Fall is for Whitetail Deer

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I have always loved fall, having been born a scorpio, and of course finding the many thrills and rewards of whitetail deer hunting in my later years has certainly added to the enjoyment of this special time of year.

I was on stand before first light for the opening day of rifle season in Wake County. It had been unseasonably warm, but luckily that morning had a slight chill to it. It sort of felt like fall. Our weather has been out of wack yet another year, but at least the deer have made a comeback from the EHD outbreak from recent years.

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There was no wind in the forecast, however, after perhaps an hour following first light, a good breeze crept up in the woods. But that wasn’t all that crept up. As they are often described, as simply appearing out of nowhere, the three-and-a-half-year-old doe could have been teleported to my position for all I could surmise.

I hadn’t thought of shooting a doe on the first day, but this deer was by itself. I watched her for a few minutes and she made as if she was going to run off. She scampered a few yards and paused; it was all I could take. The 30.06 made the first crack in the morning light and the deer was down. I was on Harris Lake gameland, and I hadn’t heard a shot yet.

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I descended the tree I’d climbed before dawn and returned to my truck to drop the stand, change clothes, and take my processing gear down to begin the work I’d gladly asked for. She was skinned, quartered and cleaned of meat in an hour or so and my opening day morning was in the book. Backstraps hit the grill the next night.

Four days later, I finished work around midday and noted the wind was right for an area I wanted to explore. It was a power line section on the other side of the lake from where I’d hunted on opening day.

I was on stand around 3:00 with the sun to my back and the wind in my face. It was warm, but not hot, and the wind was a variable 5mph out of the north.

I ended up having one of those unreal experiences.

I actually found myself in the presence of two bucks fighting for twenty minutes plus. They were in a thicket I’d taken a position on, and did the majority of their rumbling in there, and out of sight. It was absolutely nerve-racking. Crashing off trees and running around, I was sure it was a bunch of squirrels or crazy-ass raccoons.  The ruckus went on for over a half hour. After a while I knew there was no way it was deer.

I’ve seen them rub trees, scrape the ground and lick branches, even a little light sparring, but never actually fighting. But then, the first and bigger deer stepped out, he looked like a good deal of steaks to me, but I was in shock and hadn’t put the pieces together yet. I wasn’t thinking of a bachelor group. So when his sparring partner chased him into the clearing I was in, once again, it was all I could take. 

The 30.06 cracked again and the buck tumbled, but regained his footing and made for the opposite side of the power-line. I gave it a few minutes and decided to get down and see if I could find blood. This is a situation hunters do not want to find themselves in, but at times find themselves there regardless. I knew I had a good bit of light left, so I took my time and soon found what I was looking for.

The whitetail wasn’t completely expired however when I found him. I approached cautiously, but could tell he wasn’t going anywhere. I knelt by his side and placed my hand on his side. He protested slightly, but settled and remained calm. I was with him as he took his final breaths and I passed water to his lips, as I have on many occasions in the past, although never when I knew the animal was still alive. I guess it’s a last offering to quench the animal’s thirst that will become sustenance to extend my life, and I have always done so when I had water with me.

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I only wish non-hunters could experience not only the thrill of that evening, but the reward of the harvest, the connection to the land, the personal and deep connection between man and sustenance; man and wildness. There was no jumping and celebrating, no high-fives or fist-pumping; only gratitude and experience.

If you can fool their noses, you can learn their worlds, and see things most could never fathom; all while obtaining the cleanest meat you can find. This hunt had nothing to do with a set of antlers, nor to ‘release’ anything within me.  But, the way I see it, I am not absolved of the responsibility of the death of the animals I eat, because someone else raises and slaughters them. So, until the day I decide I can no longer be a meat eater, which I believe will come sooner because I do obtain much of my own meat, these moments will be about life, not death, regeneration and the circle we all are bound to, and living it as honestly and intensely as you can possibly imagine.

So, since the early gun season has been good to me, I’ve been processing meat….

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And making jerky…

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And there has been a nice drop of pecans from a favorite tree as well…

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I love fall…did I mention that?

 

 

 

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Whitetail Scouting with Capone

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I took Capone scouting for whitetail sign this morning on state land I’ve hunted for years.

Fortunately, the temps in NC have come down considerably, along with humidity over the last several days. It appears the ‘dog days’ of August may have peaked. And that’s fine with Capone and I.

I’m going to have to brag on my buddy a minute. I got Capone four years ago this month, and like most boxers, he has a surplus of energy. I do my best to walk him daily throughout the year, but the hottest days of summer are very difficult on short-nosed dogs. They just can’t deal with it.

So we’ve taken advantage of the recent weather trend. I tried to take him to Umstead Park this morning, but the place was a madhouse, so we opted to hit the real woods. I don’t bow hunt anymore, so I wouldn’t normally scout this time of year, but with the outbreak of EHD central NC has been dealing with over the last several years, I wanted to see what sign I could find.

I’ve never taken Capone scouting, or hunting for that matter. With no way to cover his scent, or his enthusiasm, it never seemed like a good idea. But he has really been turning into a great dog, and friend. I have him on the boat all the time and he knows where to go and what to do when fish start hitting the deck; he’s a real pro. So I figured it was time to see how he would react in the woods with me when I’m trying to stay undetected by wildlife.

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And he did not disappoint in the slightest. I had him off leash the majority of the morning as we stalked the woodlots and fields for sign of wildlife. When I stopped, he stopped, when I crouched, he seemed to sense what I wanted of him, and he walked behind me, which he never does on trails or sidewalks. He knew something was different about the way we were moving through the woods. It was impressive.

There was a good steady breeze that covered most of our noise as we walked through the dry undergrowth; overgrown from the last several years declining travel by man and animals. EHD, a horrible hemorrhagic disease, had a bad swath that hit central NC, mostly around the lakes, as that was where the gnats bred that carried the virus to our deer herd. They laid in the lake mud, where the waters receded from lack of rains in summer, and bit deer on Jordan, Kerr, and Gaston lakes, as well as others. It was a vicious cycle. Whitetail deer get bitten while hydrating, then the disease makes them feverish. They can then only return to the water for relief, and they die there; never able to recondition their internal temperatures. Boaters were sometimes finding 10 to 50 deer a day during the summers of 2015 and 2016. I estimated the herd where I have frequented the woods for years was decimated by as much as 70%. Mother nature and her very real cruelty is always visible to those who go to her hidden places and truly explore her treasures. I used to go out and see 3 to 10 deer per sit during a season, which over a three month season would turn into roughly 70 or 80 deer sightings in a single season. But over the last three seasons, I’ve seen less than 20 deer total. So I’ve passed up on most of the sightings; won’t shoot a doe anymore.

But, to my surprise, we started finding good sign right off.

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I found several sets of doe tracks in a few predictable places, then came across the buck tracks near a dwindling water hole. We busted a deer a few moments later, but never saw it, and it never blew.

Then, after stalking to a place that I passed a doe last season, Capone and I heard a deer blow and scamper off. But there were two yearlings that seemed to take no note of it. They were about fifty yards ahead and into the wind. The mother had heard us coming and warned the young, but they never heard us and certainly never winded us. I watched them a few moments, then they finally walked off. Capone was very composed and I rewarded him for it. I really couldn’t believe he stayed put.

Our exploration led us to a winding creek bed that was bone-dry. We’ve been in drought again this summer in NC. Capone and I followed the snakelike path of sand and hard clay through the forest for at least two miles and found a spot to hydrate ourselves (luckily I’d brought water for both of us) and watch a few travel routes for a while. Capone chilled and we sat in silence for almost thirty minutes.

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After our uneventful break we headed back towards the truck. We were probably three miles from the road, and back on the trail; perhaps twenty minutes later, and just as we hit the top of a hill, we heard walking in the leaf litter to our left. Capone and I stopped simultaneously, and a young spike, in full velvet, walked out of the woods and across the path not twenty-five yards ahead of us! We stayed crouched and after a few seconds, two more deer hopped out from the same place to cross the path. I kicked myself for having my camera in the backpack. The second was at least a two-and-a-half year old 8pt, in full velvet, and the other was a second spike, also with velvet clad antlers.

I looked down at Capone and again gave him praise for being so silent and for remaining at my side. I did grab his collar after the first deer, but if he’d wanted to bolt, he could have. We stayed there a few more minutes, but I was sure that was all we would see. Batchelor groups this time of year almost never have more than three male deer. But that was the first such grouping I’ve witnessed in at least four years. Very encouraging.

We had almost reached the road when I spotted a box turtle in some grass in the path. Capone walked right over it and actually hit it with his foot. I turned him around to see it, but it took a few seconds for him to register what he was seeing. Then, once he’d done so, he obviously didn’t like the shelled-creature and pulled away from it; apparently he has a turtle issue. I laughed and thought to myself, ‘that’s ok, he did great today’.

So we exited the woods and hit the road. I was encouraged by the amount of sign and the sightings, but as usual, the reward had nothing to do with the quarry.