The BAREBOW! Chronicles: Hail, Columbia!
Dennis Dunn 12.17.13
Hail to the return of the Columbia whitetail deer! Once a rather common animal throughout the valleys of southwestern Washington and most of western Oregon, this somewhat smaller subspecies of whitetail was formally listed under the federal Endangered Species Act back in 1973. Today, however, robust populations are thriving near the mouth of the Columbia River, but also in the sizable Umpqua River basin near Roseburg, Oregon. The recovery has been so remarkable in this latter area that in 1995 a rare delisting occurred, and management authority for the Oregon population of Columbia whitetails was transferred back to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Since the turn of the new century, the proliferation habits of this once-threatened little deer have taken on rabbit-like tendencies. So much so, that Oregon instituted in the fall of 2005 a very limited hunting opportunity for the Roseburg population. For the fall of 2006, that limited opportunity was expanded to include 50 archery-only tags in the Umpqua Unit. When I learned about this expansion, in the spring of the year, it occurred to me that perhaps few—if any—Columbia whitetails had ever been harvested by a modern bowhunter, so I decided to apply all the bonus points I had accumulated during the previous seven years (attempting to draw a Metolius Unit mule deer tag in eastern Oregon) to my application for the 2006 draw on Columbia whitetails.
Lady Luck smiled on me, indeed. Thus in early June I started making plans to hunt this “new” species. Since most of the land in the Umpqua Unit is privately owned, I knew my first challenge was going to be to find a place to hunt. With that in mind, I called John McCollum, of Eden Ridge Outfitters, based in Myrtle Point, Oregon, and asked him for advice. John immediately put me in touch with another outfitter by the name of Tim Pickett (Southern Oregon Outfitters), located in Glide, Oregon. I quickly discovered that a Columbia whitetail tag had become a rather hot commodity, but before long Tim had negotiated a price for me, and the stage was set for what I anticipated to be a new and different kind of hunting challenge. Whitetails being what they are, I knew a good buck was not going to be easy.
Because both blacktails and whitetails tend rarely to leave their heavy cover (except under the protection of darkness), the hunting regulations in Washington and Oregon allow for the baiting of deer. Since anti-hunters have managed to give the word “baiting” an emotionally-charged, negative connotation, some discussion of the practice is in order. A hunter selects a natural food favored by the local deer population to be hunted (such as apples, blackberries, corn, and so on) and provides an ongoing supply at one or more locations that allow the hunter some type of concealment. Naturally, the prevailing wind direction must be taken into account.
The bucks are much tougher to outsmart than the does. Even the young ones may not show themselves until the last few minutes of twilight. The older, more mature bucks are unbelievably cautious and crafty. Once the velvet has been removed from their horns, by the early part of September, they almost always become completely nocturnal. With only rare exceptions, a trophy buck never knowingly makes himself visible to the eyes of a hunter, and the best way for him to achieve that goal is simply to remain under heavy cover from dawn until dusk.
As far as baiting is concerned, philosophically speaking, what is the difference between a bowhunter waiting in concealment at a water hole—hoping that the buck of his dreams will come in to drink just before dark—and that same hunter hiding on the edge of an apple orchard, hoping for the same opportunity of ambush? Or, what is the difference between a bowhunter waiting in hiding near a big apple tree, with many fallen apples underneath it, versus that same hunter spreading a bunch of his own apples on the ground, next to a well-used deer trail, and then hiding nearby?
In all cases, the challenges are identical for both hunter and hunted. If the human hunter is to succeed, he must escape detection by any of his quarry’s much more refined senses of sight, smell, and hearing. If the buck is to survive, he must use those far-superior senses to detect the presence of danger and avoid the close encounter so eagerly hoped-for by the hunter. Whenever a buck leaves the protection of his heavy cover in order to feed or drink, he knows he is putting his life at risk. Indeed, every approach (to every water hole or feeding location) subjects a wild creature to the risk of being “nailed” by any of the many predators out there. Of all the various members of the deer family, I don’t believe any approaches a potential place of danger with greater wariness than does a whitetail buck.
In my print book, this story runs nearly 7,000 words and recounts two different hunts for the same species—one year apart—as a result of my being drawn two-years-running for the same special tag. Due to the space limitations of this forum, I’ll only tell the story here of the 2007 hunt. The first hunt did not produce a whitetail for me, but on its final evening I did manage to put on the ground a pretty little fork-horned Columbia blacktail.
In planning for the second hunt, Tim Pickett and I decided on a strategy of offering both chopped apples and kernel corn at two different locations on the 300-acre parcel of private land which I had paid a trespass fee to hunt. The corn was distributed on the ground by a mechanical spreader at four specific times of the 24-hour clock. Each spreader was perched high off the ground, at about eight feet, on three slender stilts. Underneath the overhanging limbs of a large oak, Tim had set up, prior to my arrival, one large Double Bull blind—as well as a treestand high up in a big fir, with a second spreader near its base.
I only sat the treestand one evening and one morning. Both “sits” produced some excitement, but no shot opportunities. My evening’s musings on the subject of two orphan fawns that came in to feed (and then departed without any sign of a mother around) were abruptly cut short by the crackling sound of approaching hooves coming at me from directly behind, and stopping in the dry leaves mere feet away from the base of my tree. I dared not even turn my head. For the next several minutes, the deer I assumed to be a buck just stood there silently, not moving a muscle. Neither did I. It seemed unlikely he could have seen me, but perhaps the evening thermals flowing downward had carried a hint of my scent to his powerful nostrils. Finally, he retreated the same way he’d come in, never giving me even a glimpse of him.
The greatest surprise of the night came with the fading light, when a dandy eight-point quietly appeared about 100 yards directly in front of me. He stood there for minutes with his eyes fixed continuously on the tree I was in—no doubt fixated directly on me, once I slowly raised my binos to study him. There was little question in my mind but what this was my mysterious visitor from earlier in the evening. He had likely suspected I was there and had simply made a big half-circle around me, so that his eyes could corroborate what his other senses had told him while standing behind me underneath my fir tree. Then, just as quickly as he’d materialized out of nowhere, he turned and was gone. I sat there stunned. What uncanny self-preservation instincts! I walked back to my car that night, feeling decidedly overmatched—and totally inadequate to the challenge I had set myself.
No sooner was I back up in the same tree the next morning than the twin orphans arrived, alone, and followed shortly by two does. Neither doe seemed to lay any claim to the little tykes, and, to my astonishment, one doe repeatedly chased them away from the concentration of corn on the ground. At one point, she actually raised up on her hind legs and came down hard on the back of a fawn with her forelegs! If, indeed, the fawns were hers, then I now know for certain that human society is not the only one with dysfunctional families!
By 9 a.m., my treestand was starting to feel dangerous. The “drowsies” were clearly attacking, so I quickly climbed down, retreated into the woods a few yards, and curled up in a ball to sleep for a bit. It seemed that, no sooner had I achieved the perfect embryo-position, than I heard a deer approaching through the leaves—coming from above and behind me. Once again, the wind refused to be my friend. Within the space of 20 seconds, I heard the animal stop, sniff the air, turn, and depart. Had it been a buck? I drifted off, wondering.
My catch-up nap lasted until it was interrupted by the corn-spreader going off. Even more than it startled me, it affrighted a doe that had been feeding directly underneath it when the automatic timer did its thing. She exploded out of there like a rocket, and in her headlong rush she sailed right over my body, which lay across the deer trail she had chosen for her escape route. It was a funny moment I shall long remember.
My second attempt to harvest a mature western Oregon whitetail was finally rewarded on the sixth day of the season. The daily routine was much as it had been the year before:
Up at 4:30 a.m.—shower—dress—apply black camo-paint to forehead, nose, around eyes—drive to property—spray boots and all clothing/gear with scent-suppressant—walk to blind in pre-dawn gloom—enter blind around 5:45 a.m.—close off all openings to blind save the one I expected to shoot through—put on my Scent-Lok hood—begin the stationary vigil.
Unlike 2006, this year I was hunting with a recurve bow, having hung up my compound permanently, halfway through the previous year’s season. Getting a close shot was now going to be more important than ever.
I had arranged the very flexible wall of my Double Bull blind (the wall closest to the corn-spreader) so as to have one long, horizontal “window” about five feet wide and one foot tall. The bottom edge of the opening was not quite three feet off the ground. It tapered to a sharp point at either end, and the one-foot-high aperture comprised the middle two-and-a-half feet. Naturally, this large an opening allowed a fair amount of light into the interior of the blind, but the inside surfaces of the camouflaged cloth structure were all solid black. It was necessary for me, therefore—sitting within on my padded, tripod stool—to make sure all my camo clothing from the waist up was as dark as possible, so I could blend in as much as possible. Thus, the black paint on every exposed part of my face.
While sitting in my Oregon whitetail blind, I cannot count the number of times does and yearlings would approach it, stamping their feet with suspicious impatience, peering into the dusky shadows within, trying to determine if there was danger lurking inside. As long as they did not pick up any of my scent, or any motion of any kind, they would eventually turn and walk away, satisfied (at least momentarily) that it was safe to partake of the apples or corn lying on the ground.
Safe, that is, if the bucks present would let them partake! Every active feeding session proved to be an ongoing comedy, to which I had free admission and a ringside seat! The bucks would almost never allow any of the “women or children” to share in the abundant food-supply. Running the “competition” off with their horns was standard operation procedure for the males!
Perhaps the funniest thing I witnessed during my 2007 hunt took place one night about a half-hour before dark. There were two eight-point bucks (4x4s) tolerating each other around the base of the feeder, but chasing off every doe that approached. Finally, one old doe got tired of the routine and resorted to a clever stratagem. She walked off into the weeds about 20 yards, and then—as if there were some imminent danger approaching—she began loudly snorting and blowing. At the sound of her alarms, the two bucks exploded out of there and headed for deep cover. Within mere seconds, the successful prankster waltzed in to the prime feeding location and began picking up corn where the two bucks had left off. I think I ran her off when I burst out laughing!
It was at exactly 6:10 a.m on the sixth morning of the season that the wide-racked 8-pointer I’d seen on three other occasions came sneaking in, ever-so-quietly, toward my blind location. At first, I could only see his head and part of his neck as he stood there in the pre-dawn murkiness staring intently at my blind. For five minutes, he didn’t move a muscle. Nor did I. There is one tactic I always use when a wild creature, at close quarters, lifts its head to look in my direction. I instantly close one eye, and shut down the other to a mere slit. A pinpoint bit of light-reflection off a moist eyeball can be almost anything. Two of them, two inches apart, mean only one thing to an animal of prey—immediate and probable danger.
Finally, the buck I had decided I would try to harvest—if he gave me one more opportunity—came into full view, stopped, and began studying my blind all over again. It was now just barely light enough to shoot, and I knew the spreader would go off in just a few minutes. He was obviously most suspicious that peril might well be lurking within the confines of my enclosure. At last, a few more steps, and he lowered his head to take the first kernel of corn. Instantly his head was up again, peering in my direction, while his molars crunched away on the hard corn.
Before long, the handsome buck had let his guard down a bit more and would keep his head down for as many as 10 seconds at a time. By now, he was just nine yards away, and I began looking for the right moment to attempt to draw. I say, “attempt,” because at that distance, without a breath of air stirring, the enormous ears of a whitetail buck are so sensitive they can probably hear the sound of a ladybug blinking or an earthworm yawning! I knew I could make no mistakes. I had taken at least a minute to place the arrow on the bowstring and raise the bow to the proper shooting elevation. With his body quartering slightly away, his head at ground-level, and the sound of his own crunching in his ears, I commenced the draw. It is nearly always the single toughest action an archer must accomplish without giving himself or herself away. I had drawn the arrow only halfway back when the buck snapped his head up and looked right at me. I froze—wondering painfully if the jig was already up. For 10 seconds he stared, no longer chewing; for 10 seconds I froze, no longer breathing. Then, as he lowered his head again, he stepped away from me, and the shot-angle was gone. Slowly I let down my partial draw and prayed I might yet get another chance.
A minute later, my prayer was answered, as the eight-point offered me a near-perfect broadside shot, all the while keeping his head down for the entire span of the full draw. I took dead aim for two seconds, and the arrow launched—disappearing right through the deer and out into the great beyond of early morning light. Oh, what a beautiful day it was going to be!
“Hail, Columbia!” I said out loud, as I saw the big buck tip over less than 10 yards from where he’d been standing. This time, I knew for sure I had really taken a Columbia whitetail. Not only did he not have a black tail, but his antler structure was unmistakably that of the typical whitetail formation. Now—after properly taking care of the meat—I could head home a week earlier than Karen was expecting me. She would be happy, and I would have an extra week to get our 2006 Tax Return filed, before leaving for an exciting moose hunt up in the Yukon with Jim Fink’s Blackstone Outfitters.
Editor’s note: This article is the thirteenth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the twelfth Chronicle here.