Outdoor Adventures: Harsh winter, challenging hunt
We’ve done it before. We have a routine. Alarm rattles; light the lamps; stoke the woodstove to life. Boil water; coffee, oatmeal. Eat in silence; two of us, while the radio plays. Then dress; layers of wool and synthetic; top it all off with garish blaze orange. A last check of gear then sling rifles over shoulder, damp the stove, turn out the gas lights. Head out.
It is just before dawn; opening morning. It is very quiet. It warmed up overnight and it is cloudy. The snow still lies deep, deep at least for late November. Not as deep as late last winter, for sure. But it’s early for snow.
We are in the blind just before opening time. We move quietly as we can but there is only so much one can do. Two of us in the blind; waiting. Opening day is all about the waiting.
We bring with us a measured optimism; optimism because all hunters carry that afield. There can be no hunt without expectation; optimism builds on that. But measured this season for the winter a year ago was a bad one.
Last fall fawns burned like votive candles in the dusky evening of November, burned hot, burned bright; full of life. Come December and the winter fell hard on the land and the fawns drew in and became as candles flickering, sputtering, hungry for sustenance. January and the spark of fawn guttered and dimmed; died out as a candle dies out; flame died, smoke rose like a spirit; blown away by the cold wind of the darkest month.
And the fawns died in their beds, curled tight; died and went still and the snows of February covered them as a shroud.
And those fawns of the winter never saw the spring, never found the grass, never grew and took form as adults, never grew antlers and never found autumn. The fawns that died last winter would have been the spike bucks of this November; would be the six pointers and small eights next year; big bucks the next. Now they’re gone and they will not come back and the woods in the north will see fewer bucks in the next years because of that.
Winter is the great equalizer, the most patient hunter, the most indiscriminate killer of deer. Long before the first wolf came back to the state, long before talk of antlerless tags, long before bear and bobcat and cars killed deer, before all that was winter. Winter in its most fearsome would ravage the deer herd, would take fawn and buck and doe, young and old, strong and weak. Did it for eons; does it today; did it last year and for all we know may do it again this winter.
Last winter cut like a scythe across the north; cut down all that pretended to stand in the way. We knew this as we sat on the gray dawn of opening morning. We did not expect small bucks.
A deer moved; fawn. Scared and edgy and moving fast. Then gone. All silent again.
It was easy sitting in the mild temperatures. A year ago the cold came early, came this weekend a year ago. Early cold, bitter and deep. We did not know it would last. Did not know what we were in for last November as we sat on the same morning in the same blind and waited.
A deer moves, dark shadow in the early morning gloom. Another. Binoculars up; good look. Doe and fawn. They are alert but not alarmed. They move high along a ridge and I watch them; see them in the open, lose them in the thicket, see them again. They are perhaps 150 yards out.
The buck is traveling in the opposite direction. He steps out from an impenetrable tangle of thick tree and tight brush. He stands, turns his head and looks up the hill, toward the high edge of the ridge where the doe and the fawn stand. He looks uphill at the doe; one side of his head shielded by a tree.
I know it is a buck for even though he is partially hidden the one side of his head shows clear and open and the antler on that side sweeps wide and stark against the background of snow. I see the antler even without using the binocular.
I say to Ted, “Buck. Good one. Take him.” I see Ted move out of the corner of my eye, see gun barrel, dark and black, move across, rest on the side of blind. I put my hand to my ear to protect it from sound of rifle 18” away. Buck moves forward, walking easy, across a short opening, then into brush. All we can see in the thicket is blocky shadow; nothing is defined. Buck stands; all is still in the world.
That buck survived the winter last; survived it and prospered in the summer; fed well, grew large. Through luck or determination or strength the winter snow and winter cold did not fell him. He walks these woods as he has all his life, his woods, his November, his world. He stands still in the shelter of small trees, under the canopy of pine, in the shadows on this November morning. It is 7:10.
Then he moves.
He walks out of the thicket into an open lane; 100 yards out and nothing between buck and gun save for clear, chill November air. The buck takes two steps, three; then stops.
I press my hand tight against my ear. A raven calls.
He is a large bodied deer, full and solid and muscled and if you can stand over such an animal and not feel a shadow of remorse mix with the elation then you have a gap in your soul. They will age him at four and half years at the registration station and tell Ted that they see very few deer that age.
When Ted hangs the deer in the root cellar and reaches in to cut the tenderloin he finds the fresh track of an arrow that has cut just below the backbone, through the tenderloin, out the other side. A near miss; an archer who shot a bit high.
A survivor that buck, not just of winter and starvation but of hunters, gun and archers both. There will be bigger bucks taken this season but none as much a trophy as this one.
I sit in the stand until dusk falls heavy and the pine trees fade from green to black. I see three deer; no horns. Raven calls as it flies overhead; head turns to better see me. Then the raven is gone and the deer are gone and I go in.
We have fresh cuts of tenderloin that evening, sautéed on the camp stove in butter; served hot. We toast the hunt, glasses of wine held high. The wood stove burns bright.
The next day the fog comes down like an upside down bowl over the land and it is as if I am a hunter in the cloud. The world is the color of wood ash; the horizon is indistinct. I will sit all day and not see a single deer. I do not regret the time spent.
I do not know it then but I will not see another buck for the days I am on the stand. I cannot see the future any more than I did a year ago when the cold weather came early and the snow stayed late and the winter lay harsh on the land and all that lived there. In last November we could not guess at what was to come.
So on Sunday I sit alone in the fog and wonder what this winter will bring. My only company will be the ravens that fly and call out with that strange chuckling call they make as if they know something that nobody knows. Then they are gone into the fog of the unknown.
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