Thursday, October 21, 2010

Due Diligence

Contrary to what some non-hunters may believe (and maybe even a few hunters), there's a lot more to putting a deer in the freezer than sitting on an overturned bucket in the middle of the woods on opening day. To hunt with consistent success, you have to know the land and how the animals that live there use it. Scouting is the only way to achieve the level of familiarity that will put you in the right place at the right time. Either you put your time in during the off-season or you put your faith in pure, dumb luck.
Where do deer live here? I haven't got a clue.
With that in mind and the specter of North Carolina's Western Region gun opener set to start in five weeks, I headed down to the family land Sue and I bought into with my parents three years ago. A significant portion of the 125 acres in northwestern Cleveland County had been logged five years before we acquired it, but the property has a pretty mountain stream, beautiful ridge and bottomland forest that has not been cut in decades, and it abuts South Mountain Gamelands on two sides. In other words, it's the place Sue and I will one day build a house and live for the rest of our days.
I hope those days will include some deer hunting. There's no denying deer live on the property. We see their tracks and places they've nibbled on things. Once in awhile we get to see an actual deer - always running in terror as it flees the advance of our two dogs, Sadie and Piper. To be sure, the deer population in the South Mountains and the rest of the western part of the state isn't like what I'm used to. Unlike the Coastal Plain, where deer are plentiful to the point of being a nuisance, North Carolina's mountains are marginal deer habitat. That means scouting before the hunting season is even more critical if I hope to be successful here.
I met my pal Mark, who drove up from Charlotte, at the property and we started the process of trying to understand the who, what, when and why.
The first step was finding out what the deer are eating. It has been an incredible year for hard mast across much of the state. Oaks of all species have been dropping acorns for more than a month and Cleveland County is no exception. Two weeks ago when I visited, the deer were focused on the chestnut oaks, but this time, Mark and I noted that the herd has shifted over to white oaks, even though the chestnut oaks are still dropping. How do we know? When deer are targeting acorns, the ground under the trees of choice is turned up with the passage of many hooves. The deer usually crack the acorns in half, leaving telltale shells behind. We located several mature white oaks and each of them showed evidence of regular visitation by hungry deer. There were sparse game trails here and there, but nothing I'd consider a regular highway for movement. No matter; we'd found what they like to eat and that is a major step in the right direction.
As for the "who," most of the tracks we found were on the modest to small size. I don't know why, but it seems the property is a magnet for undersized does and their fawns. We did find some scat (poo) that looked like it had come out the back end of a buck. It is my dim understanding that buck scat is different than the individual, pellet poos that does produce. When bucks defecate, they leave a "log" of compressed pellets. (TMI? Moving on ...) We also found a small rub where a buck had thrashed a pine sapling with his antlers. Male deer do this for a couple of reasons. First; they need to rub off the velvet that covers their antlers during the growing period, second; they take out some of the pent up aggression they have leading up to the breeding season, known as the rut, on poor defenseless trees, and third; they use these rubs to leave scent markers to other bucks in the neighborhood to keep out. Male deer also make "scrapes" which are places on the ground that they turn over with their hooves and urinate in. These also serve as signposts to other deer, letting them know that a buck is in the area and he's ready to breed or fight, depending on your gender. Mark and I didn't find any scrapes, but they're sure to start popping up as the rut gets cranked up.
As for the "when" the deer are participating in these activities, we still don't know. Typically, deer are mostly nocturnal animals that have a few periods during daylight hours when they're out and about. A motion or heat sensing game camera, set up in the areas with the most sign would help us decipher when the deer of South Mountains are active, but my one such device is on the fritz, so we'll just have to go with blind luck on that count.
Another reason for our visit was to get our slug barrels sighted in for our upcoming special permit hunt at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Each fall, the refuge partners with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to host a series of weekend hunts meant to cull the burgeoning deer herd back to sustainable levels. For the last five years, I have put my name up and been selected for the hunt, along with some of my closest buddies. Our weekend deer camp at Pocosin Lakes NWR has become an annual tradition that I look forward to most during the hunting calendar. Because as many as 200 hunters feel the same way, the refuge restricts hunters to use short-ranging shotguns and muzzleloaders, hence our need for slug gun practice.
Unfortunately, my shotgun was at the gunsmith having a new scope mounted and bore sighted. Mark, on the other hand, just went and bought himself a mount, scope and rings and cobbled everything together right there in the field with an Allen wrench. In 10 minutes, he was ready to shoot. We crossed the creek to the spot we use for camping. There's a picnic table there that served as our shooting bench and I quickly worked up a serviceable target for Mark to shoot at. We pinned it to a dead tree 30 yards away and got to work. Honestly, I didn't think Mark would hit the paper, let alone the piggy, with his first box of shells. Getting a telescopic sight adjusted properly is a tricky business and I had no confidence in his gunsmithing skills. This was going to take awhile. To my utter amazement, the first shot punched a nickel-sized hole just under the pig's chinny chin chin - four inches from being dead-on. A quick adjustment and Mark put the next three rounds into a beautiful group that was perfect for the yardage on the Y axis and three inches left of center - incredible. Then reality crashed down and Mark realized the scope was starting to creep around with the recoil of each shot. The scope rings were not high enough and the tube was in contact with the receiver - that's not good. So, our shooting session came to an inglorious end and Mark headed back to the gun shop.
So, what did we learn in six hours? South Mountain deer prefer white oak acorns to chestnut oaks and Mark needs taller scope rings - baby steps, baby steps.