Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Morning in the Woods

Written after a hunt in early December 2010

My blood pressure has returned to normal and I’m much calmer than I was yesterday. All the happenings at work made me feel like Murphy was an optimist. I’ve missed the first day of my planned three day hunt, but now it’s time to make the best of the two remaining days. As I pass the city limits of Eureka heading south, a quick glance at the clock in my truck shows it is 3:20 AM. The two and a half hour drive will be quiet and free of traffic. I keep awake by considering which of the numerous spots I’ve hunted in the past might be the prime locations today.
My destination is a private farm in west central Illinois. I’ve had the good fortune of hunting some of the best whitetail habitat in the Midwest for twenty-four years. While it is impossible to know if I’ll be able to fill a tag today, I do know for certain that I’ll see deer. I’ve hunted in these woods for nearly a quarter of a century and never gone a day without spotting some whitetails.

I park my truck and step out into the cold early morning air. It’s a crisp 28 degrees and beautiful. The moon hangs low in the eastern sky. It gives just the slightest sliver of silvery light. It lies like a cradle, but I don’t remember if that means it is waxing or waning. I do know it’s been a dark and moonless night. Likely the deer have been less active than normal during the night's deep darkness, and they may be moving around more during the early morning hours. It’s a good sign.

Quickly, I put on my flannel shirt, climb into my insulated coveralls and then don the mandatory orange vest and hat. I’m anxious to get to the woods but realize I can’t rush. Over the years I’ve spooked too many deer as I hurried into the forest, and I’m determined not to let that happen this morning. I’ll have to constantly red flag my instinct to move too fast.

The recent Thanksgiving holiday is something of a deer hunter’s intermission. Of the Illinois gun season, three days of the seven day season fall the weekend before Thanksgiving and the remaining four days the weekend after. The hunt two weeks ago had yielded a nice doe which helped restock my nearly empty freezer, but I was not able to fill any more of my three remaining tags. I had only the one opportunity to even take a shot, and it seemed like there just weren’t as many deer around. This "second season" I’ve decided to modify my hunting tactics.

My plan is to "still" hunt until late afternoon. Unlike hunting from a stand high in a tree or sitting in a blind I’ll be on the move, but moving slowly; very slowly. “Still” hunting is the lingo used when describing this method. Late in the day as the light fades, I will find a good spot and sit. Deer are always moving as dusk approaches, and I will try and sneak into one of their favorite haunts and become invisible. Now I head toward the woods. The light breeze is blowing directly into my face. That too is a good sign.

The section of woods I’m approaching is probably fifteen acres and is surrounded by farmland except at the lower end where it connects to woods from the neighbor's property. A ditch runs down the middle of its length. The countryside is gently rolling and mostly tillable, but there are many ravines which hold oak and hickory trees as well as numerous osage orange and cottonwoods. I’m going to start on the west end of these woods and slowly work my way east. The ground is covered with a light frost, the wind is almost non-existent once you enter the woods, and walking slowly and carefully, it is possible to move in almost complete silence. Stepping gingerly from the field edge into the woods, my heart jumps as I see five deer on a ridge to my right. They have crossed the field 150 yards distant and are headed northeast. If they and my direction of travel are maintained, there is a chance we’ll come together. My blood pressure is back up a bit but for different reasons than yesterday at the office.

The morning sun is at least a half hour from peeking over the horizon, but there is now enough light to see fairly well. My still hunt plan is in motion. First, I got into the woods without hearing a deer blow or snort which would be a giveaway that I’d been busted. Nor do I hear any running through the leaves. So far, so good. Now I remind myself to move slowly, be alert, look, listen and did I mention, move real slow? As it turns out, I’ll move about two hundred yards in the next two and a half hours. As slow as a snail moving through a construction zone. If deer have any visual limitations, seeing movement isn’t one of them. They pick up movement like a Hoover picks up dirt.

Minutes pass and I’ve moved forward now to a large tree. I think I’ll stay for a bit and survey carefully what is ahead. Whoa! I’ve unknowingly come to an urban area I hadn’t noticed on Google maps- satellite view. This must be downtown Squirrelville. There are five bushy-tailed creatures in this tree alone. It undoubtedly is rush hour. Their morning commute to wherever squirrels travel is stop and go, but unlike motorists on the Kennedy expressway, they are rarely in low gear. When these guys go, they really go. Which works fine I guess, because they can stop on a dime. Really! There are three more squirrels off to the right and two to my left. That makes ten of them I can see right now and there may be more but they only get fleeting attention as I'm looking for other creatures. They are oblivious to my presence, at least until one comes a few feet from my head, does a blazing u-turn and roars back up the tree with his quartet of squirrel friends.

The village of squirrels is left behind as I move in super slow-mo to the next temporary hiding spot. Now I spy Mr. Raccoon. He’s apparently heading home after a night out. He waddles along, and I don’t watch him long as my eyes shift back into deer search mode. His dwelling must be nearby because a few moments later, I glance to where I last saw Rocky, but he’s gone.

The sun has now risen in the east, but until now I’d not seen it due to the slight overcast. It pops out for a few moments. The warmth is immediate, but I try to stay in the shade. When you are trying to stay hidden, stepping into the sunlight feels like stepping into an onstage spotlight.

There doesn’t seem to be much going on at the moment except an occasional bird chirping. It’s not unusual to hear a woodpecker rattle on some nearby tree, and when they do, it echoes throughout the forest. Those silly squirrels frequently leave their wooded highways and bound through the leaves, sometimes giving me the impression there is a deer nearby. After twenty-four years of deer hunting, squirrels still fool me on occasion.

Gunshots sound sporadically from neighboring properties. These booms echo through the still air and stir thoughts in my mind like, “Deer are moving elsewhere, so they probably are moving here too; stay alert!” It’s beginning to seem like I’ve been out here for quite some time, and the only things I’ve snuck up on were rodents. However, a quick glance at my cell phone clock shows it’s just now 8:15 AM. It’s still early but too late to call my wife. On occasion I’ve called her before she starts work and told her I’ve all ready gotten a deer. Not today.

Moving ahead again, I see a nice tree that offers good cover, so I decide to stop there for a while and see what happens. I’m pleased with myself for not getting too hasty so far this morning.

As my eyes search ahead, looking for something that doesn’t fit the vertical lines of the trees, my heart jumps. Something catches my attention but then is gone. Off in the distance, I think I just saw the faintest glimpse of something moving. It wasn’t in a tree but seems to be at ground level. It happens too fast to be sure what it is, but my instinct tells me I’ve seen what I’ve been looking for all morning. I strain to catch another glimpse, but now it seems there is nothing visible except trees. Visions of those five deer I saw before sunup are dancing in my head. I tell myself not to budge! At this point I’ve got the advantage. I saw movement first, so it’s only smart to stay put right here until I see more movement… or until I can’t stand it any longer and my curiosity drives me forward.

Seconds pass, but they seem like minutes. Actual minutes pass. Several of them in fact. I stay concealed. My body hugs the tree and the top of my head and eyes are the only things visible as I look intently off into the distance.

My patience is soon rewarded. Two deer have followed a shallow gully and have moved toward me and therefore were not visible for some time. Now they step over a ridge to my left and appear to be headed in my general direction. Good thing I stayed where I was or they certainly would have seen me moving forward.
I don’t take my eyes off them as the slowly amble onward. Perhaps they are following a path unseen from where I stand or the ridge itself but either way, they are angling to my left. If they keep this direction of travel, it will place them in an area with no real obstructions between us, and better yet, they will be broadside to me.

They do. They are. I’m ready.

I select the lead doe.

One shot.

It’s 8:55 AM.


Rob said...

Well told, Eldon.

Don Stickel, Jr said...

Great Story

Peg said...

great description...it's easy to feel like I was right there! Nice sense of the building tension between patience to silently stay the course, and the urge to curiously but less cautiously push forward where you might be sighted. Taut, simple ending with the time 8:55 noted. Your writing made me feel how full and yet how open and empty the passage of time can feel.