Stories We Could Tell – The Hell Hole Magnet

I was over on the DaggaBoy blog earlier this week, and he and I were sharing comments about one of his recent hunts.  He mentioned that, like me, his game always seems to want to fall in the worst possible places.  That got me to thinking about some of my past hunts, and my own propensity for dropping animals in hell holes, and I thought it was worth sharing a tale or two. 

My first Tejon hog came from deep in a hell hole.

I’m not sure when I first gained my reputation for killing animals in “hell holes”, but I’m guessing it must have been around the same time I started hunting at the Tejon Ranch.

Now truth be told, the terrain at Tejon makes it pretty tough not to end up at the bottom of a steep canyon, or way out in the back of beyond in the mud and snow where no vehicle can reach you.  Sure, there are plenty of gentle rolling hills, and even flat pastures and meadows on that ranch, but in my mind, big hogs love bad country, especially when the hunting pressure is on.  To get them, you have to go where no one else wants to be.

Something few people warn you about when hunting a place like Tejon, is that the terrain can also be deceptive.  That big, wide finger ridge you strolled down so comfortably when you walked in was actually an extended downslope, ending in a steep drop into the chemise thickets and creek bottoms a hundred feet below.  The return walk is almost always uphill, which is bad enough if you’re walking back empty-handed.  It’s pure torture if you’re trying to drag a dead hog.

That’s how I found myself on my first hunt at the ranch, well out on one of those fingers and dreading the long haul back to the truck.  Moments later, I shot my hog and he did what all hogs do when you kill them on a hillside… he rolled.  And he rolled some more.  And then, just to prove the point, he rolled some more.

Just a note here… Unlike deer, hogs are very difficult to drag.  They’re all dead weight, no matter where you try to pick them up.  They don’t have antlers for handles, or long, thin legs you can easily grab and drag standing upright.  It’s a matter of brute, hunched-back force… and that’s just on flat ground.  Getting a dead boar up a steep hill that’s been rooted to rubble and covered in oak leaves and dried grasses is the sort of thing they write about in Greek mythology.

I remember that recovery well, because it included three guys’ worth of backbreaking labor just to get the hog within reach of my 300 yards of rope.  With that rope and my winch, I dragged that hog the rest of the way to the truck.  And he wasn’t even all that big!

Another BIG hell hole hog

In retrospect, that was one of the easier recoveries I ever had at Tejon.  For example, I can compare that first one to the huge boar I shot at Tejon several years later, but not all that far from where I’d killed the first one.

I’d killed several hogs at Tejon by this point.  My last one ended up being way back in the canyons, and by the time I’d hiked it out with my friend, Scott, it was so late that the Tejon security officer/game warden was waiting for us at my truck to make sure that:

  1. We weren’t dead
  2. We weren’t poachers

My reputation for hunting hell holes was already pretty much established by this point, and I’d made the half-hearted pledge to kill my next pig on flat ground, with an easy drag to the vehicle.  Add to this the fact that I’d hyper-extended my knee earlier in the weekend, so I wasn’t all that excited about the possibility of dropping down into another chasm of death to recover a hog.

My friends and I were way up on top of a high ridge, glassing an area where I’d seen a lot of very fresh and very large sign.  We knew the hogs bedded down on the hillsides and ravines, but I was trying to keep myself up on the flats, away from the cliffs and holes.

The morning was moving slower than I was.  I’d overslept after being up pretty late the night before helping other hunters recover hogs from their own hell holes, my knee hurt, and it was getting warm.  All I really wanted was to find an elk bed in a nice patch of sunshine, and collapse for a long nap.  Truthfully, I may have been looking for just such a place when I spotted movement across the distant hillside.

Had to cut this one into pieces to get out.

At first I thought it was a black calf, trotting solo across the open hill.  I dug out the binoculars and took a closer look.  Boar!  BIG boar!

He was about 500 yards away, but following a cattle trail that would lead him to the ravine directly below me.  Yepp… a hell hole.  I tried to steel myself for the inevitable, but then I saw the hog turn and start along another trail.  This one ran higher, skirting the ravine and leading pretty much right to my spot.  I slipped the .30-06 off of my shoulder and jacked a round into the chamber as I found myself a comfortable spot.

From my new perch, I could see the hog still coming and my truck just a couple hundred yards away.  The boar disappeared into a little hollow, and when he came out he was only 20 yards away.  In a flash, I leveled the rifle and made a textbook headshot, driving the hog to the ground with thud.  I had done it!  I’d killed a hog on flat land, within sight of the vehicle! An easy recovery at last!

As I started to walk up to the boar, he started to twitch as his pulverized brain sent some final signals through his spine to his muscles.  The twitching became violent spams, and I watched in horror as the hog, stone dead, flopped himself to the edge of a cliff and then over.  A dry waterfall dropped about 20 feet into a ravine, but the hog wasn’t satisfied there and kept rolling even deeper into the hell hole.

When all was said and done, I had to cut that boar into pieces and backpack him out like an elk.

Speaking of elk…

My luck with hell holes hasn’t been limited to hogs.  I’ve managed to drop several big game animals in nasty places.  Deer seem to want to find the most isolated canyon to drop into, or to stumble off into a dense swamp.  And elk… residents of some pretty tough country in the first place, present a real challenge.

Nevertheless, my first elk was a blessing of luck and serendipity.  Within yards of the truck, on a road, I spotted and shot my first bull as he sped up the hillside.  I led him like a rabbit, and my shot took him in the neck at the base of the skull, dropping him on the spot.  We were able to back the truck up to the hillside and simply slide the carcass right into the bed.  Easy peasy.

Not so, my next bull, a couple years later.

I’d just finished my lunch in a lovely meadow, hoping all the while that a bull wapiti would stroll out into the open where I could gently kill him right by the trail.  I’d merely have to quarter the beast where he lay, and then walk the horses in for a simple pack out.

Except it never works out quite that way.  Instead, after lunch I decided to take a little walk into the dark timber that covered the steep sides of the ridge.  The guides were down in the valley below me, helping my brother load and pack out the bull he’d killed the previous morning, so I was pretty much on my own.  I figured I’d just kill some time, poking around close to the meadow until they came back.

A hundred yards from the top of the ridge, I happened on a mule deer doe and yearling.  The ground was damp, and I was able to get pretty close.  I enjoyed watching them browse, unaware, when something caught our attention.  A limb snapped behind me, and I turned slowly to see the tip of a large antler appearing from behind a tree.  At first I thought it might be a huge mule deer buck, but the antler got larger and larger, until the 5×5 bull elk stepped into the open at about 20 yards.

Without hesitation, I slipped my rifle from my shoulder, chambered a round, and let fly before the startled bull could even move.  He stumbled, and then fell.  My silent jubilation stopped short, though, when the huge beast began to slide and tumble down the steep hill, bulldozing the small trees and gaining speed until, finally, he fetched up hard against a big trunk.    The ground, at this point, was so steep I had to hold onto tree trunks to descend to my prize.  In order to field dress him without sliding even further down the hill, I had to use the parachute cord I carry in my pack to tie his legs to trees.

It took some effort, but once he was boned out, I hiked back up the hill to find the guide just returning.  I showed him where the bull had fallen, and he laughed.  “We’ll never even get the mule down there.  Gonna have to bring him up by hand.  Good thing you boned him out.”

I beamed with pride at my self sufficience.

“Of course,” he added.  “If you’d just given him a shove, he’d have probably rolled the rest of the way down that trail down there and we could have ridden right up to him.”

Sure enough, a few hundred feet through the trees I could see the outline of a horse path.

Sometimes, I guess, we make our own hell holes.