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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Deer Camp

There are few events I anticipate more on my hunting calendar than the annual meet-up with my gang at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina. We come there during the last weekend in October to hunt deer, swap stories and tell lies (not necessarily in that order of importance). This year's gathering was especially important to me, as Sue and I have moved more than six hours away from many of our dearest friends back East. It was the first time in months that I'd seen several of my closest hunting buddies.
How can we hunt on a wildlife refuge you ask? The area of the Coastal Plain where Pocosin Lakes is located happens to be an important area for wintering waterfowl and one of the highest density populations of black bears anywhere. The management plan reflects an effort to encourage these animals to use the refuge and therefore, much of the available land is put in row crops like corn and soybeans to serve as food for the ducks and bears. The unruly guests at this wildlife party are the whitetail deer, which help themselves to all of the refuge's amenities and drain resources from the species they are meant for. To keep the herd in check, USFWS and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission partner to offer four 2-day hunts during the season to sportsmen who put in for, and draw, one of the 200 special use permits that allow it on the refuge's 12,000-acre Pungo Unit.
When I came as a tag-a-long for the first time back in 2006, I hardly knew most of the guys in camp, but I didn't really care. Deer hunting was fairly new to me back then. All I cared about was seeing and hopefully shooting a deer. Pungo didn't disappoint that season. On the final evening of the hunt, I harvested a big doe from a mature pine stand. That early success branded the Pungo hunt as a must-do for the future, but there was something more to it than that. The camaraderie I found back at the campsite was every bit as enjoyable as the abundance of game. It was a turning point in my hunting career.
Brothers hanging a stand amid the insect onslaught
This year our crew of 10 was the largest it's been since I started attending. Most of the regulars were there; Brian, Paul, Ken and Kenny, along with our old friend Nate, who'd been away for a couple of seasons, but now seems back for good. I made the 7-hour drive with Brian's brother Mark, who'd been the year before and hadn't seen a deer except for the ones everyone else brought to camp in the back of their pick-up trucks. This would be the third year for Mark since he'd come back to deer hunting after a long hiatus that started when he was 18 years old. We were also excited to welcome several newcomers to our camp; John and Brett, who were looking for their first deer kills, and Ray, who recently moved to coastal Carolina after spending much of his life in the Midwest.
The weather coming into the weekend was perfect. The first strong cold front of the season was scheduled to pass across the region the night before our hunt started. Temperatures that had been averaging in the high 70s were forecast to plummet into the low 60s for daytime highs. The moon was in its last quarter, suggesting deer would be on the move during daylight hours (if you buy into that theory - I sort of lean that way). Unfortunately, we had to survive a day of scouting and hanging stands before the weather turned. That meant we had to face the buzzing horde of mosquitoes that had been growing to biblical proportions ever since the eastern part of the state received upwards of 20 inches of rain in some places during a stormy period back in September. The skeeters were as bad as promised. They scoffed at my scent-free/DEET-free spray-on repellent. They attacked as soon as the vehicle doors opened and followed us into the trees as we hung our stands. It was miserable.
Our only relief was back at camp, where the smoke from the fire kept the bugs at bay. We huddled close to the blaze that night, anticipating that first puff of wind from the North that had been promised us. If the front was delayed, the morning hunt was going to be an exercise in survival.
Morning came too soon. I still can't sleep the night before a big hunt. But the coffee was hot and the front had passed. We hit the refuge in high spirits and were rewarded with a deer herd that was on the move. The cooler weather had put the animals in a mind to feed, and several of our gang had placed their stands in optimal spots. In all, five deer fell to well-placed shots, including John's first-ever; a beautiful, symmetrical spike buck that made him the happiest man in camp.
Typically, afternoons are not as productive as mornings at Pungo, but when John and I spotted a deer feeding along a grassy access road at 4 p.m., we managed to buck the norm by pulling off a 600-yard stalk across open ground that got me within 30 yards of the yearling. He ended up being the smallest deer without spots any of us had ever seen, but the tiny little button buck got a trip to my freezer anyway. I had already decided before the hunt started that I'd take the first opportunity that presented itself, regardless of sex or size of the target. The purpose of the hunt is to reduce the size of the deer herd, and my freezer is getting low. Nate also connected that evening, for his first deer in a couple of years. To say the spirits were soaring back at camp would be an understatement. We'd never had a day as productive as that, and we still had another one to add to the tally. Most importantly, there were still a few guys who needed a deer. Mark still hadn't even seen one and neither had Brett. Ray was hunting public gamelands outside the refuge and was seeing deer, but hadn't closed the deal - yet.
The second morning arrived even colder than the first, with a mosquito-killing frost on the ground that made me wish for warmer clothes. The deer were on the move again, however, and this time it was Mark and Brett who tossed the monkeys off their backs in grand style. Mark's 110-pound doe was the largest anyone brought back to our camp during the weekend, and Brett blazed into local deer hunting lore by shooting his first, second and third - all within 30 minutes of each other. Brett may be one of the first North Carolina deer hunters to legally possess three deer in one day. The NCWRC changed the rules this year from a 2-deer daily limit, to as many as the 6-deer season limit allows. The final evening hunt was quiet where I was - except of course for the bears. I was sitting on the edge of a forestry road, glassing for deer in an attempt to replicate my success from the day before. It didn't happen, but the big female black bear and her two cubs that marched all the way to within 80 yards of my chair made for a most-enjoyable experience. I'll admit I wasn't all that disappointed to head back to camp empty-handed. The last night of the trip is always reserved for eating, drinking and late-night buffoonery. Having to skin and dress out a deer is a delay from joining in the merriment. To everyone's relief, however, Ray didn't have any qualms about shooting a nice doe to round out our tally to an amazing 12 deer for our 10 hunters over the course of two days. It was a success rate rarely experienced by our camp - certainly the best I've ever been a part of.
What made the night even sweeter was the arrival of our great friend, Warren, who couldn't make the hunt because of work duties, but made the 3-hour drive to be there Saturday evening just to hang out with the boys. To say he came well-stocked with provisions would be an understatement. We ate and drank like kings until the wee hours of the morning.
As Mark and I drove west the following day - 5-1/2 hours to his home outside Charlotte and another 2 hours for me to Black Mountain - I had plenty of time to reflect on what had been a perfect weekend. Nearly everyone had venison to bring home; Nate and Mark were back on the board after several deerless years of frustration; Brett and John had made their first kills, and by the looks on their faces and enthusiasm to learn, it would certainly seem likely they are in it for the long run; and I had reconnected with my best friends. That seems to be more and more important to me as I evolve as a hunter and grow older as a man. Harvesting game and providing healthy, beautiful meat for loved ones is still a major reason for why I hunt, but sharing the experience with friends is just as important to me now. Too many modern hunters have never experienced deer camp the way it should be. Competition for hunting land and the pursuit of trophies have made it a solo existence for far too many. To them I say, call up your buddies, find a place you can all hunt and set aside a weekend this season to gather at the campfire. If you have trouble doing that, you can always pull up a chair and put your boots up at our fire pit. See you next season.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting blog. This is one of my favorite blog about hunting and I also want you to update more post like this. Thanks for sharing this article.

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