California Dreaming

There was no rush leaving the house in the morning, as we would have to be able to spot deer before deciding if we would even try a stalk. The morning air was comfortable for the middle of August, and the local doves were on the wing looking for a place to eat. I was hunting the Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery for California black-tailed deer, native to the Pacific coast, and high on my list for a new adventure.

I had never been to California, other than to stop in one of the busy airports en route to somewhere else. With close to 40 million people, California holds the prestige of having the highest density of humans in North America, or one out of eight citizens in the United States. The statistics have always boggled my mind, making me wonder how there could be any room left for sustainable wildlife?

My first morning on the ground answered my questions, as quail scurried across the trail, ducks erupted from the ponds, and deer tiptoed through the vineyard looking for succulent new leaves to turn into their next meal. Our guide and outfitter, Ryan Newkirk, regaled us with tales of growing up at the vineyard and hunting everything from rabbits to deer. His passion for the outdoors came as no surprise, as his grandpa Howie Steinbeck is still an avid deer hunter at age 81.

Ryan is a great tour guide, besides being an excellent deer hunter, and it wasn’t difficult to tell when he spotted a deer, as the stories would stop mid-sentence. We had just driven to a section of vines on the edge of the property. The rolling terrain allowed us to see down the rows for a couple of hundred yards, but we would have to go to the far side of the vineyard to see back up the hill from the other side.

Ryan was telling us a story about hunting as a kid when he jammed on the brakes and backed up 10 feet to look between the last rows of grapes we passed. An antler stuck out from under the elevated trellis of leaves, and it didn’t take long to get our binoculars trained on it to decipher more.

I was amazed at how the deer were able to hide in the manicured vines. They used the overhead cover like hands on a clock, following the shadows as the sun made its way across the southern sky. Surviving the arid conditions of central California meant beating the heat and staying out of the direct sunlight.

Ryan looked at the marker on the post at the end of the row and punched the gas to get back around the field to stalk the deer from the other side. With any luck, we’d be able to scurry up the hill, keep the wind in our face, and have a shot at the big blacktail at under 100 yards.

The quick excitement was more than I anticipated so early in the hunt, but I never turn down gifts in the form of deer. Ryan and his grandpa knew the deer in the vineyard well. They saw the bucks regularly during the spring and early summer and took note of antler growth and identifiable features. We crept to the top of the ridge and slowed to glass the vines where we last saw the deer. Legs moving in the next two rows caught our attention, and before we knew it, two big bucks were working their way right to us.

Ryan recognized the biggest deer as one of the best trophies he had ever seen on the ranch. I had already chambered a .308 cartridge in my Mossberg Patriot LR and steadied against one of the support structures for the vines. We hunkered in just below the ridge top, to ensure we didn’t skyline ourselves. Seconds later, the big buck stepped through the row of vines and into my lane. My heart raced with excitement, but Ryan held up his hand, indicating there was no opportunity for a shot. I could see the houses on the hill in the background and knew the deer would have to stick around and wander to where there was a good backstop.

The smaller buck moved even closer to us, and I could’ve harvested a deer if I had been carrying a bow. The vineyard deer might have been used to seeing people, but close encounters were not well received. The mature bucks knew they had been caught flat-footed, and seconds later were bounding through the vines at breakneck speeds. California congestion had cost me my first encounter.

Ryan was positive we’d see the deer again, and we continued to search new areas of the vineyard and every row of grapevines we passed. The deer seemed to be everywhere. Mid-morning, we found a nice buck bedded clear between the rows, in plain view. On close inspection, we could tell the buck was young and still needed a year or two to reach potential.

Hunting on Steinbeck is limited, with two trophies, and two cull bucks harvested each year. Ryan and Howie do take some deer for meat, as the blacktails are renowned as outstanding table fare. I was lucky to have one of the trophy tags, and with the deer we had seen, I was confident the three-day hunt would be successful.

Day two was productive with lots of deer sightings, but the more we hunted, the fewer deer we spotted. The wily blacktails seemed to know they were being watched, and with just one day of pressure, they started to find secluded, quiet sections of vines. Ryan was still holding out hope we’d find the big buck we saw the first morning. We did have a fleeting glance of him later in the day as he headed across a creek bed with 15 other deer. We found the loose herd but never did lay eyes on the big boy again.

Day three had me a little worried, as I had stretched my hunt right to the wire. The unseasonably cool temperatures had been working in my favor, keeping deer on their feet longer, and staying where visible. We had checked a large section of grapes, and I could tell Ryan was feeling the pressure. We thought for sure we’d find one of the big deer in the hard-to-reach corner but came up empty-handed. With the sun rising into the sky, Ryan sped towards the next paddock of grapes to continue our search. We turned the corner onto one of the connecting roads and were racing for the checkpoint when the truck came to a skidding stop. Ryan pointed to a hill about a mile away and said, “deer.”

We brought our binoculars up in unison and couldn’t believe our eyes. The big buck we had been looking for had jumped a high fence into an enclosure of young grapes. The high fences are meant to keep the deer out until the vines are established, but the big bucks can clear the top wire with ease.

We looked at the area carefully and came up with a plan to stalk the buck from the base of the hill. We’d have to stay a few rows over from where the deer was feeding to ensure he didn’t see us.

We drove through a maze of roads that put us at the gate of the impoundment. The excitement was building, and after Ryan opened the gate to give us access, we walked to stay in stealth mode.

The other rows of grapes were well-manicured and weed-free, but the new vines had barley and other vegetation growing in the rows as part of development. We inched forward, looking for any sign of the buck after each step. We crossed the flat section of the field and were starting to climb the ridge when we finally saw antlers. The buck was busy eating grape leaves, plucking the tender young growth from a vine before moving to the next. It was already late in the morning for the deer to still be feeding, and it appeared as though the buck was working its way towards a shady bedding area.

I folded out the bipod on my rifle when the buck started to walk through row after row across the top of the field. I sat down and leveled my rifle, found the buck in my scope, and set the parallax on my Riton Scope. Ryan was asking if I had a clear shot, but it seemed as though I could see the buck’s head for a second before it disappeared into the next row of vines. The hunt ended up being a race to the finish line. Would I be able to get a shot at the crafty old blacktail, or would he cover ground quickly enough to avoid a steady crosshair?

I was following the buck and trying to time its visibility between rows. The deer was almost straight above us at 260 yards, but this time there were plenty of hills to act as a backstop. As the buck’s antlers started to poke through the vines in the same row in which I sat, I followed its appearing body in my scope and slowly squeezed the trigger.

The buck collapsed in its tracks, and I quickly chambered another round in disbelief. My first California hunt was one to remember with a tremendous old buck. The deer was much bigger than I anticipated, and after taking photos, it took a joint effort to drag the deer to where we could pick it up.

With the midday sun high in the sky, we unloaded the buck back at the yard and hung it in the shade for processing. I planned on making Osso Bucco from the shanks and Korean barbecue loins to share with everyone for dinner the next day. The highlight of the trip was opening a bottle of wine from the part of the vineyard in which the deer was killed. The new grapes were cabernet sauvignon, so a fine bottle from the Steinbeck wine cellar was uncorked for a toast to a great California blacktail hunt.

Steinbeck Deer Conservation

Deer are not welcome on many vineyards in California, and in most cases, high fences are erected to keep them out. Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery pride themselves in finding a balance between nature, conservation, and running a successful agricultural business. The wildlife seen in the grapevines speaks volumes to the shared landscape, where wildlife will continue to exist. There are over 500,000 vines at Steinbeck, and they estimate the deer population to be about 100 animals. They are not fenced and come and go to accessible habitat areas adjacent to the winery.

Riton Optics

On the deer hunt, a Riton Mod 5 4-16×50 riflescope was used to harvest a California black-tailed deer. Since that time, Riton had revamped its entire lineup, and the replacement I would pick for my Mod 5 is the Riton X3 Primal 3-15X44, made for a hunter and long-range shooter. The scope features capped zero resettable turrets with ¼-MOA windage and elevation adjustment, with 103 MOA of adjustment range. A removable throw lever makes zooming in or out fast without taking your eye out of the scope. The X3 Primal is built on a 30 mm aircraft-grade aluminum tube and has HD glass with multi-coatings that offers great second focal plane images. The unit weighs 24.8 oz and is 13.12 inches in length. MSRP: $499.99; ritonoptics.com.

Mossberg Patriot MVP-LR (Long Range)

My choice of rifle for the hunt was difficult, as I needed pinpoint accuracy, often seeing only parts of a deer. Some of the rows of grapevines were extremely long, and although we stalked close to some deer, the buck I harvested was pushing 300 yards. The adjustable-comb stock and cheek rest was a feature I respect after shooting the hill at an uphill angle. Keeping my rifle square and level allowed for a perfect shot.

The MVP-LR also features a patented LBA Adjustable Trigger from 3-7lbs, oversized bolt handle, and Picatinny rail. The barrel comes threaded for suppressors or muzzle brakes and includes a protective thread cap. MSRP: $910.00; Mossberg.com.

Federal Trophy Copper Rifle Cartridge—California

Controlled-expansion bullets retain almost all of their weight, even when the bullet has to plow through thick hide and even bone and hold together to get the job done. A premium bullet, like Trophy Copper, will retain 90 percent or more of its total weight, which ensures proper penetration every time. With the cost of metals today, a solid copper bullet can be pricey, but they are also very effective. California law also requires your bullet to be lead-free, making Trophy Copper a natural choice. MSRP: $31.99 to $57.99; www.federalpremium.com.

The Crash

The Crash is a special blend of 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2014 Petite Sirah, 2015 Viognier, and 2015 Zinfandel, the varietals chosen to craft into 1,250 cases of premium wine.

When Howie Steinbeck was 17 years old, a B-26 bomber crashed on the family farm 200 yards from the house. Howie was the first on the scene and found the airman’s body. The story documents the family’s passion for bringing people together, their dedication to growing and sustaining their 520-acre vineyard, and their own way of showing gratitude for their freedom and all who serve in defense of this country.

Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery is a boutique family-owned and operated winery in the heart of California’s Central Coast, near Paso Robles. The family has been farming there for seven generations, since 1884. Their ancestors were pioneers in many aspects of farming in Paso Robles, including wine grapes and wine 135 years ago. You can arrange a tour and wine tasting, or order wine directly from Steinbeck by going to www.steinbeckwines.com.

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