Thursday, January 30, 2014

Deer Heart Tacos

Indians valued the heart of an animal, to the point that they believed that consuming it, would allow them to take on certain qualities of the animal they killed. I don't necessarily hold onto the same beliefs, but I do value the organ meat, mostly the heart and liver. Tradition for me, is to consume the heart of a deer I kill, typically the night or day after the hunt. I guess it has something to do with respecting the animal, as twisted as that may sound. The heart is full of nutrients and it is quite tasty, I wouldn't feel right leaving it behind, so I thought up a simple recipe for anyone in an effort to encourage folks to try it. A win-win recipe that requires very little effort with tasty rewards.
Deer heart tacos and here's how you do it:
Dice and clean up the heart, if you would like more information on this part, feel free to message me.
Place the sliced up pieces of heart in a shallow dish, mix one or two taco seasoning packs with enough water to evenly coat the meat, and then squeeze the juice of 1 lime into the dish. Let that marinate for a few hours in the fridge.
 Fry up some bacon then dice it, dice up 1 onion and 1 bell pepper.

Heat a large frying pan with some olive oil and then add the deer heart with all of the liquid marinade, then add your diced onions, bell peppers and bacon. Let this simmer for quite some time, until the liquid has decreased to your desire.
Make your tacos, and enjoy. Simple, and if you like tacos, you will love this and who knows, maybe the Indians were right?


Black-tails (well sort of) In The Rut.

It was November 1st, 2013, the final Friday of the General Deer season in D3-5. I arrived on time as planned, and was planning on meeting my buddy Roger at the parking spot to finalize our PLAN for the morning. It was plenty dark, I could see any sign of light for a great distance, but it just so happened that the vehicular activity on this morning was null to say the least and my hope of meeting Roger was quickly dwindling as I was readying my gear. To Roger's credit, the night before was Halloween and we had a block party in my neighborhood to which he and his lovely fiancĂ©e attended, there were plenty of libations and for some reason we decided to form our plan for the morning hunt in the wee hours of that all hallows evening. Hey, at least we tried. My only regret as I pulled my mountain bike out of the bed of my pickup was that I decided to leave my quartering bags behind, thinking I would have a companion to help pack out a deer if it were to come to that. My only regret, but I decided to push on regardless and set my mind frame on the morning being a solo hunt.
This area we hunt requires wheels to effectively get in and out, due to the fact that the entire area is closed to vehicles off or on road, the best option is a mountain bike. So there I was, alone in the dark, with nothing but a headlamp for slight comfort and about a 2.5 mile bike ride ahead of me and about 30 minutes to get there before legal shooting hours. Thankfully the ride in really is an easy one, straight shot on a pretty flat surface. It took me about 15-20 minutes to get to where I like to dump my bike and after a quick restroom stop and a sip of water, the sun was beginning to just peak over the Sierra Nevadas. It was shoot time, and I still had a good ways to go get to the area I wanted to be in. I decided to take my time and still hunt in, I could see decently but if I were able to get a shot off it would have to be a close one as my scope wasn't able to gather much light at the moment. It was about 300 yards in, when I caught movement to my left and out in front of me a good ways. The dark silhouette that caught my eye must have seen me at the same time because it froze, staring in my direction. Knowing that I did not have much time I pulled my rifle up and put my crosshairs on it's mid section. Hoping to be able to see legal antlers on top of whatever it was I was looking at, just wasn't meant to be, even though I was certain it was a deer. There simply was not enough light to judge exactly what the animal was, even though my instincts told me it was a buck just by it's body size, there was no way I could be sure... so put down my rifle and glassed it with my bino's for a few more seconds before it decided to make it's escape. Then it happened again, and I'm not sure if it was that exact moment or a few steps later when I caught more movement off to my left, but this time it was behind me by about 15 yards. I knew right away that it was not animal, in fact the thing was able to speak, it said, "Hey buddy, did you see something?" I'll admit, I was slightly startled and to my knowledge they had not invented time travel or any kind of special capsule that could transport one to a specific location within seconds, but there he stood, my buddy Roger. (Author's note: I was pleased to see him and was completely unaware that he possessed such ninja like skills to sneak in on me like that).
After we said our hellos and after giving him some hell for being late, we made it to our spot. Quickly put a plan together and decided to sit about 30 yards a part, I was to watch a long narrow stretch of land (for the sake of this article, we'll call it a trail) that is only about 12 feet wide and he was going to sit above me, keeping his eye on a tighter area that the deer like to cross between. So this 12 foot wide nature trail that I am watching has a row of trees following the length of it on the left side and brush so high it wants to swallow you up once you get a few steps in, and to the right of the trail, it immediately drops off into a ditch that leads to more thick brush and trees. The window of opportunity in this spot is slim, but it is a heavy traffic area and the deer like to use it.

It was a rather chilly November morning, mid 30's if I do recall, clear skies and as the night was transforming into the day a hazy fog began to sit in. It wasn't enough to distort my line of sight completely but it did propose a challenge the farther out I looked. I sat directly on the ground, with my pack in front of me, this particular pack has a notch cut out in it specifically to steady your rifle, so that's what I did. It wasn't more than ten minutes, when I saw movement way down there at the end of the trail. With my naked eye I could see multiple deer, so I put my scope on them. 3 does and a huge deer that was facing me, directly behind the does. The does didn't spend much time on the trail, moving from left to right they hit the ditch and went straight into the wooded area on the right, and now I had a clear view of the deer that was behind them. He was such a ghostly figure, massive body and I could see he had heavy and wide antlers. When you see a deer this big, even though it is somewhat hard to see a fork when they are facing you, you know right away that it is a legal buck. There was no question in mind, that I was looking at one of the biggest bucks that I had ever seen out there, but still, I was not 100% certain from the angle, but I'll never forget that image of him peering out of the fog, completely motionless, like a statue, staring in my direction. It seemed like an eternity, but in reality it was only seconds before he quickly followed his does, never to be seen again. I took my eyes off my scope, and began to watch the area again and not more than a minute or two later, another deer steps out from the left. This time, closer to me, still out there a ways, probably 40-50 yards closer to me from where the first group of deer stood. Pull my scope again and immediately, without question, I knew it was a legal buck. Big buck too, not as big as the first but a real nice one, he took a few steps and stopped, sniffed the direction of the first group of deer and then a few more steps to the edge of the ditch, standing broadside. With my crosshairs right behind the shoulder, I squeezed off a round. By the time I was able to jack another round in and put my scope on where he stood, he was just... gone. I never saw any reaction from the deer at all, just gone. Roger came hurrying over and I said, "I think I just shot a buck, he was down there towards the end of the trail, standing broadside, crosshairs right behind the shoulder and now he's gone." Something just did not seem right to me, I wanted to find blood, so we took off to see if there was any trace of some where he stood. I remember as we were walking down the trail thinking to myself, "Wow, this is taking awhile to get down there", I had convinced myself that the buck was only about 200-250 yards away. So we get down there, and I am confident I am standing where that buck was and there is no trace of blood anywhere, and Roger goes, "You know how far that shot was?", confidently and passively I say, "Yeah, about 200-250 yards". I think the smirk said it all, but just to be sure, Roger pulled out his range finder and hit the spot where I took the shot from... 480 or 490 yards I believe is what it was. I wasn't even close. I would have had better luck digging for the bullet in the dirt than finding any blood. It also made a whole lot of sense to me at this time what that first buck was doing, he knew that second buck was there, he had no idea I was looking at him, he was waiting, but like any fine man would do, he chased the women.
The thrill of the shot was now gone, we were at the other end of the trail and found ourselves in a situation to where we needed to, yet again, put another game plan together. We decided to sit off the trail where we were, we had plenty of shade and a nice background to conceal us and since that's where the deer seemed to be crossing, it seemed like the best option. We also decided that we would "rattle" from this position and see what happens. It was minutes before we saw more deer. This time, they were now at the opposite end of where we sat, I'd say about the exact spot where I took that first shot from, about 480-490 yards away. It looked like another group of about 2-3 does and a decent buck, no shot was provided and on their way they went. So I say to Roge, "Just start rattling man, let's see what happens." So Roge grabs his antlers and starts laying into them, sounded good to me! Roger knows his rattling, I know this, because after he made a ruckus and put the antlers down, about 350 yards down the trail, a doe appears and moments later a nice shooter buck behind her. The doe spent a little time grazing around on the trail before she headed into the ditch and then into thick area where the previous deer went, with the shooter buck still on the trail. Knowing that it was a poke to where that buck was, Roger grabbed the antlers and started rattling again. It seemed like every time he would rattle, that buck would get pissed off and inch forward. What a sight that was, every movement that buck took seemed like it was calculated, and it seemed like his aggression level progressed. He would move methodically from one side of the trail to the other, with slight pauses in between, almost like he was saying, I'm here boys, come and get me. I'll never forget that, the steam coming out of his nostrils and the way he was snorting, these images rest vividly in my mind. This was a buck, in the peak of the rut, holding his ground and looking for a fight, welcoming it. After a minute or so of this, the buck lost interest and headed into the ditch to follow the doe. Roger and I looked at each other and we were both thinking to ourselves, what just happened? It was at this time that we also realized that we were losing our shade, and decided to move to the other side of the trail next a tree that provided what we were after. I think we got half way there, when about 200 yards in front of us, out comes a spike and then another doe. Frozen, stopped dead in our tracks. We watched as the doe and the spike gathered what sunshine they could before they too, hit the ditch and then into the wooded area. Obviously, we are in the right spot and just as we get to the tree we wanted to sit by in the shade, out of the ditch, here comes a doe. She hits the trail and then crosses into the other row of trees on the other side... and almost immediately after her, the shooter buck appears once again, but now he is about 270-280 yards away. Roger starts rattling, and the buck starts inching forward again, in the same exact manner. Roger, stone cold, with his eyes on the buck whispers to me, "Lay prone and get ready to shoot him." So very slowly and calmly, I lay my pack down and get into position. Roger whispers again, "Ok shoot him Aaron, shoot him." To which I replied, "Roge, I can't see him." There was a slight bend in the trail, and once I laid down, I lost sight of him and the shooter buck, once again, lost interest. He followed the doe...
I sat up, inched my way to the middle of the trail, propped my pack upright, set my rifle in the v-notch, looked at Roge and said, "Rattle him again!" and that's exactly what he did... It was seconds, almost on command before that buck came out from where he just was, only slightly closer this time, somewhere between 225-250 yards and still pissed off, but this time, I was ready, Roger and I were ready. In the same way from the times before, the buck moved back and forth on the road, in such a way, that it was almost humorous to me listening to Roger, who was now looking at the buck through binoculars calling the shot for me. It went like this, "Ok shoot, NO NO NO, ok now, no wait, wait, Ok" BOOOOOOOOM! The buck had paused for just a slight second, and slightly quartering to me. My cross hairs, were about an inch or two behind the shoulder, center mass. The recoil lifted my head from the rifle and as I was jacking in another shell, I watched that buck jump straight up and hit the ground on all fours, right before he took off into the tree line once again. I was pumped, everything that lead up to that moment, all of our hopes and fears colliding at once in such a chaotic and insane way. My adrenaline was running on all cylinders... very quietly, and very excitedly, Roger and I high fived and congratulated each other on an awesome experience. After we both calmed down a bit, we both agreed to give him about 15 minutes before we went to look for blood... our excitement got the best of us. I needed to see blood, our waiting period lasted about a minute and a half... and once I got to where that buck stood, this is what I saw.
And I saw more from that same position, for about 20 yards. We blood tracked that deer for what seemed like an eternity, he headed about 50 yards to the South, then another 30 or so to the East, and then back to the North for 40-50 yards. When Roger said, "Aaron, there's your buck! He's right there underneath a bush! He's down!"

Indeed he was.

High fives, bro hugs, you name it. We were pumped. I can honestly say, that I have never experienced deer hunting like this, ever before. My appreciation for these deer took on a whole new level. Even if, I would have never been able to get a shot off, just the fact that we were able to see that buck in the peak of the rut, that would have been enough for me, just to be able to share that experience alone. The fact that Roger and I were able to seal the deal, just made the entire experience so much sweeter and Roger, I can't thank you enough for showing up that morning.

So there we were, standing over the deer I just shot and Roger asks me if I wanted any help with gutting it, and I looked at him and said, "No! I got this, why don't you back to where we were and see if you can rattle in another one." to which he replied, "You sure?", "Of course I am sure, these deer have no idea what is going on right now, go back to the spot and see if you can get another one." I could tell that I had more faith in that plan than Roger did, but he was easily convinced and off he went.  I don't know how long it took me to get that deer opened up, but I was done and on the phone with my father telling him about the hunt when mid sentence I hear, BOOOOOOOM! "Dad, I got to go, I think roger just shot a buck." Phone Roge, "Was that you?", "YEP! I just shot a buck, he's down!"

A spectacular morning alone, with one deer down, to have two literally not more than 30 minutes apart, phenomenal. Met up with Roger and he explained to me that he had just sat down, rattled for a few minutes, when out of the brush a big bodied fork by spike came RUNNING towards him. One shot and down he went. Knowing how we would get one deer out of the area, but not two, we phoned our buddy George who had recently made an ingenious invention, we definitely needed back up. I'll never forget that hunt, never. The ups and downs, the back and forth, the entire hunt played out like a chess match. Score for the deer, slight advancement for us, another for the deer, and then check mate. Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Farewell Hunt... With Much Gratitude.

To equate opening morning of the general season of C zone to something relative and significant and the anticipation of such, I could only describe it in the same way as a child looking forward to Christmas Day. For the past five years of my life, I  looked forward to this specific hunting season more than any other. I still remember the first trip up there to the mountain, in which I was invited to accompany a friend on his hunt. I didn't have a deer tag for that year, but I was able to carry a rifle with the possession of a bear tag and that's exactly what I did. The plan was to help my friend look for deer and if the opportunity presented itself, I would make an attempt at killing a bear. As it turned it out, we both left that trip with our tags in our hand, but not all was lost. Over that weekend, I saw potential and opportunity like I hadn't seen in California since I was a just a young boy. There were deer there, and it was exciting. It gave me hope, and it reminded me of my younger days with my family driving through the Sierras looking at deer, a past time that seems to be slipping out of one's hands more and more each day as our Department of Fish and Wildlife continually report on the decline of the California deer population. That mountain was and is a special place.

The very next year after that initial trip, we put a plan together with a small group of folks, my father included. We spent an entire week up there, during a rather "hot" year, not action wise, temperature. It made for some tough hunting, but through perseverance the majority in our group prevailed. I was able to witness my father shoot his first deer after a very long absence, a memorable moment to say the least. I also shot my first bear up there, got to share that moment with my father as well. That trip turned out to be such a success, we decided to build on the precedent we set and eventually initiated a plan to make that camp, into an official deer camp. We put the word out to our closest friends and family, and before we knew it, deer camp became official. A week long celebration of sorts with like minded individuals, who shared similar passions and the same goals,  putting meat in the freezer... and that's exactly what we did.

The few of us with schedules that allowed it, would begin scouting in the summer months. Hanging trail cameras, looking for migratory trails and keeping tabs on the local bucks and bears. We literally dissected the area, we knew the routes of travel and we knew where to position folks in our group based on their skill level, physical ability and knowledge of the mountain. Our plans worked out, and really so much that they exceeded our expectations. The following three years, we had just some phenomenal hunting and our harvest numbers for the entire camp were exceptional, to the point that it definitely struck a nerve with some of the other surrounding hunters, but we earned it, every successful person in our camp did. The formula for success, is hunt hard and hunt harder... never give up hope, stay dedicated and persevere. You have to keep your head in the game, to achieve your goal.

2013, opening morning... A day like none other I have experienced up there, high winds and bone-chilling-cold-non-stop-rain. I was supposed to be in a tree stand off a deer trail, but due to the weather I chose to set up my ground blind instead, which I did the day before. Three of us were in my pickup at my drop off point, one of the first ones on the mountain, pretty much typical for our group. Plenty dark, I was the first one to get dropped off. That walk I took that morning, into the darkness, was one of the loneliest walks I had ever taken in my life... I watched the truck drive away and take what little light it brought with it... Alone, cold, and beginning to get wet, I began my ascent in the direction of my blind.  Something felt bad about what I was doing, not sure exactly how I came to that feeling, but it was almost like I knew something terrible was about to happen. Uncertainty, it encompassed my thoughts. I was not fearful, maybe uneasy, but I felt something that morning, which was unlike anything else I felt before. As I made it to my blind, I slowly unzipped the back of it, and quietly entered. If I thought it was dark before, it was black, completely, inside that ground blind and I could barely hear myself think with the constant pounding of rain atop of it, but I was dry, still cold, but dry. I learned very quickly, that I was not too fond of sitting in a ground blind during a rain storm, it took away one of my senses that can prove to be essential for survival, sound. Inside that blind, I was relying solely on my sight... and then it happened, my suspicions and the suspense of everything I felt that morning colliding together at once, with my life hanging in the balance of it. Vulnerability, and uncertainty confirmed, I had my back up against a wall with only seconds to make a decision, based on what I saw... a creature, that was more than capable of helping me meet my maker, as cliche as that sounds. It is every bit of truth.  I used the only thing that I could to level the playing field, between me and the beast, my pistol. One shot was all I knew I would get, and I hoped if I missed it would be enough to turn the beast away from me... Call it fate, but that bullet seemed destined for a specific path, right through the skull of the imminent threat I was faced with. So there I sat... processing what happened, because I hadn't the time to do so before. I felt alone. I could not see where the animal laid, so I waited until I was certain it had expired. I still did not feel safe... but I just sat there. Replaying what had just happened, trying to slow it down in my head, thinking if there was another way I could have pulled out of this situation, did I do the right thing? How will I explain it? Who will believe me? Opening morning, 2013 of the general C zone season, was not a good morning for this hunter... I was safe, but uncertain if that even mattered.

The effects of what I felt after that morning, stayed with me several weeks after the incident... but I'd say that I was largely affected, the days immediately following. Imagine, the weight of a three hundred pound man standing directly on your chest, or perhaps a three hundred pound anvil... it's heavy, yes? I was anxious, probably worrisome, and a bit distant. Maybe I hid it well, maybe I didn't, but what I felt and what I was going through was different from anything I had gone through before, and there wasn't a word anyone could say that could change it, I couldn't change it. I was told there would be some sort of effects from dealing with a situation like I had, but I guess I just brushed the thought of it off... until it was happening. Regardless, the next day, Sunday morning... the weather had broke... and I was alone on a big clear cut hill side, waiting for the warmth of the sun to peak over the tall mountains in the East. This felt good. As the sun brightened the hill side and draws, I began to glass the areas around me. It was very quiet, which is quite typical after a heavy rain. I felt like this gave me an opportunity to move back and forth on the hill side with ease, staying in the shadows. If I was in one spot, I couldn't see the other, so I would quietly pick up and move about every thirty minutes or so, hoping to catch a buck coming out of the tree line for some morning sun. After about two hours of practicing my method, I picked up and once again slowly walked towards the other side of the clear cut... I reach my destination, and something caught my eye from up above. There he was, feeding on some brush at the tree line, in the morning sun... about 100 yards, facing directly away from me. I glassed him and knew right away that he was legal. I rested my gun on a stump in front me, steadied my rifle and fired the second he turned broadside. He expired right where he stood, in a matter of seconds. It felt like redemption.

I can't say the rest of deer camp this past season went well for me... Filling my tag felt good, but that was about it. I was buried into my thoughts, engulfed entirely, and as the days went on it began to wear me down. I think it began to affect some of my friendships in camp as well. My saving grace, was spending time with my wife, who desperately wants to shoot her first deer. I tried my best to keep her motivated, my plans were whatever she wanted to do, and that's what we did. She was my focus for the rest of the week. It's hard to give encouragement to someone who hasn't had the opportunity to share in the same things you have, such as filling out that deer tag and attaching it to the antler of your buck. When much time passes, with little to no success, it's hard to remain in good spirits. I know this feeling well, but I am cut a little different and wired a little different from her, and that is perfectly fine. We gave it our all, but once again, came up short... sorry, darlin'.

So why is the title of this post called, "Farewell Hunt"... it's due to the fact that I realized something up there this past season. Primarily, for the fact that I would not be able to achieve my personal goals by continuing the week long tradition of deer camp in California. I've enjoyed my time on that mountain in ways not easily described in words, it's just been a special experience for me, but I feel my time has run out and moving on is the best thing I could do for myself and my family. Not because of what I went through up there, but if there is anyone who shares my goals exactly... it's my father, and call it destiny or not, the mountains and hillsides of distant lands having been calling our names for quite some time now and I feel it's time we answered them... and begin a new chapter in our lives. So thankful for the friends and family who I was able to make life long memories with up there, I'll take them to my grave.