The BAREBOW! Chronicles: The California Boulder Buck 9-3-2013

Though he had successfully taken a young blacktail buck on Lopez Island, Dennis Dunn still sought a true Columbia blacktail trophy buck. Illustration by Hayden Lambson.

Though he had successfully taken a young blacktail buck on Lopez Island, Dennis Dunn still sought a true Columbia blacktail trophy buck. Illustration by Hayden Lambson.

After harvesting that little buck on Lopez Island back in 1986, I let 15 years slide by before getting serious about trying to take a real Columbia blacktail trophy. Actually, to tell the truth, the years just rushed by. In 1988, in between marriages, I moved up to Vancouver, British Columbia, where I spent the next 11 years exploring a whole new raft of hunting and fishing adventures in my free time. This meant that there were many new species of big game I could pursue as an archer, sans outfitter/guide, that I had never been able to hunt before.

The following year I married my present wife, Karen, who was a native of B.C., and we continued to live north of the border until we moved back to Seattle in the summer of 1999. By then, the goal of the North American Super Slam had become firmly rooted in my psyche, but I had always dreamed of arrowing a record-class blacktail buck one day. So, when I started hearing and reading rave recommendations about an outfitter in northern California who specialized in bowhunts for trophy blacktails, I decided to pick up the phone and see if I could arrange such a hunt for myself.

Arrow Five Outfitters is run by a wonderful couple named Jim and TinaMarie Schaafsma. An avid and very accomplished bowhunter himself, Jim runs one of the finest, classiest hunting operations I have ever been privileged to experience. For many years, they have leased all hunting rights to the Stewart Ranch in a part of Trinity County that lies roughly halfway between Interstate 5 and the coast. The Ranch and its deer population have been very well managed by the couple for a long time—with the result that it produces a number of big trophy bucks every fall.

When I first called Jim in late 1999, I was disappointed to learn that he had no openings for a bowhunter until November of 2001. Although he had never had an archer hunt with him so late in the season, he explained that it would probably work out pretty well, since the annual rut generally got underway around November 1. The weather would not be too hot, and I’d be the only hunter on the Ranch at that time. It all sounded awfully exciting to me. I dropped a deposit in the mail and began resigning myself to nearly two years of eager anticipation.

During that interval, however, I still had lots of hunting planned and was not about to let any moss grow under my feet. Indeed, the next 24 months yielded me a more bountiful hunter’s harvest than any other comparable time frame in my life—before or since. For those two years of effort in the field, the astonishing mixed bag I would never have believed I could end up with consisted of the following: a desert bighorn ram, a Coues whitetail buck, a mountain caribou, a bison, an Alaskan caribou, and two muskoxen. Thus it was that I arrived at the Stewart Ranch on November 1, 2001 in Zenia, California, brimming with enthusiasm and confidence. I hoped not overconfidence.

Yet Jim and TinaMarie seemed very confident I would leave the ranch with a nice buck, and after ushering me and my gear into the separate building where he lodged all his hunters in the coziest of surroundings (which included a pool table), Jim offered to take me on a drive around the Ranch that evening to show me some of the abundant wildlife. The terrain was quite hilly, steep, and broken up—a third of it open hillsides, a third in scattered oaks, and a third in mixed evergreens: lots of cover and lots of feeding areas. All in all, on that evening drive, we must have seen at least a dozen wild boar and close to twenty deer—including two or three Pope & Young bucks. The rack of one enormous forked-horn had the height and width of a Rocky Mountain mule deer. Jim said he had seen that buck before.

The first two days of hunting brought me several stalks and many fascinating moments of wildlife observation---but no actual shot opportunities that ever quite measured up to the level of the odds I felt I wanted in my favor. Illustration by Dallen Lambson.

The first two days of hunting brought me several stalks and many fascinating moments of wildlife observation—but no actual shot opportunities that ever quite measured up to the level of the odds I felt I wanted in my favor. Illustration by Dallen Lambson.

The first two days of hunting brought me several stalks and many fascinating moments of wildlife observation—but no actual shot opportunities that ever quite measured up to the level of the odds I felt I wanted in my favor. On the third morning, I spent about three hours in a ground blind Jim had built for me on top of a rock outcropping that sat astride a semi-open ridge. Just below my blind lay one of the many dirt roads on the Ranch, and just across the road from me was a grove of big oak trees where Jim had spotted a large, trophy-quality buck feeding more than once during the week preceding my arrival. I asked him, with a twinkle in my eye, if he would call this buck a real “jim-dandy.”

“Well, he’s a dandy, for sure,” Jim replied with a smile, but let’s see if we can’t find a way to put your name on him, instead of mine.”

Aside from allowing me sightings (several hundred yards up the ridge above me) of several does and a small two-point that fed into view for a while, my morning stand never really tapped into the resources of my adrenal gland. About 10 a.m., Jim came by to pick me up in his truck, so we could explore some other parts of the ranch. The big buck we’d been hoping to see had not shown himself.

Once Jim had me and my gear on board, he turned the pickup off the ridge, and we began descending a steep, winding path toward the canyon bottom below. Part of the way down, we came around a corner and found ourselves looking at a very symmetrical three-point (plus brow tines) that was feeding on a rather open bench 100 yards off to our right. The buck, if he could hear our truck, was paying no attention to it. It occurred to me that all the deer on the large private property must get pretty used to seeing and hearing the vehicular traffic that travels the network of roads servicing the Ranch.

With the engine running, we studied the buck’s antlers for a minute as he moved into the shade of half-a-dozen oak trees. “Does that look like a buck you’d like to put your name on?” came Jim’s query, finally.

“I believe so,” I answered. “He looks to me as if he would score well above the Pope & Young minimum of 90. Do you agree?”

“For sure,” Jim replied. “Probably around 110, I’m thinking.”

“In that case, why don’t I see if I can’t convert that buck from a Jim-dandy to a Dennis-dandy.” As soon as the silly pun escaped my lips, I found myself wondering if Jim’s chuckle was out of mere politeness, or whether he was genuinely amused by it. Actually, I wasn’t sure what I thought of the pun, myself, but I did know that this was a buck I really wanted. The plan we hatched on the spot was for Jim to keep driving down the road we were on, as it angled obliquely toward the feeding animal, and then slow to a crawl with the motor still going—while I quietly slipped out of the cab behind a very large boulder that would be directly between me and my quarry.

The strategy got off to a great start, as I succeeded in exiting the moving vehicle without alarming the buck. Continuing on down the hill, Jim soon had driven out of sight and sound, leaving the buck and I alone in the total stillness of the late-autumn morning. The boulder was shaped much like a cube, approximately seven feet on a side, and it lay much closer to the buck than it did to his predator—standing there on the edge of the road. Apart from the huge rock, perhaps 40 yards were all that separated me from the trophy buck I longed so much to outsmart.

I knew it would not be easy, however, because the bench he was feeding on was about 20 feet above me in elevation, and my path to the boulder was all upward across a thick layer of very dry oak leaves and broken acorn shells. To make my challenge even hairier, I discovered that a layer of small, loose stones lay underneath the dead leaves! While the truck had still been making road and engine noise during its departure, I had managed to cover about 10 yards of ground quickly without giving myself away. It was the next 10 yards that would tell the story. The complete silence fell on top of me now like a suffocating blanket. I was literally afraid to move. I could see no physical part of the buck, but I could hear him munching out of sight, not far away.

For perhaps five minutes, I stood there motionless, hoping he would feed into view. Yet no such luck. I soon decided it was going to be up to me to make something happen, and the ever-so-painful ascent began—one petite half-step at a time. Because the footing was so tricky and so potentially-noisy, I’m sure there were instances where I took all of 30 seconds just to commit my full body weight to the next, upward step location. I have no doubt It took me 15 minutes, or more, to cover those final 10 yards to the brow of the bench where the ground leveled out. As I took the final, big step upward over some loose, jumbled rocks (a bigger step than I wanted, though I had had no choice), my move generated an utterly unacceptable, crunching sound. It wasn’t much of a noise, really, but I felt virtually certain my presence was now known to my quarry.

Not surprisingly, of course, I had placed an arrow on the string as soon as I got out of the pickup, so I was ready for the proverbial moment of truth to occur at any second. As soon as that last step brought me up onto the flat, I saw the buck emerge from behind the boulder, stopping about 18 yards from me (paced off later), with his head behind an oak-trunk. Both antlers were visible, but his eyes—fortunately—were hidden. If he didn’t move, he would be unable to see me draw. His hind end was also blocked from my view by a second oak, and a third trunk covered most of his front shoulder. His head appeared to be oriented facing directly toward me, so I knew it was “now or never.” All I had to do was aim my arrowshaft at the rib cage that was exposed between the trees and “thread the needle,” as the phrase goes.

The shot was perfect, and a complete “pass-through,” as we bowhunters like to say. My buck took off on a dead run for the timber, some 80 yards away, but he died on his feet just before he could reach it. From my position, I didn’t see him go down, yet I knew it would be only a matter of seconds. A few minutes later, I heard Jim’s truck coming back up the hill. When he arrived, he told me he’d had me in his binoculars when I released the arrow, and had actually seen the buck go running off. We recovered him in no time at all, and Jim stuck out his hand in hearty congratulations.

With the handsome buck lying there in the leaves at our feet, I admired the nearly perfect symmetry of his rack and realized there would be very few deductions on the Pope & Young score sheet. His final, official score was 113, and—though not the biggest buck I have taken in 40-plus years of bowhunting—I consider him to be one of the most beautiful. As we drove back to the ranch house that early afternoon to dress out the meat, the temptation proved more than I could resist.

I said to my guide, with great pleasure and satisfaction in my voice, “I really do think he’s a jim-dandy buck! Don’t you think so, too, Jim?”

“No,” came the reply. “Not any more! I think you’ve gone and put your name on him for good!”

The final Pope & Young score of Dunn's California boulder buck was 113. Image courtesy Dennis Dunn.

The final Pope & Young score of Dunn’s California boulder buck was 113. Image courtesy Dennis Dunn.

Editor’s note: This article is the fifth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from expert hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks–join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site hereRead the fourth Chronicle here.

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