Sunday, August 26, 2012

Out of Africa

I think I need another few hundred hours of artificially chilled air to cool off, core temperature wise.

A and I have been pretty busy for the last month or so, and, a couple of weeks ago we completed a big game hunt that is unique in my experience. This is the first time I've hunted large animals in conditions that could fairly be called "Africa hot".

As witnessed by the paucity of blog posts, reflecting a paucity of time afield, work has been kicking our butts the last couple years or so. Reflecting the lack of time afield is the fact that our freezers have gotten pretty bare of red meat. In an effort to increase our opportunities for big game, A and I put in for elk in some relatively local areas (that don't offer great odds of drawing), deer in similarly local areas (and drew for November), put in for antelope (which are very long odds nowadays) and also put in for oryx off the White Sands Missile Range. Tags on the Missile Range are popular and hard to draw, but off-Range tags offer better odds. Most of the animals are on the Range where the habitat is good for them, but off-Range hunts run for an entire month rather than a weekend to give you a better chance. Since oryx breed year round, the hunts also run year round. As part of the odds game we put in for hunts scheduled for June and August, months not often associated with big game hunting and featuring less competition for tags. We also applied for tags separately, hoping one of us would draw.

I drew, for August, but A did not draw at all (we also blanked on elk). Tag in hand, back in July we headed over for the Tularosa Basin and scouted some BLM and state trust land. Since we lucked into the draw for an on-Range oryx  hunt a couple of years ago, as recounted here, we had some ideas about what we were looking for. We found a few likely locations and got some tips from a guy much more familiar with the area. Our first day out, we started glassing at the first spot and, within minutes, A spotted a pair of animals.She stayed up on a little promontory keeping an eye on the oryx through the spotting scope while I dropped down into a wash and headed in their direction. Getting nearly to where one of the animals bedded in the shade of a salt cedar, I hit a fence that marked the edge of huntable territory. Leaving the oryx to lounge in safety, we headed to other promontories and spent the rest of the day glassing and checking for tracks. Sixteen hours and nearly four hundred road miles passed without success.

Another Saturday, and we headed out again. Glassing first thing in the morning, A again spotted an oryx nearly right away. Again, it proved to be a pair of animals, feeding and meandering around. Again, I dropped into a wash and headed down toward the animals. This time, the oryx crossed over the fence and off of public land before I was halfway to their original location. Moving over to another wash to work my way back to A, I cut a pair of extremely fresh tracks that headed into a sandy pocket below a low ridge. I followed, expecting to come up on the oryx somewhere under the ridge in some fairly heavy brush. Instead, the animals had wandered up over the ridge and into a broad shallow draw on the other side. Two and a half hours into the hunt and with the heat rising, I decided to head back so we could check out another location. Before doing so, I eased over a shoulder of the ridge to take a look at the country over there just to get a better feel for the lay of the land. No sooner had I gotten over to about where I could see, but a pair of oryx started up and to my left. They paused a minute and I shot the slightly larger second animal.

Once the oryx was down, I got in touch with A. We met up to fix relative locations and then she headed back to the truck to move it to a point somewhat nearer to the animal while I proceeded with field dressing. A bit over a mile from the truck, something near that from the nearest vehicle access, we had our meat.

Usually, New Mexico benefits from the "monsoon" rains in August, a weather pattern where moisture from the Gulf of California moves into the Southwest to condense over the mountains, resulting in afternoon thundershowers and cooling things down a bit. Not so much this year. August has been darned hot and the two towns closest to where we got  this animal had highs of 102 and 103 F, respectively. I had two quarters off and in what scanty shade was available when A made it over from the truck. She helped me with the last two quarters and sawing out the skull plate. With everything we couldn't carry on a piece of plastic under a mesquite, A took the backstraps, loins, every bit of miscellaneous bit of gear out of my pack and some other odds and ends while I took a forequarter and a hindquarter. Although we had very little elevation loss or gain, that stretch out to the truck was one of the more challenging I've done in a while. All water in us, sandy, a good load and hotter than all get out, I had to stop every hundred yards or so for the last third and kind of stopped enjoying the hunt. The fact that every year I'm a bit older and that I'm pretty much completely out of shape and a bit out of practice packing might have contributed something to the situation, too. In any event, the hard half out, we sat in the truck, cranked up the air conditioner, had a cold drink, had another cold drink, and gathered ourselves up. Out and back with another quarter each, we had all the meat on ice and a cold  beer in hand  by 4 pm.

The last oryx hunt, on-range, was interesting but crowded. In contrast, we only saw a couple of other hunters this time, those rolling up on the highway as we  brought out the last load. It was harder to find animals and they were much more scattered  but, all in all, this was more my preference. Now, the meat is cut and wrapped, the horns are on the fence and we're looking forward to fall.