I ran into a long-time friend at church last week. We did the whole hugging, “how are you?”, “we need to get together sometime,” thing, before going back to our seats to listen to the sermon.
Afterwards, there was a special lunch in the Family Life Center and I found myself in the line waiting to avail myself of the delicious food. I heard a familiar voice behind me and turned to see my friend again. Lisa made a comment about not seeing me for so many years then not being able to avoid me.
We both laughed. I asked where she’s living now and what she does with her life. You know, the usual stuff you ask a friend whose life has drifted in a different direction than yours.
After a few minutes, we concentrated on filling our plates and parted company, she to sit with her mom and friends, me to sit with my family.
Later that day, as I was sitting in my deer stand, a piece of my conversation with Lisa came back to mind. When I asked about what she does, one of the things she mentioned was “hunt”.
“Really?” I asked. “What do you hunt?”
From there it was one deer hunting friend talking to another deer hunting friend. I told her how many deer we see around our hometown now. There were none here when we were kids. She said she sees a lot where she hunts, but there are also many times when she sees nothing.
I threw out one of those dumb lines, “I always see something, or at least I want to.”
And that’s what came to mind after sitting in the deer stand that evening.
My ladder stand leans against an oak tree beside a field on the hill.
I looked down at the clearing. Four-toed tracks showed me where a flock of turkeys had walked by, choosing that spot to roll in the dirt. They dust themselves to scratch their itches. At the same time it helps control parasites that may dwell among their feathers.
A single turkey feather drifted toward my stand. I hoped to find it when I got down to go home. I’d stick it in one of Annie’s little vases to give to a grandchild, and take the opportunity to talk to them about nature.
My bow tags allow me to collect a pair of turkeys so it’s possible I might add a little something extra to Thanksgiving dinner. Some of the attendees would love that and it would give me an excuse to talk hunting and fishing with Uncle Pat, Cousin Bobby, and anybody else who is interested.
Some of the youngsters might try eating wild turkey for the first time. Maybe that will kindle an interest in hunting or nature.
A sound out in the woods caught my ear. Probably a squirrel or bird. I strained my eyes but couldn’t pick out anything. I heard something else, or thought I did. Faintly, faintly. Was it real or just my imagination?
An owl hooted in the woods west of me. A great horned owl. An answer came from the trees to the south.
I once saw a great horned owl swoop down in front of me as I drove up to a country crossroad. Wow, I thought, then heard a squeal. I looked to the left as I start through the crossing and saw the huge wings flapping hard as the bird struggled to take flight with a young rabbit in his talons.
Wow, I thought again.
Another owl called, but it wasn’t a great horned owl. The, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” sound told me it was a barred owl as surely as if I saw it with my eyes.
In the spring I might take my barred owl call out early in the morning to try to locate a tom turkey. A roosting tom during spring breeding season will sometimes “shock gobble” at the sound of an owl, a crow, a cow, or a dog. I’ve even heard them reply to a car horn. Heck, they’ll answer just about anything. Most hunters stick to owl or crow calls to keep from alerting animals whose thoughts aren’t muddled by the desire to make little turkeys.
My mind turned to a little trick I used to play back when I was working at Wal-Mart in Columbia, Missouri while I attended college. You see, I discovered early that I could do a better imitation of a hen turkey with my own vocal cords than some hunters could with a store-bought call.
I worked in the sporting goods department so, when I had my shelves stocked and the customer flow stalled a little, I’d give a few loud hen squawks. Before long a man would walk back to me. He would have that “outdoorsy” look and a smile on his face. Usually he was there to get some kind of turkey hunting equipment or license, or just to talk hunting. Mr. Walton may have preferred the former, but I was equally happy with the latter.
There! There was that sound again! Something was sneaking through the woods. Maybe two somethings. Maybe more. I still couldn’t see anything though.
A red tail hawk swooped over the clearing, low enough that I could see him looking, searching the ground for a mouse or snake.
I heard a, “Kronk!” coming from the pond east of me. I knew it was the great blue heron that sometimes took off when I skirted the pond on my way to the stand. I’d wondered where he was that day. He must have been fishing somewhere else.
I heard the sound in the woods again. It was clearer now. I knew what it was before the yearling deer skipped out into the clearing, followed in a minute by its momma, who took her time looking for danger before stepping gingerly into the field.
Before long another doe stepped out with her two youngsters. The five grazed on the tender grass that has sprouted since Eddie’s farmhand disced the field to knock down the weeds with this fall’s wheat crop in mind.
The does looked up from their meal and the three yearlings stopped playing to look toward the woods.
A little buck leaped out and looked around. I picked up my binoculars and focused in the dimming light. The young buck was a unicorn. He had a single spike about a foot long on his right side. Try as I might, I couldn’t find so much as a button on the left pedicel (the bump out of which antlers grow). Unicorn bucks aren’t unheard of, but usually grow two antlers the second year and everyone thereafter.
He moved toward the does.
Another buck came out of the woods. Surprisingly, he too had only one antler…on the right side. His single antler had a fork and was a little longer than the other buck’s, but my binos couldn’t find any evidence of a left antler on him either. It occurred to me that the two might be brothers.
He moved toward the two ladies at a quick walk. As he neared them, the does edged away. They weren’t ready for his kind of attention yet. He moved to the unicorn buck and the two bobbed their heads and danced about as if they were going to spar.
My thought was that I might finally get to see two bucks fighting in real life, but I didn’t actually want to…at least not these two. I was concerned that the two single-antlered bucks had the same antler missing. If they fought, they stood a good chance of poking each other’s eyes. That could be bad.
The fight didn’t materialize as two more does came out of the woods, accompanied by their young-of-the-year.
With an abundance of potential girlfriends, the bucks broke off their intense negotiations.
What was that?! I caught a glimpse through the foliage on the big sweetgum that dominates the clearing. A deer leg? Then movement a little above it. Bone! There was antler on this one’s head, and more of it than the other two. He was more heated up than them too.
The new buck ran behind the tree in the direction of the other deer. The does were having none of it and circled away as he came out where I could see him. He had two forked antlers. He was bigger than the other two bucks, but not a lot.
As he pursued the does back behind the tree, I heard a loud, growling grunt from him, the clearest one I’ve ever heard in nature.
The does came back out from behind the sweetgum and trotted quickly around the pond east of me, their young ones trying to keep up. The buck trotted after them, reminding me of the amorous skunk Pepe Le Pew from the old Warner Brothers cartoons. “Wait for me, my little one. We will make beautiful music together.”
The two smaller one-horned bucks followed too, just in case.
I chuckled to myself when it occurred to me that I’d just had three bucks in front of me but only two bucks’ worth of antler.
The light had faded but, hunters know, you don’t leave the blind just because it’s too late to shoot. You wait to make sure you don’t alert anything that might be out there. Scare a deer tonight, and he may not come back tomorrow.
I carefully unloaded the bow and waited and watched.
I saw a few deer-sized shadows moving across the clearing but there was no clear evidence whether they had antlers or not. Of course, the size of the shadows and the way they moved gave me a pretty good idea of whether they were does or bucks, but no solid proof.
Eventually I lowered the bow and climbed down slowly and quietly. I felt my way down into the gully I use to access the stand and only then turned on my red headlamp. I’ve heard that four legged animals can’t see red light, but I don’t like to take chances. Pulling the hat off my head I held the light lower. It helped visibility while making me feel that the lighter spot of darkness I figure the deer must see would be harder for the colorblind critters to spot.
A few frogs plopped in the pond as I made my way past it. Crickets sang in the darkness around me. The light failed to illuminate a branch that popped up when I stepped on one end, rustling in the leaves. I froze, listening. Nothing. Animals hear stuff falling and breaking all day long. They will pay attention but, if they don’t see anything, or hear a sound pattern that makes them too suspicious, they’ll quickly go back to whatever they were doing.
As I neared the edge of the woods I memorized the path ahead and turned out the light, feeling my way to the opening through my hunting boots. At the edge I waited and listened before taking a tentative step out. I listened and listened some more then took another step. I made my way slowly and cautiously to the yard.
I relaxed once the dogs saw me and barked an alarm. I made some noises I knew they could identify as me, but without alerting wildlife.
It was the end of another successful deer hunt. I didn’t get a deer; didn’t fire a shot; didn’t even consider it. Shooting a deer is only one of the things that can make a hunt successful. All the things I had heard; all the thoughts I’d had; and everything I’d seen combined to make it a very good hunt.
I had seen so much, not just deer, with my eyes and ears, and in my mind.
It was a great day to be a hunter.
I bet Lisa knows exactly what I mean.