Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year… Looking Back, Looking Ahead.

I've got to tell you friends- 2013 was a great year on the outdoors front and I'm looking forward to 2014 with great anticipation.

2013 saw several firsts- being selected to serve as Field Staff for a couple of manufacturers as well as negotiations for a couple more are in the works for 2014.

2013 saw me attending the Backcountry Hunter and Angler Rendezvous in Boise, Idaho as well as teaching at Becoming an Outdoors Woman in Alaska. Hopefully both will be on tap for 2014 as well.

Per several reader requests, I'll be putting up a "Hodgeman's Outdoors" Facebook page in the very near future as well as upping the involvement of Mrs. Hodgeman in the form of photography. One sharp eyed reader declared that my photos look like incidental snapshots taken with a cellphone while Christy's look wonderful.

Guilty as charged. More of her photography is on tap for 2014.

Also per several reader requests, more "field to table" articles and more technical articles focused on the affordable end of the equipment spectrum. Just maybe the start of a "Eating Caribou 101" or "Nom Nom Moose" book. I've sought to make outdoor and hunting adventures approachable for as many people as possible and while writing about expensive rifles taken on exotic wilderness hunts is a lot of fun, it's by no means required to hunt Alaska's big game- I'm endeavoring to show some hunts conducted with minimal amounts affordable equipment that should be approachable for almost anyone.

2013 saw a lot of great hunts and trips and 2014 (hopefully) will hold some more.  A couple of new things this year though. As much as I love hunting in Alaska there are other places I've want to hunt. First up, I'm taking Evan to Tennessee for a special whitetail youth hunt in my old stomping grounds among the deep oaks of Appalachia. Second, Mrs. Hodgeman has wanted a nice trip for our impending 20th anniversary for several years.…so at her urging we've booked the trip of a lifetime- to Africa. We'll be taking the family to hunt our way through northern Namibia after some of the coolest plains game and bird species the continent has to offer. You'll want to stay tuned for that.

So in closing….Happy New Year to you all and may it be filled with adventure and success.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas from Sonny von Poopenstein- Wonder Pup at Large.

Just a note from Sonny wishing you "Merry Christmas" from the family. Hodgeman isn't available for his usual Christmas message. It appears this entire "flying reindeer" thing has got him so worked up at the notion of combining bird and big game hunting that he's out on the lawn looking skyward with a buckshot loaded shotgun…sheesh. Nobody tell him….ok?

Friday, December 20, 2013

First Blood and the Ruger American Compact- Part 2

The hunt commenced in the wee morning hours since we wanted to arrive in the hunt area at daybreak and we'd need to drive nearly 100 miles to get there. Eric and I loaded the boys into the truck and away we went. On the way down I got to talk some coaching to both of the kids as well as some refreshers for Eric. We decided that Isaac should get first crack since this would be his only big game opportunity of the fall due to some out of state travel.

We spotted caribou just outside our area in the early dawn light. A fresh, this blanket of snow covered the area and the temperatures were just under freezing. The caribou migration had been very slow and the animals had taken a real beating in the late spring snow. In fact, state hunts had already closed and only subsistence tags were still open.

We crossed into a small valley- one of my most regularly successful areas and the site of a number of caribou taken over the years. We spent a couple of hours glassing there and…nothing. So we moved to a large lake that I'd been successful at previously and took a long hike among the rolling hills that ring it. The caribou in migration hit this terrain feature and even though caribou are excellent swimmers, they tend to go to shallow narrows and cross in mass. We hike back a couple of miles to such a spot and set up an overwatch on it in the hopes a migrating band would move past us. We sat there and glassed for several hours and saw nothing at all except some caribou on a high ridge top several miles to our north and a couple thousand feet up- much to far to pursue.

By this time the boy's enthusiasm had waned and the chill breeze had dampened their spirits and we hiked back to the truck by a circuitous route punctuated by frequent stops to glass. In the small rolling hills- the caribou could appear nearly anywhere but they chose not to. Upon arrival at the truck we met my good friend and frequent hunting partner Shiloh. He'd been hunting the area and hadn't seen as many caribou as we had. After lunch and letting the boys warm up we decided to move back to our original valley and glass there some more.

On our way back to the valley we crossed a large flat and found a large herd moving east headed into our hunting area. We planned to stage an ambush and catch them as they filtered in but they never showed up. It's long been said that if you have some inkling of what a caribou is going to do next then you know much more than a caribou so I wasn't surprised when the entire herd just failed to materialize. By this time it was getting rather late in the day and while the kids were winding down I was encouraged. The word crepuscular means that an animal is most active at dawn and dusk and many hunters who sleep in and clock out mid-afternoon are missing the best part of the day. I suggested we head for a spot a couple miles in and climb into some high rocks that I'd bagged a couple of caribou at before and wait for the dusk and see what happened.

We climbed into the perch and began to glass. The shadows had grown long when we spotted something about a mile into the valley on a small ridge overlooking a narrow lake. A lone caribou. We watched it with some interest as it would feed for a while and then lay down for a few minutes, then rise and walk around and feed some more. When it was laying down you would often lose sight of it despite the fact it was laying out on a ridge top on bare tundra and you knew almost exactly where to look.

We held a conference of war.

This was the only caribou we'd seen that day in our hunting area and it was getting late. The animal was about a mile away and even an experienced hunter would be hard pressed to make the stalk in time for a last light shot and Eric didn't have much experience and Isaac none at all. After brief discussion we decided that since this was Issac's first and last big game hunt of the season he'd make the stalk with Eric. There was no way we'd all sneak up in the animal and it was my hope that father and son would enjoy the experience even though I thought it had little chance of success. Evan and I would follow the stalk with binoculars and then after hearing a shot (supposing one occurred) we'd follow along with the field dressing gear and backpacks.

I'd never really followed a really long stalk with binoculars like this before and I've got to say I found it interesting to see the route from my perch. It was also interesting to note that from their perspective they chose several routes that I would not have chosen given my better vantage point. Apparently the high ground advantage applies as much to hunting as to war. After what seem an unbelievable amount of time- Isaac and Eric were within range of the caribou. While I would have been content to shoot the beast from a couple hundred yards away, they kept in going until they were just 30 yards away.

The caribou stood up and looked at them in alarm. I was pretty sure this was over as the caribou bolted. I was sure that Isaac would be thrilled with the stalk and getting so close to the animal. The caribou had other plans though and after bolting straight away, circled back and stood on the ridge line at rock chucking distance from the two hunters giving Isaac a quartering to shot.

Oddly, through the glass I saw the recoil of the shot before I heard it and saw the impact to the caribou who broke into a death run. After perhaps 40 yards the animal's legs buckled and tumbled down a small ravine and was still. The cow was shot through the lungs and the bullet severed the large artery in the back haunch- the animals reaction was one of pure instinct and brief.

Done. First blood and a textbook clean kill.

Evan and I gathered up the packs and headed to them just as the sun had vanished. The wind had picked up as the earth cooled in the high mountains and I was sure we would finish this by headlamp and flashlight before we got all the meat back to the truck. I surmised that it would be a long night and I was right. We would arrive back at the pickup just shy of midnight with both boys bloody and exhausted from fighting the alders in the dark with heavy packs and I've got to admit I was pretty tired as well.

Isaac unloaded the rifle and was placing it in the case and remarked the it had a lot of scratches and it was filthy. Seeing the look of pain on his face when one realizes that a new prized possession has gotten a new nick, I just grinned at him and said, "That's what you got it for- don't sweat it. You and your rifle did well…You're not planning on opening a museum with it are you?" He just gave me a little exhausted grin.

Both kids would be fast asleep in the back seat of the truck long before we got home, a very good day for a certain new hunter.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The .30-06 Project or….Eating Celery, Pt.1

I received a correspondence the other day that basically took me to task for ignoring (in the author's opinion) the greatest hunting cartridge of the twentieth century….the .30-06 Springfield. The author then enumerated all the various uses of the cartridge and how wonderfully versatile it is for a worldwide hunter and particularly, a North American one. After a few emails back and forth, I determined the author was a fairly young man, a 25 year old hunter, and his enthusiasm for the old '06 was certainly ardent and technically, spot on.

I do admit, I have largely ignored the '06 in the annals of this blog through no malice on my part. The couple of times I've tread close to the '06 have generated several comments about the cartridge and even though it's over a century old now, it is still one of, if not the single most popular hunting cartridge in America and perhaps, the world.

The main issue with the .30-06 is that as an outdoors writer there's just not much to say that hasn't been said many, many times before by figures with more experience and authority on the subject than I'll ever have. There's also the fact that as a hunting cartridge the '06's standard defining ballistics are well….boring. The '06 has defined the standard for the N. American big game cartridge for ages and no new cartridge in the category survives long without being directly compared to it. So much so in fact that any new cartridge that merely replicates those ballistics doesn't stand much chance in the marketplace. The .308 Winchester survived due to military adoption- that virtually guarantees commercial acceptance- but the very similar .30TC never achieved any market share at all and was born with a toe tag on. The .280 Remington just lingers for some reason or other and the .270 needed Jack O'Connor's gilt edged typewriter to manage a Number 2 finish- despite being a "technically" better cartridge. I've even gone so far to say that if the '06 were introduced as a 21st century cartridge we'd all yawn. A 180 grain bullet at 2700 feet per second in today's marketplace is basically ballistic celery. Only standing out in it's blandness.

That said, however, the .30'06 is a cartridge I've used quite a lot and the record I've had on game with it   is every bit as bland as the ballistics chart. For instance-  "Saw a deer, shot it, it died." I don't like talking numbers, but the journal entries like that are numerous enough to get the sense that the '06 is in no way a marginal cartridge for shooting medium sized big game animals. All of that experience happened many years before I started this blog though and reaching back into history to tell such a mediocre story seems like a proverbial Grand-dad showing the kids vacation slides from the world's second largest ball of twine. Most of the old photos are long since misplaced, including the one showing me kneeling by 4 whitetails taken with 4 shots from my Sig SHR 970- but I digress. Looking forward is what counts.

The fact that I consider the '06 "ballistic celery"in no way detracts from its value as a hunting cartridge. Among people who couldn't care less about such things as ballistics charts and having a unique and powerful cartridge- the '06 does duty year after year and generation after generation; knocking critters spinning and putting meat on the table before going back into the closet to live until next fall where it will come out and do it all over again. One of my good friends, a wizened old geezer (his words, not mine) has hunted for 50 straight years with the '06 and the 180 grain Remington Core Lokt. Elk and bears, deer and moose, and sheep and goats- they've all fell to his battered rifle, the bulk of them from a single shot behind the shoulder. I would wager to guess the bag for that hunter and rifle goes well into the triple digits and is now providing a fourth generation with wild protein on the plate.

So it's now at the urging of my new, young acquaintance that I plan on embarking upon something of a project- to explore the .30'06 once again. A couple of things happened- the first being that my deteriorating neck vertebrae have rebelled against recoil and recoil above the '06 level now gives me fits that frequently outlast the hunt. My beloved .375s and my newly acquired Rigby all went to other homes with younger hunters and I suspect after reading the careers of other gun and hunting writers that perhaps the condition isn't so unusual since I see many of them transitioning to milder cartridges as the odometer racks up a few miles. I, for one. plan on continuing this outdoor lifestyle as long as possible and at the urging of my doctor will limit the recoil I expose myself to. Since I'm not that old and have a good long while yet to hunt (God willing, I hope) then I consider it prudent advice. I won't even rule out the much maligned muzzle brake if that's what it takes.

The second event, a good friend offered me one of his rifles- an unfired Kimber Montana in .30'06. It's one of the older ones built on the magnum action that holds 5 down and has enough magazine length to seat long bullets way out to the lands. It also has a 24" barrel which will allow me to get the full potential of the '06 cartridge in every bullet weight. The rifle weighs 7.6 pounds with the Leupold scope mounted and that should be enough to keep the kick from belting me from under my hat but light enough to pack up the mountains.

And speaking of feeding the rifle- the catalog of ammunition for the old cartridge now lists some 200 entries. More than I ever thought possible. Many of the bullets and performance levels simply didn't exist back in the day I carried the '06 in the field, so that at least may add a little flavor to the blandness. A quick check reveals that factory loads run from the 55 grain Remington Accelerator all the way up to 240 grain Woodleigh Weldcore. For a "one gun" sort of hunter this will take the rifle from replicating a 220 Swift (55gr @4000fps) all the way to the loads that simulate what Hemingway used to pot a rhinoceros with every conceivable variation in between. We've come a long way from the choices being- "Remington or Winchester, 150 or 180 grain?" down at the local hardware store. I hope to be able to talk a bit about the newer ammunition that is reportedly making the cartridge better than it's ever been. In that vein, I'll try not to hand load for the rifle given the overwhelming variety of factory loads available and the moderate price point that millions of units in production brings with it. Even in these economic times- $20 a box is still readily found. It's one of the few rifle cartridges that make reloading look like a worse deal than it actually is.

So there you have it- a new project to embark upon. Hope you'll enjoy.

Friday, November 29, 2013

First Blood and the Ruger American Compact- Part 1

My good friend Eric came to me at work a few months ago and asked some questions about setting up a hunting rifle for his son, Isaac. I had helped Eric set up a 30-06 that spring and provided some basic shooting instruction- his 12 year old son was now looking to equip himself for pursuing big game that fall.

Of course, I was enthusiastic about the project as we reviewed several of the available models. Isaac decided on a Ruger American Compact. The compact version of the rifle came with a 12.5" length of pull and an 18" barrel, as well as a small selection of short action calibers perfect for a new shooter. His was chambered in .243 Winchester. I've often heard the .243 equally praised and scoffed as a hunting cartridge for big game hunting. The .243 was an easy adaptation of the .308 Winchester simply necked down to .243/6mm bore and is commonly viewed as a very practical round for both varmints and "small big game" and has a selection of bullets available for either purpose. The round's praise centers around light recoil that encourages good shooting and the cons center around a lack of power for suboptimal hits. Isaac, not having shot anything more substantial than an air rifle previously, wisely opted for the "less recoil=better shooting" concept.

A couple of days after picking up the rifle, Eric and Isaac dropped by the house to equip the rifle with a  scope and head out to the range. The father/ son arrangement had Isaac spending some of his hard earned "wood splitting, yard mowing" money and if he did then Eric would provide the scope. It's very easy as a hunting and shooting enthusiast to get sucked into the heady world of custom rifles, premium ammunition and European optics, but most hunters don't care nearly so much about such things and when your money comes to you at $5 an hour wielding a splitting maul and a push mower- you're doubly concerned with cost. I've received a couple of emails wanting a review of more inexpensive rifles…so to those readers, you're getting your request met.

In regard to cost the Ruger American shown through. Very similar to "budget" rifles from several other makers, it features an injection molded stock, a "trigger in a trigger" to get a decent pull without a lot of expensive hand fitting of the mechanism, and a tubular push feed action that's more forgiving in a mass production environment. My impression upon inspection of the new piece was highly favorable- they'd made every effort to produce an inexpensive rifle…but not a cheap one. I've had enough experience to know the difference and while my personal tastes and budget tend toward more esoteric pieces, there's absolutely nothing wrong with inexpensive and good enough. However, I detest "cheap" and often think they represent a false economy that fails to meet the intended need and new shooters are often handicapped right out of the gate with a cheap rifle or a cheap scope or both. On the Ruger sample the trigger broke clean and the extra tab in the center didn't bother me at all. I ran a couple of patches down the barrel to remove any manufacturing debris and was pretty impressed by the finish of the bore- something Ruger has not always excelled at in days gone by. The finish was a pretty well executed basic matte black. There were certainly no frills to be found, but no glaring flaws either.

Eric had provided a very common Nikon Prostaff 2-7x32 scope- a sensible power range for the rifle and cartridge and a set of low height Leupold Rifleman aluminum mounts for the Ruger supplied and installed Weaver type bases. The scope was clear and bright and certainly cost effective. Mounting and bore sighting the piece proved straight forward and simple and the final effect was a very well balanced and light hunting rifle that fit Isaac well. A few minutes safety instruction and we were off to the range.

Isaac has also picked up a couple of boxes of Federal "Blue Box" ammunition in the 100gr weight. Nothing fancy here but a proven performer in a lot of rifles I've had over the years for accuracy and appropriate bullet construction for big game hunting. Eric took the rifle and proceeded to fire three rounds. I was watching through the binoculars and saw a nice, tight cluster appear just a few inches from the bullseye. A couple of clicks on the turrets and the second group was centered nicely there and a mere 1.25" in diameter. Isaac took the rifle, assumed the prone position and fired a nice 2" group on the bull- a great effort for the first experience with a high powered rifle.
Several more similar groups out to 150 yards and we were all satisfied with the results. I'm pretty sure with a little better rest and possibly some different ammunition we would have no issue getting reliable sub MOA groupings with the rifle.

As far as cost goes it broke down to something like this:

Rifle: $310
Scope: $170
Mounts: $20
Ammo: $40
Sling: $20
Case: $40

Total: $600 ready to hunt.

I've got to admit that I've spent considerably more on a rifle that didn't shoot nearly this good, much less one with a scope and other required accessories. I certainly believe that we've entered a new era of firearms, optics and ammunition manufacturing- CNC machining and manufacturing has made tolerances not achievable in years gone by not only possible…but affordable. As a result we often now find very inexpensive rifles that shoot as a good (or better) as the efforts of highly skilled gunsmiths only a generation or so ago.

After a couple more practice sessions with the rifle, Isaac got a "go" for big game hunting with the piece.

More to come in "First Blood….Part 2"

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Its that holiday again. You know, the one that's wedged inconveniently between the end of hunting season and Halloween and Black Friday. Some merchants have decided to start the annual Christmas gift shopping season a little early this year and encroach upon our day of Thanksgiving. I've even heard more Christmas carols and so forth on the radio- I hope they realize that for every Christmas song played before Thanksgiving an elf drowns a baby reindeer….

All that aside- I do observe Thanksgiving. A long and laboriously prepared meal of the year's bounty, some good friends, and a lot of reflection upon the blessings we've received. A time of camaraderie and fellowship and…. thankfulness.

I do realize I have much to be thankful for. In no particular order on the outdoors front-

A safe hunting season that was injury free.

A wonderful harvest of nature's bounty- caribou, salmon, halibut, ptarmigan and grouse. My freezer runneth over- my family's meat for a year or more.

The opportunity to assist two new hunters with their first centerfire rifles and their first big game animals.

My son's first Sharp Tailed grouse.

The opportunity to teach at Becoming an Outdoors Woman to an enthusiastic group of ladies.

The camaraderie and companionship of a collection of fine outdoorsmen and women- their friendship in wild places is truly one of the things I cherish in this life.

A wonderful spouse and son who often accompany me…and aren't afraid when the work gets hard and things get messy.

And you- my readers and friends- who share this voyage through life in the wild with me and my friends and share your voyages in return.

Thank you,

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Modern Sporting Rifles…or Elmer Fudd Rants Again.

I received some email correspondence a couple of days ago asking me about my opinions on "Modern Sporting Rifles" which is apparently the new buzzword for "AR-15 type rifles".


I've largely avoided gun control related topics here and plan to continue in that vein; so don't confuse the following public response to a private email with any sort of political stance about AR15s (and related type arms), gun control, or any other Second Amendment sort of issue. The content here is purely technical. With that out of the way….

I hate them.

Yep. You read that right. Hate. Me, the lover of all things that go bang and I hate the AR15.

Let me illuminate for a moment while some of you catch your breath before you pound out a nasty gram in your email.

I have had a considerable amount of experience with the AR type rifles. Enough to understand the design, the operation, as well as shortcomings of such equipment so don't confuse my preference as one born of ignorance because it simply isn't true. While the AR is perhaps at this writing the single most popular rifle in America and is being manufactured and sold by darn near everyone. Many of those folks are pressing the AR into service in every aspect of the shooting sports and that includes hunting. If the AR was kept in the world of 3 Gun and Doomsday Preppers I probably wouldn't even bother to hammer something out, it's when they enter the hunting field that my real interest is piqued.

An acquaintance recently asked me about my favorite AR for hunting. Well, uh, none to be exact. Back in the way back when I had a nice Colt Match rifle that I used to pot groundhogs out of farm pastures with and was shooting with a buddy who had his Dad's ancient Remington 700 in 22-250. It was old and I believe the first 3-4" of rifling was simply missing, it's Weaver steel tube scope was white on one side from rubbing on the gun rack in the pickup. I wasn't shooting that great that day and had missed several when my friend offered a couple of shots with the 700. I lined up on the next available groundhog and pretty well decked him without a lot of drama. For the rest of the day we traded off shots with the rifle. Even though my Colt was among the finest such rifles available then…it was easily outdone on some oversized marmots by a battered and abused Remington. My expensive Modern Sporting Rifle was completely shown up by a $100 piece of crap with a bad barrel. I could have easily out shot him in a 3 gun match and much rather had mine in combat…but we were doing neither. We were killing groundhogs.

That made me start thinking that as a hunter I was barking up the wrong tree. I drifted from the AR to the bolt gun and never once looked back.

Fast forward twenty five years and now the AR is the darling of the shooting world and many new models are being marketed specifically to the hunter rather than the shooter. Several of the younger hunters I've talked to have expressed a lot of desire for a "Modern Sporting Rifle" to hunt with rather than Dad's old relics… I gotta wonder when any of my bolt guns achieved relic status. My son was quite enamored with one after shooting some ptarmigan this year thus equipped and every sporting goods store has seemingly devoted half the rack to them. So for the contrarian opinion- here are some of the cons for using a AR in the field.

1) Trigger. AR triggers have come a long way but they are still basically inferior to what you can get on a bolt action rifle. Most of the triggers are of the two stage military type and are a mushy, creepy, heavy sort of affair. A good AR trigger is really a terrible bolt action trigger and what most folks find acceptable on an AR would send them running for the gunsmith on a bolt action. Really good triggers cost a bunch of money in an AR and if you have a bunch of money to spend…. which brings me to point two.

2) Cost. ARs cost a lot of money. Most quality models go north of $1000 pretty quickly and for a really good grade with the aforementioned decent trigger you can about double it. For $2000 you can buy a top shelf bolt action rifle (with a good trigger as standard equipment), a really good grade scope and some ammunition to boot. In these days I've worked with a couple of younger shooters who bought low end bolt actions from Ruger and Savage and spent less than $600 on a rifle, scope, sling and some ammo…and are getting MOA accuracy from the bench and success in the bush. There is no AR on the planet that will equal either of those rifles in the hunting field for even twice their price.

3) Weight. I'm a foot hunter and spend every hunting season walking dozens (if not hundreds) of miles over rough terrain. I try to carve out the balance between durability and lightweight in all of my equipment- rifle included. The AR-10 in .308 Winchester usually weighs in at about 10-12 pounds scoped. A common .308 bolt gun will be a third less than that and it's no trick at all to get one half that. Think five pounds isn't significant? Go do it and then come back. Sitting in a tree stand all day the weight isn't an issue, at 8000' I've seriously considered burning my camp so I won't have to carry it back down the mountain.

4) Ballistics. Since we're talking about shooting real live critters, the subject of ballistics must come up. The AR-15 is most frequently found in .223 and that is arguably unsuitable for a big game rifle. Before anyone writes me and tells me I'm full of beans- I've shot big game with several cartridges, including the .223 and I consider it suitable only for very small deer at very close range and only then with good bullets- certainly a specialist's weapon. A few varieties of new cartridge for the AR-15 action are available but most don't equal the .243 Winchester in either power or range and the meager .243 has long been regarded as the minimum reasonable power level for a deer or antelope rifle. I guess I can't get my head around using the bare minimum when shooting for blood. Many indigenous peoples make marvelous use of light caliber rifles around the world, but as a sportsman I can only consider that I have a better choice they may not. Besides, indigenous hunters seldom read gun rags, shooting blogs, or spend inordinate amounts of time thinking much about it. Indigenous subsistence hunters also have substantial time and more opportunity than the typical sport hunter so passing a shot that's a bit far or not ideal isn't a big deal to them.

To get to really big game you have to step up to the AR-10 action in the .308 Winchester family of cartridges. While I do like the .308 Winchester very much and have used it extensively as well as recently started work with the 7mm-08; I can't help but think for the general run of North American big game these are really seen as the sensible minimums rather than the ideal. My own results with the .308 on a biggish caribou made me want my .300 so bad I could taste it and the results compared to my partner's .338 were simply shocking. For the woods hunter after whitetails only the AR10 is likely just fine ballistically but it is really a lot of fuss for the power level to achieve what the common 30-30 has been doing for 120 years. For the Alaskan hunter after moose and caribou with the odd grizzly bear thrown in you'll want something with more range and power than you can rationally stuff into an AR action. There are a few ARs being developed that either house or approximate the .300 Winchester Magnum, but they're even heavier and more costly than the AR-10 at this point.

5) Repeat shots are vastly overrated. If you don't do it right the first time, the second shot usually isn't any better. The ability of a fast follow up shot is usually cited as a major advantage for the autoloader but I have to wonder- with better ballistics, better trigger, better ergonomics, and not sucking wind from hauling a 12 pound rifle around…would a second shot be required? With practice a good shot with the bolt gun can reload pretty darn fast and a good shot seldom needs number two. I have shot multiple times at game but if the first one doesn't connect, number two isn't very likely to either. In my experience, the repeat shots are usually good for entertainment value at the range, making a cacophony of noise, and scads of empty brass to reload. Killing stuff? Er, not so much.

I'm certain at this point some of you have already exclaimed, "Yeah but…." and I realize that many folks take this issue well beyond the technical discussion I've presented here and I'm good with that. If toting an AR into the woods gives you a sense of freedom or is aesthetically pleasing to you- then, by all means, carry on. Several friends of mine will occasionally take to the field with one- fully realizing the handicap they've actually placed themselves under. I, for one however, would love to see the shooting community to stop presenting the "Modern Sporting Rifle" as the widespread and inevitable evolution of the hunting rifle. It just simply isn't an ideal hunting arm for the serious sportsman in my (maybe not so humble) opinion. Looking around, I count dozens of serious and accomplished hunters as my personal friends, and they almost never carry one in the field- so maybe I'm not so alone as I thought.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Random Thoughts on Melissa Bachman and the Lion

By now I've received more than a couple emails asking me what I think about Melissa Bachman and her now infamous lion posting on Twitter and the apparent ensuing hullaballoo following.

First- I don't watch television much, nothing on cable or satellite, and I am entirely unfamiliar with either her television show or her personally. I know she's been in the media after being bumped off of some survival show and frequently the target of anti-hunting groups. I have no idea about her hunting ethics or lack thereof. I generally avoid hunting television because it usually just disappoints or infuriates me. Celebrity hunters are something that admittedly confuse me.

Second- I did read some of the comments aimed at both her and at her detractors and her supporters. Gave that up pretty quickly too- a bunch of vitriol for naught. A lot more heat than light mostly and largely uncalled for.

Third- I've occasionally received the hate mail. I kinda hurts but mostly I just feel sad that somebody goes out of their way to try to piss me off. I suppose on a larger scale seeing someone publicly declare you should die painfully for doing something you love would pretty much not be fun.

Fourth- the comments I've seen, nearly in their entirety presume that the lion carcass was not eaten. In South Africa it almost certainly was…maybe not by Bachman, but someone chowed on lion and most everything else shot on the safari. "Trophy" hunting is hard to define for most hunters, I guess anti-hunters would be without reference.

The one fact I've seen little of is that of how the African model of wildlife management works. Unlike the American model- the success of the African model hinges upon the game animals having economic value. The very fact someone drops the (not inconsiderable) sum of cash to hunt lions is the ONLY reason there are even lions there to hunt in the first place. If lion hunting were illegal then the lions would surely be pushed aside by other profit making industries as a nuisance. Human farmers and ranchers have a long history of dealing with apex predators and crop depredators pretty harshly. The African model turns elephants and lions and other wildlife into a valuable resource rather than a dangerous or expensive nuisance. So rather than the local people poaching them off, they are protected and utilized as a renewable resource. The local populations utilize the meat, cash flows into rural communities without much industry and the wildlife have some serious advocates for their protection.

As much as the thought baffles me- it appears that old Simba took one for the team…without his death the entire area he lived would be devoid of wildlife and, maybe more importantly- devoid of lions.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Ballistic Chit Chat…or Anecdotal Evidence

Now that hunting season is winding down with the growing cold and failing light, I finally have some time to ponder a few of the events of the last few months. While not exactly a thorough article, I do feel it is of value to record our experiences with various cartridges and bullets. When viewed singly, they are merely anecdotal evidence- who could draw any substantial conclusion about what you could expect from cartridge or projectile from a single or even a handful of animals?

It is our shared experiences that give us a trend over time. With modern hunting, tightly controlled bag limits, and the plethora of new products hitting the shelves (as well as old favorites being discontinued) no one of us might actually get in enough actual shooting to really explore how bullets perform on game. In the old days we would rely on the world's great (or maybe not so great) hunters who often shot hundreds, if not more, animals in a lifetime. Often with the same rifle or with just a few loads. Modern gun and hunting writers, such as Craig Boddington, do a great deal of hunting but by virtue of their career use a plethora of different rifles and ammunition. The days of market hunting are long over and none of us will likely surpass the lifetime bags of any of those guys on a general run of game- and we probably shouldn't. The average, even very successful, North American hunter will be unlikely to get a significant amount of experience with a cartridge and load in a lifetime of shooting. Or at least enough to make a definitive statement about it's worth. A guide or PH might- but his impressions are of the shooting of clients or shooting when things go very wrong. It also supposes that a guide is terribly interested in such esoteric facts and they frequently just aren't.

So it is in this vein, that I've decided to just post some impressions of the loads and field performance I've seen this year- either that of myself or my companions. Some of the shooting I witnessed first hand, others I just helped in the butchering. Not that anyone could (or should) draw any firm conclusions from this- it is simply one more piece of anecdotal evidence to add to the greater body.

.338 Winchester Magnum/ 180gr Nosler Accubond- I saw two caribou shot with this load this year and came away impressed. The first a small bull at moderate range and the second a large bull at 300 yards. Both died instantly and no bullets were recovered. Significant was the fact both were quartering shots and the bullet penetrated a LOT of caribou- including some bone and still sailed through.

.300WSM/180 Nosler Accubond- I've used this load on more game animals in recent years with excellent results. This year's effort was a single bull at about 100 yards. Shot twice and the shooting was not very good. Bull died quickly and no bullet was recovered. This combination continues to impress after quite a few animals though.

.308 Winchester/ 150gr Remington CoreLokt- I shot a large bull at 300 yards. Although accurate, this was stretching this load's capability from a carbine in my opinion. Two broadside lung shots failed to fully penetrate- the bullets were not recovered. A third shot in the neck penetrated fully. I did find some evidence of bullet fragments in the wound channel.

.243 Winchester/ 100gr Federal Hot Cor- I saw a small cow caribou shot with this load at close range (30yds.). It was a quartering to shot and the bullet entered the neck and was recovered in the offside rear hip. I didn't weigh the bullet but it looked to have shed a fair bit of material. The cow went down in just seconds from what was probably a severed femoral artery and a lung hit. In retrospect, the smaller rifle was more capable that I gave it credit for on a quartering shot and I'd suggest the result would have been better at longer range and a better shot angle.

.300 Remington Ultra Mag/ 150gr Scirocco- easily the highest impact velocity of any round in the group. I've seen three caribou taken with this combination from 150 to 400 yds. and it is shockingly deadly- even with some marginal hits. Meat damage from hydrodynamic shock is nothing short of fearful however. I am curious how the light and fast bullet translates in a moose, but in caribou sized creatures no bullets or fragments were recovered.

.300 Winchester Magnum/ 180gr Barnes TSX- this round resulted in the death of a small moose, it's likely not representative of the expected performance as the shots were taken at extremely long range (est. 700yds). I counted 3 sets of bullet holes but the internal damage showed little expansion (most likely due to low impact speed). I wasn't doing the cutting but I'd expect that the bullets barely expanded, much less fragmented.

.300WSM/ 180gr Trophy Bonded Bearclaw- shot quartering through lung shot on a middle sized moose at 100yds. A magazine worthy, perfectly mushroomed bullet recovered under the off side hide that weighed 172.8 gr. The moose took about a dozen steps and went down for the count.

Some opinions that I've formed are such….

1. Nothing wrong with standard "cup and core" bullets like the CoreLokt and Speer Hot Cor. Be aware that high speed impact will fragment these and might not be suitable for some magnum cartridges. At moderate range, in standard cartridges they do just fine. At longer ranges these don't impress much.

2. Modern controlled expansion bullets in high speed magnums are great at longer than average range. In fact, I have to say that of all the shooting I saw this year, a lot of it was at the 300 yard mark or more and the results were pretty darn good. Much better than you could have expected 50 or even 20 years ago. I'm a real fan of the Nosler Accubond and Trophy Bonded Bearclaw bullets in the .300 class rifles.

3. Modern controlled expansion bullets rely on high impact speed to a degree to perform their best. If long range shooting is on the menu, then perhaps a softer bullet is in order- realizing that a close range opportunity will turn it into a grenade. I also think (from mine and other anecdotal evidence) that modern controlled expansion bullets are mostly a waste of time (and money) in standard velocity cartridges.

Shoot straight friends!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Hunting with the Steyr Scout…or the Redux, Redux.

Much has been said over the last 15 years in the hunting and shooting press about the Steyr Scout. One of the things I've found interesting is that the content as related to hunting with the piece is almost entirely theoretical. A lot of that has to do with the way most hunting and shooting magazines publish pieces about guns in particular. A vendor will send the magazine a sample of a particular rifle whose editor will then assign the gun to a writer who will (ostensibly) shoot the gun on a range or perhaps take it on a hunt or two and then write a piece about it. Few of the guns reviewed are the author's personal arms and most are sent back to the vendor after the shooting is done. The days of an objective gun press  are long over and most pieces get an astounding review and are usually featured in some prominent (read:expensive) advertising within the magazine.

Don't get me wrong- a truly good gun's maker can pay for ad space and it's certainly not in the financial interest of a magazine to poo on a client's product. I've no idea how much premium ad space is in a major magazine but cheap is not something that comes to mind.

Where does that leave the consumer? Well, pretty much at the mercy of friends, their own judgement, or a growing handful of guys who publish reviews of stuff on the growing blogosphere without the goal of financial renumeration. Of particular interest should be the guys who actually use a product in an actual hunting environment over a period of time. A review of a product by an amateur blogger who merely pontificates about a particular piece is no better or more valid than the pontification of a paid professional in my estimation. It takes someone who puts in the hard miles to really ferret out the good and bad. I don't frequently review products because it takes a lot of work to put in the time- a single hard hunt will often reveal gaping flaws but seldom do the real winners emerge until seasons later.

I've been an enthusiast of the Scout Concept since at least the mid nineties and followed it's production in the pages of Cooper's writings and finally culminated that in the actual purchase of a Steyr Scout. Even after my personal Scout was sold to finance my relocation to Alaska, I followed the developments and with some surprise, I was delighted when a major maker like Ruger produced a well done version of the Gunsite Scout after Cooper's passing. I acquired another Steyr from a lifelong friend and spent a lot more time shooting and hunting with it over the last couple of years. It is without hesitation that I report that I've read nearly every word published about the piece and so much of it is just theoretical gibberish we should all just dismiss much of it outright.

The first thing to realize is that the Scout concept is not a specialist's rifle. If you want something to punch small groups in paper or hunt elephant or shoot prarie dogs or clear rooms of terrorists or shoot critters at impossible distances please look elsewhere. The Scout is rightly thought of as a generalist's rifle. Something that does much acceptably but nothing perfectly. It is not a rifle that a guy can shoot off the bench a few times and get any sense of it's intrinsic design genius or flaws. It is not a rifle that you can Walter Mitty your way into appreciating by fantasizing about the impending zombie apocalypse or any other end of the world as we know it. It takes actual miles and real blood to appreciate it for what it is and for what it isn't.

Now that Ruger is producing a Scout rifle, I expect the concept to become ever more popular and I would hope not misunderstood. While the Steyr was Cooper's own project- the price tag was much too high to ever gain widespread acceptance in the marketplace. Ruger's version is much better done than the somewhat chintzy Savage effort and priced in line with middle of the road sporting arms. So much of the existing material out there is either survivalistic (it was released two years prior to Y2K and it's attendant madness) or compared to other rifles in situations clearly outside it's design (room clearing? seriously?). Even much of the press devoted to the newish Ruger Scout is from folks more interested in the martial aspects of the rifle rather than it's utilitarian qualities. I believe that 16 years association, exploring and hunting extensively in two corners of the continent give me a fairly good perspective on the concept.

So here we go:
Accuracy: the Scout is often termed an inaccurate rifle but nothing could be further form the truth. It is not a bench rest rifle and is not set up to appropriately get tiny groups from a bench. Once someone masters the precise aiming technique of using the corner of the heavy Duplex reticle, groups of about 1 MOA are entirely achievable. A hunter cannot approach or use this level of accuracy in the field so having a "more accurate" rifle is pointless. For field shooting, both of the samples I've fired would easily hit 6" targets to the limits of ethical field shooting. I've recently shot a caribou at 300 yards and hit 3 for 4 on a moving target and have hit groundhogs (a large type of marmot) back East further away than that. That's good enough.

Bipod: the Scout's bipod was often criticized back in the day as being not robust enough. I didn't understand it then and I still don't. I've never had an issue with either that I've owned under some pretty typical conditions for a hunting bipod. Heck, I can concoct a scenario in which I could break an anvil…am I likely to? No. Much of that worry comes from Gunshop Commando HQ. I also heard it criticized as being too tall. If you shoot it from a bench it is too tall. From prone on the ground it is perfectly acceptable and neither myself (5'11"), my wife (5'2") nor my son (4'10") have any issue with it. Aside from some making longish shots with it, it makes a convenient "kickstand" while you're cleaning a rifle or placing one on the ground while you attend to other tasks in the field. I think the integral bipod is one the rifle's very best features.

Weight/Length: the Scout weighs in at about 6.5 lbs and 39" long. By today's ethereal standards it is no longer a "lightweight" rifle, but back in the day it was one of the lightest production pieces available. I currently have two lighter full size rifles chambered in heavier cartridges. The lightweight coupled with short length makes the rifle "handy"- even a light rifle can be a pain when they're too long. Handy. There's no better term for it. Whether being carried in hand, on a sling, on an ATV or in a bush plane- a short rifle is easier to deal with and gets knocked around less, hung up in branches less, and overall just friendlier to deal with. This was really apparent when I tried skiing with a slung rifle. Cross country skiing is a movement heavy activity and a full size rifle was always hitting something when slung across the back. The Scout tucks in nicely behind the back and stays out of the way.

Reserve Magazine: the reserve magazine in the rifle's butt was often the point of conversation among the early survivalist crowd that initially flocked to the rifle (largely through space age aesthetics). Some loved the fact a guy could have 20 rounds on board using 10 rd magazines (no one asked 'why?') and some criticized it's location as being suboptimal for "tactical reloads" (whatever the heck that is). Having a spare 5 round mag in the butt does a few things- it balances the rifle to a more neutral position- neither butt nor muzzle heavy, it keeps an extra payload available when things don't go exactly according to plan-see my previous caribou story, and it allows a convenient place for special purpose rounds- either light loads for small game or ultra heavies for bear protection. Some early reports have the magazine falling out under recoil- a glitch certainly correctable now that I've never experienced personally after much shooting. While it is by no means one of the rifle's better features, it's a touch than I really appreciate.

Intermediate Eye Relief Scope: this is one of the features that causes folks the most heartburn and some people can't get used to it at all. It is also the one feature that people associate most closely with a "Scout Rifle". Properly done you shoot with both eyes open. If you close your non-dominant eye you miss out on the effect in large- that of having an enormous field of view. It has been criticized as not being adequate for field shooting at long range- I've proven that incorrect to myself several times with a lot of range shooting and big game hunting shots at well over 200 yards. Many dismiss the scope as suitable only at close range….that's pure poppycock. Groundhogs are not terribly large creatures and I've splattered several at ranges too embarrassing to publish. High magnification is not required for long distance shooting and I've found the .308's trajectory much more problematic at long range than lack of magnification. At typical woods ranges, I find the IER faster than irons and much more accurate in low light- having shot several whitetails in the big oak woods. For the Eastern US hunter an Aimpoint type scope might be the ultimate for using in the dark woods where ranges seldom exceed 100 yards but not a handicap if one encountered shot down a right of way or open field.

Two serious pieces of criticism I've heard from serious hunters do hold water. One, is that an IER scope is more subject to glare when backlit-particularly when the sun is low to the horizon at either dawn or dusk. That's a valid point and one that effects conventional scopes as well, just not to the same degree since the shooter's head shades the ocular lens. The field shooter will have to be aware and be ready with a hat some other object to shade that ocular lens or risk being too dazzled by the reflection to shoot. It hasn't been an issue in my hunting but it certainly could be. Two, the lack of magnification makes judging trophy animals difficult. I know a lot of guys will turn a scope up for a last minute check to determine the trophy quality or legality of an animal before pressing the trigger. The IER scope is not at all suited to that. Personally, I've already done that by the time I put the crosshairs on the animal with my binos but if a last look at a critter is important to you then an IER scope is probably not your cup of tea.

Interchangeable Butt Spacers: one of the better features on the rifle is the variable length of pull achieved by the use of interchangeable butt spacers. Quite important for a couple of reasons- for one, my whole family shoots this rifle and each of us has a preferred length of pull. It's not something I'd want to change while a critter is in sight, but it's a simple matter to change it at camp for whoever is the primary shooter of the day. Even without multiple users, being able to change L.O.P. for seasonal clothing is very convenient since in my early season I may very well be hunting in a simple t-shirt and in winter I'll have multiple layers or even a thick parka. I wish this would catch on among other manufacturers as it's very convenient. Ruger now features this on a few different models, including their Gunsite Scout, but I don't find the result terribly aesthetically pleasing and it does require tools which would make doing the job in camp kind of a drag.

Back Up Iron Sights: originally I was in love with this feature. Thinking being that you ran with the scope and if the scope failed you could easily transition to the back up sights. It's not a feature exclusively featured on Scout Rifles and the virtues of back up sights have been extolled for a century since scopes became a feature on sporting arms. In use however, their utility tapers off. Stocks are generally set for either irons or scopes. Rifles meant for scope use tend to have higher combs and irons tend to have lower ones. A comb height that works well for a scope will be too high for irons and one set for irons will be too low to get a cheek weld with a scope. In fact, the irons on my Steyr are so low that I have trouble getting my head scrunched down on the stock enough to see through them. Great idea but tough to execute on a rifle. Any rifle. It may be a moot point since rifle scopes are so darn good these days that field failures are incredibly rare in the real world. A good quality scope will take an incredible amount of abuse before failing. In fact, the last person to adjust the Leupold scope on my rifle was the Steyr factory…16 years ago.

Mechanical Complexity: if there is one thing I don't like about the Steyr it is the mechanical complexity of the action and trigger. Field stripping the bolt reveals what I've come to expect from Bavarians in general and Austrians in particular…a whole bunch of little bitty parts assembled by gnomes in a factory powered by unicorn flatulence and fairy magic. Incredibly complex assemblies for something so simple in function, it makes one wonder about the robustness of such things in the field. I've used both of mine in some challenging conditions without failure but a failure in the field is probably not repairable there. It may not be repairable on the average gunsmith's bench and very well may need a trip back to the factory or importer. It does yield some interesting features with respect to locking the bolt, an excellent safety and a very weird but excellent trigger pull. But I still wonder about its long term reliability.

Ballistic Potential: the factory Scouts are all limited to the .308 case and the .308 Winchester is the most common chambering. While the .308 is certainly no slouch in the hunting field it is often criticized as being inadequate for the beasts the Scout specifications called for- 400 kilograms (1700 pounds) at 300 yards. This encompasses a lot of critters- some I'd shoot with a .308 and some I wouldn't. The Scout is certainly not a dangerous game rifle (that's why they built the much maligned and poor selling .376 Steyr) but a moose or elk are big animals and 300 yards is a long way. Even on my 500 pound caribou the results were not dramatic enough for my taste. I would likely draw the line at 500 or so pounds at 300 yards and maybe 1000 or so at 150yds. It is interesting to think what might occur if the excellent WSM line of short magnums were used in a Scout although I admit that may be missing the point altogether. The .358 Winchester and the .338 Federal are both short actions but neither have made it into a Scout in factory form. For most folks though, the .308 and 7-08 are completely adequate for any hunting they may do.

So that's a run down of the features of the Scout but I'm really afraid that even a brief description of the features or a longer technical run down (which I've tried to avoid and can be found elsewhere) really do due diligence to the rifle. Hunting with a nice rifle has a feel that is hard to describe- a well balanced piece feels lighter, a well fitting stock puts the reticle immediately in front of the eye, handiness is only appreciated in an alder thicket. And the sum of those things can only be appreciated over time and terrain. At this juncture I am attempting to procure a Ruger Gunsite Scout and hope to do a review of it in a future piece.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Godzilla the Caribou vs. Evan and The Scout

The early caribou season had progressed slowly. We had hunted a lot, but the hot dry summer kept the bulk of the herd socked away in the high mountains- well out of our reach. Not that we didn't try, having hunted 10 days in the 2 weeks between my Coffee Cr. caribou and the beginning of this tale. We would go out frequently and always see caribou- small cows and calves, a yearling bull maybe- nothing I was going to burn my second tag on. It's not that I'm overly picky about trophy quality since I am first and foremost a table hunter, but size is also pounds. The small bull we shot in the early season was delicious but we'd eat through it by New Years.

Evan had a wonderful encounter where we had a cow and a bull calf walk straight through our area. Even though the bull calf was legal on our "Bull Caribou" tag- we passed, my Labrador retriever weighed more. We decided to let him grow up a few years before we shot at him. Evan did however decide to stalk the creatures for practice and in a show of growing independence made me stay at our lookout while he went solo up the ridge to where the pair had disappeared. After leaving me with the rifle he made his way through the brush and was soon over the summit in pursuit.

I was there enjoying the day when Evan burst over the edge running flat out. It was rather comical afterward- the look of terror on his face while he sprinted down the ridge, his feet hitting the ground about every third step. Within seconds he was back at my side panting. I was chuckling since nothing had followed his hasty retreat and he was apparently whole despite the heart rate and gasping.

"What in the world is that about?" I inquired, certain this was going to be entertaining.

"That caribou, she was going to charge me!" he replied. I was immediately doubtful since a caribou's first  and only defense is to run like heck when threatened. I've never heard of a caribou charging anything despite the fact they have the largest antlers of any deer species on earth relative to their body size. Evan went on to explain (between gasps) that he had found the pair and he crawled through the bushes to get closer. He reported that he was making his way when he looked up and was nose to nose with the cow.

"And then what happened?" I queried.

"She snorted really loud and then pee'd all over the place! She was going to charge me!" he recounted in wide eyed terror. The thought of Evan crawling right up to a caribou and then having them "discover" each other at bayonet range was hilarious. I don't know who was more scared- Evan or the cow- but they both hauled butt from the scene. I carefully explained that caribou don't really charge but if that had been a cow moose she would have stomped him into a hole in the ground. I'm betting that lesson will stick for life.

Without a shootable critter showing up to the party we headed to camp.

We met up with my friend Gary the next day and headed back to the field. Although the caribou had been scarce and few had been taken, the migration had to start sometime. I awoke with a good feeling. The autumnal equinox and the harvest moon had shown brightly the week before. It just felt like a good day to be hunting despite a lot of evidence that it shouldn't be. An overnight snow storm had left 12-18" of fresh powder on the ground which would make stalking hard but tracking easy. We only had a few days left on our early season tags and we both hoped to get a good sized animal after we both took smaller bulls earlier in the season. It was with a renewed sense of optimism that we left early that morning.

As we made our way over a small ridge in a new area we saw what we had been waiting for. Caribou. Lots of them, including some big bulls. The deep powder made the approach difficult but within a few minutes we had closed on the herd's flanks which were being guarded by a couple of big old bulls. Evan immediately named the one he wanted Godzilla. In retrospect it was probably the largest caribou he had ever seen so the name is more apt than I thought at the time. These were old animals, already pushed out of the herd by younger, stronger bulls. These old gentlemen were on their way to checking out…we decided to speed them along on the journey.

We decided to take them. We closed to a small barren rise and looked across the snow covered ground. There was no cover and no way to approach- the bulls had already spotted us. The range was nearly three hundred yards. I had been trying to get Evan on a caribou all season and set up the Scout rifle on it's integral bipod. He lined up the shot on one bull and Gary had went prone over his pack. Evan, being the most inexperienced would shoot first and then Gary would take the second animal. I was rifle-less, intending on letting Evan do the shooting and not wanting to finish the day packing two rifles if we were unsuccessful. In just a few minutes I would want my pet .300WSM.

Evan got into position. He had practiced out to 150 yards with confidence but this was twice that far. He looked through the scope and breathed and as much as I love my Scout- this was not the most ideal situation for the carbine and certainly not with a neophyte on the trigger. After a long moment's consideration and in a moment of exceptional restraint, Evan exhaled long and said, "It's just too far for me to shoot Dad. You take it."

Regardless of whether we'd score an animal or not today- this hunt was a success. For a young and eager hunter to peer through his scope at a big bull after a long and hard season and then decide to pass the shot was something I was extremely proud of. Many youth and a lot of adults get overwhelmed with their blood lust and send bullets across the tundra at impossible distances. I had coached him on the importance of knowing when to make the shot and when to pass and it was gratifying as a Dad and mentor to see that lesson sticking in the heat of the moment.

I slid behind the rifle and lined up the shot. With a scope magnification of only 2.5x- the crosshairs obscured a lot of the distant animal. I had previously shot a whitetail at 225 with the rifle so I new it would carry the distance. Even though we were spotted, we were still far enough away that the bulls just peered at us without much alarm. They would get nervous and feed up the mountain away from us and push the larger herd in front of them so we would have to conclude this pretty soon or risk them moving out of reach.

My bull was rock steady in the scope with the bipod deployed and Gary had been ready to shoot for a minute. I whispered to him- "Take yours Gary." He must have had the slack in the trigger already taken up because the punctuation on the sentence hadn't left my mouth with the big .338 boomed. The 180 grain bullet streaked across the distance in a flash and I heard the impact- a hollow thump and his bull collapsed in a heap. Even though I don't care for the .338, there is no doubting it's considerable killing power.

I looked at the remaining bull through the scope, applied pressure to the trigger and the gun rang out. My 150 grain, .308 Winchester crossed the distance much slower than Gary's magnum bullet and the impact of the shot was clearly discernible- what the German Jaegars call the kugelschlag. The bull humped up at the impact but stayed on his feet. I reloaded the rifle, lined up the crosshairs and shot again. Boom…Whap! The bull took a couple of steps in the deep snow and was making a run over the hill.

I had reloaded the rifle and applied a generous lead- Boom! I saw a geyser of snow erupt in front of the bull. I had applied to much lead and shot in front of the animal. Even though the shot didn't connect it had a desired effect in that the bull stopped, turned 180 degrees and started back across the small bowl he was in. I reloaded again and applied what I hoped to be the correct lead and pressed the trigger.


It has often been said that the two loudest noises in the shooting sports are a bang when expect a click and a click when you expect a bang. I can attest that is true and am happy to report it on the latter; the striker hitting the dud primer was so loud in my mind that I could swear it echoed off the far hills. It puzzled me briefly but I ejected the faulty round and chambered the last remaining round in the magazine. I  acquired my sight picture, briefly exhaled and executed what Cooper called a "compressed surprise break". Better known as shooting in a hurry.

The gun roared for the fourth time and the bullet sailed downrange. I clearly heard the impact and the bull turned in his track, spraying a geyser of blood as he fell into a heap. Although the elapsed time couldn't have been more than a few seconds, it felt like an eternity. We made our way to them through a snow and brush choked ravine, taking the time to scout out and stomp a good trail in the snow since we would have to ferry several loads of meat apiece back through here. We soon had the bulls in hand and set about the usual tag cutting, trophy photo taking, and butchering tool arranging that is our usual ritual.

We started on Gary's bull first, and while such things are frequently given to exaggeration, I believe I would have had a hard time rolling it over solo. A very big bodied bull with large antlers, I looked back at mine- equally large.  I was very happy the day was shaping up to be a nice one, temperature right at freezing with a warm sun and a cloudless, windless blue sky- the perfect day for both field butchering and meat care. I felt fortunate that we had got on these early in the morning because hauling both of these off the mountain on our backs the mile back to the camp would take most of the day. If this had been at dusk we would have no choice but to leave these here in the dark and start again in the morning.

Gary had placed his shot very well. The animal had been quartering away and he hit it right behind the last rib and punched his bullet clear through and out right in front of the bull's shoulder. The carcass was an impressive wreck internally and death was largely instantaneous. We moved to my bull and saw that my shooting was good but the .308 carbine's mild ballistics really showed at this range. Shots 1 and 2 had both punched cleanly though both lungs but lacked the velocity and energy to create a lot of drama and neither had resulted in an exit wound. Don't get me wrong-these wounds were clearly fatal even individually but the bull might have travelled a couple hundred yards before succumbing to the inevitable. A lot of hunters would be content with such a follow up- admittedly in 12" of fresh snow tracking the bull would be a piece of cake but I like to finish such things quickly and I'm not afraid to expend ammunition. Shot 3 was a miss and 4 a misfire but shot 5 had hit where the chest joined the neck and blown out the bull's jugular- death was extremely quick albeit a bit gory on the fresh snow for the faint of heart.

Butchering took on a leisurely pace and we took great pains in the meat care. With the gorgeous weather, difficult ground conditions and mild temperature there was simply no need to get in a hurry. To rush would only invite an injury- quite likely with sharp knives and heavy loads on uncertain terrain. By day's end we had all the meat recovered and in an unusual twist for both Gary and I, both heads saved for mounting in the vehicle. At check in Gary's bull was somewhat lighter but live weights on both bulls were estimated at 450-500 pounds which is pretty darn big for the area. They both took five trips to get off the mountain in our packs and each load weighed 60-80 pounds. Which was plenty for the steep and snow covered terrain.

At the conclusion though, the finest bulls either of us had taken or likely will for some time to come and both yielded an abundance of meat for the impending winter.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


I looked up at the sky, searching for any sign of stars or moon or even the outline of familiar peaks- a black shape silhouetted on a slightly less black background. Nothing. Rain continued to fall like it had all evening and into the night- not the passing showers but a steady cold drizzle that saturated everything. My feet hadn't been dry since morning, yesterday morning at this point, and my pants and shirt were slowly wicking water from the cuffs. My torso was mostly dry and warm thanks to layers of merino wool,good quality mountaineering clothing topped with a layer of impenetrable old school rain gear. I was probably better off than my companions in that regard. I shifted around slightly on the tundra moss to try to get a little more comfortable and get some sleep. What landed me in this position wasn't some cataclysmic event, but rather an ongoing series of common errors whose effect was compounded. I knew (more or less) where I was and roughly where I needed to go but the route to get from here to there was elusive. I was lost.

How I arrived at my uncomfortable position started that morning. After driving until midnight, we had rendezvoused with my long time friend and frequent hunting companion Bill at a spot I'll just refer to as Coffee Creek. He had a camper set up there with his wife and we slept there until daybreak. At sunrise we left on ATVs and headed up the Coffee Creek trail into the mountains south in pursuit of caribou and moose. The hunt went well, despite foul weather and snow, and we hunted hard all day seeing bears, moose, caribou and ptarmigan. Early in the morning we stalked a band of caribou who gave us the slip just before a snow squall hit and we hunkered down out of the weather in zero visibility conditions. Bill's cabbed Argo made waiting out the storm much more comfortable.

After it passed we continued in snow conditions for several more miles, stopping to glass frequently. About twelve miles or so into wilderness of the Alphabets we glassed a covey of ptarmigan and shot several. It had grown late in the day and I must admit, I was cold and tired when we turned the machines toward camp. About a mile on our return trip through the mountains a small bull caribou came prancing out off the mountains. It spied me and approached to within a hundred yards. I shot it and after field dressing, had it stowed on my ATV to be butchered at camp. The rest of the ride to camp was uneventful, when we passed 5000'in elevation the steady snow turned to sleet and at lower elevation the snow turned entirely into rain. The creeks were swollen and the mudholes that dotted the trails were full and we arrived back at camp about 7:30pm.

My son was in the camper and in dry clothes in a flash and was soon eating a hamburger with Bill's wife Laurie. Bill and I pulled my ATV under the camper's wide awning and we soon had the small bull butchered beautifully and we both looked forward to dry clothes and a hot meal before we turned in for the night. Our neighbor in the gravel pit was a guy I'll refer to as Clueless Joe. Joe and his father in law had been there for a few days beside Bill and Laurie and the two had started a casual friendship prior to my arrival. Bill had tracked down a lost caribou for the pair the day before in his Argo and much was said about it's impressive abilities in the difficult terrain that Coffee Creek contained. So it wasn't unusual when Joe showed up in our camp and started the conversation.

"I shot a moose!" exclaimed Joe.

"Great," replied Bill, "How big was it?" and the other usual small talk that sportsmen engage in when describing a recent field success.  His answers were pretty vague and our quizzical glances must have triggered his next response.

"I haven't got it yet, I just shot it!" Joe replied to our glances.

"Not field dressed? Not gutted?" asked Bill, "What are you doing back at camp?"

"Well that's what I came over here about...want to make some money?" Joe replied.

I must admit that the alarm bells were going off right and left. As a sportsman I generally know that most other sportsmen are helpful sorts of folks and there's a kind of Golden Rule and Trail Karma that says we all have to look out for each other out there. I've pulled my share of stuck wheelers from the mud (and been pulled out in turn) as well as searched for lost animals and butchered and field dressed many animals. Most hunters will readily lend a hand because you never know, next week it could be you in need. Joe's immediate appeal to profit motive was a significant breach of field etiquette and when combined with a mystery moose, vague directions, et al it simply set off my radar.

I looked at Bill and could see he was torn about it. He was clearly skeptical about Joe's story and his request was certainly straining their new found relationship. Bill reluctantly agreed and like a good friend let me off the hook immediately, "You're beat man- I got this. Just rest easy." To let Bill ride off into the approaching dark in the Argo would have been to surrender my man card indefinitely. Moose are big and three guys (one of them 75) might not be enough and Bill's discomfort with the idea was apparent. He needed a wing man.

"No way man, I'm not letting you ride on this alone. More hands will make lighter work." I replied. With Evan stowed safely in the camper with Laurie I grabbed a couple of knives, a headlamp and a sandwich. I made my first flawed assumption of the night and said, "This shouldn't take too long."

We made our way several miles, following Joe and his father in law on their ATV. The Argo is an impressive beast albeit a slow one with a rough ride. We arrived at Joe's observation point with just enough light to see. What lay before me was the most inopportune place to shoot a moose in perhaps the entire world. I could see the river, a narrow spit of land perhaps a mile long and a long, large pond. The pond was ringed with marsh grass four feet high for perhaps 20 yards all the way around. Our vantage was a hill that dropped 400 feet into a black spruce forest that encircled the pond for a mile in every direction save the edge that butted to the river. Looking closer at the forest I could see bands of yellow willow and none of the trees were very big.

It was just one huge swamp bordered by steep ridges on three sides and a river on the fourth. Each ridge had multiple fingers that ran sharply down into the swamp. Our observation point was on one of those fingers and under intense questioning Joe revealed the moose's location and it appeared to be perhaps two miles away across a swamp, a bog, and a pond. Presumably the moose had fallen in the marsh grass and was no longer visible. Under more questioning Joe revealed the location he shot from to be on our side of the pond. Distance across the pond had to be 600 yards. When I asked Joe how many rounds he fired to drop the moose his only reply was, "A lot."

This smelled like trouble.

We all boarded the Argo and picked our way down the mountain and into the thick swamp below. While the linear distance was two miles we would have to pick our way around the swamp staying on the most solid ground we could find at the bases of the ridges- a distance of at least five or six miles at least and our progress was impeded by numerous tussocks, bogs and blowdowns since any tree that grew more than about 25 feet tall gave up it's footing in the soft earth and fell over in the areas numerous windstorms. I saw immediately why Joe wanted Bill's help- this was where wheelers go to die. He had thought we'd simply motor down and take advantage of the Argo's amphibious capability and simply boat across the pond to the moose. The only issue was that we were several hundred pounds over the amphib rating of the Argo and while it's true that the Argo would float, it didn't do well in the bog conditions that ringed the pond. The ground wasn't firm enough to hold the weight of the machine and not fluid enough to float it. We'd just be stuck.

After considerable difficulty we managed to maneuver the Argo through the miles of rough country to about where we thought the moose would be. Joe climbed into the marsh grass and went on a stumbling search pattern looking to the moose. High grass, thigh deep water and darkness hampered his effort. I decided that "in for a penny, in for a pound" and I shed my pants and pulled my rain pants back on and waded into the water. My already damp boots filled for water as I waded out. After a few moments of wading in the grass I heard a hissing sound and smelled the familiar odor of ungulate digestion. I wandered toward the noise and there in the murky water was a moose leg and on closer inspection I saw a bubbling wound. The moose had been shot in the gut and was off gassing enough that it was bubbling just under the surface of the water.

I felt around and found the head and pulled the beast's head above surface and saw a small paddle. Not good. I twisted and grunted around and pulled the other side above the water, a three tined antler appears. Doubly not good. "Hey Joe, you want the good news or the bad news?"

"Give me the good," he replied.

"I found your moose," I responded back. "The bad news is that he isn't legal."

Joe started thrashing and wading toward my light, cursing as he went. He soon arrived and looked down and seeing the moose's antler said, "I could have swore it was a fork! Now what do we do?"

"You're going to have to turn it in." I replied. "We're here to recover a moose and we're going to recover a moose. You can turn it in and get a little ticket or not and get a much bigger ticket."

Joe muttered under his breath and we rigged a haul line from the Argo to moose and with considerable effort yarded the moose from his watery grave to the firm sandbar beside the river. Decency prevents me from retelling the numerous field dressing blunders of the next two hours but suffice to say the moose was not done justice and every so often Bill would shoot me a glance that silently said, "How did we get tangled up with these guys?" But finally after much work and instruction we had the moose, now destined for some other family, in the back of the Argo. We were seriously overweight and Bill was worried about making it out of the swamp. A quick decision was made that Joe would walk back, taking a more direct route and father in law would ride on the meat.

One thing was immediately clear, our back trail that one would think would look like a bull dozer had traversed the area looked like nothing at all. The eight foot tall willows simply sprang up once we passed and soon we realized we were driving through the swamp in circles. The overcast night yielded no stars and the steep ridges all around prevented any meaningful look at the skyline. We began a series         of foot recons to try to pick the best path to lumber the heavy machine through. After a couple of hours we decided that we should pick a ridge gentle enough to climb and attempt to get our bearings. We only accomplished this we tremendous difficulty and finally topped out on the summit.

It was 3am.

Bill and I had a brief conference. It was 3am, we were down to a quarter tank of fuel, the air cooled engine was rasping with a burnt valve and we were all exhausted. Bill and I made the decision to simply stop until dawn and with the daylight we could find our way out. This decision caused considerable consternation with Joe who needed talking out of walking out in the dark. I explained that we were fine, no one was hurt but if we kept driving around in the dark we'd either flip the machine, run out of fuel or have a break down. Joe was also pointing in a direction that was certainly not the direction of the highway, camp or the trail system. I was pretty certain where we were; on a different finger of the ridge on which we started and pretty sure we needed to travel south to hit the highway but the terrain between here and there was a mix of steep ridges, deep ravines and watery bogs.

I decided to do the most practical thing possible and that was to build a fire. I used a small bow saw and  soon had a collection of dry spruce boughs. They would burn fast, but daylight was only a few hours away. Bill went to work on the fire and soon we had a good blaze going. Joe had calmed down considerably and his father in law proved to be a pleasant companion around the fire. I even managed to get some sleep, albeit it was pretty uncomfortable.

I was up in the pre dawn light and immediately recognized the ridge to our south as the one that overlooked camp. I stood on a convenient boulder and within a few minutes a truck came down the highway- his headlights easily visible. We were likely one finger over from the overlook our adventure started from and only about a mile from the highway itself. We roused ourselves and when the dawn had developed enough for safe maneuvering we set off. Joe and I took foot recon and soon had a path down the slope but the upslope to climb the ridge was right on the verge of the Argo's tipping point. We fed out the winch line the full one hundred feet. Bill's thinking was we'd use trees to anchor and take up slack as he applied power to the wheels in case the machine tried to tip backwards the winch would catch it. After several harrowing minutes the Argo was at the anchor tree. We would then pull the winch line again in a process we'd repeat eight times before we crested the ridge. From the crest we had only a short ride to the trail. We were only a 1/2 mile from Joe's parked wheeler. But we might as well been on the moon for our ability to navigate the terrain in the dark.

I was 8am by the time I sacked out in the camper- a full 26 hours from the time we started our hunt.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Heart of the Matter...

The caribou hunt ended with the crack of the rifle. The shot was pretty close by open country standards, maybe a hair over 100 yards or perhaps a hair under. For an accurate rifle fired from a solid rest it should be a chip shot but the critter didn't react the way I expected. The bull whipped around at impact and drug his off side rear leg with the next step.

That wasn't right.

I reloaded the rifle and placed the bull's shoulder in the crosshairs and pressed the trigger a second time. Upon impact the bull fell into a heap and I made my way to the animal quickly. He was dead, but it was apparent my shooting was not at it's best. Not satisfied with hitting the bull too far back the first time, I did it again from the other side- smashing the liver to paste and exiting the paunch behind the last rib. While fatal, it was not the shot I normally take and wouldn't ever attempt on purpose. Upon beginning the field dressing process the carcass was an impressive wreck internally and I'd lose a significant chunk of meat from the rear quarter where the bullet exited and pulled a lot of matter from the gut with it. What a horror show and I've seen plenty to know.

If there was one bright side to my bout of spectacularly bad shooting, it was that I had, for the first time, a completely intact caribou heart. I've never been a huge fan of eating organ meat other than the occasional piece of liver- I simply don't favor it despite the assured opinion of many of my friends that the heart of game animals is the best part. Historical records and many hunter gatherer societies reserved the heart purely for the hunters and among the Plains Indians the heart was frequently consumed at the kill site. I've always assumed this was for animistic reasons rather than gastric ones and I'd never consumed the heart of an animal I'd taken. When told of my plans, several of my associates turned their noses in disgust. I found that interesting in a society that makes hot dogs and "beef pizza topping".

In days gone by when protein was harder to come by, heart was a rare delicacy on the tables of nearly everyone and recipes for it run from the simple to the fanciful. Now that I was holding this perfect heart in my hands, I decided that it was time to try it. I searched for a recipe to try it with- everything from a simple grilling process that seemed too plain for something as exotic as heart to the sausage stuffed heart with pepper creme sauce- I couldn't even find the ingredients for that one. I consulted my Facebook circle of friends and one name popped up- Marc Taylor. A trained chef, Marine Scout Sniper and an Alaskan hunter of the highest caliber immediately proffered a recipe that was simple but sounded delicious. Not too complicated as to cover up any mysterious flavor heart my offer but not so plain as a piece of meat thrown over fire.

And here it is.

Slice the heart into 1/4" to 3/4" strips and rinse well. Be certain to remove any gristle or hard parts. Butchering the heart is something I'll leave to other authors but I lost enthusiasm for it when I got toward the top part that holds the valves. The lower half was rather easier in this regard.

Soak the pieces in milk overnight of for at least several hours.

Dredge the pieces in well seasoned flour and pan fry in hot oil with onions.
Voila'....GBD- Golden Brown and Delicious!

When finished, brown a little of the flour mixture and then deglaze with broth and make a brown gravy.

Plate and serve immediately either solo or over potatoes. I prefer solo when good, lean protein is on the menu. No need to dilute the plate with simple carbs and starches....

My impressions? Well, I can't say that it had any sort of unusual flavor. It (more or less) tasted exactly like any other piece of caribou muscle fiber I've eaten, which is plenty. What was unusual was the texture. It was very dense with an extremely fine grain. In some ways, very much like liver in that regard although it was a bit tougher and chewier. It was a perfect match for the flavor of a caramelized sweet onion and the saltiness of brown gravy. It was delicious and doesn't deserve the derision many cast upon it. Neither would I elevate it beyond it's true status- far from a delicacy, I'd simply take backstrap or tenderloin any day as would most folks but if you wind up with the odd venison heart there is no need to leave it with the gut pile as it makes for a acceptable and particularly memorable meal.