November 04, 2010
Nothing lifts a whitetail hunter's spirits more than a dreary, dark day on stand.
By Jeff Stonehouse
After going three full years with no whitetail meat, I'd placed a tender young doe high
on my hit list.
THE SOUND OF DRY oak leaves crunching in the otherwise silent Wisconsin woods brought back fond memories. Perched high in a tree overlooking a well-used deer trail, I watched a doe as she slowly closed into bow range. Three long years had passed since I'd last hunted whitetails, and their circumspect twitchiness had slipped my mind.
So had their tendency to pinpoint my location, even when I'm perched 20 feet up a tree in the dense woods, but that's what happened. The doe stepped into a shooting lane at 20 yards, and as I raised my bow, her head craned up and her eyes locked on me.
Two or three minutes passed before she looked away, at which point she moved out of my shooting lane and back into the thick brush. With anticipation, I watched her every step. Soon she walked into another opening, and I came to full draw. She was looking directly away from me, yet she bolted as I pulled back my bow. In the dead-calm woods, she must have heard my arrow sliding over the rest.
The doe darted back into the trees, trotted a short distance, and then stopped again, her vitals exposed by a fist-sized hole in the thicket, 15 yards away. As I released, she dropped about eight inches. Hitting the spine, the arrow dropped her in her tracks, and quickly I followed up with a heart shot.
With my nerves thoroughly rattled, I sat down and reflected on the joys of Midwestern whitetail hunting.
COMING HOME AGAIN felt great. Eleven years before, I had moved from Wisconsin to sunny Colorado, but I have tried to return to Wisconsin every November to hunt whitetails. Un-fortunately, the past three seasons I'd been unable to make the trip, and I had begun to miss Wisconsin's cloudy, gloomy weather, and its whitetail hunting. In 2006, after several physically tough big game seasons in Colorado -- aren't they all? -- I was looking forward to resting my tired bones in a Wisconsin treestand for a week and basking in the gloom. Essentially, this trip was about getting back to my roots as a whitetail hunter. It was a homecoming.
My brother Fred, a lifelong Wisconsin resident, and I rendezvoused in the town of Rice Lake, where we discussed plans. Fred's buddy Dave had granted us permission to hunt his land in northwestern Wisconsin. According to Dave, his property had been rifle hunted over the years, but no one ever bowhunted there.
Fred and I were grateful for the opportunity to hunt Dave's property. In the past, we had roamed mainly public lands -- state and national forests -- that had yielded spotty results. Unlike public grounds, Dave's chunk of real estate would belong exclusively to us during our stay.
Arriving at Dave's cabin on November 2, Fred and I unpacked our gear, and then Dave showed us around. His 80-acre parcel, consisting primarily of oak ridges surrounded by neighbors' open fields, is a deer haven. As soon as we began scouting, we found a major runway peppered with rubs. Fred decided to place his portable blind beside this trail.
I then discovered a line of scrapes on the opposite end of the big woodlot. With Fred's help, I strapped my Gorilla treestand about 20 feet up a hefty oak, 15 yards downwind from a large scrape. Of all the scrapes I had found, this one seemed to be the most frequently visited.
That evening, sensing we were in for some real action, Fred and I discussed our strategies with unbridled optimism. As corny as it sounds, before turning in for the night we gave each other a high-five.
By responding to my calling and scent drag rag, this young 6-pointer stamped a welcome exclamation point at the end of my joyfully gloomy homecoming hunt.
AFTER THE FIRST morning's hunt, Fred and I met back at the cabin about 11 a.m. Fred was nearly bursting with giddiness as he related the events of the morning. Shortly after first light, he heard does bleating nearby. He grunted on his call a couple of times and waited. Within a minute or two, a small 6-pointer came charging and stopped at 25 yards. Fred released an arrow, but the deer jumped the string and bounded away unscathed. The thrill of that encounter kept my brother glued to his blind for the next few hours, enthusiastically waiting for another charge, which failed to materialize.
"How about you?" Fred concluded.
"A buck came right into my scrape," I began.
"Did you get him?" Fred asked.
Baiting him a bit, I simply shook my head and said, "Nope."
"Why not?" he asked.
I just shrugged.
"What the heck!" Fred exclaimed. "You didn't miss him, did you?"
"He was just a spike. But man, he sure worked over the scrape like he was a big boy!" I said. "Besides him, three does passed behind my tree out of range."
These woods undeniably held an ample supply of deer, and with five tags in my pocket, I wanted to collect a couple of does first. Three years without a taste of whitetail meat had been too long, and a tender young doe was definitely high on my hit list.
Over the next few days, Fred and I spent much of our time visiting and catching up, hunting only sporadically. And then Fred had to leave to get back to work.
ON THE AFTERNOON of November 6, I bagged my first deer of the trip -- the hunt detailed in the opening paragraphs. Despite years of pursuing western game, I'm always relieved and refreshed to get back into my old element and waylay a whitetail. Just a doe? Far more in my book.
Sitting in my stand after the shot, I absorbed the bone-chilling ambience of the forest. Why would anyone eagerly leave the sunshine and 70-degree temperatures of Colorado to freeze in a treestand beneath a dark, cloud-filled sky? Was I nuts? As unbelievable as it may seem, for months I had been pining to experience the ominous gloom of Wisconsin's November weather.
There in my treestand, shrouded once agai
n in a Midwestern chill, I mentally drifted back in time. Before my move to Colorado, I had spent most of my days afield in Wisconsin, suffering through less than ideal conditions. Cold, dank woods were routine, and downright nasty weather was not unusual.
One particularly gray and rainy day, I had crept silently through the sopping forest to my treestand. After climbing the slippery oak to my perch, I removed my drenched cotton gloves to wring out the water. Cupping my hands to warm them with my breath, I heard a buck grunt to my right. Slowly, I turned my head, and there he stood, looking directly at me. Even though I sat motionless, he had already spotted me, and he took off. That's okay, I told myself. This is perfect deer weather -- they'll be moving.
And I was right. During the next hour, two does and a small buck strolled nonchalantly past my stand. The lousy weather seemed a blessing -- it had a calming effect on the deer.
After I'd sat another hour in a steady downpour and near-freezing temperatures, a decent buck ambled into range. The patter of rain covered my sounds as I stood, drew my bow, and sent the Easton arrow through the deer's vitals. He took two steps and folded.
Some of my best memories of bowhunting are inseparable from thoughts of insufferable weather. Since I grew up hunting in those conditions, I feel at home when the weather takes a sour turn. Call me crazy, but gloomy skies always lift my spirits.
ON THE MORNING of November 7, I registered my doe and then skinned her and boned out the meat. A neighboring farmer, George, let me use his freezer to store the meat. He also provided me with water during my weeklong stay in Dave's cabin. George showed great hospitality. While visiting with him, I saw several tiny antler mounts adorning the walls of his house. He explained that because of intense hunting pressure, bucks in the area seldom sported large racks. "But, they do grow big bodies," he added.
In the afternoon, I still had does on my mind. Settled into my treestand by 2 p.m., I waited to intercept a baldy on her way from bed to feed. The sky was dark with storm clouds. At 2:30, I heard the distinct sound of footfalls in the dry forest leaves. My eyes strained to find the source of the noise, but several minutes passed before I could discern the shape of a single deer moving through the gray woods, 80 yards out. Over the next 10 minutes, the doe eased closer and finally stopped with her head behind a tree trunk at 15 yards.
I drew my Hoyt bow, settled my sight pin, and loosed an arrow. Just as on the previous day, the deer dropped several inches, resulting in another spine shot.
WITH THESE SUCCESSES, I was ready for a break, so on November 8, I drove to town and stayed one night in a motel. A simple hot shower seemed like a vacation at the fanciest spa.
The next day, I was back at the cabin by noon and in my stand by 2:15. Before ascending my tree, I dragged a doe-urine-soaked rag through the woods and hung it on a branch beside a heavily used scrape. At 2:45, I called and rattled and then repeated the sequence 30 minutes later. Fifteen minutes after that, a buck appeared in the distance, rubbed a tree, opened a scrape, and then scent-checked the air downwind of the drag rag. Curling his lip, he walked toward the rag and stopped at 20 yards, quartering away slightly. I drew and settled the pin.
The arrow angled forward through both lungs of the big-bodied 6-pointer, colliding with the offside shoulder. As he sprinted from view, my heart pounded wildly. Nothing compares to the adrenaline rush of whitetail hunting.
After calming my nerves, I descended the tree and checked the area of the hit. The blood was plentiful and the buck's running tracks were clearly visible in the thick carpet of oak leaves. I waited a half-hour and took up the trail, and within 10 minutes I was field-dressing the buck.
THE NEXT DAY, after registering and weighing the buck, I passed the better part of the day prepping the meat for the freezer. With that work completed, I had time for a short afternoon hunt.
In all candor, it wasn't much of an effort. The trip was basically over. I did see two does, but they never came within range, and I just smiled and hoped they would be around the following year. This last 90 minutes on stand just gave me time to reflect and to soak up the somber gloom of the Wisconsin woods. I would be back. Three years without Wisconsin whitetails would never happen again. This dreary place would always be home to me.
Author's Notes: I hunted with a Hoyt VTEC at 68 lbs. draw weight; Easton Axis 400 arrows; Fuse Kumasi broadheads; wool clothing by Columbia and Woolrich; Rocky Buckstalker boots modified with felt liners for additional warmth;
Hunter's Specialties True Talker grunt call and Primos can call; and Hot Doe Gel from Robinson Labs.
A one-time resident of Wisconsin, the author now makes his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado.