Text and photos by Jon Farrar
The opening weekend of the firearm deer season is a family affair for the Colburns. Roots are deep on the ranch that has been in the family for over 100 years.
The Shell convenience store in Valentine was awash in orange two hours before the opening of the 2007 firearm deer season. Hunters streamed in, a thermos in one hand, traveling mug in the other; and emerged minutes later,
At the Colburn ranch on the south side of the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, opening morning was more serene. Two orange-clad figures stalked slowly through the woodlot behind Keith and Kristi Colburn's house. Keith's dad, Dean Colburn, was already in the corrals, switch in hand, making sure each twin fall calf had equal time to suck their mother. Dean's wife, Delores, came from the house, then Keith down the lane between the two houses. We milled and talked until sunlight struck the ridgetops to the west, spread down the sidehills and swept across the big meadow to the west. It was balmy for November, already in the mid-40s at sunrise, with low, scudding clouds that would linger though the day.
There was talk of abundant rains after six or seven years of drought, but the need for more; of the unusually high number of twin calves born earlier that fall; of World War II pilots gone astray on practice bombing runs over the refuge and bomb fragments still found in the pastures. There was talk of lazy hunters who already were patrolling the county road past the Colburn's, hoping for an easy and illegal shot at a deer, and of the morning hunting plans of Keith and Kristi's three children - Seth, Mark and Joni. Seth, at 20, was the most experienced hunter, having killed a deer every year since he was 14. Mark, 18, a senior in high school, had more interest in organized sports, wrestling in particular, and found time for hunting scarce. For Joni, 16, it was her first deer hunt.
When legal shooting time came, Mark and his spotter, girlfriend Erika Schneider, were already walking the big range of hills in the Farlow pasture on the north side of the ranch, a pasture bordering the refuge. After finding no deer in the woodlot near the house, Seth and Joni shifted their search to a range of choppy hills on the eastern edge of the ranch. The three young Colburns were the only deer hunters on the ranch, circumstances most deer hunters can only dream about. But having a whole ranch to yourself on opening morning comes at a price the rest of the year and, in the case of the Colburns, a long history.Deep Roots
The core of the Colburn ranch has been family land for more than 100 years. In 1891, Delores's great-uncle, Gustav Wendler, an immigrant from Germany, homesteaded and filed a timber claim where the Colburns live today. His brother Max - Seth, Mark and Joni's great-great grandfather - came to America in 1907 with "five good kids and $100." The following year, he and his wife, Ida, homesteaded adjacent to Gustav, on the east end of nearby Rat Lake. To help ends meet during their early years, they ran a hunting and fishing resort with cabins, boat rentals and meals in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1932, after Gus was run over and badly injured by a team of horses, Max bought his brother's land. One of Max and Ida's "five good kids" was Gretchen, a feisty, red-headed girl everyone called Shorty. Shorty married Clint Hull and the couple had one child, Delores, who married Dean Colburn in 1951 and moved to the ranch. Today, Keith and Kristi operate the ranch with them, and live only 250 yards away, a distance Keith frequently travels on a bicycle with no fenders that leans on the fence in front of his house. Seth, Mark and Joni were not just hunting deer, they were hunting deer on family land, land with as much family history written on it as birth, marriage and death notes in the front of a family bible.
The first deer of the day, a mule deer doe, fell to Mark, who was shooting a borrowed Model 700 .280-caliber Remington. Keith picked his way up into the range of hills in the ranch pickup, slipping over the lowest ridgecuts and across grassed pockets to within 30 yards of where Mark and Erika were waiting. There are nine saddle horses on the ranch but not a single four-wheeler. "There are probably places for four-wheelers on a ranch," Keith said, "but once you have one, you start using them for things you shouldn't."
There was something wholesomely matter-of-fact about Mark's decision to shoot a doe on the opening morning of deer season, something akin to raising cattle - you raise meat, you harvest meat, you eat the meat you raised or, in the case of a cattle ranch, sell it to others to eat. There were no high-fives, no hooting over long shots or massive racks, no comments about shooting a doe on opening morning, only smiles and getting to the business of field dressing the deer. Mark's account of the hunt was succinct, sparing with his words, a common trait of young men in the Sandhills.
"We drove up to the west end of the pasture," he recounted, "walked up into the hills and worked our way back east because the wind was out of the southeast, staying off the ridges where deer would see us, working along the sidehills, easing to the top now and then to look for deer on the other side. We walked about 20 minutes and then saw a nice buck, a mule deer. A little later, we saw four does running across the meadow, all mule deer, and go up into the hills where we had seen the buck. We worked back west, but never saw the four does again. Then all of a sudden we saw four deer, and then a fifth. We worked around through the hills to get closer but they kept moving, grazing. We worked back north though the choppies and saw eight come up a sharp bank. There was a little forkhorn with them but I didn't see him until after I shot the doe. I didn't care. I was either after a big buck or a fat doe." By noon Mark's doe was hanging from lariat ropes in a tree behind the house.
After a sweep of the high hills in the east pasture without finding deer, Seth and Joni moved their hunt into the Farlow Pasture where Mark had shot his doe. The range of choppy hills, pocked with little grassy pockets, clumps of brush and studded with soapweed, was prescription mule deer habitat. North of the range of hills was the Colburn's expansive North Meadow, and between the hills and the meadow were tree groves and brush patches where deer could retreat during severe winter weather.
Joni was shooting Seth's .270-caliber Remington 700. Seth was spotting, carrying only a lightweight rifle bipod he called his "sticks." He was a deer hunter mature beyond his age, confident of his proficiency and that he would shoot his deer before the weekend ended. His hunting pace was measured, and on this opening day, he was his little sister's deer guide.
After an hour of slipping through the hills, Seth spotted a buck mule deer, a 3-by-3, bedded down on a sidehill and they stalked within 100 yards. By the time Joni had the rifle resting on the bipod, the buck had heard, scented or sighted them and stood broadside. Joni's one shot was high and the buck gave no chance for a second. "I was pretty shaky," Joni later confessed. Opening morning was over.
There are palatable advantages to hunting the home place in addition to free rein to an entire ranch and being able to drive a pickup right up to your downed deer, advantages like dinner. Dinner is still the noon meal at the Colburn ranch, and the evening meal is supper. Keith apologized for the dinner before all gathered around the table made long enough to accommodate the multitude by the addition of a card table on the end. "Kind of embarrassing to serve chicken on a cattle ranch," he said with a smile. But everyone bellied up and made short work of Kristi's fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, corn and homemade desserts. There was easy family talk, no discussion of world affairs. It was, well, sort of a traditional Sunday dinner with family on a Saturday, the sort once common, the sort of dinner special enough for a son to bring his girlfriend out from town.Wind Breaks and Mule Deer
The Colburn ranch has a good mix of bottomland meadows and upland pastures. Dean and Delores moved to the ranch in 1951. It was not until the next year they saw their first deer, a mule deer. As years passed, whitetails became more abundant until there were about equal numbers of each species, the whitetails staying near the meadows and valleys where there was traditional whitetail habitat - cattails and rushes fringing lakes and marshes - and shelterbelts. Mule deer have been far more abundant than whitetails in the last five or six years.
The ranch has more woodlands than most Sandhills ranches. Since the first Wendler Timber Claim plantings in the early 1900s, shelterbelts and woodlots have been planted and nurtured to provide livestock protection. Clint Hull, Delores's father, served on several conservation boards and associations, and for 14 years headed a tree planting crew. He planted trees to protect livestock on his own ranch and the family has continued planting trees. Even the large branches of dead and fallen trees are put to use. If they're not burned to warm Keith and Kristi's house, they're stacked with a front-end loader to form massive wind breaks where cattle can huddle when wind and snow blows hard from the northwest in winter.
Keith only hunted deer once. The story of why was retold after Saturday's dinner. In 1973, when Keith was 14 and old enough to buy a deer permit, he and Dean hunted from horseback in the big range of hills south of Dads Lake. Keith was riding Sam, a Shetland and quarter horse cross, a "not-too-tall horse," 800-900 pounds, but with small feet. Keith shot a mule deer buck, they field dressed the animal, threw it over the saddle on Keith's horse and tied it down. The horse was accommodating right up to the point of being led home, at which point Sam started spinning in circles. When the deer slid down on one side all hell
By mid-afternoon, Seth and Joni were back in the east pasture's high hills, easing field glasses and rifle scope over soapweeds on ridges, looking for deer still bedded down before the late day move to feed. Seth was convinced there were deer in the east pasture and they just hadn't found them in the morning. They were sitting on a highpoint glassing when they saw the spike buck moving through the hills. Rut was beginning and even little bucks were on the prowl. Seth and Joni circled ahead, guessing the cuts the buck would take, and were waiting when it emerged 120 yards away. Joni's second shot at a deer was true, the slug passing through both lungs. By dark the second Colburn deer was hanging in the trees behind the house.Another Balmy Day
Clouds had mostly blown east by dawn of the second day, and again it was unseasonably warm, already 50 degrees at 6 a.m., but with a rising wind shifting from the southwest to the northwest. Seth took a stand at the south end of the east range of hills before shooting time, thinking, as had happened in deer seasons past, that hunters would move deer off the refuge. He had killed his deer just that way the last two or three years. His vigil was short-lived and by the time the sun had cleared the eastern ridge, he was already bouncing across the north meadow in the 1960 Ford pickup he had repaired and repainted when he was 18 years old. It was a classic ranch flatbed Seth had built, a fencing pickup with more side mirrors than most 18-wheelers, a wood shelf above the windshield for the CB radio and coil-spring seats, mostly lacking any covering. The chrome handle for the spotlight on the cab had been long ago replaced with a pair of vise grips. It was, well, Seth's pickup.
"I pulled out on the meadow next to the high hills to glass," Seth later recounted. "And right away I saw one mule doe, way up on the ridgeline, probably half a mile away. I thought there would be more with her. I stalked back into the hills and got the wind right. Wind was out of the west, blowing pretty hard. I'd go over a hill and glass, then move on. Sometimes you might only take 10 steps and you can see new country, and glass some more. I was just doing that and saw one deer in a pocket on a sidehill. I thought it was probably a mulie buck, three-by-three, probably the one Joni hunted yesterday. But I was too far to know for sure.
"I worked a little closer and could see he was pretty decent," Seth continued. "I got settled, lined up on him, shot and he ran over the hill. I had heard a thump and I saw blood on his side so I knew he wasn't going far. It was a 150-yard shot. He gave me enough time to use my sticks and get steady. When I first spotted him, he hadn't seen me, but when I got up to the next little ridge, he turned and looked toward me, standing broadside, and that's when I fired. There were four does within 30 yards of him in a pocket, getting out of the wind. I didn't see them until I shot. They were bedded down for midday."
Seth's 4-by-4 had a tall and wide rack, but wasn't as heavy-beamed as he would have liked. It was, he said, his second largest deer. He said he would "wait for a nicer one" when he hunted with a muzzleloader in December.
When Seth drove into the ranch with his deer, Kristi was taking a photo of Joni with her first deer. It was going to be too warm, expected to reach the mid-60s, to let the deer hang and age. In the time it took Seth to drive to the refuge and check in his deer, Keith and Mark had the other two deer cut, packaged and in the freezer. The backstraps had been carefully trimmed out, cut into eight-inch lengths and wrapped. The quarters were carved into assorted roasts and labeled - "Good Top Round Roast," followed by "Almost as Good Near Top Round Roast." The secret to ciphering the package contents would be chronological stacking in the freezer.
By the time Seth returned from the check station it was too late in the morning to process another deer, so it was hoisted up in the machine shop to cool. There was a proper ranch dinner of homegrown beef with brown gravy over potatoes and more homemade desserts, then a rush for everyone to change clothes and drive the 32 miles to town to watch Joni in the high school drama performance of Arabian Nights' Tale. Just another opening weekend of the firearm deer season on the Colburn ranch.