Thursday, December 9, 2010

Surprise: No Deer!

I must say I've had an astonishing run of good luck. Having only put in six days in the woods, (here, here and here) there are five deer of varying size, butchered and conveniently packaged into roasts and portions of sausage, ground and stew meat, in my stand-up freezer out in the garage. In my wildest expectations coming into the 2010 North Carolina deer season, I could not have dreamed of such bounty with so little effort.

Last fall I managed five as well, but it took the better part of North Carolina's generous Eastern Region gun season (from Oct. 13 thru Jan. 1) to turn the trick. There's still time to tag out (you can harvest six deer in NC) and I find myself in a most-enjoyable position; I can pick and choose the very best conditions to hunt and I can try high-risk tactics that I never would have considered if my situation were less fortunate.

(How I'm going to fit another deer in the remaining freezer space remains to be seen. In the meantime, I'm playing a lot of Tetris in preparation of that potential conundrum.) 

One thing I'd like to try is still-hunting through known bedding areas and trying to catch a whitetail snoozing. For non-hunters, still-hunting is a misnomer describing the act of slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y creeping through the woods in search of game. Entering a bedding area is generally considered taboo because, once disturbed from their beds, it often takes deer weeks to return. It's often a one and done deal. If it doesn't work, you're sort of screwed. If you time it right, however, hunting a bedding area can be highly effective (or so I've read). The key is to wait for a nasty, windy day so the deer will be holed up and have trouble hearing your approach. So that's what I'm doing - waiting for an ugly day that any sane person would spend drinking hot chocolate next to a warm, cozy fireplace.

Even more exciting than the prospect of an up-close and personal experience with my quarry, I recently received a gracious invitation to hunt some private land just 20 minutes south of our home in Black Mountain. Unlike our property in Cleveland County, this is real mountain hunting, complete with high, narrow ridges, steep slopes and thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron.

On Saturday, I had a chance to tour the area with the landowner, who showed me the boundaries of the property and a quick run through places he thinks might be good for hunting. Yesterday, I went in for the first time by myself with a rifle in hand. I needed to see more to work up a solid game plan, but the weather was right for the deer to take a mid-morning stroll. I didn't think I'd see anything, but I was going to go in as focused as I could and try to learn more. 

With overnight temps in the teens, I figured I'd wait for the sun to come up and warm the south facing slopes to get the deer moving. I parked at the front of the property and made my way to the top of a ridge that would take me farther back. I moved slowly and deliberately, trying to minimize noise and stopping every few feet to scan the forest through my binoculars. I paid special attention to areas with brush piles and fallen logs and those thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron, as those are the places mountain deer feel safe and secure. It took more than an hour to get just below the crest of the next ridge - probably less than a third of a mile. All the while I was looking and listening, in close and out far ahead - you just can't do this kind of hunting too slowly.

Yep, I picked it up and I squeezed it.
As I hiked up and over the ridge, being careful not to silhouette myself for any longer than necessary, I noticed a disturbance in the endless monotony of leaf litter that covered the landscape. It looked like maybe, just maybe, there was a trail where some of the leaves were "fluffed up." I don't know how else to describe it, but just as I started to follow this barely-perceptible track, I found a solid clue that my prey was close by.

Note No. 1 - Mountain deer travel on ridges

I looked out ahead of me as the ridge started to descend into the valley that serves as the mid-line of the property and my heart skipped a beat. No, it wasn't a deer, but it was the next best thing - the thickest rhododendron thicket I'd seen so far. This was a bedding area, no doubt about it. Just before I entered the stand, I passed through what can only be described as a deer lavatory. It seemed every deer relieved itself in that spot before retiring to bed. I was more than amped. A silent approach was impossible. There were too many fallen branches and windfalls leftover from one of last winter's ice storms, the leaf litter was far too deep. I went in anyway, knowing that if a deer were to show itself, it would either be holding tight and blow up under my feet or be sneaking out of the thicket way down the ridge line. Neither potentiality happened. All was quiet except for each and every excruciatingly loud footstep I had to take. At the end of the thicket I stopped and watched over a likely looking valley for 30 minutes or so.
My rifle stock may as well be hot pink in these winter woods.

It was getting past lunch and I hadn't brought anything to snack on. I eased down the hill to the bottom and followed the holler out to where it opened into a beautiful black walnut flat next to the stream that bisects the property. With a hunter's eye I sized up the area and picked out two perfect trees for my climbing stand - one for a morning hunt and one for an afternoon session. From each of them I can watch over the flat and the hillsides above.

Note No. 2 - Mountain hunting will require vertical awareness.

By the time I made it back to the truck, my stomach was growling and my enthusiasm had waned. I may not make it back to this spot before the end of the season, but you can be sure I will have it thoroughly scouted before opening day next year. It's a beautiful place, unlike any I've ever had the chance to hunt and I am grateful for the opportunity that has been given me. Places to hunt are like deer in the freezer - you can never have too many.

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