THE VIN­TAGE BUCK

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By colin kearns

In Cal­i­for­nia wine coun­try, one fam­ily of hunters has kept fences off their vine­yard—and cre­ated a spot-and­stalk paradise.

A hill tow­ered over the

land, and at its peak a lone oak loomed like a sen­try. The tree pro­vided an es­cape from the pun­ish­ing sun, and the hill gave us a van­tage of the grounds below where black­tail deer were also seek­ing shade. Their shel­ter, though, came from a dif­fer­ent source: the edges of 4,000 rows of grapevines across 620 acres of cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia wine coun­try. We glassed up and down the vines for antlers, tails, and any hint of move­ment. As if the set­ting hadn’t al­ready made it clear that this was not a typ­i­cal hunt, my guide, Ryan Newkirk, sealed the deal when he shared a quirk about these deer.

“They love mer­lot,” he said. His tone was so mat­ter-of­fact that I needed a sec­ond to reg­is­ter the out-of-nowhere ob­ser­va­tion. It’s not ev­ery day you hear some­one equate your quarry with an oenophile. “Wait, what?”

Newkirk, who runs this fam­ily-owned vine­yard with his grand­fa­ther, Howie Stein­beck, ex­plained his the­ory: They have only 21 acres of mer­lot grapes on the prop­erty com­pared to

320 acres of caber­net sau­vi­gnon, but Newkirk said he sees just as many deer feed­ing in the mer­lot patches as in the cab-sav vines. By the time he fin­ished, he was down­right en­thu­si­as­tic, as if he’d just re­con­vinced him­self of the deer’s preference for easy-drink­ing reds. “These deer re­ally love mer­lot!”

There was a plot of mer­lot vines just below us, and since we couldn’t spy any deer from the oak hill, we de­cided to drop down to their level. Heat wave be damned.

Rare Deer

The only rea­son there are deer to stalk on this prop­erty in the first place is be­cause Ryan and Howie love to hunt. Here in Paso Robles, Cal­i­for­nia, wine grapes are a cash crop, and as vine­yards be­come more suc­cess­ful, most are en­closed with high fences to keep wildlife out. At Stein­beck Vine­yards and Win­ery, though, Newkirk and his grand­fa­ther had other ideas. By keep­ing their bor­ders open, they could pro­vide sus­tain­able habi­tat for the wildlife—namely, black­tail deer, or coastal mule deer, de­pend­ing on who you ask around here—while still run­ning a prof­itable win­ery. To date, Newkirk es­ti­mates they have 100 res­i­dent deer on their prop­erty—a herd that he and his grand­fa­ther hunt ev­ery fall.

Now would be an ap­pro­pri­ate time to get this de­tail out of the way: This is not a deer hunt for ev­ery­one—or, to be frank, al­most any­one. Newkirk lim­its the few guided hunts he of­fers each year to friends of the fam­ily, such as the Weather­bys, whose fac­tory is less than 10 miles away (but will be con­sid­er­ably far­ther when Weatherby moves to Wy­oming in 2019). By good for­tune, I scored one of those in­vi­ta­tions last Septem­ber.

I ar­rived on a Sun­day af­ter­noon, and af­ter un­load­ing gear at the vine­yard guest­house, a group of us—Newkirk and Howie, Adam Weatherby, Mike Sch­wiebert of Weatherby, and I—went out for a dove shoot. We took cor­ners at the banks of a pond and waited for birds to fly to­ward the wa­ter. We killed a few lim­its be­fore head­ing back to the house, where we breasted the birds and prepped them for pop­pers. They were the first course in a wild surf-and-turf feast of ling­cod and Stein­beck black­tail back­strap.

One thing I’d heard about these deer—and my main in­cen­tive for trav­el­ing across the coun­try for this hunt—was that while they weren’t nec­es­sar­ily giants, they were all de­li­cious. A diet con­sist­ing mostly of fine-wine grape leaves will do that to veni­son. Be­fore we even cooked, let alone ate, that back­strap, I could tell the meat was spe­cial just by look­ing at it. The color was dif­fer­ent—darker than any veni­son I’ve cooked; not quite as pur­ple as a wine grape, but close. And when I fi­nally tasted that first rare bite, the fla­vor was un­like any veni­son I’d ever had. I’ve never wanted to come home with a heavy cooler more in my life.

Tine Coun­try

Wheels up at 6:30 A.M. Newkirk said we’d get out and stalk on foot now and then, but for the most part we’d cover ground in the truck. We crawled along the dirt roads, cran­ing our necks to peer down the rows of grapevines for signs of life. Each row is about a quar­ter mile long, with 10 feet be­tween them. See­ing very far down these nar­row rows should be dif­fi­cult, but that’s where the deer fac­tor in. Newkirk said that the deer start feed­ing on the leaves at the farthest ends of the vine shoots—the most ten­der leaves—and eat their way to­ward the vines, clear­ing the canopy and giv­ing a hunter vis­i­bil­ity pretty much all the way down the lane. The first buck I spot­ted was at the op­po­site end of a row, his rack and broad­side body sil­hou­et­ted in the ris­ing sun­light. I pointed him out to Newkirk, who took a quick look be­fore mov­ing on. “Maybe next year,” he said.

Newkirk mostly kept the pace at 1 to 2 mph but oc­ca­sion­ally sped up to break the monotony. The eye­strain can get to you af­ter a while, he told me, and a speed boost some­times helps him pick out deer more eas­ily. And, man, could he spot deer. I was hold­ing my own, but he was on an­other level. He picked out de­tails I was sim­ply blind to:

tines pok­ing out of leaves or a patch of hide just slightly dif­fer­ent in color than the tawny ground. Of course, some­times the rea­son I couldn’t see the deer was be­cause there were none to see. “Never mind,” Newkirk would say.

“Just a bush buck.”

We didn’t see our first shooter till late morn­ing. He was a ma­ture buck with a 20-inch spread and mighty mass. Prob­lem was he was bed­ded just 20 yards from the road, mak­ing a stalk out of the ques­tion. We watched him for a mo­ment, then drove on. A few min­utes later, af­ter we’d turned around and drove past his row again, the buck had dis­ap­peared, hid­den some­where in the vines.

We blamed the slow hunt­ing on the weather—hot and hu­mid with­out a trace of wind. The deer were likely all bed­ded in what­ever shade they could find, so we de­cided to break for lunch and a nap be­fore re­turn­ing in the evening, hop­ing by then the cooler weather would en­cour­age some move­ment. And it did.

Newkirk spied two shoot­ers bed­ded be­side each other about 30 yards from the road. The deer here are used to trucks, so he con­tin­ued driv­ing past them as if noth­ing was up. The end of ev­ery row of vines is marked with a num­bered sign, and these deer were be­tween 59 and 60. We drove to the op­po­site end of the rows, got out, and stalked into the canopy. I kept be­hind Newkirk. Leaf-eaten shoots draped above us, and to the sides hung sag­ging clus­ters of caber­net-sau­vi­gnon grapes, nearly ready for har­vest. We walked over fresh deer scat, scat­tered be­side fallen grapes that had dried in the sun. Newkirk had told me that shots here tend to be short—un­der 100 yards—and hap­pen fast.

We closed the dis­tance, then crossed over into the row where the deer were and stopped to glass. The land­scape didn’t pro­vide enough contour for us to use to get closer, and there was too much brush in be­tween to take a clear shot. So, we moved on to Plan B.

The bucks hadn’t risen when we drove past them again and parked the truck. This time, we’d press our luck and ease up the road on foot and hope for a quick, clear shot. The walk was tense. When we reached row

59, the deer were still there but seemed on alert. I set the ri­fle in the shoot­ing sticks and waited for one to rise. The far­ther buck moved first. I clicked the safety. His rise was slow and me­thod­i­cal, and as I watched him in the scope, he some­how man­aged to turn around as he got to his feet. At no mo­ment did I have a shot. He be­gan to gin­gerly walk away, hug­ging the edge of the vines. I moved over to the next row, hop­ing to in­ter­cept the deer, but he wasn’t there. I moved over once more, again noth­ing. I re­treated to row 59, but now both deer were gone. You could see all the way down these rows— nearly a quar­ter mile—and there was noth­ing in sight. The bucks had van­ished.

We hunted till 7:30 P.M. but never made an­other stalk. Back at the house, we dined on dove pop­pers and deer heart. We BS-ed, watched foot­ball, and strate­gized for to­mor­row. We might’ve been at a vine­yard but we were a hunt­ing camp all the same.

Magic Hour

Tues­day morn­ing, we’re back in the truck, pa­trolling the vines, row by row, dis­cern­ing bush bucks from the real thing. This isn’t the most ex­cit­ing hunt­ing, but it is fun—in large part be­cause of the guide. If you’re go­ing to spend hours in a pickup, scour­ing a vine­yard for deer dur­ing a drought, you’d be hard­pressed to find a bet­ter hunt­ing part­ner than Ryan Newkirk. He’s in­tense but still laid-back, funny, smart, and down-toearth. “I don’t get wrapped up in the ro­man­ti­cism of own­ing a vine­yard,” he told me. “I’m a farmer.” He is also a hard­core hunter who’ll talk ad­ven­tures, wildlife, guns, game recipes, and any­thing else about the sport for as long as you want. Fam­ily mat­ters dearly to him, and that was never more ap­par­ent than when he told sto­ries of his best hunt­ing buddy, his grand­fa­ther Howie. They hunt the vine­yard to­gether ev­ery fall, of course, but they also take hunt­ing trips to­gether each year. Be­fore our hunt, they had both killed gi­ant pronghorns in Colorado. Newkirk has sug­gested trips to New Zealand and Africa, but Howie isn’t in­ter­ested—too much travel. Newkirk’s fine with that. He turns 33 this fall and has plenty of time for far-flung ad­ven­tures. Till then, he just wants to hunt with his grand­fa­ther as much as he can.

For as slow as the hunt­ing started to­day, time passed quickly. We cov­ered the prop­erty a few times and roamed the rows on foot. We at­tempted a few stalks, but never with much con­fi­dence. Like they were

yes­ter­day, the deer were all bed­ded in the shade near the roads. They were un­stalk­a­ble.

Af­ter lunch and a nap, the slow ac­tion con­tin­ued, and just as I could feel the hunt be­gin to slip away, magic hour ar­rived—and with it came not just one buck, but four. The group, stand­ing in the mid­dle of a row, saw us but didn’t seem spooked. We kept driv­ing till we were com­fort­ably past them, then braked and hatched a plan. Sch­wiebert took the wheel and re­versed the truck, driv­ing past the deer again. Newkirk and I got out of the truck and made a short stalk to­ward the deer, hop­ing to get off a quick shot.

The ploy al­most worked. Just be­fore we could get into po­si­tion, though, the deer started to move. Newkirk and I got back in the truck, and we watched the bach­e­lor group move through the vines. Two of the bucks stopped briefly to spar be­fore chas­ing af­ter the rest. “Oh, the rut is com­ing!” Newkirk said.

We marked the group’s path, and plot­ted our next move. Min­utes later, we found them— stand­ing about 32 yards from the road. We drove past them, as if this were all just typ­i­cal win­ery work, then stopped the truck. This time, I was the only one who got out.

Slowly, I walked back to­ward the deer. They were frozen and stand­ing straight on to­ward me. I picked the buck that gave me the best shot. I in­haled, set­tled the crosshairs, and squeezed the trig­ger.

Damn safety.I re­leased it this time, ex­haled, found the deer in the scope again, and fired.

The black­tail jumped and ran to my right, while the other three went left. Sch­wiebert, with his own tag, rushed to­ward the deer to see if he could get a shot, but they were long gone. We re­turned to the site of my shot, and there wasn’t a drop of blood where the deer last stood. I started to fear the worst, and then Newkirk crossed over two rows.

“Here he is,” he said. I low­ered my head and smiled.

The deer had gone only 12 feet be­fore he died. His rack— three points on the right, two on the left—rested on the earth, which was lit­tered with fallen grapes.

Howie had heard the shot and came to meet us. Af­ter some pho­tos, he of­fered to take the deer from there so we could use what time re­mained for Sch­wiebert’s deer. We thanked him and piled into the truck. It felt like we cov­ered all 620 acres in those last 15 min­utes, and each time we neared the next row of vines, I ex­pected to see a shooter. But that deer never ma­te­ri­al­ized, and soon our light was gone.

Fam­ily Meal

As Sch­wiebert and I pulled out of the vine­yard the next day, head­ing home, I couldn’t help but turn to the win­dow to look for one last deer. We were mov­ing too fast, though, and the vine rows blurred to­gether. The only deer I could pic­ture was mine from last night.

By the time we ar­rive at the skin­ning sta­tion, Howie, ever the hard worker, has al­ready skinned my buck. Stars have be­gun to poke through the sky as we gather around the hang­ing deer. The fi­nal mo­ments of the barely over hunt race through my thoughts; it was hard to be­lieve it was all over—even harder to be­lieve that it had all come to­gether. As Howie fin­ishes the knife work, he tells us that lit­tle was left of the heart. But, he adds, “the liver is good.” I was happy to hear that and de­cide that fried liver will be the first meal I cook from this hunt when I get home—ex­cept Newkirk’s mother, Cindy, has beaten me to it. She walks out of the nearby kitchen car­ry­ing a bot­tle of wine and a red plas­tic plate. The bot­tle is a Stein­beck zin­fan­del. They have a tra­di­tion here of toast­ing a suc­cess­ful hunt with a glass of wine made from the grapes that grew where the hunt came to end. My deer, I now know, died in zin­fan­del. On the plate is the liver from my deer, pan-fried and steam­ing in the chilly evening air. Cindy sets the bot­tle and plate on the folded­down tail­gate of Howie’s pickup, and we all help our­selves. The wine is out­stand­ing, but the liver steals the show—ten­der, rich, and per­fectly cooked. I’m all for shar­ing, but I’m also not above help­ing my­self to more than the oth­ers. Hell, I’m proud of it.

The hour is get­ting late, and we still have our own meal to cook back at the guest­house, but we aren’t in any rush to leave— at least I’m not. And that’s when it hits me: Of all the places I’ve hunted, of all the amaz­ing peo­ple I’ve met on those hunts, I’ve never felt more wel­come, more at home, than here, with this fam­ily.

Sch­wiebert slowed down to take the exit out of Stein­beck, and I searched the last of the rows, but all I saw were bush bucks. By now the sun was high and strong, send­ing the black­tails into the shade where they van­ish in the vines.

Game Time Clock­wise from top: The au­thor (left) and Ryan Newkirk plan a stalk; a 5-point black­tail tagged in the early evening; Newkirk (right) and Mike Sch­wiebert talk strat­egy.

Tro­phy Meal Fresh pan-fried veni­son liver and a bot­tle of Stein­beck red capped off the suc­cess­ful hunt; the au­thor with his Cal­i­for­nia black­tail—re­ferred to as coastal mule deer by some lo­cals.

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