Walking from a dirt road down into a hollow my 9 year old son, Nathan and I noted large deer tracks in the dirt. The slope was steep enough that the tracks were not clear and distinct. With each step the deer slid four or five inches the way we might slide downhill walking in snow.
"Did a big deer make these tracks, Dad?" Nathan asked.
"Yup. I would say he is a big one, Nate." I responded trying to figure out what monster could have made the tracks. The tracks of big deer are somewhat like signs of God's existence. We see the sign of their presence yet we may question their maker's existence because we have not seen or touched them. Somehow to me, almost mystically, confirmation of one is confirmation of the other.
Each deer season I try to do some things well and not make certain mistakes that significantly lower my chances of getting a deer. Over the years I have accepted that my ability to move quietly though the woods and see deer before they see me is almost non-existent. I have a couple of friends who do that very well…they know how deer think, can read the wind and topography such that if they go into the woods with the wind out of a certain direction, will be able to intercept deer as they move from bedding to feed areas. I equate that with being able to read a woman's mind. They would simply humbly point out that finding deer is much, much easier. One friend, Terry Mosher, I swear, can track deer over rocks, and can also see them standing still amidst the trees. Only once over the 17 years we have hunted together has he been skunked and I believe he spent most of that season in bed with the flu. I have learned more about the woods and hunting from Terry than from anyone I know.
I have thus comforted myself with hiking and moving about in the off-season but on opening day I settle into a blind that my 2 youngest, Emily and Nathan helped me build last year. Nathan who was then 8 found both doe and buck droppings as we passed through a hardwood clearing that bordered varying softwoods. We framed a small ground blind into a soft wood thicket at the top of a slope which looked 50-60 yards down into those hardwoods. I used a ground sheet to create a wind proof and waterproof proof shell around me to keep the wind out, and to keep my scent from blowing down to the clearing. Inside, I made a small bench and put in a blanket into the blind a few weeks before the season so that it would 'air out' of human scent. While hunting I wrap myself in the blanket for warmth and to block body scent from escaping. We thinned it out the woods immediately in front last year affording a reasonable view. On opening day last year I shot a doe at 6:00PM with my grandfather's Winchester 32 special. The deer was small enough that I easily dragged it out by myself. It weighed about 100 pounds.
This year Nathan and I visited the blind twice before the season. My friend Garry Theriault and I brought apples to the stands 3 weeks before the season On one occasion as I sat in the blind, directing Nathan to various point, I thought about creating a better view of any deer that might approach from the right. There was a small window Nathan created that allowed me a view of anything passing 20 yards before it would reach the clearing. We knocked down a few limbs and cleaned up the clearing trying to make the vista a bit wider. We finished each trip with a snack and an ice cream making the trip fun for him as well as me. Simply having any of the kids with me going into the woods is a delight. Garry as well passed up time with his own son to join me as we prepared our stands for the season . We built a tree stand bordering a swamp that somehow was the only tall object left standing after hurricane Juan. It is a great stand 25 feet up and has tremendous promise. Having company going into the woods brings certain joy and excitement whether it is Nathan and I, or Nathan and Garry. We see much which is locked in our memories for many years. The children bring a certain joy to going into the woods with us in that they always see different highlights. For them…frogs and chipmunks or moths and spiders that camouflage with tree bark are as good as seeing deer. It also takes me back a few years when I was 8 or 9.
On opening day this year Garry and I left the city by 5:00AM to be in our stands shortly after 6:00. It was cool but not cold. We were filled with the unmatchable anticipation of the first hours of the season. Opening morning was not totally uneventful . There was a glorious sunrise. I learned that my butt and knees were not in any way prepared to sit motionless for 4 hours. I also learned that a belly full of aging apple cider will produce certain cramps and noises audible to the deaf at distances up to 100yards. The cider was my failed attempt to offset the effects of my usual 2 coffees . I nonetheless expelled exactly 3 liters of fluid in the 4 hours between arriving in the blind and 10:30 when I packed it in for the morning.
Not discouraged, Garry and I returned to our respective blinds again at 1:30 in the afternoon after sandwiches, an hour nap and a short walk to look for sign.
The woods can be so deathly silent that you can hear absolutely anything that could make any noise. Late in the afternoon on a sunny day when the leaves are down, the leaves are like corn flakes. You become aware of how every movement you make is quite loud when there is a total absence of sound. You learn to sit absolutely still, breath slowly and simply listen You can always hear your own heart. A mouse at 60 yards makes as much noise at a person walking. A woodpecker can sound like a man with an ax.
At 4:30 a very large porcupine tried to force his way into the back of the blind and was rudely redirected when my rifle barrel gently prodded his nose. He waddled his way down to the clearing where he had noisy communion on a fallen apple with another porcupine.
At 5:00 a dry branch broke with the unmistakable sound of a heavy weight upon it. It was 25 yards away and behind me to the right. Another crunching step confirmed a large animal was coming my way. As I turned myself slowly to the right my stomach growled as the same time I checked my rifle safety which made an almost imperceptible click. The walking stopped instantly and I knew I had been found out. The walking never returned and I believe a deer slowly backed away feeling very much unsafe. Darkness came within 10 minutes and I had no chance to see if a deer was standing 25 yards back in the deeper shelter of the woods behind me. Not rattled, I returned to the car to discuss with Garry the excitement I experienced.
Saturday morning was a carbon copy of Friday. Up at 4:20, breakfast, shower with baking soda dress in T shirt and sweats and pack gear into the car.
At 6:00 we were back heading to the blinds.
The morning was warm and quiet. The leaves underfoot were damp and soft. From 6:15 to 10:15, I sat perfectly motionless to watch a porcupine, Canada jays, a squirrel ,some pine grosbeaks, and a single robin. At about 8:00, a loud snort signaled that my presence was being questioned by a deer. No crashes or snaps followed. The remainder of the morning was uneventful. Undaunted, I quietly stole back to the truck for lunch with Garry.
As we sat gazing out the window of the truck 2 large does wandered into our view in a chopping about 200 yards straight ahead of us. Opening the door with the key still in the ignition brought a certain undesirable response from the deer which was frustrating , yet very comical. We loaded up and scooted to the chopping to find only tracks. On the positive side, 2 deer being sighted raised spirits high and with those spirits still elevated, we prepared to head back to the blind at about 1:15.
I prepared my pack, rifle, baking soda to wipe down and a set of deer antlers for rattling. Garry gave me a good hearted hard time about the load I prepared to take back to the blind. I packed my shirt, sweaters , vest, rattling antlers and water bottles in the pack as the temperature had risen to about 20C. My comment to him was "laugh all you want. I want to be ready for anything."
I timed myself slowly as I made my way back to the stand. I desperately did not wish to break into a sweat, but did anyhow despite taking 12minutes to walk less than a half mile to my blind . Upon arriving I wiped down quickly and spread baking soda on my face, hair, arms confident it was a wise thing to eliminate any potential for odor.
Slowly over a 10 minute period, I began redressing in the stand, quietly, and covered my head with my orange toque. I put baking soda on it as well. I covered myself in the blanket and began to methodically rattle the deer antlers with a light crashing which lasted or about 25-30 seconds. I set the antlers down, brought the blanket back up to the top of my nose and sat as still as a post. Every half hour, I repeated the rattling, while stomping my feet on the floor of the blind.
By 4:30, as the November light began to dim, I had the company of ravens, a partridge, a porcupine, a squirrel, a barred owl and coyotes howling in the distance.
At 5:00, I raised my rifle to sight on an a knot in a tree. I would soon have difficulty seeing through my open sights. I sat still watching for a flicker of an ear.
At once the woods a huge crash up the hill immediately to the right began a series of snaps and crashes signaling the approach of a very large and careless animal. My heart began to pound like a sprinter's and I began to immediately think to myself, "heart rate down…keep it together, keep it together. Don't move. Not a sound." My throat was dry. The crashing slowed to a simple rhythmical very heavy trot that would be very much the sound of someone's ox approaching.
In the periphery on my right, through the window Nathan had created, a very large buck stepped into view. His head swung around bringing an end to the crashing which pretty much said, "Who dares to rattle their little saber in my woods?" He was at a very sharp angle and he stood stock still in the late afternoon light, glowing a golden brown coat and cinnamon antlers. I could not risk moving to another position as he stood. I feared at 25 yards he would most certainly hear me. He began to strut towards behind some trees immediately to the right of the open clearing yet still out of my view.
After a couple of minutes of crashing in the leaves, I had the sick sense he might not come into the clearing. He might just go perpendicular to me. As he continued to move about, I quietly changed my position to afford ease in shooting straight ahead or back to the right again. Coyotes again began to wine in unison in the distance. A barred owl hooted from nearby. With my rifle raised and safety quietly released I waited for him to step back in into "Nathan's window". After what seemed like an eternity, he stepped back into the window and paused in the fading light. I held behind his shoulder and fired just he stepped forward. With a huge crash onto the ground, he collapsed.
I vaulted out of the blanket, with the blanket still wrapped around me. Shedding it quickly, I covered the 25 yards in a couple of quick strides.
I had an immense 10 point buck in front of me. From nose to tail he was almost 7 feet long. I set my rifle down to move him to where I could clean him, grabbed an antler and pulled him about 10 yards. Returning to the blind for my pack for my knife, I realized I'd shot the biggest deer I had ever seen. When I returned again to move him to begin cleaning him, I simply could not budge him. Adrenaline which had allowed me to move him a moment before was now 'on empty'.
For many years I have pondered the prospect of bagging a large buck. It is the quintessential peak of a hunter's best dreams to see and successfully bag the biggest deer they have ever seen. I will say that I always wanted that and it has been that dream since I began deer hunting with my late father back in the 60's when he determined I was old enough to witness him shoot a deer in front of me. Well that never ever happened. I did not realize that his greatest asset would have been hunting without me but he was far too kind to have ever told me that painful truth. He was more happy to have a teenage son with him than to get a deer. Perhaps World War II had softened his desire to shoot something his own weight.. I saw photos of deer he had shot back in the 30's and 40's and I wondered what happened to the likes of them. Did they get smarter or did they begin to thin out? But then others were still shooting deer and getting some big ones. I read Outdoor Life magazine since I was 12 or 13 back in the 65 or 66. I began to believe you had to leave Nova Scotia to see big deer because I had never seen huge beasts that were like what I saw in the magazines. I know differently. They live in Nova Scotia. And they lived not far from us. I think they come out only when they have determined it is absolutely and totally safe. And not very light. And not in the open, even in the thick woods. Hunting well is not just what you do, but equally as important, what you don't do. Its also what you will endure to increase your chances of success. Not moving for hours, rattling, sitting in a stand wrapped up in a blanket. And believing you are not an absolute fool. And this year I shot that deer more because of what I didn't do as much as what I did.
My hunting partner for the past couple of years Garry Theriault and I weighed the deer as it hung in the garage. It weighed 223 pounds, dressed. The girth was 46 inches .We think the live weight was somewhere between 270 and 290 pounds. I will not ever forget the posture of that buck in the fleeting November sunlight. I think somehow God had me where He wanted me, to confirm that the big deer are here, and to confirm to me how majestic is God's natural kingdom. The presence of God in the woods is much different than the experience and prescence of God within the context of human relationships… but no less real and certainly no less important.
I had somehow considered a large buck like that to always be able to outmatch me. That it was simply out of reach. It was for the better hunters. Yet I also hoped and believed that someday I would get a large buck just as I did. It was humbling confirmation that huge deer and God both abide here in Nova Scotia.
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