A New Year
by Leland West
Did you have a nice hunting season? Did you shoot a nice buck or maybe even two or a doe? That's good. Now that this season is over, when should you start to get ready for next year? Maybe sometime this fall, say September? Well I'm here to say hogwash, now is the time to start getting ready for the fall hunt. There are three areas that you should not only think about but also start to improve upon - yourself, your gear and finally your weapon.
I'll bet you did your usual hunting routine; Park your rig, walk maybe 100 yards in, find a nice comfortable spot to sit down and wait. How's that sound? My question to you is why are you hunting like this? Is it because you're a little or a lot out of shape? Does your gut hang over your belt like Santa's? Not only are you a prime candidate for a heart attack or a stroke you must be miserable the rest of the year. What's in your head? Are you nuts? Well maybe you are but let me go out on a limb and say you've gotten wise in your old age and want to start the process of getting into some kind of shape. Maybe this year you'll actually be able to get far enough away from the road to see a nice buck and get a shot at it. So where do you start?
I suppose you could hire a personal trainer. Or you could do what I do when you need to drop a few pounds; do a few simple exercises and only eat half of what is on your plate. Now before you start telling me how that's wasteful and all that just think about what I'm asking you to do. For a few weeks only eat half of what you are given or if you have some actual will power, only take half of what you normally would. This will work if you are ready to get serious. "How do I know what a good weight is for my body?" you ask. My rule of thumb is when I look in the mirror after a shower, do I like what I see. Otherwise its time to lose that extra weight and I am here to tell you I know exactly how you feel. I used to be a little out of shape too. If you ask my wife I was practically an invalid! So I made a conscious decision to get serious about my hunting. I've tried every kind of hunting method there is – sitting in a tree stand, using a ground blind, stalking, still hunting, you name it, I've done it. The type of hunting I enjoy now is tracking - usually on a big high ridge in Maine or New Hampshire. Why in the world would I want to hike a couple of miles up a mountain, and follow a ridge for another couple of miles? Because that's where the big bucks live and as a bonus I usually never see anyone else. Sure I've shot does and even some decent bucks down low, but there's nothing like a buck that's pushing 250 pounds. I mean a big old mountain buck that hardly ever sees another human. He's not even really scared of you. He just lopes off while the younger bucks and does start twitching and getting nervous. More on that guy in another column.
I would have absolutely no chance of humping up the mountain if I wasn't in decent shape, so after a good Christmas dinner and a few days of leftovers its time to start getting in shape. You might be thinking that's a little extreme but I prefer to keep myself in reasonable shape the entire year. I'm certainly not going to run a marathon but at least I can walk up a 3000-foot mountain without worrying about a heart attack. Sometime in January I'll start the process of getting in shape by dieting and exercise. By then all of my muscles have had a few weeks to recover. I usually hunt pretty hard, walking several miles each time out. But since I really never get entirely out of shape this method isn't quite as drastic as you may think. This also gets me looking at the areas I plan to hunt next fall. There is no other exercise like walking in the woods on a clear, crisp day. I'm here to tell you that you cannot establish the coordination needed nor toughen up the muscles necessary for hunting without getting into the woods.
There are some great benefits in hiking the early part of the year. For starters you'll have the woods to yourself. You can take your time and not feel pressured, just like the deer. You don't have to worry about bears or bugs or leaves on the trees. If you live far enough North, there may be a good covering of snow that will show the tracks of every creature in the woods. This is the easiest, quietest time of the year to move through the woods. A side benefit of early year hiking is now the deer are calm and back to the normal life of a wild animal. They aren't running from strange sounds and smells. I've always been able to see several deer during this time and I'm just talking about a few hours on the weekend. If you live in the northern part of the country you'll want to pay attention to the weather and take the proper precautions in case a blizzard moves in while you're hiking. Watch what you eat, get some exercise and you'll be much better prepared when the hunting season finally gets here.
So what is the story with your hunting gear? Did everything work correctly? Did you break anything this year? Are you sure you remembered to bring everything back? Now is the time to do an inventory and replenish or replace what's missing or broken or just didn't work. Two years ago one glove fell out of my coat pocket while I wasn't paying attention. I've also been known trying to hunt when the temperature drops to below zero and the lubricant in the gun hardens. Or the scope gets whacked out of alignment when I've slipped on some wet moss. Many years ago my hunting partner told me he could hear me walking along because the spare shells were making a clicking noise in my pocket. Now that doesn't happen because I wear a cartridge belt. I suppose experience is the greatest teacher in the world, it sure has taught me quite a few things. But in the big woods of Maine and New Hampshire and Vermont, where I go hunting now, if I make a mistake the woods sure will point that out pretty quick.
You might also want to evaluate the rest of your hunting situation; I mean from your hat right down to your boots and everything in-between. Lets start at the top – did it rain on you? Did you stay dry and warm under your old headpiece? Maybe it's time to get a new one lined with Gore-Tex. If you can't find what you want with that you could always spray the hat with something like the Silicon sprays on the market nowadays.
How did your coat make out? Did you get too wet, too cold or too hot? I used to wear those fancy multi layer garments from all of the big names. I have quite a collection stored in my cellar. But now my choice is a simple wool hunting coat. I have an uncle that has worn the same old green checked wool hunting coat for at least 25 years. One day I'm going to get him a new one. I like one lined with Gore-Tex. I also spray it with silicon to try to keep the water beading. I will choose a coat with a game pocket in the back. That way I can store the food and water I bring.
The biggest problem with the fancy newer coats is that they are all made for stand hunting. If that's your thing, fine. But if you're like me you can't sit still for more than 10 minutes at a time. Stand hunting means sitting (or even standing) still for long periods of time. Any movement whatsoever will keep the deer well out of range. You're hand waving the bugs away or scratching your nose or a cough is plenty enough to telegraph your presence. If you want to walk around you'll start to sweat because these new coats don't breathe like wool.
How's your long underwear? Forget the old white cotton type because if you sweat, even a little bit, you might as well throw the stuff in the garbage. Cotton is worthless when it gets wet. Upgrade to a polypropylene set and you won't be sorry. Of course if you are a tracker you won't need any of this until it gets pretty cold. I usually don't bother until the temperature is in the teens for the high. By moving constantly I'm more than comfortable.
Finally your most important item – boots. If you are anything like me you have tried just about every make and model of footwear available and have found fault with them all. Either they weigh several pounds apiece, or they cost a fortune or they have those idiot air bobs that don't grip anything. I have personally tried 8 different pair of boots over the last 10 years from a variety of manufacturers. The one boot company that I'll use for the rest of my life is the Muck Boot Company. They have managed to create an unbelievably lightweight, snug fitting boot that keeps me warm down to –12 degrees. You heard me; negative 12 and all the way up to almost 50 above. The model I've chosen is called the Artic SportÔ. It has a terrific lug bottom that grips anything I've tried to throw at it. You can even get them online at www.muckbootsonline.com.
I suppose more words have been written about the "right" or "best" gun than any other topic around. We'll save that discussion another column. Today we need to talk about its performance this past year and getting it ready for storage over the summer and what we can do about the upcoming season. We need to ask ourselves some basic questions; did the gun get wet? Did it get banged around in the field or in the truck? If you shot it at something did it actually hit what you were aiming at? Did it down what you were trying to hit?
Safety first - always unload any weapon when you are handling it in a non-hunting situation. Always check to make sure its unloaded each and every time you pick it up. Remember one thing, it doesn't matter if you just put the thing down, your brother, child, wife or someone else could have chambered a round just to see the action work. People are fascinated with mechanical devices. And you don't have a second chance here; don't mess around with a weapon. It's not a toy.
If you got out of the truck cab and walked only a few feet into the woods it's a good bet that the gun will need some kind of cleaning. You may not have noticed but if there was even a little dew on the ground some of it made its way into the action of the weapon. Obviously snow or rain will mess up the works and you should make every attempt to get this cleaned out at the first opportunity. Pretty much every gun type – bolt, pump or semi-auto can be either partially or completely disassembled without a gunsmith's help. After disassembling the weapon, I'll use some long handled cotton swabs to soak up as much moisture as I can in all of the nooks and crannies. Then a through spraying of water displacing formula number forty, also known as WD-40, will drive out the remaining water. Remember our quest here is to prevent the beginning of rust formation. It's many times easier to prevent rust than to remove it. After the WD-40 evaporates I'll use more of the cotton swabs and begin to clean the grit, dirt and leaves out of the action. Dip the cotton swabs in a little Rem OilÔ or similar stuff so that the crud will stick to the swab and also leave behind a nice coating of TeflonÔ based smoothness. Don't let any gunk dribble back into the action. Use a brass bore brush of the correct diameter dipped in bore solvent to loosen the residue. Swab the barrel with dry patches and follow with an oil soaked patch.
Now that we have a clean gun think back and see if it was banged around while in the field or in the truck. Did you drop it? Did it fall off of the hood of the truck? Maybe we should check the mechanical parts before we put the gun away for the season. Take a few minutes and start examining the weapon for any dings, scratches or marks. Be sure and do this where you have good light. I'll do this on my kitchen table after covering the table with a towel. This room has the best light in my house. I will take maybe half an hour to examine the gun from the barrel to the stock. I make a note of every ding and chip so that I can get it repaired over the summer. Pay particular attention to the barrel end. Did it bang into a rock? You might even want to rub the barrel end with some dryer lint to detect any metal burrs that were scratched up during your travels. Work the action several times to ensure the lubricant has been spread properly and that there is no sticking or binding. If you find something wrong and you can't see an obvious answer, take it to a gunsmith. Now wipe down the outside with some more of the oil and lock the gun away. Remember to use trigger locks if your state requires them. Please store the ammunition somewhere else, not near the gun.
Personally I'll use the gun several times over the year at the range to ensure I'm proficient with it. This is my routine and I never deviate from it at all. But wait a second. What if your back or shoulders were in pain after a few days of hauling around the beast. Is this a hand-me down from some uncle? Maybe he gave it to you because he was tired of carrying around a ten-pound bazooka. Have you considered trading it in for a lighter model? There are several flavors of hunting rifle that are very light that don't have huge recoil. I've settled on a .270 that's fantastic for me. I have had the barrel cut down to 18 and a half inches and shortened the stock by half an inch. The total package with a scope weighs in at 7 pounds even.
Ok, its weight isn't a problem but you say you shot a nice buck and lost your hearing for a few minutes? Maybe you don't really need that .375 Magnum after all. Please don't make the mistake of listening to the gun ads talking about knock down power and all of that bull. Just about any weapon can kill a whitetail deer. If you're close enough a .22 will work. No I don't recommend using that but it doesn't take much beyond to be quite lethal to a deer. I've known a guide in Maine who has used an old .243 for decades. Every deer he shoots doesn't go more than a few yards before it drops. So what's the secret? When you see a deer and your heart starts pumping and thumping you must be in control of yourself so you can be in control of your weapon. So how do you stay in control? Start at the gun range. You've got to shoot a lot of rounds to be comfortable with both your capabilities and your weapon. First place your gun in a gun vise so that it doesn't move. Get it zeroed in for 100 yards. Why 100? If you ask every person you can find who has actually killed a deer, what was the distance they had to shoot you'd find 95 percent were far less than 100 yards. If someone starts with "it had to be a good 350 yards and the buck dropped on the spot" don't even listen. He's lying. If you could go back there and actually measure it out you'd see it was much shorter.
Even if your shot happens to be 150 or 175 yards with a 100 yard sight-in you'll still hit the deer just fine. I don't worry about hold over or under because I don't shoot anything over 200 yards anyway. Try this for a test. At the gun range, after you know the gun is sighted in, stand up and pick the gun up as if you were in the woods. Try to hold it on the target at 100 yards for 3 seconds. I'll bet you can't hold still. Probably because the gun is too heavy or you've just never tried to do it. Now try it at 200 yards. Especially at a high power the crosshairs will be bouncing around all over the place. The more you shoot the more you will be comfortable with the movement of the gun while you are holding it. Of course in the woods always try to use a rest. This could be a tree you've stopped at to catch your breath or a large rock. One of my hunting pals loves to drop down to a knee and rest his forward elbow on his upright knee. This is the position he primarily shoots from and so he practices from this position for several days a month during the year. Normally I'll use a box of 20 shells every month practicing. But then again I like to shoot.
What I've tried to do is to give you both a starting point and some motivation to get going now. Don't wait for November to prepare for the hunt. It's much easier to be comfortable with your weapon and prepared for the hunt when the time is plentiful than when time is short. Yourself, your gear and your gun should all be ready for the hunt.