Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The electric moment: spotting game

One of the most delicious things about hunting, for me, is the utterly visceral sense of excitement that takes control of your mind and body when you spot game. That mixture of adrenaline, awe and possibility is utterly intoxicating. If it were available in liquid form, I'd inject it without a second thought. And I loathe needles.

I got a tantalizing hit of the stuff yesterday when I was taking the train home from work. The train tracks run through a thoroughly urbanized area for the most part, but my stop is adjacent to Aerojet, an aerospace and defense company that covers nearly 6,000 acres of largely undeveloped land.

The land is, of course, loaded with game - infuriatingly so, because Aerojet doesn't allow hunting there. Something about not wanting stray bullets to hit giant tanks of jet fuel, or somesuch. Whatever.

I'm used to being taunted by large flocks of turkeys picking their way around the park-and-ride lot. But yesterday I caught a glimpse of something stunning. The train was approaching the station. I had just shut down my laptop and was looking out the windows to avoid staring at the idiot young thug wannabes who'd been giggling about fights and girls for the past 20 minutes.

As the train slowed, I looked across the top of a fence and saw a rack, bobbing. A huge rack.

"Holy f..." I exclaimed, my head whipping back for a long second look.

It was a 5x5, easy.

Now, for all you people who live in whitetail country, that might not sound very exciting. But seeing a rack like that here is pretty rare.

And for me, it was fleeting. As I drove away from the station, I craned my neck in vain, hoping to spot the big boy again. But I would have to be content just to text and email everyone who might care about it, meaning Hank, one of my students who hunts and a friend who works at Aerojet.

When I got on the train after work today, all I could think about is getting another hit. I chose a seat where I might get a good long look at that spot near the train station again. Crazy to even think that way, but just in case.

As the train approached my stop, I shut off my laptop, cranked my head to the right, scanned the fence top, and I'll be damned if I didn't see that rack again.

Or, I should say, those racks. Lots of them. For the love of Mrs. Claus, it looked like Santa's reindeer were having a little party over there.

I got off the train and waited anxiously for it to pull away, to see if I could get another glimpse of the bucks. I couldn't, so I started to walk toward my car.

Then I quickly veered right toward that fence line. It was completely involuntary. I peered through a break in the fence, only to see another fence a few feet beyond it. Dammit.

I stepped back, set my backpack down, took off my nice sandals, lifted one bare foot to a horizontal bar on the fence, and heaved myself - gently - to the top of the fence.

I trembled, then froze. Staring back at me from about 20 yards away were seven bucks, every single one of them forked horn or better, which is to say, legal in these parts.

Bachelor group! I'd heard of bachelor groups. I'd never seen one though - not at any distance, much less this close.

Big Boy was staring straight at me, making it a little hard to count points, particularly in the fading light. But when he turned, it was clear he was at least a 5x5.

He was surrounded by forkies, and another more mature buck who might've been no more than a 3x2, but he had incredibly long antlers. From where I stared, they appeared to cross each other gracefully, like Celtic design. He was beautiful.

I needed him to stand up. I needed my camera. I needed photos that I could enlarge and examine and admire.

But all I had was my aging phone, with its incredible 1 megapixel frame. Most of the images came out crappy, like the one at the top of this post. Poor lighting, slow shutter speed. This was the best I could do:

These deer stared at me for the longest time, unconcerned. They know they're safe there, though they were so close that I realized I could've taken the shot off-hand and made a perfectly clean kill, which is saying a lot, because I'm not particularly steady. And I was perched on a wobbly fence.

I realized as all these thoughts were running through my head how funny they were. I'm not particularly obsessed with racks, because it would be impractical to have such an obsession in California. But this buck was rare and close, and buck fever claimed me as quickly as it would a 12-year-old boy.

And the whole thing about admiring these beautiful animals while looking at the spot where I'd send a bullet. Broadside target. Perfect... It reminded me of Hank when he'd just started duck hunting. For a time, every time he saw a bird in the sky, he'd raise an imaginary gun, lead the bird and pull the imaginary trigger.

I'd chide him for being boyish, for his first impulse being "Kill!" I hadn't started hunting yet. I didn't know.

Eventually, I came down from the fence. Then got back up again. Then came down. Then got up again. The sight was electric. I didn't want it to stop. If I can't have it, please please please let me just keep looking.

But I had cats waiting to be fed at home, and a former student waiting for a letter of recommendation, and a duck in the fridge that I needed to cook for myself. I got down from the fence one more time, strapped my sandals back on, then sauntered back to my car grinning, still basking in that delicious feeling.

I need to bring a real camera tomorrow - they're probably just going to keep hanging out here at this time. Wait, I need to call Peg and John to see if I can hunt their property this season. Wait, what I need to do is ask them if they've noticed deer congregating in a particular spot at a particular time.

Oh, I really hope I get a deer this year. Any legal deer.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


Trey said...

Very cool! I love the way that they just hide in plain sight!

Todd said...

Even in MT some of the biggest bucks I see every year are in town. Some Wyoming cities have allowed bow hunting in town in recent years.

Holly I certainly hope that you harvest a deer this year. My hunting buddies and I will be helping Hank take a deer just over a month from now.

Perhaps in the future, both you and Hank could make a trip to Montana. If you've not been here before I think you might like it.

Matt Ames said...

That's awesome, Holly! I love that feeling too. I got a taste of it Monday when I went scouting and saw the buck that I'm going to get Saturday. He was a nice forked horn buck. I'm sure he'll taste like heaven!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Trey: What's even more fun is pointing them out to non-hunters who don't look at "barren wasteland" as empty, but rather as habitat.

Todd: Man, I wish I could be there too. I've driven through Montana and I loved it. But, I have this job where I only have to show up 32 weeks a year, and most deer seasons are within that period. Makes it hard to get away for a decent trip.

Matt: Good luck! I'd also be very happy with a forkie - I'm not so rack-obsessed that I would pass up a legal buck. But if a 5x5 walked in front of me while I had a gun in my hand, I'd happily take advantage of the situation.

And I cannot for the life of me figure out why AdSense has posted a lipstick ad under these comments. Lipstick? Don't tell me the words "rack" and "bachelor" are what got me that ad....

NorCal Cazadora said...

Doh! Trey, what I meant to say was Trey: What's even more fun is pointing them out to non-hunters who DO look at "barren wasteland" as empty, NOT as habitat. Only three sips of coffee in me. I plead "stupid."

Phillip said...

Good one, and after a lifetime of hunting I still get that charge when I spot something in the midst of nothing. It's part of what keeps me going... that thrill of possibility when I'm looking, and the bigger thrill when I find what I'm looking for.

An evening drive through the Hill Country, by the way, provides enough of those shocks to stop a healthy heart. Catch a whitetail through the mesquite, or a big axis buck peering out of a tangle of cedar... or maybe spot a blackbuck curled up in the shade under an oak on a distant hill.

It is the end of September, and hunting fever is taking us all!

River Mud said...

I travel a lot for work and that's how I find new spots. "What just moved over there?" or "What made that splash?"

Very cool, I would have done the exact same thing.....

And to your point about the east coast - a 10 pointer, even poorly grown, is a mighty fine animal anywhere you go :)

Anonymous said...

Ahhahahaa! HH, there you go again putting things into writing that are so hard for most of us to communicate. I know exactly where you spied those bucks and was right there on the fence next to you as I read your words. I have seen those boys many times. Having been on that property to trap and relocate some of the wild turkeys there, I have been in awe of the deer population present. What a hunt club it would make!!!
Karen F.

NorCal Cazadora said...

River Mud: You're probably right. But I've seen an awful lot of hunters on TV passing 8-pointers, which would be an incredible take here in Cali.

Now, here's the question: If you had a gun, which one would kill? The 5x5? The Celtic 3x2? Or a tender young forkie?

I'm leaning toward the Celtic. More interesting.

Karen: Oh yeah, you work pretty close to that spot, don't you! I have my camera with me today, and a 200mm lens. I'd like to be able to get a closer look.

Lucky you, getting to spend time there! Last time I got into Aerojet - the only time - was spring of 1985, when my editor at the college paper - the one I run now - assigned me a story on toxic waste. I toured lots of Superfund sites.

I told my friend at Aerojet they should at least run gunless safaris - just take people out to watch the wildlife (and swoon).

NorCal Cazadora said...

And Phillip, I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that the feeling never goes away.

jryoung said...

I was driving southbound on Hwy 17 a couple of weeks ago climbing out of Los Gatos when as I neared the top of the hill with Lexington Resevoir to my left I saw antlers to my left. Big antlers, so much so that I had to turn around and make another loop.

I got a much better look when I was headed northbound, a big 4x4 that was easily 20"+ wide. He was with a forkie and a doe right there not 30' from the highway.

I've seen deer around the area, but nothing like this before. It was awesome to see.

I hope to get a deer this year as well. I just lost an elk to heat spoilage :(

I might try for a hail mary at Cottonwood Creek near the San Luis Resevoir this weekend, or maybe grab a D3-5 and head into the Desolation Wilderness where I have seen several good bucks while backpacking.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Wow! I love how they just hang out so we can admire them.

Bummer about your elk!

I think I'm gonna be sticking to D3-5 this year myself. Trying to conserve funds, and I live in D3-5. The more I hunt, the more I hate traveling great distances to hunt in my own state. Plus, knowing there are deer like this so close to home fills me with a false sense of hope and optimism :-).

Peebs said...

No doubt for me I'de take the fork spike if there was one much much better eating and I've done it many times here in A zone you see a lot of batch groups I think they are getting ready for the rut deciding who is top dog. I just wish I'de been there not to see the deer but to see the other people staring at the crazy lady climbing up on the fense in her work grab and wondering what the hell she was doing.

NorCal Cazadora said...

I don't think anyone even noticed, quite honestly. We'll see about today - I'm going to check for them again, armed with a better camera. Wish me luck - it's almost time to head out for the train!

NorCal Cazadora said...

By the way, I can totally tell that you miss me and can't wait to start making fun of me in person. If I'm right, then the feeling's mutual. :-)

Peebs said...

Of course your right brush up day is Saturday then just four more weeks.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Well, I shoulda known bucks don't get that big without some quality gray matter between their ears. The boys were nowhere in sight when I pulled into the train station. Wah.

Peebs said...

Probably freeken about the crazy lady on top of fence taken pictures of them with her phone yesterday.... Ok will I'll hold off now until October.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Liar. You'll be texting me with some other abuse within 48 hours, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

Holly when I was in High School I hunted all that property south of aerojet between grantline and sunrise and north of 16. I have shot 7 deer there including a very big 6X6.

Kim Graves said...

I spotted my first buck just the other day on our property. Little one, but still a buck. Even I, as a non-hunter, was excited.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Harv: I'm jealous!

Kim: There's just something about them that lights up our synapses.

SimplyOutdoors said...


For the record, I do live in Whitetail country, and the site of large antlers, or any antlers for that matter, still gets me excited. It never goes away, no matter how often you see it.

And..honestly..this post has really gotten me revved up for our archery opener, which is only a week away.

I can't wait! And this post didn't help :)

Anonymous said...

I had a massive day at work on Saturday (we have a business that produces events and parties) and hatched a planned to pull out our last job which was coincidentally on the way to our family land. It was the last day of deer season Sunday so it seemed worth the trouble to head up afterward, at about midnight. So I drive out of the country club gate and there is a deer on the left side of the road. I stop and unroll the window, about 15 feet across the lane from it. It's a buck, with a rack easily 24" high, by more than 24" wide. Huge for a blacktail. It just sits and looks at me for about a minute, safe in it's suburban Marin county home and the cover of darkness, regardless of the rifle in my van.

I saw two more nice bucks on the way to Fairfax, all healthy with big racks. Got to our place, and let's just say I those were the most impressive deer I saw all weekend, and definitely the closest.