All Roads Lead to Antlers
ANDES, NEW YORK, OCTOBER 12, 2008
IT WAS THE SECOND week in October, the Year of Our Lord 2008.
I took extra care in preparing and packing for opening day of bow season. I dug through all the hunting gear piled helter-skelter in the big wooden box in my mudroom and washed all the clothing in a scentless detergent. Then I sprayed it all down with Autumn Blend, a commercially made scent-masking agent that smells like wet leaves and soil, and goes for $11.99 for a mere twenty-four ounces.
The clothing all went into a giant, industrial-grade Ziploc bag, and then into an airtight plastic container. It keeps the clean clothing safe from the unwanted odor of cheeseburger, cigar smoke (I caved on that after Saskatchewan), or wet dog, all of which deer are thought not to like.
I packed the rest of my gear, as usual, by smell. Anything that stank to high heaven of Doc’s Extreme Heat Double Doe Urine, or Team Fitzgerald’s Rampage Dominant Buck Lure, went into my duffel bag. I wouldn’t need much of that odiferous stuff until weeks later, at the arrival of that period in early November that the magazine editors ominously call “the pre-rut lull.” After that, everything I use smells like the pee of a whitetail doe in estrus or a dominant buck, including (according to my wife, Lisa) kitchen utensils, my wallet, the doorknobs.
In a new season, nothing is ever where it will end up by the time you’ve put in some time afield. Certain pockets—and Lord, do you have pockets on those “Deep Timber” camo-pattern fatigue pants, or your “Bow Hunter Extreme Special Legends Edition” jacket—are more accessible than others, and you’ve got to give your critical stuff time to migrate there.
I fished out a small Ziploc bag and dropped it, horrified. But that thing that looked like a shrunken head was just an apple that had been sitting in my pack for about eight months, since last deer season.
This year, I had vowed, it was going to be different. Instead of stealing away in some helter-skelter fashion to hunt when I could, I was going big. I wanted to shoot a big whitetail buck; I felt I needed to shoot a cockwalloper. Maybe not one like the Picket Fence (nobody ever did get him, I’d heard years earlier, and that was some consolation), for that Saskatchewan hunt was too rich for my blood. But I was determined to get a monster buck, because I’d grown tired of expecting to stumble on one by chance. And because time was running short.
When I turned the significant corner of fifty years, a sense of urgency began to work at me. I’d hunted as steadily as I could, for a man with a job, a family, and some sense of responsibility to both, for more than a quarter of a century. It was unlikely that I could hunt another twenty-five years. I’d shot quite a few bucks, including some good ones. But not a great one. And I couldn’t shake that image of the Picket Fence, sauntering across the frozen plain. Another year slipped away, then another. The birth of my son, Luke, was a joyous occasion, but afterward it was even tougher to focus on hunting. I had to face the facts; I was getting older, the law of diminishing returns was kicking in. It was time to man up.
Over the years, my aims and ideas about deer hunting also had changed. I never fancied myself a “trophy hunter,” but I ingested all of the books and magazine articles outlining the strategies for ambushing a big deer, learned all there is to know about hunting transition zones between feeding and bedding areas.
I spent enough time in the woods to be able to tell whether a track in three inches of snow was relatively new or old. Over time, I accumulated a bewildering assortment of calls meant to mimic deer vocalizations, from the lost fawn bleat to the aggressive buck’s grunt-wheeze. I bought rattling antlers that promised to lure dominant bucks to the sound of combat between two younger peers, and camo everything.
I had everything but the buck.
But in this year, the Year of Our Lord 2008, it was going to be different. I was going to take up every invitation that came my way, from hunting acquaintances and friends near and far, and make as much time as I could—without having to consult a divorce lawyer—to get myself a wallhanger.
Now, on the brink of another opening day of another deer season, one that I wanted to be different from the ones that had come before, I was getting on my game face.
I admired a new addition to my bow hunting kit: a very light, wide-mouth, one-quart plastic jar that originally contained peanuts. It was filled with miscellaneous small but critically important items: a mini Allen wrench (for repairs to the bow), spare bowstring, a variety of arrowheads . . . I was tired of slicing fingers on those nasty-sharp objects that poked a hole through whatever I put them in and made me bleed like a stuck pig every time I reached into my duffel.
Hunters take an absurd amount of pride in DIY brainstorms, and the magazines we read are filled with “how-to” features that will teach you, among other things, how to create a rifle cartridge holder from a bar of household soap (not a bad idea at all: when you shoot up all your bullets, you can wash off the stench of failure), or fishing lures out of your wife or girlfriend’s pantyhose—preferably after she’s vacated them.
“Who’s the man?” I cried, shaking and admiring my “everything” jar. Did I tell you that I don’t even have to open the lid on my magic jar to make sure it contains what I’m looking for?
Hello, nasty-sharp broadheads. You can’t touch me now!
I answered myself in a voice so confident it would have scared the kids, had any been around: “You are. You’re the man.”
According to American Hunter, a publication of the National Rifle Association, 10.7 million Americans hunt big game (out of a grand total of 12 million hunting-license purchasers). And the whitetail deer is—far and away—the most widely beloved and sought after of North American big-game animals.
The whitetail also happens to be about the most perfectly realized of God’s creations, and this sometimes gets underplayed simply because deer are so abundant. Imagine bumping into a couple of Angelina Jolies or George Clooneys every time you popped into a convenience store. Would they still seem so exotic? So . . . beautiful? Deer hunting in northern states generally begins with a bow season sometime around mid-October, and it peaks with a general firearms segment during, or right after, the mating season, the November rut. But you’ll still find scores of hardy souls out there in January, toting their smoke poles, or muzzleloaders, thanks to the late “primitive firearms” season, or some variation thereof. Deer seasons have grown longer in recent years, opening greater and greater windows of opportunity, thanks to a burgeoning deer herd, wiser management of both public and private land, and increased demand for hunting opportunity. Word is that an early Pennsylvania blowgun season is in the pipeline—boo-yah!
Hunting your way through three months or longer takes stamina, fortitude, and a pretty strong stomach, but don’t underestimate the grit—or plumbing—of a dedicated deer hunter. Come October, he morphs into a Ho Ho and convenience-store microwave burrito–fueled doomsday hunting machine. He’s unstoppable: he’ll switch from bow to gun to smoke pole, acquire the slew of special permits and licenses required to transition from one to the other, and write the name of his wife on a Post-...