Friday, June 28, 2013

The Case Against the Medium Bore....or Why I Hate the .338 Winchester Magnum

"For what I want to eat on the right, and for what wants to eat me on the left..."
It's long been said that the .338 Winchester Magnum is the .30-06 of Alaska. While it's certainly very popular here, it is of course not the '06 of Alaska....that title rightly goes to the actual .30-06 which is considerably more popular here than even the much ballyhooed .338 Win Mag.  I'll say at the onset that I think the .338 is a very fine hunting cartridge- no doubt about it, it will kill game "deader than fried chicken" with aplomb. Deadly in the field or not- it's a cartridge I just can't cozy up to no matter what. I guess you could say that I've got some real prejudices against it after owning (and disposing of) two. So  my criticism comes from experience.

The first thing I hate about the .338 is the recoil. It hits hard and it hits fast and while recoil isn't something I get wrapped around the axle about- most shooters just don't shoot their best with something   that unpleasant to fire. When one adds in the considerable cost of ammunition you have a very unpleasant and expensive rifle to fire. The result is predictable- most folks just won't practice as much as they should with one. I've shot with a number of folks who would have been better off shooting something more reasonable in both recoil and economy. There are certainly a number of barely used models on the used racks from folks who finally gave up and went back to the '06. Most guides just dread a client rolling into camp with a .338 so new the tags are stilling hanging on it and most will suggest keeping the '06 or .270 and buying plenty of ammo for practice and some top notch ammo for the actual hunt. Time on the range and in the field trumps a ballistic table in these guy's eyes every time.

From personal experience I find the .338 incredibly unpleasant. Far more so than the .375 or even my .416 Rigby. A custom lightweight .340 Weatherby I had the misfortune of testing out still brings a tear to my eye. Here's a video of me shooting the mighty .416 Rigby, a true "elephant gun". Considerable gun weight coupled with a relatively low muzzle velocity and it's a shootable package- still a hard kicker but a not terribly so considering it's capable of shooting through even a big bear from any angle. The gentleman I purchased this from shot a 9'-4" bear end to end- chest to rump with it.

The second thing I hate about the .338 is how it's been marketed. It's been hawked from the beginning as an Alaska cartridge- capable of bears and big moose and equally as the elk hunter's cartridge. In short- it's for guys who want more "oomph" in their killing stick for those pesky big critters. While I certainly have no beef with folks wanting to "use enough gun", the variation in the size of critters here gives us a couple of points to consider. Just what is "enough gun" for what you're hunting? Keep in mind that in the last two decades bullet technology has evolved considerably- enough so that a friend punched a single 110gr .25 caliber bullet through both shoulders of a bull elk last year. 50 years ago it might not have even been possible. Something to ponder.

The overwhelming majority of hunters in Alaska are chasing just two species- the moose and the caribou. While moose are surely big, I've said before, they are surely soft for their size and readily succumb to lung shots with almost any standard cartridge. Moose are big enough that impressing them with sporting rifles is hopeless- I've seen them hit with some pretty big numbers and not even flinch. A hunter is better armed with a smaller rifle that he (or she) shoots really well and one of the modern controlled expansion bullets that will penetrate through a lot of critter. I've seen moose cleanly taken with .270s and a good friend of mine has knocked a train load of them down with a 7x57 shooting the 160gr Partition at plodding velocity. He has patience, knows where to shoot one and gets close, like Bell and the elephants, and gets his game.

Likewise, caribou are hunted in the wide open mountains and tundra, while the .338 will easily do the trick- it's certainly not the ideal round for a 200-300 pound animal. Given the terrain, a caribou hunter is better served with a flat shooting rifle that he can shoot very accurately at longer than normal range. While the .338 is a good cartridge, I've met few hunters that I'd describe as really good shots with one. Most quickly move down the bullet weight scale to something like the 210 Partition or 180gr in the .338 to flatten trajectory and lessen recoil. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but my .300 will zip a 180 grain out about as flat as a body can hope to shoot and the .270 shoots flatter with less recoil and expense yet.

As much as we don't need the .338 to shoot critters like caribou and moose, I'd be willing to accept that since overkill still winds up in the freezer provided the hunter can shoot straight. It's the other end I don't like. 

Big Bears.

No doubt about it- bears are tough animals. Tough enough in fact, that after a couple of scrapes with some biggish bears that my criticism of the .338 in Alaska mirrors how Cooper felt about the .375 in Africa...."Far too big for 90% of our hunting and too small for the remaining 10%." A common practice  in Africa is to take the .375 for everything plains game- shoot one load and then throw a handful of solids in the case for shooting your Cape buffalo. It was a near disaster with a Cape buffalo shot by his friend with a .375 that soured Cooper on the .375 as an "all a rounder" for dangerous game on the Dark Continent. He really felt that a hunter was better armed with an '06 or .308 the he shot lights out for the huge variety of antelope and then going to some heavier artillery for dangerous game. Amen to that.

In the Alaska genre I completely agree. Once we start talking big coastal brown bears I start to lose faith in the .338 and think the .375 makes a good starting point and bigger is not all that unreasonable when you think about how big and dangerous bears are and how close you generally come into contact with them. Many of the guides I know carry the .375, the .416s and the .458s. None that guide for coastal bears carry a .338 at all, which should speak volumes in itself. A great many moose hunters are packing the .338 "just in case" they run into a grouchy bear while moose hunting. While it does happen, I'm not sure a bigger stick at bayonet range really changes the equation all that much when you consider the handicap you deal with all the times you're shooting game and not running into a bear.
For the meat hunter a good .300 probably represents the top end of what folks shoot well and at spitting distance is plenty for flattening Yogi since his mouth is likely going to be on the muzzle when the trigger is pulled. 

While I admit the .338 offers the "one gun hunter" a truly versatile piece to hunt about anything in the North- it's only true if the shooter doesn't close his eyes before yanking the trigger (and I've met plenty who do). A true two rifle battery is probably more practical if the hunter wants to pursue all of the diverse species the state has to offer to include the great bruins. Something on the order of a .270, .308 or '06 up to a 7mm Remington mag or one of the "lesser" .300s coupled up with a .375 and on up makes a very flexible and compelling combination.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Dip-Net Madness...Flooding, Bike Trailers and Salmon Love.

I just returned from one of my favorite activities of the summer- dipping Copper River Red Salmon. My  frequent partner and I made plans despite the prolonged winter. One of the things about the Copper is that the water level is very critical and a long prolonged winter followed by sudden bout of hot weather put so much water off the mountains and in the drainages that the Copper spilled it's banks. Water was running at flood stage for a couple of weeks prior to our trip and a number of the fishwheels in the Chitna area had washed downstream. The high water and a heavy harvest by the commercial fishery made the personal use fishery look like a dicey proposition. Undeterred by the bad outlook we went fishing anyway.

We arrived at the trailhead rather late in the day- 9:00pm and began the long trek down the trail to our favorite fishing hole. I was trying something new- a bike trailer behind my mountain bike. I had feared the heavy avalanche activity would have made the precarious trail unpassable on a full size ATV so the more compact footprint of the bike might have been an asset. Gary was on his compact ATV. It was immediately obvious that the bike trailer was a great choice for this trail. I had no problems matching pace with Gary and on certain sections of rough trail I could zip right through where the quad had to pick it's way through. One thing was for certain- we nearly had the river to ourselves on the normally busy fishery.

We arrived at the fishing hole at 10:30p and set in for a night of fishing despite the mosquito population. Within 60 seconds Gary had a fish in his net and it only would get better from there. The action was hot and furious by any standard achievable. In 90 minutes I had 30 fat reds in the bag- it's nearly impossible to catch and bag fish any faster. I stopped just short of midnight- exhausted and bloody. I began the arduous task of packing the fish up the cliffs to the trail and my bike and then the 4 miles back to the truck. The task would take me all night in the midnight sun, the summer heat and the bugs.

I finished up about 5:00a and while waiting for Gary to complete hauling his fish out I decided to pick up my supplemental of 10 fish. The supplemental had opened at midnight and even though the fishing had slowed considerably I decided to give it a whirl. By 6:00a I had 9 in the bag with one left to limit- I threw back several "dinks" hoping for an elusive King (Chinook) Salmon to hit the net. But no luck in an endeavor dripping with it... the sun crested the high ridge and the bugs came out in force. Feeling pin pricks though my pants, I looked down and a legion of mosquitoes nearly covered my legs.

Despite being one shy- I was done. 21 hours of nonstop fishing madness and I was covered in slime, blood, mud and bugs.  Exhausted.

I shot a few minutes of Go Pro video and must apologize about the shoddy camera angle but I'll share it anyway.

If you'll excuse me- I've got salmon to smoke.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Thoughts on Preparedness

Here we are in the budding Alaskan summer and we've already had two fatalities in my area. The first an extremely unfortunate bear mauling and the second a drowning while fording a swollen creek on an ATV. One may think the Alaskan summer holds nothing more significant than mosquitoes, but you'd be wrong. It's a common occurrence here- summer happens and as people yield their thoughts toward recreation they often let their guard down.

Just recently my family went on a short hike up my favorite fleigberg and we saw firsthand how ill prepared some people venture into the wilds. About 3 miles in and about 2000' up we were passed on the trail by a couple of college age guys. They just looked like college guys in their polo shirts and khaki golf shorts. One of them had sweated through his shirt on the hard climb up. Neither had any water, no packs, no jackets, no bear deterrents....basically just the minimal clothes on their backs. We neared the summit a half hour later and chatted with them briefly while we watched a rain squall move our way. One of them asked me-"When will that rain get here?"

"Oh, about 10 minutes or so", I replied. "Do you have any rain gear?"

"Man, we don' bad do you think it will be?" he queried.

His second question showed me just how out of touch he was with weather in the mountains- you always assume the worst, regardless of season. The two companions took off down the mountain at breakneck speed (potentially literally so) in the hope of making it back to the car before the storm hit. They wouldn't make it. I spent the next few minutes watching some caribou on the valley floor below with my son before the first rain drop fell. In just a moment we had our rain gear on and our equipment packed up and got mostly moved to a small outcropping of rock to seek a little shelter from the storm.

The storm hit rather typically of the early summer squalls we get. The temperature at the front of the squall dropped from a rather nice 70F to about 30F in under a minute and the wind went from gentle breezes to a strong blow of about 40mph as hail began to fall. In five minutes we had went from postcard perfect weather to horizontal rain, lashing wind and hail. We were a little chilled but otherwise fine huddled in our rain gear behind some boulders on the otherwise barren mountaintop but it would have been really bad to be sitting here soaked to the bone and completely exposed to the elements. Under such cool, wet and windy conditions significant hypothermia could set in surprisingly quickly.

And that's how people get hurt. A lapse in judgement that says, "The weather is fine" or "It's just over there...", or "I don't need a's summer." Surprisingly, hypothermia cases are more common during our summers than in our winters. Our winters are fearsome and few journey far without coats and gloves and hats, but the summer lulls them into thinking it's not Alaska anymore. My family has made something of a game out of evaluating the folks we meet on trail- "How prepared are they? Do they look like they could take care of themselves should something go very wrong?" At least half fail miserably.

Fortunately for us and doubly so for our ill prepared fellow hikers, the squall abated quickly. Five or ten minutes of wind and hail and cold wind yielded to warmer temps and lower winds as the squall's front passed overhead. Soon it was just raining mildly and after about twenty minutes the sun was back out. I'd be dry before we even reached the valley floor. If this had lasted longer it could have been a significantly dangerous event dressed in golf clothes but a few odds and ends and preparations and it would have been just a nasty inconvenience. Hundreds of Search and Rescue calls are initiated every year in such circumstances- a pleasant day hike turns deadly with unexpected weather. Hypothermia leads to poor decision making which yields even more peril- a fall, a slip or worse.

The number of articles and books that have been written on such topics could fill a library so I won't attempt to recreate any, but in brief.

1. Always bring a jacket. Even in summer. Waterproof is mandatory.
2. Always bring water. Always.
3. Always bring some way of starting a fire should you require one. Be proficient at it.
4. Always make a plan and tell someone else about it.
5. Stick to the plan in #4.
6. Always have a first aid kit and the knowledge to apply all of it's contents.

While certainly not an exhaustive list, that would suffice to get the majority of folks requiring SAR services off the list during the summer months.