Sunday, October 25, 2015

Early Season, Opportunity and Desire- Pt. 2

As the bugs hatched out and became unbearable, we relocated camp to a large gravel flat near a large lake. The wind from the lake would help knock down the bugs and the lack of vegetation gave the wee beasties fewer places to hatch from. While most folks concentrate on the ubiquitous mosquito, the most dreaded insect in this corner of Alaska is the biting gnat. The creature goes by several names- the biting gnat, the biting midge and the "no-see um" the proper name is the one almost no one refers to them by, Ceratopogonidae. No matter- they all refer to a terrible creature, who gnaws a bloody hole in your skin and then apparently craps in the hole for spite. The gnats lay eggs and hatch out in the tussocks of damp mountain tundra and walking across it can raise unbelievable clouds of them. Once they detect a mammal- the females home in and commence to feed on blood as part of the reproductive cycle. Many people have terrible allergic reactions to the proteins in their saliva and break out in huge welts. Camping on dry gravel bands and bars, particularly in wind prone locations can reduce the exposure. Insect repellant is largely ineffective.

As insignificant as the gnats are- they would play a larger role later tonight.

After relocating camp, we finished butchering the caribou and hung it up beneath a tarp. The tarp would protect it from sunlight and rain while allowing the cooler breeze to reduce the temperature of the meat. In the cooler temps the meat could safely hang in camp for a couple of days without risk of spoilage. My friend Gary joined us in camp that evening and after a quick late lunch, we assembled his inflatable raft and set sail down a series of chained lakes for an area we'd been successful last year. It was a short trip and we made quick work with a small outboard on the raft.

We arrived and beached the raft. We climbed a pressure ridge and established a glassing post on the most prominent ridge top. The dry gravel at the top combined with the non-stop breeze of the lake channel kept the gnats at bay, only an occasional one would stray into the area. Finding caribou took less than 5 minutes. A large bull fed his way into view. He looked a long way off but as typical on the tundra, ranges are difficult to estimate. Gary got into a prone position over his daypack and lined up. I  did likewise with my .270.

I asked Gary if he was comfortable with the shot, "It looks long, are you steady on this one?"

He replied, "Yeah, I've got it. No problem."

His .338 boomed and I watched the bull hunch up at the impact. It was a solid hit and the bull staggered and stumbled. We waited for a couple of moments waiting for the bull to tip over.

Except, he didn't. He started walking and stumbling away.

"Give him another." I called out- watching intently through the binoculars.

Gary fired again. Miss. And again....miss. With each successive shot the bull put more distance on the range and got more intent on fleeing.

"Shoot him now!" Urged Gary. His voice was intent now that the bull was obviously wounded and his rifle was empty. I peered through the scope on the .270... the bull was strongly quartering away and I simply aimed for the middle and fired. Boom! No reaction. I fired again with no effect. The .270 is zeroed for 250 yards the fact I was undershooting him made me think this bull was a distressing distance away. I held the horizontal wire on the bull's back line and as carefully as I could manage, squeezed a round off. Boom! With a significant delay I heard the kugelschlag, the sound of the bullet striking game come back. It was a sharp crack rather than a hollow whomp which indicated I had struck bone. The bull collapsed with a shattered rear leg. I fired my last round out of humanity trying to end his life as quickly as possible. It broke my heart when I saw a clump of dirt fly up in front of the caribou.

My remaining ammunition was located in the boat, along with my rangefinder. It was about a 5 minute hike back down and then a 10 minute climb back up. As I got ready to tear off, Gary found 2 rounds in his day pack. Rather than fire them from our perch, we made a plan. I would stay on the ridge and guide Gary through hand signals to the wounded bull which would allow Gary to dispatch it at close range. I would follow with the packs once he located the bull. As Gary picked his way across the tundra on a near dead run through the brush, it was apparent the bull was much farther than either of us though. A little map and Google Earth work would later reveal the initial shot was very near 450 yards- much farther than either of us would have knowingly attempted- and the final shot was on the order of 550 yards. After an agonizing period of time I saw Gary enter the small basin with the bull and heard the report of the rifle, followed by another.

It was finished.

I followed a few minutes later after retrieving the packs from the raft. The bull was huge. The first hit had hit the bull a little too far back, in the liver. The wound would have been fatal but the caribou could have went a considerable distance. The second wound had smashed the upper femur of the onside rear leg. The bull was bleeding heavily and would have died fairly soon had Gary not shot it in the neck to end the suffering. We both felt horrible at how this happened. We both really try very hard to avoid this kind of thing. It was Gary's first experience with anything but a bang, flop, DRT shot. It was unfortunately not my first. We both hope it to be the last. I know that it does happen, occasionally animals just die hard. It doesn't mean I like it.

We set about to field dress the animal, more somber than usual, without the chit chat or cheerful way we usually go about the work. It also became uncomfortable as the breeze died and the gnats came out in force. It also got far worse, once Gary realized he had forgotten his headnet which is the only way to seek refuge from them. We tried every trick in the book, we gutted the animal and then pulled the carcass several yards away- hoping to lure the midges to the pools of blood and entrails. It worked, but only a little. After a brutal 20 minutes, Gary resorted to putting pieces of rolled up toilet paper in his ears to keep the gnats out of his ear canals. I would occasionally hear him cursing under his breath but otherwise he was silently suffering the bugs and a heavy heart.

After perhaps a half hour, I looked up and saw something moving across the tundra. A large bull was walking right toward us. I still had a tag in my pocket and a rifle full of ammo. I decided against it and went back to work butchering. I looked up again, the caribou's larger cousin had joined them and they were standing there, staring at us stupidly. The second bull was perhaps, the largest bull I've ever had opportunity to shoot. I went back to cutting, the wheels turning. We had to finish Gary's caribou and pack it to the raft, it would require two trips through the buggy tundra. Then we had to travel an hour up the lake to camp. If everything went right, we'd arrive right at dark. Right at dark provided I didn't shoot a second bull.

I looked up again, the bull was only 15 feet away as I held the rifle in my hands. I only had to raise it and shoot. I could have killed it with a spear. I thought very hard about what to do next. I looked at Gary, he had a trickle of blood coming from his ear and his face was looking puffy from the bites. Midges were all over our bare arms mixing our blood with that of the caribou. I knew he'd never say a word or complain if I doomed us to another two hours out here in purgatory. He'd never complain about a ride across the lake in the dark guided by headlamp. Internally, I couldn't wrap my head around causing any more death today. Or additional suffering. I'd had enough.

"I'm going to regret this tomorrow." I said as I snapped the safety on and dropped the rifle on my pack. Relief swept over Gary's face and my heart sank a little. I'd just had enough of it all for today.

The caribou snorted loudly and walked away in a long wide circle and disappeared over the edge of the plateau.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The GAMO Fusion Pro... Pest Control Champion.

 I have a long running war against The Red Menace aka Red Pine Squirrel.

It's not that I hate them per se, but in the north country the lowly pine squirrel plays a huge part of the boreal ecosystem. Enough so that their numbers and reproductive rate can easily push them from "common" to "plague" status. I'll say outright that all the squirrels I've killed were completely legit- AK has no limit and no season on squirrels for either hunting or trapping, and unusual for here, no harvest requirement. I grew up hunting squirrels back East. Big tree squirrels that made great table fare and a long days hunting might bag three or four. Up here I can shoot three or four before I finish my first cup of coffee in my PJs off the front porch.

Our last winter was a mild one, with a bumper crop of pine cones and while I enjoyed it immensely, I knew the shoe would drop.

The squirrel explosion happened. While I'm sure some readers will take offense, I'll be happy to point out that red squirrels are a pest of the highest order. They'll wreck a bird feeder in about 3 seconds, they'll tunnel under your foundation, the get into the attic and pack off your insulation. I've even had them destroy the wiring harness of a jeep. Most rural homeowners do what I do- shoot them. Some folks poison them but that has lots of unintended consequences so I discourage it at every opportunity. The goal isn't exactly eradication, but to at least thin the numbers enough locally that you're not overran.

My favorite piece of equipment for that has long been the lowly .22 Long Rifle firing the anemic CB Cap. Squirrels are neither a long range target, nor particularly hard to kill- in fact, the 29gr conical bullet lumbering along at 700fps is just about perfect. Low noise, less danger of shooting through the neighbors house- the CB makes short work of a red squirrel sitting on a branch 20' overhead barking his head off at you. You get an exit about 1 in 5 but the residual energy is pretty low and the bullet generally hits the tree behind.

That is until the latest ammunition paranoia swept the country. Locally available supplies become nonexistent and have been for several years now. A local scalper was asking $100 for a 100 round box. A price at which I hope sees him holding on to them for decades to come. Once the last squirrel fell to my last CB round, I knew something had to give.

Enter- my faithful and observant spouse. For Father's Day she surprised me with a pretty thoughtful gift. A GAMO .22 caliber air rifle, complete with a scope and a noise suppressor. Note, that suppressors for firearms are highly regulated in the U.S.- not on an airgun however. Accuracy was surprisingly good- good enough for backyard pest control for sure. The amount of noise generated makes even the whisper quiet CB seem loud. The noise generated sounds like anything but a rifle shot. It will fire a .22cal pellet that weighs 14g at about 900 fps. While I wouldn't rate it nearly as effective as the .22LR round for small game, it is certainly the equal of the CB round and more than sufficient for back yard pest control.

After shooting a couple dozen squirrels I noticed a tendency to undershoot them with the scope. The pellets looping trajectory combined with the considerable distance between the bore and centerline of the scope made undershooting at close range pretty easy as well as overshooting at medium distances. For hunting at variable ranges the scope was just a handicap. I can hit squirrels with open sights a lot farther than I'd shoot one with an air gun.

I simple scraped the scope off and called it good.

To date, several dozen of the plentiful pests have fallen to the air rifle and I've really come to appreciate it. In all fairness, it has sparked something of an interest in air guns and I'm already looking at one of the pre-charged guns....

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Early Season, Opportunity and Desire- Pt. 1

The early hunting season in Alaska starts in the first week of August in my area. The weather is generally warm and dry with long days and short nights. The moose opener was a bit of frustration, we saw plenty of bulls but none in the limited hunting area we had. When the second week opened, we moved into caribou country. My family and I pitched a camp late on a Thursday night and my partner, Gary, would be down after work on Friday evening.

I awoke pretty early at dawn. It must be said that dawn in early August is on the order of 5:00AM and while the family slept soundly, I snuck out to the edge of camp with my spotting scope, binoculars and a big mug of coffee. I've habitually been an early riser in a household of late sleepers and I've come to love those early mornings drinking coffee in the stillness of a sleeping house. In the field however, that first hour of the day is magic hour. I saw several cow moose milling about and even more caribou feeding on the ridge tops a couple miles to the north. There was no need to go after them, I was at peace just sitting here with the world waking up around me.

After a period of perhaps 45 minutes or so and getting near the bottom of my coffee, a lone caribou- a  small cow- appeared out of the brush at something on the order of 500 yards away. She was making pretty good time and would traverse to within a hundred yards or so of camp as she worked her meandering way down the drainage. I had plenty of unhurried time to study her. She was fairly small and I debated shooting or not, but then again, small cows tend to be some of the best eating caribou out there. I decided that having fresh meat in camp would be a great way to welcome Gary to the start of the weekend and my friend Brian was supposed to be in the area that evening as well. Nothing like starting off a weekend of hunting with fresh tenderloin.

I chambered a round.

By this time the caribou was in some head high brush about 150 yards from camp. I could approach closer without being spotted and I eased my way off the hilltop and planned to intercept the caribou as it popped out of the brush in a marshy bottom. Several agonizing minutes later I was in the sitting position, looped up and ready as the caribou went perfectly broadside as she exited the brush. I was moving in slow motion when the caribou was already full steam. She spotted me sitting there and leaped four or five times in alarm- that four legged spring much like an antelope or gazelle and was apparently going to flee the country.

I did the only thing that occurred to me at the moment- I whistled. In some part of the quadruped brain there is this unusual instinct that deer, caribou and moose all seem to exhibit. When startled they tend to run a short distance and then stop fully broadside to look at what spooked them for perhaps a second or two. At my low whistle, the cow stopped and looked. Perfectly still and perfectly broadside at a mere forty yards. I settled the crosshairs on the neck- the only deliberate neck shot I've  taken in years and years- and pressed the trigger.

The results were as instantaneous as one would expect. The rifle cracked and the caribou fell stone dead in a pile, perhaps as clean a kill as one could hope for. I approached the animal and saw that the bullet had done its job. The .300 on a body shot would have wrecked the carcass at this range and I didn't want to waste a scrap of it. The shot had hit high in the neck and I would loose a little burger, but all the other eating parts were pristine. I walked back to camp and roused the family. neither had heard the shot and were quite surprised when I told them we had a caribou to butcher.  When made quick work of it and finished just as the heat of the day caused the bugs to hatch.

It was the start of a great weekend.

Monday, October 5, 2015


Well friends, it is fall here in the Great Land. We've just wrapped up the early hunting season and many folks are eagerly awaiting the winter hunts that open in a few weeks.

I've had a splendid season to date, spending 29 days hunting in the two month season. My companions and I enjoyed great weather (well, as good as it gets here anyway), injury free hunting and stellar success. A great year all around.

One thing I haven't post here about it much. That'll change some in the coming weeks as there are lots of exciting things to report and some truly wonderful experiences to share.

Stay tuned!

These photos were taken from the same location... a mere 48 hours apart.