Monday, July 30, 2012

Range Day....Getting Ready

That most anticipated day of the year is rapidly approaching....the opening day of hunting season. I've been sorting my equipment and packing for the first trip, sharpening my knives and one very important part of that preseason ritual is zeroing the rifle. I use and practice with my rifles all year so one would think that I could just get along fine with skipping the preseason sight-in.

And you'd be dead wrong.

Since I do use (and abuse) my rifles all during the year, the chances something could get knocked out of line, a barrel crown nicked or some other rifle borne malady are much higher than if I were the once a year sportsman whose rifle mostly lives in a closet outside of the annual hunting trip. Not to excuse those folks either- they need all the practice with their rifles they can get.

So in preparation I took the rifle out to the range, rolled out an old canvas sleeping bag, placed a daypack at the head, assumed a very nice supported prone position and placed the crosshairs on the target located 150 yards downrange. I took up slack on the familiar Timney trigger in my rifle.


I quickly cycled the bolt, resumed the position and calmly fired again.


I snapped the bolt open and let the butt rest on the ground while I got up and peered downrange through the spotter. I was surprised to see two holes, gratifyingly close together considering the distance but, with some disappointment, 2" low and a full 6" to the left of my point of aim. Looking dumbfounded I realized immediately what had happened. I had been developing loads this spring for some 150 grain bullets and had zeroed the rifle to those loads this spring while snow still lay on the ground and had promptly forgotten about it by the time it melted.

Would such an errant shot have caused a missed animal? Maybe and maybe not. Close enough counts but that six inches too far aft on an animal could very well mean the difference between a clean kill and a long tracking job and the animal's attendant suffering. In a very bad case, it could mean a poorly hit and unrecovered animal that dies days later of infection.

No, my friends, if we are going to fire our weapons at living creatures we owe it to them to do so with maximum efficiency at arms. Too many of my fellow hunters will take to the field this year with rifles they've not zeroed since the last Presidential election, or carry ammunition that's not the load the rifle was previously zeroed with. Some of those hunters will get their game and some won't.

Given that I moved my zero a full seven inches at 150 yards by simply switching from 150 grain bullets  at 3300fps to 180gr bullets at 2950fps, I thought I would try an experiment.

I took two varieties of factory ammunition- both loaded with Nosler's excellent 180gr Accubond bullet. The first load was my preferred hunting cartridge- a Nosler Trophy Grade .300WSM 180gr at a listed velocity of 2950 fps. The second was Winchester Accubond CTs loaded with the same 180gr Nosler bullet at a (an optimistically) published 3050 fps. One would think that two loads, so similar in construction would shoot so darn near the same point of aim at 150 yards that they'd be indistinguishable...and you'd be wrong. Three shots of each yielded two very distinct groups- each about 1.5" in diameter but separated 8" diagonally across the target. Could that account for a wounded animal? Certainly.

I also took two different lots of 30-30 ammunition- same manufacturer, same variety but manufactured years apart in different lots. I fired two, three round strings at 100 yds. and despite the old rifle's crude sighting equipment saw two distinct groupings four inches apart on the target. One would think that after one hundred plus years that all varieties of 30-30 ammunition would be exactly the same...and again, you'd be wrong.

So, in conclusion, as you prepare for this year's hunt; don't neglect your smoke pole and go afield with ammunition that hasn't been specifically zeroed for your rifle. At most common hunting ranges it may make little difference but as we've seen here it just might and the animals deserve the due diligence of making sure your iron is shooting straight.

Here are a few brief suggestions-

1. Sight in with the same load from the same lot you intend to hunt with. If you change your load mid-season, then re-zero the rifle. It may seem like nit picking, but so is prowling the toolies at "0-dark hundred" looking for any faint sign of a wounded critter.

2. Sight in at the range you intend to hunt at or longer. The "administrative" zero at 25 or 50 yards will do little to confirm your point of impact at longer range. Try if at all possible to shoot at a variety of ranges out to the maximum you intend to shoot. What you may find may surprise you- a straight vertical string that corresponds to the drop table on the cartridge box is seldom what you find.

3. Sight in from a field position- prone or sitting preferably. The bench and field positions will almost invariably yield a different point of impact. Shooting from a field position will also help you tune your technique and prevent such catastrophes as flinching and "scope eye" from crawling the stock.

4. Sight in from a full magazine if using a repeater. Not only can a full magazine change the point of impact on some rifles, it is also a good time to check to see if the rifle will feed from the magazine or if the latch will hold up under recoil. I've had both failures happen and your cartridges going "bombs away" when you pull the trigger is both embarrassing and ineffective!  I also heard recently of a hunter arriving in Alaska on an expensive Brown Bear hunt with a brand new rifle that failed to cycle cartridges from the magazine. His guide gave him and his equipment a "No go" for dangerous game. Bad show!

5. Once you properly zero your rifle, a little practice is in order- you can read my articles on Perfect Practice Part 1 and Perfect Practice Part 2.

Good hunting to you!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Shinies and Stickies...a Rockfish Tale

For our Independence Day weekend, my usual crew of hunting and fishing compadres and I decided to do something a little different for a change than our usual halibut excursion...we elected instead to travel to the south a far piece to the town of Seward and embark on a combo excursion. We all love halibut fishing and there's just no reason to mess up a good thing. Although we did....more on that later, but a combo charter combines a lot of different types of fishing into a single excursion. Halibut fishing, jigging for Ling Cod, targeting the rockfish species and -given the July time frame - mooching for Silver Salmon was a total possibility.

We spent the morning fishing for large halibut and no one had bothered to inform the halibut that they'd need to participate. So after several hours of fruitless fishing we looked like we'd pretty well get skunked. Several moves by the captain did little to improve our lot, other than burn up fishing time, and out of utter desperation he placed us at the 11th hour on top of what is colloquially know as a "chicken hole." For those of you unfamiliar with Alaska fishing lingo, a chicken hole is a spot on the underwater world inhabited by small halibut of the 10-20 pound range and generally lots of them. We limited at our two fish apiece in half an hour.  Not to sound ungrateful, but no one charters looking to catch fish that are nearly as available within rifle shot of the dock on any old ratty vessel you can scrounge. Heck, I've caught a chicken halibut in a kayak as well as from a dock in the Aleutians. Halibut fishing had burned all day and yielded us little of but a single species.

Turning the vessel toward home, the captain anchored us over some nondescript submarine terrain feature and the deck hand rigged our rods with smaller circle hooks baited with halibut skin. We dropped bait to the bottom and began pulling up some pretty excellent fish. In Alaska fishing lingo, we were catching Shinies and Stickies. Or, more properly, Pelagic and Non-Pelagic Rockfish. Pelagic Rockfish inhabit mid water (although we caught them on the bottom as well) and tend to be a huge variety of dark colored and aggressive fish, one of the most common is called a Black Bass although it's something of a misnomer since it has little in common with any true bass. Non- Pelagic species tend to be bottom dwellers who, like their dusky cousins, tend on the aggressive side but are more brightly colored hues of orange and yellows and pink or sport huge toxic spines that are lethal to their predators. One of the more prized specimens is the Yellow Eye or as it's known other places, the Red Snapper. These fish are all relatively similar despite their vastly different appearance, all inhabit similar terrain and give (unusual among fish) birth to live young. The average age of a mature specimen can run upwards of 75 years with some of the oldest examined specimens dating clear back to the Civil War.

I hadn't fished for these in years. In fact, I hadn't fished for them since my last deep sea trip with my father in N. Carolina who loved deep sea fishing the Carolina and Florida coasts for Snappers and always seemed to bring home several in his coolers.

Like most good things in life, the action was intense but brief and after a half hour of non-stop fishing most of the boat had limited out on rockfish. The limit is but three (only two of which can be non-Pelagic) in this area due to rockfish's extremely slow growth, long life spans, and relatively high recreational fishing pressure. I could have forgone halibut altogether and spent the day catching and releasing these beautiful and dazzlingly varied fish, each new cry of "Fish ON" was an anticipation of which variety would come to surface. I really could have spent a day at it if but for a small hiccup....

They don't release well. Not well at all.

These fish are extremely adept at living long lives at depths over three hundred feet and most often the trip to the surface will cause rapid expansion of their swim bladders, stomachs and brain cavities and it's  nearly always fatal at anything deeper than about 50 feet. Anglers have tried various techniques over the years to release the gas pressure (fizzing) so these fish could survive release but most of them fail or leave a fish prone to infections or complications. Deep release devices intended to re-pressurize the fish are a step in the right direction but often fail miserably as well. For the conscientious angler these truly belong on your plate once you've given them a one way trip to the surface. And given their delicious taste and firm texture, there's no reason not to eat them with relish. And a deep swimming yellow eye that's caught on your halibut rig is good eating. Given their slow reproductive cycle and their tendency to be by-catch it's good to keep in mind some ways to minimize unintentional catches of these fish. Alaska Fish and Game produces a variety of literature with ways to limit by-catch of these fish. Check it out here.

As a rare treat, we observed humpback whales feeding and playing about a mile away...a delectable end to a long day.