(published Nov. 5th, 2018)
I went hunting on Friday afternoon for the first time in a couple weeks. It was a nice day, party cloudy and cold, but not too cold. I decided to start close to home and work my way northeast, with no final destination in mind when I departed.
On My Way
I crossed the county road and drove the trail behind the airport. The low clearance on my Prius doesn’t pair well with the big ruts that sometimes appear on this lane, but thankfully there were only a few bad spots and I was able to navigate around them. I like taking my Prius when going hunting, it is super quiet and I can sneak up on wildlife much of the time. It makes a great birding vehicle too until the big bluestem grasses reach their full potential in late summer.
I continued past the fork in the trail where it Ts to the left and soon saw a small dark triangular-shaped object off the side of the trail. I parked the car and grabbed my 20 gauge and two 7 1/2 shells. Once out of the car I loaded the shells into the side-by-side chambers and crept forward towards the shape. By now I was positive it was a grouse instead of the usual clump of grouse-shaped dirt. As soon as I saw it move, I lifted my gun, aimed and fired as the grouse came up. My aim was true and the bird fell back down to the ground. I waited a moment in case another grouse was nearby, then walked over to my downed prey and picked it up.
This was my first ruffed grouse of the season. I had done a little walking on some trails in October but only flushed a couple birds, which were out of range to soon for a shot. I posed it for a photo with my gun and then field dressed the bird and put it in a box in the back of my car and continued down the trail. No more grouse were seen as I worked my way to Phantom Trail, where I could check out one of my potential bow hunting spots and look for more grouse.
I passed on hunting at the Phantom Trail parcel and worked my way further north, thinking I might return here closer to the end of the day. As it was, I had six hours of hunting time remaining in the day and wanted to try something different.
A Promising Hunting Locale
I soon turned to the east and found the spot I was interested in trying out. It is a narrow oaky woodland between two wetlands across the road from cornfields. My thought was that deer would funnel through from the woods further north down past me to the corn. I pulled into the parking lot and turned off the car. I fumbled around for a few minutes getting my gear situated, then made my way into the woods.
Whenever I hunt a new piece of land, I take my time moving in very far in order to get the lay of the land. Ideally, I would have visited the location earlier in the season, perhaps walking around with a shotgun hunting grouse and squirrels and looking for sign of deer. I had not taken that time though, and the rut was just beginning so I had to tread softly from the start and take my chances. This piece was likely well-hunted considering it was across from corn and the farm that grew it. The family who owns the farm is a large one with grown children and lots of cousins that live in the area. Luckily today I had the spot to myself. If there had been a vehicle in the lot, I would not have stopped.
There was a well-traveled trail heading north through some brush from the parking lot (so well traveled I feared this was a bear baiting site) so I followed it for about fifty yards until I reached a downed tree that overlooked the western-facing hillside down to the marsh, where I assumed hungry deer would travel past on their way south into the corn. It was a large tree with several options for sitting. I chose the best spot for me where I could just barely reach the ground with my feet and sat on the trunk to wait and watch.
As I sat there, I checked the landscape out a little closer. I was sitting on the western edge of the narrow strip of woods that jutted north into a large sedge meadow. From aerial photos that I looked at later, I saw that if I were to continue further north, I would eventually end up on an official hunter walking trail that connected to a series of dikes and flowages. The narrow strip of land north of me was situated between two wetlands, one sedge marsh and one flowage with open water. Deer like the path of least resistance (as do I!) and would have to walk past me to get to the cornfields across the road from where I sat.
The woods were noisy that afternoon, noisier than many I’ve sat in. Red and gray squirrels were chattering back and forth in the treetops, and something was scurrying around in the grasses and leaves and along the downed tree beneath me. I eventually caught several glimpses of little rodents moving around, likely shrews or field mice. A mob of blue jays moved in and yelled back and forth to each other. A large pileated woodpecker swooped quietly past just over my head. Chickadees and nuthatches were plentiful across the landscape. Its amazing how close the critters will come to you when you sit still. But even with the racket all the critters were making, I would consider those woods peaceful and still compared to the slightly hectic and constantly noisy world I live in at home. Its a nice time to just sit and relax and let your mind wander where it will, contemplating life, making plans, talking to God, and thinking about good times and special people.
About a half hour into my sit, I heard noise coming from behind a large pile of brush behind an oak tree to the north in front of me. I slowly leaned to the left so I could see past the tree in front of me and saw something large (much larger than a squirrel!) slowly moving along. It was dark in the shadows but I could make out that it was my desired prey today, a white-tailed deer. I thought it was maybe a doe, but was not sure. I had a tag for both antlered and antlerless on public land, but I also couldn’t tell for sure the size of it. It stayed behind the brush pile for several minutes, and I sat very still but connected my trigger release to the string of my bow in case I would get a shot. I saw that it was going to walk past the brush and appear about fifteen yards or so in front of me, and there were a few little openings that I might get a chance to shoot through.
I drew my bow as the deer moved to the right and its head came into view. Through the peep-sight, I saw that it was not a doe, but rather a little buck with spiked antlers. I estimated the spikes as barely legal, just over three inches, with the beginnings of forked tines jutting out the front. Now I had to decide if I wanted to take the little buck or let him pass. He continued moving to my right, slowly.
The decision to fill a tag with a small deer is a tough one for me. I don’t have grand illusions of a giant buck with a stellar rack, but I also don’t like the idea of shooting a baby. I’m about getting the meat for the freezer, and the younger the deer, the more tender the meat. Alternately, the younger the deer, the smaller, generally, which means less meat. Its about economy. I may have had a clear shot on the buck as it moved to my right, but I hesitated just long enough, considering the value of the shot, that the buck was soon hidden by another downed tree and brush pile.
He stopped a couple times and looked right at me, trying to figure out if I was something he should be concerned with. I drew and aimed and relaxed the draw a few times as the deer moved along, stopping in mid-draw whenever the deer looked my way. I was downwind, so he never drew my scent. Deer have pretty bad eyesight, so unless I made a sudden move, he couldn’t see me where I sat, just a dozen or so yards away. Finally I gave up on the idea of shooting him and grabbed my phone to take a video. When he reached the end of the brush pile he browsed for awhile, just beyond some saplings, and I admired his gorgeous dark face and dark brown body. He actually wasn’t too small, perhaps from his recent diet of as much corn as he could eat. I decided then that if he moved from behind the brush and saplings that prevented a clean shot that I would make an attempt to shoot him. After all, it had been three years since I had shot a deer.
The deer must have been really comfortable with the area he had wandered into, because he turned around, moved back behind the second brush pile and laid down to rest. Now this was something I had never experienced before. My only other experiences with deer close up while hunting was the quick harvest of a buck while bow hunting and then two weeks later a doe while gun hunting, each within a couple minutes of sighting them. My thought was to just wait it out and see what happens. Maybe another deer would come. I sat there for about twenty minutes, letting my mind wander again, and texting my hunting advisor to see what he would do in my situation. I didn’t get a response, so I just waited and figured that I would do what felt right when the time came. Every now and then little buck lifted his head to look around, and then lowered it again. I thought about trying to move closer, but was afraid of spooking him.
Eventually, I heard the little buck get up and he stood still for a couple minutes before moving back to my left to where he had originally come. I waited for his head to move behind a tree and redrew my bow. I watched through the peephole for him to move into a good position for a shot and hit the trigger release as soon as I had his shoulder in my sights, knowing that I tend to shoot low and to the right and hoping the arrow would pierce his lungs. The arrow flew, but I could hear it deflect off the tips of some short saplings that grew between me and the buck, and it missed the deer, flying just over his back above my intended target. He startled and ran off to the north. I sat for several minutes, stunned to have missed, and thought through the whole episode from start to finish to try to determine what I could have done differently for a better outcome. Then I decided to go look for my arrow and check out the landscape to the north of where I sat.
I was pleased with what I saw further into the woods. I had been sitting on the precipice of a gentle hillside that curved down toward a narrow strip of land about twenty yards wide. Any deer that moved from the vast woodlands to the north would have to either cut through sedge marsh or come across this land bridge to get to the cornfields across the road. The nice thing about land bridges is that deer will most often take the risk to cross there even if the winds are not in their favor. Deer, whenever they can, travel into the wind so they can smell danger ahead. So if you can keep downwind from their path, you can get pretty close to them, which is necessary for success at bow hunting from the ground.
There was good sign of larger bucks in the area as well. I came across a couple nice rubs just below where I had been sitting.
I was even more pleased when I came across my arrow, stuck in a rotten log at the base of the hillside. I had just turned around to go sit on a downed tree, and looked back for just a moment and there it was! I was amazed that it had stayed above the leaf litter, and just before then had resigned myself that the arrow was lost. I only had one more arrow with a broadhead tip.
I spent the rest of the day sitting in a downed tree at the base of the hill, still on the western side of the woods. I saw no more deer, but the last hour of the day was filled with Sandhill cranes flying overhead and landing in a wetland less than a mile to the northwest of where I sat. The cranes were close to the treetops as they flew over and I could hear and sometimes feel the whoosh of their downward wing beats. Often the cranes would croak their ancient call, the leaders starting and the rest of the flock returning the call, and the young ones chirping along. It went on, flock after flock, until sunset. The woods were filled with their calls, and I decided to call this piece of woods Crane-song Woods.
All in all, it was a good day for hunting. I shot my first grouse of the season. I had a new experience with a buck fawn who came very close to me and took a nap. I shot at a deer, and learned to watch for the tips of saplings that can ruin a good shot. And I lost a little of my swagger at having made good killing shots at the first two deer I ever shot at, which is actually a good lesson all in itself. I was incredibly lucky those first two times, I know that now.
The next day I went hunting again at the land on Phantom Trail that I had passed by the day before and fired another arrow at a larger buck, but missed again, and I feel I should have made that shot. I’ll write about that experience later this week if I can get over my disappointment and frustration. Meanwhile, time for some more target practice!!!