There are more ways to approach deer hunting than denominations of the church. That’s a fair comparison because to most deer hunters, their style and manner of hunting is religion. Some methods may be more productive. Some ways are deemed more sporting than others, leaving hunters looking down their noses at each other. Some folks hunt in the tradition they were nurtured in.
When I was a a young man, my introduction to deer hunting was through an unlikely mentor- a Vietnam veteran that I met in a local bait and tackle. I was a curious kid interrupting a conclave of men around a pot belly stove in the back of the store. I thought they were old then, them being the age I am now. They would sit having coffee, occasionally talking or jabbing at one another, and I would edge into their conversation. I visited persistently, absorbing stories about hunting. Finally, a hard faced man named Eddie that talked the very least stepped out of their ring of rocking chairs to speak to me.
Eddie took me for a walk in the woods just after New Years Day.
My new found hunting mentor made it clear, in very few words, that hunting happens in the act of scouting and the actual morning that you take to the woods with a weapon is just the day that you kill the animal. It isn’t the hunt itself, but the culmination of the longer act of hunting throughout year. The “season” is the time that deer are taken- but every season is a time to hunt.
On that brisk North Carolina morning we went out to a modest sized property that I still hunt today. We met at the gun store and grabbed a coffee and biscuit across the street. I followed his truck out to the farm. We parked at the gate. Rather than opening it, like I had done many times before for trips out to catch bass and shoot doves, we were on the properties edge. From the gate, we took to foot to scout.
There were few words spoken as we walked the long edge of a field, planted in winter wheat against a hard wall of feral cedar and privet. Eddie walked with the silent pace of an Indian. Every hundred feet or so he would pause and paint his hand over lightly matted grass entering subtle breaks in the wood’s edge. As we approached a ridge he stopped on a trail, devoid of grass. The ground entering the hole in the privet was black and wet. We ducked into the woods there. We crouched along the trail swimming through briars, thin branches, and spider webs. Eddie continued to point to smaller serpentine detours that broke away from the heavily worn path. We dropped into a bay full of spiring oaks and open ground, eventually coming to a small spring creek. The clay bank was smeared away by hundreds of hoof steps. This was a place I had played as a child- but never paid attention. We crossed and walked the inside edge of a hardwood bottom.
Hundreds of little windows in the overgrown edge filled with light from the open pasture beyond them. Ahead, we reached the small pond in the woods and Eddie pondered over barren areas under low branches where deer had scraped and licked. We worked our way up a faint trail into a thicker stand of young tree growth. Every tenth sapling had its bark smoothed away at knee height. Some of these rubs had the patina of time, others were wet and fresh. We continued into the dense growth. The sign was no longer something he had to show me, but rather something I was eager to discover and point out to him with excitement. Deeper into the bramble, we came to a clearing that could be described as a small room. This was the only moment that I could see emotion on Eddie’s face. It was an expression that exclaimed excitement, but was done in a silence. His body language suggested that we should leave this place of smooth and matted ground. We walked out of the bedding ground on the trail that continued beyond it. The ground was trampled. As we hooked our way back into the sun, Eddie abruptly stopped and crouched, his hard eyes suggested that I do the same.
Tish, tish, tish . . . then silence. The moment felt infinite as Eddie slowly peered through the splinters of dense, young trees turning his head like an owl. Tish, tish, tish. A healthy buck stopped just ahead of us in the trail. The wind was in our our face. The deer stood there and panned the woods just as Eddie had done. The deer searched with his nose and I could see steaming breath roll from his nostrils. He locked his head toward us with a posture of confused caution. His tail raised. Then explosively, he broke into the impassible bramble of twigs and thorns.
Eddie just said, “damn.”
“Damn.” Damn- not because of disappointment- just a subtle expression if excitement. (I usually go with a ‘holy shit’ here.) My heart was flush with adrenaline and emotion, beating in a way I had never felt before.
This man that spoke to me in so many silent grumbles started a conversation. “This is my favorite time to walk in the woods,” he began with an elocution that resembled the Sermon on the Mount. “You get a glimpse of what these deer were doing last week— when we still could be hunting them. They’ve passed the rut- but at least you get to see what’s happening in the winter— in areas we wouldn’t tromp around in around during hunting season.”
I blushed thinking of all the times past I had blow a four-wheeler through these deep woods on similar cold days when the leaves were down. Playing capture the flag. ‘Snipe’ hunting. Hollering. Rambling through the woods and never once stopping to look. I never considered the farm a quiet place, but rather where the wild ruckus of boys happened. Through the coldest days of winter, I was eager to go back into those woods but left it alone to be quiet and still and full of life.
In the quid pro quo of sportsmanship, Eddie and I returned in the the late winter to scout for turkeys and later hunted them in the spring. Each passage through the property became purposed. Through summer I fished the ponds and did things in the fields and pastures, always thinking the deep woods should better be left alone. In August, we made a very quiet scouting passage into the deeper habitat. Patterns had subtly changed. We came up with a strategy to begin the early season hunt.
In the past thirty years I’ve hunted many different ways and places in the Carolinas. I hunted over a decade on a well managed, county sized quail plantation. There, you are driven to a stand and leaving it to investigate, even to see a deer you have shot, is prohibited. I have stood on a roadside in a long line of hunters with shotguns in the low country listening to dogs work their way up a mile long drive. I have planted food plots. I’ve put out corn feeders. I’ve bought gimmicks to attract deer. I have put out trail cameras. Every experience had nuance that occupied time and became a hobby in and of itself. All of these hunts were productive, came with fellowship, and good memories. But nothing ever compared to the way I was taught to hunt deer in the beginning.
At the plantation club, starting each morning pulling a numbered pill from a cartridge box to pick one of a hundred stands felt like buying a scratch ticket. Aside from the tradition of a dog-driven hunt I wasn’t impressed. I’m sure the guys that train the dogs are proud. Despite being briefly exhilarating, it didn’t feel particularly sporting relative to immersively entering habitat. I enjoyed planting food plots, simply from a standpoint of ‘farming’, but it seemed redundant on a property that grows soy and corn and has woods abundant in acorns, nut trees, and wild fruit. Feeders were ‘corny’, but a nice way to cull does with the kids. Gimmicks are an industry that suckers suckers and I’ve been a sucker. The Saturday shows are full of them and it’s a long aisle at Wal-Mart. Trail cameras are a tough debate. They confirm scouting efforts and help put hunters on the best bucks are on a property, when and where they need to be. They also extend the excitement and anticipation of hunting by ‘knowing your population’ from home and beyond the season. These merits are the reason I don’t like to use them. I like to scout sign and be rewarded form my effort, immersed in the of the woods with my wit and senses. I have returned to hunting the way I was taught.
This land is generally left silent. The only sounds are the occasional interruption of tractors working the fields, the droning hum of airplanes overhead, and traffic in the far distance. Each of these reminders of the human world have become ambient.
In these last days of this summer, I will sneak into the deep woods one more time on soft foot. Perhaps the last time I might have to make an unwelcome sound or scent that will hopefully be forgiven as the season comes in. I have not been in the woods since the warm days of the spring. I am excited to see how things have changed and how they might have stayed the same.