Deer hunt teaches lessons in patience, expectations
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
It was a short walk from the shack to the deer stand, short, but on this November morning, snapping with the noise of walking on leaves fallen to duff and decay and in that, marking change of season.
Dry leaf crunched and cracked as if parchment of ancient times. Bootfall punctuated the pre-dawn darkness on desiccated leaf of oak and maple. Headlamps beamed bright; shadows cast long and dark.
We climbed to the stand, two of us, settled in. Headlamps stashed, rifles loaded; the closing of the action; a sharp snick of metal to metal. Then rifles leaned in the corners of the blind, binoculars adjusted; ready.
Darkness held to the low ground in front of us; shadows smudged the landscape; morning star shined bright to the east. It was dead calm; graveyard quiet. The stage set, the curtain to rise with the dawning.
A shot echoed, distant. The season was on.
The waiting commenced. It is mostly about waiting, is hunting. One waits on an indeterminate time frame unlike waiting in normal days when an upcoming event often has a specific time or date. In hunting the waiting is real but the timing of the unhappened event is abstract; it will happen when it happens. Or not at all.
If there are lessons to be learned in a deer stand the foremost is patience. Patience as if as a penitent, as if a mental discipline, as if meditative. One takes the proper gear to the deer stand or the duck blind but perhaps the most important thing to take to the field is the proper state of mind. And that state of mind is built on the foundation of patience.
One sits on the deer stand and takes it all in. Eyes sweep the landscape, right to left to right to left. Slowly. Deliberately. Steadily. The shapes and the folds of the land become familiar. The blocky form that on first light reminds of deer becomes, under close scrutiny with binoculars, a stump or a clump of fern or a shadow soon gone to sunlight.
The deer did not move on that morning, did not move that day; did not move much on the days following. We did not know the future on the morning. We would learn.
Days would follow in boring sameness; mild and sunny and warm. But game moves during times of drama in weather when a tension of change charges the air. Game moves ahead of storm, anticipating wind gusts and the swirl of snow. Game does not move during calm days of late autumn warmth. Ducks do not fly and deer do not browse and even chickadees seem lethargic and uninspired to action.
We watched but nothing much happened. Thus it is with hunting.
Then, the exception. You sit in quietude for the exceptions to the rule, sit for the moment when what is the norm changes to become the unique. And so it was.
Movement behind a screen of brush and branch. Blocky form. Dark tree bark color. Indistinct at first. Time held. Then the deer took a step, tentative. And in a small break in the jumble of branch and twig the briefest of glimpse of antler. Buck! Hidden for most in the thick cover but a buck and moving slowly forward.
How many times have we seen deer on that runway? How many years, decades now, have deer used it? They move north to south, come out of thick cover to an open area, pause for a moment; that’s the shot we want. They do that nearly without fail. The buck would do that. We were certain.
It held still for a moment; Ted lifted his rifle, head bent to scope; waited. Waited for that critical moment when buck strides to open ground and holds as they do before walking forward to cover. They all do the same, the deer that come from that runway.
The buck stood in the thicket as if to consider his next step, to take a lingering overview of the landscape ahead before he walked into the open. A twitch of the tail; white flag in the crosshatched gray of twig and leafless limbs. Then he hesitated, and, against all odds, turned back to where he came from and wandered away from the opening. He was not panicked, just changed his mind.
I watched over Ted’s shoulder as his rifle tracked the deer. The brush was far too thick to push a shot. I could see rough outline of deer, caught a briefest glimpse of mahogany colored antler; big one. Then the deer walked into cover and was lost to sight. Two minutes passed. Then we saw him again, moving casually in the same direction but still screened by cover. Then he was gone. We never saw him again.
On mornings that followed, crows chortled their secret laugh seemingly at a joke known only to them. Nuthatches busied; chickadees chittered. Two owls drifted out of the shadows, silent as sprits. But deer, deer were mostly absent and the land lay in silence and repose.
That first evening we ate steak hot off the grill, drank red wine and talked over the hunt as it is now and as it has been forever. Overhead the stars shone bright and Orion stalked the heavens. Constellations swirled in timeless mystery and omens; told stories, the constellations, of hunts in times immemorial.
We did not know it, had no reason to expect what was to come, but that buck was the only good one we’d see. Another lesson of the hunt: Expectations have no guarantee to match reality.
We did not know the hunt week would end with an empty game pole. We did not suspect that on the first night. We sat by the woodstove on the dark night as stars shone bright and meteors sparked. Then turned off the lights, shut the stove tight and made ready for the next dawn filled with optimism of all hunters.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.