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.

 

 

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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.

 

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.

 

It ends, and it begins.

This weekend is the last weekend of the Minnesota deer season (rifles), but it is also the opening weekend of the Wisconsin deer season.

As you may have guessed by the lack of pictures of dead deer, my 2016 Minnesota deer hunt went about as well as my 2015, and 2014 seasons. In terms of deer shot on the property I was hunting on, it was a great season. Four deer were shot this year, but they were taken solely by Larry and Amber, who accounted for two each. I should get a decent amount of meat out of it though, and that’s half the reason I do it.

This weekend I had been planning to drive up to the Minnesota cabin on Friday evening, but a big snow storm hit northern Minnesota on Friday and so I delayed my departure until Saturday morning. I got there in time for the evening hunt, and I had just got myself into an appropriate tree with my climbing tree stand when I heard Amber shoot her second deer of the season. I climbed out of my stand at 6:30, having seen nothing.

I had decided to use my climbing stand this weekend in order to get practice with it ahead of my Wisconsin adventures. And by doing that I learned that it is heavy, noisy, frustrating, slightly terrifying, and if there is more than a few inches of snow for me to hike through, I will be drenched in sweat by the time I finally get up in the tree. Also, because I didn’t have a chance to scout out decent trees in advance, the trees I found myself in offered less than optimal shooting positions.

But that’s okay (This is rapidly becoming my hunting motto).

On the plus side, these are all useful lessons. And Wisconsin didn’t get 15 inches of snow, so I don’t have to worry so much about the sweat.

However, whilst I am currently sitting in the cabin in Wisconsin, starting my second movie and my fourth (or maybe fifth) beer. My hunting partner for the week, Jason, is still in Minnesota and won’t get here until late tomorrow morning at the earliest. So I won’t be using the climbing stand in the morning.

Other lessons I learned this weekend are that I should get scope covers to keep the lenses of my sight clean, and I should put tape over the muzzle to stop snow and debris getting in there. I bought tape at fleet farm on my way to Wisconsin, but the scope covers will have to wait.

In the morning, since there will be no one around to save me if I get into trouble, I will leave my stand behind and hunt from the ground. Assuming I don’t get a deer, it will give me a chance to select a good tree to hunt from for the rest of the week.

I find it easy to get frustrated by my continuing lack of success in Minnesota, and one of the sources of that frustration is the lack of control I have over my hunting situation. I feel powerless to affect my chances of getting a deer. I know it will happen; Amber waited longer than three years to get her first, and I feel like I’m being ungrateful to feel so frustrated about it. I do enjoy hunting there though, and I want to keep going because I like being part of that group.

However I also relish the chance offered by hunting public land in Wisconsin. There are no tree stands ready for me to climb into, and I don’t know anyone with knowledge of deer movements in the area, so in truth my chances are probably even lower than they are in Minnesota. But that also means there is a lot of room for me to learn. I have dreams of hunting even further off the beaten track than northern Wisconsin, and I won’t get there until I first get comfortable walking beside the beaten track.

So tomorrow I will step out into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory, alone (if only briefly), and ready to learn from my inevitable mistakes.

Cold turkey, warm deer?

Fall turkey season ended like it began, with no turkeys. I only spent a few hours in the woods on my last day, but I heard and saw nothing that could even be mistaken for potential sandwich filling-but that’s okay. Fall turkeys were always going to be a challenge.

I ended my turkey efforts a week before the season was done, because I was going on holiday to visit family, and attend a friends wedding. Unfortunately my friend had chosen the 5th November as his wedding day, which is not only Guy Fawkes night, but also Minnesota deer season opening day. Which means instead of being in a tree stand looking for deer, I was in an English country hotel looking for beer…that was last weekend. 

This weekend finds me back in Minnesota, and back at my friend’s uncle’s cabin, laying in a sleeping bag ready to go to sleep ahead of my personal opening day. I am hoping that the remnants of jet lag from my return trip from the UK will help me get up tomorrow morning at 5:30, like it has every other day this week. 

Unlike previous years there has been a lot of deer activity already, and several have been shot, so I’m feeling quietly confident. I am going to use my Marlin 336 lever action in .35 Remington, because it feels right. 

Now I must go to sleep, because in just under 7 hours I will be hunting. 

Wish me luck.

Turkey hunting: day three

So it’s just after 9am on the 16th of October, and I’m back in the woods. It’s been a long week, but now I’m sat down in my blind with nothing but a shotgun and a day of quiet watching ahead of me, and I think that’s just what I need.

I’m set up on a different part of the property this morning and I only brought my hen decoy with me. I’m thinking that a gobbler in full spring colours, in the company of a hen, doesn’t look quite right for the season.

I’ve just had my first visitor of the day. A nice whitetail buck just ran past me looking on edge. I’d happy to see him again in a few weeks time.

Time to start calling for turkeys.

2pm update:

This morning was pretty uneventful; after the deer passed through the most interesting thing to happen was my lunch.

I thought my position was fairly good, and I was comfortable for the most part, but of turkeys there was no sign – so I decided to move positions.

The morning had its non turkey related pleasures though. The leaves are currently in the process of changing colour and falling, and when the sun was shining through the trees and the wind got up enough to gently move the branches, there was a beautiful shower of golden leaves floating through sunlight and pattering around me. It was quite lovely. If it wasn’t for my determination to eat wild turkey, I’d very likely have missed it on account of usually still being in bed at that time on a Sunday morning.

Here’s is a photo that doesn’t do it justice.

Despite the ultimate goal of my actions being the death of an animal, that is only one part of this experience. The effort and time involved in the pursuit of that final moment is rewarded with countless pleasures and new experiences that are easily reward enough on their own, and are no small part of what gets me out of bed and into the woods time after time.

The spot I am now in has more evidence of animal movements, but I fear it will mostly be deer. We shall just have to wait and see.

Final update:

Unfortunately there was no sign of turkeys this afternoon. I’m hoping that’s because there were simply no turkeys in the area, but it’s hard to shake the suspicion that I’m doing something fundamentally wrong. So I’m feeling a little dejected. However I have uploaded a video that I made when the leaves were falling this morning, so I’ll leave you with that.

It’s the modern way

I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned it yet, but I bought another rifle recently. 

It all started some time ago when I read an article about an old and slowly fading cartridge, and it stuck in my mind. It’s called .35 Remington, and while it is fairly old, so are many more popular cartridges. The .30-06 is 110 years old, so age alone doesn’t really matter. 

However, while it is a rimless case, it’s not exactly a speed demon. If it manages to push a 200gr bullet at 2000fps it’s doing well. But I suddenly have a thing for .35 calibre cartridges, so when I spotted a Marlin 336 lever action in .35 Remington on sale for a pretty decent price, it only took my willpower a couple of weeks to wear down.

This is what it looks like:

Since I’m usually all about accuracy, buying a lever action was something of a departure from the norm. However, early testing with factory ammo seems to suggest better accuracy potential than I expected. There is a new bullet that has been developed by Hornady. It is a spitzer style, but to prevent mishaps in the tubular magazine of lever actions, the tip is made of a slightly maliable material that deforms rather than ignite the next round under recoil. The pointed bullet helps get the most out of older cartridges like .35 Remington, and so I have bought a box, along with some new Hornady brass to load them in. I have fitted a cheap scope to the rifle, and zeroed the open sights it came with: because if the sights are there, they might as well work. 

The rifle is light and fast handling, and within about 200yds it should work fine on deer. If I get some load testing completed before November I plan to use the rifle for this year’s deer season. The place I have been hunting rarely offers a shot over 100 yards, so this rifle will be just fine. Also I will feel like I am getting more into the American hunting spirit. All I need now is a red checked wool shirt and the right accent, and I will blend right in.
The only thing about this rifle (other than the not insignificant recoil), is the difficulty involved in cleaning the barrel. To do this I have to undo a screw and remove the lever, then pull out the bolt body and ejector to clear the path down the barrel. Once this is achieved you’d think cleaning would be straight forward, but the size of the gun, combined with the awkwardness of attaching a bipod, makes pushing a cleaning rod back and forth a frustrating experience. 

Thus, in true modern style I decided to build a labor saving device. And here it is: 

This is my bench clamp. I built it from some random pieces of plywood, some scraps of leather, and a cheap hand screw clamp I bought on amazon. It worked out better than I expected, and makes cleaning all of my firearms a whole lot easier. 

And that’s the way it should be: boring parts easy, fun parts fun, for ever and ever, amen.

Till next time…