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Max's Meanderings: Birds and Bucks, By, Max Zeller, Prostaffer

November 19, 2014

One of the advantages of having a month-long general western deer rifle season is I can take off a couple days from deer hunting, pack up the bird dog and head out for an eastern Oregon pheasant hunt before the deer action really kicks into high gear closer towards November.  So, that’s what I did---I loaded up Ochoco and headed for Ladd Marsh just south of La Grande for the pheasant opener on October 11.  The road trip across the state is always a highlight, showcasing our state’s spectacular diversity.  The closer we got to our destination the more excited Ochoco and I became---he knew what was up the minute I loaded the dog crate at home. 

Opening weekend is always full of energy as folks and dogs staged at the parking areas wait for shooting time to begin.  The weather was unseasonably warm even though rain was in the forecast.  This is the first time I can remember opening a bird hunt in eastern Oregon dressed only in a long sleeved T-shirt.  I could already hear roosters cackling in the field as the hunt began, so I headed in that direction.  The first hour passed with several hens flushing at Ochoco’s feet but the wily roosters still eluded us.  Finally, Ochoco was on a hot scent zig-zagging through the heavy chest-high brush and swampy ground when a rooster exploded wild further out than I expected.  The shot was longer than I wanted and my subsequent miss got me a dirty look from Ochoco and some self consternation.  We continued on, concentrating on the same area thinking more cock birds would possibly be huddled together.  Sure enough, a second rooster flushed at Ochoco’s feet and, this time, the shot was true.  The first bird of the season is always extra special, and I made sure to take the time to admire the king of all upland fowl and give extra praise to Ochoco.  Five more hours slogging through thick, wet swampland only produced a couple more hens and sore legs on both hunters, so we called it a day and travelled around the marsh scouting out new locales for the next day’s hunt.

The next morning was dry and Ochoco and I were the only pheasant hunters waiting for the “opening bell” in our new hunt locale.  Almost immediately after legal shooting light, Ochoco became”birdy” and the first bird up was a rooster flying perfectly for a straight-away shot.  I let some distance open up between us before the shot so as not to destroy the bird with too heavy a concentration of shot from my modified choke and 3” shells of #6’s.  The bird fell and buried itself in a thick, heavily matted patch of sticker-filled “thistle looking” vegetation.  No problem for Ochoco, who dug the bird out and retrieved it to hand. Good boy! It wasn’t an hour later that he flushed out another rooster from head-high cattails for a classic crossing shot.  My lead was true and the bird was dead before it hit the ground.  Another perfect retrieve to hand and our limit was had before the morning was done.  We spent the next couple hours looking over other areas of the huge wetland, trying to find some quail or Huns in habitat I found them in in past years.  We covered a lot of ground and enjoyed the golden grassland and mountain vistas surrounding us.  With Ochoco’s face and legs showing signs of rawness and wear from two days of constant, high speed facial assault in harsh, thick vegetation, it was time to head home to continue the deer season. But I’m sure if Ochoco had a say, he would want to stay and continue the assault.

I had high expectations for the 2014 western Oregon general rifle deer season.  This year, the calendar was our friend, extending the blacktail season later than usual, ending on November 7.  I have been successful taking a blacktail deer every year since my “retirement” 15 years ago, but have not taken a mature (“trophy”) buck since 2007.  The deer woods of the central Coast Range mountains where I hunt is extremely thick with low long range visibility, and blacktail deer are notoriously elusive and reclusive, so I am always happy and satisfied with any blacktail deer I harvest.  However, with the season extending further into the deers’ rutting cycle, I felt this was the year to harvest a mature buck.  Well, after putting in well over 150 hours of effort I was having one of the most difficult seasons in terms of just finding deer.  I only saw eight deer total in three weeks of hunting, passing up three small forked horns in that time, hoping for the giant “forest ghost” of my dreams as the season progressed further into the rut.  Well, that giant never materialized and I decided in the last week of the season any legal buck would do to help stock my freezer for the winter---easier said than done.  I still could not find any deer, doe or buck, in any of my favorite deer areas.

It was now the second to last day of the season and I decided to check a new area I hadn’t hunted in a few years due to logging activities.  I hiked to the top of a ridge where the three year old cut was showing good growth in terms of deer forage, and a series of benches made for some good potential glassing.  Of course, then it started pouring rain and never stopped.  My first pass through with the binoculars showed nothing---I was so disappointed (par, like the rest of the season).  There just had to be deer in this cut; it was a 1.5 mile climb with no vehicle access (bermed off road) and the habitat looked great.  I almost packed it in after an hour of glassing through rain-specked and foggy binoculars, plus I was soaked to the bone and in a miserable mood.  I made one more pass with the glass and I’ll be darned if I didn’t see the rear end of a deer standing behind a tree 200 yards below on the second bench.  As the deer inched forward, I cleared my glass enough to see it had forks on both sides which, at this point in the season, was good enough to me.  He kept pacing back and forth but never left the bench.  Then I saw the doe bedded near some blow downs, which he didn’t want to leave.  I had to get closer because my scope was so fogged and rain soaked I couldn’t make out the deer’s vitals clearly enough for an ethical shot.  I butt-crawled down that slippery slope over all kinds of spalt trying not to trip, fall or pop any sticks.  I made it to 113 yards, had a clear view of the bench and waited for the buck to give me a clear, broadside shot—which he finally did.  He hunched up at the shot and dove over the edge of the second bench into a massive pile of blow downs.  He never came out and that’s where I found him. 

During his death run he broke off a tine on one side, which I couldn’t find.  It was too steep, slippery, and littered with spalt and blow downs to climb back to the top, so I strapped the whole deer onto my OPW Orion pack and headed for the creek bottom. 

Once there I had over a mile of falling, crawling and cussing through all the salmonberry, vine maple, stinging nettle, and slick creek stones the Coast Range creek bottoms are famous for.  Two hours later, I finally made it back to my truck.  I was a sight, looking like a drowned dirty rat, but I sure was in a better mood. 

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