader.
She turned and hopped away, towards an even thicker, heavier part of the timber. I don’t take risky shots, so I shouldered the rifle and tracked her, hoping she would stop and take another look. After three or four bounds, she did just that. There she was, quartering away and looking straight at me, as still as the air on that unusually warm, breezeless day, looking down the .50 caliber muzzle of the rifle at my shoulder. I estimated the shot to be 50 yards, well within my own limits and those of the gun. I took a half second to line up the shot and squeezed the trigger.
Snap BOOOOOOOOM! The muzzleloader roared as sulphur overwhelmed my olfactory nerves and smoke clouded my vision. The entire valley trembled. I moved to my right to see past the smoke cloud, just as the doe’s hind end disappeared into the thick timber. I was reasonably certain the shot had been a good one, but I would have preferred she dropped right there. That is rarely the case, so I wasn’t despondent, but I was a bit unsure of myself.
I dropped my rucksack, not worrying about making noise any longer. Everything and everyone for five miles in every direction knew exactly where I was and what I was doing. I pulled out my bag of muzzleloader accoutrements and reloaded in case she was wounded. I’ve always been taught to wait a few minutes before tracking an animal after the shot to give them a little time to expire. If you stalk up on them while they are still alive, they may run again, making your hunt even more difficult.
As I pulled out all my tools and tried to measure a new charge of powder, I realized my hands were shaking. Oh adrenaline, my old friend. My life as a soldier and as a cop has made me quite familiar with this stage of any highly emotional event. The body produces adrenaline during fight-or-flight responses, or during any highly charged event such as this. Once the body no longer needs the adrenaline, it takes a few minutes to stop producing it. While the body is using adrenaline, it does wonderful things for one’s ability to fight or flee, but once it’s no longer needed, the central nervous system gets overwhelmed with the unneeded adrenaline and causes the shakes.
Get ahold of yourself, you idiot, I told myself. Slow down. Take a deep breath. Be deliberate. A muzzleloader isn’t difficult to load correctly, but one does have to be methodical. Allowing my brain to remain in fight-or-flight could cause me to skip an important step and cause a major issue for myself. Higher levels of thinking disappear when the body is in this state, and I needed higher levels of thinking. If she’s wounded, she’s sitting in the woods waiting to die. She isn’t going anywhere. Slow down and think through each step and load this thing correctly.
So I did. I spent perhaps five minutes loading, which is more than double my normal time on the range, and seemed like an eternity. Stop and think about each step. Load it just like you’re on the range. Blow out any embers remaining in the barrel. Done. Pick up the measurer. Set it to 90 grains. Is 90 grains my load? Yes, 90 is the load. Double check the number. 90. Make sure the set screw is tight. Grab the powder, pour it in. Close the powder. Close the measurer. Look at the number again: 90. Pour it into the barrel. Rap the side of the barrel three times to jiggle the powder to the bottom.
And so on, until it was loaded and capped. By then my hands had stopped shaking and I was ready to move into the woods to find her. I packed everything up, put the rucksack on my back, and walked across a boggy area to where she had been standing when I took the shot. That seemed like a good place to start. Besides a dead deer, I was looking for two things: Blood and tracks.
Right where she had been standing, I saw a set of tracks that were obviously hers. Not only were they super fresh, but from the streaked shape I could tell they had been placed by a deer bounding, not sauntering through the woods. They also led in the direction she had fled. Ok, good start, but no blood. I prayed I hadn’t totally blown the shot, but I would prefer that over badly wounding an animal.
After just a step or two, my fears were alleviated. Blood. Not only was it fresh blood, it was the bright red arterial blood that indicates a fatal wound. Ok, it’s a good shot, I told myself. Now don’t lose her in this thick timber. More tracks, and more spots of arterial blood, and I kept slowly making my way through the woods, no longer concerned with being quiet and stepping on what seemed like every stick in my path. It must have sounded like an entire herd of deer to the idiots on the ridgeline above me.
After a few dozen yards, the trail went cold. To my left the ridge line rose upwards steeply, and to my right was the swampy marsh area covered in thick grass and timber. She’s going to be laying down, so she will be hard to see. She’s wounded and won’t run uphill. She’ll take the easier path and go into the marsh. I turned into the marsh, stomping around the muck, making my way back and forth, peering through the grass and timber to spot my downed doe. After a few minutes I began to fear I was going to lose her.
You don’t kill something and then leave it in the woods to rot, I told myself. I was going to look all day and the next few days if that’s what it took. Maybe she went the other way, after all. I returned to the spot where I had gone into the marsh, and moved farther along the trail I had been going on before. Maybe 20 feet later, I saw another splotch of arterial blood on the ground, and another one on the side of a tree maybe fifteen feet in front of me. Ok, we’re back on track.
There was a downed tree next to the one with the splotch of blood on it, and as I moved to step over it, there she was, laying on the other side. One look at her eyes and I knew she was already passed. She was only about 50 yards from where I had shot her, and the ball had been a double lung shot – an absolutely perfect shot.
Thank you, Jesus, I prayed silently as I dropped my rucksack and got out all my tools for field dressing, which included a knife, bone saw, gloves, etc. I spent about 20-30 minutes field dressing her, taking care not to nick the intestines with my knife like I had done with the last antelope I shot. That was unpleasant, and not something I ever want to repeat!
After I was done, I gave a cursory wipe down to all my tools (a thorough deep clean comes after I get home), and repacked everything. The used rubber gloves go back into the baggie from which they came, and back into my ruck sack for disposal later. The only thing I leave behind is the gut pile. I went ahead and took the cap off the muzzleloader, knowing I wouldn’t need to shoot again this hunting season.
After everything was stashed and ready to go, I put on the rucksack, slung my muzzleloader across my back, and grabbed the deer by her hind legs. I spent the next 30 minutes getting her out of that marsh, huffing and puffing the entire time. The trail leading out of the woods to my pickup was on the other side, so I had to get her across it.
Once across, I had a two-mile drag in front of me to get this meat into my freezer. I pulled a harness out of my rucksack. It has web straps that go around my shoulders and waist, and ties to the deer’s head. Lean forward, dig in your toes, and walk. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but there isn’t really a better way in terrain such as this (now if that idiot horse of mine could be here, I might start to think he’s worth the expense of keeping him).
It took me several hours to get her back to my pickup, and there were times when I could only go 20 feet before stopping to rest. Don’t forget, not only did I have the deer dragging behind me, I had a full rucksack on my back and a rifle. I’m not the soldier I once was, I thought to myself, as well as, do more cardio in your workout routine. This is when I realized my water was back at the pickup. Nice move, idiot in the woods. But eventually I made it, drank all my water, brought the doe to the butcher in Lake George, and ate a cheeseburger at the gas station in Florissant before tearing down my camp and heading home.