There’s Nothing Like Hunting the Home Place

 By Matt Harper

 The day broke cold and clear, with a bluish-pink pre-dawn horizon on the eastern edge of the mountain valley. Around the perimeter, thick stands of alder and swamp birch gave way to groves of aspens. Farther up the mountain, massive dark-timber pines stretched up to high rocky peaks. Everything was covered in a fresh blanket of snow that had fallen the previous night, and with little wind, the mountains were silent.
The previous three days had been unseasonably warm, but the cold front that had brought the snow dropped temperatures to below freezing, so we hoped rutting activity would improve and a bull, amped up on testosterone, would respond to the strange moaning call coming from my guide. The valley was not large — maybe 200 yards wide and a half-mile long — and we were perched atop a small wooded knoll toward the western edge of the valley. We called this our hidden valley because my guide had not seen it before. We discovered it the day before after we followed good sign for about two miles, steadily working down in elevation until we broke through the trees to find the idyllic mountain hideaway. Fresh tracks in the snow proved that moose had been there during the night, and with the change in temperature and being in such an enchanting setting, our hopes were high. Almost immediately after the first call, the telltale labored grunt of a bull responded nearby. Only 80 yards to our north, a bull emerged from an aspen grove, but he was young, so we passed. For the next hour, we continued to call, and just as the sun was breaking over the mountains, we heard a grunt from a bull higher up the slope in the pine trees but moving down toward the call. Excited anticipation is not a strong enough description of my emotions. I felt like I was coming out of my skin waiting to see what kind of bull was headed to the hidden valley. The sun created the appearance of a billion diamonds in the snow on the valley floor and throughout the mountain slopes as I focused on the moving brush that marked where the bull would break from cover. And then, he was there. At first, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, as it appeared that the bull’s massive antlers were glowing as if lit from within. It was one of the most incredible scenes I have ever witnessed, and I could never adequately describe the beauty of the giant moose on the edge of the hidden valley. His huge palms had filled with snow the night before and, in the glare of the morning sun, shone white and glimmering, almost as if a large lighted halo wrapped his head. My guide brought me out of my trance, and I found a small cedar branch for a rest. The bull began to circle and gave me a 180-yard broadside shot. At the sound of the .300 Win. Mag., the moose lurched forward a short distance and died.

I think it’s good for the soul to reflect often about the blessings in our lives. I thank God, every day for the blessings that He has so graciously bestowed upon me. They are mostly, if not all, undeserved, and the acknowledgment of that makes you humble knowing that blessings are not an entitlement but rather a gift from God. I was born into a wonderful family and married an incredible woman, and together we have two smart, beautiful daughters. I love all of them very much. I have also been blessed with the opportunity to fulfill my passion for hunting and the outdoors.
Through the years, I have hunted elk in six states, mule deer in three states, mountain lions in Nevada, caribou in Quebec, alligators in Florida, bear in Canada and just about everything you can legally hunt in Texas. Before you think you’re reading the writings of a multimillionaire, you are not. I have been blessed with situations that let me to go on these adventures, and I am thankful for the opportunities. When I was younger and read about those kinds of hunts in magazines, I thought, “If I could go on any of these hunts, it would surely be the best hunt ever.” And like the Alberta moose hunt I mentioned, I have had some incredible experiences. But upon reflection, I’ve realized the best hunts I’ve had have occurred on my family farm in Iowa. You might think that sounds crazy, but let me explain why I stand by my conviction that there’s nothing like hunting the home place.

Family and Tradition

My first hunting memories involved a pump air rifle, a pocket full of BBs and unrestrained access to creeks, woods, sloughs and brush piles at our family farm. The game was squirrel and rabbits, or bullfrogs in summer, and my grandma made me a deal that she would cook anything I shot and brought back to her. The journey would begin soon after leaving the backyard and always started at the creek, where I would scale the high banks, risking life and limb, sometimes taking rope in case I needed to tie off in fear of a deathly plummet. Of course, I never used the rope, as the banks were only 20 feet tall and not that hard for a youngster to climb. Then again, I also rarely needed the three pocket knives, broken compass, old army canteen and kitchen matches — which always got soaked crossing the creek — I carried with me. I tracked and chased my prey through the ridgetop hickory and oak groves and in the bottoms where the black walnuts grew. I would kick brush piles and stumps and generally stomped my way through anything that looked like it would hold something to shoot at. Almost every trip, I encountered bears, mountain lions and sometimes unknown, unearthly creatures that I would narrowly but bravely escape just in the nick of time. I can’t tell you that I ever actually saw any of those ferocious critters, but I’m sure they were there. In fact, I’m pretty sure I saw Sasquatch once. My brother told me it was just our dad, covered in mud from fixing a water gap in the creek, but I’m not so sure. It was an adventure every time I headed to the woods, and it was real, filled with excitement and produced some of my fondest childhood memories. As I grew and was allowed to carry a shotgun, hunting changed to walking fence lines and sloughs with my dad in search of rooster pheasants. I can tell you the exact place where at 12 years old, I shot my first rooster, which jumped from a small patch of switchgrass and flew right to left angling away from me. I shouldered the gigantic Stevens 12-gauge and knocked the bird and myself down in one shot. I remember my dad smiling at me as I carried the beautifully feathered bird back toward him and the pride I felt with the simple words of, “Good shot.”
When wild turkeys were reintroduced and we started seeing them on the farm, Dad and I hunted them, too. We had no idea what we were doing, and it took several years to shoot one, but we hunted them nonetheless. The only way my dad can remember the year I got married is that it was the same year he shot his first gobbler on the farm. Later, we began hunting deer together on the farm, with dad more interested in looking for turkeys than deer, and together, we bloodtrailed and field-dressed the first buck I shot with a bow. As mentioned, I have two wonderful daughters, and as a bonus, they like to hunt. I’m supposed to say I didn’t push them to it, and I guess I didn’t. But in reality, I always asked if they wanted to go, so maybe encouraged is the appropriate word. We would fill a backpack with coloring books, juice boxes and bags of chips and head to the shooting house. They would get excited when we saw a fawn, and I got excited at them being excited. By age 8, both girls could age bucks better than most men, and when it came to blood trailing, they were like hounds. I was with them for the first deer they shot. I held my breath to see if they would laugh or cry, but both were so fired up they could barely climb down from the stand. Along with family, the farm itself is special in its familiarity. There’s the small woodland creek overshadowed by huge oaks on either side and a bend where the bank flattens into a sandbar, where I have spent many hours. It’s a quiet, special place where I always feel at peace. There’s an old cement tank built in the early 1900s, where a gun fight occurred between two feuding neighbors, resulting in the death of one. A railroad right-of-way was the path of thousands of railcars and engines, which I can still envision even though the tracks were torn out 30 years ago. We now own that path where the tracks were, but I still can hear my grandpa saying, “Make sure you listen for trains, son,” as I walk down what is now a lane. Grandpa always warned me of trains, but he had a good reason. His tractor was cut in half by a runaway train car — with him on it. There’s an old hedge corner post on the eastern edge of the farm, which I walk by to get to one of my best stands. We used that post once to tie up a cow trying to have a calf, and worked for more than an hour pulling that calf only to have it die weeks later by falling in a huge ravine, the edge of which I skirt walking to another stand. In almost every place I look, there’s a memory that’s so dear and sweet its existence is almost palpable.

Working the Land

Our farm is a working farm. Growing up, I spent most of my time doing some sort of chore or job on our farm. We grew hay, cattle, hogs, sheep, chickens and grain crops. We were the stereotypical southern Iowa farm. We still raise crops and cattle on the farm, but we now also plant food plots for deer and turkeys. Another blessing is that I went to work for the Whitetail Institute a few years after college. Even though I’m no longer with the company, I attribute my whitetail hunting success largely to the knowledge I gained while being part of the organization. I had never planted a food plot before but soon realized the benefits plots such as Imperial Whitetail Clover or Winter-Greens could provide to the quality of deer on the farm and the quality of hunting. The first year I worked for Whitetail Institute, I planted an Imperial Whitetail Clover food plot in the middle of a hay field. To my amazement, I watched deer walk through the hay field, not even pausing to nibble, and go straight to the Imperial Whitetail Clover field. I was sold, and for the past 20 years, I have planted food plots on the farm and reaped the benefits they have provided in the form of more than 20 Pope and Young-class bucks and five Boone and Crockett bucks, all but two of which came from one of our farms. I’m not what you would consider a great hunter. I’m average at best, and much of my success can be attributed to where I live, but also greatly because I manage our farms, and using food plots and 30-06 mineral are critical parts of that strategy. But aside from letting me shoot good deer, food plots have also given me a better appreciation for the concept of improving wildlife through specific practices and programs that can be done even on a working farm. In fact, hunting is now a year-round activity. No, I am not shooting deer out of season, but hunting has become more than just harvesting a deer. There is planning, testing, working and continually trying to improve the farm from a wildlife perspective. We still raise cash crops, but there’s something different about planting a food plot for the sole purpose of improving wildlife on the farm. Taking a wasted piece of flood-prone lowland and turning it into a wetland, or creating a bedding area by encouraging shrubs and brush in an otherwise unusable chunk of ground seems to somehow transform the farm into something better. It’s not that we still don’t traditionally farm the ground, but we now create a place and habitat that encourages wild things to thrive. There’s an incredible satisfaction in the development of such a place; a place where you can watch the corn grow in one field and a food plot grow in another. You can watch young calves run through the pasture but just over the hill see deer getting their last few bites of Imperial Whitetail Clover before heading to bed.

The Joy of Hunting the Home Place

Strangely, almost every time I hunt far from home, my thoughts drift back to home. Of course, I think of my wife and children and miss them, but I’m also thinking about the farm and comparing it to where I am. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy hunting various places throughout North America and the vast number of species available. It’s exciting, often breathtaking, and I’m sure to the people who live in those areas, they’re the best places on earth. But home still creeps back into my thoughts. I might sit a blind in eastern Colorado on a mule deer hunt but think about what stand I plan to hunt when I get home, or on a bear hunt in Manitoba I’ll be thinking about what fall food plots to plant and where to plant them. Thoughts of home can also bring out the frustration of hunting a foreign place. At home, I would know when, where and how to hunt. But in the end, it’s more than that, or maybe it’s all that or possibly even something just out of reach. Home is where I fell in love with hunting and the outdoors, and where my dad mentored me to be a good hunter and good steward of the land. It’s where I introduced my daughters to hunting, creating a special bond between us, just as my dad and I have. It’s where I can call upon and renew a lifetime of memories simply by walking a familiar path or stretch of creek. It’s a place I have worked to make better through the investment of sweat, money and time, and somehow becomes a living canvas on which you paint. I suppose that’s why of all the places I have hunted, I would not trade hunting the home farm for any of them. No, there’s nothing wrong with going away from home on hunting adventures, and if you can do it, I recommend giving it a try. But if not, that’s OK, too, because in my opinion, there’s nothing that compares to hunting the home place.