Skunked Again: The patience of deer-hunting

12 mins read

FARMINGTON – Recently while out in the Maine woods, I reminisced about a particularly fun hunting trip that I took part in last season.  It was around this time of the year, when the rain could still make it through our chilly atmosphere without freezing, and only leaves covered the earth between each tree.  My older brother, Tucker, drove over from northern New Hampshire to join me on the hunt.  Although the weather was not up to par, he and I planned to make the best of the morning and evening hunts with perhaps some heater-hunting in between.  

In the morning I brought Tucker to a portion of Farmington where it was thick with skidder trails and speckled with small clear-cuts.  Overall the terrain was easy to walk, though patches of balsam fir sometimes forced you to make the plunge, (ducking low with a hand in front of you, in order to get to the other side).   If you ever find yourself in the thickets like that, double-check the safety on your rifle – there are some scary stories out there about triggers being grabbed by vegetation. 

My brother and I split up to make out own way and considered the possibility that we might scare something across one or the other’s path.  It was only slightly raining, and the cool and quiet atmosphere reflected the shyness of the forest; I crossed no animal’s path, and none crossed mine.  I walked calmly along, occasionally sitting on a comfortable looking stump or even nestling in a young group of fir trees where I could see a long distance in front of me. The clouds began to darken and seemed to gather force, and by the end of the morning it was looking quite dreary.

By the time Tucker and I met back at the truck, three hours had passed and we hadn’t seen anything.  The rain was still steady but hardly problematic, for it maintained a misty flow that failed to stop a good hunt.  We decided to take advantage of the early afternoon hours by heater-hunting some near-by roads for any straggling ditch-dummies that might be loping around.  A man hears too many stories growing up about people stumbling upon a trophy buck on some back-road while bombing around in their Tacoma.  You’ll hear it once, and you’ll hear it again, friends – a lot about hunting deer has to do with being in the right place at the right time.  It may sound cliché, but it sure has helped me feel better about myself for the last few years.  Though it has me wondering:  How many years of being in the wrong place does it take?

The evening hunt came quickly enough, and my brother and I found ourselves hunting a particular segment of woods near Farmington that had a beautiful hardwood forest predominantly maple, beech, and oak.  Although the wind had stripped most of their beautiful autumn-colored leaves, it also took with them the helicopter-like maple-seeds, beech nuts, and acorns.  Deer love beech nuts and acorns, and they were strewn everywhere across the leaf-matted forest floor.   

We hiked in to this place together, my brother led the way and I brought up the rear with a climbing tree-stand strapped to my back.  Due to the slight rain we were able to slip quietly along in the cool wet woods which offered an increasingly dark ambiance for us to search with our eyes.  We jumped noiselessly over the fallen foliage and made our way deeper in to the woods, all along searching for an agreeable place to situate my tree-stand.

After finally finding a promising stand of hardwoods where a modest amount of land could be surveyed while 35’ in the tree, my brother came to a stop and we began talking in hushed tones.  We were discussing something like how long the hunt would last, when we both heard a faintly audible -crack!- nearby.  We both cast our looks in the direction the sound seemed to come from, behind a patch of nine of ten firs 20 yards away.  The sound repeated itself two or three more times then silence.  I gave my brother a glance and continued holding my breath, casting my look back towards the firs.  –Crack!- -Snap!-  I distinctly remember my brother leaning real close to me and whispering, “That’s either a deer or a human.”

We waited ten long and quiet minutes before hearing it again, a small cracking of twigs and unmistakable movement amongst the leaves.  Then silence once again. 

The sound coming from the other side of the softwoods continued to drift to the two of us every five or so minutes, with a lapse of silence alternating in-between.  After 20 long minutes my brother whispered that he was moving along, opposite the direction of the noise, in order to get the hunt going while time was still left in the evening.  I then found myself alone, with a 35 pound tree-stand still on my back, still confounded by this relentless interruption of perfect silence.  

As I have said before, I grew up in the more Northern regions of Maine where the deer are big, but sparse; waiting an extended period of time for even a small chance at a deer is something I have long since got in the habit of.  The problem was, I had a tree-stand on my back, and shifting my weight from one leg to the other didn’t seem to ease the burden.  Fifteen minutes after my brother left, I slipped the straps off my shoulders and eased (as silently as possible), the “light-weight” metal configuration onto the ground.  

With no further evidence of the animal, a silence of seven or eight minutes made me anxious.  Probably against my better judgment, I began to set up the tree stand around the birch I had chosen earlier.  Putting this thing together consists of putting the lower stage up to the tree and connecting a cable around the back side.  Then you must do the same for the upper stage that you sit on.  There are cables, frames, pins, and hooks – all of which are extremely noisy in contrast to the rustic overtones of nature.  I had only begun setting up the lower stage when I heard that noise again, causing me to glance behind and grab my rifle from where it rested against a tree.  I expected the animal to become visible at some point while it made noise behind the firs.  I got more anxious by the minute for the chance to indentify the creature.

As I stood there in the regained silence, the rain started to poor down, heavy now, all around me.  I had given up on getting the tree stand put together in order to focus my attention on what was making all the obsessive noise.  I decided to use the heavier rain-fall to my advantage and walked slowly along as the constant patter the rain made with the leaves drowned out the disturbance of my footsteps.  Enticed by the thought of identifying the animal, I crept along the outside of the fir-stand, keeping low and taking only soft footsteps carefully placed on the sponge-like pad of leaves.  I kept 20 meters away and continued to round the corner until I had a sight in to the fir-cage that once held the animal I was looking for.  There was no perceivable animal that could have made the noise.  I cursed, thinking I had been intrigued for the last half hour by a squirrel jumping around.  After walking up behind protective stand of fir, the ground told a story of its own.  Every foot and a half there were trenches dug in to the leaves, reminding me of my mother’s garden as a child, when I would devastate the freshly tilled soil looking for worms.  These holes had been from a deer sniffing and digging around for some acorns or beech nuts.  And he probably never even knew I was around until I made the move to see him!  It was like Pooh-bear with his head stuck in the honey-jar.  A large, deep foot-print confirmed my thoughts; I had just sat in on a big buck’s supper.   

I learned something that day: if you don’t see deer very often, and you think there may be an unexpecting one in the area, your chances are probably better if you just stand there, heart-throbbing, heavy-breathing, and nose-whistling until the animal decides to show itself.   I stared at the foot-print as if it was the fossil of a giant creature that I had the chance of seeing, but was now extinct.  After contacting my brother I told him what I witnessed, and he responded, “Yup, I just saw a buck fly by me through the trees, just out of shot.”

Damn, I thought. Skunked again. 

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