The Fish Sniffer - Lava Canyon Blacktail
Lava Canyon Blacktail

Written By: Cal Kellogg, January 4, 2014
Species: N/A
Location: N/A,

Lava Canyon Blacktail
Lava Canyon Blacktail Lava Canyon Blacktail

Over the years I’ve been fortunate in that more often than not I’ve been able to tag a California blacktail buck while hunting on public land. While I’ve tasted more than my share of success, I seldom score early. Instead success generally comes at the last minute after yours truly has been subjected to days of mental and physical challenges.

Now I love a challenge, but once in a while wouldn’t it be nice if success came early? Yes, it would and that’s exactly what happened to me during my annual eastern Tehama County deer hunt this October. Here’s the story…

Having drawn a late season G-1 tag I blocked out the period from Wednesday, October 30 to November 3 on my calendar, intending to invest five full days in putting a buck in the freezer.

The area I hunt is migration territory and for the hunting to be productive there has to be rain and snow to drive the deer out of middle and high elevation timber.

Leading up to my hunt the weather was exceptionally warm and I expected the worst, but then there was a glimmer of hope. A small front was expected to pass over Northern California on Monday, October 28, dropping up to a half inch of rain and dusting the high ridges with snow. After that things were suppose to go back to fair and warm.

This was my window of opportunity, but we were slated to publish Issue 3224 of The Fish Sniffer on Tuesday and then have our bi-weekly staff meeting… What to do?

After a pair of phone calls to Paul and Dan, explaining that I’d be missing the publication meeting, I set to frantically packing my truck. When it comes to deer hunting, the conditions mean everything and I knew the success or failure of my 2014 hunt might well come down to being in the woods on Tuesday when conditions would be the best.

After driving a good portion of the night, I arrived at my jumping off point in the Lassen National Forest about an hour before daybreak. It was spitting light rain as I collected my gear and headed into the canyon.

Progress was slow. The wet lava was slick and the illumination given by the red light of my headlamp wasn’t the best. Ordinarily the hike to my ground blind would take about 40 minutes, but on this morning it took nearly an hour.

When I arrived at the blind big angry clouds were illuminated by the rising sun in the east and the details of the canyon below were revealed in the weak milky light of a stormy dawn.

The instant I sat down, I caught movement below. It was a high racked buck trotting through openings in the brush about 150 yards away. Grabbing my rifle, I flipped off the scope covers and prepared for a shot, but when I looked down for the rifle I lost sight of the buck.

I scanned the brushy gullies hard with my binoculars, but I was never able to relocated the buck. I was certain I hadn’t spooked him and I figured he was lurking somewhere out of sight but still within range. He was a dandy buck…I had my fingers crossed big time!

Things got tense about 90 minutes later when a string of 8 does and yearlings wondered into the area where I’d last seen the buck. I kept the does under constant surveillance, hoping the buck would appear within their ranks, but it didn’t happen.

When the rain picked up noticeably in intensity around 10:30, I knew it was time to head back to camp. I hated to leave my stand when the conditions were so perfect, but if I was going to have a dry place to sleep, I’d need to set up my camp and tent.

By the time I arrived back at the truck the rain was really falling. The first thing I did was to construct a covered cooking, dining and sitting area with tarps, ropes and bungee cords. Once that shelter was complete I had a dry area to work from and within an hour both my tent and kitchen were set up and ready for business. Let it rain!

Rain it did for most of the early afternoon. After brewing a quick pot of coffee and grabbing a bite of lunch I headed back to my stand were I planned to keep watch until sundown.

I’d seen nearly 20 deer from the stand that morning, but the going was slower in the afternoon. I saw two does about 800 yards away when I first sat down, but nothing showed after that. I wasn’t surprised. The rain was still coming down hard and very often this will cause the deer to hold. It’s when it stops raining that you’ve got to be ready.

It was about 3 o’clock when the first patches of blue sky showed in the west. At first the rain turned to a sprinkle and then the precipitation stopped all together.

The rain looked to be over, so I slipped off my waterproof bibs and jacket and started glassing the canyon with a renewed sense of urgency. Deer that had waited out the downpour in the brush would be drawn out into the open to dry out.

I’d been glassing for about a half hour when I spotted the unmistakable shape of a deer’s hind leg amid some brush and downed tree limbs. The deer was atop a narrow backbone that led into the heart of the hardscrabble lava canyon.

Presently the deer walked into the open… It was a doe, but a pair of handsome mature bucks followed it out. My heart felt like it was going to jump out of my throat.

If I ever stop getting flashes of buck fever, I’ll stop hunting and I’ll readily admit that the sight of those bucks gave me a strong, although short-lived, case of the aforementioned fever. It was going to be a long shot in the 250 to 300 yard range and that knowledge helped me regain composure. Hitting with a rifle at long range takes skill and you’ve got to be calm.

Cranking the magnification on the scope up, I rested my trusty 7mm Remington Magnum in the notch of my homemade shooting sticks and waited for the shot to develop. This was the kind of opportunity I’d bought the 7 mag to take advantage of decades ago and it had proven it’s worth many times over the years.

The bucks were similar in size. Both of them had distinct antlers, so I decided to fire at the one that gave me the best shot.

It was probably only a few seconds, but it seemed like the bucks milled around on the backbone for several minutes before one finally separated and turned broadside, giving me the opportunity I’d been looking for.

At the report, I clearly heard the wet slap of the bullet striking flesh. The next thing I knew the buck surged off the backbone and into the canyon, kicking and rolling down into a steep gully….And then there was silence.

It took me about a half hour to hike down to the spot where the buck had been standing when I shot and then a few more minutes to hike to the bottom of the gully. About half way down I cut a heavy blood trail and followed it to the buck.

The buck turned out to be a mature 3.5 year old 2 x 2 complete with an eye guard. The bullet had hit within an inch of where I’d been aiming. It popped a tiny hole in the near side shoulder, destroyed a portion of the lungs and I found it fully mushroomed hanging from the hide on the far side when I rolled the buck over. I couldn’t have been happier, I had a tasty buck for the freezer and the rest of my vacation time to try to tag a bear!

With sundown threatening I broke out my headlamp and Leatherman Wave. There was no way I could drag the buck out of the canyon. My only option was to bone out the buck on site, hang the meat and then come back the next morning and pack it out using a pack frame, which is exactly what I did. It was hard work, but it’s over coming the challenges and putting in the hard work that make deer hunting such a rewarding sport for me!

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