or How High's The Water, Momma?
How High's The Water, Momma?
by Junior Doughty
When we were kids, my brother and I found this rusty old ~40 caliber RB bullet mold in our backyard. It inspired wonderment in me. In my youthful mind I saw Jim Bridger and Kit Carson sitting around a campfire in my back yard and casting bullets for grand and glorious adventureshunting grizzly bears and mountain lions and fighting Apaches and Comanches. |
I didn't know it when my brother and I found the mold, but our house sat less than 100 yards from the Natchez Trace/El Camino Real, the "King's Highway." Situated on a low, wide ridge with a creek on both sides, the site would have made an ideal campground for travelers on the main road from Natchez to Mexico City. Philip Nolan might have camped and rested his herds of stolen Mexican horses on that ridge. Jim Bowie might have camped there.
Some years later I read about buffalo hunters casting their bullets over a campfire, then using a tong-type tool to load their 45-90 and Big 50 ammunition beside the campfire. Seemed to me if they could do it, I could do it. The idea sounded very coolme and the wilderness and some basic tools and a tent and a campfire and the stars above. I'd be like Billy Dixon, the buffalo hunter who in 1874 at the battle of Adobe Walls, Texas, used a .50-110 Sharps and shot a Comanche at 1,538 yards.
The opportunity to cast my bullets like Billy Dixon cast his came in January, 2002, during the final week of muzzleloader deer season in north Louisiana, Area #2. While squirrel hunting, I had found a great campsite in a hardwood bottom about five miles from my front door. I decided to camp there, cast bullets over the campfire, and hunt with them the next day; thereby fulfilling a long-held ambition. But while I planned my trip, the river rose to flood stage and covered my campsite with about ten feet of water.
Below, see the equipment I used for campfire bullet casting when the river finally lowered and I could go camping. First, the molds:
On the left, you see a Lee #90396, .50 caliber, double cavity, 320 gr R.E.A.L. bullet mold. I use that bullet in my Lyman .50 Caliber Great Plains Hunter. On the right, you see a Lee #90406, .311 diameter, double cavity, round ball mold. I use that bullet in my Traditions .32 Caliber Crockett Rifle.
Lee aluminum molds work great for campfire bullet casting because they quickly heat to casting temperature. That's important when you're standing over a campfire and smoke is billowing in your face and one of your shoes is melting. Not shown in the photo is the Lee dipper I used to stir the lead in the pot and to skim the dross.
The screwdriver is for knocking open sprue plates. Yes, I know you're supposed to use a hardwood hammer handle, but the plastic handle of a screwdriver works just as well and you never know when you might need an extra screwdriver.
The Lyman Lead Pot and the Lyman Casting Dipper you see in the above photo are indispensable items for campfire bullet castingmust haves. The pot is steel, holds eight lbs of lead, and has a bail for hanging and a flat bottom for sitting. Notice the wide lip which helps keep ashes out of the pot when it sits in coals. The dipper is cast iron, holds more than enough molten lead for two big bullets, and has a pour spout. You can step completely away from the fire and pour molten lead through your mold's sprue holes. The Lyman pot and dipper are perfect for campfire bullet casting.
One word of caution: For bullet material, I intended to take a rectangular-shaped five lb lead ingot with me on the trip. To see how it filled the pot, I picked the pot up by the bail and dropped in the ingot. The pot tipped over and out fell the ingot. Part of the rectangular-shaped ingot extended beyond the edge of the pot, making it off balance. I had to sit the pot on a stove burner and melt the ingot, then let it harden inside the pot. That would have been hard to do on a campfire.
In the photo below you see me with camp pitched and lead melting. The Lyman pot is hanging from my bean-cooking rope and is down in the flames and on the coals. I used the rope instead of my tripod or grill because I thought I would need a large, hot fire, and with the pot hanging from the rope I could grab the rope and pull the pot away from the fire to dip out lead. But I didn't need a large fire at all, as you can see from the photo. In fact, the fire is made from pine cones and a few almost-rotted pine limbs.
About thirty minutes after hanging the pot, the lead started melting. Fifteen minutes after that, I started casting bullets. My small fire made from poor quality wood told me that Billy Dixon and crew could have and probably did cast bullets over fires made from buffalo chips.
Notice the brown bath towel on the ground. It's for catching bullets and cut off sprue. Billy Dixon probably used a piece of buffalo hide. In the full-size photo you can see a mold in my left hand and the Lyman Casting Dipper in my right hand and down inside the Lyman Lead Pot.
In this photo, you see me pouring molten lead from the dipper and into a mold. It clearly shows the size of the fire, not much of a fire at all. It also clearly shows that a Lee mold and a Lyman pot and dipper are perfect for wilderness bullet casting. I suggest putting that combination in your Y2K+2 survival kit.
The entire campfire-bullet-casting process was much easier than I imagined. It amazed me that such a tiny fire melted the pot of lead, and because of the tiny fire I didn't have to battle smoke and flames to dip lead out of the pot. I could have pulled a stool or bucket up close to the small fire and the pot and happily cast bullets the rest of the afternoon. But since I needed only enough .50 caliber bullets for one deer and enough .311 bullets for one squirrel, I soon stopped casting and started loading.
For size comparison, look at a .22 Long Rifle and two of the bullets I cast in the wilderness, a 45 gr round ball on top and a 320 gr conical on bottom. My original 5 lb ingot would make 777 bullets for my .32 caliber rifle and 109 bullets for my .50 caliber rifle. Now, if I headed off for a winter in a real wilderness, and I had only a horse or my back to carry all of my supplies, which rifle would I take, my .32 or my .50? Don't forget that one bullet takes 10 grs of powder per shot and the other one takes 53 grs.
Now you know one reason Daniel Boone was so fond of the little .29 caliber rifle he called "Ticklicker."
That's a little pot of left-over beans hanging over the fire, and the silver object in front of the fire is left-over jalapeno cornbread wrapped in foil. They tasted great, needless to say. I brought two 8" Dutch ovens, and I had planned to make chicken sauce piquant in one and the Capt's beer bread in the other one. My campsite location prevented that because I couldn't build a fire large enough to make decent coals for a Dutch oven. The wind was a-poppin', and there were twenty acres of dry knee-high grass on one side of camp and two inches of dry leaves on the other side of camp. I didn't want to start a forest fire.
There were some interesting things in the forest around me. Here's a look at an abandoned oil well just a few yards down the little road behind me in the above photo. I call it the "Medusa well" because of its really weird hairdo.
The woods around me were dotted with abandoned oil wells, many on pipe platforms fifteen feet or so in the air due to frequent floods. Most of the pump-jacks remained rusted in the position they were in when the electricity was disconnected about twenty years ago. Some were heavily cannibalized, some lightly cannibalized, and some, except for trees and vines growing through the pipe platforms, looked like you could turn on the juice and they'd start pumping. It was kinda weird, actually.
Here's something kinda awful, actually. This is me in the summer of 2001 and standing in a waist deep hole dug by pothunters into a late ice age Indian site just a few yards from my camp. I say "pothunters," but I should say "spearpointhunters" because the site is so old it's pre-pottery and pre-bow and arrow. Let's call them "looters."
They dig that site for large Archaic spear points such as Clovis, San Patrice, and Evans points placed there in burials from 7,000 to 11,000 years ago. Over that length of time, slightly acidic soil has dissolved first the bones and then the teeth of the buried Indians, leaving only stone burial
Since the photo was taken, I took steps to post the land, and I set in motion the process of having the site archaeologically tested.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, my belly was full of beer and beans, and the sun was going down. The popping wind died, so I built the fire from tiny to small and sat there in the deepening darkness, watching the flames flicker and orange embers zigzag skyward and disappear. Around a fire at night in cold weather, I like to sip cognac with just one cube of ice large enough to tinkle against the glass as I move my hand. When I'm alone there, that tinkle tinkle is the only man-made sound I want to hear.
Stars appeared, then more, then even more. A large star was suddenly there, to the north. Sirius, I assumed. Suddenly, there was Orion the hunter, a hunter like me. I followed the line of his belt across the sky to Sirius, the brightest star. So the other, brighter star was a planet, not a star. Saturn, I guessed.
The thought struck me that the nearby people who had turned to dust in their desecrated graves knew the name of that planet, had a word for it in their long-dead language. If they were there with me in body around the firethey were there in spiritone might say to me, Dummy, that's Jupiter.
I tinkled the glass and walked to the edge of the twenty acres of grass and searched the sky for the Big Dipper. Finding it, I found Polaris, north. I turned, finding Saturn/Jupiter again and finding it directly east. Straight above me, the Milky Way made its nebulous path across the black sky. Shivering against the cold, I walked quickly back to the fire, my empty glass tinkling.
Oh, it was glorious that first night around the firethe stars, the cognac, the flickering flames, the rising embers, the cognac, the falling temperature, the tinkle tinkle. Far away, an owl hooted. I listened for an answer, none came. The night was black and silent except for the soft crackle of the fire. I wondered if burning buffalo chips smelled. I wondered if buffalo chips made enough coals to bake biscuits in a Dutch oven. If they made bullets, they made biscuits, I decided.
I soon went to bed. In spite of sleeping in my clothesincluding my shoesand being zipped inside a 20° sleeping bag, I was cold. Heart medication does that to a fellow. I knew it was dangerous, but I put the burner of my fish cooker inside the tent. I turned it very low, thinking the large ventilation screen at the tent's peak and beneath the rain fly would provide more than enough ventilation. Soon I was warm and snug inside the sleeping bag.
But sleep wouldn't come. I lay there watching the burner's tiny blue flame flicker gently on the gray ceiling above me. I wondered about the nearby people, spirits now. The thought struck me that my large dome tent was very much like the mud-and-sticks huts in which they surely lived. It was much colder in that spot then. In winter, cold dry air would have whistled off the remaining glaciers to the north, chilling all in its path. The people would have slept along the edge of their dome tent-like huts, wrapped snugly in thick giant sloth and buffalo robes instead of in a thick sleeping bag like me. Small wood fires, not propane, would have burned in the center of the huts. Above, the flames would flicker onto sooty-black ceilings, not gray. They would worry about smoke, not carbon monoxide like me, so the peak of their ceilings would feature smoke holes, not ventilation screens. There wasn't much difference between me and those people, I decided, and I finally went to sleep.
I woke before the alarm went off the next morning. The outside of my sleeping bag was damp, and the tent's inside walls dripped with moisture created by the propane flame. I quickly got coffee water boiling on the propane burner, and just as quickly rebuilt the campfire. If there's anything I like better than sipping cognac around a campfire at night, it's sipping coffee around a campfire in the morning. Coffee soon made, I sipped it and marveled at the pitch-black morning until I could see the glow of the rising sun on the eastern horizon. Then I gathered snacks, filled my canteen, and donned hunter's orange. Just after first light, I hit the woods walking.
About 100 yds up the gravel road you see in the background of some of the photos above, I turned my steps onto a smaller gravel road. It soon turned to dirt and mudholes and looped along the edge of Little River for about a mile, then intersected the main gravel road again just past my campsite. Oil wells and tank batteries once lined it, but oak-tree squirrel woods now line it.
When I reached the oak trees, I stopped walking and started just barely moving, slowly putting one foot a few inches in front of the other foot. Then I'd stop and stand still for five minutes. The morning bright, now, I found an oak with the ground beneath it spotted with half-eaten acorns. Deer snacks, I call those half-eaten acorns. Thank you, squirrels.
Now to find a natural blind. I saw a holly bush, its leaves bright green and vivid in the brown and gray late winter woods. A dead, thigh-sized tree trunk leaned against a tree beside the bush. I carried a portable tripod stool. I unhooked it from my belt, unfolded it, and put it beside the holly bush. Then I sat on it. I was sitting in a little cubby hole, and both the tree in front of me and the leaning dead trunk made good rifle rests.
To my left, a clear, four-feet-wide shooting lane stretched through the trees and brush. Directly in front of me was the same, perhaps to 125 yards. To my right was the old oil field road. Briars growing along the near edge slightly blocked my view of the road, but I could see anything walking down it or emerging from the other side. I figured a pencil-sized dead briar would have little effect on a 320 gr bullet traveling 1260 fps.
The spot was near perfectgood shooting lanes and overlooking the deer snacks 50 yards away. About ½ mile from that spot, in 1976, I killed a monster 6-point buck with my .270. I was ready for another one, this time with a muzzleloader and a campfire-cast bullet. I broke a branch from the holly bush and poked the broken end into the ground in front of me, increasing my camouflage. I poked another branch into the ground to my left. Then I waited. And I waited.
Eight o'clock came and went, then nine o'clock. I saw no trace of a deer looking for a mid-morning snack. Around me I could see watermarks about one foot up the trees. Little elongated piles of leaves lay against briar and bush fences, pushed there by moving flood water. The ground was bare in spots, the leaves swept away by the water. Ten o'clock came and went. I saw nothing but birds. Heard nothing but birds. Time to move.
I folded the stool, hooked it to my belt, and began slowly walking down the road. I saw a few hog tracks but not a single deer track. A hog would do, I decided. Maybe a 50 lb shoat. I soon came to where a haul road bisected a thicket of briars and bushes and intersected the slightly larger dirt road. There in a corner of the intersection was a dead-fall overgrown with briars. I pushed my way to the center of it. I stomped down the weeds and briars around my feet, unfolded my little stool, and down I sat.
On all sides of me, limbs of the dead-fall stuck out and over and up at odd angles and broke up my silhouette. Weeds and briars surrounded me and hid me. Man could not design and sell a better blind than that one, provided free by Mother Nature. In similar blinds I've had deer and turkeys walk within five feet of me. I've had birds land on my head. It will scare the hell out of you if they come from behind you.
With such a perfect blind in such a perfect place, the meat was as good as in my freezer, the backstrap already frying in my pot. So I waited. And I waited. Ten o'clock, eleven o'clock, noon. No deer, no hog. Just birds. When one o'clock came, I folded my stool and left.
The next day was the same. Nothing. Just a few hog tracks. But something unusual happened around noon of that day, the second day. I was in a natural blind behind a fallen log beside a haul road. In front of me was a thicket. My right boot lace was untied, I noticed. So I leaned over to tie it. And something in the thicket growled.
I froze. My head was pointed toward the thicket and the something, my eyes looking down at my feet. The something saw the movement when I leaned over, I knew. What to do? What to do?
While I contemplated actions to take and not to take, the something growled again. It was a low guttural, snarling growl. Like a dog but not a dog. Certainly not a hog. A cat? No, it was more growl than snarl. Slowly, ever so slowly, I raised my head. I could see nothing but the thicket. Fifteen minutes later I got out of the blind and searched for tracks. Nothing.
By the end of the following day, the third day, I had not seen a deer track, much less a deer. What tha hell was wrong, I wondered. Then it struck me: the flood. Just barely a week earlier, the entire area had been covered with one to ten feet of water. The deer hadn't returned.
The morning of the fourth, and last, day found me easing past the Medusa well and along the big slough beside it. At this early hour, just past dawn, a thick, fog-like mist covered the slough. At the top of the deep mist, the skeletal black tops of dead cypress trees poked out, looking like huge jagged arrows stuck in a cloud. Some twenty years or so ago cypress trees and button willow bushes filled the slough. Now, it was wide open except for the rotting snags of dead cypress trees. An uncaring oil lease operator allowed a broken salt water disposal line to leak and fill the slough with salt water. But Mother Nature heals herself, and the water of the slough was full of life. Some day the cypress trees would return, I knew.
I carried my squirrel rifle instead of my deer rifle. The barrel and the loading block were loaded with campfire-cast 45 gr round balls. I wanted to end this camping trip with meat in the pot killed by a bullet cast on the trip. Looked like that meat would have to be squirrel.
The slough was down a bank that 1,000 years or so ago had been the bank of Little River when the slough was the river. Along the natural levee beside the slough the woods were open and filled with oaks large and smallsquirrel hunter heaven. But an hour into the morning and the hunt, I had seen no squirrel. The morning mist over the slough had lifted, except for scattered wisps among the snags. Suddenly, I saw ripples in the water at the edge of the slough, some 150 yards away. A beaver or a nutria, I knew, out in the daylight for some reason. Probably getting a mid-morning snack from a bush at the edge of the bank. I remembered my desire to make a nutria or beaver backstrap sauce piquant. I had the makings back at camp. All I needed was the backstrap. And the pelt would make a dandy possibles bag.
I quietly eased forward until the gnarled oak was between me and the slough. An inch at a time, I then sneaked toward the oak and the slough. Finally, as my eyes peeked more and more over the edge of the bank, I could see the ripples, directly in front of me and emanating from the edge of the water, which I still could not see. I was about thirty yards from the unseen source of the ripples, an easy head shot on a beaver or a nutria. It must be a head shot, I knew, so the animal would die instantly and rest in shallow water. I eased forward a few inches, then a few more. My little .32 caliber Crockett Rifle was cocked and ready, the butt against my shoulder, the muzzle half raised. A few more inches forward, and I could finally see the edge of the water.
The ripples seemed to emanate from a row of knee-high bushes at the water's edge. And not from just one spot, from several yards along the row of bushes. While I pondered the mystery of bushes making ripples, a mallard drake swam out of the bushes and into view. Then another duck swam into view, then several more. Well, I thought, ain't that something! There goes my backstrap sauce piquant. Could make a duck gumbo, but I ain't got no duck stamp, and I ain't even using a shotgun. But, heck, duck gumbo on a campfire sure would be some fine eatin'. Got all the makings at camp but okra and bell pepper, and they're just ten minutes away in the freezer at home. But, heck, Junior, my conscience told me, you ain't never violated a game law in your entire life.
One of the ducks must have sensed either me or my moral dilemma because the entire flock suddenly exploded into the air with a great splashing of water and flapping of wings. I watched them disappear around a bend of the slough, the aroma of duck gumbo disappearing with them.
So, back I went to squirrel hunting and the aroma of squirrel simmering in gravy. I continued easing along the natural levee of the slough, stopping every twenty yards or so and taking a long look around. I reached a point where a gully flowed into the slough. Loggers had dammed it long ago, making a road across it. On my left was a stump I remembered well. While sitting on it two squirrel seasons earlier and leisurely eating my lunch, I felt something crawling on my back and then felt something crawling up my legs. I looked down to see ants swarming on my pants. In that same instant, the ants on my back and under my pants started biting. I yelled and dropped my rifle and my lunch, and in no more than fifteen seconds flat, stripped butt-ass naked right there in the woods. While remembering that event and noticing the absence of the ant nest formerly behind the stump, I saw movement ahead of me.
I looked up to see a big fox squirrel running along a fallen log about thirty-five yards away. It saw me and stopped to give me a look over. In the same instant I decided it was slightly out of range but I would give it a shot anyway, it took off like a nitro-fueled dragster and zoomed down the log and over the side of the gully and out of sight. Trying to watch for the squirrel on the ground and in the trees at the same time, I eased to the edge of the gully. No squirrel in sight. I leaned against a tree and stood motionless for about fifteen minutes. Still no squirrel.
Not wanting to give up, I eased across the old dam, watching in the trees for movement. On the other side of the gully, I leaned against another tree and stood motionless. Five minutes later, a little cat squirrel scampered out on a limb. Just before it jumped to another limb, it changed its mind and turned around and scampered back in the direction from whence it came. I cocked the Crockett rifle and raised it, planning to take a shot even though this squirrel was also slightly out of range. The squirrel suddenly stopped and froze in its tracks, hugging the limb and trying to become invisible. The sun suddenly became squirrel friendly and went behind a cloud. With a gray sky behind it and motionless on a gray limb in dim light, the gray squirrel was effectively invisible. So I shot a gray lump I thought was the squirrel. Pow went the little Crockett rifle and th-wack went the 45 gr camp-cast bullet when it hit the little squirrel.
With a smug look on my face, probably, and the thought of gravy on my mind, for sure, I lowered the rifle and watched the squirrel fall to the ground. Only the squirrel wasn't falling. It was running at high speed along the limbthe limb I had just shot. In a spray of loose bark, it hit the tree trunk, and in the blink of an eye it was gone.
I eased some fifty yards beyond the gully and took a seat on a log, facing the slough. To my left, I could see the area where the two squirrels had disappeared. To my right, I could see along the slough. Nothing. An hour later, still nothing. Soon, meatless, I returned to camp. Alas, the hunt and the trip was over.
I had one last chore before I broke camp and returned home: clean the fired rifle like Billy Dixon would have cleaned his. I hung a pot of water in the flames and on the coals. It took exactly an hour for it to boillonger than it took the pot of lead to melt.
Here you see me dismantling the rifle on the hood of my car. Note it resting on a towel, the same one I used to catch hot bullets. The towel prevented scratching the rifle's stock, but its main purpose was to catch screws in case I dropped one. Let's call it the catching towel.
Behind me you can see the pot starting to boil.
When the barrel cooled, I oiled it and replaced it in the stock. Then, somewhat sadly, I broke camp and returned home.
I accomplished something on the camping trip. I made bullets on a campfire, and I used one of them on game. And I learned two facts:
I will work on the tent and the heat source before next hunting season arrives. I prefer a wood heater because, well, because the idea of wood heat is comforting in the wilderness. Besides, watching flames flickering on the ceiling of a tent is wonderful. It connects me with the past.
If I can solve the tent and heat source problem before next hunting seasonand the river doesn't floodI'll camp in those woods again during regular rifle season. I'll cast bullets on the campfire for my 30-30 Winchester Buffalo Bill Commemorative. I own a little Lee Hand Press, so I'll load those bullets there beside the campfire. In fact, I may load those 30-30 rounds with black powder. Then I'd really feel like Billy Dixon.
Stay tuned to The Frugal Outdoorsman for the results.