THE SASKATCHEWAN WHITETAIL HUNT

THE HUNT THAT NEARLY KILLED ME

saskatchewan1Is that time a year to feed my obsession for whitetail. Here I am back on the target putting 30 to 40 arrows a day. Bow hunting is a discipline and you better take it seriously, you can’t never practice too much.

This year’s hunt is going to be a special one, something I have never done before and something I might never do again. I committed to a hunt that somewhat went against my ideals but I had good reasons to do it. No regrets, just my usual questioning and wondering of what is right and what is wrong. It didn’t matter at this point, I was going and I was pretty excited about it.

It all started when Rod Zullo moved next door from my photo studio.  Rod is a sculptor and does bronzes of wildlife, mostly related to hunting and fishing. Is not the art I am usually drawn to, as I prefer less realistic, more conceptual art but Rod’s pieces are pretty magic.  His work is realistic with an abstract stroke and his sensibility for the animal form and movement is absolute perfection.

Rod Zullo Working on his most recent elk.

I kept seeing him work through his glass door and then one day, curious about his sculptures, but also about his whitetail trophies hanging on the walls, I walked in to say hi.  “That’s a beautiful sculpture and by the way, where did you get that buck?”.  I just threw it out there to see if I could get some info out of the guy.  On the scale 1 to 10, in regards to hunting intensity, knowledge and passion, Rod is a 12.  But he is not shy about sharing his wealth of knowledge. “Canada” he told me. Before I met Rod, I believed I knew quite a bit about hunting but now, after talking with him in the years that came and went, I realize I have a lot to learn.

Rod became the guy to go to when I have hunting questions but even better he has become my hero when it comes to cooking game.  I have learned to cook and eat parts of the animal that usually get tossed or turned into burger like ribs, flank or just simply the fat.  Well cooked elk ribs are to die for and fat is not gamey like people kept telling me.  It’s flavor.  I learned to make a deer roast, so good, “that will make her take her clothes off”, as Rod likes to put it.  “You must pluck your birds” Rod kept telling me.  I always just skinned them.  The difference between eating a plucked bird or a skinned bird is like the difference between a juicy piece of meat and piece of cardboard.

Then this fall, after we had talked about hunting and eating game for a few years he told me that there was a space to fill in the Saskatchewan hunt, and that I could possibly work out some kind of trade with the outfitter Rod works with.  We figured out a deal and next thing I knew, I was packing my bags.

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I loaded up my truck and started my 12 hour drive.  I have mixed feeling about hunting with an outfitter.  How can you truly feel like an accomplished hunter when you have someone else make all the decisions for you?  You are only as good as your outfitter is and your only responsibility is to trust them, have the patience to sit on a tree stand from sunrise to sunset, stay warm and have the skill to shoot straight.  Nothing more, nothing less.  One of the hunters was bragging about being a better hunter than others, I am not sure why and how he came up with that idea.  The outfitter is doing the hunting for you, how can you call yourself a hot shot if you kill a big buck under the guidance of someone else?

Before agreeing to a guided hunt, I researched if I could do it alone, it was a no go.  Only guided for non residents says the Queen.  Another moral issue I had, is that in Saskatchewan they are allowed to bait deer and that’s what we would be doing.  Bucks during the rut don’t eat but does do and that’s what you are trying to attract with the bait.  Girls, girls, girls, the more the better.  Isn’t it always about them for them all boys?  People don’t use the word horny for no reason.  The horny, big horned buck will follow.

I agreed to hunt for the horny buck, even though there is something that doesn’t feel quite right about changing the course of nature with some bait and having someone choose where and how you hunt.  But I really wanted to experience it anyways and decide later if it was for me.  Mostly I wanted to see one of those beautiful, wild Canadian whitetails that are genetically so perfect.  Every place I stopped in Saskatchewan had huge bucks hanging on the walls.  Beautiful trophies I salivated over.  I was already thinking where my monster buck would go at my house, the perfect place.  But what I didn’t know, is how wrong I was in my expectations and how mentally hard and painful it was going to be and that the hunt was nearly going to kill me, not physically but in my head.

DAY 1

The guide dropped me off at my tree stand after driving an ATV through the thickest forest I have ever seen.  The sun still below the horizon, willow branches slapping us on the face, riding on a trail I couldn’t really see.  “Watch your eyes” he said as he pressed on the throttle.  “Slap, slap, slap.” willow branches whipping me on the face.  After he dropped me off, he whispered to me one last time.  “I will pick you up at dark, don’t get off the stand and walk as you will get lost, trust me.  If that big black bear comes to the stand and tries to climb it kick him on the face”  He spat some chew at my feet, by my scent free rubber boots, and was gone. The path he came from vanished.

The only time I have been charged by a bear was a black bear and I wondered if I should have been concerned.  These woods are so quiet you could hear yourself breathe.  Chipmunks sound like heavy footed animals and every time they moved I believed the big buck was coming in.  Or was it the bear? Sunrise to sunset, could I really do it? Not that I had any other choice.  I was there and I was there to stay if I liked it or not.  No you can’t move and if you do, you better do it slowly.

Rod told me “Is not as hard as you expect, there will be so many deer that time will go by faster than you think”  Three hours went by and all I saw was that chipmunk.  No bear, no deer.  The action must happen all at once.  Deer pouring out of the woods, I started imagining.  Nothing.  I was counting the hours and then the minutes.  Three more hours went by, nothing again.  My ass telling me it didn’t like it.  I tried to sit differently, it hurt more.  I wished I didn’t have such a bony ass.  More time went by, I know exactly how much.  1 hour, 24 minutes and 45 seconds, I started counting the seconds.  Now my ass was so sore that I didn’t even know it was there.  No deer.

Right before dark a doe and a fawn came out.  So wary and alert that I couldn’t even blink. “Oh, they are staring at me”.  No blinking, remember?  I had never seen deer so jumpy.  How could I even think about shooting a buck with a bow?

DAY 2

Day two was the day not to forget. As soon as the guide dropped me off two does with fawns moved in.  I wondered if the horny buck would be interested in single mothers.  These two does rotated throughout the day and were as tense as a piano string.  They totally knew I was there or maybe they just smelled human scent in the bait.  I didn’t want to blow them so I stayed still, wondering, if a buck came in, how I could possibly grab my bow, get up, draw, aim and shoot without being detected.  I can see why people don’t bow hunt around here.  Was I really sticking out like a sore thumb?  Chipmunks making havoc nearby, distracting the does for seconds.  I needed that distraction.  I needed to blink.

“If a doe runs away in a hurry, get ready, the buck is coming.”  One of the hunters told me.  Still no buck.  Then an hour before dark it all happened.  My first buck.  A spike and behind him a small 4×4 with a thick rutted neck.  The two started butting heads.  What was the spike thinking?  He was totally under gunned.  One of the does and fawn came in and started feeding. Then they bolted.  I was filming the little bucks when sure enough a nice, mature 5×5 came in after the single mother.

I timed my movements as he moved through the trees.  My heart exploding in my chest.  Put away camera, pause…  Get up, pause…  Grab the bow, pause…  Engage the release, pause…  Breathe deep, pause. He walked right underneath the stand, I was ready but I was unsure.  Rod at my house pointed at the biggest whitetail I ever shot and said  “You see Paolo, this is not what you shoot in Saskatchewan, you wait for the right one.”  Was he the right one?  It was last light and hard to clearly see. This was my first mature Canadian buck and their bodies are 100 pounds bigger than our Montana deer.  Is he as big as any buck I could shoot in Montana?  I just couldn’t tell.  Will I disappoint everyone if I let that arrow fly?  He was about to go through the last shooting lane, I drew my bow and got ready to shoot.

DAY 3

I never let that arrow fly, I just didn’t know if that was the buck I should have taken.  Later, talking with the guide and describing the deer in detail, including how far its antlers stuck out outside of its ears, the approximate length of his g1, g2, g3, we came to the conclusion that the buck was at least a 150 inch deer.  Not a monster, for these neck of the woods, but plenty of deer for me. I had just passed on the buck I wanted.  Inexperienced with Canadian deer, and the fact that their bodies are so big that it morphs their antlers, I made the wrong decision.

I was now sitting on day 3, hoping that the buck would come back.  This made me think of why and how I became a trophy hunter.  Just the word “trophy hunter” makes me cringe.  I would like to say that I just hunt for meat but it would be a flat out lie.  I kill animals because I am a meat eater and I do believe that if you eat meat you should be able to kill, field dress and butcher what you eat.  But if that was the only truth, I would grab a rifle, drive a few minutes out of my home town and shoot a doe in probably a day.  But instead, I have enough of a fascination for antlers, to drive 12 hours and sit days on end for that perfect buck.  It’s the honest truth and I am ashamed to admit it.

I tried to understand why so many of us hunters have this desire to kill a trophy and I have one theory.  For me it’s a very instinctual need, so instinctual that it’s difficult to fully grasp.  I believe that for our ancestors, killing a big male animal, meant bringing back more meat, which translated into survival.  We have become so detached to this basic need, to kill to survive, that we forgot the number one reason why we kill.

I asked Rob why he likes to shoot a trophy.  Being a sculptor he likes to hold the antlers in his hands.  I can relate.  I love the way they look, not necessarily to touch them but to admire them.  Every trophy hanging in my house is a memory and I stare at them daily, I can never get tired of it.

Another friend told me he likes the challenge of killing an old, smart animal.  I agree wth that as well.  You could hit a bull spike elk in the head with a rock, there would be no challenge in hunting a spike.  Enough talking about why we hunt for trophies, for now, let’s go back to day 3.

I am still sitting here and haven’t seen a damn thing. Right before dark the same doe with two fawns showed up and finally at dark plus I heard the sound of the ATV to pick me up. My ass ready to get the hell down. Even though it was not particularly cold, I was chilled to the bone.  Tomorrow was going to be a new day but I couldn’t say I was particularly thrilled to spend another day staring at those woods.

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saskatchewanwhitetail5DAY 4

I started questioning my chance of success with a bow.  Unusually warm conditions made the hunting extremely tough.  The deer had no reason to move to find food.  Out of five hunters, four of them with rifles, none had filled a tag.  Two of them had left.  Rob Dunham back at the lodge was saying how any buck with a bow is a trophy.  It just wasn’t looking promising.  I had brought my Ruger 270 and it was sitting in my truck ready for desperate needs. I debated bringing both rifle and bow but that seemed lame and confusing.

Mama does and respective fawns showed up once at different times that day but other than that complete nothingness.  My friend chipmunk became the most welcome entertainment.  I swear, I envied his climbing up and down the tree and screaming to the top of his lungs. I wanted to climb up and down and scream to the top of my lungs.  The little thing was busy, stashing, eating and being a reckless squirrel.  I wanted to be busy, I tried to write but my brain was mush.  I kept reminding myself Rod’s words “He who sits the longest, wins.”  And I sat and sat.  At that point my bony ass didn’t even hurt anymore.  It must have built a callus.  Tree stand callus ass.

I waited for that big owl, that occasionally flew through a narrow slot in the trees and would nearly miss me by a few feet.  It would look me in the eyes as it aimed for my tree and swerve last second.  One time it had a large white rabbit in it’s beak.  It was so cool.  I love these moments, these moments that make hunting so special and the reason why I hunt but these moments only last seconds. I listened to the sound of birds that I never heard before.  On my rides back I would try to replicate these sounds to Dan, my guide, to see if he knew what birds they were but the replica came out so wrong that he looked at me with a blank face of concern.  He probably wondered if this Italian was about to go nuts.  “UAHW! UAHW! UAHW!”  I would sing to him.  I would have never made it as a singer.

The sun was finally setting, another day was almost over.  “Are you having fun?” I asked myself.  As I climbed the tree to get off the damn stand I replied to myself “Fuck no!”

Back at the lodge I found out that one of the hunters had shot the monster.  The only one of five of us who had success.  A 180 inch symmetrical buck, a real beauty and the buck of a lifetime.  The hunter was bouncing around like a two year old, bragging about what a hot shot he was.  I just sat quietly wondering how an adult could act so immaturely, without any camaraderie towards the other unsuccessful hunters.  Fortunately Rod told him to “shut up” or I might have killed the guy.

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DAY 5.

Day 5 hit me hard. They put me on a new tree stand and I saw absolutely nothing all day, not even a chipmunk.  I started questioning my life.  I chose to follow my passions and live a life of adventure, figuring out ways to make it happen, but hasn’t always been easy.

Seven years ago, when I decided to spend my winters in Mexico, my girlfriend of the time, a beautiful woman in all aspects, sat me down to give me a little talk.  She told me that it had been 3 exciting years, she had learned many things, especially to live with passion but I had to decide between her or Mexico.  She wanted to be part of a community and in my “selfish pursuit of adventure” as she put it, it would never happen.  I think she was really trying to tell me that she wanted to settle down.  I chose Mexico, not because I didn’t love her but because she was looking for a different man.  She started dating someone else and 2 years later she died in a car wreck.  She was 33.

At her memorial you couldn’t find a place to park for several blocks around the venue.  In only two year she had made all those friends and became part of the community.  I think about her all the time, she was too beautiful and too young to go.  If she and I were still together she would still be alive but she wouldn’t have made all those friends.  You don’t make friends sitting on a tree stand days on end, 12 hours away from home.  You don’t become part of a community by disappearing in Mexico for months.  Many of my adventures have become solo pursuits.  It’s a way of life I have chosen and love, but that doesn’t come without paying a price.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one feeling sorry for myself. Rod only a mile away from me as the crow flies, was feeling SAD. He said that, inside the blind, not seeing sunlight for days gave him Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). He was desperately trying to catch some light by sticking his head outside of one of the openings. I pictured that big buck, about to come in, seeing his big head sticking outside of the blind.

Rod hadn’t seen a thing for days.  He had even brought some nuts to feed his local chipmunk and not even the chipmunk showed up anymore.  “I would have been trilled to see a crow” he said one day.  I truly believe he was feeling N.D.I.S.F.D.S. No Deer In Sight For Days Syndrome and feeling SAD.

Tomorrow was going to be our last day.

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 My dear friends

DAY 6.

I was back in my original tree stand, happy to see on the last day my chipmunk friend and my does and fawns that by now had become accustomed to me.  I started talking to them, making little sounds to have conversations that made no sense to anyone.  They would stare at me wondering if I was ok.  I could see the fur spot on the little guys heads where the antler would grow.  They were young bucks and was thinking that one day I could be pulling the bow on them.  My cute friends.

I had pretty much given up all hope on filling my tag.  I set up a camera on one of the branches and was taking selfies, trying to look as handsome as possible, hoping to rake in a few more likes on Instagram, like the hot blond huntress do.  But blond and bold is a different story.  I was leaning back on my stand, giving the camera a James Dean look when on the corner of my eye I saw it.  He was right there.  Not more than 20 yards away, right below the stand, the big buck.  I was paralyzed.

He was standing behind some thick bushes and I could see his massive body and part of his rack.  He was on the opposite side of where I had expected any buck to come and moving behind my stand.  Fortunately I had cleared two shooting lanes there. A 20 yard easy shot and a 30 yard, not ideal shot, with just a two foot window.  I had to get up, grab the bow, turn, engage release, draw and shoot and I only had three trees on his path to cover my moves.  He was wary to say the least.  He sat there scanning his surroundings forever.  He sensed something wasn’t quite right.  Then he started moving and walked behind the first tree.  I got up and grabbed the bow.  He froze, I froze.  He lifted his nose smelling the air, I was sure I was busted.  After an eternity he moved again, at the next tree I turned, engaged the release and lifted my bow.  He froze again smelling the air even more intensely.  I knew that was it.  If I wasn’t trying to look like the hot blond I might have been more ready.  My arm was cramping but couldn’t move. He just sat there with his nose high in the air taking deep breaths “please stop sniffing and move 10 more yards…”

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I could see Tobi’s ashes on the broadhead catching the light. Taking him hunting with me has become a tradition.  Every arrow in my quiver is dipped in Tobi’s ashes and I have a shotgun shell filled with his remains for when I go bird hunting.  Gives me comfort, as it makes me feel like he is still around.  The buck started moving again towards the 30 yard opening.  Now I could hear my heart pounding.  I had to draw, while watching his vitals, to stop him right in the 2 foot opening.  Not a foot behind, not a foot in front.  That arrow then had to fly right in the middle of the opening without touching any branches.  The buck kept walking “Breathe Paolo” and then his head moved behind the tree and I drew.  Two more steps and “WUEEHHH”, that’s the weird sound I make to stop animals.  Initially it was a cow elk call then over the years it morphed into a cow, frog, duck DJ mix that never fails.  He stopped perfectly in the zone, quartering away and looking my way.  This is when you feel time STOP and all you are aware of, is your heart in your chest thumping.

I had to put that arrow on his second back rib to get a double lung shot.  I talked myself through the motion “BREATHE, AIM, RELAX HAND, HOLD YOUR BREATH, DON’T FUCK UP, BACK TENSION” and the arrow with Tobi’s ashes flew once again. I watched it hit where I had put it and then that damn feeling of sadness that always hits me when an arrow flies.  Poor thing is the only thing I can think of.  He disappeared in the woods.

I txted Dan “I GOT HIM!” “I’ll be there in 40, don’t move”. he replied “Make it 60, I want to make sure he is down, I think is a good shot but don’t want to push it”. And then that miserable hour waiting on the tree stand to make sure the deer is dead. Trying to replay the shot and starting to question everything you did. “Was he really quartering away that much?” “Was the shot maybe a little too far back?” “Why didn’t I see it go down?” and you screw with your brain until you are sick.  Finally the sound of the ATV, he was twenty minutes late so I had already started tracking.  Only tiny specks of blood, I had only covered 25 yards in 20 minutes.  Now I was really sick.

I had my nose in the grass, trying to find the tiniest specks of blood as I moved one inch at time, when Dan walked up to me with Argo.  He paused for a second, spit some chew on the side and pointed fifteen yards from me.  “He is right there” looking at me like saying  “what the heck are you doing with your big nose in the grass, just look up…”.  Tobi did the tracking for me for years, I never said I was good at it.

When I walked up to the buck, I realized I had shot the wrong deer.  He was not the 5×5 I had passed on, this was a smaller buck I had never seen before.  I was looking at Dan’s unimpressed faced with my deer and felt a little embarrassed.  I didn’t shoot the trophy I had driven 12 hours to get and sat for days on end, I had shot a buck I could have taken in Montana.  Then I was disappointed, embarrassed and ridiculously stupid about it.  Now I giggle at the fact that it did happen, I look at that special spot in my house I had dedicated for the monster Saskatchewan deer that sits empty.

Previously I had talked about my theory of why hunters want a big trophy and how for our ancestors a big trophy translated to more meat and survival.  This buck had a massive body.  Dan, a pretty burly Canadian and I, as burly as Italians gets (we don’t have the Saskatchewan genes) could barely lift the deer into the ATV.  I had the meat for survival but I was still disappointed, I wanted the antlers.  I had initially spotted this deer through the bushes, I could see his massive body and part of his antlers and presumed he was the big buck I really wanted.  Once I went into “kill mode” I never looked at the antlers again, even though I had plenty of time to see them.  I was too focused on what needed to be done, kill and do it right.

The arrow with Tobi’s ashes went through both lungs, the shot was absolutely perfect just like the elk. “Thank you again Tobi”. My unimpressive Sasktchewan buck will be hanging with the rest of my trophies and will be a beautiful memory of a great and painful hunt.  Now I have something to look forward to, go back to Canada next year and get the real monster.

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THE GREAT HUNT

 

The Marquee Lodovico Antinori posing with one of his trophies

 

MEET LODOVICO

Last year Lodovico contacted me through Instagram and said “I stopped by your house to say hi.” He had been reading my stories on Instagram and occasionally commenting in perfect English.  I have terrible memory and was scratching my head trying to figure out how I knew this guy.  I googled “Lodovico Antinori.”

Turns out Lodovico is the Marquis Lodovico Antinori.  Any wine connoisseur would have immediately recognized his name.  His family, has been one of the biggest and most renowned wine producers in Italy for over 400 years.  Obviously I didn’t know the guy and he was just an instagram follower.  Unlike me, Lodovico is celebrity.  How and why the Marquis was at my house in Bozeman, Montana?  A little surprised I replied “How did you find my house?”  Turns out Lodovico is a curious person, with connections around the world, including Bozeman Montana, and sure enough we have mutual friends.  He replied “I would like to meet you, I would have always loved to live your lifestyle.  I also would like to invite you and Argo to bird hunt a property I have access to near Bozeman.”  He came to my house and I expected to meet a stuffy, aristocratic man but instead Lodovico is a humble and passionate man who loves to hunt and the wild west the way I do.  We have a lot in common.  Including tattoos on our forearms, which is somewhat rebellious for an Italian of his generations and social class.  We both traveled in remote Baja.  However he did it in the 70s, as he says “With a Californian young lady in the show business” and later with a girlfriend.  I am sure they were both hot, because I saw pictures of Lodovico as a young stallion and I am sure he had the pick.  Lodovico loves adventure the way I do, immediately I was drawn to this man.  He inspected my trophies and I quickly realized I was talking with an expert.  In fact, he has hunted around the world.  However, what I didn’t know at the time, is how good this property really was, not for birds but for elk and that a year later, Lodovico would let me experience it all for myself.  If all my writing did anything good to me this was going to be by far the highlight.

THE PROPERTY

Lodovico and the property owner have worked together for the past 18 years to protect and manage this land specifically for elk.  A little paradise in beauty and a place where elk feel protected and thrive and come back year after year.  Every season, only one unlucky elk gets a bullet, sent by the Marquis.  Lodovico tells me, the old bull is the trophy, is not the big rack you should seek.  Let the big, strong, young bull breed and spread the good genes.  This is the European game management philosophy that ensures hunters don’t screw up natural selection.

The property is a place every hunter would dream to hunt but there is only one catch, it’s only 2000 acres.  Plenty of acres for you and I but in elk terms is very small.  About 3 miles by 3 miles.  It takes an elk about three hops to make it past the fence line and outside of your reach.  It’s truly a jewel but a delicate one.  If you stomp in it too hard you can say goodbye to all the elk.  Lodovico, with incredible kindness, offered me one week to hunt this delicate place.  A very generous offer and a great responsibility for me.  I couldn’t just go in there and mess it up for me or him.  We all know that bowhunting can be very intrusive if done incorrectly.  I see bowhunters chase elk away all the time by hunting them too aggressively.  Too much calling, too much walking, too much of everything and they wonder why the elk run.  In 18 years I was going to be the first bowhunter to hunt the property and I had all these plans but the most important one was not to mess up this little paradise and scare all the elk away.  Three miles, three hops and there they go across the fence.

HUNTING WITH ARGO OR NOT?

I had this once in a lifetime opportunity to hunt the most perfect property I could hope for. My friend Rod Zullo, who is the most knowledgeable Montana hunter I know, once told me “Do you realize Paolo, that this is the best elk hunting you’ll find in Montana?”

Now I have this incredible opportunity and the big question is. “What do I do with Argo?” When you are hunting public land you have millions of acres to hunt and you end up spending most of your time walking. If you screw up an elk you find another elk in another million of acres. Here, there was no room for error, and Argo is still a young dog, jacked up with energy. A very good young dog but a young, inexperienced dog, nonetheless. Two years ago, when he was a pup and learning from Tobi to bow hunt, he barked at a bull that was coming into my call. I don’t blame him, it can be pretty freaking scary and intense. They are beasts. Last year, he made a couple of mistakes that might have caused me an elk. Including barking. Then, the elk I finally shot, we found a grizzly on top of it and it sure made an impression on him. Will he associate being after elk with grizzlies? Will he associate noise with predators or something to bark at? Will he move or run if a bull comes in? When you bow hunt with a dog you need to rely on the fact that the dog will do the right thing when you are in the middle of the action. You need to trust your dog.

I watched elk sniff Tobi while he stood there immobile. When an elk is at bow range, right before you draw, you are not moving an inch of you body so that the elk doesn’t detect you and you can’t tell your dog to “STAY”. You dog has to be steady and solid without you saying a word. You rely on him to be by your side and not fuck things up. You dog has to be perfectly trained but also has to have judgment and the same desire that you have to get the elk. Now the big question “Do I risk the opportunity of getting an elk and go for another elkless year or do I leave Argo at camp?”

BRINGING ARGO

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After leaving Argo at camp, for my first morning hunt, and feeling miserable about it I decided that my relationship with my dogs is more important than getting an elk. Argo will come and if I don’t get an elk for another year, because he messed up, than be it.  One day he might learn and one day I might get an elk.  If not, than I will stop elk hunting for good.  I spend too much time in the woods chasing them and I will not leave my dog behind.

One of the biggest issues that I have with Argo when bow hunting is that he is loud. He walks loudly, he breathes loudly, he even farts loudly.  On top of that he has a strange grass allergy that makes him clear his throat, often, repeatedly.  I am concerned about this problem as I have watched a cow elk, we had at 30 yards, perk up her ears and watch our direction after Argo did some loud mouth work. I started letting him know that is not ok to make any noise and have been giving him Benadryl for the allergy.  It helps and he seems to be aware now that clearing his throat is not ok. Hopefully he’ll learn not to fart as well, that’s disgusting. I started giving him the “STAY” command to keep him at a distance when needed. I can raise my hand and he will stay in place until I come back, even if it’s an hour later.

This would have been impossible with Tobi. He had to be right by me when I made a kill. He and I would crawl together and he would walk low like a panther and not make a sound. He was perfect at it but nonetheless he was there and not always what I wanted. Being able to make Argo “STAY” is a great asset if I need to quietly sneak up on an elk. I am starting to feel more confident about having him with me.  I have noticed in previous posts that I am still saying my dogs.  I was going to correct it and then realized that it will always be my dogs.  Tobi will always be by my side when I sneak up on an elk._dsc2309

MY DAYS HUNTING WITH TOBI

Tobi started doing what people thought impossible. Hunting at my side when bow hunting. He was a bird dog, but the smell of elk turned him into a different animal. His intensity, focus and skills for hunting elk, came out of deep inside him, it was in his blood.  He was not there to go on a stroll, he was there to kill.  He knew we worked together, that I was the one shooting the arrow and his focus was on me and the elk and he made sure we made it happen.  He followed my moves for every step I made, we worked in synchronicity.  A grouse could walk in front of his nose and he wouldn’t budge. Elk is what he wanted and not just an elk, a dead elk.  We have been smack in the middle of herds of elk and managed to be invisible.  In all the years that I hunted him, not once he made a mistake that made me lose an opportunity.  He moved like a four legged predator and acted like a human.  He showed me the boredom of slow days and the excitement when there was action.  When I bugled, trying to locate an elk, his forehead would wrinkle up in hope of an answer.  When the answer came, it was game on.

When he tracked the Sun Salutation Bull in this picture; named after the 100 sun salutations I did the day before I shot it, in my camo, just to be with the hippy girlfriend I was crazy about; he sat next to it and started frantically barking in excitement. There was nothing in this world that made him more excited than tracking an elk I shot. You could not lose a mortally wounded animal with Tobi.  He would track it down, miles from where you shot it.  Tobi did what people thought was impossible and now I am expecting Argo to do the same.  Argo is a bird dog and he wants to run looking for birds.  Am I asking too much of this young, energetic pup who loves bird? Can I train a dog to do the impossible?

TRAINING ARGO, TRACKING AND STAY

Probably the only hunting advantage of hunting with a dog is the tracking.  I had to track a few animals and I don’t have the patience for it. It sure is easier to put your dog on the leash and say “TRACK IT” and let him do the work.  Unfortunately I haven’t had access to elk or deer blood and I have been training Argo on elk hoofs I get from game processors.  Yes, I am that weird guy who digs in the trash behind the building and pulls out elk hoofs. They probably wonder if I make Italian elk hoof stew.

For the training I always use the same red rope that comes with me in my hunting pack.  I put on my rubber boots so he can’t follow my scent, I tell Argo to stay, unleashed, so he gets used to the “STAY” command and I drag the elk hoof around where he can’t see me.  If he has moved when I come back we don’t do the tracking and we start all over again.  But he never moves, he is a good boy.  All the training work I do for elk is done with hand signals, no spoken commands, no collar and no leash, expect the tracking rope so he associates the rope with fun and the reward at the end.  Yes, I let him chew the hoof once he finds it.  With this training exercise he learns to track and to stay. Now let’s see how we make the “STAY” command a little harder to follow.

TRAINING ARGO TO THE “STAY” COMMAND.

I have trained Argo to stay, when I raise my hand, no matter how excited he is, without saying a word.  One of the things he loves the most is to wrestle me. Oh, he loves it.  The harder the better. Just like wrestling a big dog that can challenge him.  The bigger, the harder they fall, he learned. The other day he took down a 100 pound mastiff.  Playfully, but hard, several times until he put it to submission.  He was satisfied and the owner of the mastiff embarrassed that his manly dog was dominated by a skinny, long legged dog.  But he doesn’t know Argo, he is a little monster.  The exercise on this video is to teach Argo to stay at my command and control himself no matter how excited he is.  Now is time to test him on the field with steadiness on big game.

TRAINING ARGO TO BE “STEADY” ON DEER

Many people ask me “Aren’t elk afraid of your dog?” In truth big game don’t seem to ever have been afraid of my dogs unless, of course, my dogs chase them.  Furthermore, if your dog is perfectly still, behind you, they won’t even detect it.  “Don’t they smell your dog?” then they ask. In truth, you have to hunt with the right wind, if not, I can assure you, they will smell your stinky butt before they smell your dog.  Since I harvested two deer last year and started feeding Argo raw deer for a 1/3 of his diet he has become crazy for them, he loves eating deer and is always looking for them.  He will sniff them before we even see them.  He has been know to chase them when he is not under my tight supervision.  When he runs wild in front of me in the woods, that’s what he is looking for.  Deer. If I am not within sight, I will hear a quick, high pitched “YEP! YEP! YEP!” which means, he has found one.  He goes for a quick, wild chase but he is very aware he is not supposed to.  Normally the chase goes 50-100 yards and then he comes back as if nothing happened.  “Who me? Chasing deer? You must be mistaking me for someone else”  However, if I am right by him he is as steady as you can be.  He likes to follow the rules, he is a good boy.  I train his steadiness on deer all the time because I know how strong his desire to chase them is.  Now, deer is just a smaller version of elk right? Would he act the same if we are in front of a screaming bull coming at us to kick our asses? Now is time to find out, let’s go hunt.

LET THE HUNT BEGIN

After training Argo for two years, he is now ready. In truth, I didn’t do the most important part of the training, teaching him to follow my moves. Tobi trained him, just like he trained him to hunt birds. At 4 months, Argo came hunting with Tobi and me, and watched the old master at work. He started following at my feet, just like Tobi did.  After Argo learned to hunt elk and birds, Tobi never hunted again, he self retired from hunting. I swear, he pushed himself to his last big energy until Argo learned, it was his last present to us.

On book Argo is working perfectly, following my moves, and as we hunt, I have to trust he will do the right thing. If the bull shows up, I will not be able to speak or give him any commands. Argo will be on his own and it will be up to him to make the right decisions. If he moves, barks or make noise and the bull runs we need to start all over. Or maybe forget elk hunting altogether, I think I would be ok with it. Our first day we have been mostly walking and glassing, trying to figure out what is going on in our little paradise. In my 3 mile by 3 mile hunting grounds there is one major group of elk run by a huge, old, herd bull.  Several satellite bulls, on the outside, circling, trying to get some action. Getting close to these elk would be a risk, with easily hundred of eyes.  If we blow it, I will push them all out, past the property line.

I decided to play it safe and look for isolated bulls, outside of this herd. We need to move lightly, be invisible, we can’t put any pressure on these animals. For 18 years Lodovico has managed this property making sure the elk feel safe so they come back year after year. I certainly don’t want to screw that up for him. If an elk comes, it has to happen naturally, without me forcing it. My first priority is to not disturb this heaven, my next priority is to enjoy its natural beauty, then spend time with my dog, at last, try to get an elk. Don’t get me wrong, I want an elk really bad but it should never be the first priority.

BRINGING TOBI

When I picked up Tobi’s ashes at the vet and opened the box I couldn’t help but falling apart. That’s my Tobi in a box, dust and small chunks of bones. Why do we torture ourselves like this?  Isn’t it better to bury your loved ones and move on?  This was going to be my first hunting season without Tobi.  I don’t consider myself particularly spiritual but it felt good to get his ashes on that broadhead.  I am now glad to have them, knowing that Tobi will be there in our hunts, maybe not the way he would like to be but there nonetheless.  If there is even a small part of him alive, if it’s just in spirit, I know that arrow will fly straight and Tobi will get the ride of his lifetime.  Or maybe I should say, afterlife time.  After putting the arrows back in my quiver Argo smelled the ashes, he paused and looked at me, I wonder if he knew it was Tobi.  I wonder if some of Tobi’s magic was transmitted to Argo in that moment, giving him what it takes to be an elk hunting dog.

CLOSE CALLS

I am only a couple of days into my hunt and the action has been insane. It appears that I hit the rut just perfectly and the bulls are fired up and looking for a lady. Hopefully an italian “lady” with a french dog. I am only working small pockets in the property, away from the main herd and I already called in four mature bulls; but for one reason or another I couldn’t close the deal.  One guy coming in hot, decided to stop and rake his antlers 45 yards from me, he was there for 40 minutes with a small pine tree covering half of his vitals.  Looking at the terrain, there was only one logic path for the bull to take which would have put him at a clean 30 yard shot.  When he moved he did what was completely illogic and walked into a thick patch of trees and disappeared.  Argo was hidden 20 yards from me on the “STAY” command.  No idea what he was doing but when I went back he was right there where I had left him. “Good boy Argo”.

I then had two bulls fight over my sexy cow calls. I can be pretty cow elk sexy. In the end one started coming in hot to my call. It seemed like a done deal but at 50 yards the bull busted. Not certain what happened, maybe the wind switched, maybe he saw us and decided an Italian cow and French dog was not in his menu. Maybe he didn’t like my accent on that last call. You’ll never know what happened and that’s the beauty of it, is not meant to be easy.  After the bull busted, I moved back and disappeared. Both bulls started bugling nearby. I could have gone after them but when hunting 2,000 acres you really need to keep the pressure light. The temptation to chase them again is there but reason needs to prevail.  Remember, three hops, and they are out of the property line.  Argo seems to be working well, he hasn’t made any noticeable mistakes and he hasn’t been the usual loud self.  Maybe he is really getting it…  Maybe he wants an elk as bad as I do… Maybe smelling Tobi’s ashes on the broadhead spilled the magic and turned him into an elk hunting pup.  We still have plenty of time but you always wonder if these are the last chances you get. Please give me one more chance.

MY BAD FLINCH

I have been curing a subtle flinch, when shooting, caused by what people call, target panic. Since Tobi was such a good tracker I stopped using broadheads a while ago and shot expandables for years. Expendables fly like field points and were not affected by my slight flinch. Broadheads are and I was not happy seeing my arrows not going where I wanted them to go. I had to retrain myself to release my bow differently. Using back tension instead of my finger, I sure wish I started shooting this way a long time ago, it really is the way to do it. My grouping at 40 yards is back to where I want it to be but will I be able to do it under pressure? I will not shoot past 40 yards. I sure don’t want to be the one messing things up after spending all this time training Argo. I have been shooting a million arrows and mentally talking myself through the shot. “Knock arrow, draw, relax hand, breathe, pin on target, hold breath, don’t fuck up, back tension” and the arrow flies unexpectedly, no flinch. It works and it works great. But is a new way of shooting that is not as instinctual as I’d like. I just have to remind myself “Don’t fuck up”.

My grouping at 40 yards

THERE IS A NEW BULL IN TOWN

This morning things turned nuts.  A lone bull came down from the mountains, I could hear him screaming from a mile away.  He meant business and wanted to challenge the big herd bull.  He just made a straight line for the main herd in the property and never slowed down.  Both bulls screaming at each other as he approached; once he moved in, hell broke loose.  Elk running in all directions.  The herd bull trying to move his cows away and into the woods.  Satellite bulls taking advantage of the situation and trying to get a little action with the ladies.  It was complete havoc and hard to figure out what was really going on and who was in charge.  Once the elk moved into the patch of woods I heard crashing of antlers.  The new bull wanted all the cows and the fight was on and nothing like I have ever witness before.

This was the real deal and not just a scuffle.  I could hear antlers banging, it was like a train wreck over and over.  Massive bodies, massive antlers banging against each other with brutal force.  I decided this gave me a chance to get close to the herd and possibly have a shot at one of the bulls.  I was going to move in slowly.  As I got close, I realized it was not going to be an easy task.  Elk, everywhere I looked.  If you stay perfectly still, they will not detect you, you use stillness to become invisible.  At this point leaving Argo on the “STAY” command, somewhere, was not an option.  He had to follow and hopefully do it right.  As soon as we entered the patch of woods we were stuck in front of a small 5×5 bull that came up to us at 5 yards.  He just sat there staring at us forever.  He was not the bull I wanted.  I could see cows walking nearby.  If I spooked him it could have been all over.  I stayed still until my body started cramping, I couldn’t see what Argo was doing but eventually the bull moved on.  I looked back and Argo was behind me shivering in excitement.  “Good boy Argo”.  We moved on and what we were about to experience is probably one of the most incredible things I witnessed in my life, not just as a hunter but as a human being.

CAN’T TAKE IT BACK

Once in the woods things got crazy.  Elk everywhere running in all directions.  I could hear the two bulls fighting.  I had to move in and somehow be invisible to hundreds of eyes, when all eyes lined up behind a tree I took a step.  When I was lucky, two steps.  This process went on until I lost consciousness of time, my focus directed on all the elk around me.  Moving only when I could.  I felt the pounding of my heart and the pounding of antlers of the two bulls fighting.  At every blow the ground shook, my heart stuck in my throat.  Who knows how much time went by.  One hour? Two hours?  I kept moving, one step at a time.  Finally I could see them, the massive herd bull and the new bull just going at it. “Paolo breathe” I kept telling myself.  I knew I had been in the middle of the herd for a very long time and I hadn’t heard Argo once.  Was he still there? Did he just run away scared?  Behind me was dead quiet but I couldn’t afford the movement to look back.  I kept going, I was in the zone. “Paolo breathe”. At 70 yards from them I decided it was time to stop and hope the bulls would move my way.  Trees everywhere, shooting over 40 yards was not even a possibility.  Elk running right by me, I stayed still, I was invisible to them.  I could only focus on that one bull.  Then the impossible happened.

After hours of fighting the massive herd bull walked away and bedded down 45 yards from me and collapsed exhausted with his head down.  The new bull rounded up all the cows and left.  I was alone with the massive bull, I had just watched him lose the battle and his herd.  “Paolo breathe”. I started rehearsing the shot, my heart stuck in my throat.  “Knock arrow, draw, relax hand, breathe, pin on target, hold breath, don’t fuck up, back tension”  I needed 5 more yards, I was not going to shoot over 40.  I took 4 steps and a branch snapped under my foot.  The massive bull jumped up and started walking my way attracted by the noise.  His blood stained antlers gleaming in the light.  My heart about to explode, at 30 yards I had a shot.  I made a cow call sound to stop him and then talked myself through the motion of the shot trying to forget everything else.  “KNOCK ARROW, DRAW, RELAX HAND, BREATHE, PIN ON TARGET, HOLD BREATH, DON’T FUCK UP, BACK TENSION”  The arrow with Tobi’s ashes flew and I couldn’t take it back.

THE LEGACY BULL

The arrow with Tobi’s ashes flew straight. The bull ran, tried to lay down, ran again and stopped. I watched him fall and listened to his heavy breathing come to an end.  Only seconds went by.  I had just killed a huge 7×9 bull, the elk of a lifetime, but I couldn’t help but feeling heartbroken for this majestic creature as I watched it happen.  He lost his herd and now he lost his life.  How can an animal lover like me hunt? Will I one day break and never hunt again? I looked behind me and Argo was right there.  He had been at my feet the whole time, completely silent, perfectly following my moves all these hours.  Had Tobi’s magic spilled on him when he sniffed his ashes on the broadhead?  I would like to say that I am Robin Hood or a hunting super hero with my super hero dog but we are not.  How is it possible that I was able to get right in the middle of a herd of elk, with my dog at my feet and kill this bull?  This was a gift to me and Argo and I like to think that it was Tobi’s gift to us, to let us know he is still alive.  Without a doubt he will always be alive in my heart and will always be by my side when I hunt.  The bowhunting legacy had been pasted from Tobi to Argo.  Argo was now a bowhunting dog and I couldn’t help feeling so proud for this long legged bird dog who had done the impossible to please his master.  A dog who is born to run and found the patience and the obedience to follow every step I made, day after day.  The arrow with Tobi’s ashes killed the bull in seconds.  I feel thankful for his life and the special meaning it has for me.  This is not just a bull, this is Tobis legacy and Argo’s first bull and prize for his amazing work.  Argo is a spectacular animal that I feel so fortunate to have at my side now that Tobi left.  I couldn’t have asked for more. “Thank you Argo for being the companion that you are, you filled a void that I didn’t think was possible to fill”.

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STRAIGHT TO THE HEART (Photo omitted)
Many people advised me not the post the photograph.  After my mother’s reaction when she saw the photograph of the bull’s heart on Instagram I decided to omit the image on my blog or Facebook page. If you are still interested in the photo you can see it on Instagram at your own discretion @marchesiphoto.
The arrow, with Tobi’s ashes on the broadhead, not only few straight but flew straight to the center of the bulls heart and stopped there. I could brag and say I was aiming for the heart but that would be a lie. Normally an arrow will go all the way through an animal or hit the opposite side of the rib cage but in this case it just stopped, for one reason or another, smack in the middle. I really can’t explain why but I do wonder if Tobi’s ashes weren’t on the broadhead if things would have happened the same way.  Lodovico, who has hunted this property for 18 years, told me this is the biggest bull ever taken on this piece of land.  Like I said in a previous post, I am not particularly spiritual but how can I not see this as a gift to Argo and I?  How can I not feel Tobi’s presence in what happened?  Maybe was my love for him, my sorrow at not having him by my side anymore that guided us and the arrow in this hunt.  Everything happened by magic and I find it difficult to see it as just luck or skills.  This bull was meant to be, and I can’t say it was Tobi, or you’d think I am nuts, or ridiculous but whatever it was, something made it happen.  Just in case it was Tobi, I better say thank you.  I would not want to piss him off, he had a terrible sense of humor and I probably would never get an elk again.  So here it go “Thank you Tobi for this magnificent animal and magic moment, we sure miss you.” The bull’s heart with Tobi’s ashes and broadhead are buried where the bull fell, maybe they both rest in peace.

Dedicated to TOBI 08/08/2001-08/15/2016

 

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Tobi’s last hunt and elk before he became too blind and deaf to hunt.  He will be missed.

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Fernando Casanova

Red Bull OCR and Endurance athlete Fernando Casanova went from being, as he likes to say “a smoker, a drinker and a 210 pound fat man” to a sponsored super athlete.  “If you asked me 12 years ago I would have never believed I would be doing what I do now.”  12 years ago the doctor told him “If you want  to make it to 30 you better change your lifestyle.”  Next day Fernando quit smoking, drinking and became a different man.  To see the whole gallery on Fernando click here.

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