Sit still, keep quiet, and shoot a turkey.

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Shooting the turkey in spring was a significant moment for me. It had been a few years since I had successfully hunted a “big game” animal, and although it could be argued that a turkey doesn’t count, I decided to take it as a win. However, despite ending the day with meat in my freezer, the circumstances of my success were less than ideal…because I didn’t deserve it. Prior to my successful shot, I had for all intents and purposes given up. If it hadn’t been for the landowner interrupting me literally as I was about to turn the key of my truck, I’d have been sat in afternoon traffic instead of a ground blind when that turkey wandered by.

I have always struggled with the mental side of hunting: losing focus and enthusiasm as time and lack of comfort wore on. I have read enough to know that perseverance is an important ingredient for a successful hunt, but when your backside is falling asleep in freezing temperatures, or you’re being pestered by mosquitoes, ticks, and self doubt, perseverance can be harder to find than legal game. As frustrations builds, perseverance evaporates, further fueling the frustration in a depressing cycle that definitely doesn’t lead to tagged animals. During my spring turkey hunt, my rendition of this cycle was interrupted by that timely and humbling lesson in the value of perseverance. A lesson I took well and truly to heart in time for the fall turkey hunt this October.

According to the wisdom of the internet one of the most reliable calls to use in the fall is the “kee-kee run”. This simulates a lost turkey trying to get in touch with its friends and can be useful for drawing birds in. Unfortunately it’s not an easy call to make on a slate, which is as far as my calling experience had grown up to that point. So prior to the start of the season I made an effort to learn how to use a mouth call. The mouth call consists of layers of fabric tape, latex, and aluminium, and sits in the roof of your mouth and squeaks and wails as you force air between it and your tongue. I decided quite late that I should try to learn this call in time for the season, but since the process is not known to be pleasing to the ears I decided to keep it away from home and dedicated my morning and afternoon commutes to the process instead. After I got over my tendency to gag when I put the call in my mouth, and after getting a lot of curious looks from fellow commuters at traffic lights, I eventually managed to produce sounds that might not be an instant red flag to any wild turkeys that overheard me. If there were any turkeys living within earshot of my route to work, they might have briefly considered the possibility that one of their fellows had learned to drive.

Unfortunately, while my fortnight of intensive commuter calling had helped me reach the turkey equivalent of ordering a beer in a foreign language, it was a long way short of confidently whispering sweet nothings in a barmaids ear. Turkeys don’t have the equivalent of beer goggles to tilt things in my favour however, so my “kee-kee runs” never really made it off the starting block. By the last day of my season I had effectively reverted to the deer hunting tactic of trying to be in the right place at the right time.

Based upon my previous year’s experience of hunting fall turkeys, I started the season with little hope of tagging a bird. However I found myself heading out each day with more determination than I expected. On the final day I had only planned to be out till lunch time, since there was a Formula One qualifying race scheduled for the early afternoon that I had hoped to watch and I didn’t expect my enthusiasm to last much longer than that anyway. I also knew that it would be my last day of hunting whether I got a bird or not, since I wouldn’t have another opportunity before the end of the season…but when the time came to pack up and go, my perseverance got up and stopped me. This was extra surprising to me because not only was my arse numb and the rest of me cold, but I hadn’t brought anything to eat—and I am notorious (among those who know me well) for losing enthusiasm when I get hungry. This time it didn’t seem to make a difference.

When I arrived at my hunting location on the final day of my season I was greeted by a couple of inches of snow, and a temperature several degrees below freezing. The landowner had mentioned to me that he had seen a lot of birds on top of a certain small hill feeding on acorns in the evenings, and so that was where I had decided to hunt that morning. When I arrived on the hilltop the snow I had been preemptively begrudging for its butt freezing potential instead did me a favour by displaying ample evidence of the recent movement and feeding of turkeys. So I set up my decoy and sat down to wait with my back to a pile of snow covered logs.

Despite the surfeit of tracks, there was no obvious place to set up that would cover all possible approaches, and sure enough as the morning wore on I several times heard suspicious noises behind me that I had no way to check on without giving myself away. They were probably squirrels. If you hear suspicious noises when you’re hunting in the woods, 99 times out of 100 it’s squirrels—but you never know.

Nevertheless, I kept faith, resisted the urge to sneak a peek behind me, and soon enough two creatures that definitely weren’t squirrels appeared from a direction I could actually observe. They were two jakes (juvenile male turkeys) and they approached from my left and crossed in front of me. However despite being covered from head to toe in camouflage and having a decoy to draw their attention, they were obviously unhappy about something. I kept a bead on the most likely option of the two, but neither got close enough for me to be confident making a shot and they eventually wandered off. In hindsight I suspect that sitting with my back to snow covered logs left me nicely silhouetted and exposed even the smallest movement of my head. Shortly after that, while I was still second guessing my decision not to shoot the jake, I caught sight of the birds that would eventually make my day.

The flock appeared on the far side of a field below where I was sitting. They must have come out of a group of pine trees where I know they like to roost, but is on a neighboring property that I don’t have permission to hunt on. I watched them move through the field where I did have permission to hunt but wasn’t currently sitting in, and disappear into another wooded hill that I also couldn’t access. It was disheartening to see so many birds walking away from me and past a spot where I had been sitting the day before, but it was the first time I’d seen so many birds at once in a hunting situation, and I knew that eventually they would probably head back to their roost. The question was which route would they take?

Cue another round of second guessing, this time of all the other decisions I had made that day. Then partly out of frustration for the missed opportunity and a desire to feel more proactive, I got up and moved to a new location. I set up at the edge of the field, at the end closest to the pine trees where the turkeys like to roost. I found a great spot just outside the field in a patch of brush that offered good concealment but had good views of the field and my decoy. Apart from the turkeys passing through that morning, I had also seen their tracks in that spot the day before, so it wasn’t a terrible place to be. But I couldn’t get the acorns out of my mind, and before too long I third guessed myself and moved again.

After a little break to warm up and check in with my wife I returned to the pile of logs where I had been that morning, but set up on a different side that wasn’t covered in snow and so wouldn’t leave me silhouetted. Then I waited.

As time slowly slipped away, taking my body heat and the feeling in my rear end with it, I thought about my situation. Sitting in the middle of a lot of fresh turkey sign should be a good bet, but tracks only reveal where an animal has been, not where it will go. Maybe the birds only visit that spot once a day, and that once was in the morning before I arrived. Or maybe they were indeed repeat visitors, and like the proverbial stopped clock all I needed to do was wait and time would bring them round once more. When target shooting in the wind there are two techniques: one is to attempt to continuously read the wind and adjust your sights for each shot you take, the other is to decide which wind condition is most common, set your sights for that and wait for it to come back. I aspire to do the first, but often find myself settling for the second. Sitting on the ground waiting for the turkeys to return felt like the second technique. I had decided on a spot and was hoping the winds of fate and habit would blow the turkeys my way. As with the target shooting, I would rather be the master of the conditions. However another lesson I have learnt is that if you spend too much time worrying about the wind you make bad shots. Sometimes you just need to settle down, focus on the fundamentals, and do the best you can do. So that’s what I did. I couldn’t control the conditions, I didn’t have enough experience to figure out where the turkeys were headed and get ahead of them, so I determined to simply focus, stay alert and still, and make sure that if the wind blew my way I wouldn’t screw it up.

So I waited. I watched. I occasionally texted my wife because I have bad discipline when I lose feeling in my backside. And about an hour before the end of my day it happened—the turkeys came back. But when I say they came back I don’t mean they appeared in front of me, because that would be too easy. They appeared out of the woods I had seen them enter in the morning, on the other side of a field and with lots of directions they could choose to go that weren’t towards me. As I watched them for what was without a doubt a subjectively long period of time, it became clear that they had no leader: or if they did, he wasn’t very good at his job. What I wanted was a charismatic boss turkey who would decide that the future lay in acorns, tell his flock this was the plan, and see it through all the way to my freezer. What I got instead was frustrated. They were mooching about, pecking this, scratching that, doing what I suppose turkeys do when they aren’t deliberately avoiding me. For a good half hour they followed the path of whim and want, going nowhere in particular, and then something changed.

All of a sudden one of the turkeys just had to be somewhere else. I don’t know why it went, but for whatever reason it took off running, then took off literally, and flew across the field. It didn’t head my way exactly, but it was more my way than not and the movement seemed to motivate the rest to get on with their day. Despite the lack of a strong leader to call the shots the collective bird brain nevertheless voted with its stomach, and started to mooch in my direction.

Their progress was slow, and as they got closer to me they moved under the “horizon” of the curve of the hill and I lost sight of them. I kept my fingers crossed and my gun ready, because if and when they came back into view they would be almost close enough to shoot, and definitely close enough to see me if I made any sudden moves. As soon as it became clear to me that the odds of getting a shot were improving I had been refining my position. From my usual splayed legs low energy lounging position with my gun across my legs, I moved to a more alert posture with my knees raised and my gun propped on them. I also turned slightly to my right to orient myself more towards the direction I was expecting them to approach from. I was set up behind a lightweight ground blind—a short camouflage screen attached to stakes—and in my reclined position only my shrouded head and gun were visible over the top.

Despite my adrenaline-fueled focus the turkeys still caught me by surprise. There were no distant scratching noises growing in volume, or glimpses of movement to give me warning, they were just there: first one, then suddenly the whole flock was in front of me. I am pretty much a complete novice when it comes to turkeys, and until I arrived in the US I had never seen an actual turkey that wasn’t on my plate or in a sandwich. I grew up on a chicken farm, so it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with poultry, but having a flock of the largest birds I’ve ever seen suddenly milling about a short stones throw in front of me is a surreal experience to say the least.

Much like other game species turkeys appear simultaneously relaxed and alert as they go about their business. At any one time there are at least a couple with their heads up eyeballing their surroundings. As the flock in front of me gradually moved closer I tried to pick a bird that was near me, had no other birds behind it, and didn’t require me to move my gun far to draw a bead. While their usual slow progress is generally frustrating, for the purposes of making a considered and careful shot it was actually quite useful. Once I had picked a likely bird, I could keep my aim on it, moving slowly, until a safe shot presented itself.

Just a few minutes after the flock appeared over the curve of the hill a bird came in range, stood with its head up, and had no other birds behind it. A few seconds after that I was alone in the woods again and there was blood on the snow.

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Epilogue

In 2017 I marked my fifth anniversary in the USA. Prior to shooting my spring turkey I had been actively but ineffectively hunting deer since November 2014, and to say I was frustrated by my lack of success is an understatement. I wanted to hunt, I needed to hunt, but every day I spent in the woods without a chance of a shot added to the pressure I was trying very hard to deny existed. My unsuccessful fall turkey hunt in 2016 did nothing to improve my mood, and I came into 2017 struggling with motivation and dreading another year of tag soup. I don’t hunt just to kill animals—I always enjoy the many benefits that come from time spent in the woods—but the ratio was starting to get a little extreme. It’s hard to think of yourself as a hunter if all you ever do is take your gun for a walk, and I was rapidly approaching the need for a new descriptor.

Shooting my spring turkey changed all that. The cloud of self doubt and anxiety that had been steadily growing over my head for three years evaporated when the feathers flew that day, and that set the tone for the year. When I set off to start my fall turkey season I carried with me a little glow of warmth and optimism that I hadn’t felt since my first American deer season in 2014. It was there every day I hunted, and from it came the unexpected determination that kept me in the woods, despite my discomforts and plans, until a turkey fell under my gun. I felt it through deer season (which is another story), and I feel it even now.

The 2018 spring turkey season is just a few months away, and I can’t wait.

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Overdue for an update

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It’s been over 6 months since my last post, but that was not due to lack of anything to write about: rather a lack of motivation to write about it.

Since my last post I have left two jobs, declined one job offer, sidestepped a second, and accepted a third in a somewhat tumultuous process that I would have rather avoided if I could. But I think I have found myself in a good position that represents a return to a career I thought I had left behind in Scotland in 2012.

My shooting was only slightly affected by the confusion however, and despite missing a number of Tuesday night hi-power practices I managed to improve through the season and even won a hi-power match on the way. I only won that match by 1 point from my nearest challenger, who also far surpassed me in his X count, however by not disgracing myself in the offhand and sitting positions, and putting in a solid performance at prone, I did what I needed to do.

I credit my success in that match to two things: the creation in my basement of a (nearly) 10 meter air rifle range where I can practice shooting offhand, and a short rain shower during the competition that hit the range just before I shot prone, disrupted some people’s shooting, and allowed me time to sneak into the range kitchen and eat some cookies. I had forgotten to bring snacks and was getting pretty hungry. On such slender threads does the fate of…unprepared match shooters depend.

In other target shooting news, I have been regularly been attending small-bore 50 meter practices this year, and apart from using up a bunch of ammo, I think I am seeing the benefits. Last time out I scored 398/400 (admittedly on the US NRA target, which has a more generous 10 ring than the ISSF equivalent). However, my groups have been steadily shrinking and I have been making progress in my wind reading and sight adjustments which has always been a weakness for me.

A feature of the more recent small-bore practices has been an informal competition between myself and one of the junior shooters. I think he’s around 15, and it was his father who proposed the “match”. We compete for a $1 prize, and so far I have won $2. But considering I have about two decades more experience than this kid, my winning margins have been disturbingly slim. In our first match I only beat him by about 5 points out of 1200. I have talked with my wife about whether I should deliberately throw a match sometime, I feel bad taking a dollar off a 15 year old boy (well, his father) every couple of weeks, but she pointed out that when he does eventually beat me, which probably won’t take too long, it will mean that much more.

I competed in a 300m match not so long ago, and unlike the first 3P 300m match I entered where I shot from the high-power sitting position instead of kneeling, this time I did it properly. This was the first time I have ever even tried the kneeling position (which I now realise reveals a lack of preparation on my part) but I managed to get set up and shot the string. At first I struggled, the angle of the sling and support meant the rifle recoiled diagonally, or at least seemed to, which took some getting use to. But as the string wore on my shots crept closer to the X ring and I felt like with a bit more practice I might not be too bad at it. Kneeling for 20 shots slowfire is considerably more comfortable than doing it sitting cross legged, so the whole event was a lot more comfortable than my previous experience. And that was reflected in my results, which were close enough to the other competitors to be satisfying, if not prize winning.

A few years ago I had considered trying to build a rifle in 6mm BR, but due to the costs associated with that caliber I ended up building my match AR in .223 Remington. I am now inspired to resurrect that idea with the goal of being more competitive at 300m international, and I don’t think it will cost me an arm and a leg either. One of the rifles I brought with me to the USA was an Interarms Mark X in .308 Winchester. This was my first hunting rifle that I converted from a target rifle by cutting down the barrel and the stock and adding a scope. And while it was always very accurate, it was always also very heavy. I now have three other hunting rifles that are much more practical for the purpose of hauling into tree stands and putting meat in the freezer, and since I kept the original sights, mounts, and match trigger for that rifle, I have a lot of the more expensive items on the shopping list already crossed off. I have a lead on a used barrel that might be made to work for me by exposing it to the correct chamber reamer, and I have a few options for stocks that aren’t terribly expensive…so this might actually happen, eventually.

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I finally dragged the Swing out for a shoot this summer. Gopher rifle club was hosting a 600 yard practice, and though I have previously taken my AR to these events, I decided it was a perfect opportunity to blow the cobwebs off one of my prized but long neglected target rifles. I was using a new load, and I don’t remember how I did (other than not terrible), but the weather was fantastic and I had a lot of fun. Laying in the hot sun wearing too many clothes trying to make holes in distant pieces of paper shouldn’t be fun, but for some reason there are few things that give me greater joy. There has recently been created an organisation – or maybe more of an informal group masquerading as an organisation – called the 2017 Palma Alliance. In order to gain membership to this “elite” group one must swear to henceforth shoot nothing but a .308 rifle with iron sights and 155gr bullets in midrange and long range prone matches. The goal is to encourage practice with Palma eligible equipment ahead of the long range championships in 2019. I have considered joining, but I want to have a look at the fine print before I commit. I am quite happy to drag out the Swing for practices at 600yds and beyond, but I have other rifles and calibers I’d much rather shoot at 300m, and I want to be sure that won’t disqualify me before I agree to the terms. Especially since they appear quite happy to name and shame members who break that rule.

Apart from some success making holes in paper, since my last post I have also had some success making holes in animals, but this post is getting a bit long and tomorrow is Christmas eve, so I think it can wait.

Merry Christmas

You win some, you lose some, you eat some.

Not so long ago I entered a small bore competition at Minneapolis Rifle Club. Only four people entered, and of those people one was me, and two were young boys who I’ve met before, and although they are keen and getting better they didn’t pose a challenge that day. The fourth was a young woman who looked like she knew what she was doing: an assessment that was confirmed by George who said she has competed at a national level, so I knew who I had to beat. As it turns out I didn’t beat her, but I got close enough to be happy and give her a run for her money. At the end of the 160 shot match I had a score of 1580-87X, only 5 points behind the winner and with 3 more Xs.

 

A few weeks earlier I entered the Minnesota State 300m 3P championship match. I actually thought I had a chance of not totally embarrassing myself (which isn’t to say I thought I could win), and went intending to gain some experience and have a good time. But unfortunately I made a bad decision at the outset and made my life very difficult. 300m 3P competitions are shot from standing, kneeling, and prone. In the high power competition I have been shooting lately the 3 positions are standing, sitting, and prone. So I have no experience shooting from the kneeling position, but I expected that I would have to and I planned to. However when I arrived I discovered that exceptions were being made for high power shooters and we would be allowed to shoot from the sitting position, and since that’s what I have experience doing, that’s what I did…but that was a mistake. When I shoot from the sitting position in high power, it is for a rapid fire string of 10 rounds shot in around a minute. In 300m competition the kneeling position involves 20 rounds slow fire. I don’t find the sitting position very comfortable (to say the least) but at least with high power it’s just for a couple of minutes. But when I sat down to shoot the string in this competition, I was in that position for what seemed like forever. Sitting was also the first position we shot from and it set the tone for the rest of the match, which is to say I came away with nothing to feel happy about, plus a few new aches and pains.

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Sitting down was causing me more pain a little more recently, but this time it had a happier ending. I was taking part in the Minnesota spring turkey hunt, and because of work I only had three days to spend in the woods. I hunted all three days I had, and each day came with a new turkey hunting experience.

Day one (a Saturday) started with a beautiful dawn (picture above). I sat in the woods all day and didn’t shoot a turkey, I did experience a lot of pain from all the sitting I was doing, and towards the end of the day I actually saw a turkey! I hunted several days of the fall hunt last year and saw nothing, so I considered this a big win.

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On my second day (Sunday) I got up extra early (4am I think) and set myself up near where I saw the turkey the day before. I didn’t see a turkey all day, but as the sun was coming up I got my first earful of turkey gobbling, and it was amazing. I attempted to call them in but I couldn’t tell if they were interested and they eventually moved out of earshot.

On day three (Tuesday) I entered the woods wearing a brand new turkey vest, the most attractive feature of which (and the reason I bought it on Monday evening) was a very thick cushion for sitting on. I sat in a different spot and as soon as the turkeys started gobbling I started calling right back on my slate. And this time it was working. Each time I called, a turkey gobbled back, and as the morning went on they got closer and closer until I could just make them out through the trees about 150 yards away. But they got no closer than that, eventually fading back into the woods. I probably should have played harder to get.

I sat in that spot for a while, flicking ticks off me whenever I saw them, getting bitten by mosquitoes, and seeing nothing. At one point I switched to the position I used on Sunday, but also saw nothing there. I moved back to the first spot and stayed there long enough to flick off a few more ticks, and even though the day was not over, I decided to call it quits. I returned to my truck and packed everything up, and I was just about to turn the key in the ignition when Ron (the landowner) came out of his house and called me over. He had just seen a group of birds pass through his garden and head to where he thought I was sitting. When he didn’t hear a shot he came out to investigate and found me sitting in my truck. On his encouragement I returned to my uncomfortable seat, set up my blind, and started calling again. The position of my blind was facing away from the direction Ron had seen the birds traveling in, so as I called I was looking over my shoulder in the direction I expected them to approach from. So imagine my surprise when I turn around to my front to see a female turkey walking towards me at about 75 yards, followed a little behind by a gobbler. The female passed my front and headed off to my left, the gobbler caught sight of my hen decoy however and headed towards it for a short while before changing his mind and returning to his pursuit of the real hen. But my decoy had done it’s job and got him close enough to me that as he passed to my front in pursuit of his lady he came within range of my gun, and that was the end of that.

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Turkeys are really big by the way.

I think I shot a bit low and there was damage to one of the breasts and shot scattered throughout the body. I made the mistake of firing while the bird was strutting, which placed it’s head close to its body. But it dropped on the spot and died quick, and I’ll take that and meat damage over an injured animal any day.

When I got home I butchered the turkey, it weighed 23 pounds and barely fit in my fridge.

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It’s now in pieces in the freezer and I’m looking forward to eating it.

 

 

I don’t know anything about Ernest Hemingway

I have been thinking about Ernest Hemingway recently, because I think I would probably enjoy reading his books. I don’t know that I will, but since, as I understand it, he often writes about his hunting adventures, there ought to be a good chance. I have even looked up a few of his books on Amazon, but I always get a bit confused and never buy anything. One of his most famous books is about an old guy in Cuba chasing a tuna fish (or some other sort of sport fish)—”The old man and the sea” I think it’s called—sounds a bit like Moby-Dick with better weather. And although I quite enjoyed Moby Dick when I read it, I’m not sure I’m into fishing enough to risk my first Hemingway on it. Another book I thought might be a promising place to start was called Hemingway on hunting (probably), but according to the reviews it’s a compilation of passages from a bunch of different books, padded out with commentary from people who knew him, or at least thought they did. I think I want my first Hemingway to be an authentic Hemingway, not a sort of literary clip show.

The first time Hemingway appears in my memory is one of the times I hung out with a guy called Mike. He was married to a friend of my wife at the time, and we got together during one of our trips to the US (we were living in Scotland at the time) to shoot some guns and catch up. It might even have been the first time I met mike, maybe. Mike is into duck hunting in a big way, and I think Hemingway was also, which might explain some of Mike’s interest in the man. Mike had a sort of study-slash-man-cave in the condo they lived in that I think he referred to as his Hemingway study, and that stuck in my mind. I think I only put the duck hunting thing together later, or maybe even just a few weeks ago…or possibly even just now. I have been meaning to try and get back in touch with mike since I moved to the states, partly because he was a pretty great guy to hang out with, and I like people like that, but also because he was seriously into duck hunting, and I think I’d like to try and get seriously into duck hunting as well. I even had his number in my phone for a while, but the idea of calling people out of the blue makes me want to hide under a table in a dark room, so it hasn’t happened and since I have now lost his number it probably never will. The reasoning behind my decision that Mike is seriously into duck hunting came from several observations: he owned a dog that was a trained retriever (no small thing), when shooting clay pigeons he made sure to try a few that approached from behind and over his head (a duck style manoeuvre I believe), but mostly I decided he was serious about ducks because he owned a 10 gauge shotgun just for shooting at duck. 10 gauge shotguns are serious shotguns, if someone buys a 10 gauge shotgun specially for something, they have to be serious. If I ever go after ducks it will be with a 12 gauge, and I might even use 3 inch shells, but I wouldn’t use a 10 gauge. This either makes me a wimp (entirely possible), or maybe just not that serious about ducks. That might change if I ever get a chance to go. The serious part, not the wimp part. That probably won’t change.

I was listening to an episode of the Meateater podcast recently. I don’t much go for podcasts if I’m honest, they mostly just irritate me unless they’re about science and I’m driving a long way. I think it’s something about the pacing and the sound effects or something. But I can listen to the Meateater podcast since it’s mostly just Steve Rinella talking: and if hunting can be called a religion, then he is it’s prophet, and I listen when he speaks. He wrote an especially good book on Buffalo, called “American Buffalo”, that made me very interested in Buffalo but not in a hunting way, because he wrote about that in his book and it seemed like something that was probably more fun to read about than do. I saw buffalo, or Bison I suppose, when Amanda and I camped out in the Badlands national park in South Dakota. We were driving down the unpaved road to the campsite and a Bison-alo was standing in the middle of the road. We stopped the car to wait for it to move, then a local came by in his pickup truck and just careered straight past us and the Bison-alo in a cloud of dust and gravel like it happened every day, which I suppose it did. It also convinced the Bison to leave the road so we could continue on our way, which was convenient. We got even closer to a Bison the next time we camped in the Badlands. We took some Scottish friends there for something to do, and when we woke in the morning there were two just outside the campsite. I observed from a distance of about 75 yards, standing behind our car. Others didn’t, but the Bison didn’t seem to care. Steve Rinella has this TV show about hunting and fishing called Meateater, and he does a podcast too where he invites friends and experts to sit and chat about hunting and conservation and things, and they are generally very interesting, especially when I’m at work and all I have to do all day is paint and sand things in a gallery with a lot of white walls and no windows. On this one episode the conversation wandered onto the subject of Hemingway because it was being recorded in the town of Ketchum, Idaho, which according to Rinella was where Hemingway lived when he killed himself. The shotgun he did it with was rumoured to have been cut up by a local man at the behest of the family, and then buried in a nearby field. There was some discussion as to the true identity of the gun he used: discovered in the end to be one of Hemingway’s favourites that he had used all over the world: and so it was probably a shame that it was destroyed. Better to fill the barrels with lead and put it under glass for posterity. There aren’t many guns come with a story like that, but perhaps an old gun with a story isn’t as good and a missing gun with a legend.

Hemingway was also something of a drinker I understand. That might be an understatement, but I don’t really know. All I know is people bring alcoholic tributes to his tomb in Ketchum (also learned from the Meateater podcast), which also happens to Jim Morrison in Paris I think, so calling him something of a drinker is probably a safe statement. In the abstract I think there is something kind of romantic in the idea of an alcoholic artist, which probably gets less romantic in direct proportion to your proximity to the artist in question. Being something of an artist myself I will admit to having the occasional bout of envy for those of my peers who can cultivate an honest drug dependency. It adds a certain legitimacy to the lifestyle of the struggling artist everyone likes to imagine when they meet you, and struggling with alcoholism is definitely more romantic than struggling with the gas bill. But since alcoholism and gas bills are not mutually exclusive life experiences, I think I would just as well stick to the gas bill and leave the alcoholism to someone else. I don’t know what was going on in Hemingway’s life to make him drink and ultimately end it, but it was there, and it did, and that’s that.

I heard something said once, it was probably a quote, that a person isn’t dead until the things he started on this earth come to an end. In another way of thinking, you’re alive as long as you’re remembered, and that makes a kind of sense to me. Each of our lives are lived from the perspective of the Plato’s cave that is our grey thinking sponge, and since memories are just another kind of shadow cast on the wall of the cave, a memory of someone is probably a lot more alive than it isn’t. Of course most people alive now don’t have any direct memory of Hemingway, but stories are almost as good, and legends are possibly even better since they are usually a lot more exciting. And since Hemingway, being a celebrated writer, was in a position to create his own legend, it ought to be a pretty good one. And of all the arguments I’ve heard in favour of reading Hemingway, that might be the best one yet.

 

.35 Whelen project: the conclusion.

After getting the rifle all together (which you can read about here), all that was left to do was develop a load that would work for hunting…at least that’s what I thought. Unfortunately it didn’t work out like that.

It seemed like no matter what I tried I couldn’t get the groups to shrink. I found early success with velocity: using Accurate 2520 I had a Speer 180 grain flat point bullet going almost 3000fps, but the group wasn’t very impressive. Admittedly, I have high standards. Some of the 100 yard groups were edging below two inches, which for deer at under 200 yards is probably adequate. But since I come from a target shooting background where a one inch group is considered a good start, I wasn’t about to settle for adequate. Another reason I pursue small groups in a hunting rifle is that there are already enough things going on in a hunting situation to prevent a perfect shot (like awkward shooting positions, numb fingers, bad light, not to mention “buck fever”) that I’m not going to add questionable accuracy to the pile if I can possible avoid it.

I initially identified two areas that might have been affecting accuracy: rifle bedding, and barrel fouling. Although the stock looked good, the pillar bedding for the rear action screw had some odd cut-outs that left only three small stubs of metal in contact with the action, and they appeared to be getting slightly crushed when the screws were tightened down. I remedied this with my first ever attempt at action bedding. The finished job certainly wasn’t professional, but apart from one medium sized void, I think it came out quite well. The slideshow below shows some images of the process, including shots of the bedding before I tidied it up, and the rear tang area of the stock which I relieved a little bit to reduce contact with the action:

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The barrel fouling I addressed with more aggressive cleaning at shorter intervals.

The first bullets I experimented with were 200gr Hornady round nose, and Speer 180gr flat points. I soon added 225gr Sierra Game Kings to that selection which began to show more promise. The first powders I experimented with were Accurate 2520, and 2230C, but after doing some research I added IMR 4064 to that list. After doing more load tests with the 225gr Sierra Game king with IMR 4064, I was finally getting groups I could live with, but the development showed up another wrinkle. Despite starting out with 55.5 grains of powder and working up to 58 grains, the velocity only increased by about 60 fps. The best groups occurred at both ends of the development ladder, so I decided to just go with the lower charge since the extra powder didn’t appear to bring anything extra to the table. The velocity of the final load was just over 2500 fps.

Early on in the rifle build I was concerned about a potential headspace issue that revealed itself through protruding primers. After rechecking the headspace, I narrowed the problem down to the case dimensions, and determined to limit how much the case shoulders got pushed back the next time I resized. But the undersized brass also resulted in consistently flattened primers throughout the load development irrespective of powder charge, probably caused by the case stretching to fit the chamber and reseating the primer as it went. This denied me an important pressure indicator, and left me reluctant to try chasing any more velocity. So I went hunting with what I had, and never fired a shot. So it goes.

After hunting season, and after cleaning the rifle thoroughly, I took it back to the range to use up the few rounds I had left. I first fired a single shot to check the point of impact from a clean barrel, and then I fired three shots from a kneeling position, braced against a shooting bench. The results were very satisfying:

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In hindsight I think the barrel fouling might have slowed down the barrel break in, and it wasn’t until I put plenty of rounds through the barrel, and thoroughly cleaned it a bunch of times as well, before everything came together to my satisfaction.

And that’s where things stand for now, but not where I intend to leave them for long. I have in my cupboard a box of Barnes 200gr TTSX, a solid copper hunting bullet that is popular with other .35 whelen shooters. And a pound of IMR 8208 XBR, which is a relatively new powder that is claimed to be very temperature stable (useful in Minnesota). These two components were used with great success in an article I read recently, so I plan to try it for myself.

 

 

 

Getting back into the habit

Since the end of the 2016 hunting season I have been making an effort to shoot more regularly. Fortunately there is a winter high-power league, and a regular small bore practice events happening on alternate weekends, so I have been taking advantage. When I first moved to the USA I bought a “brick” of 500 rounds of .22LR match ammunition, and to my shame it took me until the end of last year to use up. When I was regularly shooting in Scotland I would probably go through at least that much in a couple of months, so I have some catching up to do. Last year however I bought two new bricks of SK match, and with all the shooting I have been doing I have already got though one: things are looking up. My scores have also been improving, and although I am shooting on the NRA 50m target, not the international (which is somewhat more challenging), I have been pleased with my groups and scores.

Here are a few examples of recent targets. They are not my best targets, but they are representative.

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On the high-power side of things, I have also seen some improvements. My offhand (standing) scores have steadily improved, and the last few weekends I have managed to get all my 10 shots onto the scoring area (5 ring or better), and occasionally even into the 10. My best score was an 88/100 a few weeks ago.

My sitting rapid is going well, mostly because I can now get into position without feeling like I will break, and this last weekend I shot a decent group. It would also have been a decent score if it was centered on the bull. It wasn’t though, but I take what victories I can.

Prone rapid is going okay, and although I haven’t managed to recreate my early successes (several 100/100) I came pretty close this weekend with a 99/100. Here is a picture of the group.

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There were actually 12 shots recorded rather than 10, since I forgot to switch the system into match mode after my two sighters. The high 9 was one of the sighters (honest).

In an effort to get better at offhand, easily my worst position, I have built a small 10 meter air rifle range in my basement. In truth is it probably only 9 meters, because that’s the furthest I can go between the foundations, but for practicing my technique it works great. I am borrowing a junior CO2 powered air rifle for that, and I built a target box with a steel back plate to keep the ricochets down.

Here’s me in action:

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The air rifle weighs considerably less than my high-power rifle, which I will try to correct at some point, but I hope the practice will be worthwhile anyway. The state championship is happening at the end of the month, and since I plan to enter the 3P event I will try to spend as much time in the basement as I can before then.

 

Happy New Year

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This is my favourite photo from the few days I spent deer hunting in Wisconsin last November, and although it looks like it could have been edited, it wasn’t. The weather was cold, but not desperately so. There was snow on the ground, but not too much. And it was fairly overcast for much of the week we were there, as you can see.

Although I went to Wisconsin with the plan of hunting from my climbing tree stand, that actually never happened. On the first morning, before Jason arrived from Minnesota, I elected to head out to one of the locations we had scouted a few months earlier. But when I got there, there was obvious evidence of previous hunter activity on the trail and I wasn’t particularly surprised when I was disturbed by hunters making their own way down the path. It was also apparent that these guys perceived this path as just an access route, so that was the end of that plan.

Jason arrived at lunch time, and since it was clear that we didn’t have a clue what to do, we decided to head out, find new areas, and hope for the best.

The area we headed for first was a place we had tried, and failed, to access on our scouting trip. However this time we approached it from a different direction, and hiked in from the main road. One of the interesting things about this area is that there is a small population of Elk (American Elk that is, not European Elk which Americans call Moose) that is part of a repopulation program. Which meant we frequently encountered very large tracks, and impressive piles of droppings that could only come from Elk, but very few tracks and dropping from animals we could legally hunt.

On that first day we decided to spend our time hiking around looking for likely hunting spots. This made a lot of sense, but I was wearing clothing intended to keep me warm while sitting still for hours on end, so after not very long at all I was a hot mess (as you can see below).

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The following day we decided to use Jason’s truck to drive back into the area, but we came in via a track that must have been intended for snowmobiles, because the truck barely fitted through, and we were very glad to have 4 wheel drive more than once. We made it to the spot, parked, and hiked our way in, but what had looked promising on a satellite photo turned out to be very far from that in reality. What we had interpreted as a grassy meadow with a gentle ridge running along one side, was in fact a bog, and the ridge was covered in such dense foliage that I couldn’t find a single spot that offered a view longer than about 20 yards. When I stepped off the ridge into the open bog I was immediately at risk of sinking into an icy sludge, meaning even if I saw a deer in the open and shot it, I would most likely be unable to retrieve it safely. That morning was probably the closest I came to seeing deer that week, because as I was stumbling through the dense brush, I heard a number of them running away.

After wasting a couple of hours on that fruitless exercise, we made our way back to the truck and decided to just drive around, stopping every now and again to explore the area beside the track. It was on one such exploration that I took the picture at the top of the page.

The most memorable moment of the week came as I was making my way slowly through a recently clear cut area. I was carefully stepping through the branches and debris that covered the ground, when I heard a noise and looked up and came face to face with some local wildlife. Crossing my path less than 20 yards away was a family of Bobcats. They didn’t seem to notice me at first, which was odd because I was standing out in the open and wearing bright orange, but when they did they froze, hissed at me, and then ran away. I have never seen a large cat in the wild, nor really expected to, so that was pretty amazing. And despite my otherwise lack of deer success, on the basis of wildlife encounters in general, I count that week a success.

We continued to hunt like that until Wednesday night, the day before thanksgiving, then Jason had to head home. That night the rest of my wife’s family arrived and so I switched from hunting mode to family holiday mode, and with the exception of a rifle propped in the corner of the cabin in case a deer walked past outside, that was the end of my 2016 hunting season.