Tuesday, November 3, 2009

D5 Zone Postmortem.

This past deer season I put in for an X8 tag and took a D3-5 tag as my second choice. I only had one chance for a trip, the week of Columbus Day. Yes. That week. You might remember that week. Big, wet, windy storm? Lots of snow up in the mountains? Trees falling over, power going out, general meteorological mayhem? Yes, that one.

I drove up Highway 4 on Columbus Day, past Lake Alpine, and made camp on the banks of the Mokelumne. It was a little breezy, and after making camp, I hunted the river until last light. The wind was coming up more as night fell, the air was getting colder, but the National Weather Service had assured me a dozen times that the snow level was going to be well above 8000 feet, and likely above 8500-8700 feet. Figuring I was in for some rain and wind, I decided to stick it out, hoping the the passing of the rainstorm would get the deer moving off the ridges. That would play perfectly into my plans to poke around the Mokelumne and Stanislaus rivers, being natural migration paths for deer, providing good cover, forage and water sources. What could go wrong?

Five o'clock Tuesday morning brought wind and cold, but no rain. By first light, a very light, but wet, snow started to fall. I began my hike not far from The Elbow. Uphill. Uphill. Uphill. Snow. Snow. More snow. By 8:30 I measured 2+ inches of wet snow on the ground and no signs of letting up. Not good, when coupled with winds in excess of 25 knots. While waiting for the GPS to get a lock, I began to hike back in the general direction of the truck. (As an aside, a GPS is handy - always carry one and use it if you can. But never rely solely on it. Take compass readings as often as you need to, time your hiking and you can dead reckon your way back to somewhere close enough to your starting point.) By 9 I was at the truck, now with a good 3-4 inches of snow. A nasty ride down the river canyon to camp left me with a decision - stay snowbound for a day or two, or head for a lower, rainy spot? I opted for the latter.

In haste I broke camp, packed the truck and made it back up to Highway 4 just as a CalTrans plow passed by heading west. Timing in life is everything, no? I decided to head all the way down to Arnold to scout some private forest lands open to hunting. By the time I got there, I decided lunch and coffee would be a good thing while I adjusted my plan of attack. Fueled up and warmer, I took to road hunting in pouring rain and caught the back end of a deer (doe or buck, I can't say) heading into the brush. I lost it in thick cover and decided to keep covering ground. Tuesday was just a nasty, wet day and setting up my tent sounded like no fun, so I grabbed a warm motel room for the night, dried out, and poked around in the same places on Wednesday. At that point, 4 was still closed at Lake Alpine, so I spent Wednesday in Arnold, and Thursday up around the Union/Utica/Spicer areas. I managed to jump something on Wednesday evening, but again the cover was too thick to identify the critter as a doe or a buck, and I never had a shot. Thursday afternoon warmed up quick and as I was packing my parka into my backpack, I saw movement off to my right, maybe 80 yards out. Not a deer. No, this was a big brute of a bear, somewhere in the 350-400 pound class. And me with no bear tag. That makes 3 seasons in a row seeing bears (D5 this year, D6 last year, and B2 the year before that.) Sign was plentiful for bears but slim to none for deer.

Friday the road was finally open and I made it back up 4 to meet up with the rest of my party as planned Up near Ebbetts Pass the deer sign was plentiful - lots of fresh beds and droppings, fresh muddy tracks, but I saw nothing. Glassed, glassed and glassed some more, but still nothing. More of the same Saturday and Sunday was 'pack up and head home' day. I'm a little bummed that I never saw (for certain) a buck and never had a shot, but that's how it goes. Three years now with no venison in the freezer, but I'm already plotting and planning for next year.

Some things to keep in mind. First, if you know wet weather is coming, gather up a few days worth of kindling and wood scraps and keep them dry. Plastic garbage bags work well for this. Gather your larger wood and completely wrap it in a tarp or two. You'll be glad you did. Fire is your friend when everything else is cold and miserable. Heat, light and the ability to cook are three essentials you never want to be without. Next, the National Weather Service fibs. Let's face it - they may have more of a clue than you and I, but they aren't the most accurate predictors of weather conditions, especially in the mountains. Also, bring cleaning gear for your guns. A little surface rust on a barrel is not a pretty sight, but it isn't going to mess up a shot. On the other hand, a fouled, rusty, dirty rifle bore will cause you all kinds of grief. Make sure you've also got stuff to clean your scope lenses, plus good scope covers. I use the Leupold flip-up scope covers for my rifle or a set of rubber cups depending on conditions, and I keep a Cabela's Lenspen in my pack. A dirty or fogged scope is a useless scope. When the weather refuses to cooperate, be flexible. Road hunt if you have to. Get out of the weather and go look for non-migratory deer herds if you can. Finally, follow your gut. I had a feeling that if I didn't break camp on Tuesday, I wasn't going to get out of that spot for another 2 or 3 days, maybe more if the snow ended up deeper. A few days stuck in the snow is at the very least an inconvenience. While I was well-equipped in terms of food, shelter and fuel to wait things out, that would have been a few days with zero hunting opportunities vs. the few days of sub-optimal hunting opportunities - at least I was still out there looking and working to fill my tag.

For those that did fill a tag, good for you. For those that did not - get ready for next season!

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