It was the second afternoon of the 2003 November rifle deer season. I trudged my way up the mountain a little after noon. The band I was in at the time had a gig the night before, cutting the previous day short, and starting this one late. On a side note, I no longer play gigs during deer season.
I met up with Dad on a skid road. As I only had a few hours to hunt, I decided not to travel too far and settled on a ground blind built into some ledges, overlooking a pretty hardwood stand. A well-traveled deer trail ran from my immediate left out in front of me, giving me an easy shot at any buck that may utilize it. Dad headed off to a spot about 200 yards away, agreeing to meet me in the skid road at dark.
It wasn’t long into my sit, maybe 15 minutes, that I heard footsteps in the dry, crunchy leaves. In a split second, two adult does made their way just as advertised, along the deer trail. They picked their way through, stopping to grab a few acorns from the oaks that sporadically dotted the landscape, before moseying off toward Dad’s direction.
The next few hours were nothing to write home about. I made friends with a small mouse that kept popping up through the leaves to get a closer look at me. He would disappear into the forest floor before working up the courage to take another look. We played this game a few times before he tired of it. Squawking blue jays cut off the sweet sounds of the songbirds, almost as to say they were not a fan of their performance. A lone chipmunk busied himself with gathering nuts, no doubt preparing for the long winter that was on the horizon.
At about 4:15 PM, with around 20 minutes or so left of daylight, my afternoon siesta was interrupted by a cadence of footfalls in the leaves coming from directly behind me. In the ledges I was sitting in, there was a gap in the rocks that allowed me to see anything coming from the rear. I slowly turned and saw an adult doe with her nose to the ground, looking for her early dinner. Behind her was a young fawn, maybe 60 pounds.
It was the young deer who realized something was amiss, as her mother was too busy feeding her face. The fawn was glaring directly at me, understanding that there was something there that shouldn’t be. She would lower her head and quickly pick it up, hoping to get me to flinch. A savvy hunter, I was having none of that. She changed tactics and started stomping, again to get me to jump. It didn’t happen. There is nothing cuter than a deer this small stomping at you. She must have done this 15 or more times. I couldn’t help myself and let out a soft chuckle. The deer and her mama fled the scene.
A hunter does not need to fill a tag to have a successful hunt. Some of my favorite moments in the wilderness are of encounters such as this. The woods are full of amazing creatures to see and sounds to hear. This little girl and her antics have stuck with me for more than 18 years.
I need it. Badly. The state of the world requires it. I need to get away. Quickly. Away from others. I need my sanity back. I need to get back into the woods.
I spend all week dealing with people in an ever-changing and extremely fast paced environment. And that is before the pandemic. Expectations, deadlines, crazy behavior from others dominates my week. Technology is wonderful but it only enhances the expectations. Everywhere I turn, someone expects something of me. And the cold, honest truth is I can only provide a fraction of what they want.
So, the week is shot, leaving the weekend as my time to regroup and refuel. The woods provide that respite for me. Only I can’t get out there! The past four weekends have bit us with either a blizzard or temperatures in the single digits. I’m sorry, but as much as I love the trees, I do not wish to freeze up like one!
I miss the solitude that only the forest can give me. I miss the fluffy snow that masks my footfalls. I miss the squirrels chattering as I approach their space. Give me the white deer tails, bounding away as I get closer. Let me hear the songbirds. Give me the ability to collect my thoughts. Perhaps I can even come up with a solution to a problem that plagues me during the week, as long as I can form a single thought without interruption.
It’s the woods where I come to my senses. It’s where I understand that the noisiness of the week will pass, and everything will work out. The woods give me back my confidence, my mojo, at least until about 8:15 Monday morning.
As told to me by my uncle (I cleaned up the grammar and language 😊):
I started out that morning with a fresh five inches of snow on the ground. I worked my way up the first hill behind the homestead and into the pines. It was a still morning, nary a wind to be felt. It was just after first light and the songbirds were warming up their vocal cords.
I quickly came across a set of deer tracks that was better than decent in size. They had to be made recently, as it had stopped snowing less than an hour before. Without a game plan that morning, I hopped on the tracks to see where they would take me.
I crested a pair of ridges due south, heading toward a transition line where the pines would meet the hardwoods in a series of valleys that led to the river. I didn’t get far when I noticed the tracks were slowing down, the stride between footsteps shrinking by the step. The fresh snow my friend under my feet, I crept slowly. Just below the ridge to my left, the elderly property owner was pounding away with a hammer. I could easily see his movements through the trees.
I came to a blowdown. The tracks seemed to go straight through it. The fallen tree, an old monarch of the forest, had several thin, ill-fitting branches that sprouted in all directions. I took the barrel of my rifle and moved a few out of the way. There, behind the shield of the blowdown, was a five-point buck, his head back, eyes closed, fast asleep. I pulled up the gun and looked through the scope. The deer was so blurry I had to back up to shoot. I touched off. Bang! The buck never knew what hit him. Below, the hammering stopped, and the old man bellowed, “Get up in the woods and hunt!” I must have scared the dickens out of him.
I scurried out of there, leaving my deer where he lay. I grabbed an extra set of hands to help get the buck out of the woods before I was confronted by the old guy. It was one of those hunts where the story that accompanies it never gets old.
It was pitch black dark when the horrific sound of the alarm catapulted me out of what was surely a beautiful dream. I looked at the clock. 4:15 AM. The first day of youth spring turkey hunting. The cobwebs beginning to dissipate, I searched in my sleepy brain for a solution to my next problem. How was I going to break it to my 12-year-old son that it was time to get up?
Youth weekends offer an opportunity in my area that I didn’t have when I grew up; a chance to get after the game, whether it be turkeys or deer, before the big boys stormed the woods. While one might think that this would be enough to get my son fired up, it was pretty dark and I’m sure his bed was quite comfortable. Reluctantly, and I must admit, perhaps only because he didn’t wish to disappoint his old man, he started getting dressed.
We decided to hunt behind my house for a couple of reason. First, there would be no travel time, which allowed both of us precious extra sleep. Second, I was aware that there were some birds back there. I had no idea where, but I was hoping the owl call would locate a revved-up tom.
We started out in the darkness and got to the top of the first ridge. From here, the woods, split in two by a power line, would steadily decline to a brook at the bottom, before rapidly rising on the other side. It was not an easy place to hunt, but maybe that would deter others from joining us. I let out my first owl call to hopefully elicit a shock gobble just as day was breaking. Nothing.
We regressed with the landscape, first into a stand of pines that bordered a couple of fields. There seemed to be no turkeys on the entire mountain, at least none that would answer the owl call. Crossing the brook, and climbing up a stand of hardwoods, we decided to rest. It was here that I broke out my mouth call, mimicking a hen that was on the lookout for love. Unfortunately, the only critters that seemed to be in the area were a few squirrels and a noisy blue jay.
We picked ourselves up from our slumber and soldiered on. It wasn’t looking good. I was beginning to worry that I would never get my boy into this. For his part, he seemed to be enjoying the peace and quiet in the woods with his dad, but to be honest, how many early mornings of rigorous activity, while seeing nothing would he partake?
We crossed the power line and sauntered into another patch of woods, one that continued for only 150 yards before we hit posted land. We would have to skirt this imaginary wall, calling blindly, and hoping for the best. In reality, I only had one more play for the morning before I was out of ideas. We were sneaking through a mix of hardwoods, pines, and blowdowns. A field sat just beyond the property line. This would’ve have been an attractive area for a turkey.
I hit the mouth call. Off in the distance to the left, just below the power line we had crossed was a gobble, maybe 200 yards away. We listened. Nothing. I hit the call again. Just over the ridge to our right, and next to the field came a much closer gobble, perhaps 75 yards away! I immediately had my boy sit down against a tree, the old 12 gauge at the ready. I sat to his right, and we waited patiently. He would gobble every couple of minutes.
I finally hit the call again. Gobble! He was closer now, and out in front of us, only a pile of pricker busher and a stone wall prevented us from getting a glimpse. Gobble! He was moving to the right. We shifted our position, with my boy taking the prime shooting position, with me now on the left.
Turkeys never follow a script, and this one was no different. He was moving at his own pace, sometimes going silent, before sounding off again when I quietly clucked or yelped with my call. Each agonizing two to three minutes between calls gave away his position and it was obvious he was circling us, hoping to see with his impeccable eyesight, the object of his affection. We shifted again.
For a 12-year-old to sit silently still for so long is an awfully big request and my son did a fantastic job, although I could hear his heavy breathing and see his chest rapidly rise and fall with each passing minute. The bird was now just out of sight, on a small bank, about 270 degrees from the direction he started in. For those who are not turkey hunters, toms would rather the “hen” come to him, which was the reason for his gobbling. We would need to exercise extreme patience. I decided to go silent to try to pull him in.
It was my son who saw him first, on the bank, about 80 yards away, all fanned out, putting on a show for what he hoped would be his morning rendezvous. Still needing him to close the gap to within 40 yards to be in my son’s shotgun range, we decided to sit quietly. If I were to call at this point, he would most likely hold up. He strutted back and forth, for approximately 15 minutes, his long beard grazing the forest floor.
Finally, the bird started to walk away. We shifted and I called again. He turned, and began walking toward us, a full 360 degrees from our starting position, and through some junk in the woods. A huge blowdown now blocked my son’s view, while I had limited vision above it from my position on my knees, now behind the tree I had been sitting against. He gobbled twice on the way in. I caught a quick look at him coming our way, but the blowdown hindered my boy’s chance to lay eyes on him. Not wanting to be busted by the turkey, I hunkered down and hoped for the best.
When we heard the bird next, five minutes had gone by. He was back up on the ridge, gobbling, but definitely heading away form us. The game was over. He either spotted us or realized the “hen” he had heard was not there. It was clear he had been played with before. I made a last-ditch effort to draw him back, but it was to no avail.
As my boy had baseball practice at 12 PM, and it was now 10 AM, with an hour walk back to the house, we had to head home. My son was disappointed and wanted to pursue the tom. Time and the fact that this bird was probably out of the game for today prevented us from continuing. We did not get the turkey that day, but we came darned close. And I secured a turkey hunting partner that will hopefully last the rest of my life. Now, if we could only see a few deer in the fall.
This past Christmas Eve, Dad and I took a walk in the woods. I wanted to check a few trail cameras, as well as hang up an additional one. As the deer in our region begin to slow down in December and head toward their wintering mode, I didn’t expect a whole lot of action on my cameras and in person.
The woods were eerily still that morning, the only noise the crunchy snow, about four days old, underfoot. The wind was minimal, and the sky was overcast, making for a gray type of day. The color was provided by the greenery of the thick softwood trees, which are always pretty with a coat of snow on them.
We crested a ridge in the walking trail, and I caught movement in a bowl out in front of us. It was a large male turkey, who got a four-step head start, before taking flight across the trail and to our left, crashing tree branches as he flew out of sight. Behind him were four more toms, who turned and jogged up the hill to our right, their beards dangling across the snow as they departed.
I worry about the turkeys this time of year. Some of you may have read my post called, “Hop-along,” about an injured female turkey (hen) that we encountered in 2020. Although the snow to this point is not deep and they can maneuver and find enough supply of food, turkeys will struggle once the snow is deep.
As I am a spring turkey hunter, of course I would come across a plethora of the birds during the off-season months, including winter. While it may seem like I have hit the jackpot by finding these five toms in December, the reality is that come spring (turkey season is May 1-31), these guys will be splitting up in search of hens for mating. Many of these bachelor birds will become mortal enemies and fight each other during this time. Some will leave the group, never to be heard from again, either because of a hunter’s shotgun shells, a coyote, or they may be tired of being a subordinate bird and wish to become a dominant one.
Regardless, I am on the side of the forest creatures for 11 months of the year. I spend many winter days making paths in the snow for the deer, who take advantage. One year, Dad and I were cutting down high handing hemlock branches so the deer could reach and browse on them. After an hour-long loop, we walked upon a pile of hemlock we had cut down and the deer had already been into them. Turkeys, whose chief wintertime hindrance is the deep snow, certainly benefit by utilizing our boot prints that puncture through.
Hunting is not all about killing game. It’s about finding them, and devising strategies that may put them within rifle, shotgun, or bow range. Sometimes, it’s about the peace and quiet that only the wilderness can provide. However, don’t forget about the turkeys, and other wildlife come the off-season, for I truly believe that it is our responsibility as sportsmen and sportswomen to care about the their well-being.
I don’t typically name wild animals. I steer clear from giving cute and sometimes fitting nicknames to any of the deer that I spot on my trail cameras. There’s no Goliath, Eight Ball, Slick, or Wide Nine. They’re simply deer. I have nothing against the practice. Lots of people do it. It’s just normally not my style. I said, “normally.”
A recent column I wrote was entitled, simply, “The Runt,” about a young buck that my dad and I frequently encountered some years back. He got a nickname. Another buck Dad gave a haircut to with his .303 was lovingly referred to as, “Scar,” for a while. There was the crow several years ago that had such a wheezing and deep caw that we wondered if he was a chain smoker. Today’s tale is about a hen turkey from the fall of 2020 which we called, “Hop-Along.”
Sometime during the first week of deer season in 2020, my dad and I got on the radios. This is something we do every few hours during the long day to give each other an update as to what we may have encountered, if only to break up the monotony. On this day, Dad reported that he saw a female turkey walking through the stand of hardwoods he was sitting in. This in itself is not an unusual occurrence. However, Dad said she had an extremely bad limp. It could have been that a coyote got a hold of her, or she got clipped by a car. Maybe a hunter’s pellets got into her leg earlier during turkey season. The good news was that she seemed to get along okay, just not as quickly as normal.
By the end of rifle season, we received a healthy dumping of snow. I was poking along, not far from where Dad spotted, “Hop-Along,” when I noticed a hen turkey standing on a rock that had protruded through the white stuff. She sat there; her eyes glued to my every step. I closed to within 15 yards before she “cut” at me and jumped off the rock. She limped for a few steps before taking flight. The majestic site of a large bird flying was also proof that Hop-Along had nothing wrong with her wings.
The following weekend was the muzzleloader opener. I was pushing through a stand of oaks when I caught movement on a hill off to my right. It was a turkey, feeding on the acorns. She took a few steps. It was Hop-Along. I watched her for about 15 minutes, amazed at her patience and diligence in searching for acorns. She was somewhat blocking the direction in which I had wanted to go. Reluctantly, I slowly headed in her direction, with an old stone wall separating us as I got to within 25 yards. Again, she cut at me, letting me know she was there, but she did not run off. Rather, she seemed resigned to my presence in the woods. It was as if we had become acquaintances, if not old friends. I moved along.
I do not know whatever happened to Hop-Along. I did not encounter her this past season. Part of me is concerned she couldn’t get through last winter. However, I am grateful that I was able to spend a couple of glorious mornings in the woods with her, one of the few wild creatures to get a name from me. She deserves that.
Deer season has ended. I’m tired and could stand to catch up on some things around the house, say nothing about a few extra hours of sleep. Technically, I don’t need to be in the woods again until May 1, the spring turkey hunting opener. Deer season for me doesn’t start again until the middle of November. However, anyone who knows me understands that staying away will not be possible.
Alas, Dad and I went to the woods this past weekend. I had a few trail cameras wanted to check, as well as look for places to hang up others. One can learn an awful lot by getting out there immediately after the season. For starters, while the hunters have all but disappeared, the deer are still on high alert and are utilizing their well-hidden deer trails and bedding areas. Finding such areas gives me a leg up on planning for next year. If the secrets worked well for the deer this year, they’ll fall back on them again next season.
In addition, the snow has not yet forced the deer to go completely into their yarding mode. In fact, the ground was bare when I walked into the woods and the snow began to fall about an hour into my adventure. They will be feeding in normal places like the oaks, fields, and simple browsing sites. While the tracks they put down will mostly be from nighttime feeding adventures, it will give us an idea of what is out there.
I checked my cameras and did not see anything that knocked my socks off. A few does have been feeding on a still-active stand of oaks where I have one camera set. It is nice to see that they feel comfortable enough to head there in the daylight. If these trees have acorns next year, this would be a nice spot to potentially hang a tree stand.
I didn’t get any pictures of bucks this week, including the big guy that is in the area. While disappointing, I know they are around. More importantly, I was able to spend a couple of hours with my dad, doing what we love doing the most. With the way the world is today, sometimes the little things like a quiet outing in the wilderness is all it takes to refuel the strength it’s going to take to make it through another week. Never underestimate the significance of a simple walk in the woods.
I stood at the bottom of a long and steep ridge, intimidated by the thought of getting to the top. It was late December, a couple of weeks past the close of deer season, and nobody was forcing me to make this climb. The steady line of deer tracks that punctured the snow almost down to the dirt ultimately convinced me to go for it.
I had noticed this active deer trail during the season, in an area I spent many hours sitting. Convinced the deer were using a trail that paralleled the ridge, I had built my stand approximately 50 yards away from this spot. It wasn’t until the final weekend of the season that I noticed this runway heading nearly straight up, with a very slight slope to the right. I had to see where it led.
Reluctantly, I started up. The incline was so unforgiving I had to stop and catch my breath several times. Only the knowledge I was on an extremely active trail kept me going further. The trail was so well-defined, I could look 40 yards ahead and easily see it.
I crested the ridge and reached a small flat spot that was not visible from any place on the mountain. The area covered no more than 15 yards before another steep ascent ran to the top. Walking along the edge of the shelf, I recognized a transition line of green hemlocks into open hardwoods. I reached a bowl at the opening of the hardwoods and started down into it. Two deer appeared out of nowhere, alarmed, their tails raised as they scurried out of sight. A quick check of the area showed maybe a dozen or more deer beds in the snow. Aha!
I marched through the bowl and reached the top of the other side. The hardwoods declined slightly, allowing for a view of 125 yards or more. I spotted the two deer again, along with three others. They were feeding on browse and leftover acorns. One deer actually headed my way for about 20 yards, carefully studying me before deciding I wasn’t worth hanging around for. All five scampered away from me.
I had seen enough. This was a very successful scouting mission, one that I was hesitant to take due to the nature of the climb. I had discovered a popular bedding area that the deer also used for feeding. I learned two valuable lessons that day. One, you can learn an awful lot about the deer in your hunting area in the weeks just after the season ends. The second lesson is to trust your gut. Something told me that this runway was worth checking out. Once I made the climb up the ridge, I was rewarded with finding a rather huntable area I, and most likely anyone else, was not aware of.
Remarkably, I spent little time in this area the following season, as preseason scouting missions caused me to reappraise where I would hunt. I left my secretive shelf and bowl alone for the season. I didn’t get a deer that year, as well. This is perhaps the third lesson of the story: Never completely turn your back on a spot because you think the grass is greener on the other side.
There was a deer season late in the 1980’s that taught me a valuable lesson in patience and perseverance. No, I wasn’t rewarded personally by having the state record buck walk out in front of me. That would be a story all too predictable. This is a tale about hanging in there and not throwing in the towel when all seems lost.
I was in high school. Dad and I were relegated in those days to hunting on weekends. On the day after Thanksgiving, almost two weeks into the season, and three days from its conclusion, he and I were trudging through the woods, no game plan to be had, sputtering about the lack of deer. Up to that point we had seen a handful between us. It was as if they all disappeared of the face of the earth.
Dad and I crested a hardwood ridge, desperately on the lookout for any deer sign at all. Sitting was out of the question. It was unseasonably warm and there were few hunters in the woods, two things that drastically hinders deer movement. Besides, we had spent numerous hours alone in thought already that season.
We ran into two guys, the first hunters we had seen that day. Not surprisingly, they were bemoaning the same issues Dad and I were. There were no deer. The state doesn’t have a clue how to manage the herd. We’re either dedicated hunters or stupid to be out there. We chatted with these fellows for approximately 15 minutes. It was the only action any of us had up to that point in the day.
We said our well wishes and went on our way. Dad and I continued up the mountain. Our new friends headed down in the direction we had come from. Perhaps five minutes after parting, there was a gunshot that startled the bejesus out of us. It had to be one of the two guys just down over the ridge from us. No way they saw a deer. Did their gun go off accidently?
After waiting for about 15 minutes, Dad and I heading back down. We ran into the guys, and at the feet of one of them, was a spikehorn, dead with approximately eight inch spikes. It wasn’t a bad deer, certainly good enough considering the hardships of that season.
All four of us were stunned, almost incredulous to what had just transpired. It’s a lesson, indeed. Just when you think there is no chance, watch out. I have carried that lesson with me ever since.
If you read my post from last week entitled, “So This Is What the Deer Look Like,” or saw it on CNN, my own two eyes saw a deer on December 4. Actually, it was five deer. In the woods. While I was hunting deer. If you recall in my post, I was in quite a state of shock.
Well, after a short, four-day workweek, I headed to the great outdoors again this past Friday. Hoping to capture lightning in a bottle, I headed right back to where I saw the five does the previous weekend. Maybe, just maybe a buck would accompany them this time.
It was a windy day on Friday, a cold, biting, punch you in the face wind that was relentless. This was not a day conducive to sitting all day in a stand. Determined to spend some time in the area I know funnel deer from their bedding to the acorns below, I split the day into thirds. I sat for a couple of hours and when I couldn’t take it any longer, I got up and went for a walk to warm up. It allowed me to grab a trail camera that was set up a couple of hundred yards away and proved to me that the recent deer sign was right where I was sitting.
The final sit of the day would be the longest one; from 2PM to dark, which is about 4:45 PM. This would also be the most important part of the outing, seeing as deer are known to bed during the day and come out in the final hour of legal shooting light. I have been blessed with seeing a lot of deer from 4 o’clock on, including the nice 7-pointer I got in 2013 (See the post “Last Minute Buck”).
At about 4:15 PM, I caught movement out in front of me about a hundred yards. It was a deer trotting from the left and toward the acorns over the bank off to my right. I pulled up my muzzleloader and checked in the scope. A doe. She was followed by a young fawn. A couple of minutes later, a third deer, another doe, stepped into view about 70 yards out in front. I heard a snap and looked to my immediate left. A fourth doe was closing in, coming down the slight bank to me. She stopped at about 30 feet and finally realized something wasn’t quite right. She took off around a brush pile and circled to where she was standing about 15 yards broadside in front of me, checking me out with her nose. I could tell she wasn’t sure what I was, as she wasn’t looking directly at me, however, she stomped in my direction several times, trying to get me to flinch. She also attempted to put her head down and immediately lift it back up to call my bluff. A veteran of these games, I didn’t budge. After a few minutes of watching this amazing performance, she lifted her fluffy white tail, whirled around, and beat feet out of there. A fifth doe came into view at this time, oblivious to my presence.
I’m positive these were the same five deer I encountered on December 4. Alas, there was not a buck with them. I’m not surprised, as it being this late in the season, the rut is most likely winding down and these deer have probably already been bred. I didn’t care though. It is always a treat to see this amazing animal up close and the skills they utilize to survive each day.
It wasn’t a great season regarding shooting a deer, or seeing many, for that matter. I’ve learned over the years not to measure success by these two categories, however. In a world that is fast becoming unmanageable, and with stress levels through the roof many days, I was able to spend countless hours in the woods with my dad and on my own. I feel my batteries have recharged as the calendar flips to 2022. Plus, the next deer season is only eleven months away.