As I made my preparations to join my friend, Dave Allen at the Golden Ram’s “Bar-Z” ranch, it was all too easy to disregard the weather forecasts. Rain? Cold? …On the B-zone opener? Not bloody likely!
Nevertheless, I tossed my Cabelas Silent Suede rain gear into the dry box, along with an extra jacket and a pair of sweats to wear under my camo. I didn’t think for an instant that I’d really need it, but one should always be prepared… right? In addition to that concession to the meteorologists, I loaded up the solar shower and plenty of clean t-shirts. I generally get pretty sweaty in the B-zone, especially in the early season, so I wanted to make sure I could change regularly.
Friday morning before the opener finally rolled around. I tossed the cooler onto the hitch hauler, and headed off to work. My plan was to leave directly from the office, stop off for groceries, and haul butt up the highway in hopes of reaching the campground by 9:00pm or so. As I pulled into the parking lot at work, my mind immediately flashed to the dry box containing my foul-weather gear… still sitting on the garage floor. “Oh well,” I figured, “it’s not like it’s really going to rain.”
My planning unraveled even further after work, when I received a call from Dave that he’d left at 2:30, and was only now, at 5:30, getting out of Santa Rosa… a drive that should only have taken a little over an hour. Traffic was from hell. I decided to hang out, have dinner with some friends from work, and hit the road a little later after the traffic diminished.
Somehow the hours passed quickly, and I found myself outside the restaurant at 10:00pm. I still needed groceries, but figured I could hit an all-night supermarket closer to the hunting grounds. Bad call. As I learned over the next several hours, nothing out that way is open past 11:00 at night.
At 3:00am, I finally pulled into the campground. I drove through twice, looking for Dave’s camp. He’d bought a new truck, and I failed to find out what it looked like, so I had no idea what to look for in the campground. I decided that, if I drove that diesel through the sleeping camps one more time I’d probably get shot, so I pulled off beside the main gate and crawled into the back of the truck for a nap.
To trim the fat here a little bit, let’s just say that I found Dave and our friend Ken Peeler (who’d flown all the way from Hawaii to join us) the next morning, and after a cup or two of coffee, we were ready to open the season. Let’s also say that the forecasters who’d predicted a drastic cool-down were dead on! Fortunately, I always carry an extra hunting coat in the truck, so with two layers of t-shirts and my coat, I was fairly comfortable.
The morning hunt was fairly uneventful. We headed out into an area we’d hunted last year, where I had found a really nice shed and Dave had seen a good buck. I knew exactly where I wanted to be when the sun came up, but as I walked up the hill to the location, another hunter flashed a light on me from his position. Not wanting to walk through his area, I circled out and made for another vantage point.
The sun came up, and as the day warmed I decided to move out and see what I could find. I immediately started seeing some very large scat, and while most of it was a couple of days old, I was pretty sure that big buck was still in the area. I followed sign and trails into the thick stuff, and suddenly found a serious bear highway. Fresh scat, raked stumps and logs, and recently turned trails crisscrossed the area. I don’t hunt bears, but I was still excited as I moved slowly through the woods in hope of spotting a nice bruin.
Finally, the long, sleepless night and lack of breakfast drove me back toward the truck. I looped back up the hill toward the road, and then made my way back down to where I’d parked. About 50 yards from the truck, I heard something in a big pine tree just off the road. At first I thought it was a squirrel, but it was far too loud. A moment later, a 100-pound bear shimmied down the tree, and took off at a lope across the meadow.
At the truck, I fired up the camp stove and made up a big bowl of oatmeal. I sat glassing from the back of the truck, hoping against odds to see a nice buck lose his senses long enough to step out into the big meadow. The warming sun and full belly soon overwhelmed me, and I crawled back into the bed for a nap.
Later, over lunch at camp, Ken told us about the bear he’d spotted at very close range. Like me, he wasn’t carrying a bear tag. Dave, on the other hand, was literally loaded for bear. There wasn’t much question about where we’d be hunting for the evening.
Temps during the day peaked a little less than 80 degrees… absolutely phenomenal for the opening day. For comparison, on the B-zone opener the previous year, we were hunting in 104-degree heat by 11:00 in the morning. As the evening hunt drew near, not only did the chill deepen, but clouds began to move in.
While Dave and Ken spent the evening hunt in the area where they’d spotted the bears, I decided to set up over a cut-down near where I’d found the big shed the year before. Fresh trails crossed the dried grass, and I felt confident that if I took a stand, I’d get my shot. Unfortunately, successful stand hunting relies on being still, and as the sun dropped behind the hills, the cold had me shivering and fidgeting through the best hour of hunting time. Just as the sun disappeared, I heard the sharp, “whoof” of a deer blowing from the thicket behind me. The swirling wind apparently confused the deer, and I listened as the blowing moved away, then got closer as the animal tried to figure out where I was. The shadows in the thicket were too deep for me to get a look at the animal, though.
Later, as we feasted on last year’s venison steaks and fried potatoes, chased with fine tequila, the clouds moved off to display a stunning vista of the heavens. Well, the weatherman might have been right about the cold, but he was WAY off about the rain. I gratefully rolled into my sleeping bag after dinner, and dropped into a deep slumber.
It seemed like only minutes after falling asleep that I heard Dave pounding on the camper shell window. Time to get up. I lay there, trying to shake off the last of the cobwebs when I heard an odd sound. A light pitter-patter was tapping on the fiberglass roof overhead. I lay there, thinking at first that it was Dave playing a joke, but then recognized the sound for what it was… rain.
Now this was going to be a challenge. It was cold as heck, and now it’s raining? My mind flashed, once again, to the box of rain gear sitting in my garage. Oh well, too late to worry about it now. I rolled out, had some coffee, and we made our plans to get back up to the same area again, and give it another go.
At sunrise, I was sitting in the same spot I’d covered the night before. The rain wasn’t drenching, but just constant enough to be an irritation. I found a semi-dry spot under some manzanita, and waited on the day. After a couple of hours without any activity, I had to move. I picked the freshest looking deer trail, and followed it downhill and into the thickets. With the little rainfall, the ground was significantly quieter and I could move without raising a ruckus.
I began to cut fresh sign everywhere. Scat here, beds there, and one lone bed under a deadfall that had to have been made by a good buck. I picked up one of his trails and followed until the trail emptied out into a hidden meadow. I briefly forgot about the cold and the rain as I surveyed fresh trails, tracks, and scat coming from all directions and converging in the middle of this deer paradise. I knew I’d have to set up here for a while.
I quickly located the driest spot I could find, a manzanita patch overlooking the entire meadow. I propped the rifle up on the bipod, cleared away some wet leaves until I found a dry patch, and made myself comfortable.
After about an hour in this spot, I heard the crash of deer in the thicket below. Something had spooked them, and they were coming directly toward me. I raised the rifle and prepared, just as the first of four does burst out into the meadow. She ran directly at me until, at about 20 yards, she turned sidehill and bailed down into a ravine. The other three deer came out, milled about for a moment or two, then trotted off behind her.
A moment later, another deer came charging out of the woods where the others had just gone in. This one ran at me, coming almost to within 10 feet or less before veering off. The deer evidently caught my scent, and turned again to run back down into the hollow where she stood looking wildly around. She could not locate me, and apparently convinced that there was nothing there, grazed a moment or two before moving back into the woods.
Things got quiet for a while, and I began glassing the distant hillsides. Little open meadows opened up between the trees, and I fully expected to spot deer out feeding in the light rain. My straining eyes were rewarded with two black dots moving across an opening in the distance. I quickly put the binoculars on them, and saw that, instead of deer, two black bears were frolicking in the morning light. I was amazed at how long they stayed out in the open, but obviously there were no hunters nearby. I enjoyed the show for several minutes, until they finally meandered out of sight into a thicket.
Nothing else happened as the morning hours slipped away. I finally decided to move on out of this area, and see what else I could find. I climbed up to the hilltop, and found the road. As I trudged back to the truck, I spotted something under a patch of brush that I quickly recognized as deer legs. I stooped down with the binoculars, trying to get a good look, but all I could see was legs and belly. Propping the rifle up on a rock and my hat, I readied myself for a shot if it should turn out to be a legal buck. The deer finally lowered its head, and I saw the two short spikes. My breathing returned to normal as I tried to cast some kind of growth spell on the little guy to no avail. He finally got wise to my presence, and blew at me once before trotting stiff-legged into the treeline.
I decided to head back to camp for lunch and a nap. The drive home this evening would be taxing, and I needed to get some rest in preparation. I radioed to Dave and Ken that I was heading in, then took off down the mountain. A couple of hours later, my partners rolled in as well. Dave had seen and shot at a small bear, but his shot was bad. Ken hadn’t seen anything.
Both were eager to get back into the field, so we discussed where we’d hunt before they took off again. I wanted to go back to that little meadow and sit the last hours of the day. Dave wanted another go at that bear, and Ken wanted to try another area that I’d scouted previously. They pulled out and I went back to rest.
The sun came out briefly while I napped, and the water in my solar shower was lukewarm… good enough for a quick shower. The cold wind made the experience quite bracing, and I was wide-awake when I headed back up for the evening hunt. I figured I’d hunt until dark, which would be around 8:00, then jump in the truck and head for home.
As I drove up the mountain, the clouds poured in again, and rain began to spatter on the windshield. By the time I got to the area I wanted to hunt, it was a solid drizzle, interspersed with short downpours. The weather seemed more like a late-fall hunt than the season opener.
I pulled on three t-shirts and buttoned up a heavy shirt over them, then put on my jacket over all that. At least I wouldn’t likely be cold… wet, maybe, but not cold. With the rest of my gear, I headed down the hill to my “spot”.
The rain and wind made the wait miserable, and by 6:00pm I was almost ready to hang it up and go home. The thought of the dry truck cab and the heater pumping warm air tempted me, but I couldn’t convince myself to give up yet. The area looked too good, and I knew there had to be deer close by.
At 6:30, I stood to stretch my legs. My right leg was completely numb, and the left was tingling with pins and needles. My Savage 30-06 lay propped on the bipod by my foot. The rain had lightened and the wind died to a gentle breeze. I scanned the meadow and the edge of the woods a couple of times, until I suddenly realized that there was a deer standing in an opening, about 100 yards away! It was browsing along, oblivious to my presence. It took only a glance to realize that it was definitely legal, and almost definitely more than just a forked-horn buck.
I dropped, a little too quickly, to the ground, and eased the rifle around. With the slope of the hill, I could only get one leg of the bipod steady, but it was enough to get a good sight picture on the buck. I leveled the scope on his shoulder, and squeezed off the shot. The 180 grain Nosler Partition went high, but caught him in the back, crossing forward and up to exit through the spine. The deer dropped, then began trying to get back up. I threw another round in desperation, and spined him again in nearly the same spot.
He thrashed and rolled down the hill into a ravine and out of sight. I heard him crashing through the bushes for a bit, then heard nothing.
I moved downhill, then set the rifle aside, drawing out my .44 as I moved into the thick brush that lined the ravine. I heard him moving, and at around 25 yards I saw him try to get to his feet and run. The .44 roared, and a 240-grain bullet slammed through his ribs and quartered across his heart and into the off shoulder. He dropped for good, his heart pulverized.
By this time, I’d forgotten about the weather and the cold. My ears were roaring from the gunfire and the adrenaline, and my heart was pounding like a tribal drummer. I sat down on the hill and gazed down at my first 4x4 blacktail.
B Zone Opener 4x4
Despite being sorely unprepared for the weather, I managed to
bag this nice 4x4 Blacktail on the opening weekend of B-zone rifle
In keeping with my personal tradition, of course, I had dropped him in a hellhole. It took the help of Dave and Ken to drag him far enough up the hill to get 150 yards of rope to the truck. Several hours after the initial shot, I had him quartered and on ice, and was ready for the long drive back to the Bay Area and a hot shower and warm bed.