Here or There

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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

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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. 

Don’t Forget About the Turkeys

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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. 

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

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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.    

Never Give Up

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.

The Runt

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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.

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