Growing up, I mainly hunted a 50 acre patch of woods. It was also threaded with trails because it was used for horseback rides during the summer. These trails also served as game trails, so deciding where to sit wasn't rocket science. And beyond all else, I didn't have the mental capacity to fully understand, appreciate, or properly approach deer hunting.
My grandfather and I with my first ever buck - circa 1999
Then the better part of a decade passed without taking a single hunting trip. Looking back, I regret it, but school was my priority. I began hunting again 3-4 years ago after moving to a house in the woods in Hillsborough, NC. We hunted the 10 acre lot around our house, which happened to include a huge oak flat and funnel area. It had a lot of deer around and didn't take genius to figure out where to set up.
Fast forward to last year - my first year in Massachusetts. We got hitched in September, honeymooned after, and kind of improvised our way through the hunting season. Thankfully, my wife and in-laws have hunted the land for decades and with their help, I was able to learn a few of the dominant patterns. By the end of the season, Mary May (my wife) had harvested a nice buck and Jerry (my father-in-law) took a nice doe. But instead of a 10-40 acre lot, I spend most of my time hunting tracts that sum to approximately 1500 acres of forest - no fences, no baits, no food plots, no posted signs...the way it used to be - the old fashioned way. The learning curve here is just a wee bit steeper.
This year I was bound to spend more of my pre-season scouting, putting up trail cams, and setting up stand locations. Well, guess how that went? Between work, fishing, and life, I scouted for about 15 minutes all summer. I sat in the woods for a total of 4 hours during the warmest bow season on record. I didn't even unpack a trail cam until early December. When shotgun season rolled around, I was determined to make the most of it. But again, life got in the way, and although I hunted, I didn't spend terribly much time in the woods. To complicate matters, the deer were not following their typical patterns - I mean not at all. The insanely warm weather, booming bear and coyote populations, abundance of food, and lack of snow combined to create one heck of a challenge. It started out pretty rough, but I slowly began learning. Mary May, Johanna (my mother-in-law), Jerry and myself all went deerless during shotgun season. Then, for me in particular, a switch flipped. I spent a lot of time scouring orthoimagery trying to develop patterns. I then used what I saw to plan mid-day, rainy day, and windy day combo hiking-scouting-hunting trips. Eventually, it started to click.
Our success was not defined by a lack of effort - Mary May could barely stay awake after hunting Christmas day
By the middle of muzzle loader season, I was seeing deer on nearly every trip to the woods - although it seemed as if I was getting so close, yet so far. It was always a little too dark, or there was one too many trees in the way, or I should have walked another 5 feet before stopping, or the wind shifted and blew my cover. Most of the late season bucks around here are highly pressured and get smart quick, as do the does, but I was even managing to sneak up on deer before they spotted or scented me. Eventually, I was putting deer in the scope, just nothing with antlers. With only three days left in the season, we finally got the few inches of snow I had been hoping for. Unfortunately, it promptly crusted over with a 1/2" of ice, making walking incredibly loud and almost impossible in some areas. In the end, the season was an uphill battle I couldn't quite win.
I didn't want the season to end. I wanted to keep hunting, but more than anything, keep learning. Hunting became more cerebral to me than ever before - like a chess game. You graduate from a pawn to a knight, learning from your mistakes and misteps while chasing the king...of the woods.
Despite not harvesting a deer, it was one of those years that you know is going to pay dividends in the future. Above all else, I learned the ins and outs of the woods that I now call home and feel like I've developed a stronger connection with the New England wilderness. I don't know how many miles I put on my boots this fall, but I'm sure it was approaching triple digits. I reflected back on all of the previous hours I'd spent in the woods and the people I'd shared that time with, as well as the people who had walked those same miles and sat in those same places before me, most of whom I will never meet. Of course, I also think to the future, of all the things I hope to do differently next year. Hunting is (or at least should be) so much more than pulling a trigger.
Johanna with her muzzleloader buck who had spent the morning chasing does
A footnote, the season didn't entirely kick our butts. Johanna harvested a nice 4 pointer on the first Saturday of the muzzeloader season. The deer dressed around 110-115 lbs and provided about 55 pounds of meat for the 4 of us. Until next time, tight lines!