In the forests of the Northeast, the deer don’t care what the weather is like in November. It’s rutting time, the one chance of the year for the bucks to breed. And neither rain nor sleet nor snow will keep these boys from their appointed duties.
At my deer camp in Vermont, we know that opening day of deer season falls during the height of the rut. We also know that where we hunt, on the eastern slope of the Green Mountains, the weather is one click colder than it is in the Connecticut River Valley. Often, if there’s a sloppy rain-sleet mix in the valley, we face a stinging sleet-snow mix in the hills.
My stand during the first few days of the season is on the back of a hardwood ridge where two stone walls meet. The land hasn’t been farmed in decades. Its tall beeches, thick maples and clusters of hemlock are all mature, making my view down to the base of the ridge easy and long.
I make the hard hike up to this stand each morning because other hunters won’t. They’ll stay on the lower ground, get cold quickly and start walking early. Then they’ll push does and yearlings up the ridge, often near my stand. Several times, those does have had decent bucks trailing them.
Recently, on the fourth morning of the season, I trudged up to my stand in the murky light of early morning. It was cold and gray, with a northeast wind blowing. It was perfect for my stand, but snow was surely on the way.
For an hour, I sat with my back supported by a two-trunk maple tree, but when I heard the snow start–you always hear the hiss of a fine snow in the woods before you see it–I moved to a sheltering hemlock 50 yards away. In the cold, I shivered once, tightened my wool scarf and turned up my collar.
That’s all I remember for I don’t know how long. I startled awake, the gun in my lap just an outline in the snow. When people freeze to death, I’d read somewhere, they just fall asleep, and the thought jumped me to my feet. The gray woods were now white and perfectly quiet. I took a step, decided I was alive, and marched back to camp.
The next morning, I stuck my head out of the camper an hour before daylight. The front and storm were now gone, leaving 10 inches of snow and single-digit temperatures behind. The fresh snow was good for tracking, so I decided to still-hunt up a creek that flowed below camp.
In the semi-light of false dawn, I walked the quarter mile down an old two-track road where a pasture provided easy access to the creek. I paused there, waiting for full light. A strange, faint noise came from downstream. It grew more distinct. It was a grunting, like a contented pig at the feed trough. A yearling deer trotted across the opening. His mother rushed him along, butting him and grunting.
Like a deer in headlights, I stood there marveling at the scene, something I’d never seen in the woods before, when across the same opening, high-stepping and alert to the doe, rushed a big eight-pointer.
He was into the heavy cover before I could even raise my gun, which wasn’t loaded anyway. But I knew the three were headed upstream. I ran back up the two-track, cut into the woods opposite camp and loaded my gun when I reached the brook. That buck came walking along like I’d scripted the scene. I put the crosshairs on him, but saplings were in the way. I pulled down on him again when he cleared the saplings, but a big pine tree protected him, and when I pulled down a third time, he was gone. It was his year to live and not mine to fill a tag.
BIRDS AND BEARS
In many Northeastern states, bear seasons coincide with deer gun seasons. In some they come earlier. Others, like Vermont, allow bears to be taken during a portion of deer season. Sound confusing? Not if you’re prepared.
If bears are secondary to your deer hunting, be sure that your hunting license allows you to take a bear. Know when the season runs and, as Robert Ruark said, “Use enough gun.” Because you are targeting deer, a black bear will be startling. It will look big just because you weren’t expecting it, so follow this rule of thumb about the size of a bear: If it looks just big, it’s probably a cub. If it looks like it could eat an apple tree whole, it’s probably average size. If it looks like it could eat your pickup truck, it’s a big bear.
Oh, and pack your 12-gauge. Black ducks are famously late migrators, and they love foul weather.
For more regional information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/destinations