A rite of passage for a young boy. That’s what a trip I took to Clear Lake with Dad and Grandpa Louie back when I was about 15 turned out to be. For many reasons, it sits at the top of my treasure trove of memories.
Back then, my grandfather Louie George commercial salmon-fished at Fort Bragg each season with a good friend of his, Mr. Keeling. Turned out, Mr. Keeling owned several thousand acres of forested land at Clear Lake. The property had a nice rustic bunkhouse for guests right next to a small pond filled with hungry bass. The deer hunting was epic there, too. He invited us to come and stay for a week.
Arriving during hunting season, I found out the plan was to hunt for a day at the ranch, trying to get my very first buck. They were excited but I was worried because I had only shot the .30-06 on a shooting range and it was a pretty big gun for me. The pressure was on since my dad was an incredible hunter and expected me to be likewise.
The trip began with us arriving late and settling in the bunkhouse about a mile from the road. Spartan, but wonderfully built with gnarled wood, the two-room shanty exuded the rustic charm you might expect. As I went to sleep that night, I eagerly imagined the magical adventures I was sure I was going to have in this special place.
Waking the next morning, Grandpa cooked eggs and ham on an old cast-iron stove, while I took my pole down to eagerly check out the bass pond a hundred yards away. Approaching cautiously, I realized that there were more than 20 small bass just sitting there finning in the water a few feet from me. They looked like they were ready to eat anything. Yeah!
Casting my little Rapala out brought a flurry of wakes as they all rushed to try to get to the morsel first. It was a melee for the next half-hour as each little bass did a suicide rush at the lure, trying to outdo the others. Finally, the 8- to 11-inch fish just sat there, suspended, watching me try to entice them another time. I decided I would come back later for round 2.
The next day, we got up early and loaded into jeeps to go deer hunting. Driving for several miles, we reached a place in the mountainous terrain where they planned to do a deer drive down a canyon. They would place two of us where the deer would come out at the other end. They dropped me off on a small brushy knoll overlooking the valley below, a perfect place to spot the deer. I sat by a rock and waited for a buck to show up.
In about 20 minutes, I heard some movement 100 yards below me in the canyon as several does ran by my perch. I watched them run over the hill, just as I heard a loud noise and breaking brush about 40 yards in front of me. Why was Dad climbing up the hill, I wondered. That’s when I saw it: A massive deer with a huge rack of horns – a good 30-plus inch rack.
It crashed out of the brush and stepped into the open, just yards from me, as the crack of a bullet from the canyon below literally went over my head. I was hyperventilating and shaking as I brought my rifle up, but all I saw was hair through the scope. I shot twice, flinching as I pulled the trigger. Missed. It disappeared over the hill. My Dad had fired the shot earlier and when he saw I had missed it, he was maddd. Lucky Grandpa was there. He told me it was easily the biggest coast range buck he had ever seen.
I didn’t get a second chance, but the little bass were still biting. It was a true rite of passage trip. Deer of a lifetime just feet away on my first trip … and I had whiffed? Unforgettable. Oh well. Never give up!