Monday, October 26, 2009

Coyotes and Cockle-burs

My favorite hunting buddy and I went hunting this weekend in eastern Colorado. We went to an area where we have often hunted Dove, Duck and Antelope but never Deer. This area is only two hours away and we have our own little private camping spot courtesy of a good friend. We can pack up the camper and have some quality outdoor time together. This last weekend we were even lucky enough to get a way in time to do some scouting the night before the season started. We were surrounded on all sides by corn and alfalfa fields, providing the deer good coverage for bedding with good food and water close at hand. We spent the last hours of daylight walking between the various fields where the landowner said he had seen deer just a couple of night ago. What did we see? Coyote tracks, lots of coyote tracks. We saw various other critters’ tracks, raccoon, pheasant, mice- but not a single deer track deer. The smell of fresh cut alfalfa filled our grateful lungs and we saw a glorious sunset full of neon pink, bright turquoise and burnt orange, but that didn’t quite make up for the disappointment of not seeing a single deer or deer track.

Next morning despite the lack of deer sign I decided to watch the sun rise and see if the deer would come to the farmer’s corn and alfalfa from state wildlife refuge bordering the farmer’s land. I got rewarded by a fabulous sunrise, the song of waking coyotes and a pheasant taking a stroll along the corn field. Unfortunately not a single deer joined the morning pageant. We decided to move to the Wildlife Refuge and walk the promising habitat and look for deer sign. We spent the rest of the morning walking miles and miles through football sized fields of Cockle-burs, Sunflowers and other cling-on weeds and we succeeded in finding a secluded area with lots of deer sign. It was a spot where deer were traveling between their bedding and food source and were funneling through the only spot where they could cross a large irrigation ditch. My evening hunt would be spent hidden in the wild grass waiting for deer to cross my path. Three hours of sitting and not a single deer crossed my path. While I was watching for deer from my spot, my favorite hunting buddy was walking over some more potential deer habitat and saw lots of excellent deer sign. We went to bed that night confident we had finally found the deer anticipating a successful hunt the next morning.

4AM we woke to the depressing sound of heavy rainfall. We kept waiting for the rain to stop but by 10 AM decided this hunt was over. This is one of the few times we’ve let the weather beat us. Our hunt was still successful for many reasons. We got to spend quality time together in the outdoors. Our souls and spirit were refueled and we located a new excellent area to hunt again. Next time no more Coyotes or Cockle-burs, just fine Colorado Mule Deer. Hope is eternal to hardcore hunters.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fast Woman's First Hunt

I originally wrote this article for ‘Poke and Stroke” the Colorado State Muzzle Loading Association’s monthly magazine in June 1995.

There are certain myths surrounding hunting and shooting that keep some women from enjoying those two sports. Myth one: “Hunting is just for men.” Myth two: “ A man won’t find a woman appealing if she hunts.” Myth three: “Hunting, since it’s a man sport, will rob a woman of her femininity.” Myth four: “Men feel threatened by a woman who hunts.”
I bought into these myths but I proved for myself once and for all that the myths are totally without merit. I found all these myths to be totally untrue this past hunting season when I shot my first deer with a black powder rifle.
Married to an avid hunter for almost 22 years, I have accompanied him on many hunts. I began going with my husband on hunting trips because it was a good way to spend time with him away from the pressures of business, family, city life and the stress that goes with all this. I continued going with him because I loved being out in the wild and seeing animals in their natural habitat. I’m not a passive spectator to any degree so I took part in all aspects of the hunting trips except shooting the animal. I’ve worn a pack and carried a rifle and walked many many miles in search of game. I’ve been beside my husband and watched him shoot deer, elk, bear antelope, birds or what ever my husband was hunting at the time. He encouraged me to go hunting with him by buying me hunting licenses and gently nudged me to shoot too. I always had an excuse for not shooting. But I had two very specific reasons for not shooting that I admitted only to myself.
The first reason I had was that I thought I’d flinch at the last minute and only wound an animal. I knew I could not live with the thought of being responsible for any animal’s pain or needless suffering. This problem was solved fairly easily. To avoid merely wounding an animal I practiced shooting my black powder rifle as much as possible. I joined black powder shooting club in my area. These clubs have monthly shoots and I attended as many of these shoots as my scheduled allowed. I also went to the shooting range to test my skills and my rifles accuracy between club shoots. In addition I talked to other black powder shooters to learn any shooting tips that would increase my own accuracy. In, short I did everything possible to become an accurate shooter.
My second excuse for not shooting was not so easy to overcome. I am extremely squeamish regarding cleaning and gutting an animal. I’d been along on enough hunts to know that the person who shoots an animal was the person responsible to clean the animal. This was a problem that I could not learn to change no matter how hard I tried. It hadn’t changed in the 22 years I’d been with my husband. But I accepted and respected this rule. I did not want or expect to be exempt from this unwritten rule and resigned myself to the reality that I was to be a spectator not a hunter.
My husband kept nudging me to join the hunt as a hunter; He knew I could hit a target. He’d seen me shoot at black powder events and he knew I was a decent shot. He couldn’t understand my reluctance to hunt. I finally confessed to him about my reluctance to shoot because I knew I couldn’t clean the animal I shot. Bless his heart! He said that if that was all that was keeping me from hunting he’d clean the animal for me. It’s a compromise that I deeply appreciate. His understand of me as a person removed one barrier to my becoming a shooting hunter.
One small barrier remained, but it’s the common one that every hunter faces, man or woman. Could I look in the eyes of a beautiful wild animal, pull the trigger and end the life of that animal? Did I have that in me?
The first season after my husband agreed to clean my animals for me I struggled with this question. I had a tag for a buck deer. My husband and I hunted for white tail during the black powder season and during the hunt I had ample time to think about whether I could shoot an animal. At times I’d pray I wouldn’t see a shootable animal just so I wouldn’t have to face the question. At times I was anxious to see a buck so that all my hard work would pay off. I never did see a buck that season so I was off the hook.
In 1995 I drew a doe tag. My husband did not have a tag so he was at my side to help me through this momentous occasion. My hunt was successful. I saw a doe, I steadied myself and raised my rifle as I had practiced, aimed at my target, said a small prayer that I wouldn’t miss and shot. I hit my target, this time a beautiful deer instead of apiece of paper or metal. How did I feel? Exhilarated! I had practiced and trained for the experience. I used my skill as a marksman and successfully shot a deer. I didn’t feel guilty or ashamed for killing the deer. Instead I thought I was doing something that fit in with the natural scheme of things. Men have been hunting as a means of survival or sport since time began. I was simply taking my place as a hunter. I knew that the animal I had killed would be well used. The offal would feed wild animals. My family and friends would eat the delicious meat. I planned on using the hide to make brain tanned leather for clothing and other objects. Some of the hair went to my nephew for tying fishing lures. The deer I had killed had filled its place in a natural order of life.
So what has my hunting experience done to dispel the myths mentioned earlier? Hunting and shooting are not just sports that men enjoy. Women, properly prepared can enjoy them as much as men. What’s more, men and women can enjoy these sports even more by sharing the experience. I haven’t lost my appeal to my husband since I hunted. Just the opposite. He wants me to go with him on every hunt now. Hunting has not robbed me of my femininity because it has nothing to do with femininity.
The final myth destroyed is the one that says men would feel threatened by a woman who hunts. Again, just the opposite happened. Men who never talked to me about hunting before now include me in their conversation when it turns to hunting. My husband is so proud of me he almost explodes when he tells anyone the story of me shooting my first deer. And the best evidence that women who hunt aren’t a threat to men came when my husband was away hunting during second season for elk. His male hunting buddy and I stayed behind because of our jobs. I had a second deer license and my husband’s buddy had not gotten his deer first season. He still had the desire to be out in the woods but he didn’t have a license. I did. So on Sunday my husband’s buddy asked me to go hunting with him. I felt like I had truly taken my place as a hunter.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Quick Little Antelope Hunt

I was fortunate enough to get a landowners tag for antelope last weekend and went to eastern Colorado for a quick little antelope hunt. It turns out I got my antelope in the first hour of opening day and it was the classic epitome of a great hunt: perfect crisp fall weather weather, a successful stalk and outdoor time with my best hunting buddy- my husband.

We headed out to our hunting unit in the cool fall morning and we immediately spotted our first antelope (1 buck and three doe) just a half mile away. We stopped and looked at the ram chasing his girls as we plotted my hunt strategy. I decided to try to sneak up on them because there was a water tank between me and them and the antelope were in a low spot which would make it possible for me to get pretty close with out the antelope spotting me. Beside that, the ram was so twitter-patted chasing the does he did even realize we were there! It was a classic stalk – me crawling on my hands and knees through cow pies and stickers! Thank goodness the frost the night before had slowed down all the ground creepy-crawlies! When I got to the water tank I eased up high enough to see that the antelope were still oblivious to me. I looked for a good rest for my rifle, hoped to rest on the water tank – too short. There was a single fence post – too tall. I decided I would have to shoot off hand which proved futile. The antelope were over 100 yards away and I missed which sent them running. But low and behold they just ran in one huge circle and I got a second shot. I had enough time to find a good rest for my rifle and all I had to do was wait for a doe to come in for a drink! Didn’t take long. A doe eased cautiously towards me and the water tank and when she was with in 50 yards I took a shot and had her down. This was a first for me, getting my animal during the first hour on opening day. What a great way to start the Fall hunting season!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

30th Anniversary Hunt

We saw the Kudu bull approach the watering hole after we’d been in the hide only ten minutes. . The PH said it was a good-sized Kudu and I was free to take a shot. The bull was 75-100 yards away and angled toward me but looking away from me. I got my self a steady rest and shot. Neither the PH nor my husband could say with absolute certainty that I had hit the Kudu, but we all noted where we saw the bull last and the PH called in the best tracker and dog owned by the outfitter. Cepo was known all over this area of the country for his excellent tracking skills and Savanna, a Jack Russell terrier, lived to hunt. These two were an unbelievable pair for tracking wounded animals. Everyone had confidence that if I had hit the animal; it was not going to get away. I on the other hand was horrified that I might have wounded an animal; I hoped we’d find it very fast or that I’d completely missed it.
Going to Africa had been a dream of my husband, Bryan and mine for thirty years. For most of those thirty years I saw myself as the companion of my husband, walking beside him with camera in hand recording all the sights and sounds of the Africa I had seen on T.V. and read about in books. Somewhere along the way, after I’d hunted in Colorado and Texas, I started dreaming of not just going to Africa but actually hunting there too. In March of 2002 we found ourselves at the annual fundraiser of the Denver Chapter of SCI. A Nyala hunt with Numzaan Safari came up for auction. That year state side hunts were selling for a premium price and African hunts were very reasonable. My husband could not keep his hand down during the auction and we ended up with a hunt for Nyala in South Africa. I wanted to hunt the gray ghost of Africa, the Greater Kudu. So a good compromise was made – he could hunt Nyala and any other game available in the area we were hunting, just as long as I got to hunt for Kudu. We also decided that we would take the hunt in April as a celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary. What more could a girl ask for?

We began our third full day of hunting in Africa, like every day- at dawn with a light breakfast of tea and a biscuit the South Africans call Rusk. Then we’d head out to look for tracks of the Kudu in various areas of the property. Kudu are difficult to hunt, they are very wary animals and we’d only catch glimpses of tails or ears flying through the bush. Early mornings when it was cool provided the best opportunities to spot a Kudu that could then be stalked. We saw lots of old spoor of the Kudu and some female but no sign of a good sized Kudu bull. We did chance upon a couple of Kudu bull high on top of a hill which we then got out and stalked for a short ways, but like the legend of a ghost, the Kudu vanished, not into thin air but into the thorn infested African bush. It is amazing how such a large animal can vanish into the bush in blink of an eye.
Around nine in the morning the sun was well up into the sky and even though it was autumn in South Africa is was unseasonably warm. We decided it was time to go station ourselves in a blind to see if a thirsty Kudu would come in for a drink.
We drove to a popular watering hole for both Kudu and Impala. This part of South Africa was experiencing the third year of a very bad drought and man made watering holes provided the only water for all the wildlife in the immediate vicinity. I was looking forward to seeing a variety of wild animals and being able to get pictures of them. The “hide” was a nylon tent covered with a variety of very thorny acacia branches. We carefully situated our selves inside and settled down to wait and see what animals came in. First came some baby warthogs and their mother. They cautiously approached the water, and then kneeled down to take a refreshing drink. Then came some impala. Impala happened to be on my hunting list also and a nice ram approached the watering hole. My PH, Johan, said it was one I could shoot. We had been in Africa only three days, we’d only been at this watering hole for ten minutes, and I was getting my chance to shoot my very first African animal! What a lucky woman I was. All this went through my head in a flash as I steadied my self and took aim at the impala. The ram was about 50 yards away, standing broadside to me. I aimed carefully took a breath and squeezed the trigger. The shot was good and the ram went about 20 yards and dropped. I was so happy. I was satisfied that I had placed the shot well and thankful that the impala went down quickly. We took pictures and loaded the animal to take back to camp. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet!
When we got to camp and were at the skinning shed, word got back to us from some of the farm hands working on the watering system for the farm, that a nice Kudu bull had been spotted at a different watering hole from the one we had just been at. This watering hole, known as the “Kudu Dam”, got its name because it was a favorite of its namesake. We jumped back into the truck and went towards this water hole. This hole was a favorite of the Kudu because it was at the base of a hill where they would spend the hot afternoons sleeping under a tree. It was a quick trip down to the watering hole when they got thirsty, yet they could keep a look out for danger. We slowly drove to Kudu Dam but did not see any of our elusive quarry; we headed back to the main camp for lunch and cool drinks.
At lunch we discussed our hunting options for the afternoon. We could hike to the top of the hill near Kudu Dam in the hopes of catching a Kudu napping under an acacia tree or we could go back to Kudu Dam and sit in a hide for the afternoon. Either one was not going to be easy as the day was heating up and promised to be a scorcher. We decided we’d drive to Kudu Dam and see if the bull we’d tired to see earlier had returned to the water hole in hopes of getting a drink, and then maybe we’d try hiking up the hill. Off we drove again, with our supply of cool drinks for the afternoon and great expectations of seeing Kudu.

We repeated the morning’s ritual of getting settled in the hide. I was stationed in a good shooting position overlooking the watering hole, Johan was behind me to my right and Bryan was beside me on the left. The parade of animals started differently this go around. First came a troop of Vervet monkeys, lead by a very macho male, who loved to perch in the nearby Leadwood tree and display his masculinity to the females of his troop. After an hour of playing and grooming themselves, the monkeys left. We were left listening to the cacophony of birds that are ever-present in the African bush. We experienced the intense heat of the African sauna inside the blind. More than three sweltering hour later, just as Johan had predicted, the evening procession of animals began with of course, the baby warthogs, followed by a small group of impala and then some baboons. A single impala ram also came in for a cautious drink. The baboons were very nervous and suspicious. They weren’t sure what danger lurked around the water hole, but they were sure something was there. The impala ram felt the same way and showed its discomfort with loud barks. The baboons surrounded the hide and kept a safe distance away. One or two would come in for a cautious drink while the look out would remain at a distance and make loud snorting sounds. The three of us inside the hide were worried that all this commotion outside would alert any Kudu in the area and keep them from coming to the watering hole. I kept my fingers crossed. We sat silent and motionless and waited. A little while later, to my astonishment, a Kudu female approached the hide from behind us. I couldn’t see it but Johan could. Immediately my heart started beating 90 miles an hour. I was positive that if a female was here, a male Kudu was not far behind. I felt myself start to shake and I felt dizzy with excitement. I knew I had to calm down or I’d blow my chance at a Kudu bull. I concentrated on the impala and the baboons and waited as another female Kudu came in. They were still behind us though and we had to reposition ourselves so I could get a view for a shot if a bull came in. Somehow we silently moved and got ourselves in new positions. Dusk was rapidly approaching, with only about thirty minutes of shooting light left a bull finally came in. With the expert help of Johan I got my gun positioned on a good solid foundation. While I did this, the bull approached the watering hole slowly, carefully. He came into my sights and he looked good to me but he was behind a tree - I had to wait a couple more seconds until he was in a good position to shoot. I finally saw the correct sight picture and squeezed. My heart stopped. Johan said I had hit it. I loaded my rifle again and was ready to take another shot. Johan could not see where the Kudu had gone. I thought the shot was good, but I almost cried at the thought that I had gotten chance at a Kudu and might have missed.
We stepped out of the blind, took a big breath of fresh air and felt immediate relief at being out of the hide. We set out to look for my Kudu. We went about 50-60 yards and spotted the Kudu on the ground. He was beautiful! That’s all I could think or say. He was beautiful and I was one lucky woman. What a perfect day in Africa. I’d been in Africa only three days and I had gotten an impala and the Kudu of my dreams.
The next day we headed south to the Pongola Game Preserve in the Kwa Zulu Natal Province. This was where Bryan was going to hunt for Nyala. On the nine-hour ride there Stef got a call from Johan back at the main camp. Johan had just finished measuring my Kudu; it measured 56-7/8 inches. This was the first hint that I’d been given that I had gotten a record book Kudu. I was thrilled to say the least but now I had been bitten by a bug, the same one that hat bitten my husband when he was about ten. I wanted to continue hunting and experience more of Africa. I was also trying to figure out a way to persuade my husband into letting me hunt just one more animal….

Lessons Learned

Missed shots, poor shots, shots I should have taken but didn’t. These are the hunting experiences I’d rather forget, but which are the most important to remember, and are the ones that play over and over in my mind when I remember a hunt.
            My very first black powder hunt for deer is permanently embedded in my mind because of a poorly placed shot that I had to follow with a better shot so the animal wouldn’t suffer. The seconds between those shots made it excruciatingly clear to me that I had not spent enough time at the rifle range practicing.  I went back to rifle range and practiced until my aim improved enough to assure myself I would not have another poor shot.
            Did this prevent me form ever making another poor shot? It’s hard to admit, but no, that wasn’t my last or only poor shot. This is another lesson to be learned. Poor shots happen to every hunter from time to time. What we have to do is to take every step we can to avoid them. We do this through practicing at the shooting range, reading hunting tips, watching hunting videos and learning as much as possible about how to avoid making poor shots.  
            I went for a few years not taking any bad shots, until I went to Africa. And even though I came back from Africa with a beautiful Kudu for a trophy, I was lucky because the first shot I took at a Kudu was a total miss. I had practiced with my rifle before going to Africa and was familiar and comfortable with it. The first thing we did upon arriving at camp in Africa was to go to the range and site in our rifles. The Professional Hunter gave me a book to look at so that I was certain where to place a shot for a particular animal. He event pointed out that shot placement for African animals was different than for the North American animals I was used to. I felt confident that I could make an accurate shot.
            The first shot I took at a Kudu was a disaster. I was excited, my heart was pumping, and my whole body was shaking. When I saw that first Kudu come out from behind the acacia tree I took aim at a small white spot I thought I saw on the Kudu. After I fired my P.H. said something like, “I’m not sure you hit it, but let's get the dog here to track the Kudu just in case.”  The trackers and the dog ended up following the tracks of the Kudu I had shot at to a place where it had come to a stop to rest. It was resting, not from being shot, but from all of us chasing it through the African bush. The head tracker declared that I had missed the Kudu - totally. Good for that particular Kudu, embarrassing to me.    
             I replayed the scene of my crime over and over in my head. Kicking myself with every step I took that afternoon. How could I have missed? It was not a long shot, it was not a shot at a moving target, I’d had time to set up on sticks and get a good rest, why had I missed? The answer came later that day, after I had gotten a second and successful shot at another Kudu. And I hate to admit it, but I had no idea what I was aiming at on that first Kudu. That evening as I looked again at the book the P.H. had given me the first night in Africa I realized I should not have been aiming at anything white on the Kudu. I guess sometimes I’m lucky and like the P.H. kept assuring me all afternoon, that first Kudu just didn’t have my name on it. But I did learn a very valuable lesson.

Suzanne Cooper

Suzanne Cooper

My First Deer

My First Deer
Taken with Black powder

South African Greater Kudu

South African Greater Kudu
30th Anniversary Trip to Africa with husband Bryan

On top of the World!

On top of the World!
Me and my favorite hunting buddies

Valentine Present

Valentine Present