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 Coopers 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 oclock, 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 deers 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
couldnt find him again? A shift in the wind, a change in the direction of the
thermals would ruin everything. Dont 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
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 couldnt be sure. I wanted to be very
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!