It was still dark when Cameron and I parked at the gate and got off “Pepe” my little mule ATV. We closed the gate behind us and walked slowly up a high desert road to a drainage I had hunted heavily in archery season. The draw held a ton of legal, ie forked horn or smaller, deer. Fortunately, it was Cameron’s birthday, he was just turning ten, and at sunrise was a legal hunter in the state of Idaho. He carried his grandmothers .243 over his shoulder, bright orange cap on his head and an ear to ear smile.
We whisper talked about Pokémon, about sagehens, about school and about hunting ethics. This was far from the first time Cameron had gone hunting with me, he has gone since before he could walk. But this was the first time he could shoot a deer – he was looking to make meat for his house and to be the first of King Boy to shoot a deer. (His older brother drew a doe tag for later in the year, and missed a buck the prior year.)
As we dropped into a small meadow I caught sight of mule deer heads on the horizon. It was one of those awkward moments of being busted by deer and literally having nothing to do but stare right back at them. Then hope they grow horns. One by one the small herd of deer came to the crest of the ridge, caught sight of Cameron and I, and then took a hard left downhill. Thankfully, each deer gave us a clear look at the top of its head. The second to last deer was a small buck, a 3 by 1. It was one of those funky ones that clearly damaged one of its horns while in velvet. But in this management unit, he was a legal buck only because of the damage.
The buck stopped for us, blue sky and nothing else behind him, at about 70 yards. Cameron looked at me for guidance, for permission to shoot. “Why can’t you shoot?” I asked, channeling my inner Socrates. “I can’t see what is behind him” he said with a sigh. “No backstop, no shot” I explained.
The deer herd moved downhill from us, trying to get into a patch of timber. We kept paralleling the herd down the ridge blocking them to one side. Several times the herd would stop at about 150 yards giving a short window for a shot to Cameron. But he could never quite put it together. As soon as he would get set up the herd would move over a ridge, or behind tall sage. The time they allowed us was simply not enough for a ten year old to get an ethical shot.
Eventually, tired of being harassed, the herd made a break for the timber patch. They cut back our direction, dropped down into the valley and started up the other side. Then they made the typical mule deer mistake, they stopped and looked back at us. I looked to Cameron, the deer were now at about 200 yards. About 100 further than I thought he should shoot. “Can you make that shot?” I asked. “No, you shoot him” was his reply.
I chambered a round, shot and the buck fell. I was thankful for the meat and the solid education for the new hunter in the family.
Six day later Cameron and I found ourselves glassing a lone buck, again on a skyline. He walked a ridgeline and showcased his horns a perfect forked horn. But no backstop for the shot. We let him walk down off the ridge but promptly lost sight of him in the dull morning light. Again we paralleled a herd of deer with several small bucks in it. But this time we were on the top of the ridge and they were about midway down the side. Each time we would get set up for a shot the herd would move further than Cameron reliably could shoot. Eventually the herd had enough of us following them and set off down the valley. We lost them in the aspens.
It was a several mile hike back to the truck at this point and the legs on Cameron were a little worn out. But back at the truck we unloaded the four-wheeler and went for a quick ride. Glassing from a ridgeline about a half mile away I caught sight of a lone white butt feeding uphill. It was near the top of the mountain and was going to be a grueling stalk. But the little I know about mule deer biology had me convinced that this solo deer was a buck. I just figured no doe is ever alone – ergo it must be a buck.
Up the hill we went bushwhacking through buckbrush, sage and aspen. We went from 6500 feet to nearly 7100 feet, and Cameron hardly complained. We whisper talked about Pokémon, his recent birthday party and the student council elections that he had organized.
We placed sporadic pines between us and the lone deer, using them as cover for our approach. The higher we climbed the less often we saw the deer, until it was completely out of sight. It had dropped into a small bowl in the side of the hill. Luckily we could see every possible escape route, we would know if it had left the area. We took our time, knowing the deer was still around and not wanting to be winded when it was time to shoot.
On the approach I spotted a small outcropping of rocks jutting out of the buckbrush. I told Cameron that was our shooting location and that we would approach carefully. We slowed our pace to a crawl, watching ridges around us for an escaping deer. Slowly I climbed the rocks, finding the deer and then, thankfully, seeing he was a perfect forked horn. Seventy yards out and not spooked. It might actually happen this time!
Somedays, in the course of a hunter’s life, things are just meant to be. This was one of those days. The little buck held while Cameron scooted around on the rocks for a solid thirty seconds trying to located the buck and get positioned for a shot. He held while I helped to calm the shaking hands of my child, buck fever taking hold in a hilarious but nasty way. Eventually the buck slowly walked to 100 yards, broadside between two junipers and simply held. It was a true blessing when Cameron shot and the buck ran down the hill 70 yards and died. Not 30 yards from where we stood. Cameron had worked for this animal. He had the patience, the judgment and the shooting skill to make meat. Cameron is now a deer hunter.
Italian Sausage Mac n’ Cheese
In honor of the young hunters and meat makers I offer up a super simple and tasty venison mac and cheese recipe. Cheers to those taking out the next generation and double cheers for the little ones that make it out into the woods!
This recipe is a riff on Alton Browns Italian sausage recipe, with the notable exception that it includes venison. This recipe yields five pounds and I will often double it for a big batch – it is great for all sorts of quick and easy Italian sausage needs. Oh, this will work on just about all red meat animals too.
4 lbs Ground Venison
1 lb Ground Pork Fat
1 Tbsp. and 1 tsp. Fennel Seeds
1 Tbsp. and 1 tsp. Kosher Salt
1 Tbsp. Course Ground Black Pepper, fresh
¼ cup Chopped Parsley
In a small heavy bottomed sauté pan toast the fennel seeds on medium heat until they are fragrant. About five minutes. When cool add the fennel to a spice grinder or a mortar and pedestal. (If you don’t have these, a pre ground fennel will work, just add a teaspoon more and don’t toast it) Next mix the remaining ingredients in a large bowl, incorporate them well. Chill the mix in the refrigerator for at least one hour, then divide it into 1 lb balls. Freeze the portioned sausage for use at a later time.
Italian Sausage Mac n’ Cheese
1 lb Italian Sausage, thawed (see above)
2 Tbsp. Flour
1 cup Milk
½ lb Velveeta Cheese, diced
3 cups Whole Wheat Elbow Macaroni, cooked (1.5 cups uncooked)
¼ cup Parmesan
¼ cup Italian Bread Crumbs
1 Tbsp. Chopped Parsley
Pre heat oven to 350°. Heat a medium sized sauce pan on medium for 3 minutes then add the Italian sausage. Brown and crumble the sausage until fully cooked but retaining some moisture in the pan. Next add the flour and incorporate fully. Next add the milk, reduce heat to low. Bring to a boil and let thicken. When thick add the cheese a small amount at a time, making sure to stir to incorporate the dices fully. Add the noodles to the sauce, fold them gently to incorporate. Transfer noodle and sauce mix to a 3 qt casserole dish. Spread the mix evenly in the pan. Top with Parmesan, bread crumbs and parsley. Bake for 25 minutes. Serve hot.