September Hunt

by Grant Nelson

We have taken many deer on private land near our homes in the Sierra foothills, but this was the first time either of us had even shot at big game on public land in California. What great results two days, one gun, two shots, two nice animals!

Big game hunters dream about these weather conditions. Friday had been cold, overcast, and very windy. A small storm blew through late Friday night. We woke up at our camp in the Sierras, east of Jackson, California, to two inches of snow on the ground, 15 degree air temperature, clear skies, and no wind. Gabe and I left camp in his Rhino, thankful for the windshield on this crisp, cold morning. The prior day we had scouted a large, mostly treeless south and east-facing bowl. The bowl dropped down from the ridge top where the ATV trail ran. We figured the deer would come into terrain like this to sun themselves after the snow and the prior days brisk weather. Gabe dropped me off at the east end of the top of the bowl and he proceeded about a half mile to the west end. Even with all the layers of clothing I was wearing, I was still cold. I started hiking in my designated direction. Soon I came across fresh tracks in the snow left by two bucks. With the excitement of seeing fresh tracks, that coldness I had been feeling quickly went away. The dark dirt the bucks kicked up onto the snow as they walked had enough time to absorb the suns heat to start melting the adjacent snow. With the late September early morning sun at its low angle, this meant the bucks were some distance ahead of me. I followed their tracks for about a half mile through mostly wooded terrain, gradually sloping downhill. As the fresh, cold snow crunched loudly under each of my footsteps I realized that there was no way I could sneak up on the boys. Their tracks were heading towards a wide open east-facing granite bowl just below the one that Gabe and I had scouted previously. I guessed that the bucks would move into that open area to sun themselves. At this point, I thought my best option was to leave their tracks and work up to a rocky outcrop that overlooks the open bowl, and so I did. Bingo! I quickly spotted a very nice buck down in the bowl standing square to me, looking up my way. Knowing that he had spotted me, I was sure that I did not have time to move into a position where I could kneel or brace against a rock. It was time to shoulder the 7 mag and take a 170 yard off-hand shot. I squeezed off and watched through my Leopold scope as he folded like an accordion. He fell behind a boulder, out of my view, but I was sure he was down. After the shot, I saw the second buck, taking off in Gabes direction, but it turns out that Gabe never saw him. I had never before shot that rifle while on solid rock. The echoes seemed to rumble forever. My ears rang for a short while. I marked my shooting location, and after a brief wait, started heading down towards the buck. Once I found him, I realized it was my largest take ever. There was no way I was going to pack him out by myself to the Rhino, a distance of of a mile and up 400 vertical feet. I called Gabe on the radio and asked him to hike back to the Rhino and drive it to where he dropped me off, then hike down to my location. The buck was hit in the lower neck, with the round shattering the spine. There was no exit wound and we never found the bullet. We quartered him out, cut out the tenderloins, backstraps, and what was left of the neck, and took the head and cape. Gabes camera did not function in the cold conditions and mine was back at camp. Therefore, we got no photos at the kill site. We were able to pack out the meat, cape, and head in one very difficult trip.

But there is more to this hunting adventure. There were a total of four of us on this trip. All had deer tags, but only Gabe and Matt had bear tags. None of us had ever shot a bear before. The bear hunting experience we had the day before I took the buck was one to remember. Friday morning the four of us were hunting along the ridge near where I would shoot the buck the next day. Suddenly, I pointed to a bear about 30 yards from us, running away quickly. Gabe shouldered his rifle, but found the scope had fogged. I handed Gabe my gun. Gabe had never shot my rifle before. He shouldered the gun but could not chamber a round. The pre-1982 Remington 700 BDL design requires that one turns off the safety before one can chamber a round from the magazine. I quickly mentioned this and Gabe chambered a round and shot the bear with a fraction of a second left before he went behind a thicket of small red fir. The bear went down with a good hit to the shoulder but got up and ran over the ridge top to the north. The four of us waited for about 45 minutes, and then started tracking. We tracked occasional blood for 2 hours, all straight downhill. We then spotted him, limping into a thicket of small red fir. We then very carefully worked through the thicket, but found nothing. Finally, after we spread far and wide looking for more sign, Matt spotted him down and expired. He had gone another 500 yards after we last saw him. This was 3 hours after the shot. It was unfortunate that the bear had to suffer so long, but at least the meat did not go to waste. It was a small bear, probably a yearling. We skinned and field dressed the bear and carried it out 1.3 miles, up about 500 vertical feet back to the road. We ate some of the tenderloin that night in camp. It was delicious.

Gabe had a rug made out of the bear head and hide.

After getting home and taking the venison to the butcher and the deer head to the taxidermist, I took my rifle to a gunsmith to have the bolt lock modified to fix the design flaw.

We look forward to a future hunting trip that tops this one!

Gabe Hodges with the buck and bear.

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