In spite of drawing a bison, which fulfilled expectations in providing what I expect to remain a top-5 lifetime hunt, I knew this year would be hard pressed to compete with last year. I’d been thinking about hunting a bison for over a decade, but of necessity hadn’t been actually trying to do it. Hunting is for 21st century humans the ultimate long game, with learning spread incrementally season to season providing for the best satisfaction.
But more on that later.
With a lot of still-vivid memories and a very busy life I let expectations largely fall by the wayside, which was made easy to do after the bison hunt left freezer and soul slam full. This was a welcome burden taken out of a high pressure autumn. I didn’t hunt that much after, and what trips I did take were occupied at least as much with scenery and nostalgia and quiet as with finding game. At the same time, I was a little bit disappointed in my inability to not shoot the first legal critter that walks within likely range. More than anything this had to do with those trips adding to the bison trip, in the season having a profound lack of difficulty when it came to the process of hunting. I did my homework, made the best guess on location, picked a good team, and had the bison hunt work out perfectly. On two deer hunts I walked in a long ways, found deer more or less where they ought to have been, had modest difficulties getting a shot, which were resolved within hours, and carried some good meat home. Days counted on a single hand saw no elk killed, but every single trip had close encounters which were a matter of seconds, or of different regs, from resulting in yet another heavy packout.
So before I delve into specifics, I should think about this lesson as I plan for next year. I want to challenge myself and continue to grow as a hunter, both with respect to skills and with respect to my mindset. Hunting reveals the paradox of luck more regularly than anything else I know, with success down to factors well beyond your control, but vastly within your power to shape. Being only attached enough to the outcome to remain really, truly engaged in the process is something I’ve found difficult to learn. I kill the first legal critter because I like to eat venison, I like the learning which only realism brings, enjoy the practice of actually going through with the stalk and shot and butchering, and because I feel time pressure to use my few days wisely. But I also value difficult, personally and psychologically selective hunts, and this year I chose to walk away from those, or rather, not walk and sit longer into one.
So next year, that is what I want to do; go on a few hunts in inspiring, difficult, wild places, where finding a suitable animal will be hard. I’ve got a few ideas left over from my list last year.
Planning will remain the idiosyncracy of hunting, the thing which separates it from any other outdoor pursuits. In three months I’ll need to start making decisions about what I might want my hunting next year to be, but I won’t know for a further 3-5 months what the system will actually permit me to go do. This year an unlimited sheep tag was my safety option, in the likely case that moose, goat, and bison tags passed me by. The sheep unit I selected closed (with two rams shot) several days after I shot my bison, something that highlights the occasionally elaborate series of options a hunting season requires.
The unlimited hunts still intimidate, because what they require is exactly the sort of hunting I try most often to avoid. So one of those should again be in my plans next year, with draw tags (moose and goat in the Bob) set to take precedence if luck provides.
And speaking of luck, the biggest lesson this year is the obvious one: Apply! Someone has to be the 5% or 1% or .03% who draw, but luck can’t happen if you aren’t there. The second lesson, of doing your homework, applies to both drawing and to planning a hunt once you get a tag. You should be working towards hunts you want, that are compelling and a bit scary, in short that demand enough interest for your knowledge base to be well on it’s way before you might ever learn you are for sure going hunting. This is as good a research policy as it is a metaphysical one. I’ve coming to see that the majority of the time, landmark achievements and successes are locked in an easily visible well before they’re done, which does not provide for much leisure, nor necessarily set up well for big celebrations at the end. In this, the bison hunt was as big a jump forward in personal development as I’ve had in the outdoor realm in a number of years.
More routinely, I learned this year that fragile game bags don’t work. Every one of the light ones I made for the bison hunt failed while in use, though the smaller size (18″ by 16″ flat) was dead on. I also learned that erring on the side of lots of cord for meat hanging is a good idea, something like starting with one foot per pound of animal and decreasing logrithmically. This year I also came back full circle to using a Havalon knife. The replacement blades remain distinctly unperfect, in that swapping them in the field is a bit sketchy, and that the knee on the bottom of the blades catches and often causes blades to release under use. And trying to find a loose razor in the brisket of a bloody carcass at night is not enjoyable.
I did a lot, indeed only, long packouts this year. 6 miles for the bison, and 7 and 17 for two deer. I intentionally tried both of the packs mentioned here, neatly and definitively confirming my previous suspicions. For big loads (i.e. critters larger than deer/sheep), and for any packout which will last multiple days due to either distance or multiple trips, a meat shelf system is vastly preferable. Being able to keep gore off your gear in one step makes a big difference, and if you’re going to have the extensive compression necessary for something like a bison hide or a 100 pound bag of boneless meat, weight wise there is little penalty to adding a meat shelf. Hanging the equivalent of a boned out deer internally, from tabs at the top of the frame structure, is a lighter, simpler, and if done right even more effective way to carry weight than a meatshelf. The forceful compression necessary to stabilize the load in a meatshelf demands frame structure to resist barreling, with the two going deep down the weight and complexity rabbit hole in tandem. The downside of having meat mixed with your gear is blood and scent control, something which in grizzly country worries me. This is a design problem I’ll be putting some thought into, so perhaps my mind isn’t made up after all.
Lastly, I found the 168 gram factory TSX loads I shot out of my Kimber .308 to be satisfactory, if very different in the specifics of terminal performance from the Federal Fusion I had relied on in previous seasons. I looked beyond the Fusion chiefly due to health concerns with our kids and lead, but also because of a few instances in which longer or less then direct shot angles had not resulted in the destruction I would prefer. I’m not sure the TSXs are the answer to this. With the bison, I put two rounds cleanly into the lungs, and two more into the head, all at 60-70 yards, with the bull going ~50 yards and dying within about 2 minutes. There was no external bleeding from any of the shots, all of which were complete pass throughs with modest expansion. Having read plenty since, this seems to be very average and satisfactory performance, with bison generally taking astonishing long to die from a lung shot compared to the various deer species. I do wonder about the results had shots 3 and 4 been put into the shoulder, rather than the head. Based on my experience later in the season this probably would have been the more rational way to ensure the bull did not wander and die in some less convenient place.
My first deer this fall was a sizeable whitetail, shot at around 110 yards, ideal double lung. It shuddered but did not fall, so I shot it again, a quartering-towards shot at 70 yards which hit lungs and nicked the guts. The deer died within 10 yards of where it had been standing when first shot, but with very little external bleeding. I cut into the abdominal cavity out of curiosity, and the internal damage was vast. Deer two was a large mule deer at 200 yards, a full broadside double shoulder hit (lungs being behind a tree) which dropped the deer instantly. After 10 seconds the head was still up, so I shot it again in the shoulders to be sure. Exit wounds were each ~1.5 inches in diameter, and muscle damage was fairly localized but in the immediate vicinity, considerable.
American convention has long held to broadside double lung shots to avoid meat damage and maximize the effective target area. One example is hardly compelling, but in .308 I have reservations about the TSX. Similar ranges with the 165 grain Fusions would in deer result in massive exit wounds. But in light of 4 out of 5 critters last year going further than I’d have liked, maybe there is something to be said for the tough TSX, and shot placement favoring skeletal damage. As with packs, more though is needed. Both rounds are at least as accurate as I am, so I’m in good shape there.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I did some small game hunting with a variety of weapons. The barstool consensus seems to be that grouse in western Montana are thin on the ground this year, so I’m glad to have eaten a few. One snowshoe hair (thus far) was added to the pot, something I always enjoy, along with a few squirrels. It will be a number of years until Little Bear can pick up a weapon, put I’m hoping to shape his interest in literally chasing squirrels into something more observant and tactical.
Until next year.