Whitetail Camp Comfort Food
October 28, 2010
Dwight Filbert's the kind of guy you like immediately, unassuming and generous beyond compare, the result of a rural Kansas upbringing in which common courtesy and manners are still much in demand. My friend Tavis Rogers had assisted Dwight on some business involving elk around his central Colorado home and they'd become fast friends. This led to bowhunting invitations to Dwight's prime central Kansas whitetail country, and the connections a lifetime of local opens to outsiders. Another long-time hunting buddy, Lee Hetrick, and I rode Tavis' shirttails into the deal. We had two weeks at our disposal, a fully furnished bunkhouse and more land than we could possibly cover with the total assorted tree stands between us. The big bucks were just beginning to show interest in the ladies. Life was sweet.
When deer are at issue Kansas is as different from ordinary whitetail habitat as Hyundais to Beamers. It's wide open and seemingly desolate and on arrival you'll find yourself glancing about in near panic and saying something like "Okay, I don't get the joke. Where're all the deer?" But on closer inspection you discover trees strewn randomly beside fields of grain or alfalfa and rolling CRP, flanking the occasional sauntering creek bed.
You quickly discover that creativity transforms the questionable stand tree into the plausible, and most especially that cottonwoods make poor anchors for screw-in steps. But there's sign, and deer, in plentitude and they come to those lonely trees because it appears their antlers are itchy with rut and they need something to rub on. Scrapes and rubs appear near anything remotely resembling woods. Even if "woods" in this case translates into only a defunct farmstead on a half-acre or half a mile of laser-straight windrow. There's all of that, but more pointedly, five days in I'd already passed seven no-doubt-about-it P&Y bucks.
Walking out a windrow dividing alfalfa from cut milo during midday downtime I discovered the kind of whitetail shed that engages the imagination; gnarly and banana-tined and scoring more than both antlers on many whitetail I've taken in the past. Further along there appeared a scrape of pickup-hood dimensions; freshly pawed and reeking of rut. A tall, straight cottonwood stood 25 yards away. I'm pretty savvy when it comes to this whitetail thing. I was able to put two and two together.
I waited three days for the wind to turn out of the north and make the stand viable. I climbed aboard on that cool, faultless evening, watching over all that open space feeling a bit foolish. The scrape was plain to see, and every night each of us had handled the talismanic antler, drooling and yearning mightily. So I waited, making myself believe. The sun was dropping to turn a dusky orange when a doe appeared a mile away. I saw her only because I was bored senseless and glassing to fill the time. In short order she was joined by antlers; chalky bone showing brighter than the deer who carried them, but also impressive enough to make everything else moot.
I pulled that buck across that open milo by shear willpower. When he moved within 300 yards I called with soft grunts, then subtle doe bleats, but he was unmoved. Then the doe who'd appeared inclined to bee-line beneath my stand across all that open ground veered out of range. Shooting light was oozing away. It was all slipping away. But wait! The buck seemed suddenly struck by a thought. I would cliff hang you but you've probably already guessed the rest.
The buck arrived at the scrape, pawing and licking and horning. The angle was wrong and I waited, the light dwindling perceptively. But he turned and I switched to autopilot--drawing, anchoring and releasing in a single, unbroken motion. Because I was in Kansas I plainly watched that magnificent buck settle into his final bed; robbed of the trailing anticipation, or spared it, whichever your perspective might be. He was big enough I felt robbed of nothing, finding myself flying, with all my life to return to earth.
Indeed, as I write this years later, the moment is inescapable and vibrant. It's quite the thing to own.
Success made me official camp cook, a duty I wholly welcomed, feeding hungry friends something that brings me great joy. I admit a decided proclivity to the exotic in matters of cuisine, but in this time and place nothing seemed more apt than comfort food, something hearty that "sticks to your ribs," as Grandma was fond of saying. A deer pot roast was in order. I just so happened to have the critical raw materials on hand'¦
I'd carved a five-pound rump roast from my buck the previous night, placing it in a bath of milk and then refrigerator to tame the gaminess of the rut. I wished the guys luck as they departed for evening visuals and set to work.
I blended one-quarter cup each of all-purpose flour and brown sugar (firmly packed), plus a teaspoon each of paprika, black pepper and powdered garlic, sprinkling the mixture over the meat evenly. A stick of real butter melted in a large Dutch oven, ready to sauté the venison. After the meat was browned on all sides I added a 14-ounce can of beef broth, three sticks of celery and a whole onion (chopped). Placing the lid to seal the pot I slipped it into a 375-degree oven and whistled up my two Labs. I had 3.5 hours to belabor pheasants in the weedy grass rolling over the horizon and away from the bunkhouse.
With darkness settling in and comforting warmth bouncing against my back I returned, our quarters now filled with mouth-watering aromas. I quartered onions, potatoes and large carrots, about seven each, into the pot and returned to the oven. In another 30 minutes the boys arrived all smiles and animation and I pulled the pot from the oven to cool while we admired Lee's first archery whitetail.
As the adrenaline subsided someone inquired of the bouquet filling the place and we produced plates and dug in, popping workingman "barley-pops" and assembling around the littered table, pushing aside deer calls and land-stat maps and sheds and arrow cases and broadhead packages to create room for heaping plates. We were tired and shaking off residual cold still, talking between and around bites of roast and vegetables, talking excitedly of next year and what we would do differently, as whitetail hunters are apt to do.
There was the owner of that shed I'd discovered to dream about, and another non-typical, witnessed from afar at least twice, that awaited our return. We had a few days left to fill doe tags, and we ate and drank and laughed and talked about nothing but deer, deer, deer. Home and responsibilities were very far away, and for the time being, life just couldn't get any better than that.