First Hike of the Year
Lots of commitments and other issues have kept me away from the woods, however, it was great to get back out there. Just a modest build-up to what will hopefully become a couple of 3,000-4,000 footers by snowfall.
It was a hot and sticky morning already when my boy and I headed into the piece of woods behind my house. The thermometer reading 70 degrees at daylight played the deciding hand in how we would approach this day of turkey hunting. While not my preferred method of going after gobblers, the fact that I was able to come up with an alternative strategy, and seeing that strategy almost work, gave me great confidence as I bid adieu to the 2022 turkey season.
There’s a spot everyone has where they expect success or action simply by being there. I have a personal area for whitetail deer where I almost cockily think that just by showing up, I will fill my tag on a nice buck. I also have a similar feeling for this transition line of hardwoods and pines that runs adjacent to a large field. It seems like every time I go there, turkeys are all around me. It was there two weeks prior where my boy and I had a close encounter with a longbeard (See “They Are Hung Up” from May 10).
Getting to our spot is no easy task. We must climb a power line that peaks before rapidly descending to a low gully, and finally taking us on a logging road up another mountainside. While getting to the spot is difficult, it is tempered somewhat by the anticipation of the turkeys that await us. No, it’s the return home, and the excruciating climb back up that is the killer.
The blazing sun and climbing temperatures forced us to alter our normal strategy of running and gunning, which is to stay mobile while occasionally calling, hoping to strike a gobble. There was no way we were trudging through the woods all morning! We decided to head to the line where the pines give way to hardwoods and park it on the edge of a ridge in order to conserve our energy.
It can be a lonely time in the woods when the birds aren’t gobbling. Despite my infrequent calling to let any turkey in the area know a “hen” was there, only the serenading of the songbirds and the occasional chatter from the squirrels filled the airwaves. It’s a time where one can easily close his eyes and drift off to sleep.
The gobble came at about 9:15 AM, arousing us from our slumber. He sounded approximately 100 yards away from directly in front of us, with the thick springtime vegetation blocking our view of him and his view of us. Remembering our tough luck on past turkey hunts where the bird hung up just out of shotgun range, we quickly slipped to the flat spot on top of the ridge and set up shop against a perfectly placed blowdown.
The bird sounded off again, only this time he was heading to out left, still quite a ways off. I decided not to call, hoping the bird would circle to where we were originally seated, which would put him directly in front of us. He went silent for five minutes, before he bellowed again, this time further to our left and going away. I couldn’t stand it any longer and softly clucked to him, to which he responded with another call. He knew where I was now!
Unfortunately, the tom quickly grew tired of me and sauntered off. Despite waiting it out until the noontime shut off, we didn’t have any more action. This was the end of the hunt, and with it the end of another turkey season, as youth sports and other commitments prevented us from getting out into the woods again. While the season was over, it didn’t go away without one last shot at a beautiful northeast bird.
They’re Hung Up
They say most men are afraid of commitment. That they talk a big game but when it’s time to put the pedal to the metal, they’ll sheepishly walk away, petrified of any long-term ramifications. After this past weekend in the turkey woods, I’m completely operating on that side of the fence.
It was a beautiful morning last Friday. A light frost clouded my windshield as I placed my hunting gear in my car to go greet Dad in our trusty hunting spot. With temperatures already in the high thirties, it was evident that as the sun came up, a comfortable day would await us.
After a short walk up the old log road, a distant gobble answered my crow call. Darkness had given way to light by now as we advanced toward the noisemaker. We pinpointed the bird on a ridge across a brook, approximately 250 yards away. We made a play by crossing the brook upstream and attempt to hunt him on the same level of terrain. This plan ultimately failed, as we busted the birds on our way to find a set-up.
That isn’t the end of the story, however. After licking our wounds, Dad and I decided to head to another section of woods and start over again. After blind calling for about 45 minutes, we heard another gobble down over the bank. We closed the distance to about 150 yards and sat down, perfectly situated behind a stand of thick fir trees that blocked the bird’s view of us and ours of his.
With a couple of light hen yelps from Dad’s mouth call, the tom bellowed, having easily come to within 75 yards of us. I got the 12 gauge up, ready to fire. We decided to shut up, hoping the bird would march to within shotgun range. He excitedly gobbled every minute or so, but his feet seemed stuck in cement. After about 20 minutes, it was evident he had drawn the figurative line in the sand and was demanding the “hen” come to him. Dad and I had both been in this situation before.
I decided to lightly cluck, and his thunderous response confirmed the gobbler’s stagnant positioning. Eventually, he worked away from us and up the mountain, gobbling to my every desperate call. I picked up the calling at a last-ditch effort to entice him, but Dad and I already knew the game was up.
Two days later, my boy and I were up on the mountain behind my house. After walking and calling for a few hours and enjoying nothing but each other’s company, we decided to head back down to a mix of hardwoods and pines that is adjacent to a field where we have had action in previous seasons. Along the way, I would hen yelp to try to locate a mid-morning, lonely gobbler.
At about 9:30 AM, my son and I both heard what we thought was a gobble, approximately 350 yards down the mountain and in the general area of our destination. We picked up the pace and headed downhill, as I occasionally blew on my crow call to pinpoint him. He obliged and we made a beeline for his position.
At one point, when we were in his area, I hit my hen yelper and was surprised to hear the bird gobble so close. Panicking, I decided we should sit down. As the turkey answered my calling, he was noticeably coming in. I had my boy get the gun up in the firing position and told him not to move.
Finally, on top of a small bank, about 70 yards away, we both could see the tom strutting, his tail fan puffing up and down, putting on a show for the object of his affection. As was the case two days earlier, this bird had decided he would go no further, and when he undoubtably could look down and easily see no hen in sight, he decided to walk away, gobbling out of our life. I believe my biggest mistake was not setting up closer to the top of the bank to where my son had a shot. Instead, while I’m sure we were both quite still, the turkey needed to see a hen to continue the game.
What is it about commitment? Why do male turkeys always get their way and expect the hen to come to him? Why do the hens allow them to get away with this conceded behavior? Why do I allow myself to keep getting into these heartbreaking situations? Why do I still take part in this sport? I’ll be out there as soon as I can to try and find out.
The Holy Grail
This past Easter Sunday I ventured out alone to retrieve the one last trail camera I had out from December. The location of this camera, combined with the fact that every weekend seemed to bring a blizzard or frigid temperatures, meant that I was getting four months of visual evidence. When I scrolled through the pictures, I was blind sighted by what I saw!
Folks, this is the holy grail! Here, are two combatants are taking a break.
Notice the different dates on at the bottom.
Clearly, we have a multitude of bucks in this area.
And then we have this guy, who is simply waiting for the winner!
Not This Time
He’d been played with before. Two weeks earlier on Youth Weekend. My boy and I came tantalizingly close to bagging his first gobbler (See “A Boy’s First Turkey Hunt”). If not for an ill-advised blowdown, he would have had the tom at approximately 30 yards. Alas, it was for naught.
Two weeks later, my son and I made our way back to the scene of the crime, in a thicket of hardwoods and blowdowns, about 50 yards off a field edge. Facing the same direction as before, I hit my diaphragm mouth call, mixing yelps with soft clucks, as if to tease, “Come here, big boy.” He responded immediately, just over a bank in the woods inside the field. He was barely out of sight.
We hastily sat down against a big tree. I let the bird gobble his head off for two to three minutes. When he shut up, I hit him with the sweet and seductive stuff. Boom! He’s coming! My boy got into shooting position. We should see the turkey any moment!
Except we didn’t. He never crested the hill. He just stood there in one spot, voicing his frustration as to why the “hen” wouldn’t come to him. Well, it was a mix of frustration and a welcoming invite at the same time. However, it became clear that I was going to have to go to him. We played this game for more than 30 minutes. The bird would gobble and when he stopped, I would entice him some more.
Finally, the turkey shoved off, heading the other direction to the middle of the field. There was no way to get closer without being spotted. Desperately, I laid it all on the line for him, giving myself up for him, mixing yelps with clucks, purrs, and cuts. No dice. He kept gobbling but getting further and further away.
Unlike two weeks before, he wasn’t coming to me. He’d played that game and it nearly cost him. No, this bird had been educated. He may not have been convinced that the yelping and clucking WASN’T a hen, but he was not going to walk into shotgun range to find out. Not this time.
Turkey Hunting: Walk the Walk or Take a Stand?
I have had an enormous amount of good fortune hunter deer while sitting for days on end at a stand. The goal is to find an area with plenty of deer activity (rubs, scrapes, active trails etc.) and park it until a legal buck comes along. The tactic can be agonizing for us folks who struggle with patience yet has the potential to be fruitful for those who can stand it. The same strategy can produce success during turkey season, however, for some reason, I am unable to hold out in the spring like I do while waiting for whitetails in the fall. I wonder why that is?
Turkeys are primarily creatures of habit. Undisturbed, they are apt to follow their patterns of travel day after day. A flock that comes through after 7 AM today, just might repeat the same jaunt tomorrow. So, one may theorize that all you must do is find fresh turkey scratching and sit and wait. They’ll eventually wander by. It’s a form of hunting that has worked for many hunters I know. Except it hasn’t worked for me.
Perhaps it’s the time of day the birds are coming through is what is lousing me up. In my state, we can only hunt until noon. If these birds are in the area at 3 PM, it does me no good to sit there. A trail camera might tell me this is happening; however, it may take a day or two to find out my worst fear is true. I have now wasted two days of hunting. That said, finding this turkey sign during preseason scouting missions should allow me to hang a camera and pattern the birds. Just don’t scout more than a couple of weeks before the opener, as turkeys typically transition from winter to spring areas during this time.
While patiently waiting for turkeys is an effective form of hunting, I prefer the run and gun method. There is something about making a call and having a tom sound off about 100 yards away that gets the juices flowing. While the textbook turkey hunt is roosting them the night before and setting up on them in the early morning darkness, I don’t always have time to head into the woods in the evening, forcing me to hunt “blind.”
Run and gun is simply strolling through the woods and trying to find turkeys. In the early morning, an owl or coyote call cand elicit a “shock gobble” from a tom that simply can’t help himself. As the day breaks, making yelps, cuts, and purrs with a turkey call might do the trick. The key is to stay with it and cover lots of ground. It is common to walk for miles and hear nothing, only to strike up multiple toms just above the next valley.
When I do find the toms, I try to set up as close as I can without bumping them. Turkeys have incredible eyesight so one false move can ruin a hunt. I like to use the terrain available to me, such as a ditch or drainage. Maybe it’s later in the season and the woods have been thickened with new greenery. My goal is to get to within a hundred yards and sit down. The spot I find to sit will have some cover, whether it be branches and leaves from an adjacent tree, or a fallen down log.
The way I call to the turkey will depend on his behavior. If he’s gobbling his head off and getting closer, I’ll shut up and let him walk in. If he’s gone silent, I may call aggressively to entice him to come to the “hen.” If he’s gobbling but stuck in cement (not coming any closer), I sometimes drop back 30-40 yards and call, only to quickly head back to my sitting spot, giving the bird the impression that his hen is leaving. This is risky and should only be done if the terrain in front effectively acts like a smoke screen. A pair of hunters working in tandem can use the drop back method more easily. A big thing to understand is that all turkeys have different MO’s and mindsets, and one bird will do the exact opposite than the next.
So, whether we run and gun or sit and wait, there are plenty of useful ways to hunt turkeys. While I prefer the action of being mobile and never knowing what is up ahead, it can be beneficial to sit in an active turkey area. Good luck to all hunters this spring!
It’s Not Really About the Fish
Trout fishing season is around the corner. It’s time to gather up my gear and set it out in preparation. I’ll need to take an inventory of what supplies I will need to replace or stock up on. It’s imperative I do this because I am obsessed with catching as many fish as I can, right? Wrong! I don’t even like to eat trout.
When I was a youngster, I would fish al the time with my dad. Our goal was to catch and keep the trout so we could present them to my grandparents who loved eating them when they were still alive. Dad and I do not. We prefer the sport without the need to keep and cook. I even use a Dremel to saw off the barb on my hook, so it won’t get caught in the fish’s throat. Catch and release is the name of the game here.
Fishing for us is about being out in the wilderness and enjoying the beauty that nature has to offer. It’s about the therapeutic roaring of a brook or stream. It’s the early spring greenery coming to life for the first time. It’s hanging out on a boulder for a half an hour and relaxing while our line dances with the current.
Ideally, we’ll take two vehicles with us and park one while driving a mile or two upstream. From there, we will fish to the other car. Our rule is four casts per hole. If no fish bite, we move onto the next spot. With two of us leapfrogging each other, we can chew up a sizeable portion of the brook in no time. It’s perfect when that brook takes you through the woods (just bring bug spray!).
Worms are my bait of choice, although I am warned often by my dad that they are not as effective as fishing with minnows. He routinely tells a story about fishing with his brother-in-law (my uncle) when he was challenged to a little wager. My uncle bet him that he would catch “two (fish) to your every one” fishing with worms, compared to my dad, who used minnows. When my dad had caught his limit, he found my uncle, who, with his seven fish, conceded defeat.
Trout season opens in mid-April, although I find the colder temperatures of the water to be detrimental in the early season. Besides, I use most of April to think about turkey hunting season. That said, come June 1, you can bet I will be itching to get out on the riverbanks somewhere and throw my line in!
It’s Time to Think About Turkeys
Spring turkey season is already here in parts of the United States, primarily in the south. And I am jealous of you folks. Me? I have until May 1 up here in the northeast. That said, there are plenty of things to start thinking about.
Where is all my gear? My camo, turkey calls, face net, the things I flung down on the floor that last day of the season last May? I couldn’t get the stuff off me quick enough, having absorbed plenty of butt whippings at the hands (spurs?) of our fine feathered friends.
Where am I going to hunt this spring? Obviously, I need to truck it up the mountains and deep into the timber to get away from the crowd. But where? Only a thorough scouting job will give me such answers.
It’s pointless to scout this far out from the season opener. Birds are still in their winter areas and will not transition into the spring woods until a couple of weeks before the season. This means I will have to “power scout” those couple of weeks.
What do I look for when scouting? Well, for starters, it’s handy to know a piece of woods I’m checking out actually holds turkeys. So, I search for turkey scratchings, which differs from when a deer digs mainly because of the mess a flock of birds make in the woods. If I see an area that is massacred by turkeys, I know they routinely visit.
Look for an area that contains solid turkey habitat, such as acorns and butternuts. In my neck of the woods (pun intended), I find birds devour these nuts in droves. In my experience, they like to roost in an area around water. Look for rivers, brooks, creeks, or trickles, areas that turkeys can fly down to in the morning. Turkey droppings is another good find. It means birds have frequented the area while feeding, and if they fed there once, they are quite likely to be back. On a side note, “J” shaped droppings are that of a tom (male) turkey, which is what we are all after in the spring.
Of course, at dusk, we can attempt to elicit a shock gobble to give away tom locations. Owl and coyote calls are my two favorites to locate birds. It’s extremely beneficial to do so just before dark, as it gives the hunter a starting point for the next morning. That said, I rarely attempt to roost a tom until a couple of days before the season. If I were to locate one, say, a week before, there are too many scenarios that can drive out the finicky bird and render my locating him useless before I can hunt him. Above all else, do not use turkey calls to find birds before the season starts. You’ll only educate them and run the risk of making them call shy.
Above all else, have fun. You are getting exercise and enjoying the peace and serenity of the wilderness. I have gone on many scouting trips that proved fruitless yet found the turkeys during the season. There are no two turkeys alike. Some respond to different calls, on different days, in different weather conditions, or don’t respond at all. Enjoy the process and eventually a little action will come your way.
Too Fat to Hunt Turkeys?
Turkeys become call shy. It’s a known fact, at least from my experiences. I have had encounters with turkeys where they behaved much more timidly the second go around and are much less willing to dance than at first. Yes, too much calling and too much hunting pressure in general encourage the birds to hush up, or simply get out of dodge. I’m hoping a little stair climbing this winter will fix this recurring problem.
I woke up one morning this past weekend simply not feeling well. I know what it is; I’ve been there before, almost annually. Deer season ends, the holidays come around, a chocolate cream pie here, Christmas sugar cookies there, and Boom! The dormancy of winter has a way of seriously affecting my waistline, and not to its benefit. I also have a fondness for diet soda that, quite frankly, ends up making me feel lousy. Thankfully, I have been able to quit cold turkey (no pun intended) before, and I am on one of those kicks now.
So, I am back to counting calories. Monitoring my intake and calculating my calorie deficit. And walking stairs. Man, that’s fun. I work in a 5-story building, so six times a day I quickly jaunt up all five flights and come back down. I’m huffing and puffing by the time I’m done so I know I am burning calories. It’s worked before.
Why am I doing this? Well, for starters, I don’t like feeling like dog vomit. But more importantly, and this ties into my opening paragraph, I want to chase turkeys where the other hunters don’t. I don’t want to get up in the woods and not have a gameplan if the birds aren’t answering my calls. I want to get moving. Up the ridges and over the mountain, a mile or two deep into the timber. Nobody else goes there, except the turkeys that have been toyed with. They go there and will be more apt to play ball if they feel secure in their environment.
I have been watching the usual YouTube turkey hunting folks and they are doing this. They are getting up ridiculously early and hauling ass to get to places very few have gone before. It’s exhausting work, but they are in shape and can do it. And they see, hear, and harvest more than their share of birds. I’m sold. It’s time to go walk another five flights. Right after I shoo away this Devil Dog.
Here or There
It was an agonizing game time decision. Am I sitting here or over there? In the overgrown chopping or the hardwoods by the stone wall? I had a good feeling about both spots but alas, I could not be in both at the same time. I eventually chose the chopping. It was a decision that cost me dearly.
Dad had tagged out earlier in the season. That said, he enjoys being in the woods so much, and wanted to be there in case I got a deer, so he was out with me. Not wanting to push deer all over the place, he decided to spend the day by the stone wall.
The chopping was an area that had been cut maybe four or five years earlier. Undergrowth had taken over, with hundreds of small whippets dotting the landscape. I had a ground blind that sat against a steep ridge, overlooking a small strip of hardwoods that connects the ridge to the old chopping. I had seen several deer at this stand throughout the season. Add to the equation the active buck scrape line and I was confident I was in the right spot.
It was a slow day for me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the peace and tranquility of the forest does wonders for my psyche. Plus, I enjoy making friends with and watching the various forest creatures. However, an all-day sit can become quite boring without the occasional doe or two walking by. Unfortunately for me, deer were at a premium that day.
As daylight mercifully gave way to darkness, I switched on my headlamp and made my way to meet Dad at our meeting spot. He had quite the tale for me, too. At approximately 4:15 PM, a nice four-point buck strolled by broadside at thirty yards. Already tagged out, he watched as the deer browsed his way through the woods and out of sight. This would have been easy pickings for me. Oh well, I felt good about the spot I picked, and things just didn’t work out. This happens in the deer woods. I walked out self-assured that one day I would make the right decision. Maybe tomorrow.
A Deer and Her Mama
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.
Will I Ever Get in the Woods Again?
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.
Sometime in the 1960’s
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.
A Boy’s First Turkey Hunt
April 24, 2021
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.
Don’t Forget About the Turkeys
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.
Nothing More Than A Walk in the Woods
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.
Wait Till Next Year
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.
That’s a Wrap
An End to Muzzleloader and the 2021 Season
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
I’ve hunted with my dad since I was old enough to trudge through the woods. We experienced it all; the highs of harvesting good bucks, the lows of not seeing deer or just missing them, and plenty of laughs along the way. The rifle season of 2008, however, produced a story that we still speak of consistently today. This is the story of The Runt.
I was sitting in my trusty ground blind on opening day that year. It had been a slow morning with zero deer sighting past the lunch hour. Not long after I consumed the final morsel of my turkey sandwich, I heard a commotion down by the stand of softwoods out in front of me. Without warning, on a dead run were four deer, followed closely by a grunting one. As they were moving briskly through the flat 100 yards away, I hastily pulled up and checked through my scope. The first four were all doe, while the fifth deer had small spikes. They raced out of sight, with the buck grunting along the way. I put my gun down and had a chuckle. That boy thought he was a big man and the ladies wanted nothing o do with him.
The following afternoon, I met Dad at our usual meeting spot at dark. He had a twinkle in his eye as if he couldn’t wait to tell me a story. He said he saw a doe approaching at a steady walk that suddenly began galloping through the hardwoods toward him. Behind her was a small fawn, also on a mission. When the deer closed to within 15 yards, he heard the grunting and realized the “fawn” was actually a small spike horn. He then had a front row seat to the doe running in circles with the buck following in lock step, grunting dozens of time, before the two deer disappeared. Dad said the doe towered over the buck and he wondered how the male deer would ever be able to mount the object of his affection.
I was back in my normal spot on the fourth morning. At about 9:00 AM, I spotted a deer off to my right, coming my way. Immediately, I heard grunting. I thought, “Oh no, here we go again.” The Runt, as Dad and I now affectionately called him, was closing in. They walked from my right to left and up a bank, getting to within 20 yards, giving me a great look at them. The buck couldn’t go more than 80 pounds. I got on the radio with Dad and we had a chuckle about seeing the big boy again. This is probably the only time in my deer hunting experience when I couldn’t wait for the deer to get out of there.
That was the last either of us saw of The Runt. I’m not sure what actually happened to him. I’m assuming he got to be too big for his britches and got run off by a larger deer. In all honesty, it wouldn’t take much. Dad and I talk about him frequently to this day. Maybe five or six years later, one of us wondered out loud, half-jokingly, if he would be a small four pointer yet. Long live The Runt.
So This is What the Deer Look Like
December 4, 2021
It was a frosty morning this past Saturday, the opening morning of muzzleloader season. Dad and I made our way up to familiar territory, a place that had bred us both with much success over the years. I was in this area the previous weekend and noticed how the ground was tore up by deer on the search for acorns.
I decided to sit in my trusty ground blind, one that has been the setting for many of my previous deer stories. Dad continued up the walking path until he reached his destination. He was fortunate to actually see two deer skipping along as he meandered up the mountainside. This was the first deer sighting of the 2021 season for either of us.
After a more than three hour sit, Dad and I got on the radios. He told me about his deer sighting and we agreed to meet along the walking path. The air was bitter, and the wind chilled us to the bone. The idea was that the walk of about 200 yards would warm us up somewhat.
Along the way, I noticed some well-established deer trails cresting the ridge and heading up towards what we know as a good bedding area. As it had last snowed on Thursday morning, this much deer sign within a two-day span required my attention. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the deer were using these trails to get from their bedding to the acorns below.
I met Dad and brought him to the deer trails. We decided to build a ground blind, centering on three heavily used trails that funneled through this one area, a mixture of hardwoods and pines. From where I would sit, the furthest trail would be about a 30-yard shot.
Dad went on his way. His plan was to still hunt in the general direction of the truck, allowing him to not have such a long walk back to the vehicle in the dark. I settled in and ate my lunch. I would have approximately three and a half hours of legal shooting light to try out my new stand.
At about 2:30 PM, I heard footsteps on the crunchy snow. I looked to my immediate right, and at about 60 feet away, stood a decent-sized doe, staring straight at me. Right behind her were two smaller deer, both antlerless. This was most likely a mother and two older fawns. I now had the first deer sightings of my 2021 season.
The deer swung out in front of me along the furthest deer trail, and walked broadside at 30 yards, before disappearing over a small hump to my left. They had come up from the acorns and appeared to be heading towards the bedding area. I was simply ecstatic to see a deer.
Settling back in, I thought of my good fortune. I was happy to not get shut out for the entire season. Suddenly, I heard more crunching off to my right. After a few seconds, I saw the back of a deer poking its way up a bank and into view. For a moment, I was sure this would be the buck following the group of does. It turned out to be a fourth doe, with a small fawn in tow. They got onto the same trail and heading in the same direction.
I was now on high alert. I spent the next two hours expecting a buck to come along. One never did, but I was okay with it. As I made my long, lonely trek out of the woods in the dark, I gave a silent thanks for being able to witness such beautiful creatures up close in their home habitat. I was lucky, indeed.
Last Minute Buck
November 17, 2013
It was a dry, crisp day. I was hunkered down in my favorite ground blind. I was sitting on top of a bank, with a great view through the hardwoods in front of me. Oh, the hours I have spent there, left to only the solitude of my thoughts. Sure, I have seen plenty of deer in this spot, and pulled the trigger on a few, but when you spend daylight to dark in one location day after day, season after season, there’s a significant amount of time for one to be all alone.
It was a little past noon. I hadn’t seen a deer all day. The only excitement to that point was the mouse that insisted we share the blind together. I heard a few crunches in the leaves and turned around to see my dad heading my way. He hadn’t seen anything either and had decided he was going to head to another spot that parallels a power line down by where we park.
Dad did give me a handy piece of information, however. He walked along an active scrape line that began approximately 150 yards from my stand. Fresh rubs dotted the landscape, rubs that were not there five days prior when Dad was on a late scouting trip. These rubs had been made since then. His words to me were, “You need to stay put.”
A shot rang out from the direction of the power lines, some 750 yards below. Understanding that jumped deer tend to make their way to our piece of the woods, Dad decided to head back to his morning stand. I settled in for the afternoon. My mouse friend reappeared, and we shared the peace and serenity that only the deep wilderness can provide.
As the 4 PM hour arrived, I had yet to lay my eyes on anything exciting. 4:30 came and I began to resign myself to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen on this day. I began to prepare a mental checklist of where in my backpack my headlamp was, as well as my orange hat. On days like today when there isn’t a lot of action, it seems that last half hour of shooting light lasts forever.
At about 4:35 PM, I heard the succinct sound of walking in the leaves. I turned my head to the left and saw him. A deer with a nice rack was unsuspectingly walking my way, on top of the same bank I was sitting on. He turned slightly to the right and was now directly over my left shoulder. The buck closed the gap to about 15 yards and stepped behind a tree. It was at that moment I knew it was a done deal. He took two steps and I fired, dropping him where he stood. After injecting another shell into my 35 Remington and putting the safety on, I walked up to my 7-pointer.
Dad heard the shot and came up to admire the deer. It was dark by the time he got there. We had a long, but enjoyable 3-hour drag through the darkness, reaching the truck by 8:25 PM. An unassuming and quiet day in the woods paid off in the last few minutes of legal shooting light. Patience and perseverance had won the day.
Rifle Season 2021 Recap
This may be the easiest and the most difficult column I’ve ever had to write. Easy, in the fact that I don’t have to sift through a never-ending pile of details and situations. Difficult, in that the piece should have some substance to it, however, there is little substance to go around. Mercifully, the rifle season for whitetail deer (are there any?) has ended.
I hunted nine out of 16 days. I saw zero deer. None. Zilch. Nada. This is the first time this has happened to me. To make matters worse, my dad did not see a single deer either. It’s like they cease to exist.
We hunted hard. We found good buck sign in the preseason. I hung cameras over these locations and had some nice bucks cruise by. The problem is that most of the bucks showed their face under the cover of darkness. Only once, did I get a picture of a buck during daytime hours, and of course it was a day I went into the woods a little later in the morning. There’s nobody to blame on that but myself.
The weather did not cooperate for much of the season. Opening day ended early in the afternoon due to a downpour. A snowstorm that night created a squall of melting snow from the stand of pines I was sitting in on the second day and forced me elsewhere. The third day was interrupted by rain. Another day in the first week saw temperatures rise to sixty degrees. This final weekend produced more than a foot of snow, making walking conditions almost impossible even to and from our stands.
The deer did not cooperate either. It seems they have adapted to going strictly nocturnal. One good thing about the snow was that it gave us the opportunity to see their travel patterns a little more clearly. The problem here was that there was no one pattern that they would follow. There was no smoking hot trail that was evident one of us needed to park ourselves at. They would cross this wood road in one spot one evening and another spot 200 yards away the next. They simply go here and there, meandering. That said, I do not think there are many deer at all. A couple of deer can make an awful lot of tracks when they travel in this manner.
All of this has me wondering how we are supposed to get our youth interested in the sport of hunting. I have a pre-teen. It is a tough sell to get him to look forward to getting up in the middle of the night, freeze our butt off, and not see any deer. At least when I took him turkey hunting this spring, we had some action. He’s fired up about chasing longbeards. Deer, not so much.
At mid-morning yesterday, I did make a point to head down to my old stand where Dad and I have taken many bucks over the years. And wouldn’t you know, the place was torn up! Before the season, there was little sign here and it forced me to make the inevitable decision to hunt elsewhere. I should have known. When there is snow and the acorn crop is substantial, the place holds deer. Want to guess where I’ll be in muzzleloader season?
Week 1 Recap:
I entered the 2021 deer season with high expectations. Although work and a late changeover to autumn conditions prevented me from scouting as thoroughly as I would have liked, I felt I was set up in a nice spot for opening day. An active scrape line emerged from the left of my stand, before rounding the corner to right out in front of me, almost completely circling my position. After a full week of hunting, however, I simply must ask, “What the hell do I know?”
I have yet to see a deer. A single deer. I hunted seven out of nine days since opening day. I take the first week off from work specifically to deer hunt. While some foul weather did throw a wrench into things a couple of days, I am shocked beyond belief that I haven’t seen one lousy doe moseying by.
But there is still good news and encouraging news. I’m not out of the game yet. Frustration and perhaps a lack of patience sent me exploring and I have found things. Deer sign. Lots of it. And buck sign at that. It’s in an area where nobody else is hunting, as well. Rubs that I have found make me think there are three different bucks in the area.
I found out on big thing, however. One that is a synopsis of my season thus far, although one I will use to fuel my fire. You see, last Thursday, I set up a couple of cameras in this new location. After taking Friday off to recuperate, I went on Saturday to check my cameras and to sit in my new stand. As I had my son with me, he who is not keen on getting up in the middle of the night to hunt, I got to my cameras a little after 8 AM. Pulling out the SD card, I discovered that at 6:51 AM, in perfect daylight, stood this…….
*Could be my final post for a week or so, depending on how deer season plays out*
It’s the night before opening day of rifle season for deer. Today is much akin to Christmas Eve to a young child. I’ll go to bed tonight, struggle to get anything resembling sleep, and dream about the potential prize the deer gods may put in front of my stand tomorrow.
I have what I think is a solid game plan in the morning. I’ll be sitting in a manmade (by me) ground blind over an active scrape line. Although most of the bucks I captured on my cameras were during the night, I think I might be able to play the weather to my advantage. The forecast is calling for a decent amount of rain until daybreak or so, with another front scheduled to swing by at midday, giving me a six hour window for the deer to potentially come by to freshen up the scrapes or visit the acorn stands over where my dad will be sitting.
Speaking of Dad, he’ll be about 150 yards over my left shoulder. We’ll check in on the radios every couple of hours. It’s nice to break up the monotony of a long sit by finding out if he’s had any luck seeing deer. In fact, since we started using radios, I find the day flies by. The first few days we park it in our spots from daylight to dark. Checking in every so often makes it nice. I’m happy that he can still get up in there at 75 years old.
I haven’t had a full vacation since last deer season, a calendar year. The pandemic and the shortage of workers, combined with the difficulty of receiving supplies has made for a hectic year. I think the solitude of the woods is what I look forward to the most. I enjoy the moment the woods come to life at daybreak, the songbirds beginning their opening number, the squirrels chasing each other. Most importantly, there will be no people in my vicinity.
The ringing in of a new season rejuvenates me. There’s a little extra pep in my step these days. I believe every deer hunter probably feels the same way on the eve of the season. We all believe that this is the year. We just know that the big boy on the mountain will come cruising to us. If we didn’t think this way, why would we keep hunting?
Good luck to all deer hunters out there this season! Stay safe!
It’s Going Down
November 22, 1987:
The woods were silently still that morning. A fresh snow of four inches had littered the landscape overnight, drastically altering the scenery from just one day before. Gone was the obnoxious crunch that accompanied every footstep. In its place was a wintry morning doing its best to act as a silent film.
I followed Dad down the trail through the timber, mainly open hardwoods, with patches of green ferns, more prevalent in some places than others. Not much was going on, save for random squawk of a blue jay, a bold chipmunk protesting our presence on his land, or the unassuming trickle of the occasional brook. Yes, the setting was quite peaceful regardless of the void of action.
With every step, my mind began to wander more. Homework, friends, girls. The lack of anything suggesting that deer were indeed on this mountain at all afforded me the opportunity to daydream so. Ah, but I was about to learn a lesson, one that Dad had attempted to teach before.
He stopped suddenly, cocking his head to get a look up the steep mountainside. I turned my head sharply to the right to get a look. What was he looking at? I frantically scanned the ridge, at any moment expecting to see movement. Nothing. Must’ve been a branch blowing in the wind or a bird flying away. These sorts of things happen frequently in the deer woods.
He pulled his rifle up, carefully adjusting the scope. He sees something but what it is, I have no idea. For what seemed like an hour, but in reality, lasted about a minute, he kept pulling the gun up, desperate for a more superior vantage point. Apparently, it never came. His shot woke up the sleepy forest and startled me out of my boots.
My eyes traveled in the direction of the bullet. To my amazement, I still saw nothing. Dad injected another shell, put on the safety, and took off up the hill. Totally confused by this point, I followed, my teenage body struggling to keep up with a middle-aged man on a mission. We reached a thin shelf on the ridge and Dad began to search for something. I asked him what the heck he was shooting at, and he stopped, looked straight at me, and asked, “Are you serious?”
Fresh deer tracks blanketed the shelf we were standing on. Of particular interest was the five running tracks scampering up the mountain. Once we followed and determined that his shot was a clean miss, Dad brought me back to the shelf and showed me one deer track in particular, that which was made by a huge deer. Dad was stuttering a little as he tried to justify in words the size of the rack this deer was carrying. “It was frigging huge,” he kept saying over and over again, flabbergasted that such a beast would find its way into his scope. Further study of all the tracks, including the path of travel each deer took to get to this spot, suggested that this brute was mingling with four does.
I turned and looked back down the mountain to where we were standing at the time of Dad’s shot. A thick undergrowth forced me to take several steps to see the trail we were previously on. We could determine that Dad shot at this deer through whippets and a small stand of thin trees from approximately 150 yards away. Most surprisingly, I never saw any of the five deer before or after he shot. The degree of difficulty that he faced proved to be too much.
I learned two valuable lessons that day. The first one was the aforementioned theory that just when you think nothing is happening, it’s about to go down. The second lesson was that even on a white landscape, deer have the uncanny ability to blend into their surroundings. These lessons (and countless others) have helped me become a more patient and successful deer hunter. Thanks, Dad.
November 29, 2014
It was the final weekend of the 2014 firearms season. Dad and I afforded ourselves a little siesta in the truck rather than slog through the wilderness in the dark. We already had venison in the freezer anyway, courtesy of the four-pointer I took eight days prior (see “Redemption”).
It was 7:30 AM before we decided to gather up our stuff and head in. This late in the season makes it feel like there is too much gear, a little heavier, and a whole lot more cumbersome. To be truthful, I don’t think either of us were feeling it, our sleepy eyes not yet agreeing with the frosty wind that was swirling in every which direction.
Begrudgingly, we headed up the mountain. A fresh snow was glistening on the wood road, almost blinding in places. Any tracks spotted today would be fairly fresh and would require our most undivided attention. We detected a deer in the brushy power line to our right and determined it to be a doe.
Deer sign was difficult to come by for most of our journey up the mountain. This was not terribly alarming given that it had snowed the day before and the fact that Dad and I both understood there were plenty more deer in the vicinity. Our faith in the area was rewarded as we trekked closer to my deer stand, with tracks bounding here and there, tearing up the ground. We knew this was the place to be.
Dad was to spend the day at my stand. My objective was to meander over to his seat about 200 yards away. I planned to catch my breath there for 15 minutes before scouting an area to the northwest for the upcoming muzzleloader season. We said our well wishes and ten minutes later I was plopped against a stone wall with a manmade ground blind safeguarding me from the wind. The perspiration that had long since formed on my forehead merited the swig of ice-cold water that I allowed myself.
I had extravagant plans for that day. I had mapped out in my mind where I would be investigating, already looking forward to pulling out the muzzleloader the following weekend. But alas, my ambitions would not be fulfilled, as approximately 11 minutes from the time I sat down, a shot rang out from my trusty seat, ushering my thought from the future back to the present. My heart leapt into my throat. Five minutes later, my radio cracked. “I got one.”
The best walk to take is to help a hunting partner with his quarry, in this case a six-point buck. He had a gnarly rack, and immediately I knew this was the second buck I shot at and missed on opening day (see “A Most Dreadful Day”). The direction the deer came from drove this point home, as it was the same way he came from two weeks before. So, I had shot at and did not get two bucks on opening day and by the end of the season, Dad and I had taken both deer. A storybook ending indeed.
November 21, 2014
It was an overcast morning. Kind of blah. Dad and I got a late start, due to this being day seven of the November firearms season. After a week of 3:30 AM wake-up calls, followed by the same monotonous trek to our deer stands, it is becoming easier to hit the snooze button a few times.
Six days earlier, I shot at and did not get two different bucks (see A Most Dreadful Day for reference). The depression I felt because of this opening day fiasco had slowly faded, and I had spent the week hunting with my usual razor-sharp focus. The sole barrier to my week was simply that the deer had seemed to dissipate, as other than a couple of does on the second morning, I had not seen one single deer. My patience was wearing thin, and I brooded on the fact that I had missed my opportunity.
I trudged up to my stand, each step up the seemingly steeper by the day hill a serious challenge. A thought crossed my mind as daybreak made its arrival. I would give this spot one more day and then I was going elsewhere.
By 10 AM, I had seen a few squirrels, a smattering of sparrows, and one lone hen turkey. In my mind, I was already plotting where I would be heading to in the morning. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement. The patch of brown, combined with the unmistakable donkey walk told me it was a deer. Two of them. They were coming up the same trail that the first deer I shot at on opening day used. Ugh, they are both does.
The two deer stumbled to within 50 yards straight out in front of me before slightly turning and coming up the hill to my right. When I could tell they were oblivious to my presence, I carefully pulled out my cell phone and began to film them. I know it’s a rookie mistake, but I had to prove to someone that I actually saw a friggin’ deer.
The deer closed to within 30 yards or so and the second one kept looking back in the direction they had come from. This caused me to take alert and put my phone away quickly. I looked down and saw another flash of brown approximately 150 yards away. In what seemed to take an excruciatingly long time, the shape of a third deer came into view, along the same trail, nose to the ground. I saw horns, legal points on at least one side. He was grunting!
The buck made his way directly in front of me at the same 50 yards and then seemed to panic as he lost the trail of his two lady friends. After a few seconds of desperation, he found what he was looking for and hooked to the right, just like the does had done. He made his way through the hardwoods until he got to within 30 yards on my right. I put the crosshairs on him. Boom!
The deer kicked up his hind legs and bolted down over the bank to my right. Remembering the two misses from opening day, a cold, sick feeling came to my stomach. I wasn’t sure I could take another disappointment.
I climbed out of my stand and headed to where the buck was when I shot. There was a smattering of blood, but not as much as I had hoped. I called Dad on the radio and asked him to come down and assist. He met me within ten minutes.
Not wanting to push off a wounded deer, I had waited for Dad to get to me before going any further. However, if I had gone 15 yards or so, I would have seen a significant amount of blood, the bright red countering the orange and yellow of the fallen leaves. Dad and I both looked at each other and understood that this deer was not going far.
We crept up to a stone wall within 35 yards of the point of impact and saw a rock soaked with blood. I scanned down over the bank in the direction the deer ran and saw him laying there. He was a nice four-pointer and ended up weighing 155 pounds dressed. He had gone no more than 50 yards. A huge weight of relief lifted off me as I recalled the mishaps from opening day.
Dad and I dragged the buck back to the truck. It took a few hours, and my back and legs were toast by the end of the drag, but it is the best hard work I can think of. After reporting the deer and getting him home, we began processing him. It was there that I noticed a slight bullet wound on its front left leg. I am certain this is the first deer I nicked on opening day. I call him, Redemption.
A Most Dreadful Day
November 15, 2014
I climb over my carefully constructed ground blind and settle in. My watch reads 5:24 AM. A quick gulp from my water bottle temporarily quenches my thirst created by the ambitious journey to this point from the truck. In ten minutes or so, Dad will be perched in his spot just 200 yards over my right shoulder.
This is the pinnacle of the deer season for me. It won’t be daylight for another 40 minutes or so. That it is opening day only heightens the fire in my belly for another season to commence. I counter the added adrenaline by quietly taking in the tranquility that is the pitch-black wilderness.
The darkness slowly begins to lift, giving me some semblance of a landscape to look over. The rawness of the early morning air knocks away any façade of sleepiness I may have carried in with me. The local songbirds warm up their voices, with the curtain to drop at any moment. The day’s first critter peeks out from its natural place of shelter; a red squirrel about to launch into today’s obligatory gathering of its winter bounty.
Down below, and slightly to the right, I catch movement. It’s a deer and it’s coming this way, right up the customary deer trail that has been used for years. I squint to get a better look through the timber, mainly hardwoods with a mix of impenetrable underbrush. It has horns! He has his nose to the ground, undoubtedly seeking someone to spend the day with. He cocks his head and displays a couple of points on his left side. He’s a legal buck! He stops just behind a sizeable beech tree. C’mon buddy, take one more step! Boom!
The old 35 Remington has a thunderous roar. The deer kicks its back legs and runs back the way he came. It’s a good sign. He must be hit. I look at my watch. It’s 6:31 AM. I wait a few excruciating moments and climb down the hill, heading for the exact point of impact. I’m not sure if my boots hit the ground.
To my surprise, there’s a scantling of deer hair and a drop of blood nearby and not much else. I call Dad on the handheld and ask him to give me another sets of eyes. We follow the known path that the buck took and locate a couple of more drops of blood, maybe the size of a nickel. This is not encouraging.
As is our custom, Dad and I follow the deer’s trajectory of travel for several hundred yards, finding where he crossed a small brook and scampered up the steep gully on the other side. He passes over a wood road and into another thicket of hardwoods. A few tiny drops of blood, painstakingly searched for and located, the only confirmation as to where he went. The telltale sign that he is not mortally wounded is when he crests a steep bank and out of my life.
Crestfallen, I plod back up to my stand, while Dad heads to his, leaving me alone to wallow in my self-pity. Of course, over the next nine and a half hours, I will replay that shot in my mind, bemoaning how I had a chip shot right in front of me and came away empty handed. The enthusiasm I exhibited just two hours ago has suddenly gone truant.
Over the next several hours, my dark mood lifts somewhat, at least to where I can feel some resemblance of my earlier gusto. After lunch, I begin to appreciate my surroundings again and understand how fortunate I am to be able to do something I love. Finally, I can accept what had happened and relish the thought of another opportunity. I won’t have to wait long.
He appears to my left, sloping the hill that I am situated on. He is walking at a steady pace downhill, quartering away from me. He has a strange basket rack on his head. Not the prettiest set of antlers in the woods, but good enough for me. This shot is much more difficult than the first at an approximate distance of 100 yards. Given his brisk pace, I need to act now or watch him slink away. I fire. He stops, most of him hidden perfectly now behind a clump of trees. Only his backside appears. Not an inviting or ethical target.
He whirls and bolts back the way he came. I take another crack at him, realizing the situation is in need of substantial fortune from the hunting gods. In a flash, he is gone.
I climb down for the second time this day. Unlike in the morning, I am less than encouraged by what I will find. It doesn’t take long for me to comprehend that I am about to be disappointed once again. The cold sickness I felt earlier is now doubly grievous. This time I don’t bother to ask for Dad’s help, instead call him. “Don’t bother.”
Thankfully, it is already 2:45 PM. Only a couple of hours of misery separate me from a hot meal, refreshing shower, and my beautiful pillow. I can certainly feel sorry for myself another two hours. I’ve done so for most of the day.
I can make out Dad’s headlamp at 125 yards. It is dark. Mercifully, it is time to go. A rotating sense of emotions come over me. On one hand, I did see two legal bucks that are still in my area. That’s an adventurous day for these parts of the country. On the other hand, however, I shot at and did not get either deer. I know as I trudge out of the woods this evening that my dreams will be dominated by these two scenarios.
With any luck, I can reverse my fortunes tomorrow………
October 24, 2021:
It was a brisk 25 degrees as my boy and I trudged through the front door and to the trusty Jeep. It was Youth Hunting Weekend, and we were on the prowl for his first ever whitetail. A mere 45-minute drive and we would be heading up into the sweet mountains of peace and serenity.
My son is 12 years old. He passed his hunter safety requirements during the Covid jail sentence that was the summer of 2020. This would be his second youth weekend. We were interested in a buck only, as we do not shoot does in my family (just a family thing).
I chose this mountain for several reasons. First, the temperature was to get up to 60 degrees later in the day, severely cutting down on deer movement. This meant that our best chance at seeing anything was to wander through the woods and try to bump something. This leads into the second reason why I chose here, and that is the fact that the mountain is huge and doesn’t receive any hunting pressure, reducing the possibility that we would push a deer onto someone else. The final reason was that by being on the move, my boy would not get bored.
The plan was to walk along an old trail, stopping to sit when we got tired. As I have hunted this mountain on and off for more than 30 years, I was aware that we could go for miles and hunt this way. The plan also allowed us to dress lightly, which is much more conducive to this style of hunting.
We started up an old wood road that tested our cardiovascular limits right away. Sweat quickly began to form on our foreheads and even through our light attire. Each rise was met with a forgiving shelf which we utilized to catch our breath. I cursed myself for the pepperoni pizza that I indulged in the prior evening.
Thankfully, we cut into the woods and perpendicularly sideswiped the growing incline for a while. We reached a spot where my dad had shot several bucks over the years. I took the time to show my boy, careful to explain the key details of deer hunts from years gone by. The woods had grown a little thicker over time, limiting the range of vision we used to enjoy.
We meandered past Dad’s spot and into a flat that was thick with green ferns. This was a nice place to sit down. The boy and I grabbed a seat up against a yellow birch and dug in. My grandfather’s old 35 Remington was nestled across his lap. The squirrels and blue jays kept us occupied for approximately a half an hour. Before setting off, we pulled our water bottles out of the back of my hunting vest and each of us took a swig. My bottle was blue, his red.
It was time to move again. We crossed a small brook that cascaded down the mountain, inspiring us to delay our march just long enough to take in the beauty. Immediately after cresting the gulley, we came across a scrape that was made by a buck, the first telltale sign that the rut was approaching. I showed my son the licking branch and did my best to explain why male deer behave a certain way this time of year.
A short hike through some hardwoods revealed what I was already aware of but pleased to see some confirmation. A huge buck rub on a tree. As this is the big woods in my state, I was cognizant of the fact that large, mature bucks roam this mountain. We studied the main rub and noticed the pieces of bark that were torn off by the secondary antlers a little higher on the tree. The slight coloration told me this was probably made a few weeks ago in an utmost effort to eliminate the velvet from the horns.
Our juices flowing a little, we made our way toward the walking trail. Here, we would creep along, with the trail providing us ample opportunity to sneak above a downward valley to our right, with a significant flat area on the left. This would give us the rest of the day to hunt just the way we wanted to.
Unfortunately, given the unseasonably warm temperatures for late October, the leaves had barely detached themselves from its trees. Once on the trail, the woods choked with the blinding of green and yellow leaves, rendering any sneak and peek attack useless. After walking about a quarter mile, all hope for this trail was lost and we turned around.
Tired, we found a flat spot with some visibility and sat down. It was getting quite toasty now, way too warm for chasing an immobile and unwilling opponent. This sit lasted about 15 minutes before we decided to move again. My son asked for his water bottle and was wide-eyed when he couldn’t produce it out of my vest. I removed the vest and laid it flat on the ground. Reaching around, I pulled out my water bottle, along with irrelevant gloves and scarves. No red water bottle.
This little setback determined our way back to the truck. We sauntered past the big buck rub, through the hardwoods, around the scrape, and across the brook, back to the ferns just above Dad’s old stand. Amazingly, poking out of the leaves right where we first sat was the bottom of a bright red water bottle. We laughed at our experience and decided that was enough for one day. There was little excitement or anything in the way of an adrenaline rush on this day, however, none of that really matters. I got to spend a quiet half day in the woods with my best friend.