October 11, 2011

Mike North: One that didn't get away

Sometimes, it's not about how much time you spend in the field, but when you spend it.

Sometimes, it's not about how much time you spend in the field, but when you spend it.

In my hunting career, I've taken several long trips of five, six or seven days where I had plenty of time to bag an animal, but still came back empty-handed.

A couple weeks ago, I embarked on my longest trip yet. Twelve days -- three on a ranch in Santa Clara County and nine up in the Sierra Nevada above Arnold.

Worried that this could be the first season in 12 years of hunting where I haven't brought home any meat, I decided early on to hunt hard and hunt often, and it paid off in a big way.

The first night of the hunt, I was able to chase down and shoot two small pigs, which were part of a larger group of about seven.

Pigs usually get careless when they're in a group, so I was able to sneak to within 30 yards for my shots, which totaled eight.

The shooting exhibition I put on was fun, there was just one problem -- I didn't pack any extra ammo.

I now had only two rounds to try and fill my coastal deer tag, and for a guy who likes to shoot, that's not a comforting thought.

Nevertheless, I pushed on and got my chance at a nice buck Saturday.

I was lucky to have another pair of eyes with me in the field that day, as one of my hunting buddies, Gerald Dooley, pointed out the buck to me.

Since he had filled his buck tag the weekend before, this one was mine for the taking -- a wide forked horn with two eye guards.

I didn't see the buck when we went by, but Gerald did. As the deer got up from the tree he was napping under, Gerald hollered "buck, buck!" I pulled down and fired a 35-yard shot faster than a greased rattler popping out of a squirrel hole.

One round ... no problem.

After a quick trip to the butcher, it was up to the mountains for my nine-day excursion.

The first two days treated me well. I saw dozens of does and a couple of young forked-horn bucks that I passed on in anticipation of a bigger one.

And at the end of the second day, I saw him.

It was dusk, and I was climbing through a rocky canyon side on my way back to camp.

With my peripheral vision, I saw a flash up high in some rim rocks. I looked up expecting to see a chipmunk or bird, but instead caught a quick glimpse of a beautiful three-point buck passing through an opening in the rocks.

I tried to track him, but it was too dark and he had moved out long before I got to the spot where I saw him.

From my experience, high-mountain deer will use one of two tactics to avoid hunters -- move out long before the hunter ever has a chance to shoot or hold tight in some brush as the hunter walks past. This buck used the first technique on me, and it worked.

The next several days brought lots of cold wind, clouds and a touch of rain as a snowstorm began to move in. The deer must've known it was coming, because their numbers seemed to thin out quite a bit over the time frame.

With the deer disappearing all of the sudden, I was wishing I had shot one of those small forked horns earlier in my trip.

But I was looking for a wall-hanger, one to take to the taxidermist. I already had my meat buck -- now it was time for a trophy.

Despite the drop in deer sightings, I kept hunting as hard as I ever have, wearing holes in both my boots and my feet.

I finally got some action on the second-to-last day of the trip.

I took a walk down a canyon side with another one of my hunting buddies, Tim Dooley. It was the same side of the canyon I had seen the big three-pointer on.

After we got down the canyon, we hadn't seen anything and decided to sit and watch for a while. It didn't take long before we had both fallen asleep, but as the day started coming to an end, the weather got colder and we decided to start making our way back to camp.

We were both still shaking off the sleep as we stumbled down the hillside and through some tall willows that stood taller than us.

Right about then, something raised a ruckus and took off through the vegetation just a few feet in front of us ... a grouse. It was enough to get my heart beating, but not enough to fully wake me from my half-sleep.

It couldn't have been 20 more paces before something else took off through the willows, only this time, it was something bigger.

Peeking over the top of the brush, I caught a glimpse of horns moving through the reeds. I instantly recognized them as the same horns I'd seen on the big three-pointer several days earlier.

I waited a couple seconds for a shot as the buck moved through the willows and up the steep hillside.

His head eventually popped through, but only enough for a nearly-obscured neck shot.

Thinking it was the best I'd get, I pulled down and took the 40-yard neck shot, nailing him clean.

That day, the buck tried using technique No. 2 on me -- holding tight and hoping I'd walk past.

Lucky for me, I got so close to him that he became uncomfortable and decided to move.

I'm glad my 12-day hunting excursion paid off with two pigs and two bucks. I only faced one problem with the experience -- transitioning back to civilized life after living in the great outdoors for so many days.

Somehow, I'm getting less sleep on a soft bed in a room with four walls than I did lying on the ground under the stars.

But when I do finally get to sleep at night, at least I don't have to dream about the one that got away. Or wish I would've taken those extra days for my hunt.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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