As a kid I watched hard for the mailman in midsummer, hoping every day he’d show up with the Cabela’s hunting catalog, the signal that fall was coming. In those days—not being old enough to drive or hold down a job—what little money I had came from my winter trapline and, in the summer, selling seeds door to door and collecting scrap newspapers. Since I’d long since spent my trapping money, I wasn’t very well set up to buy much from the catalog (I was and am lousy at sales), but dreaming was and is more fun than actual buying.
These days, my dreams about fall involve what I’m going to do and where I’m going to go. In that spirit, I’ve come up with a fall hunting schedule so jam-packed I couldn’t possibly do it in terms of time or money. But that’s what dreams are for.
August is not fall by the calendar, but if you go far north enough it might as well be. My first hunt of the year would be caribou, hiking across a carpet of tundra that’s turning redder by the day and enjoying the tart ripeness of subarctic blueberries while glassing for the majestic deer of the North.
On Labor Day, I’d be sitting in the cornrows of South Carolina, sweating and swearing as doves swoop in and fly away unscathed despite rapid-fire blasts from the shotgun. Three or four boxes of shells might be enough to cook up a few dove kebabs at the evening barbecue.
A week or so later and it’s on to the plains of Wyoming, where the antelope play catch me if you can and it’s great fun to stoop, crawl, run—whatever it takes to get close to them. Now it’s feeling like autumn under wide blue skies; while the temps may be high midday, mornings and evenings carry a chill.
It isn’t far from there into higher country, where the aspens are beginning to yellow and the elk are beginning to rut. If there’s a sound that encapsulates fall, it’s the keening sound of a rutting bull. The hunting’s hard, and just being in that country and hearing that sound are reward enough—although a cooler full of elk meat is a welcome bonus.
I wasn’t a big waterfowler growing up, but I wanted to be. And one of the most amazing hunts I got to do in my later years was a trip to Alberta in mid-October. We lay in the fields under oversize decoys and watched through the slits as hundreds of geese swirling above us, stacked in holding patterns like jets at O’Hare as they tried to get a look at our decoy spread—dekes we’d set up in the dark as the northern lights danced tantalizingly above our heads.
About this time I’d head back to my home state of Pennsylvania and take a seat against a big ol’ shagbark hickory, watching the limbs and trunks above my head for the flicker of a bushy gray tail. Or maybe open the door of the car and thrill to the sight of beagles bouncing out of the car as we start searching for the first cottontail of the day, the frost coating our boots as we cross the fields.
I was once asked what hunt would I do if it were my last one. Without hesitation I described what it was like to cruise the Allegheny Mountains in western Virginia, looking for fall turkeys—the scent of leaves and wood smoke from the few isolated houses in the hollows below tingeing the air as the chill early morning haze give way to a crisp blue sky. The excitement of finding fresh scratching’s, the strategy of moving into position to break up a flock (or, more challenging, enticing an old gobbler to walk into shotgun range), the calls of birds reassembling…it’s just the ultimate hunt to me.
It’s still technically fall when Pennsylvania’s buck season opens right after Thanksgiving, but it might as well be winter most years in the far northern part of the state. Back in the old days I would park myself against a tree and watch a deer trail crossing from first light to last, not moving. It was almost always cold, and those vigils were a test of will and taught me how to tough it out if I wanted to be successful. I wouldn’t do it that way today; such a deer hunt would be more about getting together with family and friends to enjoy a tradition than about filling the freezer.
So that’s my dream fall. What’s yours?
- Fall has always been my favorite time of year. Here in the Midwest, the dog days of summer give way to Indian summer, where sometime in late September and early October shorter daylight hours, lower daytime temperatures, and cooler nights eventually trigger colorful fall foliage…
Of course, October also means the beginning of the false or early rut for whitetail deer, which is the only big-game animal we can hunt smack dab in the Midwest or Illinois. The corn and soybeans are being shelled or cut by those big $250,000 combines, and that means more deer will be on the move. And bowhunters are licking their chops, anticipating elevated levels of activity prior to the gun season opener in November.
But my favorite fall (and spring) memory actually takes me some 3,000 miles northwest to Alaska, the Last Frontier. And it’s two memorable hunts, not one. The reason for two special and memorable hunts? Because both represented the opportunity to hunt two big-game species I had never hunted before, to hunt with industry friends, and to be the first to field test entirely new rifle cartridges.
On my very first trip to Alaska, a hunting trip I had dreamed about since I was in grade school, I had the opportunity to hunt Alaskan moose with Remington’s Art Wheaton. Remington had just that year introduced the Ultra Mag series of cartridges, and I had a Model 700 in .300 long-action Ultra Mag that would prove to be perfect moose medicine. The rut was in full swing, and with my guide (Virgil Umphenour from Hunt Alaska) using a call to entice a bull to temporarily leave his cows; he brought me face to face with a heavy horned 1,600-pound bull in some very thick willows.
You have to understand that for a Midwesterner who had only hunted 150-200 pound whitetails in the woods, this four-legged critter looked as big as a locomotive weaving his way through the willows. Moving through thick brush and busting off willows and pine boughs at will, the bull was towering over all else and was a sight to behold. He was irritated and agitated, and he wanted to confront any challenger who wanted to “steal” one of his cows. Given we were only 50 or so yards away from each other, you can imagine how nervous I was as I got in position, brought the 700 bolt action firmly to my shoulder, fixed the crosshairs on his front shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
The Ultra Mag and Model 700 did its part…moose meat to fill the freezer and a mount to proudly display in my game room.
My second trip to Alaska brought me to a hunting area near Norton Sound with my good friend Wayne Holt, who was with Hornady. It was another opportunity of a lifetime, hunting grizzly bear. Hornady decided to introduce the .375 Ruger cartridge, a round that basically exceeds the performance of the .375 H&H, and to prove its remarkable performance; they wanted us to try it out on dangerous game.
Again, long story short, my guide, Eric Umphenour, spotted a grizzly in open country that seemed to be heading in our direction. Fortunately, we had time to set up and then play the waiting game. Eric had perfectly read the bear’s intention as he basically followed a drainage until he was only about 125 yards away. He was moving quickly from left to right, and when Eric whispered, “take him,” I squeezed the trigger on my Ruger Model 77 Alaskan and heard the first 270-grain bullet impact.
The problem was, when the bear was hit, he went down in a dip in the ground and disappeared. The pucker factor on my index was off the charts. As we discussed what to do next, the griz suddenly resurfaced running full out from right to left…I had a split second to put a second round in him…. I did and he went down instantly.
Two great animals taken with two great guns and two new cartridges, with two special friends….
Two trips loaded with memories to last a lifetime…
—Jim Bequette - Guns & Ammo Magazine