Wait Till Next Year

https://www.dreamstime.com/photos-images/deer-tracks-snow.html

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.    

Winter Hiking: The Do’s and Don’ts

I’m not sure why I haven’t done more hiking in the winter. Perhaps I’ll give it a shot this winter.

Global Wanderlust

“When there’s snow on the ground, I like to pretend I’m walking on clouds”

Takayuki Ikkakn

Winter doesn’t seem like an ideal time to get exercise, right? The ground is slippery, the air is chilly, and all the snow is falling off the branches and inside your jacket. Well, I can agree that it’s not as easy to step outside, but with a few additions to your gear, you’ll be crestfallen on the days you can’t head outside!

Here are some general tips for hiking in winter :

  • Start the hike early to avoid hiking back in the dark (since days are shorter)
  • Measure your pace. It typically takes longer to hike in the winter, due to obstacles such as ice and snow, so plan accordingly.
  • Have a paper map. It is easy to lose track of the trail, and you shouldn’t rely on your phone.
  • Bring more food and…

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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

https://www.shutterstock.com/search/spike+horn+buck

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?   

How to Bag the Biggest Buck of Your Life by Larry Benoit with Peter Miller

How to Bag the Biggest Buck of Your Life by Larry Benoit (with Peter Miller)-Originally Published 1974

Tracking whitetail bucks is a method of deer hunting like no other.  The idea is to locate a track and determine the sex of the deer, the size of the deer, and the age of the track.  Once the track has been deemed appropriate to follow, the hunter must match wits, will, and engage in a battle of endurance against the beast on his home turf.  Vermont’s Larry Benoit, patriarch of the famous Benoit hunting family, is often credited with revolutionizing the art of buck tracking, and his book, How to Bag the Biggest Buck of Your Life, originally published in 1974, is considered the classic read of the genre.

Becoming a successful buck tracker, like anything else, not only requires extreme practice and preparation, but also a keen understanding of the animal itself.  Benoit leads the book off with an extensive tutorial on the trophy buck, his mannerisms, his personality, and how the deer has mastered pure day to day survival.  Furthermore, Benoit provides a convincing reason as to why hunters should pursue these giants and not settle for smaller deer.

Much of the outcome of a hunt or a season is determined well before opening day.  For instance, you most certainly cannot track a buck all day for days on end if you aren’t able to walk across the street without huffing and puffing.  Benoit lectures the reader to not smoke, drink too much, or become overweight.  He explains the importance of being in shape for the woods, able to maneuver stealthily around blowdowns and other obstacles without making a sound.

Benoit dedicates time to outline important equipment, such as proper firearms and ammunition.  While he used a peep sight, he relents to say that hunters can use a scope, provided it is light.  More importantly, Benoit warns against bringing too much stuff into the woods, weighing the hunter down, which acts as a hindrance to the objective of traveling miles for that one specific buck.

Preparation is key, however, there is plenty to know once the hunter sets foot into the woods.  The hunter must be able to read tracks to avoid following a deer that was there three days prior.  He/she must know when to go quickly on a track, as to not lose ground, and when to slow down and sneak, as to not bump the deer.  In addition, there is a skill to shooting at a buck that most likely will see you and bolt before you ever lay eyes on him.  Benoit gives us his expert opinion as well as a taste of his personal experiences that dealt directly with these make-or-break matters.  The most fascinating aspect of the book is how he recaps the hunt that took 13 days to close the deal.

I know a lot of deer hunters.  Most, like myself, are sitters, who may still hunt a little.  Many, like myself, have a fascination with tracking and may not have the courage or the knowledge to take the method up.  How to Bag the Biggest Buck of Your Life, although written nearly 50 years ago, is certainly not outdated, and can give those hunters on the fence the one necessary boost to give it a go.

The Eve

*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!

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