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Versatile Hunter

Wounded Warrior Deer Hunt on Catalina Island

Sat, August 31, 2013

This article is being features in the LA Times and comes from a great friend of mine named Pat Morse.  Pat is a conservationist, hunter, and volunteer like no other.  His advocacy for all things conservation-related are an example for others to follow and he does it with a hunter’s viewpoint.

As most of you know, we just completed our inaugural Wounded Warrior deer hunt on Catalina Island.  From Sunday August 18 through Thursday August 22, the NWTF and Catalina Island Conservancy co-hosted two wounded warriors from Camp Pendleton on their first ever deer hunting trip.  Joining us on the hunt were Corporal Joshua Sust of the 2nd Bn 4th 1st MarDiv and Sergeant Israel Franco of the 1st Bn 5th Mar 1st MarDiv. 

On September 1st, 2011 Corporal Sust deployed to MuSa Quala, Afghanistan.  In the third month of his seven month deployment, while on mounted patrol, Corporal Sust’s vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED) ejecting him from the vehicle.  He sustained open fractures to both bones in his left arm and a shattered tibula/fibula.  Luckily, Corp. Sust retained all of his limbs, but is still in the middle of a long and difficult road to recovery.  He had never hunted before, but he wanted an opportunity to get outdoors and challenge himself in difficult terrain to expedite his mental and physical healing process. 

As a Lance Corporal, with 1st Bn 7th Mar 1st MarDiv, Sergeant Israel Franco deployed to Al Qaim, Iraq in 2006. He returned for a second tour to Hit, Iraq in 2007.  After Lance Corporal Franco’s second deployment he parted ways with the 7th Marines and took on a new mission. For two years from July of 2008 to July of 2010 he served at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Edson Range where he promoted to the ranks of Corporal and then Sergeant. He served as both a Field Instructor and Combat Marksmanship Instructor Trainer while serving at Edson Range. Corporal Franco instructed and trained over 400 recruits on basic field skills and combat marksmanship. Sergeant Franco then transferred to 1st Bn 5th Mar 1st MarDiv. With 5th Marines he deployed to Sangin, Afghanistan in 2011. On April 28th 2011, Sergeant Franco, while leading a dismounted security patrol he was wounded by an IED. Sergeant Franco received shrapnel and burn injuries to most of the right side of his body. 

On Sunday August 19th, Sergeant Franco and Corporal Sust arrived at the Avalon Ferry Terminal.  As they departed the ship, the first view to greet them was that of the Catalina VFW color guard presenting the US and USMC flags.  Behind the color guard stood 15 VFW members in formation saluting our wounded warriors.  The crowd of close to 300 island visitors stopped cold and went dead silent as one of the VFW members sang the Star Spangled Banner.  At the conclusion of the song, the crowd erupted into a cheer and chills went up and down everyone’s spine.  The respect and admiration these complete strangers felt towards Josh and Israel was a beautiful site to behold. 

After finishing a brief photo shoot with the VFW at the Avalon veterans memorial, we loaded everyone’s gear into our trucks and headed up to our home for the week; the Laura Stein Volunteer Camp.  The Volunteer Camp sits on a picturesque ridge line high above Avalon.  Looking back to the east, on the clear evening you could see the skyline of Los Angeles, Palace Verdes and the coastal range and 20+ miles of Pacific Ocean between us and the main land.  As soon as we stepped from our trucks, we were all greeted with the smells of our special gift for the evening.  Our good friend Mike Malinauskas brought a 100lbs pig over from the main land to bbq for our opening night dinner.  By the time we arrived in camp, the pig had been cooking for about 7 hours and the skin was crisping up to a nice red, smoky color.  That first evening, we invited the VFW members to join us for the hog roast and fresh blue fin sashimi.  Our hunters were feeling right at home and after glassing a few bucks right from camp, their blood was boiling for their first hunt. 

We awoke Monday morning to a moderately heavy fog bank in camp.  This eliminated the options of hunting our preferred blind locations, so we were forced into a run and gun situation anywhere we could find clear enough air to glass.  We descended the mountain about half way and we finally got behind the fog bank.  I joined Israel on this hunt, along with Catlina Island guide and Conservancy employee, Kevin Ryan.  Josh would be guided by Conservancy guide and employee, Tyler Dvorak, California NWTF State Chapter President, Joe Pecsi. 

Israel, Kevin and I walked down a finger ridge with steep, rocky banks overlooking a near vertical hillside of scrub oak and chaparral, very typical Catalina terrain.  As soon as I threw my glass up for the first time, I quickly spotted a small group of deer.  Roughly 400 yards and slightly uphill from us, a grew of young bucks fed in and out of the fog bank and angled towards our position.  Israel readied himself in the prone position as Kevin stayed in his ear about what to do as he prepared to shoot if a shot was presented.  As the bucks came into view more clearly, it was apparent these were spikes and forkies.  We told Israel it was his call if he wanted to shoot, but we advised him to hold off for a more mature deer.  Seeing as we had been hunting for all of 5 minutes at this point, Israel decided to hold off and see how the hunt played out.  At about this time, the unmistakable sounds of a single rifle shot rang out from the canyon behind us.  Josh had gotten a shot at his first deer. 

Unfortunately, shortly after watching the bucks feed off, a heavy fog bank filled in our area of clear air, so were forced back to the truck for more time wasted looking for glass-able areas.  Back at camp, we were overjoyed to learn that Josh had made a text book shot at 220 yards with his brand new 270 at a nice doe.  Josh’s first ever deer was down and headed for the milk shed!  At the milk shed, Josh took an extremely active interest in learning how to clean, skin and hang his deer in the walk-in cooler.  A new hunter was officially born. 

The second morning of the hunt was a complete bust.  The fog was significantly thicker than the day before and the wind was dead calm, the fog was here to stay.  The two groups tried in vain to find deer through the dense cloud bank to no avail.  Due to the fact we were hunting a restricted part of the island known as the “burn zone”, we had to finish our morning hunts at 8:00am to allow for visitors to safely hike the trails.  This gave us ample time each day to take the guys on some side trips to see all that Catalina had to offer beyond the deer.  Around noon, we met up with a local that owns Catalina Snorkel and Scuba at the Casino Point dive zone.  He had heard about the Wounded Warrior event on the island and offered to provide us with a free day of snorkeling in the waters off Avalon.  Prior to his injury, Israel had been an avid free diver and spear-fisherman, so he was incredibly stoked to get back in the water.  Josh, who like me, grew up in the Midwest and had never snorkeled, so he was a bit apprehensive, but totally up for the adventure.  For the next hour or so, we snorkeled through the olive green kelp forest watching various species of salt water fish at close range.  The guys had a blast and had little issue in the water from their injuries.  It was a perfect side excursion to recharge our batteries and head back up for the evening hunt. 

That evening, the guides decided we should try the back side of the island.  The back side is open to hunting 6 months per year and has a lower density of deer than the burn zone, but the chances of catching a mature buck in one of the many gnarly canyons was greater.  Again the two groups went out in separate directions.  Josh ‘s group set off for a vast grassy meadow that rolled into cliffs that drop into the ocean.  The meadow is surrounded by nasty brush filled ditches that were perfect bedding areas.  For the next two hours, the guys glassed deer consistently, but nothing within range.  Meanwhile, Israel’s group hiked in along a high ridge line overlooking the reservoir and Middle Camp until they came to a high meadow that the guides new held bucks.  Before we got to our set location at the end of the ridge, Israel grabbed Kevin and said, “I think I see a buck.”  We all ducked down and threw up our glass.  Sure enough, a big, mature 4x4 with a ~25” spread stood 220 yards away staring dead at us.  Kevin helped Israel get into a prone position to shoot and he put down his backpack for Israel to steady his aim.  I had my glass on the buck as Israel’s shot rang out and I watched the buck jump straight in the air and we could hear a loud “Whack!” sound.  Thinking this sound was the bullet impacting the buck, we were all elated, then concerned as we watched the buck sprint off seemingly unscathed.  What the hell just happened?  Kevin and I walked down to the location of the shot and it was obvious he had shot just under the buck.  The sound we heard was the bullet impacting a large, flat rock just below the buck.  Damn it.  Shortly after this miss, we managed to spot a group of does and Israel redeemed himself with a perfect shot on a big doe.  His first ever deer was now in the bag! 

With the pressure off now that each hunter had bagged a deer, the mood around camp was celebratory.  As we all rehashed hunting stories over beers and elk burgers that evening, the guides and I were all silently praying for just one morning without fog.  When we woke up at 4:45, I was elated to be able to see the lights of Long Beach and Orange County clearly across the water.  Finally, the fog had lifted for a morning hunt!  On this morning, I switched with Joe and was now a part of Josh’s group.  Our lead guide, Tyler, set us up well before sunrise on a vista that overlooked a large, grassy and open valley where we could easily spot any bucks heading to bed.  As soon as the sun began peaking over the mountains to our east and a beautiful pink tint painted the morning sky, Tyler and I began spotting deer.  A bachelor group of bucks was moving quickly to their beds and they disappeared over a ridge before we could move Josh into position for a shot.  Shortly after, we moved into an area that had not been hunted at all this season.  As soon as we passed through the gate, a buck and a doe exploded from the oaks just off the road.  This should be sweet.  The area was a long road that follows a ridge line to a cliff that drops into the ocean.  On either side of the road, there was a burned meadow with spotted scrub oaks scattered throughout.  As we eased down the road, we noticed movement ahead of us on the left and we quickly realized it was a buck and a damn good one.  We ranged the buck at 280 yards, well within range of Josh’s rifle and abilities, but for whatever reason he never felt comfortable with his aim so he chose not to shoot.  Our hearts sank as we watched the buck disappear over the ridge.  With just one morning left to hunt we prayed this wouldn’t be his last chance at a buck.  Meanwhile, Israel decided he was coming home with two deer for the freezer come hell or high water, so when a large doe presented a shot shortly after sunrise, he dumped her at 120 yards where she stood.  Israel was tagged out!  Despite his injuries, Israel demanded to pack his deer out of the deep canyon himself.  He totally embraced the little things that come with the hunt and thoroughly enjoyed them.  I guarantee he will be a hunter for life. 

That evening came and went with little excitement from the deer.  Josh had one last morning to fill his final tag.  Due to the ferry schedule, we needed to be out of the woods by no later than 7:30 that morning, so he would have about 90 minutes to get it done.  With the fog no longer an issue, we were finally able to hunt a blind that Tyler and Kevin had set up in a thick ravine.  The guys had been glassing bucks in this location for the past month in preparation for this hunt, but the fog had been the demise of this killer hole.  Well before daybreak, Tyler and Josh settled into the natural blind and they could immediately hear deer moving through the dry grass in the darkness below them.  As the sun rose and the silhouettes of deer became visible, Tyler’s glass revealed a shooter buck was closing the distance on their set up.  As the light got better, Tyler lined up Josh for the shot.  Josh pinned his crosshairs just behind the bucks shoulder, clicked the safety into the firing position and slowly began to squeeze the trigger when all of a sudden he felt Tyler emphatically tapping his shoulder alerting him there was a BIGGER buck just to his left!  Josh swung his scope onto the new buck and conquered that this was the deer he wanted.  Tyler whistled to get the buck to stop just long enough for a shot and as soon as he did, Josh’s rifle barked and the old buck dropped in his tracks!  Holy crap, we pulled off the ultimate last second miracle! 

As I sat there basking in the glow of Josh’s success, watching the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean from an incredible vista, I realized life doesn’t get much better than this.  As great as this hunt was, the best part of the week was having both Israel and Josh pull us aside individually and express their personal stories of how this event helped them.  Without going into their personal details, I will just say they both shared with us that these events help them tremendously with their self confidence and regaining a sense of camaraderie and normalcy that has been a rare thing since their injuries.  I would strongly encourage all of you to participate in events such as this one.  What you and your participants will get out of it is life changing. 


NWTF Peoria and EHD Deer 2013 Saga Continues!?

Sun, August 25, 2013

As I posted a few weeks back, NWTF’s new Regional Director, Andrew Limmer is looking to get a Peoria Chapter restarted.  Andrew held a meeting at Bass Pro last week and had a handful of folks show up to discuss the next steps.  Among Andrew’s many responsibilities is assisting in chapter creation, as a good chunk of NWTF’s money comes from banquet-type events.  Andrew put on a presentation that included statistics about hunter recruitment and turkey habitat—both of which have experienced a drop in the past several years.  Wild turkeys are now 15% below their high water mark from several years ago.  This year is the lowest brood hen count in Illinois in a LOOOOONG time—1.6 poults/hen.  A typical five year average is somewhere around 3 poult/hen to give you an idea of what might be normal.  NWTF is looking to increase both of these in their most recent “Save the Habitat, Save the Hunt” Initiative.  A meeting to discuss next steps in the chapter creation process, including setting dates for a banquet, will take place this coming Wednesday, August 28 at one of the new committee member’s house.  Wild game will be served.  BYOB.  Contact Limmer for the address in Washington.  He can be reached at 414-388-6266 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).  They are still in need of 4-5 good people willing to help out on the committee—this is your chance to give back to the habitat that helps more than just turkeys here in the state. 

NWTF has some excellent cost share programs for restoration as well as youth and disabled hunting programs.  IDNR’s IRAP program is part of this initiative and the past several years many young hunters have gotten their first turkey on private land because of it.  Check it out online at IDNR’s website if you have a young person who might be interested.  I guided on IRAP land last year and I can tell you first hand that IDNR has chosen some primo hunting land.  Landowners are given so much per acre and cost sharing on restoration when they enroll their land in this program.  These are exactly the type of programs Illinois needs to continue fostering.  I’m proud of them for getting this right. . . .

On a separate note, has anyone seen any deer exhibiting EHD symptoms this year like last?  The picture below is the first deer I’ve heard about this year.  I’ve been told that the reason for more bucks than does has to do with the bucks running in bachelor groups this time of year and therefore there is a higher chance for their infection.  That kinda makes sense so I’m gonna go with it unless someone can give a better explanation as to why we seem to see so many more bucks infected.  This buck was supposedly found near Bloomington and dies a day later.  What a shame, as this guy is a bruiser. . . .


Squirrel Day Antics and Caaalifornia Trip

Mon, August 12, 2013

I was in the gym the other day with one of my many annual squirrel day t-shirts on from this year or that.  The question is always the same—what’s “squirrel day”?  Squirrel Day has been a tradition at Lick Creek Game Preserve for ?? years now and probably several years before it was “official”. 

It started out as yet another excuse to get out in the woods with good friends for a couple hours and then get to real business—b.s.’ing with friends over some cold ones. I was introduced to this phenomenon through my now wife who at the time was my girlfriend.  Her friends—the Yerglers—invited me knowing that I was an outdoorsman myself and I could do a pretty good job at drinking beer—a perfect fit.  So, I strapped on my game vest, but my hunting dog on heel, and headed out to my designated spot on the 1,000 acre game preserve in Tazewell County.  That was 10 years ago and the same sequence happens each year, and repeated itself again this year.  What 10 years has changed is remarkable.  We still harvest our fair share of squirrels, despite the heat and overgrown foliage, but what has mostly changed is the company.  There are now more kids and dogs than single dudes hanging out.  We play bags, hillbilly golf, beersbee and cook wild game.  We send dogs and kids into the lake for retrieves and cruise on the Marcia May pontoon.  Squirrel day is now what you might call “family oriented”.  What hasn’t changed are the interesting conversations and events that occur throughout the day.  Events that have unfolded over the years include people (me) falling out of trees trying to show the kids how to climb (I made it a good 40 feet up and then fell when I was 6 feet off the ground), taking “property cruises” throughout the day on 4 wheelers, trucks, and used cars headed to the junkyard the next day, teaching people how to shoot for the first time, finding a homeless person camped out in the woods (imagine being woken up to the sound of gun fire first thing in the morning), and God knows how many squirrel hunting stories. 

I intended this blog to talk about the event that we all so love (above), but I also wanted to talk squirrel hunting.  If you’ve never hunting for tree rats with a dog you should try it.  I’m not talking about dogs barking squirrels up a tree either.  I’m talking about putting a dog that has good obedience on heel and slipping slowly through the woods with a .22 or shotgun waiting for the opportunity to knock one down and then sending ol’ Fido for a retrieve.  Squirrel season allows you to hone your stalking and shooting skills in the woods but it can also serve as a way to get the dog back into his needed hunting season skills—specifically in the obedience and retrieving parts. I use all commands when hunting this way.  Heel is used as we move slowly through the woods—a good jaeger lead can work wonders on a dog you are still training if he isn’t yet steady.  Whoa is used when I want to leave the dog in place and finish the last 10-20 yards of the stalk alone and is a great training aid in steadiness.  The retrieve command is used to pick up a downed (dead or wounded) squirrel once shot.  And yes, my dog has saved me lost squirrels by grabbing a couple of wounded animals over the years.  This is also a good lesson in obedience around game as we often run into deer in the dense woods this time of year. 

The last part of this blog I just wanted to comment on the absolute beauty of the central coast of California.  If you’ve never been—go as soon as you can.  This isn’t a trip for those who like Real Housewives and imagine seeing movie stars in the big city.  I’m talking about seeing tule elk, sea otters, seals, sharks, whales, mountains, tidal pools, good wine, and some of the best seafood I’ve ever eaten. I’m not a city guy but we did also hit up San Francisco to see Haight and Ashbury (home of the Grateful Dead), Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz (all worth seeing).  Within an hour of that location you can see all of the amazing things I mentioned above.  Before going my view of California was that I wasn’t interested.  The state is really as amazing as they say it is.  The temps were 75 degrees every day.  Fog rolling in off the ocean was pretty cool too.  My buddy has been out there for the past 3 years and he is an AVID outdoorsman.  So far he’s hunted Merriam’s turkeys, black tail deer, fly fished, skied, and backpacked in some amazing country.  I know I’m missing some things on his list also.  Seeing redwood sin person was also an amazing experience.  My pictures do them no justice as you can’t capture their true size.  All in all—I we’ll be baaacck.