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Yips For Stew

By Steve Van Ert

“Hey Steve, did you “Van Ert” again?”

Having your last name being the slang term for missing a big buck is not exactly what I had in mind when I decided to pick up a deer rifle for the first time in over 30 years. I guess I just thought that shooting was like riding a bike – you just jump on and go again! Why would I doubt my ability to hit a big ol’ buck? I used to be quite good. In fact, when I was in the Army, I was competing, and I have fired everything from LAWs to 50cals, to M16’s, AK’s, Uzi’s and M1911’s. So, with all of this experience, why did I have to endure this playful ribbing from both my students and my friends every Monday morning?

I suppose it started with not realizing just how much preparation is required. I thought that if I found where the deer are, all I would have to do is run up there Opening Day and bring one home. I’d be back by noon. That’s how much of my bird hunting works. Well, ok, maybe I wouldn’t get home until a little later, but the thought of not bagging a buck had never crossed my mind.

I held tightly onto those days long ago as a bow hunter, 30 years ago, when I took the time to scout out a couple of good spots before the season.  I would track the movements of a few big bucks knowing that I could count on a quick, successful season.  So for the next few weeks I left everything else behind me and committed to learning the vast wilderness areas of Southern Oregon. I spent entire weekends by myself so I would be in the area both at night and early in the mornings. I loved the peace and rest that came from being alone those nights. I would sleep shortly after sunset and wake up an hour before sunrise, rested and ready for the days’ adventure.  I hiked up and down what had seemed like thousands of brutally difficult miles at first. By the end of the first days I was feeling the heaviness of being out of shape. I averaged anywhere from 10 to 30 miles each week, hiking the mountains around Mt. Ashland and all points south of Grants Pass.  I was going to be prepared! My crazed commitment to scouting paid off in many ways.

A week before the Opener I had found my area. I had only to hike in a mile, along an old logging road to a clearing leading up a steep hillside. A decent sized 3 point and a couple of forks had been using that trail regularly. I had my spot, so anxiously that Friday night I camped out, alone, just off of that old road, fairly certain that no one else knew of my area.

I went through my plans of getting up before sunrise, packing my equipment and hiking to the exact spot I had encountered my buck the week before. This was going to be easy! I slept like a baby. My morning coffee was rewarding. The air was crisp and the sky was clear. I was just minutes away from beginning my trek when, much to my dismay, I heard it. A jeep came rolling up MY road! Surely they would see me and turn around. I ran out onto the road, next to the big stone that blocked the road. They simply swung around me and the big stone in complete disregard for my self-claimed property rights. Ugh! What now? I had put a lot of time into this area and now my dream of an easy opener was fading.

I decided to press on. On my way I met up with the two hunters. They were flanking my area. I couldn’t exactly tell them to go; that they were in MY area, so I found out where they were headed and changed my plans. Hours later, with several miles behind me, I returned to my camp deflated. But I wasn’t going to let that little set back deter me.

I was positive that my scouting up and down mountainsides in several areas would pay off. And it did; in some ways. Not only did I find great areas for grouse, quail, turkey and bear, I finally lost the extra 6-7Lbs I was carrying around for the last year! OK, I didn’t get my buck, that weekend, but I had options still, and I was determined.

The following Friday I set out for another area where I had seen plenty of tracks. I hiked until dark, made camp and went over my plans for the morning. I would set up before sunrise on a junction of trails that led from the forest into a clearing where I spotted a group of smoothies hanging out that evening. I settled into my spot and waited. And waited. Three hours passed when I decided it was time to hike again. Slowly, careful not to make much noise and meticulously searching, I moved along the trail. A crackle of wood broke the quiet that surrounded me. I swiveled my head right and spotted the young buck that was staring me down just 45 yards out. I raised my scope to see how many points my first buck had. What??! A spike. It was big, but it was a spike. I tried hard to find a bigger rack on that guy but it wasn’t there. I had to move on. I wasn’t completely disappointed though; it was rewarding to have a sign of bigger things that would surely follow.

I was relentless, putting many more miles on my boots and my Outlander, every day after work, excited and very determined to bag that trophy buck just waiting for me.  My priority changed; I was now set on finding out where the big bucks were hanging out. That was proving to be more of a challenge than I imagined. I found plenty of smoothies (doe) and a few young bucks, but it wasn’t until mid way through the season that I finally came across the big boys.  Finally, I wasn’t going to have to listen to stories from the guys about how they and their kids had easily tagged their big bucks while I sadly reported no sightings. I just KNEW that all of my work would pay off; I was going to find that big boy out there! Unfortunately, though, I hadn’t put the same necessary preparation time into getting used to firing my new Savage.270.

A few days on the range adjusting your scope doesn’t count as really preparing yourself to effectively fire a weapon for the first time in almost 30 years. It didn’t help much to go through a few boxes of shells that week. Somewhere, somehow, I picked up a flinch I wasn’t aware of.  I couldn’t imagine it; I have always been an instinctive shooter. I never flinched or had buck fever while bow hunting and I rarely miss with my Benelli Nova or Ruger. This just felt different though. I am not sure if it was the awkwardness of having to look through a scope or the excitement of being back on the mountain in pursuit of big game once again. Whatever the reason, that first buck was not going to stick around for me to get a second chance shot at him.

 It was almost noon on that clear, cool Sunday and I was on my way back down the mountain when I spotted my first good sized buck. He was tucked behind a bush, just about 30 yards off of the road. I stopped, grabbed my rifle off of the back seat, propped myself against the back of 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander, found my target, drew a breath and let it half way out. I squeezed the trigger. I didn’t see him through the scope anymore but I saw him shoot out from behind the bush and straight back into the thickets. A couple of guys were in the area and walked up, expecting to see the buck they had been chasing around all morning, next to their buddy. I didn’t even know these guys but their look of disappointment was dreadful. I felt as though I had just thrown away their winning lotto ticket. Like most hunters I have encountered on the trails here in southern Oregon though, they were very friendly and sympathetic. In fact, they even helped me look for the non-existent blood trail. Naturally, I went home thinking that my scope must be off. I couldn’t have just missed that shot! I dreaded the idea of having to explain how I missed my first great opportunity.

“Hey, Mr. Van Ert, check out the bucks my dad and I shot this weekend!” “Nice, Julie. How far away was that 4 pointer you shot?” “Oh, 100 yards is a nice shot!” Great. Three students, two of them 15 yr old girls, and a fellow teacher had no problem with hitting their targets that weekend. “Did I get one? Well, uh, I missed. But I think my scope was off”. Polite smiles and encouragement followed. “You’ll get one”, or, “well, at least you got to see one”. Humph.

 Immediately after work the next day I headed to the range, put my target out 50 yds. and proceeded to place a shot within the center. Huh, it must be off target! I moved the target back to 100 yards where I easily placed 3 rounds within ¾” of an inch of each other just an inch low and to the right. But how could that be? I called my buddy who just returned from a very successful South African hunting spree. He would know what went wrong; he had seen me make hundreds of great shots in the field. He suggested that maybe the combination of the uphill trajectory and the lean against the vehicle, thus changing the recoil, must have been the cause of my misfortune. So I headed back out with new confidence and new things to think about. Again and again.

Five minutes of hunting time remained the night my second opportunity finally came around. I had rounded the corner of the darkened woods that opened into a recently cut area when the big bodied 3x4 crossed the road and scrambled up the fifteen foot embankment to my right. I hit the brakes, spotted my prey and ran through my pre-shot list: safety off – check, verified buck – check, target area of buck selected – check. NO! Moving behind a tall pine is not OK! Wait, his head and chest are showing! Time to take action. Target is in sights, so Breathe and  Squeeze.

As far as I could see, and at 60yards that was pretty good, my prize buck jumped and only took a couple of steps. My heart raced as I waited for him to drop right there. But of course that was just wishful thinking! He had bolted up the hill, out of the clearing, and into the woods just as I had finally decided I had better take another shot. It was getting really dark now so I climbed up the mountain side to where he was when I shot, knowing there would be a blood trail starting there, somewhere. There had to be! I searched a 20 yard radius before going back to my vehicle for my headlamp.  Another 30 minutes in the dark, searching a 50 yard radius didn’t turn up anything. I would have to return in the morning.

Convinced I would pick up the blood trail and find my prize I searched for hours. Nothing, not even a sign of blood. I really did miss, so I went out searching again, hiking and driving for miles. I was out in the woods every minute I could, just knowing that the day I got my buck was going to be that day! I filled and refilled my gas tank every other day so I could explore new areas. I was not going to end the season eating “missed stew”.  “Hey Steve, look at this buck my youngest son got yesterday”. “How did it go for you?” “Is that “missed stew” you’re eating again today?” And my favorite remark: “did you ‘Van Ert’ again, or have you given up?”  No, I haven’t given up! I wasn’t going to either. I am a good shot. I can do this! I was going to get that big buck and show them all. But I needed help. I needed to find a new area and Mike gave me a suggestion of where to go, along with the suggestion I take one of my students with me to shoot one for me.  What a funny guy!

The season was almost over. I jumped in my car right after work and sped up to the area Mike told me about. He wasn’t specific about where to hunt, just an area, so I figured I had better scout it out. I didn’t see anything but the area looked good so I decided to return the next morning. I spent the whole day mostly hiking and some driving. I found an area where I came across a couple of groups of smoothies that evening so I decided to return the next day. Crud! Somehow I missed my alarm and got out late.

At 8:37am I pulled into the spot I was going to start my hiking. It was cold so I dug around for my gloves, packed up my bag and opened up a granola bar. I just finished my snack and slid out of the car when I heard the loud crackling. My eyes jumped from side to side as I strained to hear another crack. Snap! Holy cow! That is close! And there he was; a big, beautiful 4x4 less than 80yds away, plus he was standing still. “OK, breath, hold on your target and squeeze.”  I slowly raised the 6.5lb Savage up, put my target into the crosshairs, ready to finally have my endless hours of relentless pursuit pay off, when, of course, he moved. But it wasn’t far. The shot was a little more difficult due to a small twig now in the way, but it was very doable. I could feel my heart pound, hear my breathing and the sound inside my head repeating instructions. The trigger engaged. The buck shot straight up, and, wait, did he stumble? He only moved a few feet! Is he going to the ground?

I love the taste of wild game. Trying new recipes to enhance the taste of quarry I defeated is always such a reward. Too bad I wasn’t going to have that pleasure this year! Not with deer meat anyways. But, hey, that turkey I shot the next weekend was incredibly delicious, especially with the mole sauce from Mexico, even if it was served alongside a big ol’ bowl of “missed soup”.