Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bone Sour Shame

Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time, knows that I am first and foremost a table hunter and that I'm pretty much fanatical in my approach to field care of meat. I feel that once you shoot and kill an animal, you pretty much owe it to that animal to utilize the meat as efficiently as possible. Wasting game either through purpose or negligence is a shameful thing. In that vein, I'd like to share an experience I had recently.

After tipping over this year's first caribou, my family and I worked diligently and quickly to field dress and quarter the caribou and remove it from the field. The shot occurred at approximately 5:30p and by 7:00p I was packing it to the vehicle. An hour and a half from death to transport- cool temperatures and a stiff breeze had cooled the meat quickly- excellent. A two hour drive to my home (9:00p) and I took the meat, hung it and rinsed it with cold water and washed away all the blood and whatever minor debris it inevitably accumulates from field dressing. I also trimmed off a small amount of bloodshot meat and some miscellaneous fat and inedible bits. After the meat was clean, I hung it in my garage and placed a fan on the floor to keep a steady stream of cool air flowing over it all night. I finally retired to the shower at just after midnight.

I awoke the next morning, sore from previous day's hunt, and went to garage to check on the meat. It was cool, dry and the steady airflow had crusted the meat over beautifully. I made an appointment at the local game processor for the early afternoon to hang the meat and age it and then butcher the caribou into roasts, steaks and burger ready for freezing and storage and eventual consumption by my family. At the requested time (2:00p) I placed the pieces in clean game bags and transported it to the processor where it was tagged, weighed, and hung in a large commercial cooling unit. I've processed game in my home before and while home butchering is quite simple, it is time consuming and with my busier fall schedules the last few years it is simply more convenient to let the pros handle it. I turned the clean, cool meat over the processor and watched them move it into the cooler at 2:40p. A bit over 22 hours from the time the trigger was pulled and I feel like the care I gave the meat during the interim was about all I could have possibly done. I'm not worried about losing one scrap to improper field care. I tell you all this to set the stage for what I witnessed while waiting to check in my caribou and some of the horrendous mistakes I saw.

When I arrived at the processor, someone else was in front of me. The processing staff was bent over a large moose leg with a knife, going through repeated motions of cutting and smelling the meat. From the extreme scowl and the "not-so-friendly" exchange between the staff and the customer I knew I wanted to ease on up to the dock to try to get an idea of what was going on. The staff person had noticed an odd odor about the meat when the person brought it in and decided a thorough inspection was in order and questioned the hunter at length about the time of death, field care, etc. to get a better idea about what was going on biologically.

As the repeated tale went, the hunter and his partner saw two large (and legal) bulls together in a marsh one morning. Hunter One shoots Moose One and down it goes. Hunter Two then implores Hunter One to abandon his animal and pursue Moose Two. The pair pursue Moose Two over hill and dale and finally tip it over in a mini-fusillade of rifle fire in the afternoon. The pair then dress out Moose Two- which takes until dark. They then retired to camp for the night and return to Moose One the following morning...a full 24 hours after shooting it. I apologize if the flow is wrong since the entire exchange was too long and some of the details changed over the course, but this was the best I could decipher.

It biologically makes sense given that Moose One had lain all day in the sun and all night in the marsh. Not field dressed, not quartered, not anything. What I strongly speculate is this- the carcass hit the ground at it's normal body temperature. The moose's marvelous fur, location in a low area away from the breeze, and insulation from the earth by thick marsh grass ensured the meat cooled extremely slowly. Of more concern, the animals viscera and blood contain a lot of water so this warm, wet environment yielded the perfect environment for all the wee beasties living within the carcass to positively flourish. Not only flourish, but using the liquid medium of the moose's own juices spread throughout the carcass from hotter areas (near the core bones) all through the meat. The only pieces that may have escaped are the ones just under the "up" side hide that would have cooled a bit quicker while the hide was exposed to cooler night air. The process is known as "bone sour". It is devastating to edibility of the meat and just as remarkably simple to prevent.

What the processing staff found is that the hunter's inattention and slovenly practices had basically reduced several hundred pounds of wonderful meat to dog food.

I'll refer the reader to a previous piece I wrote on proper field care here. But the basics are that as quickly as you can remove the organs, entrails and blood. Next, remove the hide,quarter the animal, cool it and then get it the heck out of the field. When dealing with animals as large as moose, one at a time for the hunting party is certainly more than enough to attempt to handle- particularly in the early season.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Revelation Knife

As you may have noticed by the little banner on the upper left, I am on field staff for a company called Real Avid. The company makes a selection of hunting and shooting accouterments. A few days after I signed the contract a neat little package arrived in the mail containing their signature product- the Revelation Knife with instructions to take it out and get it dirty. That I could do.

The following weekend I took my neighbor out on a caribou hunt and we were quite fortunate after a long day of stalking caribou and seeing them in the hundreds- to finally close the distance on a good sized cow. My neighbor made a stunningly skillful (or stunningly lucky) 309 yard neck shot and neatly dropped the caribou instantly into a pile. Turns out I'd get to try that knife out after all!

The knife has a couple of LEDs built into the handle that illuminates the cutting edge of the blade (hence the moniker- Revelation). Purpose built for those times when you drop an animal at the productive times at last light, it neatly solves the problem of putting some light on the task of field dressing your animal. I've done this task with a flashlight clenched in my teeth and while wearing a headlamp as well as by the beams of various vehicles- none are ideal since all methods leave a lot of shadows on your subject. Far from just a nuisance, wielding sharp knives in places you can't see can often result in whittling on your own digits- a bad deal.

Since we'd dropped this caribou at 5:30 in the afternoon and had three hours until dark, it was unlikely that we'd be able to take advantage of the lights to their fullest but we'd give the rest of the knife a workout. Some initial impressions are the knife appeared well made for it's modest MSRP and while 440C stainless isn't my favorite blade steel, it is entirely up to the task of a hunting knife. It was also quite sharp out of the box and noticeably absent was the incredibly annoying "wire edge" so prevalent on a factory sharpened knife. Just a good working edge was there. The handle was made of some type of polymer with a slightly tacky feel that provided good grip- even wet or bloody. At the pommel was a small threaded plug that contained the battery pack for the light and on the scale side was a small button that turned the LEDs on and off. The sheath was a rather simple (and effective) pouch style made from nylon and plastic.

We easily made the initial incisions and after using a bone saw to cut through the sternum, activated the lights to make the often difficult cuts around the diaphragm. My partner was only slightly experienced so being able to see what he was doing was a real confidence booster. In just a few minutes he had the internal organs removed cleanly. At this point we started skinning the animal and the drop point blade made efficient work of the task and we quickly had an entire side complete. The blade easily separated the front quarter and we placed it in a game bag. We went to work on the rear quarter and the blade stood up to the often rigorous wrenching required to separate the ball joint without damage- I've broken two knives doing such work so it didn't pass without note. We filleted out the tenderloin and backstrap and we were ready to flip and repeat.

Despite the foul weather and high winds, after only about an hour or so we had the caribou broken down into two manageable bundles and ready to pack out the half mile or so to our boat. After butchering the entire caribou with little additional tooling except a bone saw, the edge remained sharp enough to butcher another one without resharpening. I generally think the ability to butcher one big game animal without retouching is quite sufficient and this one passed the test with flying colors.

My only complaint with the knife (and I've shared the commentary with the makers) is that the black handled knife disappears easily in the field- I much prefer that sort of tool to be in a blaze orange color for easy location during use and to prevent loss...but that'll be a topic for my next post.

Per Real Avid- The Revelation knife is available at Wal-Mart, Dick's Sporting Goods, and (of course) the Real Avid website if you'd like one of your own. I would expect other retailers to pick it up in due course as well.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Cover That Muzzle!

A sharp-eyed reader wrote to me after my last piece and asked what was wrong with my muzzle in the original of the above photo.

In short, the answer is "Nothing". That appendage on the end of my rifle barrel is good old electrical tape. "Why" you may ask?

Simple- to keep unwanted stuff out of the muzzle of my rifle. Hunting is often a very sloppy affair- water, snow, mud, sand, glacial silt and all kinds of other detritus just wait out there in the wilds to lodge themselves in the barrel of your rifle. If you're unlucky enough to actually pull the trigger on your rifle with debris in the barrel you could (at a minimum) damage the barrel of your rifle or (at worst case)   burst the barrel and injure you.

The fix is easy. Take a 1.5" piece of electrical tape and put it over the muzzle. Take a 3" piece and wrap it around the barrel to secure the first piece in place. Now your rifle is protected from getting stuff in it you'd rather not have.

Years ago as a teen, I dropped my 30-30 while descending a small bluff. The rifle fell about 15' straight down and stuck itself stock up in the E. Tennessee red clay mud. The bore was hopelessly clogged with mud and every effort I made to remove it in the field was in vain. Hunt OVER.

Just last year I was hunting with a friend on a winter caribou hunt when he rolled his snow machine and (unbeknown to him) filled the barrel with snow. That snow melted from some heat source (snow machine, body heat we have no idea) and the melt water ran down into the action and refroze on the bolt face and chamber. A few hours later we spotted a wolf resting in a clearing- my partner attempted to chamber a round and couldn't close the bolt. It took a few minutes to diagnose the problem and even longer to try to fix it with a lighter. By the time the rifle was back in action the wolf was long gone.

In either of the above instances- firing the rifle with the obstructed bore could have been catastrophic. Firing your rifle with tape over the muzzle isn't dangerous- the escaping gas and bullet easily bursts through the layer of tape and it doesn't appreciable change the point of impact of the rifle. After firing you can unwrap the second piece of tape, remove the burst first piece and discard then tear the longer second piece in half and protect the muzzle again. As a bonus, the tape can also protect the rifle's crown from damage which will ruin your rifle's accuracy permanently until the ministrations of a gunsmith cure it and lighten your wallet in the process.

Tape. Simple fix to keep your rifle in action under trying conditions.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Persistence- Family Style

The caribou season was moving along nicely into week 6, albeit without bagging a critter. I had been hunting pretty consistently over the last month- always seeing animals, got in a few stalks along the way but never connected. My best opportunity had occurred on opening day- I crawled to about 350 yards of a really nice bull at first light. The shot was pretty long for the opening bell and I didn't want to stretch the barrel out that much- I passed figuring we'd see more caribou later in the day. I didn't see another for a week. I went on several short day hunts, more akin to pre-season scouting than hunt in the summer heat.

Later in the month, a couple of weekend forays into the high country revealed that the unseasonal heat and bugs were keeping the caribou in the high hills near the vegetation line for their comfort. Hunting was slow even though I made a couple of unsuccessful ventures above 5000' in what resembles sheep country in the hopes of bagging one. Chasing a caribou that far, that high is pretty much a fools errand (although great fun) since there is little in the way of cover. Although they aren't the most wary of creatures, simply pursuing them over open ground is rarely successful.

A couple of day hunts into the area revealed high winds and not a creature stirring and a weekend hunt with a friend that pushed thirty miles into the Alphabet hills yielded brief glimpses of bears and bull moose but only fleeting glimpse of caribou- running flat out, on the wrong side of the swamp, or at the top of the mountain that, all intents and purposes, could have been the surface of the moon. But one common factor remained- none of the animals we were seeing were in large groups, just a few groups of three or four but mostly singles and cows with calves. Despite the September date on the calendar the animals were acting more like summer caribou- in small groups, in summer range, not moving much during the day. In short- a lot of hours of eyeballing past the great beyond.

As a partial subsistence hunter, this endeavor isn't merely recreational (despite having a genuine good time) as a major portion of my family's calories come from wild game and fish. By week five, I was really ready to get my hands bloody and displace some of the air in my freezer. Another weekend long hunt revealed nothing of interest except seeing groups of caribou on mountaintops- at least the herding behavior was a precursor of the migration when the animals would come down into range of the rifle. A long vehicle ride all the way to McLaren Summit revealed a group of 12 caribou being pursued separately by at least 8 hunters in 3 different groups at a range of two miles. Entertaining, but not doing anything about the air in the freezer.

Week six rolled around and as much as my pride in my prowess hates to admit it- I was getting desperate. I bailed out of work as early as I could on Thursday and packed a few meager articles and headed down on a solo search and destroy mission. A lot of spotter time on Thursday night revealed absolutely nothing and with a lot of reservations I horsed down a freeze dried meal and climbed into the cargo hold of my Pathfinder to catch some sleep. Before I drifted off, I spent an hour reading Steve Rinella's new work- Meateater, remembered some of the camping trips with my late father, and stared at the stars for a little while. The heavy and melancholy thoughts soon had me chasing sheep in the alpine meadows of my dreams.

First light found me already drinking coffee waiting for enough solar radiation to make the binoculars work. As the dawn turned from grey to pink to orange I had a renewed sense of optimism. Halfway through my second cup,  I turned to glance north to a high saddle and bigger than life I saw a large bull sky-lined about a mile and a half away on the east side, at the base of a 6000' peak. I thought I heard angels singing. I had packed for the field the night before and I only needed seconds to verify the contents of the pack, lock up the vehicle with my Spartan camp and start heading up.

I practically sprinted up the mountain, at about 2000' I passed the snow line,  a small squall had left the red and gold and grey of the tundra with a skiff of snow on the ground. In the gloom of dawn I pressed upward. By the time I reached the apex of the saddle at about 4000' I had shed nearly all my layers and was sweating heavily in just a light merino wool T-shirt despite a temperature of about 28F. My breath escaped in great clouds of steam as I fought for breath after the hour long climb through the rough tundra.

Cooling down just enough to use the binoculars without fogging the lenses, I glassed the half mile wide alpine basin I was on the rim of. I spotted the small herd in just a few moments- in the intervening hour they had moved further east and were in a small, green growth bowl at the base of the higher peak on the opposite side of the basin. I quickly made out a plan to approach using a series of shallow ravines and depressions. As I moved east as quickly and quietly as I could, I only had intermittent visibility on the caribou. I was desperately afraid as dawn turned to day the animals would turn and move up the high slope and out of practical reach. I had seen it time and again the last few weeks.

After dodging a maze of ravines I finally got to the spot I just flat ran out of cover. The caribou had become aware of my presence but still showed no sign of alarm. I did a quick count- 9 animals including a very nice sized bull. I glanced back toward my camp- 2 miles or so but all downhill. The pack out would really take a long time. I decided to move slowly forward and see how close I could get before needing to fire. After a mere 50 yards the caribou all stood and stared in my direction.


I laid my pack down on a small rise and assumed a prone position- how far? No idea. In good light across known terrain I'm not a good hand at eyeballing range and on the high barren plateau in the dawn's flat light I simply had no idea. The animals began to act fidgety, not panic but I knew what would happen next. The caribou would simply move higher while browsing faster than I could walk. Now was the time. I lined up on the bull and flipped the safety off. How far? Still no idea, but the shot looked doable albeit long. I placed the crosswire just behind the bull's shoulder and took up slack trusting my rifle's ballistics would carry the distance.


The crack split the unearthly quiet of the dawn mountains and I looked for signs of a hit...nothing. I cycled a fresh round into the chamber and stared intently as the caribou stared back at me apparently bewildered at the sudden peal of thunder. I re-evaluated the distance- it must of been longer than I thought. I broke every rule in my personal book and elevated the crosswire to hold on the bull's back line and took up slack on the trigger a second time.


The bull didn't register any sign of a hit but the whole group had had enough of my predations and started browsing uphill and while they were probably out of rifle range when I started, within moments they would certainly be out of rifle range. I cycled the action a second time to pick up another cartridge.

This was stupid.

No idea how far, by myself miles from camp. The only thing worse than missing a third shot would be connecting on one. I jacked the live shell out of the chamber and looked across the divide at the caribou moving steadily up the slope. This distance was really farther than I thought (or wanted to believe) it was. Keeping my eyes on the bull I watched to see if he'd suffered a wound. He moved without hesitation or limp- I had missed clean.

After the caribou had walked clean out of sight over the east summit I lay there in the snow for a long time. As the fatigue and exertion of the climb caught up to me I began to just feel defeat. Sometime prior to achieving hypothermia, I put my layers back on and started the long trek down the mountain to camp. In retrospect, I'm glad no bears were there on the mountain because my head was down and my thoughts were miles away. When I reached my camp, I drank some water and made another freeze dried meal. After eating it- I threw all my stuff back into the rig haphazardly and headed for home.

It began to snow.

I awoke the next day in a thorough funk. My wife is used to seeing this sort of melancholy behavior toward the end of hunting season. We got a slow start to the day and I must admit- I moped my way through preparation to go again. My wife and son would go and we'd make it a Saturday picnic outing with the possibility of scoring an animal. I wasn't hopeful, but we set out anyway.

After arriving in the hunt area, it didn't take long to find a group of caribou moving west along a ridge about a mile distant. We drove further and got in front of them and I started a half-hearted stalk with my son in tow. The caribou were feeding away from us on a parallel ridge and would pass about a mile to our south across a wide band of alders and head high brush. We watched them a little while and when they crossed the ridge we turned back for the vehicle. I paused a moment and decided to walk to the east side of the ridge and look back up the valley to the area that paralleled the area's only highway.

Movement caught my eye.

A group of five caribou were feeding to the north- toward the highway, about a half mile to the road and a half mile from us. I looked again. They were just browsing, not really making distance. A long ravine would put us on an intercept course if we hurried. We quickly slipped over the ridge and started a quick sprint to close the gap. I felt hope creeping in again. After a few minutes of steady travel, my wife glimpsed them sky-line themselves as they crossed a small rise. As we came to the base of a small ridge I looked up and there on the ridge, just below the summit was the band of caribou.

I wasted no time and crashed into a prone position- I looked at the group, they consisted of a small bull and a large cow as well as three yearling calves. I zeroed in on the large cow and fired.

Boom! No reaction. I cycled the bolt and fired again- Boom! The caribou humped up at the impact of the bullet and went wobbly-legged over the summit of the ridge. Given the reaction I was sure the caribou had taken a good lung shot and would certainly be dead on the top of the ridge and I picked my way there past a small lake and up the brushy slope.

When I topped out I saw the entire group standing around a downed animal. That reaction isn't really unusual as I've had to shoo caribou away from one I've just shot before. What did surprise me is that the cow stood up when I approached to about 50' from dead astern. That wasn't supposed to happen. The cow turned her head to look at me, obviously very ill from my earlier shot. I quickly raised the rifle and placed the crosshairs between her eyes with a sense of personal failure for the moments of suffering she'd endured.

The rifle cracked and she was down for good.

The family gathered around the fallen animal, the largest bodied cow caribou we'd ever seen. The rest of the band of animals ran about a quarter mile off in the distance and stood there and stared as these odd grey and green coated harbingers of death gathered around their matriarch. My first two shots had both hit her low in the lungs and I'm surprised she had the steam to move at all when I got to her, if she'd have ran she'd have been down in mere seconds. We would work together as a family in the cold wind and butcher this caribou- hauling it off the mountain in our packs on our backs. We finished just as the sun began to set and turned the tundra into the most radiant red and gold.

It was a good day. I was exhausted and bloody, but it was a good day.

Monday, September 3, 2012

No, No, No...NO!

I've recently received some correspondence regarding my scope recommendations and thought the commentary worth passing along. I'll not say much about the actual exchange but here is the gist of it in a nutshell.

I wholeheartedly suggest, endorse, recommend, and use scopes of moderate power and, given a choice, will choose a fixed power almost without exception. For example- 4x, 6x and 3-9x40 are all in my arsenal of rifle glass and I've used them with much success. While there are other choices out there and people can make up their own minds on such topics, the concept as discussed in correspondence is simply abominable.

What the correspondence suggested was that a hunter should consider higher powered variable rifle glass and use that in lieu of carrying either binoculars or a spotting scope. I think that's a bad idea for a couple of reasons....

1. Scanning open country with a rifle scope will tire you out pretty quickly



It doesn't take a genius to figure out that scanning with a rifle will point that rifle at all manner of things that the hunter has no business pointing a rifle at- not the least of which is other hunters. I've been "scanned" with a rifle now a couple of times in the field and it makes my blood absolutely boil.  There is no valid reason or excuse for it and it is a slob's technique par excellence. I've heard of one instance where such a hunter found a note thanking him for peering at the note writer with a rifle scope- affixed to the hood of his truck with a nail pounded through the metal.

In review, here are the common field glasses and their purpose.

1. Binoculars- use these to find game, scan the hills and generally look at stuff you want to look closer at. 8x42 or 10x42 sizes are about perfect for the Western or Alaska hunter and serviceable models start at about $150 ( the random example Nikon in the header photograph was $210 and represents their mid priced line). Decent glass is just more affordable than it's ever been. Top shelf glass is wonderful if you can swing it financially but even economy glass is better than a naked eyeball or, God forbid, letting your muzzle purposely cross another hunter. I've looked at other hunters looking at me with binos and it elicits a friendly wave across the distance.

2. Spotting Scope- use this to evaluate game for legality, trophy quality, determine what an unknown  object actually is, or in extreme instances find game at very long range. You can spend a little or a lot but a decent spotter is a real asset to the serious open country hunter. I've seen other hunters with my spotter miles away, I don't think they even knew I was there.

3. Rifle Scope- use this to KILL game. It doesn't do the functions of either 1 or 2. You don't point rifles at things you haven't determined make dead- that includes other game and for darn sure it includes other hunters. So if that's you- stop it immediately and take a remedial Hunter Safety Course while you're at it because you apparently didn't get it. I've said it before- on a properly conducted hunt you might use a rifle scope for all of about 30 seconds- once you've found, evaluated, stalked and are in a position to make a killing shot. Only then does the rifle scope come into play.

Stay safe out there folks.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Caribou Camp, the View From Here

Here's a view from caribou caribou taken, but plenty seen with the spotter. The animals are hanging at high elevation near the vegetation line. We've observed them ganging up and prepping for the upcoming migration....then caribou hunting really takes off.

This image below comes from the top of the mountain directly over the spotter in the above photo....range is about 3 miles and about 3000' vertical.