Sunday, September 25, 2016


The Hunts
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            Three mornings this past week suggested fall is nigh.
            The open door from the bedroom onto the porch at 4:30 prompted a tug at a cover and real hesitation before staggering out to start the coffee. Each decision to get going, though, was rewarded with quiet time. As usual, I checked the weather reports and pack saddle contents from Mogollon Creek (emails), but there was time of peace and devotion that followed.
            On mornings like these, it is seldom that I do not think about my grandparents. They were all morning people. Each one of them was distinct in their morning rituals, but each was conditioned to start early. Both grandmothers were up and going at the same time as their husbands. The smell of butane stoves and the delicious odors of breakfast creation are part and parcel to those memories. There was not a lazy bone in either of those women. Both are now long gone, but their influences on me are clearer and more distinct each passing day.
            Collectively, they demonstrated mornings are not just important, but easily the best time of all.
            The Hunts
            We saw Hugh and Verna at Trey’s wedding last Saturday.
            Surrounded by family, we enjoyed the service as well as the reception. Like it or not, Hugh and I have become the grandfathers that our grandfathers were to us. There was a natural progression of chit chatting about the ceremony and the events of current days to the point of talking about the times of being with our grandfathers, the Rice brothers. The cool mornings and the gorgeous harvest moon that rose at the start of the reception only made it easier and more appropriate their memories were part of the discussion.
            For years, sleepless, anxious nights followed by early, opening mornings would put us around the kitchen table at the headquarters of the Rice Ranch in the bottom of Sacaton Creek waiting for first light to hunt a deer. Hugh would have spent the night there while we would have driven the 16 miles from “the river” to arrive before sunup. We listened and participated in those morning discussions with our grandfathers. Meanwhile, Hugh’s grandmother, Minnie, was a blur of motion getting ready for the day as she finished putting her sparkling kitchen back in order after breakfast. The last of her biscuits would have been eaten and the only things left on the table were coffee cups.
            Without a doubt, our grandfathers were as anxious and excited about those opening mornings as we were. Our love for a hunt was, in large part, the result of them. They were the elders that taught us. They stoked our interest with their stories and their demonstrated and abundant skills outside. By the time we were ten and eleven, we were pretty fair deer hunters. By the time we were in our mid teens, we were skilled.
            The mornings would finally start with the deduction it was “light enough to shoot”.
In those earliest days, we’d go in one pickup and hunt together. Whether it was up and out of the creek back to the east or to the west, the pastures were familiar, almost magical, and grand places with names like Trivio, the George Clark, Cross H, the Alexander, or the York. The names became synonymous with past memories of success or high adventure. The discussion in the cigarette smoke filled closed pickup of those times was about deer killed last year, three years ago, or even 60 years prior. The Rice family had been on that land, largely privately held, since 1888.
It wasn’t like we had to drive somewhere to start to hunt. We would be hunting with all eyes watching the moment we left the house. Being on familiar ground certainly adds benefit, but every rancher I have ever known learns “how to see” as well. It is a learned trait and it isn’t just vision clarity.
The blue eyes of those elder Rice brothers, however, were special. In fact, to the outside observer they were incredible. Seldom did we get to a certain spot of destination without seeing deer, and, more often than not, in numbers.
Hunting isn’t the same to me today as it was then.
Given the choice, I still prefer venison to beef, but perhaps age or the stewardship of land has changed me. Maybe it is just the years. The commercialization of hunting makes me flinch. All the stuff that goes along with the sport now seems extravagant. Just viewing a hunt on one of the outdoor channels suggests a small fortune must be invested before a shot is fired. Scent proof camouflage, ultra-light garb, range finders, spotting scopes, 10X binoculars, four wheelers, gators, beanies, balaclavas, day packs, dehydrated meals, two way radios, GPS devices, topo maps, doe scent, trail cameras, long range shooting platforms, compound bows, deer bullets, elk bullets, temperature resistant powders, deer calls, fifth wheels, and an expanding array of paraphernalia that would make the Rice brothers scowl with incredulity seems to be the norm of today’s hunts.
Rest assured I remain a hunting advocate. I believe the game animal that provides economic benefit is the animal that will ultimately be best protected, but the actual hunt and the sanctity of the hunt should remain more important than all the “stuff”. I remember John becoming emotional talking about the deer he killed the last day of the season long ago on a wind blown point. He had stalked the deer for several hours before he took the single shot. He approached the deer quietly and sat there. Just he and that animal alone on that grassy ridge were the focus. He remained there until nearly sundown before he started down. He told me it was being alone, at that moment, and in that place was most special.
To me, perhaps the deer that got away were most special.
I’ll always remember the big buck in the Cross H pasture. I got him up from a bed in a juniper thicket. He didn’t tilt away like most big bucks. Rather, he kept pace with my movement. At one point, I was no more than thirty feet from him but all I could see was the tips of his horns. His rack moved silently back and forth as he continued to smell for me. I spent a lot of time with him, but I never saw anything more than the tips of those horns.
Another day in the same pasture, a gang of five big bucks were spotted standing nose to tail around a big juniper tree. We studied how to get closer, started a methodical stalk, but failed when wind changed and they scented us. Every one of them was a real trophy.
Another morning at the head of Wind Canyon, I headed back to get the pickup to go around to pick my brother up at the Will Shelley Tank down the drainage. I was within a hundred yards of the truck when I jumped four big bucks in some low lying mesquites. Those deer were likely bedded right there when we left at sunup and they let us walk by them.
As they clattered away, I had a hunch and walked north across the drainage into a parallel header. I no more than topped the ridge into that canyon when I heard and then saw what I believe was the biggest deer in the bunch. He was still a long way away coming in a hurry up the bottom, but saw me as soon as I saw him. He didn’t hesitate. He whirled and was gone. I saluted him and wished him long life.
I hope his descendents remain there to this day.
I am headed out the door shortly to plumb several livestock troughs we have just installed. As usual, there will be time to think during the drive on the highway before I turn off onto the dirt road at our entrance. I’ll watch for the herd of antelope in the Coldiron Pasture that has raised a number of fawns this summer. There is no doubt in my mind that our presence enhances their existence in these times just as the Sacaton deer herd of my youth was enhanced by Rice stewardship.
Right now, though, I am going to take my cup of coffee out onto the balcony and watch for the first hint of daylight. I’ll sit there for a while and visit with the memories of my grandparents in the cool and the still of this predawn … just like they did all those years ago.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Tissy told me when she was Miss Rodeo American her dad told her if she couldn’t come home and have the time to have a cup of coffee and a biscuit with her neighbor, Minnie Rice … she shouldn’t come home.”

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