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The Sniper’s Lair
January 2015
Dan Martinez

I have said before in these pages, that I love deer hunting, even though I’m not very good at it. I took my first buck in 1995. Despite hunting deer just about every year since then, I have taken only two other bucks in my hunting career. All three were young bucks. The last one I took in the year 2000. So for many years I have had only three sets of small antlers hanging on my wall.

Two years ago, I was hunting the thick juniper country north of Prescott. I found a waterhole in the juniper jungle that was only accessible by an ugly quad trail.

I had carved out a nice little sit-spot near the top of a ridge that overlooked the water hole from a distance of about 150 yards. On that hunt, I explored other territory in the mornings, and would come and sit this spot in the afternoons. I never had competition from any other hunters while I hunted from this overwatch.

On my fourth afternoon, I finally had a buck come in. He was a small buck, a “pronghorn” buck. No, he wasn’t an antelope, he was a yearling deer. Because I had my rifle up on a Caldwell DeadShot FieldPod, I was able to put perfectly steady crosshairs on his vital zone. The young buck had no idea that he had been painted by a deer sniper’s reticle. But since I already had three other similarly-sized sets of antlers on my wall, I decided to let this little guy walk. That was my only opportunity for the season, so I had to be happy with a tag sandwich.

For the 2014 deer season I was drawn along with Gerhard and two of his work buddies, Ron and Daniel, for this same area. The country ranges from oak grassland at the lower elevations, to Ponderosa pine country at the highest. In between, there is an extensive zone of thick juniper and manzanita. Though I had hunted this unit before, this would be the first time for the other guys.

Gerhard and his buddies made several trips to the area to scout the country, but I knew exactly where I wanted to go. My whole plan for this year’s hunt, was to sit in my sniper spot over the waterhole for the entire time. The season was ten days long. I was prepared to spend all ten days if need be, sitting this spot.

There was a good camp spot about a mile away from the waterhole. To make sure that I could claim this camp, I asked my son Ben, if he would mind camping at the spot starting the Tuesday night before opening day, Friday. He agreed. I went up there with him late on Tuesday afternoon to set up a basic camp. We didn’t take up all my gear, just enough for him to be comfortable for the two days. We got camp setup just before dark, then I left because I didn’t have THAT many vacation days left!

But here’s the thing: The juniper jungle is almost impossible to hunt any other way besides sitting at a water hole. The vegetation of juniper, piñon, and manzanita is so thick that you cannot see more than 15 yards in front of you. Any deer hiding in this jungle will hear you coming from 100 or more yards away. There were no other water holes near this camp for my buddies to hunt. As a result, they chose to hunt other, more friendly parts of the unit, and I would never meet up with them during the hunt .

On my arrival to camp late Thursday afternoon, Ben reported that he had a herd of does walk right through camp the morning before! So the deer were definitely here. I unloaded most of the rest of my gear from the truck, and as we still had a little light left in the day, we hopped into the Polaris Ranger to head to the water hole.

Rather than lugging the chair and FieldPod (and some other stuff) to the sit spot in the morning, I wanted to take the opportunity to drop off the stuff tonight. Going to the water hole this evening before opening day was a little risky. We would be intruding into the area just before sundown, prime time for deer movement. But this would allow me to lighten my load for the morning hike in. I also wanted to show Ben the cool sniper spot that I was planning to sit for the hunt.

Hike in? Yes. I used the Ranger to drive up to about ¼ mile of the water hole, but I would hike the last of it. This was to try to minimize my disturbance of the water hole area.

Ben would spend this one more night at the camp, but he would leave in the morning. There was no sense in him hanging around when all I’d be doing was sitting all day. Pretty boring. Plus, we might spend too much time talking if he hung out with me, which could mean that no deer would ever show.

So I got up at O-dark-thirty the next morning while Ben still slept in his tent. He must have awakened when I started the Ranger and drove off though. I reached the parking spot just as enough light pierced the veil of night that I didn’t need a flashlight to follow the trail down to the water hole.

There was a reason why, two years ago, that I did not sit this spot in the mornings. The sit spot faces due south. Just to the west of me there is a large juniper that blocks most of the late afternoon sun. But there is no natural cover to block the sun from beating down on me from dawn through mid-afternoon.

Even in the late afternoon, the juniper is not quite thick enough to completely block the sun. On that hunt two years ago, I ended up pulling a poncho out of my pack which I strung up in the tree to keep the afternoon sun off of me. But as the dawn sun rose over the southeast ridge, my problem was the totally open exposure on the opposite side where there was no tree to provide any help.

I hinted that when Ben and I dropped off the chair and the FieldPod, that we also left “some other stuff.” A couple of months ago in these pages, I talked about the subjects of wilderness survival and “bushcraft.” I mentioned Dave Canterbury’s 10 C’s of wilderness survival, which included “Cover”. I said that I had never packed emergency shelter in my hiking pack, but that maybe I should start. The closest thing I have packed on my hikes is that poncho. A single poncho makes a very small shelter. Much better is a tarp of at least 8 feet by 8 feet. I also said that a hunter might find a camo tarp very useful for making a blind. I have now added one to my kit.

I opted not for a typical cheap polypropylene tarp, but one made specifically for outdoor expedient shelter, a bushcraft tarp. I found this tarp on Amazon. It’s made by an outfit called Aqua-Quest. The model is called the “Defender”. It measures 10 feet by 7 feet and it is made of “70 Denier Nylon Fabric with Heavy TPU Coating”. Instead of grommets, it has 18 reinforced webbing guy loops & ridge line tie points. There are 6 web loops on each 10 foot side, plus 6 more down the center of the ten foot length, attached to a black nylon web ridge line. These sewn webbing loops are much stronger than grommets.

To go along with the tarp, I assembled a tarp tie-out kit which I packed in a Cordura canvas zipper pouch. The tie-out kit consists of a good number of pre-cut lengths of paracord, some lightweight aluminum stakes, and a collection of very small aluminum carabiners.

Ben and I also carried in and dropped off two cheap hiking poles. With two poles, one could easily erect a simple A-frame tent using the tarp, or as you can see from the opening photo, other useful configurations are possible by taking advantage of what nature provides. I would have preferred black or green poles, but for the price, I can live with red.

To create the roof of my deer sniper’s shelter, I used one of the loops along the center ridge to pull up the center of the tarp by tying it to an overhead branch of the tree. This provided ample headroom under the cover with no center pole to get in the way.

6mm Remington Model 600

This is the rifle that turned me on to the Remington 600 in the first place. I’ve talked about it in these pages a number of times. I mentioned it in my 6mm Mild Bunch story, and more recently in my story on the 50th anniversary of the Remington Model 600.
I received it in well used shape. It had a poorly mounted, old and hard vented recoil pad on it when I got it. The original finish was flaking off, so I stripped what remained, and refinished it with an oil finish.
From the factory, the M600 was equipped with a flat plastic butt plate. Adding a recoil pad in place of the flat plate added about an inch to the length of pull. This made me have to stretch my neck to get comfortable behind the scope. So I cut off about an inch of the walnut stock and replaced the recoil pad with a fresh new one. LOP is now 13-5/8”.
As received, it had an old cheap Bushnell fixed 4-power scope on it. The iron sights, both front and rear, had been removed and were lost to the sands of time. I replaced the old Bushnell with a 2.5-7x28mm Japanese Weaver scope.
When I acquired the .308 Model 600 earlier this year, it too had no rear sight, but it still proudly wore its original shark fin front sight. Now the 6mm had to get a shark fin on its nose as well. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Numrich Arms (https://www.gunpartscorp.com/) had the part available for a very reasonable cost. Now the 6mm too, proudly wears a shark fin front sight.
I have hunted javelina with this gun, but I had never taken it after deer. There was always a bigger gun available in the gun safe that was chosen over this one when deer season came along. But since it was the 50th anniversary year for this model, and I had tags for both elk and deer, I decided to hunt elk with the .308, and deer with this favorite old 6mm Remington Model 600.
The load I chose for this hunt was the 95 grain Hornady SST over 40.0 gr. of IMR4007 SSC. This is a starting load for this powder. I was seeing 2770 fps, for a muzzle energy of a little over 1600 ft-lbs. It looks like I should be able to push this load toward 2900 fps, maybe over, with a little more load development.
The SST is a soft bullet. At the distance I was planning to shoot, it should be plenty to do the job. Still, that small bullet would need to be precisely placed into the lungs for proper effect. If so placed, the bullet’s fast expansion should create havoc within the chest cavity. Fortunately, the 6mm Rem is an easy caliber to shoot well.

The aluminum tent pegs proved useless at this site because the ground was rocky. Instead, I simply tied the ground lines around the available embedded rocks. These proved to be even better anchors than the pegs would have been. It is a good thing to know your knots.

The entire setup took only about 10 minutes. After tying the poncho into the tree as before, the configuration proved to be perfect. I was shaded for the entire day as the sun arced from my left to my right over the course of the day. I even had a “coffee table” in front of me, a large boulder. To endure 10 days of sitting over a water hole, you’ve got to be supremely comfortable. I was.

I didn’t spend the whole day, every day in the sniper’s lair. Around 11:30, I would slip on my pack and hike back to the hunting buggy, then ride it back to camp for lunch. I had mentioned to Gerhard that I would be in camp every day from about noon to 2:00, so I hoped that one day he might drop in for a visit to swap tales of the hunt. Never happened though.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday … saw nothing, heard no gunshots. So what does one do, just sitting and waiting for days? I brought books and magazines to read, and I briefly dozed off a couple of times. I fiddled around with my smart phone, browsing the web and emailing family. Finally on Monday, I gave Gerhard a call.

“You still hunting?” “Nooo.” I learned that he had taken a spike buck within a few minutes of starting his hunt on opening morning. Sheesh. He was back at work, nose to the grindstone. After the call, we had a few email exchanges. He sent me a picture of his buck. He knew the story of the little guy that I passed up two years ago. I told Gerhard that I hoped that the same buck would show up again for me this year. He should be a decent shooter two years later!

I had a debate going on inside my head. If a young buck showed up again this year, should I go ahead and take him? I was leaning toward “yes”, but I still wasn’t sure. What I was really after, and had been for many years, was just to be able to take a nice, representative 4x4 mule deer. He didn’t have to be a trophy, just a decent, mature buck. Heck, I would have been quite happy to take a 2x2, if he had long forks.

Finally on Tuesday morning, a deer came in. At 9:30 I was visited by a doe. She hung around the water hole for about ten minutes. I had fun putting the crosshairs on her, practicing my aim from the Caldwell FieldPod. I purposely made a very small noise and from 175 yards away, she caught it and looked right at me. I froze and we had this staring standoff for around 3 minutes.

I don’t think that there was much that she could see. From down at the water hole, the space under the cover is nothing but a shady spot. I was in full camo with a large bush at my back. In the opening photo, I look brighter than I really was, because the photo is enhanced for reader interest. She finally moved on.

Wednesday, day 6, started like all the other days, except that this time I decided to sit the lair for the whole day. I brought a lunch. Since I had not been seeing much, I was worried that my lunchtime movement back to camp, then back in the afternoon, might be ruining opportunities. But I never got the chance to eat lunch in the sniper’s lair.

Right around 10 o’clock, a serious macho buck came walking over the berm. My heart nearly leapt out of my chest. All of a sudden it was clocking over 100 beats a minute and I could scarcely catch my breath.

He walked behind one tree, passed an opening, then behind another tree where he stopped at the edge of the water. I lost sight of him for nearly 5 minutes. This allowed my heart to calm down to only 80 beats a minute. While I waited, it gave me a chance to think about what I had just seen. Something was strange. When he came in, it looked like there was something hanging from his neck.

When he again came into view, I was more than ready. The little 6mm bullet crossed 135 yards of air space in about 150 milliseconds. The buck simply crumpled down into the soft grass where he stood and never got up.

As I stood up and grabbed my pack to go to him, I muttered to myself, “You have just taken the buck that you’ve been seeking all these years.”

When I got to him, I found out what was wrong. Another hunter had seen this buck first, probably on opening weekend sometime. The hunter must have been so mesmerized by his antlers that he couldn’t take his eyes off them when he squeezed the trigger. The buck had been shot in the lower jaw. His jaw and tongue were hanging straight down from the area of the mandibular joint. The tissue around the wound was starting to rot. The poor beast could neither drink nor eat. He tried to drink at the water hole, but there was just no way. His tongue was useless. I don’t think that he would have lasted through the upcoming weekend. It was a good thing that he found me to end his suffering. It was upsetting to see. Joy, anger, pity - I had quite a mix of emotions.

2014 turned out to be a dream season for me. I was successful on javelina, elk, and now the 4x4 muley that I’ve been waiting for. It’s not likely that this is the same guy that I let walk two years ago, but who knows? Either way, it must have been the karma that I earned by letting the little guy walk that brought this buck to me in 2014. Now my antler wall looks a whole lot better!

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