As we settle into the holiday madness, which is immediately followed by a prolonged lull in my hunting seasons (with really no action, outside of occasional coyote hunting, until spring turkey season), I like to take the time to reflect back on the deer season which recently ended.
Like most every deer season I’ve partaken in, I didn’t shoot a deer. Which is perfectly fine, given that some hunters go their whole lives without shooting a deer. I was long ago given to the opinion that for the most part hunting was going to be about a whole lot of sitting time and not a lot of action. This is particularly true of deer hunting. I’ve heard lots of stories and read loads of articles about “aggressive tactics” for most every type of game, and have to agree that from one time or another I’ve had them work. But never so as I chased deer.
There are what I would call “competitive deer hunters” in my life. Men I know that take a personal hit when the hanging pole is empty on a Thursday, and guys that get downright desperate if there’s nothing dead by Saturday at lunch. Some of these are men that can and regularly do walk up on deer. Men that are stealthy and quiet and downright spooky in the woods. That is never going to be me. I hunt with men who have a surplus of hours to devote to trail cameras, scouting, legal baiting, and tree-stand hanging. That is also never going to be me. These men are emotionally invested in deer hunting in a way that I currently am not, and while it is hard for me to feel bad for them, I do feel a twinge of remorse for their situation. Because for me, in a relatively quiet fashion I’ll get into a spot where there are known to be the occasional deer. I’ll get warm and comfortable, and then I’ll sit, wait, and watch. I’ll throw out a grunt on a tube call or turn over a doe bleat now and then, but in reality I deer hunt the way the vast majority of fishermen fish. I’m just out there. Despite the sympathy of those that hunt with me, I’m not certain that they don’t think something is gravely wrong with me.
I never really gave it much personal weight until this past year when I started hearing the same phrase over and over, it became the obligatory suffix to any conversations about seeing and shooting deer, and my nerves became taut and let’s face it, a little raw, with each repetition.
As a camp, we had a good year shooting deer this season. In the first week the camp on the North Bruce Peninsula scored on a pair of bucks, which is about average for us in that area in that time of year, while in the second week three more bucks became venison. In that same second week, our camp was seeing antlerless deer with regularity. My brother had seen six of them by mid-week, which is rare for where we hunt deer. Some seasons, we’ll consider ourselves lucky to see one deer period for the whole two week hunt. The land of surplus deer this is not.
But like I said, maybe it was the timing of the season this year, or perhaps 2013 was a year of propitious conditions for deer survival, or maybe we were having just plain old good luck; whatever the reason, deer were bounding about our hunting area near Parry Sound. I arrived on Wednesday afternoon looking to get a solid three days of hunting in, and the weather outlook was grand. So there it was good weather, good hunting, and a willing population of deer. One straggler made it camp Thursday and he was already tagged out on two bucks from the previous week; while in camp he mostly just did dishes and during the daylight hours he sat in a familiar treestand holding out for a trophy buck. It was looking to be a slam dunk of a week.
But there was to be no good karma for me. Our group was being begrudgingly selective, recognizing the success that they’d had and many does that normally would find their way into our bellies were being left to walk on and fend for themselves in the coming winter. That was until I got there, presumably.
“Well. Shawn can shoot a doe, but all you other guys have shot lots of deer in your lives, so don’t go shooting anything that doesn’t have horns…” I heard this often for the duration of my hunting in the second week.
So it had come to this. My paltry three kills had put me at the kiddy table in this particular camp. A camp filled with what I thought were friends and loved ones; but A-HA! their true colours had come out.
It all started off so promising. Success as a fifteen-year-old in only my second hour on stand as a deer hunter…I must have looked like a shooting star of the deer hunting future. But here I was almost twenty seasons later and that promise had come to naught. A deer hunting hiatus caused by a hectic university schedule, punctuated by brief success with a button buck and a small basket racked seven pointer, and then the subsequent devotion of more holiday time to turkeys and waterfowl then to the hallowed family tradition of deer hunting had made me what I was that week.
I was the pity case.
As the hours and days went on and I invariably failed to take down the doe that was reserved for me, I sensed tension beginning to grow in the 600 square feet of space that we eight grown men were occupying. Questions were raised, casually at first, about what the repercussions would be if someone else other than I was to go ahead and shoot an antlerless deer. These often escalated into full blown arguments about the merits of selective deer hunting in general. My brother said flatly that next year he would not be passing up does early in the week, as since my arrival he had not seen even a flicker of a deer, this despite him having smacked a fat spike buck at the very start of the week.
Then on the Friday morning it very nearly happened. As I sat on a high ridge overlooking a gully that had seen many a successful deer hunt take place I crunched leisurely on an apple. Between bites, I thought I heard something thumping through the leaves behind me and to my left. I turned and saw the flash of brown and white through coniferous undergrowth. Holding the apple in my teeth I wheeled slowly to my left and shouldered my .308. Bits and pieces of a deer trotted slowly but purposefully through the brush, and all the while I squinted through the scope looking for a spot to slide an ethical and lethal shot into the deer’s boiler room. For what seemed like an eternity I looked, with my finger braced on the safety and with apple juice leaking slowly down from the corners of my mouth and dripping down my chin. Realizing that things were getting bleak I made a desperate bleat with my voice (a sound which if made while holding a Granny Smith apple in your teeth sounds particularly un-deer-like) to stop the beast. The hope was that I could get a safe window to drive home the 160-grain projectile. The animal stopped and looked directly at me. I could see that it was a doe, but that was all as only the deer’s nose, eyes, and ears were clearly visible. Then as quickly as she stopped, she melted silently and wistfully back into the woods. I never saw her again.
All was not lost of course. After all this was the rut, and if the doe had come along, there was a chance that a buck may poke along behind her soon enough. For two straight hours I sat stock-still and silent, staring at the departed animal’s back trail, all the while hoping for a suitor to come follow her path through the woods. Nothing came of it.
Frustrated and ready to eat lunch I turned back to my right and noticed two ruffed grouse drinking from a barely trickling stream some 70 yards below me. With a sharp report, one of the two grouse lay dead. I went down and retrieved my tasty trophy, secretly proud of an instantly lethal neck shot on so small a target from such a distance. By the time I got back to my deer stand, the other grouse had returned, perhaps looking for its departed companion. Feeling confident I fired again, only this time to see the bird powering away for the next county. I decided to call it a break even day for grouse, even if the whitetail deer had defeated me as they typically do. Instantly, I got a text message from camp (cellular service is surprisingly good in spots up there).
The hunters were all back at camp and with bated breath they awaited my report on whether I had connected on a deer with my two shots. I let them stew for a moment, letting them imagine my triumph as I hauled a 12-point monster buck from the depths of the gully, then I sent a picture of the prize-winning bull ruffed grouse back, an act that was met with indifference from my cohorts. Later that same evening, my cousin shot a buck from the exact same stand I had occupied that morning. The next day, my other cousin had a doe meander past him at twenty-five steps while he sat on bench overlooking a meadow, a bench that I had occupied a mere 24 hours before. Exiting my sit on Saturday night I was pleased to find a deer track inside one of the boot tracks I made while I was walking into the stand four hours earlier.
These are the kinds of things that happen to me when I hunt deer. I really do wish I was making all this up, but these tragic truths weave their way through the tapestry of my deer hunting career. Would I have shot that solitary doe? Absolutely. I’m a meat hunter first, and there is little I like more than fresh venison. But things conspired against me…had I not been munching that apple, I may have heard her earlier. If I had set up facing that way, I may have seen her before I heard her. There’s no way to plan and mandate all the ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’ of deer hunting, and that’s the magic of it.
But I’m not discouraged. Really I’m not, because for those unplanned hours and hours on stand I’m at peace. There isn’t a thought in my mind other than the focus of deer hunting. No bills, no politics, no responsibilities. Just me, my rifle, an apple to eat, a tree to lean against, and the hope that a deer stumbles upon my happy little situation.
That’s why I do it, and that’s why I’ll keep doing it. Failure be damned.