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Rifle Magazine
September - October 2004
Volume 2, Number 5
Number 11
On the cover...
Cover photo by Donald M. Jones.
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The wind blew hot as the sweat dripped into my eyes, stinging like a thistle. I wiped my forehead with a grimy shirtsleeve and, in the same motion, quickly checked the time.

Ten ’til one, and the day had been just what the weatherman had said it would be: scorching summer temperatures
and a Santa Ana wind that took your breath away.

“This is crazy,” I thought leaning back against the trunk of an ancient oak. The leaves of this giant had provided blessed shade in the past, but today it was a special luxury. The mercury on the tiny pack thermometer was nearly off the scale, 105 degrees. I closed my eyes and dreamed of a deer hunt in the Rockies in the fall, the cool mountains and ice-cold streams. There are three words that are never spoken together when hunting in August, during the California coastal deer season: “It’s too cold.”

Pulling at a half-empty canteen and chewing on a piece of deer jerky, I asked myself for the umpteenth time why I returned to this godforsaken canyon, a two-mile hike down an old forest service road just to get to the edge, where the walls fell away into a gorge so steep it would make your heart stutter.

Few hunters were willing to venture off the edge, through the thick manzanita and poison oak and over the loose rock. It’s doubtful anyone ever hiked down far enough to discover the flat below.

Instead of good deer hunting, this canyon was better known for mosquitoes, ticks, biting black flies and the big Pacific diamondback rattlesnake, reptiles that can grow six feet or more in length. Their deep black bodies and bright yellow diamonds might be encountered anyplace. The thought of stepping on one was not comforting.

The oak served as a resting spot on forays into the gorge. It was just a tick under an hour’s hike down from the rim – twice that on the way out. It sat on a small flat overlooking the canyon. More importantly, it overlooked another flat just a quarter-mile below, an area distinguished by a small cluster of younger oaks and a seep. On past hunts I had searched long hours for water, and this seep was the only source within miles.

The year before I carried an old army surplus sleeping bag and a few cans of “mystery meat” into the canyon, leaving them wrapped in a plastic garbage bag and stashed in the oak. A quick check showed everything to be in good shape. I could spend the night if I had to.

Leaving the rim long before daylight and making my way by flashlight down a narrow game trail, the sun’s rays were just beginning to illuminate the eastern sky when I reached the big oak. Glassing without success, I decided to hike around a bit, investigating the thick brush pockets and deep shade in the hope of finding a good blacktail buck.

One could always tag a smaller buck on more forgiving ground, if persistent and a bit lucky. This was where one pursued the oldest and wisest of the blacktail, bucks that had survived the masses of hunters who trolled the forest service roads, never venturing far from the cab of the truck.

I had not seen a deer, but confidence remained high. The oaks were loaded with acorns, the favored food of deer in this part of Ventura County. There were fresh tracks on two of the small trails leading to the flat, and the tall yellow grasses near the base of the trees was matted. Deer were definitely using the area.

The plan came easily: nap during the worst of the midday heat, then follow the afternoon shadows, slipping closer to the flat and watch until dark.

The sun was on the downward slide when I awoke from my little siesta – but the mercury was not. It was even too hot for the bugs. Gathering my gear, I moved up the canyon a short distance to a spot that offered an uncluttered view of the small grove below. Here there was a small clump of scrub oak that provided critical shade, a grass flat to sit on and a light breeze – the faintest passage of air being almost as delicious as the taste of a big chocolate milk shake.

I did my best to tune all my senses to the life of the canyon. It reminded me of the Indian hunters who had come before me, men whose very survival depended on the keenness of all their senses to survive.

Against the pale afternoon sky, a lone Cooper’s hawk soared, himself a hunter this day. The call of California quail drifted up, indicating a healthy population. The sound made me chuckle. In saner places these quail would be hunted to death. Here, they were the safest quail on earth.

I saw the first deer of the day a bit past 5 o’clock, a mature forked horn – what my father called a “Pacific buck.” The forks did not indicate immaturity but rather were typical of the racks found on many mature bucks in southern California. He was a heavy deer, antlers not quite ear-wide and fairly tall, overall a good buck. If I had been hunting the flat ground above, he would have been down posthaste.

Slowly browsing his way up a narrow trail toward
the small oak grove, the buck was perhaps 600 yards distant. Soon two more deer appeared, a doe and yearling fawn coming into view. They kept to the shade of the canyon wall, their ears flapping at the nagging black flies.

Glassing the area intently, sweat once again dripping off the end of my nose, I did my best to remain still – a big buck lived here, somewhere. Just as it was getting dark, he appeared, a gray ghost materializing seemingly out
of nowhere. He stepped halfway out of a patch of dark shade, head erect for just a moment before slipping back into the thick manzanita. Working his way up the canyon, toward the oak flat, he moved with instinctive caution yet appeared unafraid.

As the deer browsed on the buck-brush and grasses, I tried to make out his antlers. My gut told me this was the deer I had come all this way to see.

Despite the stinging sweat and buzzing flies, I kept the glasses glued to the buck, trying to catch a glimpse of his antlers. What path would he take? Would he go to water first or the oak grove for food? Or simply bed down in the cool shade?

Then his head came up, ears flicking at the bothersome flies, revealing his antlers for the first time. They were large, and as he turned his head from side to side, my heart began to race. His horns were wider than his ears and at least twice as tall, the bases heavy and gnarled with three points on one side, four on the other. He was the largest blacktail buck I had ever seen.

For the first time since setting up, I picked up my rifle. It belonged to my father, who purchased it back in the late 1940s for $250 – a lot of money for a man of very modest means just back from the war. The Winchester Model 70 .270 Winchester was fitted with a Lyman Alaskan 2.5x scope. The battered stock, worn leather sling and worn blueing provided testimony to many years in the field.

Closing the bolt on a 130-grain Silvertip in such a manner that the rifle remained uncocked, I was ready to make my move. The deer continued to quietly browse along, unaware of my presence, stopping from time to time to stare at nothing in particular, his instincts fine-tuned to the canyon.

He continued to move toward the oak grove below. A quick check of the breeze suggested I would have to work off to the right and remain in the shade of the canyon wall. I considered taking a prone position and attempting a long shot. As quickly as that notion came into my head, it was discarded. This was a special buck, an animal to be respected. It would be with a sure shot at much closer range – or nothing.

An old hunter once told me that a true hunter, one who hunts with a real passion, must try and “become” the buck. To do that one must try and creep into the deer’s mind, thinking his thoughts and at the same time tuning into the world around you. It was then that a stalking plan could be conceived, the means of executing it clear.

The plan came quickly. As the buck continued to browse toward the flat, I would slip behind a low rise that snaked off to my right, then move as quickly as possible down into the canyon to a point where a couple of boulders jumped up from the brush. This would halve the distance and provide a steady rest from which to shoot. My heart began to pound.

Then doubts began to creep in. What if he bedded down in the brush, and I couldn’t find him again? A shift in the wind, a change in the direction of the thermals would ruin everything. Don’t forget about those other deer! And be careful not to slip on the loose shale or snap off a tinder-dry twig.

I found a narrow game trail behind the rise that was more of a tunnel than a trail. The going was maddeningly slow, preempting the heat, sweat and flies. The brush thinned a little at the twin boulders, and after a few moments of trying to slow a thumping heart, I pulled my cap down low and began a slow, deliberate crawl to the edge.

Cresting the rise on all fours, I looked for several minutes but could not see the deer. From a sitting position in the shade of the big rocks, I looked some more – still
no buck.

Taking care not to raise any dust or snap any sticks, I crawled behind the rise, following the trail another 40 yards down into the gorge to a small opening in the dense brush. There was a big clump of scrub oak off to the right that offered some shade.

Almost immediately I saw the buck. He was much closer, perhaps 200 yards. The buck raised his head and started moving in my direction. Had he seen me?

Then he dropped back down and began browsing again. I dared not move a muscle. The slightest motion would surely be detected, and he would be gone in the blink of an eye.

An eternity later – perhaps all of 30 seconds – he turned away and slowly stepped back a bit. As he did I reached for the rifle. The buck was less than 100 yards off now, and as I raised the old, battered .270, he moved around just enough to offer a view of his rump and a slender portion of the rib cage. With careful placement the shot could be made, but my heart was working overtime, and the sweat was dripping off the tip of my nose, conditions under which I just couldn’t be sure. I wanted to be very sure.

Suddenly the buck snapped his head to attention and, body rigid, stared straight at me. Something had made him uneasy, although I had not seen or heard anything out of the ordinary.

He stared for a full minute or more – a lifetime – then flicked his ears, first the left and then the right, and as the nagging black flies became more numerous, he shook his entire coat. The tension was gone from his eyes, and he dropped his head for another mouthful of grass.

Continuing a slow, methodical approach to the oak flat, within minutes he was but 75 yards off. I could see him in great detail in the slow-motion scenario that was unfolding. His right side had four well-defined, symmetrical points with an eye guard at least an inch tall. On the left were three thick tines and a smaller eye guard. The antlers were twice as tall as the ears were long, and wider than his ears. Magnificent.

I waited tensely for the proper moment, when the deer would turn his head away. The heat and tension and sweat had turned my hands into a sweaty mess; gripping the rifle was about as easy as holding tightly onto those greased pigs we chased as kids at the county fair. As the crosshairs found their way just behind his shoulder, I slid my index finger over the trigger and drew a short breath and whispered, “Bang!”

Lowering the rifle, I started to rise. The buck took a couple of short, quick jab steps, snapped his head in my direction and was off like a shot, clattering rocks and snapping twigs as he disappeared through the grove of young oaks. A moment later he reappeared on the ridge line, a ghostlike silhouette of tan and brown against the pale blue of the afternoon sky.

I stared at the spot where he last stood, hands shaking and sweat dripping off my nose and chin. My knees weren’t working very well, so I sat down in the shade of the scrub oak, closed my eyes and replayed the scene over.

The buck had been mine, yet when it came, I chose not to squeeze the trigger. Why? Replaying the scene over and over again, savoring every detail, I knew.

* * *

It has been more than 30 seasons since my encounter with the big buck down in the gorge. Though I have made other trips there since, I never saw him, or another deer like him, again. And though I have taken a couple of other good bucks in the gorge, the day I remember most is the one on which I chose not to pull the trigger.

There are times when I regret I do not have that great buck mounted in a place of honor above the fireplace, but those days are few. More often it’s the hike out of the canyon that rekindles the memories.

The Indians of Ventura County had used the term “Father of Many Blacktail” in their ceremonial hunting rituals, believing that such an old, great buck possessed powerful medicine, that his well-being was vital to the health of the herd. They would vigorously hunt other bucks and does, but to kill this great buck was to place a curse on a most important food source.

I wondered about the ancient hunter who had made his way down into the gorge 100 years or more before me. Had he, too, seen a great buck? Did he stalk within range with his primitive bow and arrow, just to see if he could count coupe, and then hesitate at the moment of truth? Did he feel the mixed emotions of pride and disappointment that not taking such a shot brings?

Perhaps, but as I drove back down the mountain under the bright light of the full hunter’s moon, I felt this had indeed been one of the most successful hunts of my life. There would be other hunts for meat later, on kinder ground.

The Original Silver Bullet
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