Opening Days 2013

WARNING!!! If you expect to see photos of trophy bucks here, you are in the WRONG BLOG!
Turn back now or risk your sanity!! LOL!

Okay, now that I’ve got THAT out of the way… 🙂

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a “deer hunter”. But I have been out deer hunting for four seasons now. Emphasis on the word “hunting”. Notice I did not say “shooting”. The truth is, I’ve gotten one shot off in four seasons. If it weren’t for sighting-in and practice, I’d still be on my original box of 30-30. LOL, how sad is that?

I didn’t learn to hunt when I was young – I wasn’t permitted to go to deer camp as a girl. I do understand now (but didn’t then) that the family camp was crowded with men, and there would have been no privacy or “place” for a 12 year old girl, who would have put a definite crimp in the atmosphere. It’s just how things were back then. And since dad didn’t hunt the “house deer”, I just didn’t get to learn to hunt at all.

So I started when I was 46 – the same year that I bought my first handgun. There will be more to the story in another post, but for now let’s just say that I’m a latebloomer at hunting too.

Consequent to my late start, I only know how to hunt deer how my family hunts deer, and even that is kind of fuzzy. I learned what I do know upon the family property, so the style is related to the topography of the camp – which is deep eastern creek valley and mountainside. My family doesn’t hunt from tree stands or ground blinds. There are no scent lures or any other enticements either. It’s just not what they do. My family does what my dad always called “pussyfooting”. I guess the proper term is “stalk” hunting. At least in this family, this involves taking only a step or two at a time – baby steps, and with a heel-to-toe roll to keep the leaves and frosty ground as quiet as possible. Then you stand still, and look and listen for a few minutes. Then you take another couple slow quiet steps and look and listen again. It is a rather exhausting style – especially if you do that for a mile or so out the old log road – but it also keeps you from getting bored. There is a certain amount of “standing” too – but there is no climbing involved. What passes for a “stand” in this family is keeping a little three legged stool or a seat pad in your vest back, and finding a temporary perch somewhere – like behind the twin trees at the top of the fire lane, or near the path down to the spring, or simply within the branches of a fallen tree along the trailside – anything that breaks up your outline, where you can sit for awhile and watch. I’m not saying this is better or worse than anything else – this is just what I learned from my uncle, my dad’s hunting buddy, and my brother over the past few years. I don’t know anything else.

This year was a new experience with new topography. The cabin at the family camp is becoming nearly uninhabitable, and no one was going to be able to make it up there anyway this year. Because I am still a novice, and there is no cell service at the camp, it was probably not a good idea for me to go up there alone, so my brother invited me to come up and hunt with him and his son at the farm property he bought a couple years ago. The farm is only 20 minutes from his house. Wait, you mean I can hunt all day, and then come back and get a hot shower, AND flush the toilet?? What a concept!! ( yes, the cabin is THAT kind of cabin) I didn’t know what to do with luxuries like that!

It was fun just learning the lay of new land this year. Where the farm is located is pretty flat territory, so not every field of view was going to provide a safe shot from ground level. I might HAVE to learn to use a tree stand at some point if I continue to go there, but for now there were enough dips and swales and hemlock creek hollows that I still felt comfortable taking a shot if I had the opportunity.

It’s always hard getting up in the dark on opening day of buck season. But there’s some anticipation too. The imagined possibilities are endless. Would this be the year for me? Although it’s fun to think about, I tried to squelch that as much as possible and keep my shooting match mindset.  “Just Be Safe and Have Fun”, I told myself. I was also realistic. Antler restrictions have gotten tougher. The days are gone when you could shoot a spikey or a “Y-buck” in this area (unless you are a junior shooter, disabled or active military). My nephew could shoot pretty much anything, being a junior, but these days, in this area, a legal buck starts at “3-Up” and brow tines don’t count. Since I didn’t know until the last minute that I’d be shooting in my brother’s area, the doe tags were all sold out before I even got organized. What that meant for the bottom line was that I couldn’t shoot at anything less than an 8-point. I thought that was going to be a tall order. But I was there to enjoy the couple days I had anyway.

My brother had printed me out an aerial map of the property, so I knew where I was going, and the map was sealed neatly in a ziplock bag and tucked into my coat in case I needed it. We parked the truck in the pre-dawn and split up to our various patrol areas on either end of the property.

The thing I really enjoy about hunting (once I get past the dragging myself out of bed thing, and the 40 layers of clothes thing) is that it forces me out of my usual sensory routine.

The first thing I noticed was the sharp frosty air that made my nose crinkle and turned my breath into white fog. I have an attached garage at home, so I am admittedly sheltered from the realities of being out in the cold for most days of the winter. Being out hunting made me more acutely aware of temperature fluctuations and how that might affect the movement or activity of the animals in that environment.

As I started down the lane, my eyes had to adjust to new fields of focus. I think computer distance makes my eyes “lazy” – it’s kind of one field of focus all the time. But out in the fields and the woods, my eyes were forced to do some actual work. Depth perception gets a workout when I am focusing on one layer of trees, and then scanning the next layer in, and then the layer after that – with some dappled sunlight and overcast shadow thrown in for good measure – then, zooming back out to focus on the frost crystals that had formed on the Queen Anne’s lace and fallow wheat heads at my feet. On top of that, add visual motion detection. When I was really quiet and still enough to pay attention to detail, then I was tuned in enough to notice the squirrel zipping up that tree out of the corner of my eye, and the songbirds hopping from branch to twig and back. These aren’t usually things I notice from the comfort of my car on the Interstate! LOL

And the tracks! There were tracks everywhere in the week-old snow. Some of the tracks were obviously turkey, some were obviously deer, and some obviously rabbit, but then there were some other interesting 5-toed tracks that I had no idea about and I’m going to have to try looking up. Possum? Raccoon? Squirrel? So many interesting things to see, if only I used my eyes properly and prodded them out of their usual routine.

My ears got a similar workout. The first step was letting the hum of the distant interstate highway fade into the auditory background. When that happened, then I could tune into the sounds of the snow crunching under my boots (and mud making sucking noises after the sun came out and warmed things up a bit), the sounds of the creek water running, and twigs snapping as a squirrel hopped around on his squirrely errands. Then there were the blobs of snow dropping off the hemlock boughs with a plop as the temperature rose, and the rustle of the breeze stirring the leaves of the dried corn crop still standing in the field. It was really quite the outdoor symphony once I allowed myself to listen. No iPod earbuds could duplicate that.

Once I got settled onto my little stool amongst some hemlocks, then came the bird calls. I wish I had paid more attention when I was young, but my dad taught me to recognize several bird calls. There was the “Pee-weee” and “Chicka-bzzbzzbzz” of the Black-capped chickadees, the “Jay!” of the Bluejay, and several others that I recognized from my childhood, but I couldn’t quite conjure the right names from my foggy memories. Besides the songbirds, I heard the “honk..honk-honk” of some Canada Geese flying by in V-formation, and a red-tailed hawk screaming several times overhead. Some of the smaller songbirds got closer – even 5 feet away – as they figured out that the big orange “thing” sitting there on the dollar store  3-legged stool didn’t seem to be a threat. (Can songbirds see color? I know turkeys can – I’ll have to look that one up). There was also a Red squirrel who was very put out by my presence. He (she?) sat about 12 feet up a nearby tree and gave me the absolute dickens – chirping and chattering at me for several minutes.

It wasn’t just my ears and eyes that got a work-out. My muscles told me that I wasn’t used to carrying the weight of gear and gun. My 30-30 lever gun and scope weigh about 9 pounds total, which isn’t a lot – until you do it for hours at a stretch, for several days in a row. I also had on heavy insulated waterproof boots, and several layers of clothing, to include the orange vest, which also held a water bottle, a clif bar, a space blanket, a knife, a dragline and gutting gloves etc. in case I got lucky, and the previously mentioned dollar store 3-legged stool. I probably had 15 or 18 extra pounds of gear to drag around, which is not part of my normal routine. Maybe I need to work-out more and lose 15 or 18 extra pounds of “me”, and then imagine how good I’d feel! LOL!  I wasn’t climbing up and down the side of the mountain like at the camp either, but all that pussyfooting made my knees start reminding me that I wasn’t 20 anymore.

I did see three deer in two days. But that’s all I did – “see” them. Two were nothing but tails disappearing into the brush.  It might have even been the “same” tail, as it was in the same general location on the walk out and then back. I’m not obviously a champion stalker, and the first time, I had my eyes downcast, watching  my footing as I stepped over a log. I heard a snort, and looked up to see the tail, and that was the end of that. The third deer was a mere shadowy wraith disappearing between tree trunks when I had my eyes on the fallow wheat and apple trees instead. But I had two interesting days outdoors – got the briar scratches to prove it – and got the “good tired” feeling that being afield always gives me in the bargain.

I haven’t been what you’d call a “successful” hunter so far … but I guess that depends upon how you define success. I still didn’t bring home a deer for the freezer, but I did get to spend some time truly “alone” – with myself, with my thoughts, and with the natural world. I got to mentally switch gears, retrain my eyes and ears, and pay attention to the very smallest of details that normally go unnoticed in the rush. I found a little temporary peace in the hubbub of my life, and that sure seems like success to me.