The Total outdoorsman Skills & tools hunting
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IT’S THE FIRST SHOT THAT MATTERS The gun was a Remington Model 700 BDL Varmint Master, chambered in .22-250 and fired handloads that could flip a groundhog backwards out of its burrow at 300 yards. If you could hit the target. This was 40 years ago, and that was the gun that taught me how to shoot a rifle. I learned through equal parts humiliation and determination. My mentor, Keith Gleason, was a former U.S. Marine who didn’t coddle the newbie. We cruised dirt roads in the rolling foothills along the New River where it stitched back and forth between North Carolina and Virginia, trading shots at whistlepigs in greening pastures. You got one shot. After that, hit or miss, you had to hand over the rifle. If I blew my chance, well, Gleason didn’t care that I was a 13-year-old kid and he was a trained sharpshooter. Try harder, he’d say. And I would.
I learned a number of valuable lessons sweating over each shot, and one of them was about the proper role of hunting gear. Gleason tweaked handloads and fussed over ballistics tables, but when it came to putting lead where he wanted it to go, those tools only accentuated his skill. It was never the other way around. It’s too easy to forget that these days, when technological advances in gear make so many things seem all too easy. But good stuff works best when it works in tandem with finely honed ability. You can spring for the finest scope glass and bullet-drop compensating technology, but to shoot a rifle well, you still need good body mechanics, no flinch, and a trigger squeeze smooth as butter. All the recoil-dampening gas port tweaks in the world won’t make a mallard any easier to hit when it’s quartering away at 40 yards. Honeycombed risers and hybrid cams make it easier to hold a bow at full draw, no argument there. But it’s pure skill that allows a bowhunter to thread an arrow through a tight slit in the dark timber. More often than not, fine and fancy gear doesn’t get the job done any better. What brings home the backstraps is knowing how to wring every drop of potential from the gear you have at hand. Like dragging a moose back to camp with a boat. I was far up in northeastern Alberta when I heard about this, hanging on to a 20-foot aluminum skiff as Junior Adams, an XXXL-sized Athabascan Chipewyan native, gunned the 135-horsepower outboard. It was a 32-mile run to Adams’ camp at a tiny Athabasca River village called Jackfish, set deep in the million-acre Peace-Athabasca Delta. As we made the run, Taylor Swift warbled from the boat’s satellite radio, a duct-taped 1903 Enfield rattling against the windshield. When Junior said he kept the rifle handy in case a moose wandered out of the alders, I had to ask, “How do you get a moose home, when home is 30 miles down the river?” “We drag them to the river with an ATV,” Adams replied, “then we hook them up to the boat with a rope around the neck. It’s a little hairy at first, but once you get that moose on plane, it’s like dragging a water skier back to camp!”
Of all the wonders of the sporting world, I’d like to see that at least once. I’ve always been fascinated by hunters who fine-tune gear to very specific locations and hunting situations. It isn’t always so dramatic as to involve a long rope and a 1,000-pound mammal. I remember a Quebec guide who made giant diving duck decoys for hunting out of traditional sinkboxes in the rough open waters of Lac Saint-Pierre. First, Roger Gladu had a local carver craft the perfect decoy— a tall, big-bodied bluebill that would show up on the white-capped lake. Gladu then made a mold of the decoy, and blew urethane foam into the mold. He had scores of the scaup, because divers like a big spread and his home waters ate decoys like peanuts. The decoys were practically the size of a garbage can. Each one was topped with hand-carved heads large enough to hide a softball inside. They weren’t finely finished or artfully painted, but they matched the very conditions in which they were deployed: big, brawling, snotty waters. I offered Gladu $ 50 for one. He couldn’t do it. It’d be like a mechanic selling his favorite wrench. And to be truthful, I think a guy like Roger Gladu couldn’t abide the thought that a working decoy he sweated over and designed to suck giant flocks of Arctic-breeding ducks from the sky would ride a bookshelf in some writer’s office back in the States. I left empty-handed, but full of respect for a gear-hound like that. That’s one of the things I like the most about traveling North America for Field & Stream. I get to meet some of the most innovative people on the planet, and few of them are computer engineers. Most are wearing Carhartts overalls. Like whoever figured out that you can sharpen a short, stout stick, thread it under the cartilage that runs on top of a doe’s nose, and drag the deer to the truck with a DIY handle. Or thread a zip tie through the open spring in a clothespin, cinch down a handful of reeds in the zip tie, and clip the pin to a duck blind or treestand rail for a quick camouflage bundle. Pure genius. The same for the old Cajun squirrel hunter who mounted Vise-Grips to a pole barn and clamped squirrels in the pliers for quick cleaning. And the guy who invented the Butt Out tool— snicker if you wish, but any cheap plastic gizmo that makes it easier to remove the business end of a deer’s digestive system deserves my undying gratitude. The value of a hunting tool has nothing to do with its price, but how well it solves a thorny problem or helps a hunter step up to the next level of skill. Which is why that old Remington Varmint Master was the perfect gun for me, at the perfect time. While it was capable of more than I could do with it as a boy, it wasn’t overly complicated. And most importantly, I saw it being used with skill that I could only dream of— and set my mind to replicate. Even today, nearly 40 years after I last pulled its trigger, I can be at a gun shop, glancing down a line of 50 used rifles, and the first thing that catches my eye are those familiar white spacers between the stock and the butt plate, and Remington’s distinctive fleur-de-lis flourishes in the grip checkering. All of a sudden, I’m back on the New River, crosshairs wobbling around a woodchuck burrow, counting heartbeats and squeezing the trigger between each throb. A lot has changed since then, but one thing hasn’t: It’s the first shot that matters.
164 STICK IT TO DOWNED GAME
Pick up a long stick and approach a downed big-game animal from behind. Watch for the rise and fall of the chest cavity. Closed eyes typically indicate a living animal. Never lay down your gun or bow until you use the stick to touch the animal’s open eye. If it doesn’t blink, you’re good: Break out the skinning knife.
165 HOIST A DEER I
used to dread the backbreaking task of getting a buck up and over the truck tailgate solo. Until I discovered this trick.
STEP 1 Throw one rope over a branch. Tie one end to the rack and the other to the trailer hitch. Tie a second rope to the rack and toss the tag end over the branch.
STEP 2 Pull the truck forward to lift the animal off the ground. Secure the free end of the second rope to a tree or another object strong enough to hold the deer.
STEP 3 Untie the first rope from the vehicle. Back up, untie the second rope, and lower the deer into the truck.
166 Take a Killer Selfie
Taking a great selfie with your latest big buck is practically impossible unless you use a camera with a self-timer. Not all smartphone cameras come with a self-timer function, but many do, and those that don’t can accept inexpensive self-timer apps. Add a small smartphone tripod and you’ll be armed for taking boss self-portraits with your trophy. This classic setup of the hunter approaching a downed deer is a snap. Focus on the deer’s head and move back a few dozen feet for a more staged approach. That should put the deer in sharp focus and the hunter slightly out of focus for a dramatic view. This is one of the few times that having the hunter “skylined” against a light background is a good thing. A shot as you drag the deer out of the woods can tell you an important part of the story. Use a small tripod to affix the phone to a sapling or tree branch. Frame up shots as you drag the deer towards the camera and away. Another good shot that showcases headgear in a subtle way is attaching a permit to the deer’s antler or punching a tag. Prop the smartphone on a pack or use a small tripod to frame up a shot of just your hands, a knife, the permit, and the deer’s rack.
167 DECOY A PRONGHORN ANTELOPE There might not be any more exciting archery hunts than decoying a lust-crazed prairie goat ready to stomp the life out of the life-sized decoy you are hiding behind. During the late-summer rut, dominant pronghorns gather harems of does during a brief 2- to 3-week period and chase away any other bucks that may horn in on their love nest. Even the less-dominant bucks are ready to fight at the drop of a decoy and run out across the plains— literally— for a no-holds-barred smackdown. Here’s how you can dupe that goat with a decoy.
GO WITH A PAL Decoying works best when one person handles the decoy and a rangefinder while the other is dedicated to getting the shot. Trade off positions during the course of a day.
MAKE IT VISIBLE You have to be seen to be charged. Set the decoy up on a ridge or swell where it will show up against the sky, or place it out in a flat open spot where there is minimal vegetation.
BE READY Your decoy might bring in a goat from the next county over or from just out of sight. As soon as the decoy is up, get on your knees and nock an arrow. Have your partner range a few clumps of brush or rocks so you’ll have a rough idea of distance. It can happen that quickly.
DROP DOWN Speaking of knees, practice shooting from them, and practice shooting while leaning to one side to replicate working an arrow around a decoy.
GET AGGRESSIVE If a pronghorn buck is distracted by females, feeding, or another goat, go ahead and stalk close, hiding behind the decoy.
168 PACK STRING WAX EVERY HUNT
Place a big glob of bowstring wax on the E- or C-clip of your bow axle and you’ll help to prevent a trio of noise problems. It stops the clip from rattling, it keeps debris and water out of the axle, and it will give you a handy supply of surplus wax in the field. Nick your string on a tree step or in some briars, or if dealing with a rest that suddenly develops a squeak, and you can reach up and grab a little wax to take care of the problem right in your stand.
169 CUSTOMIZE YOUR BOW SIGHT
Smaller .010 sight pins are all the rage, as they cover up less target surface than larger, more traditional .019 pins. But many shooters with less-than-perfect eyesight find the smaller pins tougher to shoot with, and some do find that they aren’t bright enough in low-light situations. Luckily, you don’t have to take the one-size-fits-all approach. Many bow sight manufacturers offer models that take pins of multiple sizes. Set the sight up with larger pins on top and smaller pins below. That way you get the advantage of the smaller pin size at longer distances when the target picture is reduced, while retaining the brighter pin at the shorter distances you’re more likely to shoot at in low-light scenarios. And while you’re on the range, mix and match the pins. You might find that the smaller sized pin actually works better at super-short ranges of 20 yards or so. It’s all about the individual shooter, and the right bow sight will give you all the flexibility you need.
170 READ A BLOODY ARROW
It’s a very fortunate archer who recovers a bloody arrow, but now the tougher part begins: finding the deer and turning all that luck into steaks and roasts in a freezer. The first step is to examine that arrow for clues about where it passed through the deer. Find a strong source of light— sunlight or flashlight— and take a close look from nock to broadhead.
BLOOD Bright pink-red blood from tip to nock indicates a hit in the vitals. Frothy bubbles can suggest a lung hit. No bubbles indicates a heart shot. Dark red blood with no bubbles could indicate a liver hit.
HAIR Coarse brown hair can indicate a good shot if the arrow entered in the vitals. White hair suggests a low hit. Wait several hours before tracking.
BROWNISH OR GREENISH MATERIAL An arrow streaked with any brownish or greenish material is a bad sign. An arrow from a gut-shot deer might be flecked with stomach contents such as green leaves or little bits of any partially digested corns or soybeans. Lift it up to your nose and smell for a strong odor.
This typically indicates a gut-shot deer. If gray or brown hair is on the arrow, that could mean a higher hit than white hair.
FAT Greasy streaks of fat or tallow can be a clue that the arrow passed through the deer’s back or haunch.
171 PIMP YOUR .22
A dear uncle gave me my first gun, a J.C. Higgins Model 31 tube-fed .22. Manufactured by the long-gone High Standard Corp. and sold through Sears, that rifle was the kickoff to a lifelong rimfire romance in which fidelity has never played a role. Over the years I’ve wandered widely. My old high school flame was a Remington Speedmaster— another tubular semiauto. I had a serious college fling with a Browning 541T bull-barreled bolt action. Next came a steady relationship, sort of, with a succession of factory Ruger 10/ 22s. Right now, my current rimfire love is the equivalent of a trophy wife: a pimped-out 10/ 22 with aftermarket trigger, carbon-fiber barrel, rimfire-specific scope, and a few other whistles and bells that toll a death knell for squirrels. The highly customizable Ruger 10/ 22 has a screwed-in barrel and straightforward design that allows it to be inexpensively tinkered with from butt to muzzle. Here’s what I did to my own Ruger. Now, how about yours?
LAMINATED STOCK With grain in their multiple layers of wood running in different directions, laminated stocks can offer you high strength, great stability, and good resistance to warping. I chose a straightforward lay-up, but there are lots of aftermarket stocks out there, from thumbhole stocks to Monte Carlo designs to lightweight configurations with skeletonized buttstocks and slotted fore-ends.
DROP-IN TRIGGER Timney’s one-piece drop-in trigger is set at a crisp 2 3/ 4 pounds, with no creep. Machined from 6061-T6 aircraft-grade aluminum, the action houses a trigger, sear, and hammer of heat-treated steel. Replacing the famously unimpressive factory 10/ 22 trigger is a snap. Punch out the two action pins, remove the trigger action, and replace the entire assembly.
DEDICATED RIMFIRE SCOPE The 50-yard parallax setting on the Nikon Pro-Staff 3-9X BDC 150 gives a squirrel hunter tack-sharp focus when he’s searching for limb dancers squashed tight against a treetop limb, while the BDC reticle is calibrated for .22 Long Rifle ammo, taking much of the guesswork out of those long shots to the back of the woodlot.
VOLQUARTSEN CARBON FIBER BARREL At a short 16.5 inches long and just 23 ounces in weight, this match barrel changes the look and feel of a rifle like nothing else. The carbon fiber barrel shroud is put together with tension at both the muzzle and chamber ends to provide rigidity. For long walks in the squirrel woods, it’s a delight. Such a light front end, however, is an acquired taste.
PARACORD SLING I like lightweight slings on my rifles. Choose your color, choose your swivels, choose between fixed length or adjustable. There are tons of options online. Mine is created with a standard weave for a supple feel, but the Double Cobra and King Cobra designs are pretty sweet, too.
172 USE SNAP CAPS THREE WAYS
Snap caps are dummy rounds that cushion the fall of the firing pin so that firearms can be safely dry-fired. Some manufacturers recommend them, and others contend that are not necessary, but they are cheap insurance. Here are three ways to use snap caps.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT There is utterly no question that dry-fire practice will make you a better shooter. It’s a great way to get used to the trigger pull of a new gun and a great way to keep muscle memory tuned up for pulling the trigger of an old favorite.
FLINCH TEST When practicing on the range, mix a snap cap in with your live rounds and you’ll quickly uncover poor shooting technique when the pin falls on a dummy round.
ASSESS A USED GUN Thinking of buying a used gun? Run snap caps through the action to evaluate the trigger mechanism and ejectors.
173 RUIN A RIFLE BY BEING AN IDIOT
The last thing a bullet sees as it flees a rifle barrel is the crown— the very tip of the gun muzzle. The great majority of rifles’ crowns are recessed at the bore to protect this precious aperture from any tiny deformations that can throw a bullet off. Any nick, or chip, or uneven wearing at the crown can spell disaster, and there are two very common culprits. Each is entirely avoidable.
TRUCK MUCK It is never a good idea to place an uncased rifle inside a vehicle, but it’s an idiotic move to place a rifle muzzle down in the front seat so that the barrel crown grinds into all of that mud, grit, grime, and dried ketchup you store on the floor mat.
CLEANING DAMAGE An old adage holds that more guns are damaged by cleaning them than by using them, and this is what it means. When cleaning from the breech, be vigilant about pulling the cleaning brush or jag back into the barrel if it exits the bore. Use your fingers to carefully guide it into the barrel without coming into contact with the crown. The slightest ding can be a whitetail buck’s best friend.
174 MAKE A EUROPEAN MOUNT DUCK SKULL
Here’s how to turn a greenhead— or any other duck or goose— into your very own miniature European mount, complete with crossed upper leg bones and, if you’re lucky, a snazzy bird band to bling it up. I’ve used two methods of preparing the duck skulls: The first involves soaking the bones in hot water for days, painstakingly scraping away the flesh, then gluing the parts back together. Once I discovered the second, super-easy way, I’ll never go back. It starts with a friendly phone call.
MEET THE BEETLES Flesh-eating dermestid beetles can clean off a duck skull in a matter of days. Plenty of museums and nature centers keep a colony or two of the dermestid beetles, and a modest contribution— say, $ 25— can often win you a spot in their beetle box. You will first need to skin the upper legs and then cut away most of the muscle, and skin the skull and cut out the tongue, but the bugs will do the rest. Another option: Inquire with a local taxidermist if you and your buddies can toss a few duck skulls and leg bones in with a load of deer skulls being prepped for European mounts. Tell the taxidermist there’s no need to go through the degreasing process. You will do that yourself in the next step.
DEGREASE THE BONES Once the bones are back from the beetles, degrease them by soaking them in warm water and Dawn dishwashing detergent for a few hours. Rinse well. Dry in the sun. To further whiten the bones, soak overnight in hydrogen peroxide and set in the sun to dry. Use small dabs of wood glue to strengthen any loose joints. Brush bleach on stubborn brown spots, or go all natural. If you want, add a yellow bill with acrylic paint.
COME TOGETHER Cross the leg bones and use hot glue to hold in place. Once they’re dry, build up a few layers of glue in the concave underside of the bill for a flat base, then attach the crossed bones to the back of the skull with more glue. Finish with a leather lanyard and duck band.
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