With the archery season now a thing of the past, our 2012 deer seasons have come and gone. To review my seasons personally: I should have scouted more.
Surely the areas I hunt have fewer deer than they did previously but I can’t truthfully call them rare here. Maybe relatively rare. I’ll go with that.
What I did not do, despite indications that I should, is seek new spots this year. I hunted from old favorite spots that have produced in the past, but have shown signs of decline in recent years.
I know many will say that there are fewer deer, at least across northern areas of the state, and I won’t disagree. My own personal records indicate as much.
According to my logs, my peak season was 1995, as far as deer sightings go. I saw more deer while I was afield that year than in any other. And I’ve been chasing deer across the Northwoods for over 30 years, so it’s not a small sample.
I bow hunted several times in September that year without seeing a deer. I racked-up three bear sightings and was inspired to begin applying for a bear kill tag. In October and November, things heated up.
Deer sightings became common, as did missed opportunities. A very large deer (I couldn’t see the rack) approached my position one evening and noticed something was amiss, though the wind favored me.
As the deer stood about 40 yards out in some balsams trying to destroy my ear drums with voluminous blows, I held tight, not wanting to give my location. Long minutes passed. Darkness came and I wanted to leave. The deer was tenacious, though, and kept blowing and stomping.
I’d been busted in such fashion many times, but had never, and still haven’t, had a deer behave that way for so long.
I quietly searched my pocket and pack for a flashlight as I listened to the rant, eager to depart as soon as the deer would shut up. No flashlight. With no appreciable moonlight, I was going to be walking out in pitch dark.
Finally frustrated enough I screamed, “You win!” and heard the deer retreat into the balsams. Luckily, the walk out was a fairly short one.
Another time that fall, a tall five-pointer showed, looked at a scrape about 40 yards from my position and continued toward me, fairly quickly. Soon it was a mere 10 yards out, standing broadside, but well to my left. I turned my body as I drew my bow and released an arrow.
Imagine my surprise, and the buck’s, as said arrow planted in the ground near the buck’s front hooves. My mind raced as I analyzed the shot, then I realized my left kneecap hurt a little bit. The lower limb of my bow had struck it, throwing the arrow off-target.
The buck analyzed the situation faster than I, and departed to a safe distance as I pulled another arrow from my quiver. It was like that, that fall. Close, but no cigar. My luck did eventually change.
The gun opener brought a buck to my blind about 10 a.m. I had heard a shot and, a few moments later, I heard the thump of running hooves to the southeast.
Shortly, a buck crested a small knoll over that way, walking straight toward me – and a scent bomb soaked with estrous urine. The buck’s eyes were wild. I dropped the deer, a four-pointer, with a neck shot.
On the drag out, I paused to rest and was looking at the buck, wondering why it had blood in its ear. Closer inspection revealed a fresh hole in that ear. I recalled the shot I’d heard just before I saw the buck.
Back-tracking that deer revealed that it had run at least a quarter of a mile before stopping and turning to walk toward my stand and the scent bomb. I guess some things are more important than a hole in the ear and getting shot at.
Interestingly, that deer came in down-wind of me as well as the scent bomb.
Thanksgiving day 1995, I got a five-pointer (not the one I missed with my bow) while hunting near my cousin Bruce, who came running with his tag at the shot.
Some might recall that we were on the cusp of a brutal winter that fall. Record snow and record cold. I wonder about its impending arrival and the effect on various species, especially deer. For me, some of that impending brutal cold likely helped.
I was on stand for some late season bow hunting Dec. 8, with the temp a not-too-bad 15 degrees or so. The wind was light that afternoon, though it was picking up. A light snow was falling.
A nervous doe suddenly balked as it approached and then retreated to a swamp. Soon, I could see why. A large buck, a wide nine-pointer, was standing about 50 yards out. It stood there just chewing its cud.
I had about 20 minutes of daylight left. Often, deer, and especially big bucks, simply don’t move before dark that time of year, unless it’s quite cold. It wasn’t that cold yet, but the temp was to plummet that night.
Of course, the buck was content to stay out of reach, chewing its cud. I planned to wait for a while, then grunt in hopes of getting the deer closer when quitting time grew close. I waited because I really didn’t want the grunt to allow the deer a chance to pinpoint me. It was a good choice.
A pair of nubbin bucks approached from the opposite direction and began jostling each other near me. They were happily unaware of the buck, but the buck was quite aware of them. And interested in their “fight.”
One moment, the nine-pointer was placidly chewing its cud, the next it was circling my position and coming up on the nubbin bucks from behind, its rack lowered in a menacing fashion.
One of the buck fawns noticed sooner than the other and sidled off as the buck approached. The other got some unfriendly tines pressed into its hind quarters. No goring, just a shove, but a pointed one. Junior wisely, and quickly, moved off. Meanwhile, I was drawing my bow.
As the buck came to a stop, I released my arrow. The shot was true and the buck was soon skidding to a halt maybe 30 yards into its lurching get-away. The two nubbin bucks watched the scene with interest, but didn’t stay to thank me when I descended from the stand.
The bottom dropped out on the temp that night and we were whisked into one miserable winter. I remember using a kerosene heater to thaw a garage full of hanging deer so I could process them. In the end, I spent more money on kerosene than I would have spent having the deer processed by someone else.
As fun as that season was, it doesn’t stand alone except that I saw more deer that fall than any other. It was a good one during the gun season at our camp, Muutka Lodge, but no record-breaker. We got five deer among six regular hunters, and one out-of-camp hunter’s deer was hanging from the meat pole at camp, filling it out nicely.
Really, we should get that to happen more often – it makes for nice pictures. Who wants to rent space on the meat pole?
During that 1995 season, I hunted many different spots, scouted a lot and spent a lot of time in the woods. I think many, myself included, spend less time on these things.
It could just be that I’ve grown older, as have the guys I hunt with, but I think there’s more taking up that time than there was even fewer than 20 years ago.
I don’t even mean work. I work full time now as I did then, like many others. It’s other foolishness, I guess. Maybe it is just fewer deer causing people to be less interested.
Many seem disgruntled – including myself, to a degree. I miss the days when deer seemed to be everywhere, except I don’t miss clinging nervously to the steering wheel while travelling area highways.
Large predators, notably bears and wolves, have increased in numbers and we’ve had some very liberal deer seasons – I’ll admit I’ve personally taken advantage of many free and low-cost tags to fill my freezer.
Our state also saw a boom of baiting and recreational feeding in the ‘80s and ‘90s – activities that seem to be in decline now. Did the extra food expand the carrying capacity of our range, supporting many deer in areas that would normally support few?
I’ve seen evidence that baiting is likely keeping deer on range that’s normally not favored.
When baiting and feeding were temporarily banned after the 2002 discovery of chronic wasting disease, the area I hunted during the gun season suddenly had far less deer sign.
Primarily pine plantations with swamp, the area offers much for cover but relatively little for forage. It got me wondering how many bait piles might have been out there previously.
I’m not coming out favoring baiting or opposing it. Personally, I don’t care that much whether it’s allowed or not.
The argument that baiting makes deer more nocturnal holds water, I believe. Still, it’s widely practiced and often with success. Hunting pressure makes deer more nocturnal, period. That I certainly believe.
When our gun season areas routinely saw drives, including some by us, the deer sometimes would barely move at all, even at night, during gun season. Those deer drives, at least the ‘en-masse’ ones, seem to be fading into the past to some degree, which is fine by me – though I’d not suggest completely dismissing it as a tactic.
However you hunt, you’ll have my support as long as you’re within the boundaries of the law. Hunters have largely, and pretty effectively, policed themselves, I think. I hope we continue to do so.
Meanwhile, as we wait for that herd to rebound, keep in mind that the ‘powers that be’ are also us. Do those surveys when the state asks for your input. Encourage kids, and others, to tag along and learn.
And if you’re not seeing a lot of success, I feel your pain. I suffered my first ‘skunk’ since 1991 this past season.
But I think we have some good biologists in place, and, so far, it seems they’re still mainly hunters themselves – let’s hope it stays that way – so they have some insight on our points of view.
It could be better and I believe it will be. I don’t know if the herd will ever bae as large as it once was, but maybe it shouldn’t be.
Meanwhile – we scout. Even if you’re sitting on your stand listening to wolves howl (which has happened to me), coyotes yipping, are seeing too many other hunters, or find yourself counting trees to pass the time, keep looking. And, of course, share your stories and opinions.
Personally, I had fun with hunting season this year. It was mild and sitting in the woods was nice. Camp was fun, as always, and my dad did well. Really, that’s an OK season. I got nothing, but I also know I could have scouted more.
Craig Turk may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org