New Year’s Day Hunt

Skipping the usual New Year’s eve madness I went to bed early. While everyone was out waiting for the witching hour, I was dreaming of fresh air, mountain vistas, and hopefully, a tasty dinner.

My hunting buddy had a little too much holiday cheer the night before so I found myself driving through the predawn glow alone. The ski traffic was minimal and I pulled off at my destination just north of Idaho Springs. I opened my trunk, threw on my field BOB and shouldered my new gun. I had recently purchased a Westernfield .410 single shot bolt-action and I couldn’t wait to try it out. On my hip was a H&R model 676. Like I said, a gentleman owns more than one suit.

Foothills in JanuaryI had never hunted this area so I picked my way along slowly. All the mania of the modern world melted away as I inhaled the scent of fresh snow and pine trees. The ground was covered in a light snow and the trail petered to nothing. I marched along an ever steepening draw. There was little in the way of sign but plenty of stunning views. I finally picked up the trail of a deer and followed along in her steps. I wasn’t looking for a deer but I couldn’t find anything else to track. I lost her spour along a steep set of boulders and withered little pines.

The morning followed that pattern. Little trail, lots of wandering. Around noon I stopped to rest and warm myself up. There wasn’t much snow here but the air was cold and gusting occasionally. I found a spot down among the boulders where I could stretch out and build a fire. I set up my SOL tarp and made a quick wind break. With the wind stopped and a fire burning it was ideal. I ate a power bar and kicked myself for not bringing more food. I had done so intentionally as motivation to hunt something up for lunch. A small reminder of why we hunt. It’s not to kill. It’s to be tied, body and soul, to the natural world around us. This silly maneuver had failed to settle my appetite.

Making tea in the snow

After some tea and a nap I broke camp. A light snow began to flurry so I turned back for the two hour march to my car. I was a little nervous because the weather at 7,500 feet can be tricky this time of year. I wasn’t doing much hunting and instead was focusing on self extrication lest the snow turn bad. I burst into a little clump of stumpy doug firs and found about a dozen drey’s. The weather wasn’t bad yet so I stopped to look around. No movement, no chatter. I tried every trick I could think of; throwing a rock up into the branches, firing a round off from my pistol, calling them. Nothing worked. I figured the drey’s were either old and abandoned or the weather was too foul for them to come out. I managed to find a set of squirrel tracks some distance from the dreys. I followed them around for bit but still had no luck.

.22 LR case for comparison

.22 LR case for comparison

The snow became heavier so I really started moving. The first hunt of the year was a bust. No matter, I’d rather go home empty than spend the night in a snow cave. Well actually, I wouldn’t mind spending the night in a snow cave but the wife and I had dinner reservations so I thought better of it. I hiked the last hour out and was a few hundred feet from the car. At the bottom of the draw was a big cliff about 30 feet high. The trail led to the bottom of it before veering off to the parking lot. The snow had stopped for a moment and a bright sun illuminated the cliff. As if a sign from the heavens, an explosion of wings emerged from a ledge on the cliff and a dozen rock doves flew into the sky. I froze as they circled up back around. They landed on the open flat space at the base of the cliff to feed during the brief break from the snow. I was still back in the trees and they had no idea I was there. The Westernfield had no magazine so I grabbed more shells from my pocket and held them between my teeth. Creeping to the edge of the clearing I waited for them to bunch up a little. I put a bead halfway between two feeders and squeezed the trigger. The gun popped and they balled up in a halo of feathers. The whole group started to rise in a confusion of flapping wings. I had a live shell in the chamber before the spent one hit the ground. Bang! A third dove dropped to the ground. By now they weren’t disorganized and had flown up together about twenty feet. They got another twenty feet of height and were quartering around to me before I could get another round off. I hit the fourth dove square in the chest before the rest got away. Now the year was off to a proper start.

Rock Doves-Richard Hammack

Spicy Fried Squirrel

Eating fried squirrelFried squirrel is something you just have to try. Don’t let your preconceived notions of hillbillies and Appalachian poverty sway you, fried squirrel is delicious. It’s a quick and simple recipe that will fill your belly with lean, clean meat. No antibiotics, no hormones, no gmo’s. Eating food that lived a life in the wilderness instead of a cage is the most nutritious, ethical way to eat. This recipe is designed to be made in the backwoods. You can hunt all morning and have this recipe for lunch!

Begin by gathering the ingredients for the batter:

1 Cup flour

1 Tablespoon black pepper

2 Tablespoons ground red chili pepper

1 Teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 Teaspoon salt

You will also need:

250mL Milk

100mL Frying oil

A fistful of copper .22LR or steel .410 depending on your weapon of choice.

Premix all the dry ingredients (except the ammo) in a plastic baggie. The most tedious part of the prep is done. It’s time to move this operation to the woods.

Fried squirrel ingredientsThrow the ingredients in your field bug out bag and head for the hills!

My friend Ryan and I were fortunate enough to each harvest three squirrels that morning. We would have limited out in the first hour the hills were so thick with squirrels but we saved our shots for the fattest ones. Always go for a clean head shot, it’s humane and keeps the meat clean. Stay away from lead ammo. Even microscopic amounts of lead can build up over time and cause serious neurological damage.

Get a fire going while you clean and quarter the squirrels. Build the fire up high and let it die into a nice bed of coals.

Pour the oil into a pan, cover it, and let it get hot. You’ll know it’s ready when you put a stick in it and bubbles quickly form around it. Don’t rush, if the oil isn’t hot enough then your squirrel won’t fry right. Put some of the squirrel quarters into the batter baggie and shake it up. Make sure you leave a little bit of batter mix to make gravy with.

Frying squirrelPut the pieces into the pan and cover it. Let it sizzle up real good before you turn the pieces. The trick here is getting the skin crispy but not over cooking and drying it out. This is why the oil needs to be so hot.

Once you’ve fried up the quarters, add what’s left of the batter mix to the oil and make a little gravy. It goes great on the squirrel and makes your bannock into something more. Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the bounty that the wilderness provides.

-Richard Hammack

Hunters Give Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a heartwarming story of how important hunters are. What we do when we hunt not only helps conserve our precious natural resources, but fills the bellies of our fellow humans. So kick back, grab some stuffing and click the pic below to listen to this fine broadcast from NPR.

Wild Game Supper

-Richard Hammack

Take A Geezer Hunting

Grandpa can still shootI am often approached by friends and coworkers who know of my passion for hunting. They’re often my age, have a little outdoor knowledge, and will occasionally fish or backpack. They wait until some quiet moment when eavesdropping ears are not around. With bashful eyes and hushed tones they ask, “how do you hunt?” It always warms my heart to bring a new hunter into the fold. Once they go through the Hunter’s Safety course I take them to the field. It’s a great thing to see someone hunt, harvest, and eat their own food for the first time.

As I guide them through the finer points of scat identification or cleaning the kill, I often have a brief thought, “nobody ever taught you this?” I then remember that this skill, this vital connection to the world, is being lost to the tides of time. What was once an ability so common that everyone knew how to do it has become esoteric.

How do I know how to hunt? From whence cometh my Crockett like capabilities? I certainly learned a thing or two from books but they can’t teach you everything. I was blessed to be born the grandson of Dick Hess, an Army Lieutenant Colonel and Colorado Division of Wildlife Game Warden. From my earliest memories I can remember him teasing me with a turkey call, explaining why you could see the eyes of animals at night, and teaching me how to clean fish. His house is full of trophies, equipment, and stories that I poured over as a youth. I knew how to disassemble, clean, and reassemble a rifle before I knew how to cook ramen. I could tell the difference between new and old tracks, identify different bird calls, and know which clouds meant it was time to head for camp. I learned all this from my grandfather. Without his guidance and patience (lots and lots of patience) I would still be a tenderfoot.

Lt. Col. Dick HessThere is much emphasis today on getting youth involved in hunting. As the suburbs sprawl and video games become more addictive, kids would rather spend more time inside than out. Maybe they do have a desire to learn to hunt, but they have no mentor. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be born with a modern Major Burnham as a grandparent. This is why large sums of money are spent, special hunting days created, and other programs are made to teach young hunters. Rightfully so, as without another generation of sportsmen and women to care for our natural resources, people will only know of animals from the zoo and think food comes from the store.

I think it is important that we teach America’s youth the ways of the scout and hunter. Equally as important, is to honor and pay homage to the parents and grandparents who shared their knowledge with us. Even though grandpa doesn’t move like he used to and takes naps with alarming frequency, it doesn’t mean he’s finished with hunting.

Last fall I nervously watched as my 81 year old grandfather climbed the ladder of a stand. We were blanketed in darkness and the ladder was a full two stories up. I was imagining the tongue lashing and harassment we would receive were my fiery Irish grandmother to witness these proceedings. He safely made it and settled in to watch the light creep up through the trees. Though we did not see any cow elk that morning, we saw several good sized bulls as well as some deer. We also did something rare these days; we sat in silence and watched the slow rituals of the wilderness unfold before us.

The cool air and the long light took me back almost twenty years in time. I was a young man on my first big game hunt. We were in a blind built of hay bales on the edge of a large field. Sitting in the quiet morning light and waiting for our prey, I hoped that I would be able to harvest my first deer and make my grandfather proud. I didn’t know then what I and many other hunters now know. Bringing home several hundred pounds of tasty venison is good, but sitting in a blind and telling dirty jokes with your grandpa is better. Learning to hunt is so much more than just stalking and shooting. It is a process of acculturation where the stories, values, and goals of society are kept alive.

So what if he can’t walk fast or hear very well. Grab some .22’s and go walk a fence like you did when you were a kid. Find a good field of plowed corn and set up a goose blind the day before hunting. That way when you take the old guy out he’ll be a little more comfortable waiting in the freezing dawn. It doesn’t have to be hunting cape buffalo in Rhodesia with Selous. Maybe just an afternoon amongst the oaks, listening for the skittering call of a bushytail. The best part about taking a geezer hunting is that now you can both drink beers afterwards!

A post script to the stand story. I spent several days with my grandfather in that elevated stand last fall. We saw almost every form of wildlife in the Western Rockies except female elk. It was a great experience even though he didn’t harvest. I went back home to the dungeon of grad school and working nights in the ER. Two days after I left he was in the stand, by himself, and decided to go home. The light was fading and he hadn’t seen anything all day. He taught me to always move quietly, even if you’re giving up and going home. Doing just that he came around a bend in the trail. In the clearing that opened before him was a broadside cow elk.  It was an easy 75 yards and she had neither seen nor heard him. Using a shooting stick and a 7mag he folded up that wapiti so hard it died right where it was standing. No mess, no tracking, just an effortless ethical shot that filled his freezer and mine. Don’t let the naysayers fool ya, grandpa can still hunt.

-Richard Hammack