Cold weather hunting requires more thought
I unearth clothing I’d forgotten I owned. A pair of insulated pants in the basement. Where did they come from? Had they been my dads? A full face mask, a balaclava, sample from a buying show years ago; never used. A vest. When did I ever acquire that? And where’s that heavy wool sweater?
I buy a pair of mitts; a zippered pocket on the top to hold a hand warmer pack; I stock up on hand warmers. Warm socks; I take two pair. Long underwear? I throw in an extra set.
At the hunting shack a pair of heavy Pac boots in the corner. It’s been too warm in the past years to need them. I turn them upside down whack the soles: Might there be a mouse nest in the toes? The boots pass inspection; no mice have taken residence.
And thus equipped I am ready for the deer season.
We’ve not had cold of late; rarely snow on the ground. Not for deer season we haven’t. This year, both; the old time November two-pack. If the one don’t get you the other one will.
After sundown on Friday night we listen to the forecast: Cold and colder. Windy; then windier. Wind chill is mentioned.
The alarm clatters us awake. We listen to the wind blowing the dirge in the dark. In the pre-dawn darkness, two of us dress in layer upon layer; wool and poly, then more wool, then goose down, and then garish blaze orange outerwear. I pull on the quilted long underwear pants and over them, wool pants. With the quilted layer I cannot button the pants; it’s as if I’ve gained weight and inches. I cinch the belt, tighten the suspenders. That will do.
I lace up the heavy boots, pull on thick mitts braced with chemical hand warmers, bring hat down over ears. And thusly decked we walk slowly to the stand like refugees on a long march.
It is cold and the wind blows mean from the north. There are no warm winds in November. Snow crunches and squeaks as we walk. We climb to the stand, settle in as best we can, wait for daylight.
It comes grudgingly as if the night does want to relax its hold. All the time the wild wind howls hard and steady and the tall pines sway.
We sit like stumps, face masks pulled down, looking like we were ready for a bank heist. Heat seeps away from us with every minute. We do not talk, as if the simple act of talking would lose too much heat.
We do not see a deer for nearly three hours. Discouragement builds. Motives are questioned. Thoughts go to a warm shack, scalding hot coffee, bacon and eggs. Then movement; brown and white. One deer, then another, a third. No antlers. They move on. We wait in the cold.
The buck moves in from the left. Big body; antlers polished and hard, light carmel colored. Ted says, “Eight. No six”. Six points. Ted raises the rifle, considers things. I watch from over his shoulder. The buck does not know we are there. Ted follows it with the rifle. He killed a bigger buck a year ago. Now he hesitates. Asks me what I think.
I know what he’s thinking; take this one or hold out for a bigger one. Opening day; lots of season left. But a buck hanging versus one that may never come. A nice buck but not a huge buck. Take it? Let it go?
Ted says: “I hate these decisions.” His rifle holds steady; then moves to follow the buck; stops again, holds. The buck is totally unaware; stands, head up. Ted mulls it over, determines the buck’s fate. The deer moves forward and Ted pulls the rifle back. Decision made.
“He’ll be a real good one next year”. We watch the buck move off into the shadows of pine. Then he is lost to us.
It never gets much warmer that day. The wind blows hard and steady and cold. We sit for hours. Very few deer move. The November world is in flux; the cold forces things. Change is afoot. Trees pop and snap like rifle fire as freeze goes deep. The lake moans and cracks with ice up. And overhead the wind blows and the pines bend as if under a burden. All day long its as if a world in turmoil; sun breaks through then is lost again to cloud. High clouds move fast and gray. Sun; then cloud. Bright blue sky; then sullen gunmetal gray. Wind swirls as if looking for a better angle to torment the sitters. In spite of our added layers we feel the cold work in.
We break for an early lunch then go back out and hunt until dark. Very few deer move that afternoon. We retreat to the shack, stoke the wood stove, grill steaks, wash them down with wine.
We are out at daybreak on Sunday. It is below zero and the snow squeaks under our boots. We settle in; become like stumps again. We see deer, a pair, but distant. Then very little. There is very little rifle fire; this will be a slow start to the season, the cold will see to that.
The chill is very patient; takes it’s time to work down, to burrow deep. We lose heat, ever so slowly.
I stay until near 10 o’clock and then I leave the stand; bacon and eggs appeal, that and hot coffee. I walk slowly, looking for deer. I do not see any. I am not disappointed for at that time it seems too much effort to do much else except walk back and sit by the fire.
I am barely out of sight when the buck comes out. I never see it; it comes from the opposite direction that I walk out. Ted recounts it later. It is larger than the one the previous day; big body, decent rack. Ted counts eight points. Leans into the rifle; tracks the buck in the scope. Thinks: bigger but still not huge. Thinks: but venison in the freezer. Asks himself: wait or take it. Thinks: I hate to make these decisions.
In hunting there is no gray in hunting decisions; it’s black or white; a shot taken or a shot not taken. A bullet fired can never be recalled. Catch and release is for fishing. In the hunt all decisions are final; all calls are irrevocable.
The buck moves, stops, steps forward again: stops and stands; nose tests the air, eyes scan the woods ahead.
I walk down the drive to the shack. The wind is in my face; I feel chill but the walk has warmed me some. There is no smoke off the chimney. I’ll have to stoke the fire. I stop next to the shack, hang the rifle on the nail that is there for that purpose. I pick up an armful of oak splits; breathe in the tangy scent of oak. It’s seasoned well and will burn hot and pure.
Then from the direction I’ve come, the sharp crack of rifle shot rises high in the cold November air, rises to the low cloud, rises and turns to echo and then the wind blows the echo away. One shot; that’s all. The way it should be. One shot in the hard cold of November; the wind-blown echo; the decision made.
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