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A Hunt
February 2001
Dan Martinez

What exactly, is a "hunt"? One possible description is that a hunt is a set of countless experiences -- but not just in the details.

The unknowing may think that a hunt is merely a singular event, but this is really not so. A hunt can be experienced many times. First it is something you will do. Then it is something you are doing. And finally, it is something you have done.

When we plan to go on a hunt, we think through where we will be going, the company we will keep, how we will hunt, what equipment we will need, how much food to take . . . in fact, we actually "experience" the hunt in our minds, perhaps many times before the actual trip occurs.

But of course nothing beats actually living the moments of the hunt. While you are hunting, the magnificence of the experience fills you. Many small instances come together to create one grand experience.

Even after the hunt is done, we may experience the hunt again and again, as many times as we want, in the remembering -- in the the storytelling -- long after the hunt has taken place. Hunting brings a richness of experience to the human soul unmatched by any other pastime. And they ask us why we hunt!

My 1999 backpacking Coues deer hunt was one of those very rare, "perfect" hunts. In the months of planning leading up to the hunt, I had packed in, set up my backpack camp, shot the deer and packed him out many times before opening day. And when opening day finally did arrive, the actual hunt followed the script almost exactly.

When I was drawn again to hunt the same area in November of 2000, I figured that I already had a plan that worked. Why not follow it again? Would it be possible to recapture that perfect hunt? As it turns out, it seems that as sweet as those perfect hunts are, you have to pay for them.

Thursday, the day before opening day, I left home a little later than planned. Mark Snyder and his buddy Rick had been drawn with me. I knew where I wanted to camp, but Mark and Rick were leaving a little later in the morning, and they were towing a big trailer with quads behind a two-wheel-drive pickup. They couldn't follow my four-wheel-drive into the back country until they unhitched their quads. I found the note they left for me, but as it turns out, I never saw them on this trip.

The plan was to get there early enough to preempt any competition for the drive-in campsite I had in mind, and to set out a couple of chairs and a table to make it look somewhat like a camp. But I wouldn't be staying with the truck overnight. Upon arriving, I threw on the pack and headed for my backpack camp spot. The pack was loaded with enough provisions for at least two days. Waking up in the way-back on opening morning was the goal.

Because I left home later than I wanted to, the two mile trek to the backpack camp was a race to arrive before dark. I barely made it. There was just enough light to pitch the tent and spread out the mummy bag. Dinner was consumed in the dark.

Arizona had seen some much needed rain in the preceding weeks. The big creek that ran through the area was flowing high. The pack was loaded with two gallons of water, but as it turned out, having enough water was the least of my worries. The weather reports were saying that the leading edge of a storm was expected for opening day.

Opening morning dawned cold and blustery. I made it to the sniper post that 99's deer was shot from, and thankfully, it was somewhat sheltered from the wind. I stayed put there the whole day.

At about 4:00 P.M., things started to look like I might indeed get a replay of last year. Two deer were feeding very near to the spot where a 3x3 Coues buck found his demise on December 17th, 1999. The binos went up, but as hard as I tried, I just could not make antlers grow on the heads of those two does.

Darkness came to the landscape and I headed back to the pack tent, noticing the thickening of the grey layer above me. I was actually looking forward to snuggling into my nylon cocoon while listening to the moaning of the wind and the patter of the rain. I covered the pack, which was hanging from a mesquite branch, with a plastic trash bag. The rain jacket and rifle went into the tent with me. Within 15 minutes of zipping the cocoon closed, the rain started.

It soon became evident that the tent was not waterproof. As each drop hit the tent over my head, my face felt a fine spray of moisture. I tried to ignore it by rolling over and wrapping the sleeping bag over my head.

A couple of hours later, I was awakened by the feeling of wet feet. When I turned on the flashlight, I was startled by the discovery of a pond growing at the foot area of the tent, and by the fact that the entire interior surface of the tent was covered with clinging water droplets. This was not good. I don't know why, but I spoke out loud, "I'm gonna get soaked."

Most of my body remained above the pond, as I was lying on a length self-inflating sleeping pad. But wet feet are the last thing you want when miles of hiking are on the next day's schedule. I laid back down for a moment to ponder the situation. The temperature outside was somewhere in the high 30's. If I was to get soaked, this could turn into a survival situation. I felt the cotton sweatshirt covering my torso - still dry. Thighs - still dry. The shell of the sleeping bag was evidently doing a good job of repelling whatever water dripped off the ceiling of the tent. But how could I keep my feet dry?

The answer was to sleep with my boots on. I recently invested in my first set of hunting boots built with a Gore-Tex inner layer. Crossing the big creek several times on the hike in, I was impressed by how I could walk through the water with impunity. Now wearing my boots inside the sleeping bag, I rolled over to try to get some more sleep.

I awoke once again around 1:00 AM. I turned on the flashlight to reassess the situation. I discovered that a new pool was forming to my left - where the rifle and rain jacket lay. That Gore-Tex rain jacket has been another one of my best investments in hunting gear. I wear it all the time as an outside layer, rain or shine. It's lightweight and is an excellent windbreaker. But now the jacket and my walnut-stocked rifle were lying in a puddle of water, both wet inside and out.

That jacket would do me no good in the morning with a wet liner. I had to hang the jacket some way so that the liner could drain out. The only place to hang it was outside. As for the rifle, I decided that it was better to let it stand propped against a tree in the rain than to leave it lying in a puddle inside the tent. The metal-work is stainless steel, and I had confidence in the waterproofing of the scope, but I didn't want the wood soaking in standing water.

Turning now to the jacket, a bolt of inspiration hit me. I draped the jacket over the peak of the tent, the arms hanging down each side. This would not only allow the jacket's liner to drain out, but it would also act as a mini-rainfly for the part of the tent that was over my face and torso!

Well, I did survive one of the more interesting nights I've spent outdoors. I slept maybe 50% of the night, on and off. Though the rain was steady all night, it was a gentle rain, not a deluge. For that I was quite thankful. At 5:30 AM, I awoke once again, and figured it was time to get up. I packed up the soaking sleeping bag, but decided to leave behind the tent and some other miscellaneous equipment for retrieval on a drier day. I had one thought in mind: to get back to the truck and out of the rain.

It was foggy and drizzly as I left the pack camp at first grey light. At the top of a wooded ridge, I spied a deer at no more than 50 yards. The doe played hide and seek from me between the trees, but didn't bolt. For about five minutes, the two of us just stood there and stared at each other through the oak branches, fog, and drizzle, in the half-light of early morning.

I got back to the truck to discover that there were now two other camps set up on either side of me, each less than 75 yards away. So much for back country solitude.

After changing into dry clothes, and hanging the mummy bag between two trees to dry, I ate lunch and went on a little walk with my rifle until evening. The rain continued throughout the day on a rather reliable 20-minutes-on/20-minutes-off schedule. While sitting on a hillside glassing this afternoon, I spied one of the more unusual critters I've yet encountered in Arizona. Movement down below caught my eye, and what I saw, was a strange cat-like critter moving smoothly down the draw. It held it's solid black tail high in the air, and it appeared to have a faint grey ring around its neck area. It was only when I got home after the hunt, looking through an old edition of Arizona Highways magazine, that I was able to identify it as a coatimundi.

That evening after dark, I dubbed the camp to the north the "Rodeo Clown" camp. These cowboys played their country music quite loudly well into the night.

Luckily, I had brought two sleeping bags with me on this trip. Sleeping in the back of the truck in my "big man's" rectangular bag, on comfortable big cushions, was pure luxury. I was done with backpacking on this hunt.

The next day was Sunday, day three of the hunt. On this day I spooked a nice buck on the far side of a canyon. The ridge top I was traversing was both rocky and bushy. I was making a lot of noise. As I reached the edge to look into the next canyon, I saw a white tail bounding up the opposite slope. I got down on one knee and swept the riflescope across the deer. He was very far, but I could see that he had nice headgear. His rack was good and wide, though from what I could tell, the individual points may have been a little on the short side.

I didn't feel stable enough from the kneeling position for a shot that far. He slowed and paused a couple of times, but there simply wasn't enough time to first range him, then get into a stable long range shooting position. In a moment he had reached a shallow saddle on the opposite ridgeline, and disappeared over it. After he had gone, I ranged the saddle at 346 yards. At no time that he was visible to me was he closer than 300 yards.

Getting back to the truck that evening, I discovered that both the Rodeo Clowns and the other camp had pulled out. It seems most hunters are weekend warriors.

Day four was uneventful, except that this was the day I hiked back in to retrieve the tent and the rest of the gear. The rain had been over for two days now, but there was still a nice pool inside the tent.

Tuesday was day number five. Up to now, I had been concentrating my efforts on the upriver area east of camp. I was ready for a change of scene, so I headed north from camp (downriver) for the first time. 7:00 AM found me just below a hilltop glassing to the west. I had been glassing for about 45 minutes when I spotted two bucks about a half mile to the north. I quickly packed up the stool, tripod, and the 12x50 binos, and hustled northward. Between my original position and the deer there was a deep draw and a steep ridge. As I noisily descended cross-slope into the draw, I spooked two does which ran up and over the ridge to the north toward the position I had seen the bucks.

Ascending the back of the ridge, I slowed way down. Cresting the ridge cautiously, I peered over to see whether the bucks were still there. Nothing. I backed down and paralleled the ridge top heading toward the nose of the ridge. Arriving at the nose, I found a place to sit. I was now above, and only 250 yards from the low mesquite covered bench where I had observed the bucks browsing.

The view was great here. I was overlooking an area where a number of draws converged from several different directions, forming a pocket of flat bottomland among the hills. I decided to just sit and wait.

What happened next was so unusual, I still can't figure out his motive. The best I can do is describe what happened. Round about 10:30, I noticed a human heading my way from the north. I say human, and not hunter, because he was armed only with an FRS radio. He was talking to someone, and every 50 feet or so, he would bend down, pick up a rock, and heave it down into the draw he was walking along. It soon became apparent that he was heading right for the mesquite bench where the deer were about 2 hours ago. I'm pretty sure he had no idea I was up there on the ridge, as I was suited out in full camo. I wanted him to stop what he was doing, so I dug around in the pack for my orange cap, so that he would see me. I put the cap on and kept the binos on him, but still, he never looked in my direction. He just kept heaving rocks.

He ended up passing just above the bench where I last saw the deer, and he did throw rocks into the bushy draw I figured the deer may have bedded down into. I was relishing the opportunity to drop a deer at his feet as it busted out, but that never happened. He ended up working his way back to the north heading up a different draw than he came down, then out of sight.

But what now? I had been sitting there waiting for the deer to get up out of bed and show themselves. I had thought they were still there, bedded, but the fact that nothing happened as this clown moved through had to make me wonder. It was almost lunch time now. Should I head back to the truck for lunch and figure out somewhere else to try?

Well, I had no better ideas as to where to find deer. There were two bucks right here this morning. It made no sense to walk back to the truck, eat lunch, then go for another walk. This was still my best lead. So I dug once again into the pack and pulled out one Meal, Ready to Eat.

I was almost finished with lunch when I spotted them. There, crossing the creek bottom, were the two bucks. It had now been almost an hour since the Rock Clown had thrown rocks where the deer had now emerged. I grabbed the shooting sticks and the rifle. When I got into position, the deer had gone behind some brush and were lost from view. I kept watching. OK . . . there's one, climbing the bank out of the creek bottom. There was only one small clear patch before he would be lost behind brush again - for good.

I didn't want to shoot. The angle was bad and I knew it. He was quartering sharply away from me, but in about two steps the opportunity would be lost. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a little voice was telling me, "You hit last year's buck in the butt, and he went down like a rock. These little deer have no chance against your mighty ought-six." The man with the little voice pulled the trigger.

I saw the deer's rear end tuck under and he squirted forward into the hole in the brush. His reaction sort of reminded me of a kicked dog. A few seconds later, the deer's companion calmly walked into the clear spot and presented a perfect broadside pose.

I gathered up all the stuff I had strewn all around my sitting position and stuffed it into the pack. I shrugged the pack on and folded the shooting sticks back into walking staff mode. I found the spot where the bucks had climbed the steep bank out of the creek bottom and started slipping my way up it. Just as I reached the top, I heard a rush of rustling and turned just in time to see the buck bound away. He had bedded down right there, not 20 feet from where he was hit.

I didn't chase directly after him, instead angling off up a slope so that I could get a view down into the bottomland, and hopefully see the direction he was running. I didn't see him. Instead, I saw a pair of does with a fawn trying to hide behind a tree about 100 yards away on a hillside across another of the converging creeks in this area.

I went back to the spot he stood when the rifle cracked, and verified blood. Checking under the tree where he was bedded when I climbed the bank, there was a red pool. I was able to follow his escape trail of blood drops and deep hoof prints for about 75 yards, but then lost the trail. I combed the area for the next 2 hours, walking a grid pattern, but didn't find him. Dark clouds were again forming in the sky, reflecting my mood at having made a bad shot and losing the animal.

There were still at least 3 hours of day left, but I had lost all appetite to hunt. I headed back to the truck.

That evening at camp, I dug out one of the hunting magazines I had brought, remembering that it held a story about recovering game. One of the things it said, was that a wounded animal may try to join up with others of its kind. The one area I didn't search was across the creek where the does and fawn were. I decided to try that first thing in the morning. Find him or not, my hunt was done.

I crossed the creek about 50 yards downstream from the tree where the does were, because it was shallower there. 20 yards after the crossing, I found him. There was no doubt in my mind that this was my buck, as he had a massive wound in the right ham. His rack was a very small 4x2. There was no pride in the moment, only relief.

I don't know who's script this hunt followed. It certainly wasn't mine. It was quite rich in experience and filled with surprises, some simply curious, some unwelcome, but in the end, the hunt turned out right.

Now I've got to wonder, just what is it that makes a hunt "perfect"? Is it when everything goes to plan, or can it be a hunt where nothing goes to plan?

Over the last year, I've re-lived, re-enjoyed, re-experienced, re-membered, and re-read the story of my 1999 hunt many times because, among other things, it was such a "perfect" hunt and a "righteous shoot". This hunt was neither of those things. Yet, I have the feeling that I'll relive this hunt again, and again, anyway - for some of the same reasons, but also for entirely different ones.

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