Finally, the hunting begins

Dear God, really?My alarm went off at 4:30 in the morning, and my first thought was, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Even though I had gone to bed relatively early the night before, I still didn’t get much sleep since it was the night before my first real hunting trip. Fortunately, the excitement of the coming day was also enough to roust me out of bed at that ungodly hour and I crept across the room quietly so as not to wake my wife, Kelly.

I was up the night before making sure I had all my gear packed and ready to go so I didn’t have to try to remember potentially life-saving items at such an early hour. I did, however, need to shower. I was expecting a long day in the outdoors, and preferred that it at least begin with a clean body. I have to admit I had fun getting dressed, as it was the first time I could put on my collected hunting items for a use other than admiring myself in the mirror and dreaming of the day I could creep through the forest in them.

The base layer went on first, to help wick any moisture away from my skin and keep me not only warm but conserve energy. First, I put two compression sleeves on my calves, followed by black long underwear and a brown, Under Armour compression t-shirt. Next, woodland camouflage hunting socks I bought a year ago at an outlet store in Centralia and a Realtree AP short-sleeve cotton t-shirt I got for 8 bucks at Wal-Mart. Then the pants…Realtree AP six-pocket cargo pants from Cabela’s, secured by my brown, leather belt. At this point, I was starting to look pretty bad-ass.

The go-to 1/4 zip fleece

The olive drab fleece on my recent fishing trip to Ferry County.

Since my Realtree AP Bushnell hunting fleece I ordered on eBay hadn’t shown up yet, I put my go-to camping fleece on over the t-shirt and pulled my tan hiking boots on over my socks. The olive drab Adolpho fleece was a gift from my Aunt Susie and Uncle Bob back when I was in college and I still employ it on every camping trip. While I had priced several different hunting boots at Wal-Mart, Cabela’s and Big-5, I decided the ones I had purchased in Las Vegas would do fine. And if they didn’t, I could get new ones before next season.

A few days prior, I was at Wal-Mart and saw they were selling hunting jackets for only 30 bucks. While I felt like I couldn’t pass up a deal that great, I also know how short we are on cash these days and decided – for the good of my marriage – to wait until next season to get a hunting jacket. Besides, Kelly had bought me a Realtree AP rain suit a week earlier, and I figured with the three top layers, I ought to be pretty well warm and dry.After once again pausing to review my reflection in the mirror (damn, I look bad-ass!), I grabbed my pack and silently crept through the bedroom, kissed my slumbering wife goodbye and headed downstairs for a quick breakfast. I had to hit QFC before heading to my hunting guide’s house, so I didn’t have much time. I made a quick lunch, ensured everything in my pack was secure, threw my Realtree AP cap on my head (another 3 dollar Wal-Mart treasure) and headed out into the crisp darkness. It was now 5:30.

Raccoon in the roadTo my great disappointment, the coffee at QFC’s bakery doesn’t get brewed until 6. However the great morning staff there put a pot on just for me and by the time I had stocked up on sunflower seeds and an Odwalla protein smoothie it was ready to go. Sixteen ounce coffee in hand, I was on my way to Kevin’s house, only slowing once to avoid a raccoon waddling across the road. The first wildlife of the day, I noted.

A short drive later and I arrived at Kevin’s house right on time (5:45) to find him loading the last of his gear into a late-80’s model Toyota pickup with camper. We said our good mornings and I threw my bag and my lunch into the back with his gear, hopped into the passenger seat and we set out to begin the day. As I’ve said in an earlier blog post, Kevin’s been hunting for the better part of his adult life and doing so in roughly the same area so he knows the roads and terrain well. I knew I would be in good hands for my first hunting experience.

Rather than driving to Brady however, the original destination for our hunt, we instead headed north from Olympia toward Shelton. It seems the logging roads north of Brady were closed on weekdays and since we were going out on a Friday it necessitated a change of location. So we headed north to the Matlock exit, then headed west to the Simpson logging transfer station. During the 45 minute ride, I continued to pick Kevin’s brain for hunting knowledge.

We turned left onto a gravel logging road and began making our way back into the wilderness. It was at this point that my senses began to perk up, as I realized that we were – in total darkness, illuminated only by the low beams of a 1980’s pickup truck – now cut off from civilization, paved roads and the ability to flag somone down should something go horribly, horribly wrong. At that point, a doe bounded across the road about twenty yards in front of us. Kevin tapped the brakes and remarked, “That’s a good sign.”

About a mile later, guided only by the Magellan GPS in low-light mode on Kevin’s dashboard, we arrived at a wide spot in the road. Kevin shut off the engine and we got out to gear up. I pulled out my Realtree AP neck gaiter ($5. God bless Wal-mart.), my  aforementioned rain suit – the top of which fit nicely in my right cargo pocket, while the bottoms fit perfectly in my left, my 3-liter olive drab Camelbak filled with water and lemon juice, my Realtree AP hunting gloves (which you can read my review of here), and my new hunting knife.

Field and Stream knifeNow, I have to devote a paragraph to my new knife because I bought it specifically for this excursion. I knew that, since I would be the only hunter without a firearm, I would need to be able to at least defend myself should something decide it wanted to eat me. Authorized by Kelly to purchase a hunting knife between $20 and $30, I kept a lookout for bargains at Big-5 and Wal-Mart, but looked more closely at the knives available on Amazon, eBay and Craigslist. After a few weeks of research, I had narrowed it down to two…this one from United Cutlery, and the one I eventually settled on from Field and Stream (pictured left), which I bought on Amazon. The features I liked about this one was that it had a rubberized handle for better grip, contained a survival kit and a compass in the handle, and looked like I could realistically drive it through the sternum of a charging black bear if necessary. I’d seen it in person at Big-5, but they wanted $39.95 for it. Amazon? $23 with free shipping. God bless the internet. You can read my review of it here.

Kevin and I noticed a few other cars on the logging road…one a mid-80’s hatchback and the other an enormous silver Dodge Ram. It was 6:40ish and still pitch black. Kevin wondered aloud if some of these people might be anti-hunting advocates trying to scare game away before first light. I’d never even considered that, but knowing the type of people who live around here, I wouldn’t put that past them. We hopped back in the truck and continued down the gravel road another mile or so until we reached a location that Kevin had scouted out the day before. We parked the truck, shut off the headlights and sat in silence for a few seconds before Kevin explained to me that any deer that heard our approaching vehicle might be spooked and we’d have to wait for them to get more comfortable before getting out.

It was now 7:00…five minutes before shooting was legal. I didn’t know there were hours specifically designated for hunting, but apparently it changes from week to week and is based on the expected sunrise. The rain began to fall, another good sign according to Kevin. Much like fishing, hunting is better in the rain for a number of reasons. Falling rain muffles the sounds of footsteps through the brush. It also makes the ground wet, reducing the number of dry leaves and branches that will snap when you step on them. Also, wet deer – like dogs and cats – will get up and shake the rain off their coats from time to time, making them a more visible target. Fortunately, I had come prepared.

In the time we had left, I took my rain jacket and pants out of my cargo pockets and proceeded to get them onto my body using maneuvers that would have made a contortionist jealous. Let’s just say that the passenger seat of a 1980’s Toyota pickup isn’t exactly the dressing room at Macy’s, and Kevin was impressed by my ability to twist and turn to get my rain gear on. Finally, first light began to break through the trees and we could begin to make out the shapes of stumps and root wads in the surrounding clear cut landscape.

Classing the clearcut

NOTE: This is neither Kevin nor me, but it’s a great picture of exactly what we did most of the day.

Kevin opened his door quietly, and I did the same. Once outside, I was surprised at how green and fresh everything smelled. Even in the rain, the relaxing smell of the outdoors was pleasing. We began walking up another logging road that ascended to a landing from which we could look down onto the clear cut. Taking very slow and deliberate steps, we flanked both sides of the road as I looked right and he looked left. Every few dozen yards, he’d stop and “glass the area,” which meant he’d take a 60-second scan with his binoculars in search of any movement. I did the same.

The silence of the woods amplified every sound I made, and I immediately noticed a fatal flaw in my developing hunting skills. My rain suit was made of PVC, like a shower curtain, and the pants and arms made rather loud noises with every step I took. I immediately moved to correct it by walking wide-legged as best I could, looking somewhat like a cowboy who’d just dismounted from his horse. Or my three-year-old after he’s wet himself. Either way, it was an unnatural movement and difficult to keep up for our short walk. I also learned that I couldn’t make any sudden moves with my arms, which doesn’t seem all that difficult until you are trying specifically not to do it. Raising binoculars from my chest to my eyes had to be done slowly. Reaching back and adjusting my knife sheath on my hip had to be done slowly. At the same time I had to keep up with Kevin, and also make sure I wasn’t stepping on anything loud and crunchy. For my first attempt at stalking, I was very clearly a novice.

A good amount of light was illuminating the clear cut by the time we reached the landing and we both spent several minutes glassing the area. The trick was to look for an ear flap, a tail flick or a head turn. Kevin was absolutely correct in saying that almost nobody would be able to spot a deer bedded down in the bushes with their naked eye. Something I noticed right away was that most of the deer I’ve seen have had light brown coats and were usually silhouetted against green grass or the paint color of someone’s house, hence they were relatively easy to spot. In limited light and against a brown and green brushy background in the rain, a wet deer’s coat becomes dark brown and perfectly camouflaged in the clear cut. This was going to be more of a challenge than I thought.

After ten minutes or so, Kevin startled my silent searching by announcing that we were moving to a new location. I was surprised, since he’d previously told me about times where he’d sat still, glassing a clear cut for a half-hour or more. But we had a lot of square miles to cover that day, and many more clear cuts to glass. We hiked back down to the truck and drove into the woods following the main logging road on the GPS.

A bit later we spotted that silver Dodge Ram again and I asked Kevin a few questions about etiquette when hunting parties overlap territories. For the most part, it’s a first come-first served policy and if someone’s parked their truck at the entrance to an offshoot from the logging road (known as a “finger”), a respectful hunter will generally consider that area claimed. That being said, you can’t go out and claim a two-mile section, or any part of the main road.

We spent the next few hours driving around, eyeballing fingers as we drove past and occasionally stopping to look through binoculars at stumps that resembled deer at the far end of the road. Every once in a while, we’d find a good landing – a short finger that would dead end on an overlook above a clear cut valley. Kevin would shut the truck off early and coast to the end of the landing, wait about a minute and then quietly retrieve his .30-06 rifle from next to my seat and step out onto the landing. I’d put my hunting gloves on, pull my neck gaiter up over my nose and mouth, unsnap my knife from its sheath (just in case) and slowly get out of the truck.

Taking a cue from Kevin, I’d make my way to the edge of a landing and find a nice stump or rock which I could stand on for a better view of the clear cut below. Each time, I’d go through this process and each time we’d come up empty. Toward the end of the day, I found myself repeating the phrase, “This is a GREAT spot, so there MUST be deer out there this time!” And each time, we’d find nothing. One of the most important lessons I learned that day was that even the best scouting location is worthless if there aren’t any damn deer to be seen.

Old School QuoteAround 10, we met up with Kevin’s father, Ron, a renowned hunter who’d been taking game in the area for the better part of his nearly 80 years. A real nice guy with a good sense of humor, Ron was another person from whom I could learn a lot about hunting. To give you a  sense of the kind of hunter Ron is, while Kevin and I were sporting the latest technologically-designed hunting apparel created for maximum concealment in different types of environments, Ron wore a red ball cap, a quilted, plaid button-up shirt and brown wool pants that looked like they could have been issued to G.I.s in WWII. If there were an old school for hunters, Kevin’s dad probably built it.

As the three of us were about to saddle up and head to a new location – Ron in his pickup and Kevin and I in ours, two hunters in a third pickup came barrelling down the hill and pulled over next to our trucks. Turns out that these two knew Kevin and Ron, and after introducing me they spent a good 20 minutes bullsh*tting and razzing each other. The driver’s name was Dugan, and he was certainly a mountain-man stereotype. His big, grey beard, however, belied his good nature. He let us know about a barbecue he was having on his property later that evening, and then left us to get back to hunting.

We spent most of the rest of the day driving around the logging roads, stopping at landings and quietly glassing clear cuts. At one point shortly after lunch, a brown Ford F-150 came whipping around a blind corner faster than it should have been traveling in those conditions. My first thought was that it was a drunk hunter, but the truck skidded sideways to a stop right in front of our truck, which Kevin had brought to a sudden standstill as well.

The Gamey

This is exactly what the gamey who stopped us looked like, only minus the smile. And the sunshine.

Before I could say, “What the hell is that?” the uniformed – and armed – driver of the other vehicle was out of his truck and standing by Kevin’s window. It was a game warden, tasked with ensuring state and federal wildlife and hunting laws were being adhered to. The element of surprise, I would later learn, is perhaps their best weapon. But like a good hunter should, Kevin always followed the rules by unloading his rifle before putting it back in the truck and keeping the action open for just such an occasion as this. The “gameys,” as I came to find out they were called, loved to catch hunters driving around with loaded rifles. Hunting from a vehicle is illegal in Washington, but any experienced hunter will tell you your best chance of spotting a deer is when it darts out in the road in front of you while you’re driving. Hunters rarely have time to quietly bring the vehicle to a stop, open the door and get out, load ammunition into their rifles, take aim, and fire. Usually the deer gets spooked much earlier in that process, so more than a few hunters will keep their rifles loaded in the truck.

After a few questions and quizzical looks my direction when he asked where my rifle was and I had to explain that I was just along for the ride and not actually hunting, he waived us on our way and we continued the hunt. On more than one occasion, I’d notice a particularly overgrown finger – a long since used logging road offshoot – and ask Kevin why we don’t try hiking up those trails. But the fact is that there are half a dozen ways to hunt, and each hunter has his or her own preferences. Kevin, his dad and likely hundreds of other Washington State hunters use the drive-and-glass method in addition to the timber hunts, the trail stalking, the treestands, and the ground blinds. Personally, I think I’ll try more timber hunting (where you walk as silently as possible through the woods for a few miles) or trail hunting (where you stalk your prey from along a timberline, such as the ones made by old logging roads) when I go out hunting by myself next season.

UPDATE: After reading this blog post, Kevin pointed out to me that the only inaccuracy (that borders on the edge of offensive to the ego) is that Kevin and his father actually prefer timber hunting to road hunting, but the regular A-Line area was closed that day and they don’t go into “foreign” timber very often unless they know where the roads are that the timber may cut out on.

HunterAll totaled, we saw seven deer (no bucks, and none in clear cuts), two herds of elk (on someone’s private farmland, and nary a shooter in the bunch), I saw an owl, I’m counting the raccoon I saw at QFC as “wildlife” for the day, and we heard about two young black bears eating berries in the area. So there was no shortage of being in the outdoors. It was refreshing, rejuvenating, and even though not a single shot was fired we still had a great time. Kevin would say that even though we didn’t get a deer, it was a successful day since we had a good time and saw a bunch of wildlife. And while technically I can’t yet be considered a hunter…more of an annoyer of other hunters…there will be a day when I will be the one behind the gun.

I’m already looking forward to next season, where I’ll most likely do some hunting on my own. I may get a deer tag, or even an elk tag, but I will definitely be taking some time off to spend in the forests of western Washington. And since I have 357 days until the start of next year’s hunting season, that gives me plenty of time to save up and buy myself a good hunting rifle.

I’ll just have to obtain authorization from my darling wife first.

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