Opening day of deer season in North Carolina.
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“So far, so good,” you murmur to yourself. Deer season will officially open in an hour or so and you are where you want to be. As your breathing returns to normal from the exertion of climbing up into the tree stand, you sit down and lean against one of the trees supporting the stand.
This is a good time. Your body is overheated from the hike to the stand and the efforts spent in climbing so that you do not feel the cold yet. It is a full hour before daylight so the woods are quiet—none of the noise of birds, animals, winds, or limbs falling which you will later interpret to be deer sounds. As you sit, your mind begins to wander back over the events leading up to this morning.
The hunt actually began weeks before when you decided on a site for this season’s Opening Day. Since you were a relative newcomer to the area, you were somewhat concerned about the choices available. Eventually, it was decided that a nearby State Came Lands Management area should be investigated.
Accordingly, maps of the area were obtained and studied with such prominent terrain features as lakes, creeks, roads, and hills noted. Several areas were circled for more detailed investigation: the north border of a lake, a creek bottom, the valley between two hills. Now for a first-hand look at the area.
As you planned to spend the first of several Saturdays scouting the area, the inevitable questions from the family of a hunter rang out. “What about the yardwork you—— ?” “I’ll do that during the week after work.” “Daddy, you said we would—-.” “We’ll go next Saturday, I promise.”
Driving over to the reserve, you said a prayer of thanksgiving for your family—they do not understand what motivates the Head of the Household to spend his days off rubbing stinking compounds into his boots, cleaning guns which are still clean from last year, wandering around the woods 60 miles from home on a beautiful Saturday, or poring over maps as if they were the directions to a lost gold mine–but they still tolerate you. You have tried many times to explain the motivations of an outdoorsman, a sportsman. Sometimes they seem to understand and appreciate your behavior. And then you fall into a frozen pond duck hunting and come home soaking wet with ice crystals in your hair. The shaking of their heads tells you they haven’t quite gotten it yet. However, each year they become more tolerant and there is hope for them.
Your first pre-season scouting trip was devoted to a general ride-around, checking the condition of the roads, finding the area boundaries, translating the map into recognizable features. Subsequent trips provided you with specific information on feeding areas, trails, and watering spots. You decided that the best way to hunt the area was from a stand located near a trail, bedding area, or feeding ground. Possible sites were located and discounted for various reasons. Other possibilities came to mind but did not quite fit the bill.
And then late one afternoon, you found it. A small knoll halfway between a ridge and an open valley, overlooking a game trail and a thicket used for bedding. Two trees sufficiently close together to hold a platform. Not so far from the road that you couldn’t drag a buck out. Perfect.
On your next trip went the building materials and tools and the day’s work ended in a tree stand 20 feet above the ground with fields of view ranging from 50 yards in the direction of the thicket to 125 yards down the small valley. Sitting in the stand, it was easy to imagine a buck cresting the ridge, walking straight into your sights. Or a sleepy buck emerging from the thicket just at daylight. Or a cautious old monarch feeding slowly up the valley to his bedding area at dusk.
The most important pre-season task completed, you felt almost jubilant. You now busied yourself with the assembling and readying of the paraphernalia of a deer hunter: warm, comfortable boots; a sharp skinning knife; tie strings; a rope to raise and lower items from the stand; gloves; a warm cap; a plastic sheet to keep the skinned carcass clean; ammunition–a seemingly endless list of things that cannot be done without. And the annual zeroing-in of the rifle. With each shot fired at the paper target, you are back in the stand, squeezing down on the biggest buck of your life.
And then, curiously, you are ready. No more scouting expeditions, no more searching through hunting clothes and equipment, no more checklists and worrying if you thought of everything-—you are ready. Opening Day is 6 days away. The hours spent on preparation for THE DAY seem insignificant as you contemplate the up-coming battle–the battle between skill and experience and technology–yours–and the ages of inherited instincts, senses sharpened beyond those of any man, and a oneness with the environment–the buck’s. You have done all you know to tilt the odds in your favor but you are realistic–yours is a poor bet in going against one of the smartest animals in the United States, a mature whitetail buck.
And then it is the night before. The car is packed, clothes laid out, Thermos bottle by the stove, alarm clock set for 3:oo A.M. Early to bed but no sleep. Night-long examinations of the clock indicate an almost total standstill of time. Finally, you can stand it no longer and you shut off the alarm before it can ring. Downstairs, dress, and a hurried breakfast. Thermos filled with coffee, a lunch packed, and you’re off.
The drive to the reserve is filled with doubts—“What did I forget?” “Did I choose the best place?” “Will he be there this morning?” A half-moon and a Heaven filled with stars illuminate the landscape. The forecast is for clear and cold weather–great.
You park the car in an old logging trail off of the paved road–Panic!—where is the flashlight? The trail to the stand cannot be followed in the darkness without a light. Where is–relief floods over you. The flashlight is in the jacket pocket where you placed it the night before.
You shoulder your rifle and the small pack and you search out trail markings. You have made this trip many times during daylight hours, but never in the dark. Yet it seems as familiar to you as your own yard and soon you are on the ridge above the stand. And then you are at foot of the two trees, securing your rifle and pack with the long rope.
As you place your foot on the first spike-step, you become aware of just how quiet the woods are. No sound except your breathing. You feel like an intruder into Nature’s world, a place where you will always be the tolerated visitor, never an accepted resident.
The cold chill passing through your body chases away your reveries and brings you back to the present. You shiver slightly–that last cup of coffee has long since exhausted its warmth. The sky is a little grayer, not so black, and the thoughts of sunrise warm you as you stand quietly, rifle in hand. A glance at your watch indicates that sunrise should be only 15 minutes away. :
A bird awakes, utters a sleepy chirp, and then falls silent, but the daily ritual has begun–another bird chimes in–and another. One flits across the ground below. The cold goes unnoticed now. The head swivels swiftly, the eyes searching out the dark shadows. Light begins to filter across the woods and, with it, the knowledge that the time of the contest is approaching. Even now the buck may be making his way from the thicket. Or he may be staring at you from behind a tree, laughing to himself at the feeble attempts of Man to conquer the King of these woods.
You quiet your thoughts, take a deep breath of the frigid air, and will your body to be still. Opening Day has arrived and the proof of it is seen in your “buck fever” reactions! Your pulse stops racing, your breathing returns to approximately normal, and your body relaxes.
The sounds of the forest increase and for the first time you are aware of sounds coming from the thicket. A bird ? A squirrel ? You face that direction but try to remind yourself of the many possible causes of the sounds other than deer. The noise comes again, closer this time. You move nearer the edge of the stand, all senses focused on the thicket.
Your imagination has played out this scene so many times that the actual happening seems almost to be fantasy rather than reality. The sun has progressed high enough so that the ground is visible at the edge of the thicket and it is on this area that your eyes are fixed.
The movement stops, silence. Has he winded you? Heard you? Seconds pass with the slowness of hours. Movement again, the shaking of a sapling. A form passes behind a large oak. Again silence. The suspense mounts– heart pounds, muscles ache from the weight of the rifle, mouth becomes so dry you can’t swallow.
You think you see the tip of an antler extending beyond the oak. No, maybe it’s a branch. There is definitely a deer there but is it male or female? Small or large? You have decided not to shoot a spike or a doe this year. The deer moves forward one step, two. The head is visible, you see at least 4 points. The shoulder is visible now, you release the safety and line up the sights. Squeeze gently, don’t jerk. The gun erupts.
Opening Day has ended and on the drive home you begin to unwind and reflect. It was all you thought it would be and more. The satisfaction you feel with your investment in this day cannot be put into words–you try to collect your thoughts and verbally express them but wind up saying to yourself, “They would just have to have been there.” Your emotions this day have run the gamut from fear to pride to humility to reverence to exhilaration.
Those who do not communicate with Nature on a one-to-one, personal basis are to be pitied–their life is incomplete. To remove oneself from the mind-boggling world of modern man, to walk through woods and fields where envy and hatred and greed and man’s perverted sense of his destiny dare not go, to learn and re-learn from the workings of Nature, to make peace with yourself and with your Creator—these and more are the motivations that you would share with others.
You shake your head, embarrassed at the philosophical turn your thoughts have taken. For perhaps the twentieth time, you glance into the mirror which has been tilted to give you a view of the back of the station wagon. He is still there, all 8 points of him. Many Opening Days have come and gone, but this one has been the best. But you always say that and, win, lose, or draw, you will probably say the same thing again next year. This year planning, preparation, and execution melded into a trophy. Next year, who knows ? You do know that, God willing, the familiar restless surge within you will begin again and again you will hear, “What about the yardwork you—?” “Daddy, you promised we would—.”
Opening Day–there’s nothing like it.