A pair of young bucks pause in an opening - Ken Perrotte photo
Our position atop a small, grassy hilltop offered a panorama of several hundred acres of grape vines, precisely arrayed in sections at Steinbeck Vineyards and Winery, a modest, seventh-generation farm near Paso Robles in California Central Coast wine country. We had classic “command of the high ground,” something sought by countless armies for millennia. But we weren’t defending anything. We weren’t even hunting. We had all tagged out the day before. Instead, we were like spectators in an arena, riveted to a couple of distant moving dots, hugging the shadowed side of the grapevines.
Those dots were Arizona gun writer Fred Mastison, Texas deer-hunting legend, and wildlife biologist Larry Weishuhn. They were sneaking toward a bedded Columbian black-tail buck hanging out mid-vineyard with a few buddies.
Weishuhn, Mastison, and their guide Lucas Paugh had spotted the deer as they slowly crept around the edge of the sprawling vineyard. The plan was to use the terrain and cover to edge closer, set Weishuhn’s Mossberg Patriot LR Tactical rifle on shooting sticks, and then wait for the deer to stand and present a quality shot.
On the hilltop, our guide, Ryan Newkirk, the grandson of Howie Steinbeck, who planted the modern vineyard in the early 1980s, zoomed in on the action with a spotting scope. One wide-antlered buck was leisurely bedded. Others milled around and occasionally laid down. We spotted the object of Weishuhn’s pursuit. Although the buck wasn’t as wide as a couple of the others and lacked classic forked antlers, it had a tall, heavy rack with a short drop tine. Weishuhn spotted this deer earlier in the hunt and decided this was the buck he’d pursue, given the opportunity.
The duo closed to 147 yards before deciding they had reached the optimal shooting location. Weishuhn snugged into the rifle, found the deer in the scope, then waited.
“He just shot,” Newkirk announced. We saw deer moving abruptly and, a second later, heard the rifle’s report. After confirming the deer was down, we joined the celebration in the vines.
Larry Weishuhn and Mossberg's Linda Powell with Weishuhn's hefty blacktail - 2 - Ken Perrotte photo
“Between the nearby deer, the vines, and the vineyard structure, I had to thread the needle on that one,” Weishuhn said. “But I knew that, with the rifle's accuracy, I could be confident and put the animal down without possibly hitting another animal or the bullet being deflected.”
Celebrating success in the field is something at which Steinbeck excels. A wonderful tradition involves meeting at a skinning pavilion where fresh deer heart or liver is fried with thick bacon, and a bottle of Steinbeck wine is opened. The deer was shot in a section of cabernet sauvignon grapes, and Cindy Steinbeck, Newkirk’s mother and vineyard “visionary,” decided a wine they called “Voice,” featuring a blend of cab sauv and petite syrah was appropriate. It was magnificent, with deep color and structure – perfect for a little morning sipping as the deer was skinned and prepped for the cooler.
Howie Steinbeck, who lives in a house on the ranch’s highest hilltop, is an avid hunter, a passion he instilled in his daughter Cindy and Ryan, who serves as the vineyard manager. Howie’s grandparents planted the original vineyards in 1884, when hydraulic mining for gold ended in California and agriculture began dominating the coastal landscape. Some of Howie’s hunting trophies grace the Steinbeck tasting room.
My wife Maria and I once had a small vineyard in Virginia, making about 500 bottles of wine a year. Growing wine grapes is work. Talking about vineyard practices and harvest challenges with Cindy and Ryan was fun and stimulating, bringing back fond memories.
Growing grapes - Ken Perrotte photo
Steinbeck grows 17 varieties of grapes, seven of which go into producing their wine brand, launched in 2006. Much of the crop is sold to other wineries. One wine, “The Crash,” honors the 1956 crash of a B-26 bomber, disabled by lightning in severe weather, in a barley field just 300 yards from Steinbeck’s home. Four of the five flyers survived. Today, a flag stands amid the vines, marking where the plane went down.
Link URL for Cindy Steinbeck video: https://youtu.be/BYs5EGKSkx8
Cindy Steinbeck said the winery honors the service of all military members. The tasting room features considerable military memorabilia. Military personnel, veterans, and first responders get substantial discounts on wine purchases.
The Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) of the region have a range spanning from southern British Columbia to California’s Santa Barbara County. They’re found as far east as the Cascade and Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. The hunting season in San Luis Obispo County, the state’s A-Zone (south), is an early hunt, but bucks have mostly shed their antler velvet.
Paso Robles’ diurnal temperature variation, the range between daily high and low air temperatures, can be profound, sometimes 50 degrees. The region sits at the same latitude (35°N) as Crete and Tunisia. The warm, dry weather helps grapes such as zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon flourish.
We lucked out. A tropical storm pushing up Baja California just as we arrived ushered in four days of incredible weather with mild mornings and breezy, low-humidity afternoons rarely reaching the low 80s.
The deer like wine country living, too. These blacktails resemble skinnier, smaller versions of big-bodied mule deer in the Rocky Mountain states. Although, it’s quickly evident upon shooting and skinning a deer that these Steinbeck blacktails aren’t skinny.
Weishuhn, who’s consulted or worked with countless high-profile hunting operations, said he found the Steinbeck Vineyards’ deer herd healthy and prolific. Cindy Steinbeck said the overall health and quality of the deer during her lifetime has increased substantially, with body weights up 20-30 percent over the average deer taken in the area. Antler development indicates well-fed deer that are allowed to get some age on them. Hunts at Steinbeck are limited, usually reserved for one or two corporate parties each year
“We saw many, many fawns,” Weishuhn said, “and the deer we killed were in unbelievable great body shape. I mean, they had tallow on their back and sides up to an inch and a half thick,” Weishuhn said.
Indeed. The blacktail’s meat was incredibly flavorful and tender. Mossberg’s Linda Powell, who put together our hunt, calls it “pre-marinated venison.” You could easily cut it with a fork right off the grill.
Brooks Hansen of Camp Chef came to the camp not expecting to hunt – he sure put together some great meals – but after the four hunters on the Mossberg hunt tagged relatively early, he bought a license and got a crack at a blacktail. He ended with the widest antlered buck of the hunt, but it came after another early evening, multi-mile hike in the vines working for a shot. Photo by Ken Perrotte
Hunting in the Paso Robles area is increasingly challenging. Many ranchers and vineyard owners opt to high fence their properties to exclude wildlife. This tends to crowd deer onto places like the Steinbeck tracts, increasing crop losses.
Cindy grew up hunting in the vineyard and said, “We’ve always understood the deer were here first. We’ve always taken good care of the wildlife on our ranch. We sacrifice a little bit of our crops for the sustainability of those herds…but we also must find a way for our seven-generation vineyard to be sustainable.”
Newkirk said the family views the deer as both a nuisance and a resource, something to be sustainably managed via hunting and unique farming practices, such as setting aside “sacrificial” sections of vineyard where deer are allowed to eat without harassment.
The biggest danger comes as the vines emerge from winter dormancy, after pruning, and just as the new growth buds emerge – bitesize buds that are tasty and nutritious to deer also recovering from winter.
“Our entire crop can be wiped out in a matter of days, with about a two-week window of primary concern,” Newkirk explained. Besides having a sacrificial section, Steinbeck plants cover crops deer favor, food that ripens into prime eating just as grape vines begin producing buds. “We do all we can to get the deer to focus on those other crops,” he said.
If it sounds like a lot of work and expense, it is. Most ranchers wouldn’t attempt it, but the Steinbeck family isn’t most ranchers.
Newkirk is struggling to get additional antlerless deer tags from California, receiving just two thus far, a minuscule number given several hundred acres of agriculture. Weishuhn estimates the property could easily handle a harvest of at least 20 does annually for the next couple of years. The population is approaching the point where something like exponential growth could occur. The current estimated buck-to-do ratio doesn’t appear severely skewed – at least anecdotally. Based on the deer we counted, the current ratio could be around 1-to-3 or 1-to-4.
Our group of five hunters took exceptionally mature deer. Weishuhn guesstimated most were likely around 5.5 years old. Aging older deer there was a challenge, he said, because these blacktails aren’t dining on foods that tend to generate a lot of tooth wear, the main indicator biologists use to age deer older than 3.5 years.
Link URL to Larry Weishuhn video: https://youtu.be/9lBVwi_qG3w
Get on the Stick(s)!
Ryan Newkirk and Aram von Benedikt enjoy the moment after the deer win the first round of stalking - Ken Perrotte photo
Newkirk jokes that hunting involves mobile treestands – pickups. While the hilltop panoramic views can help spot reclusive deer, finding them from the ground takes effort. You slowly cruise the vineyard, looking for deer or portions of deer tucked among the vines. Attempted stalks are frequently blown when deer near your target animal startle and scatter. Multiple stalks on bedded bucks failed when an unseen blacktail, bedded just a foot or two away, spooked and led the buck away.
Grape harvest at Steinbeck is accomplished by a mix of hand and machine, depending on the section. The main “fruiting wire,” the lowest wire in the trellis system (not counting the wire supporting the drip irrigation line just a couple of inches off the ground ), is about four feet high. Suppose you imagine the vineyard as a forest. In that case, you ideally have a strong canopy above this wire, with leaves soaking up sunlight and producing nutrients and sugars to feed grape maturation. Below this primary wire, though, is the understory, most of which is wide open. Dropping to a knee, you can scan several rows of grapes simultaneously, looking for blocky shapes, tail flickers, or other signs of deer. However, those deer, already with a lower vantage point, likely saw you coming. They fled before you spotted them, either running away down the same row or scooting several rows beneath the fruiting wires.
Moving to higher ground, hoping for a last-minute shot - Ken Perrotte photo
Many rows feature gnarly old stalks with dense, leafy canopies. Visibility down the rows can vary wildly, affected by the vines’ age, canopy management practices in various sections, plus the extent of browse damage by deer. Even though rows may have 10-foot spacing, ample canopies can narrow your view to just a couple of feet.
Knowing your target and beyond is always critical, but it can be exceptionally challenging in the vineyard. Besides possibly striking hidden second deer, bullets can clip trellis wires. It’s the antithesis of a typical beanfield shoot for whitetails. The aim is a clean shot -- no obstructions or vineyard structures in front of or behind the deer. Weishuhn said the closest thing he had ever experienced to this hunting style was trying to hunt in a standing cornfield.
The deer are used to trucks and farm vehicles. Once you identify a “shooter” buck, you back off and plot the stalk. Most shooting is done off tripod shooting sticks, like those you might use in Africa. Rifles also can be equipped with bipods, with shots attempted from a prone position. Like Africa, opportunities are fleeting. You spot the game, then try to get to an acceptable position and shoot before the game vamooses. Weishuhn observes most scenarios never extend past 5 seconds. Stealthy humans on foot always provoke a wary response. Sometimes, as in my case, the buck stays put just long enough to let you quickly set up, acquire the aim point, and squeeze the trigger.
A Dream Hunt
Newkirk guided Arizonan Aram von Benedikt and me. Aram was toting a Mossberg Patriot rifle chambered in .308 Winchester. He graciously offered me the first crack. I accepted, recognizing that being first up imparts a certain pressure not to be too choosy on a hunt blocked for just a few days. Opportunity must be met and made to count with a quality shot.
We had our choice of Mossberg Patriot rifle offerings for the hunt. Mine was the Patriot Predator, chambered in the blazing fast 6.5 PRC. The camouflaged, lightweight rifle sports a fluted barrel and bolt. I topped it with a Riton 5 Primal, a 2-12x44 optic with a reticle ideally set for elevation and windage adjustments. Though the reticle lines were a bit faint, I worried a little about how my aging eyes might pair with it in low-light conditions. I had an option to put a Riton 3 Primal, a 3-18-50 long-range optic with an illuminated reticle on the gun, but since shots were likely less than 200 yards, I opted for the lighter scope.
Mossberg Patriot Predator on Steinbeck Gate - Ken Perrotte photo
California requires nontoxic ammunition, including loads for centerfire rifles. Retired state wildlife biologists tell me the protection of the endangered California condor was the pretext for the lead ban. I used Barnes’ VOR-TX LR cartridges for my hunt, featuring all copper, 127-grain bullets that leave the muzzle at an advertised 3,010 feet per second. The gun was zeroed in extremely hot Virginia weather at an inch high, likely ensuring point-blank shooting at anything found in the vineyard.
Anticipation was certainly high as we rolled out at daybreak following a sumptuous evening meal featuring a grilled blacktail hindquarter and fine wines. While the others trucked off for a distant section of the vineyard, we began closer to the main ranch house and work complex, investigating a large block of cabernet sauvignon across the street from an overgrown almond grove.
We immediately saw does and fawns. Bucks began appearing a few hundred yards further approaching a corner adjacent to a dry creek bed.
Newkirk spends much of the year in the vineyards and goes into the hunts with a good grasp of local herd dynamics. He explained we were looking for deer with antlers almost as wide or wider than their ears extended. That’s about 22 inches. Blacktails have those long, distinctive, mule deer-type ears. The ideal is a nicely framed four-by-four with “eye guards,” commonly called brow tines on whitetails. Character always counts with deer antlers. The ideal isn’t always the most interesting. I told Newkirk I’d be happy with whatever buck he suggested we target.
Glassing the rows in the improving light, Newkirk gave a running tally. “Not a shooter. Two-by-two. Two-by-three…” A couple rows further, he said, “There’s our buck.” We backed off about 50 yards and dismounted. The deer got spooky fast, skedaddling through the vines. No matter. They likely stayed in the same section of vines. They were wary but not “already shot at” wary. We saddled up and slowly circled the vineyard.
The sun was now over the horizon. Morning colors warmed. We rounded a corner a few hundred yards from the ranch house, slowly inching row by row. There! The same buck, this time frozen some 100 yards away and peered toward the truck. Again, we backed off and quietly exited. Newkirk and I hustled toward the location, quickly scanning each row.
Amazingly, the buck stayed put. Maybe it was curiosity, or maybe an instinct to remain motionless until pressed to flee. Once we stopped and presented danger, he’d barely give us a scant second. With von Benedikt filming, Newkirk set the sticks. The scope was dialed up to about 10. I grasped the tripod where the three sticks came together, positioned the rifle, and quickly located the proper aim point on the severely quartering away deer. I squeezed the excellent, crisp trigger on the rifle, one of my favorite features of that gun.
Barnes VOR-TX cartridges - Getting It Done - Ken Perrotte photo
The shot was spot on - almost. I pulled it right about an inch, enough to nick the front of the left hindquarter before the bullet cut through the ribs and sped toward the deer’s right front shoulder. Still, the big buck was hit hard. Two other bucks emerged nearby. My deer crossed a couple of rows before piling up and quickly expiring. The recovered bullet was fully intact with copper petals extended, despite traveling more than three feet through the blacktail’s insides.
Ryan Newkirk and Ken Perrotte drag buck from vineyard - Aram von Benedikt photo
A quick inspection of the buck’s stomach contents showed an abundance of digesting green grape leaves and almond husks. This buck had been using both the vineyard and the nearby overgrown grove.
My hunt lasted an exhilarating 30 minutes! Now, I could relax and enjoy shooting cameras while the other guys hunted. But first, we had our Steinbeck classic “Wine by Nine” moment. That 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon was delicious! In fact, given the beautiful weather, the scenery, and the people I was privileged to share this unique experience with, it’s tough to recall a more enjoyable glass of wine.
Ken Perrotte savors his first Columbian Black-Tail deer - 2 - Aram von Benedikt photo
Link URL to Outdoors Rambler overview of the Hunt: https://youtu.be/uhaCqxoSEBk