Saturday, February 26, 2011

...and the Winner Is.


In the Great Alaska Meat Lottery I've managed to draw not one, but two choice tags.

First is the DM697 tag- a cow moose from Alaska's famed 20A GMU. There is nothing tastier than cow moose and GMU 20A has a pile of them running around. This hunt runs until October 31 so meat loss is non existent and access across the muskeg is a non-issue.

And up next is a tag I've coveted for years.... DS203. Early season Dall Sheep in the Delta Controlled Use Area. This is a restricted hunt, meaning no wheelers and no pack animals. Just a big pack and the heel-toe express back into the mountains. A sheep hunter's dream come true so let the training begin now. This is a hard tag to draw and the area IS my backyard...

More to come!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Keeping my Fingers Crossed for the Alaska Meat Lottery

Tomorrow is perhaps the most anticipated day of the year up here, at least among the sporting community at any rate. Tomorrow is the scheduled date that all of the State draw tags are announced. Anticipation is such that, at least the last couple of years, the server crashed from all the queries it received. Several outdoor forums have been plagued by posters eaten with pre-announcement jitters and anticipation.

Although I'm one of the guilty, I haven't been very fortunate in the past. In fact, every year I joke about my "voluntary donation" to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the hopes of drawing some of the more coveted tags. Several of my friends have drawn such tags and I've gotten to participate in the hunt- but always as supporting cast, never as the primary shooter.

Always the eternal optimist I even "doubled down" and applied for multiple tags for the same species (you are allowed three choices per species). ADFG even publishes a listing of your chances based on last year's draw and when I looked at it, it wasn't pretty. In fact, several of the tags I applied for have such a low percentage chance of draw that they qualify as "The Alaska Meat Lottery" more than a hunting permit.

The tags I applied for are:

3 Moose (two choice areas and one cow tag)
3 Bison (two in my community and one remote)
3 Dall Sheep (all walk-in hunts)
2 Mountain Goat (another walk in)
2 Caribou (one close in and one remote)
3 Brown Bears (one on Kodiak, two on other islands)

Not to be misunderstood, as a resident I can hunt all of these (except Bison) on a normal harvest tag- just not in the choice areas these tags are good for.

So friends... wish me luck on the draw tomorrow!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Scope Selection...The View from Here, A History.

Its no surprise to my readers that I have some very strong opinions on a variety of shooting implements and among those I hold the strongest opinions on are telescopic sights. I genuinely think this is one area of the shooting sports where we, as a group, are regressing rather progressing. Using our fabulous technology to deliver cotton candy rather than something substantial for the field hunter. Endless numbers of variable power scopes abound in the marketplace while the fixed power scope is only offered by a few manufacturers these days, if you discount the cheap junk models from the good stuff the number of good fixed powers gets perilously thin.  Every time I see some hunter with a ponderous looking telescope perched on top of a rifle I can't help but chuckle, given the path I have been on.

I didn't form my opinion about scopes haphazardly, or even briefly; but rather over a lifetime in the shooting sports. When I put my first telescopic sight on a rifle I was in college. I had grown up shooting the often miserable buckhorn sights found on most of the .22s and .30-30s of my youth- really a relic from a much older time of black powder rifles. My field performance was satisfactory in the big woods though and on the target range I had a solid understanding of the fundamentals so I got by. I had shot a friend's target rifle with a good aperture sight and while I shot phenomenally with it, I wouldn't be satisfied until I had a scope sight.

O'Connor had affected my mind while I eagerly read his articles waiting on the barber as a child.

That first scope sight was a used affair purchased from another friend in dire need of beer money for a hot date. In college, I believe we were all in dire need of money for most things and while I typically eschewed beer, my ammo budget was overwhelming my meager wages while also paying for school. I think it cost me something on the order of a precious $20 bill and I want to say it was a Tasco but the exact make escapes me now. What I do know is that it was a fixed 4x with decent optics and while I would turn my (snobbish) nose up at it today; when I mounted it to my autoloading .22 my shooting went from good to unbelievable. Among my peers I immediately overshadowed Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone with my prowess. Certainly we were a bunch of neophytes but as they say- "In the land of the blind- the one eyed man is King!"

And it felt good to be King.

Sometime around my junior year of college I had been working more and making more and, conversely, going to school less and less- I scraped together enough for my first bolt action rifle in .30-06. Feeling somewhat cash flush from a great construction season I decided I must mount it with a telescopic sight and according to the masses, that scope simply had to be a variable. My shots were typically short but I liked the ability to turn that scope up on the range and stack bullet on top of bullet. Never mind that my actual hunting suffered- hampered by a much too large, much too dim, and much too imprecise scope in the dark oak woods. I still felt like the King, but it was short lived. After about 60 rounds that low end variable failed to hold zero and I replaced it with another just like it. I was King but a hard headed one apparently.

Fast forward many years and many scopes later, I was outfitting a new rifle with a scope- a variable of course- and I decided I must have one of the new "BDC" type reticules. Something to make holdover easier on those long distance shots. Never mind that I never shot past 300 yards and my .308 was perfectly capable of shooting point of aim to that distance-  marketing hype is a powerful force in the shooting game. After mounting the scope and reading the reticule instructions I began to realize that this scope was certainly a fiddly thing, requiring much calculating and much adjusting to make the BDC feature work correctly. Little did I know that the following year that scope would cost me two animals.

That following year I was roaming the tundra when I happened on a small band of caribou across a small lake. I dropped to prone after being spotted and began the routine of bracketing my selected animal with the appropriate crosshair and then trying to make the mental calculations to select the correct power ring setting to calibrate the crosshair... needless to say the nervous caribou weren't in the mood to watch my fidgety motions and started to move farther away, forcing me to readjust my aiming solution and scope setting until at last they were far out of range for my .308. Later, after trailing the animals I learned the initial shot was a mere 150 yards. Although it looked farther because of the intervening water it was an easy shot to make with irons, much less a scope sighted rifle. The simple thing would have been to put the crosshair on the vitals and squeeze the trigger.

The following month had me trailing a wolf with the same rifle- trying to get a solution dialed in while he moved away at around 250 yards. Tired of fooling with the scope I turned it up to 10x and started shooting. After the second miss he turned on the afterburner and disappeared over the far ridge in bounding leaps. I think I stopped shooting when the magazine ran dry. Frustration!

That was enough for me.

I devoured everything I could read on scopes, I had flubbed two relatively easy shots with a top shelf variable scope on a rifle of known MOA accuracy. I was a good shot and I knew it- a lifetime of hunting and dead critters coupled with targets littered with tight clusters of .308 diameter holes gave proof to that. My wildly successful hunting with my .22 (also topped with a variable) gave me pause. Except for the time spent on the target range, that scope never left 2.5x. I also noticed that despite my scope's impeccable pedigree- the point of impact moved as I changed power settings. I was head shooting piles of rabbits and grouse at the time and noticed that the more I dialed up the power, the more I missed. At 2.5x at 50 yards the rabbit was as good as in the pot. At 8x there was a very good chance he'd bound off with nothing more severe than a haircut and a bad case of fright.

The following year I was outfitting another rifle with a scope- this one a .300 Magnum, flat shooting and powerful. Remembering the fiascoes of the previous season's fiddling with that BDC scope I resisted temptation to put that rather expensive scope on my new tack driving .300. I went and did something that my shooting companions outright scoffed at- I put a simple fixed 4x of good quality on that rifle. I admit that I chose the 4x based on other merits, mainly weight, as I wanted the lightest and most compact scope on my new "sheep gun" I could get. Testing my options, the heavier scope ruined the balance of such a light rifle and a foray through 5000 vertical feet has anyone wanting to drop any ounce they reasonably could. The recoil on that rifle was also something fierce and I found I could mount the 4x (without the attendant power ring) much farther forward and eliminate the chance of (another) crescent shape scar over my right eyebrow. The habit of crawling the stock is something I've never been able to break despite being hit by several eyepieces and I find that I must mount to the scope as far forward as possible in order to get away from it. A couple of rifles I simply couldn't get away from and I sold the whole works as soon as I was able.

I also noticed afterward that my field shooting improved. My rifle went from "manual focus" to "point and click". I zeroed the rifle for a 200 yard zero and at any distance out to 300 yards I simply assumed whatever position I wanted to shoot from and without appreciable delay, hit the target. Not only was I shooting great groups from the bench (a practice I was soon to abandon), my field shooting was superb- quick and accurate hits from field positions to beyond the distance I would even think of shooting game. I hunted with that 4x for three years until a nasty spill on a rock face ruptured the gas seal mid-season; hopelessly fogged it was sent back for repair. A quick visit to "Wilderness Hook and Bullet" resulted in a single fixed power on the shelf- a 6x. It was quickly mounted on the rifle and accounted for two animals later that season.

After those incidences my variable power scopes have all but disappeared from my safe, particularly on field rifles- replaced with fixed powers in appropriate magnifications for the rifle and tasks it needs to perform. My hunting .22 now wears a 2.5x- trim and light and perfectly deadly on small game to the limits of the .22LR and beyond. My .308 wears the 4x- now good as new and perfectly suited to the range and game afforded by the mild Winchester cartridge. My .300 still wears that 6x- an outstanding combination for mountain and tundra hunting. My 30-30 still wears open sights as I can't bring myself to ruin the lines of a lever gun with an abomination of a scope in its days of semi retirement.

So there is the tale- 25 plus years in the making, coming full circle back to where I started.

And happy about it.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Trying Something New or...Eating My Own Words on My Birthday.

I've written in print and long held the belief that I am, at my very core, a rifleman. I love hunting with rifles and have since I was wee tot, armed and dangerous with a Crossman pellet rifle. Not that I don't enjoy the odd handgun or shotgun- I just don't use them much in the field. For me handguns and shotguns are primarily defensive tools in the war on crime or pure entertainment in the shooting sports. Or, in the case of shotguns, either the tool of elitist bird hunters with big dollars to spend pursuing little game or dirt poor "one gun homesteaders" equally adept at buckshotting deer or poaching roving bunnies; generally in their vegetable garden.

I've long held the belief that the proper arm of the serious hunter is the rifle.

Not that my exposure to shotguns has been limited- a couple of my treasured possessions include inter-war Winchesters (M12 and M37) that I received hand me down through my family. I've had the various "riot-gun" short barrelled shotguns living in the closet and occasionally carried for bear protection. My survival kit in the bush contains a compact .410 gauge and a handful of shells. But as a primary hunting implement my exposure to shotguns has been very limited. Last fall I killed a rabbit with my M37 20 gauge and I have to admit it was one of the few living things I'd shot with a shotgun in well over a decade.

So it came as a real surprise when my wife dropped me off at the big city hook and bullet store with instructions to "go buy yourself something that goes 'BANG' for your birthday", that I wandered over to the shotgun counter after fondling a goodly selection of wonderful rifles. I looked for another .22 and...blah. I've had a stable full of nice .22s. I looked at a grip of high power rifles and while I nearly pinged on one of the new Winchester .375s...but, ah, not really. My current .300 is proving adept at anything I want to shoot with a high powered rifle to date. So with some degree trepidation I made my way to the shotguns.

I looked around the counter and thought of some of the great blogs I follow- notably Holly and Hanks adventures with duck hunting that make it sound like a wonderful hunt- not at all like the elitist picture I carried in my head from a childhood in the sticks. After talking to the counter man, and ascertaining whether he truly carried any knowledge about his wares (he did- avid waterfowler, upland gunner and published author on both subjects to boot) I asked his opinion on what would be a good grade shotgun for a beginning shotgunner with a modest budget to spend.

"What kind of shotguns have you shot previously", he queried.

"I've shot a Model 12 quite a bit,"I responded.

"No pump gun will really interest you then- you've already got about the best example ever made..." he replied. My hat size increased by two.

"What about a double?" I asked tentatively. Visions of traipsing across the fields with a dandy side by side looking for grouse dressed like an English sportsman danced in my head.

"On your budget you can buy just enough double to make you mad." he said, crushing the fantasy before it really got started. "Alaska gunning is just darn hard on guns, I take it you're a hunter and not just some fanciful collector. Really poor doubles and just that...poor."

The vision died on the vine. Nah, I've read in sporting magazines about some of the wonderful doubles and their manufacture...and the prices that exceed those of my current vehicles combined with that of my first home. I couldn't imagine dropping several mortgage payments for an "entry level" double shotgun to drag around in the muck up here. A really affordable double looked like more trouble than it was worth in the long run. I needed something a little more...well let's just say practical.

He turned his back and looked through the impressive display that ran 25 feet and was stacked 8 deep with shotguns. "Here, this might do the trick," he declared and handed me a very businesslike matte black and synthetic number. "That's a Benelli M2, it ain't pretty but its a real workhorse of a semi-auto in 12 gauge. Light enough for upland work for a guy your size and equally at home in a duck blind or goose pit. It's limited to 3" shells unlike the more expensive model but if you can't kill stuff with a 3" you probably need another hobby. We've marked them down to move them and make space for next year's inventory. It's likely the best gun I've got that'll fit into your budget."

I hefted the gun a few times. It was light and pointed well for me. I flipped over the price tag and looked at the series of mark downs with a bottom figure that fit right into my price range with a little room to spare. I racked open the bolt and peered inside. The Italians know a thing or two about machine manufacturing I thought as I noticed the absence of tool marks on the guns innards. The latest trend in American guns tends to be sloppy machining and finishing, while not really something that may effect functioning it shows a distressing lack of attention to detail for something intended to last generations. In fact, my ancient Winchester had so much handwork that the company could no longer afford to sell them. The result is that even in advanced age it works like it did when it was new. The Benelli gun was certainly appeared well made.

"I'm guessing that'll do fine... where's the paperwork?" I replied.

So dear readers, shotgunning pointers and suggestions are welcome as I'm looking to endeavor to learn this sport of aerial gunnery over the summer and entertain you with stories of hunting waterfowl and upland game here in the north country.