Usually the ultimate way to tell whether or not a hunting trip was a success is whether or not the hunter(s) bagged their game. For many people getting that critter is the best part of the hunt too, but I have to tell you it’s not how I judge my hunts anymore. Sure I like to go out afield and get what I am after, but lately I have come to realize there are some other things that may be so much more important than bagging a trophy, or dinner, or hopefully both at once. Right off the bat – let me tell you – yes I just went hunting, and no I did not shoot anything. Before some of you start thinking, oh boy here we go with another one of those sad excuses for a hunting story where the hunter is about to make all sorts of excuses as to why he didn’t get anything, well this isn’t going to be that kind of a story. If on the other hand you are thinking, okay then, this will be one of those stories where the hunter tries deflect any look at his hunting prowess, or lack of it, this is not that kind of a story either; you can critisize me all you want - I am not the great white hunter by a longshot.
What this story is though, is one about things on a hunting trip that really can be better than actually bagging the game. You see, eve if I had gotten a deer this opening day, I can assure you there really would have been at least a few things that would have been better than that on this trip, and I am not kidding you either.
This hunting trip started out right. I scouted out a hunting area last year for this year’s trip. Yep, it was just short of a year ago, by about a week, when I found this spot. Lots of deer sign was to be seen. Easy access from the paved roads was available. There were not too many hunters there last year (granted it was at the end of opening day week when I checked it out) There was enough parking. It was far enough from NYC and Albany to promise not to get too congested with hunters, yet it was not to far to drive comfortably from my home on Long Island. No special permits were needed to hunt there, just the regular licenses and such. Since I first went there, I went there again at least a few times to scout deer sign. Last time I was there before this current deer season, I went with my son Brendan. He got to see some scrapes, and rubs, well used deer trails, and other deer sign. He also got to bag his first small game on that trip in the form of a squirrel. He was happy and so was I. He was also ready for his first deer hunt this year and that was good.
I planned out the actual deer trip so that we would leave the day before opening season. I was going to pick Brendan up right after school and head right to the hunting grounds. As it turned out he misunderstood me when I discussed the plans with him. Brendan told me he had thought I did not want to go opening day because this was on state land, and the knucklehead factor is increased drastically on opening day due to all hunters afield. I apparently had not made it clear that I wanted to hunt both opening day with him and the two days after Thanksgiving the next week. My mistake, thinking too much and talking about it too much, so I confused him. One of my problems. Brendan made plans to spend opening day with a fried to celebrate the friend’s birthday. I was pretty down about that, but life goes on, and so did I with my hunting plans.
I planned to go to work that Friday, then drive upstate NY as soon as I left work. I figured I sneak out early for a change, about 2PM. Now some of you know I work for the federal government, and that means your tax dollars pay my salary. I know I am supposed to give a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, and I virtually always do so I figured this once I would do what most of the people in my office do on Fridays – disappear by 2PM. As it turned out I was there till after 5PM working hard. When I left, I was immediately stuck in a traffic jam, and I was getting fired up about that. I have been getting better with my temper though, so as opposed to what I used to do, I decided to stay calm and drove to my favorite pastry shop for a cup of java and a piece of pastry. I drove through the midtown Manhattan traffic up into the 40s when it eased off, and I pretty much sailed to Amsterdam Avenue between 110th and 11th, to the Hungarian pastry shop. This is a sort of Bohemian college hangout. It has had excellent coffee and great baked good each time I have been there. This time was no exception. I had two cups of coffee, refill taste as good as the first (a rare thing) and the refills are free (also rare in some places). The chocolate layer cake I had was scrumptious too. I was living large, and enjoying my self marvelously.
Then it was back into the Ford Taurus, and off to the happy hunting grounds (those in this life). Okay, so my son was not coming along, but at least I had not blown my stack before leaving NYC. There was almost no traffic to speak of on the way upstate. I made good time through the rest of NYC, and through Westchester to the Taconic Parkway. I virtually sailed along once on that road. I got the hunting area, a Multiple Use Area, in the Lafeyetteville State Forest, at about 8:30PM. There was no daylight, as I had originally planned, so no chance of marking my selected spot with orange tape, but I was happy to be there. I was a bit concerned though that there were already three cars parked in two parking areas, each fitting only 3 or 4 cars each. The promise of lots of hunters the opening morning weighed heavily on me, and I almost decided to move to another more isolated area. As it was I drove to the nearest town, Pine Plains, stopped at a tavern, and had a Heineken. I was going to have two or three, then thought, I had better not drive on unfamiliar roads after drinking too many. I stopped at one, figuring one would be enough to help me sleep, and I headed back to the parking area. Yep, you guessed it, I was going to sleep in the Ford. I got there just before 10PM, and I rooted around in my bag getting my gear ready while sitting in the back seat. Hunting clothes I needed got tossed onto the driver’s seat, gear I needed under the back windshield, and stuff I would not need thrown onto the front passenger seat. That done, I got sort of comfortable at about 10PM and hit the hay.
Well hay was not quite the right word for the back seat in a Ford Taurus. I tried to get comfortable, but I guess the combination of being cramped on there, along with two cups of very good but strong coffee just a few hours before meant that one beer I had would not be enough to get rid of the edge. Now don’t get me wrong, I do not usually drink to sleep, I would not think of it except on night like the one in question, especially considering my sleeping arrangements. As it turned out, a six pack would have been in order, too bad I had not thought of buying one and bringing it back to the Ford with me! I most have tossed and turned about a hundred times, and gotten at least a couple of cramps in each leg, before I fell asleep. That had to be at about 1:00. Then at 2:00AM, another vehicle, an SUV, of hunters arrived. These guys kept the car running for over an hour, with the headlights on. After not being able to take much more, I bellowed to shut it down, and was thankful they had heard me through my car’s closed windows; or maybe they just got the idea through divine intervention – whatever, it was back to sleep for me, a fitful sleep of tossing and turning and aching. Ford Taurus back seats were made for a younger crowd than me.
Then I woke up at east two more times to relieve myself. I had forgotten to take my BP med the in the morning, and had taken it just before I tried to fall asleep. It contains a water pill, and it had me going through the night. Oh well, live and learn, but you would have thought that at one plus a half century I would have learned by now. Back to sleep, and the next thing I knew my alarm was going off, it was 0400 (4:00AM), and it was dark and chilly outside the Ford, but not all that much of a chill. I hoped it was cold enough to have the deer up and moving. The thought did occur to me though that there would certainly be enough hunters to move them even if it were none too cold. I was soon ready to go, stripping in my back seat, and putting on my hunting clothing. I was dressed warm enough, but not to heavily to sweat a lot, and I had easily removable layers.
I got out of the car, and saw two other guys already up, these were the ones in this parking spot before I had arrived. The other two guys from the SUV, the ones that got there at 2:00Am, then got up also. We all greeted one another, and everyone was from down in NYC except me from LI. I asked if anyone wanted some fresh bread for breakfast, I had picked up a nice loaf the day before at lunch. Everyone declined, and busied themselves readying for their hunts. After about 15 minutes of chatting one of the guys from the original car offered me some tea. He had a small Sterno stove, and had boiled up a pot of water. He gave me some tea with lemon, sweetened with honey. Now that was one heck of a nice way to start the hunting day. While we drank tea and talked, one of the guys mentioned that since there were so many other hunters around, he was happy it was shotgun only territory. Whoops, I had my Marlin 336 in .35 Remington all ready to hunt. Luckily I also had my Remington 870 as a backup in case something happened to the Marlin. I had hunted just north of here last year, and just north of here is rifle country. I had assumed this was too, shame on me. Lucky for me the other guy had mentioned this, but man would I miss the Marlin with its scope. I am a great shot with the shotgun, but my eyes are not as good as even a couple of years ago, so the scope would have been a plus. Oh well..
Soon we were all off to hunt, everyone heading more or less in the same direction, but I was surprised later on to realize I never saw one of these 4 other hunters all day long. I did see at least another 10 or so hunters, maybe a dozen head off up the hill the same way these guys went. The area was about 720 acres altogether, about half of it on each side of the road where we were parked. My guess was there were also plenty of guys on the other half of it too. I got to my spot, only about 1/6 of a mile, if that much, from the road. I had scouted well. No need to climb a mountain for me. I had a clearing surrounded by medium growth woods with lots of deer trails coming into the clearing. I was ready and any movement by other hunters would likely have deer coming to me. In fact, when still dark, I heard one deer walk by me probably not 25 yards away, it was apparently following a hunter’s steps, probably whatever scent trail he had left. My anticipation of a great hunt was sky high.
I settled into my spot, content despite my horrendous night’s sleep, and despite the fact that Brendan was not beside me. I was wide awake but not from cold, I was ready to hunt. I waited as the hour and a half until legal shooting time (sunrise) was to arrive. More hunters passed me by in the darkness with flashlights. None too close to me, apparently all following a trail to my right, some distance off. Well the sun came up, and I saw nothing but some more hunters. By the time it hit 10Am, I saw about 3 hunters leave the area. A few more had left by 1100AM. None had deer in tow despite many shots I had heard fired since about ten minutes before legal hunting time. Two guys Is aw leaving totally amazed me. One had on all camouflage except for an orange baseball cap. Another had on all camo, absolutely no blaze orange or other bright color, and he carried a brown day pack, deer brown at that. Knucklehead alert indeed. Judging by the shots I had heard, there were other varieties of knuckleheads in the woods too because I had heard as many as nine rapid blasts from apparently the same gun (and legal hunting shotguns can hold only 5 rounds, though I suppose it could have been a semi-auto handgun).
As for me, I was out for the day, no going to my car or to town for lunch, I had all I needed with me; if need be I could live a few days on what I had in my day pack. I heard a couple of deer run through the woods near me, either just before other hunters walked out or right after they walked out, but I was not lucky enough to see the deer to even hope at a shot. Near noon, nature called. I got up and pretty quietly walked to a spot about 300 yards from my stand. I did what I had to do, and as I was headed back to my stand by a slightly different route, I saw an orange jacket spread on the ground. I thought someone must have forgotten it. I walked over to investigate and as I neared I saw a hunter in tree-bark camo sitting against a tree on the opposite side of the tree from my approach. I walked loudly, he did not budge. I coughed loudly, he did not even twitch. I spoke out, “another hunter in the woods” in a booming voice, again nothing. Not until I was next to the tree did he acknowledge me and my approach. We talked a while, and he was pleasant enough. He was hunting with his two sons, and gave me a general idea of where they were; and they were aware of my stand. I left and went back to my stand promising not to shoot anywhere in his direction which was over my right shoulder and up hill about 200 yards from my spot. About 15 minutes later, I thought I heard a deer over my right shoulder. Five minutes more and I heard a loud bang. Not another noise except someone walking in the woods. It was the man to whom I had spoken. Go figure, I do the dirty deed not 40 yards from his stand (for which I apologized to him not realizing he was hidden there in his camo), and he bags a deer. It was a fork horn buck. So much for deer being spooked by human waste odors. Apparently this young buck had been headed right toward my stand. Luckily it did not yet put me in the line of fire when the gentleman took aim and shot. Happily he had used a good deal of sense in picking when to shoot – always a concern on crowded opening day public lands.
I sat at my stand for a coupe hours more, until about 1:30PM. Then I got up, took down my orange marker tape from some trees to use at another spot, and I was about to head off when a fair sized, but small racked, buck went bounding by directly in front of me at a slow trot, through thick undergrowth. I could have shot at it. I do not like running shots, but at about 25 yards, and at its slow trot, I probably could have hit it easily. The thing is the road was not too far behind it, and the parking area was in the same direction that it was moving, not 20 yards to my left. I let it go. All those other hunters who had left the woods were potentially I at that spot. I tried to sit it out and coax it out of the woods with some doe bleats and buck grunts. I heard it in there, it had run only about 15 yards then stopped, but it was still too risky a shot even if I would have gotten a clear view of it. I decided to pass because of the safety issue. At about 2, I headed up the hill to look for another spot. I got to the top, about 900 feet in elevation, and found woods with lots of oaks and lots of acorns on the ground. I found one or two small glades and some deer trails and a couple of rubs; but I saw no deer. I did see a couple of squirrels and a rabbit. I almost stepped on the rabbit. In fact I stopped about three feet short of it, and when I stopped it bolted, until then unseen by me. Sure surprised me, and it was thrill watching it bound off in fear for its life even though I meant it no harm at all, at least not with slugs loaded in my Remington 870 12 gauge. I found a likely looking spot to sit on stand. It was between a couple of rises where the land slopped down from each to my spot, where several deer trails converged. It was sort of a natural funnel that made it easy for the deer to go up or down the hills. There was a small glade at the spot and lots of deer sign like rubs and droppings. I stayed there until ½ hour before legal hunt time ended, then headed to the car with no deer tagged by me. I walked softly as I made my way down just in case I came across any deer. I have still hunted successfully before, for an overweight guy, I can walk through the woods and see a fair share of game, not because I am quiet but because I know how to walk without spooking the animals. It does not always work, but does often enough to allow me to know I can do it. Still I saw nothing but a lot of small birds that flitted all around me, ignoring me as they looked for their next meal. This had gone on all day while I was on my stands, but to be ignored by them as I walked by them, just a few feet away was great, especially since I was wearing a combo blaze orange/camo hunting coat and hat.
I was the first out of the woods back to the parking area of the crew I had met that morning. No other cars were there; though I had seen some from the mountainside earlier when I had seen the buck run by me. I guess those other hunters had left early, maybe with deer like the gentleman I had met in the woods. I wonder if his sons had any luck. In about 15 minutes, the gent who had offered me tea so many hours earlier that morning, and his hunting buddy were back. They had seen two does as they left the woods, that was it. They too had heard the rapid shooting and wondered about who had fired so many times. Our bet was, someone who was a poor shot, as opposed to the guy I heard shoot once and score. The guys from the SUV did not come down, and after a half hour or so of chatting with the other two guys, I decided to leave and head home. I had decided I could not bear another night in the Ford trying to sleep in the back seat. I will admit I had gotten 40 winks on my first stand, but I woke up with a crick in my back and neck. I ached all over from my hike with my pack, not because I could not normally do it, but because I had such a contorted uncomfortable night in the Taurus.
As I drove home I thought of my day. There were a lot of good things that happened this opening day of the deer season, and I had enjoyed an awful lot of them. There were also some things that could have been better, but I would not have missed the day just because I had to go it alone, or because I left late, or because of an uncomfortable night’s sleep, or because it was to warm, or because there were too many hunters around, or because things were just not right to perfection. Sometimes, it is as good as it is going to get and that is just fine even for a complainer like me. Of course, next week will be better, because Brendan will come along. I hope it will be as good as it can get ever, and he and I bag one, but I will gladly settle for his getting one and him skunking me. As a matter of fact, we will have to hunt sort of solo even though we will be together. Remember I had found out this was shotgun only territory; well I have only one shotgun! By the way, it is shotguns only as far as long guns go, handguns are also allowed, but I doubt I’ll hunt deer with one of my 9mm pistols; so while Brendan is hunting with the 870, I will be guiding – nothing more. Still if he bags a deer on his first deer hunt, I will not have needed to put my deer tag on anything to know, that is really as good as it gets. Yes there are a lot of things that can be better than bagging your game; but if I get lucky though, he will get one early, and he will leave his old man some time to hunt too. More on that hunt next week.
All the best,