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Tag Archives: Kurt Culbert

Dear ol’ Deer Camp: 2018 Version

I shot the biggest buck I’ve ever taken off of our family farm this year. He’s not among the largest I’ve ever taken and barely would rest inside the top-10 by looking only at his antler size. But he’s special and will go down as one of the most memorable.

But that’s not what this recap post is about.

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One of the most picturesque deer drags I recall!

Nope.

It’s about spending the opening week of New York’s gun season with my family and seeing the sunrise on the season from a tree on our home farm for the first time in many years.

It’s about the cadre relationship that hunting camp provides.

It’s about cold mornings where the fireplace at camp feels a whole lot better than Mother Nature’s bitter touch on your cheeks.

And it’s about the reverence for a camp diary.

Each fall, many deer publications publish stories about deer camp. I love reading them all. Stories of the brotherhood that exists when families and extended families come together in the big woods of the north country, or in Michigan’s upper peninsula, … or anywhere else … have always caught my attention.

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One of the spectacular views Mother Nature provided

This year was no different. I read an easily relatable story about deer camp, written in first-person by Dan Ladd (“The Joy of Deer Camp”) in New York State Conservationist magazine and got me excited before I even stepped foot into camp.

We weren’t necessarily at full capacity in our deer camp this year, but we had a bigger group than we’ve had in a long time. My brother Doug, uncle Paul, cousin Nicholas and nephew Matthew, represented three generations of family. My young son, Reid, also joined the group for a day of sharing the family woods!

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My brother Doug and me sharing in the success!

Once a rookie of the camp himself, uncle Paul now represents the old guard. He married into our family over four decades ago. A “city guy” who married a farm girl in my late aunt, Paul had broad enough shoulders to join her brothers in camp, taking all of the ridicule that comes with being new to the sport of hunting. I’m happy to report he acclimated quite well and became a fixture at camp, to the pleasure of my late father and our family.

Uncle Paul shared stories this year about his first years in camp. Needless to say, he experienced a great deal of ridicule and good-natured hazing that would typically be reserved for a rookie joining a sports team. I’m a few years older than his son, Nicholas, who has been a mainstay at camp since he was a young teenager.

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From (L) to (R): Brother Doug, me, Cousin Nick, Uncle Paul

My nephew, Matthew, came into camp riding a three-year streak of punching his tag (and was able to fill it again this year)!

There were drinks. There were stories. There were fun memories of our family members no longer with us. The pool table, even with its minor off-kilter intricacies, became proving grounds one evening. The poker chips had the dust blown off of them for an evening of cards.

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Another beautiful view afforded by the snow.

Memories of successful hunts that culminated with shoulder mounts in the cabin were bandied about. Our camp diary, an invaluable asset that has 40 years of history documented, was utilized as a reference point a number of times. Uncle Paul has served as the primary scribe of the diary over its entire existence. Others add only when he’s not available to do so.

It’s often discussed, but there is just something cleansing for the soul when it comes to the time at deer camp. Having experienced some semblance of camp across a number of states, there are many common threads that connect the spirit of deer camps everywhere. Those who have experienced it know it and no documentation of deer camp can do it perfect justice.

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My son, Reid, joining in the fun on a cold, cold morning!

Perhaps that’s why I remain a sucker to the stories – to pull those parts that carry a similar look and feel to my own experiences.

I look forward to introducing my own kids to it.

There also were successes. The best part of those during deer camp is the ability for everyone to bask in that feats. In this case, everyone played an important role in the process – especially with over a foot of snow on the ground!

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Cousin Nick and I share a photo before taking to the woods.

Of course, the week culminates with figuring out who won camp’s big buck contest! This year, my buck was fortunate enough to take the honor.

Once the bags are packed and camp is cleaned, departure day comes with its sadness. More than 50 weeks of great anticipation and mental reps have ended with “goodbyes.” The countdown, though, to next season’s deer camp begins.

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Failure in Familiarity

It simply hadn’t happened before, the path made by the old, wise doe.

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The view from old faithful. Updated travel routes kept the shooters out of archery range.

And with it, came little appreciation for the likelihood that the long-proven patterns of deer in this area of my farm had indeed changed.

It wasn’t until after I saw more deer, including a fine 8-point buck, make the same route from a common bedding area and into the hardwoods, that I realized deer aren’t behaving the same as they had for many years.

Even after briefly scouting the new, well-established trails on this new route well away from my faithful stand, it was hard to consider a change needed to be made. You see, many bucks have passed by this stand over the years, and no fewer than three bucks have been arrowed within 40 yards of this tree. Surely, this was the ideal location to be sitting.

Except it wasn’t. And it played a small role in not filling my 2018 archery tag. So too did my stubbornness to not change the stand location earlier.

Familiarity can be a detriment to an archery hunter. The reams of data that exist within a hunter’s memory from decades of hunting a familiar location can skew his or her decisions. That was reinforced enough in me this year that I’m eager to consider how I’ll change several of my stand locations for 2019.

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This young buck followed one of the familiar trails.

Upon further pondering the challenges of familiarity, it dawned on me how valuable scouting can be to a new hunting location. These are often the most valuable – and fun – elements of hunting the unfamiliar. Those minutes and hours dedicated to learning about the local deer of a location can often be the primary indicator of success.

And advanced scouting before hunting familiar ground should  be no different.

It sounds simple, and it probably is. But when you’re coming from hundreds of miles away to ground you know as well as your backyard, you try to skip the scouting update portion of the hunt and take advantage of the knowledge you already have.

It’s easy to do, right?

Things change within the terrain (felled trees, food sources, erosion, etc.) that provide enough of a reason to, at minimum, confirm your intuitions.

I should have done that. I’ve learned my lesson. And leave it to those old, wise does to teach me.


Things Change While Anticipation of the Hunt Remains

Things are different now. Some parts are better, some are … well, different.

I was able to catch up with my buddy Nick Pinizzotto today, and we spent a good deal of time talking about the evolution of our hunting passion.

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In a little more than a week, I’ll be enjoying the familiar view from the woods with bow in hand!

Days of worrying about how big the buck might be on the receiving end of an Easton arrow have been replaced more by the full nature of the experiences.

That’s not to say that we don’t dream of big bucks, or that the experiences of yesteryear weren’t important. It’s just that the priority is … well, different!

Nick, who also serves as the Executive Director of the National Deer Alliance, recently moved back to his home stomping grounds in Pennsylvania. He became a father a couple of year’s back. Both of those life changes have an innate ability to change perspective on the true values of hunting. We spoke at length about the eagerness of hunting with our kids – how that trumps any time we spend in the

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Having a little fun in the blind while waiting on deer can be an acceptable practice these days!

woods on our own.

I’ll be returning to my own home land in Western New York in just a week to spend several quality days looking for the biggest, oldest and baddest buck on the farm. The likelihood of seeing a buck soaring near the minimum Boone & Crockett standards are very low. I know that going in, but my excitement to get there couldn’t be much greater.

For starters, I don’t take the hunting part quite as serious. I still work hard and put in my time, but saying that is more of an indictment on how serious I used to take deer hunting.

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So too can taking a brief cat nap!

Additionally, my new career has me headed to the woods during the heart of the rut without the backdrop of serious end-of-season stress that my former job at NASCAR provided. I’ll be able to dedicate my energy to the daily chess match with the land, trying to execute a strategy that puts me within reach of taking a great deer.

This trip also means so much due to the fellowship with my dear friend, Kenny Roberts. We’ve made this trip together for over a decade and it serves as our opportunity to catch up on family, friends, parents and life. Over the years, there have certainly been more laughs than tears during those conversations. That said, there always is some time earmarked to get serious about life and chat through many of the important stuff in each of our lives.

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Greg Johnston with NYS’s No. 1 muzzleloader buck in 2017!

It’s likely I’ll be able to see another friend and frequent AHT contributor Greg Johnston, who 21 years ago joined me as the renegade who would skip out of classes at our Basilian Catholic college to chase bunnies and deer all over Western New York. Just seeing Greg is always enough to get you excited.

Just as special for this trip, though, is the land. I love it on our family farm. I took it too much for granted as a young hunter. It’s hard, as a teenager, to understand that very few have the opportunity to leave school, grab their bow and get into a tree before dark. I thoroughly cherish my time spent in those woods now. Those woods shaped me more than I can easily explain.

Here’s to the challenging week ahead that will be anchored with anticipation. I can’t wait for the journey there, the cabin upon arrival, the time together with friends while I’m there. I can’t wait to get into a stand and steal a small part of that magical time during November when the rut is in full swing.

Come to think of it, maybe not everything is different now.

 


Meaningful Journey – Quest for First Elk Complete

It took a half hour to close the 240 yards to reach the majestic beast. Euphoric adrenaline was met with the daunting task of hiking the steep slope in front of us at 11,500 feet elevation. My lungs were quick to recognize that the air is thin at these heights.

Finally, we arrived at my first elk kill.

The journey for this one, though, dates much further back.

The Gun

At the urging of his friend Len Palmatier, my dad bypassed all his own hunting rifles for his first elk hunt, and decided instead to take Len’s .300 Weatherby Magnum. In addition to being a friend of my dad’s for many years, Len also is one of the best rifle shots on the planet. A competitive distance shooter with a rifle, he’s forgotten more about ballistics than I’ll ever learn.

Len promised his rifle was a tack driver. It delivered, and dad shot his first elk on that hunt in 1996. He also fell in love with that rifle. He returned from the hunt asking Len, who helped steer many of my dad’s ballistic adventures, to find him a .300 Weatherby Magnum for his collection.

Settling on a familiar Remington Model 700 Classic that made up many in my dad’s collection, Len put a tedious level of effort customizing it into an absolute locked-in, tack-driving machine. Len still argues this .300 Weatherby Magnum throws a superior bullet to the gun he’d originally loaned my dad to take with him. This rifle was ready to serve as the big game rifle of choice for any of my dad’s future elk excursions. I dreamed of one day joining him for those hunts.

Only he never made it west again.

While several years passed where he could have made the trip back to the Rocky Mountains for elk, he put off those trips. He died in 2014 without the rifle ever making the trip.

With several rifles of my own to consider, there was no question which gun would be on the mountains with me when I made my first quest for an elk.

The Hunt

My Colorado hunt was several years in the making. Following a thorough review of locations and awaiting the non-resident draw for the first rifle season, I was on my way.

IMG_0212The five-day season leaves little time for rest. My first two days were filled with walking, listening, hiking and close calls. I was in decent shape but some of the steep elevation climbs and an accelerated heart rate impacted by elevation, adrenaline, and pace all made me wish I was readier than I was for these Rocky Mountains.

There were close calls over the first two days. Bull elk bugling within 50 or 60 yards failed to present themselves in thick terrain. Several small bulls, amidst the normal education process nature provides them, came well within range. Those young bulls clearly hadn’t graduated adolescence to learn “not all sounds in nature are in fact the animals that they’re imitating.”

It was quickly the third day of the season. We opted to trade the flatter foothill meadows for the high-elevation terrain to start this morning.

Mikey, my Sherpa on the 60,000 acres that made up the ranch I was hunting all week, navigated a nearly hour-long drive up the mountains on a Polaris. We parked, then hiked through the mountains another hour in the dark to an elevation exceeding 10,000 ft. There it became daylight.

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We could see elk feeding up the mountainside, taking advantage of unseasonable green grass still growing along the avalanche slides that make the mountain look like a deserted ski resort. One bull, a good looking 5×5, caught my attention. We were still too far away for a shot and decided to hike closer.Once we closed the distance to 300 yards, the elk fed his way just out of the opening and into woods that made keeping tabs on him a tall task. Another close call.

We moved to another area on the mountain where we could watch over the direction the bull was seemingly headed. Over the next two hours, small bulls and cows meandered through the openings of the mountain. The sun was continuing its trek through the sky, a welcomed sight for a guide and his underdressed hunter sitting still on the mountainside in the low 20s temperatures. Elk bugles warmed the spirt, coming from both the east and west of where we were settled.

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At the very top of the mountain, we could see elk moving to the east, bypassing the openings of the slides. We opted to move down the mountain where we could get a better view of the direction they were headed. We settled into another spot and continued waiting. We had just agreed that we might just stay on the mountain all day. Something felt right.

Bugling continued and seemingly was starting to get closer. I convinced myself more than once that a bull was about to step into the opening at any moment. The adrenaline rush was spectacular. Cows with calves, and one small bull hit the opening. The deep growls from other bulls continued.

While watching a buck mule deer navigating a slide to the eastern side of the mountain, Mikey saw an elk.

“I think it’s one of those cows,” he said.

I needed only my eyes to tell that it was surely no cow. I quickly shouldered the scope-topped .300 Weatherby, my dad’s gun, to realize it was the same bull from the first part of the morning. He was standing on a rock some 240 yards away.

The first two days of the hunt proved how quickly you need to decide and make a shot on these bull elk. The opportunities come quickly. They leave even quicker.

Mikey and I didn’t say a word. I settled the crosshairs onto the bull and squeezed the trigger.

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The bull fell immediately. The 180-grain bullet is like a sledge hammer at these speeds. The steep terrain could have easily forced him to roll down the mountain.A small deadfall caught his antlers and he settled right where he fell off the rock.

Following a moment of jubilation for Mikey and me, we started the climb to the bull elk. Already holding a great deal of respect for the animals we’d been chasing, it’s hard not to marvel at the ability of 800 lb. animals to traverse these mountains. They make it look so easy.

It’s not.

IMG_0231The trek off the mountain was grueling. It also ranks among the most exhilarating efforts in nearly 30 years of hunting.

After quartering the elk, it took nearly four hours just to get to a location we could get the Polaris.

IMG_0230Nearly six hours after I pulled the trigger, we made it back to camp!

The entire experience that day was remarkable. There was exhaustion, warmth, freezing hands, sleepiness, a heartbeat of 140 beats per minute, snow-capped mountains, laughs, cussing, back-slapping and smiles.

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There also were a few tears.

After getting the elk quarters cleaned and hanging in the meat cooler, I walked into my cabin to change clothes. I stopped at the nail in the corner and hung up dad’s rifle. I stepped back and took in the moment.I was tired, and the moment got me. A happy tear or two rolled down my cheek. The rifle and I both waited a long time to chase elk in these mountains and I wished my dad was there to help us both celebrate.

I look forward to returning to those Rocky Mountains again someday. This journey, though, was complete – for me and the gun.

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Back in the saddle

Fear and the observation that my nimbleness has lost some of its vigor in recent years led me to drop a little extra change before this hunting season started. And unlike that slumped over walk of shame you sometimes present around your wife after a hunting purchase, this one came with nothing but support.

HSS Lifeline

After doing research, I purchased the multi-pack of Hunter Safety System Lifeline in order to maximize my safety over the duration of my ascension into a treestand, and the subsequent climb down following. I’ve always worn a safety harness of some kind the last 20 years, but have zero reason why I haven’t completed my safety repertoire by having a climbing system in place.

Why now? Well it started with an innocent fall out of the back of my truck a couple weeks ago after my foot got hung up between the wheel well and 4-wheeler. A few days later, I slipped while adding corn to a feeder that led to a ‘(bleep) over tea kettle’ moment that knocked the wind out me. Simply put, I’m just not as nimble as I used to be. Call it age, lack of concentration or added weight to new places on my body (I don’t quite weigh the 150 lbs. I did as a young hunter), it’s just different.

I purchased the HSS Lifeline instead of opting to make my own for a couple reasons – none more significant than the fact that the cost was not significantly higher to purchase the sets already made.

I was able to put the Lifeline to the test already this season. The NC opener was Sept. 8 and my hunting buddy Jason and I were able to hit the woods for a few hours.

Jason Shell and me during a beautiful NC morning hunt. No shots fired.

Our hunting team is planning to do a lot more videoing this year after Jason’s resilience led to the purchase of a full set of HD equipment (all the top stuff). I’m looking forward to being part of both the hunting and videoing of several hunts throughout the season.

Where did all the posts go? Posts have been a little bit ‘off the radar’ for much of the year. Good news – the hunting season is upon us and I have a sleeve full of ideas to write about. The frequency of posts is likely to start climbing soon. There are a few AHT8 posts coming up too (8 questions from people you’ve heard of in the outdoors).

We’ll also be hearing more from our AHT Northern Field Editor Greg Johnston over the next several months. Please keep checking back for that.

Whether your season has started or not, here’s hoping the 2012-2013 season is the one where your outdoor dreams come true.