Outdoor Adventures: When does deer season really begin?
Editor’s note: Mitch Mode is in the woods this week, so we selected one of our favorite, previously published ‘Outdoor Adventure’ columns to share.
At the rifle range I settle sandbags to hold the rifle firm, then lean forward to put eye to scope as if I was peering into a secret place. Crosshairs settle; hold. Safety off, the “click” it makes unheard by me, earmuffs in place. Breathe out, long and steady. Then a slow squeeze of trigger, warm fingertip on cold steel of trigger. The rifle goes off as it should, as a surprise.
Recoil lifts the rifle; I let it go then bring it back down. Peer again through the scope to see if I can see where it hit, on a page of paper 100 yards away. I think I can see it, but it’s a small hole and so I set the rifle back on the rack and walk down to see if for myself, hands in the pockets of my jacket; a casual walk on a November day when the sun breaks through but the wind blows away any hint of warmth.
The target is punched nicely; a small, round hole with ragged edges in a sheet of paper that by itself is silent but when taken into consideration that what it means, speaks. What it tells me is this: The rifle is hitting where I point it, where those crosshairs in the scope settle like a shadow lines on paper. That is good to know. That is important knowledge to have. One must have confidence in one’s rifle before leaving home.
I walk back, reload, settle, hold: finger pulls trigger ever so slowly. Rifle fires, bucks up, comes back down; echo flies farther than bullet. And I think: So it starts. So starts the season.
Or does it? Maybe it began at home, rifle cased, box of shells on the chair. Fenway the Boston terrier pup, all 7 months and full of himself, reaches up, mouths the box and takes off; box fails, cartridges fall noisily to hard floor, glitter and gleam; copper against hardwood. I tell Sally to get her dog, taking the position that an ill-behaved dog is automatically the sole possession of the other person in the house, much as I am told parents will often trade responsibility for rambunctious offspring: “Look what your son has done!” or “You’ll never guess what your daughter did today!”
Sally corrals Fenway; I, on hands and knees, gather up ammunition, feel the cold weight of metal in hand as if holding a talisman. Perhaps that is when it started.
But no: a month ago, when we cut back brush to clear shooting lanes, that was the start. Late summer heat; sweat on foreheads; mosquitoes acting as if they would last forever; deer hunting on our minds. That was the start.
Or was it? Maybe it was back in January on a cold day of crusty snow, not enough to ski on and I fighting a losing battle with a cold, took chainsaw and cut up a downed oak; rich smell of oak chips, pungent on the cold January air; noxious whiff of chainsaw exhaust; biting wind of the short month. Stack it for a year; let it dry next to another stack. Burn it in November when the cold settles in and the blaze orange is hung to dry in a deer camp heated with wood. Perhaps that is when the season, no so near, began.
Or, one thinks, perhaps there is no start to the season; perhaps what is the truth is that there is no end to it and because of that, there can be no start. Perhaps there is only the beginning all those years ago, as a kid aching for the hunt, waiting years to be old enough to join the ranks of hunters. Maybe it only begins, back in the peach-cheeked days, ebbs and flows over the years, then through the decades, then accumulates over a lifetime, ends only when you end it. Maybe there is only one season; the season of a hunter and that never breaks, not completely, only rises like the fall winds when the months shorten and the temperatures drop and the deer, as they say, “begin to move.”
I cased the rifles and drove home, changed clothes and drove back out, on cold, hard roads that I bicycle on in the summer, past a meandering river now edged in ice; past small lakes frozen over, side to side, end to end. There was work to be done.
I walked to the deer stand, small bow saw in hand. Then I climbed to the blind itself; up on high like a wooden nest in the pines. It was sunny now, but the wind was still steady and chill. I leaned back against the rough bark of white pine; big tree and steady; older than I am; wondered to myself how many winters the big tree has seen, how many deer seasons come and gone and now, soon, to come again. For the tree there is no start or end to things.
I sat in the blind and closed my eyes and listened to the wind and smelled pine and leaf, smelled November in the air.
There is something about sitting still on a fall day when around you the seasons change with the wind. There is something to that; to just sitting and taking it all in. and that, for most of it all, is what hunting is about, at least the hunt for deer or the hunt for ducks; sitting still and being aware of all that is around you. And there is something very relaxing about it all and that is what will draw hunters back, time and again, for most of the time in the field is spent sitting.
I know, there are television shows of renown where ducks fall from the clouds as if rain, where deer or elk or bear stroll unconcerned for camera and shooter both. I know those shows are there, but I don’t watch them; they do not show what I see and what I know, and what I see and what I know is that it’s all about a long time sitting while the wind blows and the season rotates.
I know, as certain as I write this, there are days when the buck walks out at daybreak on opening day and falls to the shot; I’ve been there. Two of us in the blind have had two bucks down before the first hour had passed. I’ve seen deer come in the first minutes of the opening morning. I’ve killed deer after a short wait; it happens. But most of hunting, for most of the time, is about the wait.
On that afternoon in the deer stand I waited; watched the hillside; watched the side slope; watched the tawny grass turn and the fern sway with the wind. It felt right, the wait. It felt like a hunt.
After a while I roused myself, climbed down and clipped some pine branches; then back up, pulling the branches up behind me. The blind is framed in 2x4s, covered with plywood; tacked over the outer side is old wire mesh fencing and into this I wove pine branches to break up the outline of the blind. It is putzy work; it takes no real effort or skill and in that is perfect for an afternoon task.
When the job was done I climbed back down, shouldered the pack and wondered off along the edges of the area that I could see from the stand. I looked for fresh track, for sign of bucks, for anything else that might catch my eye. I took the long way back to the truck, the way I’ll walk in a week or so when the deer season is open.
I did not see deer, not a one. So it goes. It’s not like a television show, the real world of hunting. But I knew that I was ready, that the rifle was as it should be, that the blind was done right, that I had taken care of what I could. And I knew that in 10 days’ time I’d be out there again, in a season that never really starts, never truly ends, only beats steady as your pulse for all your days.
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