Hunting with the .375 WCF, Part II

By Dave Thornblom

I arrived in Springerville, Arizona, two days after Thanksgiving in 1981. There was about a foot of snow on the ground. The weather was cold and crisp. And there were mountains. I grew up on the Texas Coastal Plains and moved to Marble Falls, Texas, in my early twenties. I had seen pictures in hunting magazines, but had never actually been in the mountains. Now, here I was in the middle of the White Mountains of Eastern Arizona. I was ecstatic. I had arrived too late to "put in" for any of the hunting seasons. Elk, deer, antelope, turkey and javelina hunts were all set on a lottery system. Bear and mountain lion tags could be bought across the counter. But, I had just arrived and was considered a non-resident, so no license for me this year. The cost of the non-resident license was prohibitive.

I passed the time 'till I was eligible for a resident license by getting to know the area. The Apache-Sitgraves National Forest was as far as I needed to go. It was right there. Game Management Unit 27 and Unit 1 fell within this National Forest and it was huge. I procured a Forest Service map and began camping and exploring. And guess what was my constant companion? My Winchester Model 94 Big Bore in .375 WCF.

During the six months of exploring my new "hunting lease," I saw all the big game species that inhabited these mountains. Mostly, I camped by myself, and never felt under gunned with my .375 WCF in hand. This was big, remote and uninhabited country with blue spruce, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and aspen. Some areas were so thick that you could barely walk through. There were also high elevation lakes, rivers and streams with German brown, brookies and rainbow trout. If I wasn't scouting for big game animals, I was fishing. My job only kept me busy 4 days a week, so I had 3 days every weekend to "bum" around in the mountains. And bum around I did.

In May of 1982 I became eligible for my resident Arizona hunting license. Along with purchasing the license, I also procured a mountain lion tag. This combo let me hunt year around except when an elk season was in process. By August I had received a muzzle loader elk tag and a mule deer tag. I also bought a Colorado elk tag. Although both elk hunts were non-productive (no elk taken), they were good hunts and very enjoyable. But, the mule deer hunt was a different story.

By this time I had used up the 4 boxes of 250 grain .375 WCF ammunition on deer in Texas and practice. This load would have been good for black bear and elk as they would offer more mass for the 250 grain bullet to expand against. However, I wanted something with more expansion for deer, as most all the deer hit with this load went a short distance even after being knocked down. I didn't want to loose a mule deer buck in the thick cover that I would hunt in the White Mountains. No gun dealer in Springerville had .375 WCF ammo in stock, so I procured RCBS reloading dies and 2 boxes of Hornady 220 grain .375 JFP bullets. A quick check of the Hornady loading manual showed that 38 grains of Reloader-7 would yield 2200 fps from a 20 inch barrel.

I worked up to this load carefully, and found that it produced similar accuracy to the 250 grain factory load, 1 1/2 to 2 inch 3-shot groups. Although this load had a little more recoil than the factory load, it was 400 fps faster and produced over 500 more ft. lbs. of energy. As I would find out later, the Hornady bullet was somewhat more fragile than the Winchester bullet, although not overly so. Also, this load shot high in my rifle even with the rear sight in the bottom notch. The front sight insert had to be changed to a taller insert to bring the 100 yard point of impact down to zero. Now I was ready.

Early October, 1982, found me camped in Double Cienega between Hannagan Meadow Lodge and the Mogollon Rim. From this camp I could hunt Bear Wallow, Hoodoo Knoll, and a short drive to Baldy Bill Point. It was perfect hunting weather, down to high 20's or low 30's at night and seldom above 50 degrees during the day. The elevation in the areas was between 9000 and 9500 feet above sea level. During this mule deer hunt I also saw elk, blue grouse, band-tail pigeons, wild turkey, Coues deer, coyote and all manner of squirrels. Also, I noted black bear and cougar tracks.

This was only a 4 day hunt so time was of the essence. I carried lunch with me in my day pack along with light weight binoculars, knife, compass, and extra .375 WCF ammo. I hunted hard using still hunting and spot and stalk techniques. During the first 3 days of the hunt I saw only does and fawns, no bucks.

Now, time was getting short. If I were to get a buck on this hunt, I would have to do something different than I had done the first 3 days. Since I was the only hunter camped in Double Cienega, and had made very little noise, I decided to hunt the north end of the big clearing about a half mile from camp.

That morning I had a cold camp. No fire and no light other than a small flash light. Breakfast consisted of a peanut butter sandwich and day old coffee from my thermos. I left camp well before dawn and walked to the area I had decided to hunt, got situated just inside the brush that surrounded the clearing at about 30 minutes before dawn.

Just at good shooting light, I heard a truck door slam back at my camp. A friend of mine from Springerville had come up to hunt with me that day and was running late. As he related to me later, a 3x3 buck was browsing about 35 yards from my tent. The slamming truck door had spooked the buck and he ran north to the clearing that I had staked out. I figured that the noise of the slamming door had pretty much ruined things for hunting in that area, so I stood up behind the brush to walk back to camp just as the buck entered the clearing. We saw each at the same time. In one quick motion, the .375 WCF came to my shoulder and I fired. At the shot, the 3 point buck, standing broad side at an even 50 steps, hit the ground and never moved.

Within a couple of minutes, my friend entered the clearing as I began field dressing my first mule deer. He walked up to me and said, "Nice buck." I agreed. I told him that I was just about to head back to camp and give him "what for" for all the noise he had made when the buck entered the clearing.

"Now, I guess I should thank you," says I. He said, "Don't thank me, just give me some venison." That I did, as he was a great help dressing and dragging the buck to where we could get to it with my truck.

The Hornady 220 grain bullet had entered the center of the buck's left shoulder, angled to the right and lodged just under the skin behind his right shoulder. There were 3 very small cuts in his skin around the bullet where bits of shrapnel from the bullet had come through. Now partner, you danged sure couldn't have eaten this bullet hole. That Hornady bullet had really disrupted things inside. It displayed a lot more expansion and shock than the factory 250 grain bullet.

This was a somewhat quirky ending to a hard hunt, but sometimes it's a good thing to have friends that run a little late. Stay tuned, there's more .375 WCF adventure coming to you straight from the White Mountains of Eastern Arizona.

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Copyright 2003, 2016 by Dave Thornblom. All rights reserved.