I could hear the others in my hunting party coming up the hill as they followed the blood trail towards the open hay field where I was standing. Our hope was that they would either find the buck or push him onto the field where I was waiting. As the sound of the group coming through the woods grew ever closer to the field’s edge, my hopes of finding my brother-in-law J’s first buck started to fade. We had worked so hard to track down this buck, and we had come so far.
Then suddenly, there he was….
The weekend before Thanksgiving is always one of my favorite weekends of the whole year and has been for almost as long as I can remember. I have been going to deer camp with my Dad since before I was in grade school. I can remember sitting at the kitchen table with my grandma eating toast with homemade rhubarb jam and watching intently for the first hunters to make their way back in from the morning hunt. In the evening, I listened to my dad and grandpa tell stories about hunting seasons gone by and their trips to the upper peninsula of Michigan. I looked through old pictures as my dad told the stories of who shot this deer or how far they had to track that deer.
As I came of age. I was able to finally go hunting with my dad and I can still vividly remember the first deer I got with my bow. My dad and I were perched on a wood platform in the crotch of a tree and I nearly cut him with my broadhead as I swung my bow to shoot at the approaching deer. After I made the shot, he showed me how to look for blood and read the clues that the deer had left behind. While I might not have seen it then, the traditions of deer hunting and deer camp were being passed down to me.
As I started to grow and learn as a hunter, I watched as my dad’s hunting years began to wind down. It was never about coming home with a deer for him, but rather the comradery that came with the hunt. It was about spending time with his boy, his brother, and I think time with God. Though I can remember in the later years of his hunting where he would punch his tag just to show his boy he could still get the job done. As time passed, the decline in my dad’s body slowly took away his ability to hunt. After several major heart surgeries, two kidney transplants (one from his brother), and more days in the hospital than I care to remember, my best hunting partner would succumb to the effects of juvenile diabetes on the body. To say that going to deer camp without him would be difficult would be a great understatement. However, to let the traditions of deer camp go with him would have been a greater tragedy. Following my dad’s passing I took it upon myself to make sure those traditions would be passed on and never forgotten.
This year, I realized I had not been this nervous and excited to come to deer camp for a long time. My brother-in-law was coming back for his second year of deer hunting and he was bringing his father with him for his dad’s first deer hunt. As I unpacked the car the old familiar smell of those giant white pines filled my nostrils with their fresh and earthy aroma and brought back the memories of so many hunts gone by. As I looked around I knew there was work to be done before opening day. A bad storm from that summer had smashed the barn and our buck pole with it. We would have to put up a new buck pole if we were to be ready for a successful hunt.
Arriving right on time, I put my brother-in-law and his dad to work right away with the construction of the new buck pole. It was quite the operation but we were finally able to get that long and heavy 6×6 beam strapped between two trees. The buck pole was up, which is one of the defining characteristics of any notable deer camp. We also hung stands and sighted in our guns one last time before the day was out.
The deer camp experience can’t be complete without a trip over to the neighbors for a cold beverage to toast the year’s hunt and catch up with old friends. J and his dad were treated to the tour of not one but two other deer camps this night. The first was an old farm house just down the road, where it was standing room only in the kitchen as stories were told of bucks missed, deer tracked, and just a little BS. The second camp we would visit was slightly more rustic. It was an old barn that had been converted into the best deer camp this hunter has ever seen. The windows and patio door were all put in via chain saw artistry. There was an old wood stove in the corner to keep things warm and to use for cooking. A car battery gave power to the single light that lit the lower level. When the light began to grow dim, it was time to switch out batteries. A staircase would lead the way up through the floor of the second story where bunks could be found for sleeping. This was truly a camp, just a shack in the woods with everything any hunter could want.
With opening day now only hours away, it was time to try and get some sleep before the big hunt. As we went off to bed that night I could tell that both J and his dad had had a great time so far, but I couldn’t wait for them to experience the magic of opening day. We all departed from camp in the predawn darkness to our predetermined stand locations. As I settled into my stand that morning, I knew we were in for a cold sit as a stiff northwest wind kept any ideas of staying warm improbable.
By 10:30 I had only seen two small bucks which I elected to pass in hopes that they might make their way towards the others in our group. I kept thinking of the line in the song from The Thirty Point Buck “my fingers were so frozen I couldn’t pull the trigger,” as my own fingers and toes were already starting to feel the effects of that less-than-warm northwest wind. I told myself I was going to stick it out until at least 11:30 before I got down to warm up. Thankfully a few minutes past 11:00, a nice doe came to rest only yards from the bottom of my stand. I like those short tracking jobs!
Later that afternoon J’s dad would make a great shot on his first deer. After a few pictures and many congratulations I passed on the art of gutting a deer to J’s dad. I have to say he did quite a nice job for his first time. Finally we were able to put the camp buck pole to good use; unfortunately we didn’t have any bucks on it….yet. Little did we know that the following day would be an adventure full of ups and downs that we would not soon forget.
I was standing at the base of my stand just getting ready to climb up when I heard the crack of my brother-in-law’s rifle sound three times. I soon got a text letting me know he had hit a buck but was unsure if it had gone down or not. I made my way towards his stand to find him talking with the neighbor near the property line. His buck had crossed on to the neighbor’s land and we would need to track it. It was clear after 100 yards that his shot had not been fatal and we would need to be ready at any moment with a follow-up shot.
Following a few drops of blood here and there, we eventually came out to a picked corn field. This tracking job started to bring back a host of memories for me as this was not the first time we had a deer from our farm end up going into this field. I started to remember all the lessons my dad had taught me about tracking deer. What to look for, where the deer might go, putting your scope down the lowest setting, looking ahead to where the deer might be, and a host of other teachings he had shared with me.
We followed the blood trail to a thick row of planted pines on the far side of the field. I told J there was a good chance the deer might be bedded down in there and to be ready should he get up. I was going to be on the other side of pines while he followed the blood trail through the tangle of pines. He had only gone a few yards when we heard the buck get up. My heart rate skyrocketed as I readied myself for the shot I knew I was going to have to make. As the buck burst from the pines, I could tell he was wounded but still full of life and showing no signs of slowing down. I did my best to settle the cross hairs of my rifle on the deer as he ran full speed away from me. My rifle cracked as I let the first shot go, but the bullet didn’t seem to hit its mark. I cycled another round in and steadied myself before letting the rifle crack again. Still the buck kept going, crossing into another property and leaving no chance for another shot. I knew the property owner where the buck had gone, and we would have to seek permission from him to continue tracking the buck.
After a short conversation with the landowner explaining the situation, we were granted permission to track the buck once again. The buck had entered an island of woods in the middle of a large field. We pushed the buck out of the woodlot but were unable to get a shot off as he ran straight towards a nearby farm house. Knowing the direction the buck had gone, we took up the chase in our vehicle as the buck ran across another field and then into another wood lot. As we neared the area we had last seen the buck, I was beginning to think we would not be successful in our efforts. Suddenly the buck emerged from the woods on the road only 50 yards in front of us. I pressed the gas as I thought, “I’m going to end this right now with the car.” However, reason set in moments later as I thought my wife might not be so happy with my intended plan.
We watched as the buck made his way into yet another woodlot, but moving much slower than when I had seen him last. A bright red patch on his back end indicated that I had connected with at least one of previous shots as the buck was running away from us. We again gained permission from yet another land owner to track the buck onto the property he had entered. We were now over a mile from where my brother-in-law had first shot the buck. This had become a tracking job for the ages and we were increasingly confident that my brother-in-law would soon have his first buck on the ground for good.
With help from my cousin and J’s dad, we were ready for what we hoped was the final chapter of this tracking job. The three of them would follow the blood trail as I waited on a hay field up the hill from the buck’s position. If all went well they would find the buck expired in the woods below the field and if not, I was in position should he come my way.
As I heard the others grow ever closer to the field my hope started to fade. Where was this buck? Suddenly, he emerged from the cover of the woods and stopped nearly 150 yards from my position. I instinctively turned my scope power up as high as it would go as I came to a sitting position in an effort to get a steadier shot off. I centered the buck in my sights as he faced directly at me. My rifle again cracked but the buck stood motionless. I had missed. The buck didn’t move as I chambered another round and took a deep breath. I could hear my dad saying “just squeeze the trigger” as my rifle cracked for the last time.
Then the moment came… And when I looked up, the buck was on the ground for good this time.
A flood of emotion came over me as the rest of the group gathered around the buck. My efforts to pass on the traditions of deer camp had been fulfilled. Lessons my grandpa had passed to my dad were now being taught to the next generation of our hunting camp. It was a moment I will not soon forget.
As I packed up to leave camp for the year I couldn’t help but think how much my dad would have loved to be a part of it all, from putting up the buck pole, to telling stories at deer camp, and celebrating the hunt itself. Deer camp is more than a place where we go each fall to hunt. It’s a place where we reconnect with family and friends. It’s a place where traditions are passed from generation to generation. And it’s a place where fathers share time with their sons.
The temperature was hovering in the single digits with a breeze that felt like needles poking at my cheeks. Why in the world would anyone be out hunting in this kind of weather? I wondered the same thing as I followed fresh rabbit tracks through the brush and snowdrifts. Clearly there were rabbits here but I had yet to lay eyes on anything. With a fresh dusting of snow from the night prior I was able to see where my prey had been just minutes before my arrival. I was getting frustrated. My efforts to ambush my prey to this point had been fruitless, and my approach had to change. Finding a fresh set of tracks I began to follow, the hunt was on. There is something primal about tracking an animal in fresh snow, a feeling that brings up emotions centuries old, a need to have nourished oneself from the land.
As I followed the tracks, it was as if I was reading a story of the events that had just transpired here only minutes before. The story took me over a hill and around some fallen treetops, ending at little more than a few branches piled next to a tree trunk. Surely this is no spot for a rabbit to hide since these two branches and pile of leaves could barely hide a mouse, I thought to myself, as I poked my foot at the small pile of sticks and leaves. In the moments just prior to the rabbit exploding from under my foot, the thought that this little pile of sticks was hiding my prey had all but left my mind. Instantly my heart rate skyrocketed as the rabbit bounded away in an effort to escape to his next hiding place. The next few seconds went in slow motion as I fumbled to bring the shotgun to my shoulder and release the safety. I was instantly thrust back into the pursuit as I settled the bead of my shotgun on the rabbit’s intended path. A cloud of white covered my view of the rabbit as my shotgun came to life. Had I succeeded in my quest?
As I moved toward the area where I had shot, there in the snow lay my prey. A rush of emotion fell over me with a sense of accomplishment in providing food that would fuel my body and remorse for having taken a life to do so. This is the circle of life I guess, but now I feel more connected to that circle somehow.
This scene would play itself out one more time that day in an open grassy field. The rabbit bursting from the grass beneath my feet and ultimately coming to rest in the back of the game bag. I felt privileged to have had such an adventure on this cold and blustery day. It had been a fun and adventurous day that I won’t soon forget and hopefully one I can repeat before the winter is over.
A big reason I started this blog was to journal my hunting adventures and share them with friends and family. I also want this blog to be a place where I can share things I have learned over the years in the hopes that it will help someone else along the way. I’m going to start a series I call Project Public Land where I will take you along and show you how I go about planning a public land hunt both close to home and out-of-state. While my main focus will be on big game I will also touch on tureky, small game, and waterfoul as well. Over the course of the year I will show you all of the ups and downs I encounter. It’s going to be a great adventure, and hopefully a great learning experience for me and for you too.
Here is some of what you can expect see over the course of this series. We will look at how to find, scout, and hunt public land. I will go over the process of picking a western state to hunt for elk, mule deer, and antelope and how to apply for the tag. I’ll take you through how I find and hunt public lands close to home. Then we’ll go through where to find useful resources that will help you be a better public land hunter. I will go through some of the gear I find useful on my public land adventures. We will discuss different public land hunting strategies and myths. It will be a lot a ground to cover but there is a lot public land out there to be hunted and you should take advantage of all it has to offer. There is a lot that goes into planning a successful hunt on public land and I’m excited to share with you my adventure over the course of this year.
Hunting our nations public land can seem like a daunting task if you don’t know where to start. My hope is that this series gives you the base knowledge to go out and have a public land adventure of your own. It’s going to be a great year and I can’t wait to share this journey with you. Please let me know if there is anything you have ever wanted to learn or know about hunting public land and I will do my best to cover that as well.
It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on my blog but with some encouragement from family I’m going to get back in the saddle and start writing again. There were a couple of factors that lead to me stopping my blogging for a while which I’m sure you will read about in coming posts. For now let me just say that the past year has been full of ups and downs, shots fired, arrows released, and lessons learned. Most importantly though I’ve been thankful for the time spent with family and friends, it’s because of them that I get to do what I love every fall.
Now lets get down to business. As this post goes up I will be getting ready for the Wisconsin gun opener, it’s something I look forward to every year. The guns have been sighted in, the blaze orange is coming out, there is jerky marinading in the fridge, and thoughts of Da Thirty Point Buck are dancing in my head. It’s time to head north and enjoy another year at deer camp! I hope you all have a fun and safe hunting season.
We often hear the phrase “What would your mother say?” when talking to kids or young adults these days when it comes to hair styles, clothes, or just their actions in general. It has got me thinking lately…what would my grandpa say about the hunters shown on TV or in Outdoor Magazines these days. How would I explain to my grandpa that I need to go to the store so I can pick me up a nice bottle of doe pee so I can get me a big buck? OK, well, oldtimers used to cut out the tarsal gland of a deer they just shot and use it lure in anther deer. And I know I have heard stories of the Native Americans doing the same, so I guess it’s not that far off base.
How do you explain to grandpa that you need a camo golf cart with a winch, roll bar and flood lights to go get your deer out of the woods? I can see it now….Grandpa takes his cap off, scratches his head, and looks over at me, “you got legs, don’t you?”
OK, Grandpa maybe I don’t NEED the golf cart, but what about this sweet GPS unit with maps and aerial photo overlay. “Didn’t your dad teach you to use a map and compass, boy?” he would reply. ”You should at least pay attention to your surroundings so you can remember where you are going. That’s as bad as your Dad needing that dang PGS thing in his car to tell him how to get to the store. Did you even see a deer when you went hunting yesterday?” he would ask. Ummm, well no, but when I checked my trail camera and I had 143 new pictures on it. “Grandpa, do you want to see? I got a sweet buck on there, I call him Crab Claws.” I can already hear his reply. “Well for land sakes, what in the heck is a trail camera anyway? I thought we were talking deer hunting here, not lobster fishing.”
If you talk to anyone who is successful at what they do, odds are they can tell you exactly what their goals are. More often than not they will have their goals written down somewhere and they will evaluate them often to make sure they are working towards those goals. When it comes to hunting, I am no different. Last fall I made the decision that I wanted to expand my hunting horizons and explore some new hunting ground other than the family farm. I wanted to start hunting public land, which I had almost never done in my home state of Wisconsin until last year. My goal for the year was to shoot at least a 2 1/2 year old buck on land that was open to public hunting. In my heavily hunted home state, I thought this would take some effort, but something that I could definitely do. I put in some long hours scouting and by the end of the season I was able to harvest a nice 2 1/2 year old buck. I was really proud of that deer and all the work that went into that hunt, especially the drag out. Here is a picture of my buck from last year.
This year I wanted to try something new so I am going to try to accomplish a few different things.
1. Shoot a deer on the ground on land open to public hunting.
2. Self film a few of my hunts to post here.
3. Introduce someone new to archery. (This is kind of an ongoing goal)
I will keep you posted on how my season is going and how my goals are coming. What are your goals for the 2012 season?