I killed my first deer this season hunting on Californian public land. Here in California, there tends to be a lot of competition, minimal buck sightings, inaccessible areas for hunting, rough western country, and anything else you’d imagine that comes with hunting with an over-the-counter tag. After two unsuccessful seasons, I was able to finally pull the trigger Sunday morning of opening weekend. I learned that the adage about the real work starting after the shot is, in fact, true. With my Esee 4HM on my hip, Field & Stream Folder in my pocket, my Bahco Laplander folding saw in my pack, and 550 paracord; I had the tools to get this deer out of the backcountry. This story will cover the hunting adventure, to field dressing, to hog-tying, to skinning and quartering an deer on the ground.
Hunting in California
I started opening day at 3:30am. I woke up, had coffee, kissed my fiance goodbye, and stumbled out of my $2000+/month 1-bedroom apartment to meet up with my hunting buddy in a ride-share parking lot by 4:30am. This particular one doubles up as a parking lot for a mid-city church, so we do our best to make our transitions before or after the sun is out. We kept pleasantries to a minimum, loaded up my gear into the back of his truck, and headed towards Angeles National Forest.
We got to our parking spot at around 5:30am, an hour before sunrise. To our surprise, the dirt turnout was empty, causing us to check and make sure we were hunting the correct weekend. Last year, every turnout in the area was packed with trucks and blaze orange attire. We were, indeed, hunting the correct weekend. Maybe there was a sign we missed that closed this road to hunting? It is California, after all.
We loaded up and hiked into the high desert. We spent most of the morning watching jack rabbits, owls, and a lone doe. After she went off, we decided to move around and maybe spook something out. At around 9am, we saw our first blaze orange hunters on a hilltop. We take a peak at them through our binoculars and one is looking back through his scope in a fantastic display of safety and consideration. We saw 4 more does in the area, headed back to our truck, and talked to the methed out rider of a 4-color GSX-R that was telling us about alien abductions and tactics for outrunning helicopters.
Finding a New Canyon to Hunt
Come mid-day, we ended up at a canyon we’ve never hunted before. We’ve driven through the area before to see if the “No-Access” sign has been taken down – it never is. On the way back out from the closed-off canyon, we found a place to park the truck and decided to hike into an adjacent canyon the hard way. We start climbing hills “as the crow flies” before finding a washed out trail. It looked to have been a road once, but had been reclaimed by rain and brush. We walked the trail to the back of the canyon and thought it seemed promising enough to try.
On the way out, we ran in to another pair of hunters who were away from their wives for the weekend. They were slamming beers, smoking cigarettes, and chewing – basically livin’ wild and free. We had a beer with them and exchanged stories, sightings, and other adventures – all without telling each other about our preferred locations and spots. Exchanges with other hunters are like a friendly game of poker where you talk without saying much.
As the evening hunt was approaching, we made our way back to our truck with plans of heading to the morning location. We find a spot that looks good to camp and decide to stay. Part of public land hunting is considering the other-hunters-aspect when it comes to animal movement. Perhaps our buddies would push something towards us when they start moving around.
California Mule Deer
We found a clearing in the canyon’s ravine to sit over and watch.
We’re deep enough into the canyon where the white noises of cars going down the road have disappeared. The wind working its way through trees is the loud. Dead tree branches moving against one another create an alien sound when they rub. I could totally see why people claim cryptozoological experiences out here. A small bird fluttering in a bush can sound like a huge animal crashing through branches. When the wind isn’t moving, you can hear the sound the air makes when gliding over the feathers of an overhead crow.
In the final moments of shooting light, I spot a deer making its way through the ravine towards us. It’s in no hurry and is working on bushes as it goes.
As I mentioned, I can hear the sound of a crow gliding overhead, but when a deer is working it’s way towards us, it does so in silence. It’s within 200-yards and we still can’t make out the gender in the quickly dimming light. As it gets within 100-yards of us, I put my rifle scope on it. It’s a small buck. It silhouettes itself on a white gypsum wall and I still haven’t determined if it’s legal to take. I wanted nothing more than to see a nub of an antler poking from its spike, but couldn’t focus in enough to find it. I let it walk slowly up the hill and behind us. It was within 70-yards and had no idea we were there. What an exciting thing to be doing…
Sunday of Opening Weekend
Night was nuts. We saw the longest shooting star we’ve ever seen. It lit the sky from one side to the other and was close enough to see sparks coming off of its tail. Sleeping was sparse. Coyotes sang throughout the night and animals kept walking through camp. I noticed the next day that we camped next to a highly used game trail. I swear I heard deer walking by my tent.
We headed to the same spot the following morning to see if we’d run into similar luck. After not seeing much movement in the first few hours, we decided to walk and hunt while moving deeper into the canyon. We spotted our old buddies on a hilltop pounding brews against the sky-light (it’s 7:30am), so we keep moving deeper, past where they’re able to see.
We find a spot to sit on a steep hillside at the back of the canyon and wait. At around 9:20am, we’re about to call it a morning but see the first bit of movement for the day. I briefly see a deer come down the opposite side of the canyon to us before it ghosted into the sycamores. It keeps disappearing between bushes but we can see that it’s moving fast.
It crosses the canyon at some point and is out of sight for a few minutes. I can’t remember if we determined the gender yet but I think we had. I think we were questioning whether it was legal or not. Mike thinks it was making its way towards the back of the canyon away from us and suggested going in for the stalk. The other option was to wait a bit longer to see if it came up a hill so we could confirm which way it was heading. I opted to stay put.
I can’t describe the moment when the decision you made manifests into a deer body a few crests over. The sun is shining strong into the canyon and the body of the deer has a halo of sun around it as it moves between bushes. I put my scope on it as it’s walking and it stops. I see it’s full body, it’s head, and a fork antler on each side of it’s head – it’s a legal buck. My rifle is resting on my backpack and I’m leaning over it trying to get within relief range of the scope. The butt of the rifle isn’t tight on my shoulder as I’m hunched over. I already know that I’m going to scope myself. I whisper to Mike, “I’m gonna shoot that buck.”
Success on a Public Land Hunt
I pull the trigger and scope the hell out of myself.
My glasses are bent and hanging off of my face and my eye is tearing up from being kicked by the recoil of a 30-06. “Where’d he go?!”
“It jumped… I think it ran away? I’m not sure…” Mike jumped at the sound of my rifle crashing through the silence like a fart from Zeus. He lost sight of the deer. Mike runs up the side of the hill we’re on to see if he can find a better vantage point while I’m rubbing my eye and trying to bend my glasses back onto my face. “Do you see it?”
I see a bush moving unlike the other bushes around it and postulate that the deer is the one doing the moving.
Mike walks down across the canyons while I guide him to where I saw the now-still bush.
This California mule deer buck must have jumped when it felt something pass through it like a pencil. My “expanding” bullet went clean through with both wounds looking identical. It would have bailed had it not been hit in a lethal spot.
Downhill Decision Making
Here’s where poor decisions started being made and things started getting hard. We’re now stuck with a deer on a steep hill away from any trails. We’re not far “as the crow flies”, but it’s gonna be awhile before we are able to haul out. We think that going down to the ravine looks like the way to go. We can find a big stick and tie it up like a Hawaiian pig and just march this dude out to the truck. NO PROBLEM.
I started field dressing the buck, using bottled drinking water to wash blood out of the body cavity. I used bottled drinking water to wash off my arms after field dressing it. Cleaning the blood off of my arms felt great at the time.
After field dressing, we both take a handle on an antler and start dragging the mule deer downhill towards the ravine. The 125-lb animal being dragged over bushes isn’t easy, but would seem like cake once we got down to the ravine. After getting it to the ravine and finding a stick, I start hog-tying the deer onto a stick with 550 paracord.
We hoisted the buck on our shoulders and started our march out of the canyon, quickly realizing we made a poor choice. The ravine looked so clear from the uphill perspective, but was dense with obstacles when we were in it. As we’re walking in tandem over boulders, fallen logs, through thorns, and over really poor terrain; we keep having to stop every 10-20 yards to assess our next obstacle. We also have half a bottle of water left between us – a mouthful each.
After a bit of frustration between the two of us, we finally hit a dead end and there’s absolutely no where to go. We’re forced to either double back and out another way, or quarter it. Mike has never done this and I’ve only watched the episode of Meat Eater where Steve Rinella butchers an entire deer. I make the call and we get to work (again).
Skinning and Quartering a Deer on the Ground
This part wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. After cutting off the feet at the first knuckle on the deer with my Bacho Laplander, we made the initial skinning cuts up the legs. Apparently, you can do this with just a knife by separating the bones between the socket. However, I’m not experienced and went with the saw. I’m not sure if it’s a true story, but there are tales of these feet releasing some sort of scent that attract mountain lions. We opt to move them a few hundred yards away.
When skinning, always cut from the inside of the skin to the fur side. This helps save the blade from dulling during the process. I didn’t have to sharpen my folding knife once throughout the process.
Separating the skin from the meat is easy. The pelt is held on to the meat by this foam-like tissue that jumps away from the knife’s cuts. I worked on one side of the deer while it was on the ground this way. After I got enough pelt off to get full access to the hind quarter and shoulder, I simply used the folder to take those chunks off and into game bags. The pack I had came with 4 game bags and were easily able to fit two quarters in each bag. The two remaining game bags are for steaks and ground meat.
We repeated the same process on the other side for the quarters, the tenderloins, and the back straps while adding miscellaneous cuts of meat into the grinding bag.
With our carrying-weight reduced and the loads being independent, we still needed to carry everything up the walls of the canyon. We start our way uphill, through bushes, and over boulders. It was much easier than if we had continued to do our stick dance. We’re dehydrated, tired, and still have a ways to bushwhack back to the truck.
My mouth is a sticky-kind of dry and I’m letting my body carry me back as I think of other things. I mentioned how nice a strawberry-lemonade would be.. one with sugar around the rim. One foot in front of the other, we’re climbing 45-degree hills in the evening sun.
We finally get to the trailhead, but it’s more or less the same thing: downhill, uphill, over bushes, and broken road. I keep having to alternate the shoulder I’m using to rest my half of the deer on. The miscellaneous bag of meat tied onto my pack is swinging as I’m walking and I keep checking to see if the bow-knot I used to tie the head onto my pack has failed me.
The Deer Killer
We get to a point that’s accessible by car, shed our load, and start hoofing over to the water-trunk that is Mike’s truck. We both chug two bottles of water and eat the first real food we’ve had all day – a sandwich. It’s 5:30pm.
We both take a few minutes to reflect on the adventure we just had, the hard work we put in, and talk about how rewarding doing it “the hard way” really is.
Mike and I started a tradition last year to celebrate a successful hunt with a top-shelf cigar – the Pardon 1926 40th anniversary. We’ve given it the nickname “The Deer Killer” as it has become the celebratory stick awarded to the successful hunter. I got to smoke mine this year and it was wonderful.