During hunting season, I wake up sometime around 4 a.m. whether I set an alarm or not. Even if I go to bed late, I rise like the living dead and wander the house half-conscious as the dogs follow me around jockeying for a spot on the line-up. No dogs are coming along for deer hunts, of course. They find this fact incredibly depressing and convey an air of disgust. Retriever melancholy, I live it a lot the first couple weeks of November and again in the spring during turkey season.
Fitting any weekday hunt in is tough for busy, working families. Some hunters take time off just before and during the rut and immerse themselves into the process. They shut everything else out expect critical stuff. Sometimes this tactic is successful, but with alarming regularity, the hunter that has put very little time or effort in ends up with a massive whitetail buck on his wall instead.
This may seem totally random, but it’s probably not. The more we hunt, the more we are prone to being busted by big bucks, even if we don’t know it. The guy that gets permission to hunt a property that hasn’t been hunted is more likely to run into an unpressured, relaxed buck that walks by at 3:30 p.m. on a sunny day.
I do my best to not “over hunt” my spots. This year I have one that has been untouched thus far. I saved it for gun season, because it’s always a logistical nightmare and immediate lethality is highly advised. That means a shoulder shot with a big chunk of lead to anchor the deer right in his tracks. Tracking an arrow shot deer in that morass of swamp and fences is not fun. Maybe I’ll hit that one Saturday morning if the wind is right.
Earlier this week, I had the go-ahead for a morning deer hunt. The forecast said the wind was almost perfect for a stand where I saw a big buck last week. The kids were on a 2-hour fog delay, which assured that it would be even easier to pull off; I could get home and still take the kids to school without bothering somebody else to do it for me. An advanced tactic for keeping spouses and, well, pretty much everybody else happy.
I had prepared everything the night before – in fact, I was better prepared than any other hunt this season. I guess you could say I had my game face on. I just had that feeling.
I shuffled to the front door and let the dogs out. I could see my wife’s Suburban needed the windows scraped, so I started it up to run the defrost and got to work on the glass. The dogs doing dog things in the lawn while I did good husband things to the vehicle. I knew if I was going to hunt, I was already running late.
A heavy layer of frost covered the landscape and I imagined the crunchy ground underneath my Muck boots as I entered the domain of one of the wariest animals on Earth. I thought about the wind shifting slightly out of the southeast at about 8 a.m. (according to the hourly forecast) and the thought of bouncing deer butts and flagging white tails came to mind. It looked like one of the best deer hunting mornings of the year so far, and yet a feeling of apprehensiveness consumed me.
I had a lot of writing to get caught up on and leaves that needed to be dealt with - grass that could use one last mow, etc. I figured I shouldn’t go. Not if I was going to do the right thing. But man, did I want to. Missing another morning in the woods gave me a taste of what the dogs experience when I Ieave them at home.
I looked up at the pre-dawn sky and the first thing that caught my eye was a gleaming satellite headed southwest. The air was crisp and the alleged fog that required a 2-hour school delay was off fogging someplace else. The old Suburban has a new chirp or two coming from under the hood when the engine is cold. I tell myself it’s an idler pulley or some other non-critical function. Sure it is, sure.
The neighbor across the street drove off to his hunting spot as he has been every morning for a couple weeks - since I’ve been paying attention anyhow. Man was I running late. I decided I wasn’t going and relaxed a bit.
On the upside, I didn’t spook any deer and let one of my better spots relax another day. It was getting a little “hot” anyway. Meaning, I was probably hunting that farm too often at the same times allowing the deer to pattern me. That’s what I told myself as I harried the dogs back into the house.
I felt let-down. I knew I was going to miss the warming sun and the shafts of light bursting through the canopy like fireworks exploding in super slow-motion. The sound of tiny rodents (deer hunters insert choice cuss word here) doing their best rhino imitation as they scamper through the woods sending chills down the hunter’s spine. We peer into the shady understory, looking for ivory-colored antlers only to see the striped fur of a tiny chipmunk.
Some things I missed are fascinating in an oddly-voyeuristic way: The unrelenting procession of commuters adding “highway miles” to their vehicles, the squeal of overworked school bus brakes and 737s stacked up overhead on approach into Midway.
It was another morning I didn’t hear the unmistakable sound of a 250-pound mammal slipping through the countryside like a ghost or the subsonic hoof falls of a big buck calculating his every move with incredible precision and efficiency. I didn’t get to hear the hollow “thunk” sound an arrow makes when it strikes the elusive target.
Perhaps Tuesday morning would have been my morning and I would have crossed paths with the buck of my dreams, but I’ll never know. A couple of them hang over my head as I type this. It doesn’t happen very often and in fact, it may never happen to me again. This may seem random, but it’s probably not.
Jay Anglin writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Argus. Email him at email@example.com.