Category Archives: whitetail deer

One Tuesday in November

Standing on the damp front porch of the cabin, I took a deep breath of the November morning and the raw chill tightened my lungs into a sputtered cough.  I thumbed three cartridges into the underside of my Model 14 and worked the back and forth to chamber a round.  The action on the old pump rifle had seen at least four or five decades of work before it had found its way into my young hands, and the fore-end glided into position easily, almost of its own accord. Reaching under, I slid in a fourth shell for insurance.

I turned my head at the sound of another hunter opening the camp door, and saw my dad step out into what was just one more of an incalculable number of mornings he had spent chasing whitetails. This was my first deer hunt since 1997, and I was glad to get into the camp again after a four-season hiatus.

“You ready?” I asked.

He nodded perfunctorily and we started through the grass and up the trail. As we entered the tree line the hushed swish of our boots through frosty grass turned into a soft, rhythmic ‘crunch-crunch-crunch’ in leaves hardened by the overnight drop below freezing. We turned slightly north and headed towards an old beaver pond; the day before, just on the edge of my sight line through the hardwoods, the ghostly shape of a deer had bounded through that spot unexpectedly.  At the time, my gun had been laying comfortably across my lap.

That morning we were hoping to see the same deer again. I was planning to be ready, while not really expecting anything to happen.

We spoke not a word as we trudged determinedly through the gloom of the dawning of another November day, and when we arrived at my allotted space, dad told me in a low whisper that he was going to move some fifty or sixty yards to the west of me and cover off the area to my right where, as a right-handed shooter, I would not be able to swing my gun through.  He said we’d sit until 10am or so and then he’d get up and do a bit of a push through the surrounding area in the hopes of kicking a deer up.

I nodded, and with a little smirk, dad walked away to my right.  His feet in the leaves sounded uncannily like a deer’s footfalls, and I could see him find his chosen spot.  He had picked a flat rock under a broad maple as his stand, and he sat down, shifting his feet slightly.  For a minute or so after he had taken his seat, I sat in the all-encompassing silence of the woods.  Then, from my right, dad broke the silence with two soft calls from a grunt tube.

As if offended by the deer noises put forth by my father, the silence again took over in a heavy pall.  Not a puff of wind blew, and no other animal dared profane the stillness with their sounds.  I could very palpably hear my own breath in my ears beneath my blaze orange toque, and I peered intensely into the vertical lines of grey hardwood trunks, hoping against hope to catch the white flash of a deer’s throat patch or to spy the vertical grey line of my quarry’s backbone.

I heard it first though.  Through the silence, directly in front of me, I could hear the steady ‘crunch, crunch…crunch, crunch, crunch’ of something walking in the leaves, and it was getting closer.  Out of the rhythmic and hypnotic approach, there was a punctuated ‘crunch…thump, thump’ and then I knew that a deer had hopped over the low, moss-covered cedar rail fence to the north of my stand, a fence that had been there since the property was a homestead in the late 1800’s. No one in our deer camp was so spry as to make that leap so early in the morning and my heart thumped rapidly.  In moments I could see the deer, head down, winnowing its way through the trees. It was on a direct line towards me and I softly slid the safety on my rifle to the ‘off’ position. It barely made an audible ‘click’ as I armed the weapon.  Adrenalin had my right hand trembling ever so slightly.

As the deer passed behind a wide tree trunk, I shouldered the gun smoothly and began tracking the animal’s approach.  All the while it ambled forward with its head down, while my eyes were riveted to its front shoulder.  It would have to turn to my right or left at some point, otherwise it would surely step on my feet, and as if on cue, at twenty paces or so it turned broadside to my left, still walking slowly through the leaves.  The front bead of my peep sight glowed bright against the grey of side of the animal and with the aiming point hovering over the deer’s heart I let my hand tighten into a squeeze on the trigger.

“POWWW!” went the rifle and I worked the pump action automatically in the echoing aftermath.  To my shock the deer simply flinched, took two quick hops to my right, and stood stock still.  It was broadside and looking right at me by then.  For what felt like an eternity, but was in reality barely a fraction of a second, I could not believe that I had missed such a lay-up of a shot. The hunter’s primal instinct blared in my brain and I swung the bead back onto the front shoulder, while the deer coiled its internal spring to flee at the sight of such an obvious movement on my part. My front bead found the fur of a deer’s shoulder blade and I again touched off the trigger.

“POWWW!” once more just as the deer jumped.  This time I did not even recall cycling the weapon, while the deer went limp in mid-air and landed on its side.  Leaves flew as it kicked two or three times before stretching out stiffly.  Once again all was still in the hardwood bottom that Tuesday morning. I had been sitting for less than fifteen minutes.

I let out a long, quivering sigh and put the gun back to ‘safe’.  Bending down I picked up the two empty brass casings that glowed against leaves still white with frost, and feeling the casing’s heat I shoved them absent-mindedly into my coat pocket. I rolled my head from shoulder to shoulder and drew in a breath that was laced with spent powder. I was elated, embarrassed, bewildered, and frankly a little sad.

But then I always feel a little sad when I shoot a deer.

Our group is dispersed when we hunt deer, and I knew that more than one short-wave radio was going to be switching on at the sound of my gun barking that early into the morning. I flipped my radio on and softly announced that I had been responsible for the shooting and that I had a deer down.  A few affirmatives crackled across the airwaves and I switched my unit off.  Forty minutes later, dad ambled over to inspect my handiwork.  He asked if it was a buck or a doe and I frankly couldn’t recall.  I had not left my seat since the shooting action and since I had a tag covering either eventuality in my pocket I had not been really focused on the deer’s headgear.  As the deer having antlers didn’t really stick out in memories just so recently forged, I told him it was a doe.

“No, it isn’t” was all he said as stood over the plump, supine form of the deer.  I leaned my gun against a tree, walked over and saw the small, basket-rack seven pointer up close. Grabbing the one antler in my hand I picked up the deer’s head and noticed that the antlers were loose and the skull seemed disconnected from the rest of the deer.  Sure enough, on closer inspection my second shot had hit the deer at the base of the skull, just below the right ear.  Certainly not where I was aiming and the definition of a ‘lucky shot’ but given the multiple vectors of startled deer, swinging gun, bewildered hunter, and hastily fired bullet I was not one to complain.

All this embarrassment and panic could have been avoided had I not shot under the deer with the first round, a fact attested to by a gouged trough in the leaves and dirt at the site of my first attempt.

It was my first buck and just my second deer, and I have had many deer-hunting purists scoff and roll their eyes at this story, caricaturing me as some sort of ham-fisted, trembling mess of a deer hunter, incapable of hitting the broad side of a barn and completely ignorant of the workings of both deer and firearm.  To those people I say a gentle profanity and hear them no more.

What transpired all those deer seasons ago was certainly not my finest moment behind the gun, and at best it was a comedy of errors that ended with some venison in the freezer and a tale to tell.  Still it is not a story I share reluctantly, because every moment in the fields and forests has merit.  For the record, the next deer I shot was perfectly dispatched with one efficient, humane shot through the base of the neck using the same gun, but I say that only to illustrate the randomness of the events related above and not as some macho form of self-aggrandizing atonement. I have missed plenty of deer before and I will miss my fair share of deer again, I can assure you.

The misses and the hits are probably a metaphor for life’s greater meaning, but that’s not what this story is really about.  This is just about the thrills and emotions of a hunt that happened in the most unpredictable fashion, and the lifelong memory it spawned.

Which are, at the end of the day, the primary reasons that I hunt in the first place.

Slowing the Game Down

There is an expression in baseball circles that a key to success is being able to ‘slow down the game’. I won’t belabor the theory but it essentially points to techniques that bring a level of calm to a sometimes frantic sport.

In that respect, I see parallels between baseball and deer hunting, and since I am abjectly terrible at actually killing deer I had a lot of time to think about this over the past few weeks.

For the uneducated spectator, baseball can seem to be the height of tedium.  My lovely wife cannot stomach more than an inning on television and past attempts to get her to live baseball games have proven a mistake.  She is not alone, and a four-hour-plus day at the ballpark does not hold much appeal to all but the most fanatical of baseball fans.  So it goes with some types of hunting, but I find it most crystallized in a deer hunt, particularly when ‘on stand’.  I have had many people over the course of my still young lifetime ask me one pointed question over and over again.

“What do you do out there?  You mean you just sit? That sounds boring.” And to make a not-so-popular admission, it sometimes is cripplingly monotonous.

Of course, being on stand does not necessarily define deer hunting, or the men and women that do it.  In some regions a drive or push hunt is the norm, occasionally accompanied by the sweet music of hounds working a scent trail.  In other places, spot and stalk is the modus operandi.  Rattling, calling, and decoying play an increasing part as well.  Still, I would argue that if an informal survey were conducted, nothing defines or still serves as the default approach to deer hunting more than being 25 feet up a tree, or crouched in a ground blind, or leaned up against a stump or rock waiting for a deer to pass by.

Settling in for an afternoon sit.
Settling in for an afternoon sit.

Those are long hours, and depending on where you are in the world, they are sometimes frosty, wearying shifts.  I have on more than one occasion done all-day sits that lasted from dawn to dusk, and guys in camp just shook their heads at me. Non-hunters consider it insanity and to put a fine point on it, I don’t really like it either.  But I have to do it.  I do not move quietly through the woods, I do not have a preternatural ‘eye’ for deer and deer sign, and I do not have countless hours at my disposal to scout and pattern deer.

A hope, a comfortable cushion, and a likely spot are all that I really have in my arsenal.

I’ve seen many enriching things, though, so all is not lost. I’ve seen late autumn sunrises and sunsets that provoke a deep visceral response and could move you to tears.  I’ve walked out of a sit into the approaching nightfall while the big heavy flakes of a snowstorm fell fast on a driving wind, sparkling like stars in the beam of my headlamp.  I’ve seen a small group of ruffed grouse parade past me at twenty steps, oblivious to the fact that on another day with another weapon in hand I may have turned a few of them into table fare.  I had a pine marten climb the tree behind me and sit perched six feet over my head for a full ten minutes; he muttered and purred to himself the whole time while I slowly tried to get my camera out of my backpack for a snapshot. I’ve heard hundreds and hundreds of mallards chattering and trading over my head before settling into a shallow lake a short distance away, their wings whistling in a way that was harmony and cacophony all at once.  Songbirds have mistaken my rifle barrel for a twig and perched there for a time. A chickadee landed on my forearm once and a vole climbed across my boot top another time. I once watched a tree sway in a fierce wind and topple with a crash so exhilarating and violent that I felt the ground move from a hundred feet away while my hands trembled from the shock of it.  I’ve been privy to these moments and plenty more.

Infrequently, I see a deer.

A deer eventually crossed 400yds from me.
A deer eventually crossed 400yds from me.

There has been research conducted that found that people would rather experience an electrical shock than be left for long hours with only their thoughts.  I do not understand that rationale one bit.

On a deer stand I’ve considered whether proposing to my girlfriend was a good idea.  I thought about if I wanted to have a family. I’ve considered what kind of dad I’d be and more recently what kind of dad I am. I have had epiphanies about world affairs that I’ve long since forgotten, I’ve solved complex problems at my job, and I’ve thought a lot about the place hunting has both historically and in the modern sense.  I’ve written and rewritten dozens of posts for this site in my mind, and I’ve been inspired by the wilderness to write contributions to other sites. I’ve listened to voices in my head that echo the deer hunters that came before me, and I’ve remembered and forgotten more than clumsy clichés on a laptop can do justice.  I’ve napped with an autumn sun on my face and I’ve shivered through sleety afternoons where a warm fire and a deep whiskey were vastly preferable alternatives.

Perhaps if I had paid more attention, I’d have shot more, but it did not seem pertinent then and I don’t really care at this point either.  The game has always been slowed down for me when it comes to our deer hunts, so I guess, at least in the baseball definition, I’ve been successful to a degree.

Which is good because it feels like success to me.

Hope in a Hopeless Month

In the dregs of an Ontario February (a time that for those who have not had the privilege to experience it is arguably the bleakest, wintry, and most depressing period of the year) hunting can become a distant and dream-like memory.  Sure, in some parts of the province there are year-round opportunities for coyote hunting, and in other areas there are still pocketed opportunities for rabbit hunting, but generally hunting for everything else is closed.  The return of the big game hunting for deer, bears, and moose that sustained us through the fall and into December won’t be returning for the greater part of a year while the halcyon days of spring turkey hunting, while imminent, for now seem to be permanently buried under the grim pallor of ice and snow.  Here and there you may get a week of goose hunting in early March, but for many we won’t hear the braying, cackling, and murmuring of Canada Geese settling into decoys until September.  Ducks?  Around the same time, give or take a couple of weeks.  The only similar lull to these mid-winter blahs is the lazy, hazy days of mid-summer; even then the opportunity to get out and wander the woods and fields is an attractive diversion.  I know very few people who are motivated to go out hiking in the wilderness when the snowdrifts are a meter deep and it is 14 degrees below zero.  Snowmobiling?   Maybe, but certainly not hiking.  And I’m in southern Ontario, in a region deeper south than most of the rest of Canada.  In the northern parts of this country it is likely that they’ve been under this hunt-stifling deep-freeze, or an even more severe one, for far longer.
Even the prospect of Valentine’s Day (with the promise of candy and sundry other things) can’t seem to get me out this funk.  Yep, February is pretty depressing.
So what can one do?  Well, I started this blog so I could have an outlet for my pent up hunting needs.  I also endorse sitting around with friends reminiscing about past hunts, watching hunting shows on television and the Internet, and preparing to go hunting when the seasons re-open by cleaning and polishing (and then re-cleaning and re-polishing) your weapons, unpacking, organizing, and then re-packing your equipment, and practicing your calling constantly and at a volume so excessive that it lowers your property values.
For those of you with non-hunting spouses, these well-intentioned outlets of therapy may seem to your husband or wife as pointless puttering or in the case of practicing with your game calls, a sign of mental illness.  But really it is just a coping mechanism employed to help us survive the long winter of non-hunting inactivity.
But wait, in this self-pity there is an opportunity for perspective.  Think of the game animals that you respect and cherish so much; they are outside right now really surviving.  And not surviving so that you can hunt them when the next season opens, not surviving because they have nothing better to do, but surviving because they have to, surviving for the very definition of survival.
Because, after all survival is what they do best.  That is why they are a challenge to hunt.
Every turkey that you hunt in the spring survived the depths of winter.  All the moose and deer that are being hunted in the fall are being hunted by virtue of their (or their mother’s) survival through the previous winter.  Every animal that we in the hunting community pursue had to survive countless natural and man-made threats to their very existence, and it is through their survival and adaptation that they gain the skills necessary to thwart and beguile predators (human or otherwise) everywhere.  That challenge is an integral part of the appeal of hunting, at least for this particular hunter.  My father told me once at deer camp that it was a good exercise to take a step back from the thrill of hunting, especially in the euphoric moments after harvesting game and think quietly about the life that the animal had lived, how it had survived, and the harsh reality of that animal’s existence in the wilderness as a participant in the struggle between prey and predator.  I think introspection is more than just a good exercise, but an absolutely necessary part of the act of hunting.  Too often the game being pursued becomes a footnote in the hunt, and not the main character; regularly confronting the more unpleasant bits of survival and death are what make hunting what it is.
So I guess before I go feeling sorry for myself about not being able to get out and hunt much of anything right now, I should probably just be thankful that I’m not sleeping outside in a cedar swamp, or trying to avoid being eaten by coyotes, or starving.  I should also be grateful that by the virtue of their superb adaptations and incomprehensibly powerful will to live that wild game continues to thrive and provide opportunities for myself and others to pursue the hunting tradition.
And thinking all that I realize that wild turkey season is less than three months away here in Ontario.  Which is just about long enough, with nightly practicing of course, to get my pot call and strikers all tuned to perfection.