This one's for you grandpa: remembering where you came from can lead you to where you're going.
After a long drive with my wife and kids, I approached the man who had sparked the fire of hunting in my life. Instead of a card, in my hand was my best four-point mule deer rack, where I simply wrote my regards on the skull. When our eyes met, he lit up!
"Hello Jeremy," Grandpa exclaimed with a welcome smile. The whole room was shocked. Like the flip of a switch, for the next few minutes I had my grandpa back. No one knew what had triggered it, but I did.
As a kid, Grandpa and I were close. Our connection stemmed from a mutual love of hunting. It didn't matter the time of year. Whenever I was with Grandpa, we talked hunting. When he saw me walk in bearing antlers, his emotions were stirred enough to break through the fog of dementia that final day.
This same emotion is what led to deer camp in 2013. That year marked 20 since the last time I shared a hunt with my granddad. It seemed fitting to use his old camp and to try to shoot a buck in honor of him. Friends Shay Mann and Ryan Hook from Joseph, Oregon, would be joining me on this trip.
Grandpa's well-equipped camp, complete with a 16x32-foot army tent and a truckload of hospitality, made the Johnson camp like no other. You could count on Grandpa Hank to be the first one up, stoking the fire, and cooking bacon and his famous buttermilk pancakes. Grandma and my aunts took care of the lunches and made dinners that would rival any greasy spoon. We ate well, camped well, hunted well, and enjoyed much. With Grandpa watching from the grandstands of Heaven, I took it upon myself to fill his shoes.
Two months earlier, I had scouted an area for potential stand sites and a place to camp. With several options marked on my GPS, the plan was to return one weekend prior to the season and hang all of our stands and trail cameras. At the last minute, work prevented Shay and Ryan from joining me on this preseason trip, so I decided instead to leave for the hunt a week early to take care of everything myself.
This would also give me a chance to kill a buck before Shay and Ryan showed up. Then I could hang out in camp and practice the hospitality Granddad was known for. Although a lot of work, I was happy to do it. More than once these guys had been eager to lend a hand while I was in their neck of the woods hunting elk.
I rolled into the campsite late Friday night. By midnight, my inherited army tent was up, and I was off to bed. For the next three days 1 worked on the camp and hung stands and trail cameras. I didn't mind the work, but I was hopeful my site selections would produce. This time, not only was my success riding on it, but also Shay and Ryan's.
Trail cameras showed few bucks and little daylight activity at my stand site. I sat in my stand disappointed as the sun came up, hoping my doe-in-heat scent would turn things around like it had the year before. Nope. The wind would not cooperate. Doe-in-heat laced with human scent was an ineffective perfume.
On day two, I hung another stand at one of my alternate sites and returned the next morning. My stand placement was perfect. My approach? Not so much. Early morning thermals were different than I had anticipated and they betrayed me. Deer blew out of the bench 1 was set up on as I snuck toward the tree in the dark. There was no activity the rest of the day.
Despite measures to correct my approach, the same thing happened the next day. Later that morning from my stand, I caught movement on the old abandoned logging road I used to walk in on. Disappointment sank in when I saw a man and his dog hiking down the road. Why would some hiker be on a dead-end road, miles from the nearest trailhead? I wondered. My answer would soon follow.
By afternoon, the lack of daytime deer activity, and two trail cameras to prove it, made it clear that these stand sites were a bust. Then I ran into more hikers on the walk out. One of them stopped me with a map in his hand to ask directions. Now it was obvious why a canyon full of bucks one year was full of footprints the next. This hiker's map showed my favorite abandoned logging road was now a leg of the BLM's newest hiking trail.
With Plans A and B out the window, I had to start from scratch. In situations such as this, my go-to plan is to jump on the "rubber sole express" and cover some miles. My map showed some distant canyons far off any known trails, with plenty of prospects along the way, so off I went.
By 10 a.m. the next morning, the fog had lifted enough to glass deep down into a remote canyon. Sure enough, a nice 4x4 buck trailed a doe across a small clearing in the tangled oak brush and into a canyon three-quarters of a mile below.
By that afternoon, I'd circled the area to keep the wind right as I approached the canyon the deer had entered. A set of tracks in the wet dirt confirmed the buck's path across the wooded hillside. I trailed the deer at a snail's pace into the next canyon. The tracks then took a sharp downhill turn onto a brushy flat above the creek, which meant the buck was probably bedded just below me. I abandoned the tracks to keep the wind in my favor and moved across the flat, one careful step at a time. Deer often circle before they bed so they can wind anything on their back trail.
Sure enough, as I reached the far end of the flat, a four-point buck stood up from his bed. A doe bleat brought him a few steps closer in curious anticipation. When he stepped behind a tree, I drew. An opening appeared just large enough to thread an arrow through the tangled scrub oak and into the front of the buck's chest. My 850-grain arrow flashed through the deer so cleanly that it didn't appear as though he was even hit.
The buck walked off, and then he stopped at 40 yards and looked back. I elected not to shoot and risk hitting a branch and spooking him. Instead, I watched him circle and collapse on the hillside across from me.
Photos and breaking the animal down used up all remaining daylight. Sunset found me deep in a brushy canyon, and miles from camp. With muddy knees and burning quads I made my way through the thick, wet brush and out of the dark canyon. A cool rain kept me comfortable and reminded me I was in blacktail country. I love a challenge. Hard-earned success makes memories all the sweeter.
With the satisfaction of another mission accomplished, I made my goal of being back to camp by midnight with 10 minutes to spare. As I cleaned up for bed, it felt good to know Grandpa had a bird's-eye view of the whole thing and celebrated right along with me.
The next two days were spent packing meat and restocking the camp's water and groceries. At 5:30 Friday morning, my friends Shay and Ryan rolled into camp on a red-eye trip from eastern Oregon. That afternoon I showed them their stands, and we made plans for the following day's hunt. Ryan's trail camera revealed several good bucks in the area. Since he'd never killed a blacktail, his plan was to take the first legal buck that came within range.
Shay's stand showed plenty of deer activity in the area, but no trail camera. Some lowlife stole it earlier that week. When I first realized what had happened, a familiar fury set in. During a backcountry elk hunt in 2010, I had my camp and all my gear stolen during a snowstorm that almost cost me my life. Although this was not near the magnitude, I was just as disappointed. It's sad when people who call themselves bowhunters stoop to that level. We never had to worry about that back in Grandpa's day.
Misfortune aside, we still had deer tags to fill. Although the thieves had got the camera, they didn't get the deer. By evening, Shay was in his stand and already had deer in sight. On the other side of the mountain, Ryan also had some close encounters. These initial sightings showed promise, and took some of the pressure off of me. Since I had done all the scouting and picked the stand sites, I would have felt like I had let them down if opportunity lacked.
With Grandpa's shoes to fill, I was up at 4:30 a.m. the next morning brewing coffee and cooking eggs, bacon, and his "secret recipe" buttermilk pancakes. An hour before light, Shay and Ryan were off to their stands while I caught up on camp chores and took a nap.
At 11 a.m., Shay showed up back at camp. A giant four-point buck had bedded down 50 yards in front of his stand but it never offered a shot. A few other bucks also used that same route, so Shay decided to move the stand 30 yards up the hill to close the distance. After lunch, I followed him back to give him a hand and save him a few trips up and down the tree. About the time we were finishing up, Ryan sent me a text message that he had shot a deer and could use a hand. With Shay in the tree, I hiked back to camp, fired up the truck, and headed for the canyon Ryan was set up in.
What Ryan had described as a small three-point buck came cruising by his stand, nose down and on a mission. He stopped the buck at 40 yards, quartering away. When Ryan released his arrow, he knew the shot was bad. A limb deflected his arrow, which left him unsure of the shot placement. All he knew was the deer was hit. Ryan, being an experienced hunter himself, decided that two sets of eyes are better than one, so he waited at the stand until I showed up to help track. Although there were a few extra tracks to follow, we found the buck dead on a small flat, deep in the western Oregon canyon. Getting this buck out would require Ryan to earn his trophy.
As we approached the buck, I called Ryan out on his, "just a small three-point" claim. Being a native of Joseph, Oregon, he was used to killing mule deer. In mule deer country, this may not have been something to write home about. But in the blacktail world, this was the widest three-point buck I'd ever seen! Not bad for a first blacktail.
Attempts to drag or carry the buck proved futile on the muddy hillside. So we skinned, quartered, and loaded the deer in packs instead. This made the climb just a matter of exercise, and a dinner well earned.
After all of these years backpack hunting, I was thankful for a hot fire and a tent you could stand up in. The luxuries of Grandpa's big army tent and woodstove took the bite out of a cold December day. We filled Shay in on the details of the hunt as we ate dinner.
A tenderloin breakfast the following morning started our day out perfectly. We couldn't help but rub it in to Shay how a full tag and belly makes for a nice morning nap. At 11 a.m., a three-point walked down the trail Shay had moved his stand over. When the' buck passed behind a tree, Shay drew his bow. At 25 yards, the deer paused. Shay sent a 315-grain, forged-steel broadhead through the front of his chest, which exited by the back hip and buried in the dirt beyond. Pursuit was not necessary; Shay simply climbed out of the stand and walked back to camp for help with the chores. Spirits were high as the three of us walked back to recover Shay's deer.
In the pursuit of success, I've hunted solo for most of my adult life--a method I do enjoy. This trip gave me that, but it also reminded me of the joy that comes when you see your friends succeed. For me, hunting camp was more than just good times and a full freezer. I gained insight. A successful hunt comes in more forms than a harvest. Service of others and time spent with friends are trophies in their own right. Thank you Henry Johnson, for once again teaching your grandson and making our 20-year reunion a sweet one.
The author is a serious backcountry bowhunter from LaPine, Oregon.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: My equipment on this hunt included a BOWTECH Insanity CPXL set at 78 lbs.; Alaska Bowhunting Supply's GrizzlyStik Momentum tapered arrows; 315-grain, forged GrizzlyStick Ashby broadheads; Spot-Hogg single-pin sight; Hamskea Versa Rest; Kifaru Timberline 5200 pack; clothing from Sitka Gear and First Lite; and one deluxe, 1960s-style hunting camp courtesy of Grandpa.
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|Date:||Aug 1, 2014|
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