“What kind of bullet are you shooting out of your muzzleloader?” That was Tim McLagan, my taxidermist, on the other end of the line. I had dropped my buck off at his shop earlier in the day. And now he was asking about a bullet he’d found beneath the hide. A bullet I hadn’t put there.
There were three of us that applied as a party for that late-season muzzleloader hunt. Between us we had six preference points, averaged out to two apiece, enough to draw our tags in the Controlled Hunt lottery. One of our partners decided not to go. That left Steve Mathers and me and 321 other front-stuffing fanatics to go after blacktails in the November season.
We began our hunt on day 9. In the morning I spotted a big four-point trailing a doe. At midday, we watched a button buck with a couple of does down in a canyon on the edge of private land. That evening, as light was fading fast, I spotted a big buck on a dark trail.
Next morning, I broke branches and scraped an antler against a limb. In two minutes, a deer walked in, I could hear it, but couldn’t see it. It walked back out without giving me a glimpse.
On this day, my friend John McDevitt was along. It was 11:15 and we were headed to meet Mathers for lunch when McDevitt spotted a buck in the canyon. I had taken the No. 11 cap from under the hammer, but it was a matter of a moment to pinch it back on. One pass with the binoculars was enough. I eased the hammer back, muffling the click to full cock with the blade of the trigger.
Distracted by a doe, the buck had stopped out in the open. 80 yards or more, at a steep downhill angle. I put the front post beneath his brisket and stroked the trigger. The Hawken rocked me with the recoil. A cloud of white smoke hung in the still air.
We walked down through the trees, through shafts of shining sunbeams. The buck was gray around the muzzle, muscular, summer-fat. His tall nut brown antlers were almost 17 inches wide with three points on one side and four on the other.
Kneeling beside the great buck, I found where the bullet had struck him an inch below the spine.
I thought back to my session at the COSSA Range east of my home in Bend, how I plotted the trajectory of the bullet at 50 yards, 100 yards, 150 yards and 200 yards.
One hundred grains of Hodgdon Triple 7, a lubed patch, a 320-grain lead conical, a six o’clock hold. The load printed one inch high at 50 yards; nine inches high at 100 yards; one inch high at 150 yards; nine inches low at 200.
If I hadn’t taken the time to understand the arc of that big 320-grain T/C Maxiball, I would have held on the buck’s body instead of below him. I would have blown my shot and that buck would have gotten away.
Talking to McLagan, all these things flashed through my mind.
“We were caping out the head,” Tim said, “when we found a .22 bullet in the neck, about six inches below the ear. The wound had healed and scar tissue had formed around it. It looked like it had been there four months or more.”
When I went back to pick up the antlers at McLagan’s shop, he handed me a 40-grain chunk of lead, a 22-caliber solid-point projectile, slightly deformed from its trajectory into the muscled neck of a mature blacktail buck. A bullet with a poacher’s tale to tell.
A 22-caliber rimfire rifle bullet is quiet, its report unremarkable, the sound dispersed by the baffles of the canyons, the oaks and the firs. Chances are there is a .22 rifle in a cupboard in every house in that valley, close to hand, useful for training young shooters and dispatching silver-gray squirrels and other small game.
Though illegal to use for big game, a well-placed 40-grain chunk of lead delivered at high speed can be deadly. Knowing this, a poacher often chooses a .22 rifle. Make a good shot and the deer goes down. Make a poor shot and the deer escapes, perhaps to die, its meat to be devoured by crows and coyotes.
Either way, the poacher is a thief that steals game from Oregon hunters who follow the rules, who hunt in season with equipment that conforms to the letter of the law.
Weighing that bullet in one hand and a 320-grain T/C Maxiball in the other, I wondered how my season would have ended had the poacher’s bullet killed my deer.