It is 9AM on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and I know exactly where I am.
I know this even though I’m writing about it several days beforehand. I’m confident of where I’ll be because I’ve been there before. Exactly here. At exactly this hour.
Exactly here is four feet off the ground in a box blind on the far side of the “front hill” on a farm in the Driftless, a few miles from a place called Rockbridge, aptly named for a natural arch made of sandstone that resides within the village’s municipal boundaries.
It’s the front hill because it faces the front side, complete with new deck and old porch, of an old farmhouse. It’s the far side because my blind is on the other side of it from that house. That far side is also on the west-facing slope, which for me means that at 9AM the sun hasn’t come up yet. Or rather, it is up, but I just haven’t caught any of its direct rays just yet since they’re blocked by that hill. The first streams of sunlight should hit my blind in about a half hour.
And I know how I got here. At 5:30 I started walking from that same farm house. I hiked up a rather steep incline on a grassy farm road and then followed the road around to the backside. I wore a headlamp to help me find my way and, most likely, I heard (but did not see) the crashing of deer as they fled away from me.
I arrived about a half hour later, slightly damp from the exertion, but I quickly zipped up and pulled a heavy gator over my throat and warm hat over my thinning hair to ward off a chill that I knew would come. It would come because my assignment for the next 10 and a half hours would be to sit still. That’s all. Just sit still. And listen and look. Wait for the rustle in the leaf litter that is not a squirrel. Look for the horizontal dark patch in the distance that turns out to not be a small tree or a bush because it moves when the wind isn’t blowing.
I’ve been doing that for the past three hours. But I haven’t been totally still. Because there’s coffee.
Now, coffee is a curious thing for a deer hunter. On the one hand, he needs it. It’s hot and it keeps him awake. And, let’s face it, if you think that first sip of coffee tastes good in your warm kitchen, imagine how good it tastes in the dark at 26 degrees.
But here’s what’s curious about it. Hunters go to some lengths to kill odors. Deer really don’t see all that well. They have great range of vision — about 310 degrees — but they can only distinguish shapes and movement. So, they’re apt not to recognize humans by sight. As long as you don’t move, you’re just a curious object.
But scent will give you away as a predator in an instant. Countless times, I’ve stared down deer for several minutes until the wind shifts, they catch my scent and they turn and scamper off.
Hence, the great lengths. My hunting clothes have hung since yesterday outside to avoid the smell of cooking in the house. When I got up to camp boss and farm owner, Jordy Jordahl’s, “Daylight in the swamp, boys!” at 4:30, the first thing I did was shower in special scent-killing liquid soap. It comes in a blaze orange bottle, so you know it’s serious stuff.
And, then, shortly after arriving at my stand, I opened a thermos of fragrant hot coffee…
Let’s just move on from this.
Shooting time started at 6:30, a half hour before actual sunrise by the official charts, and about three hours from actual sunrise in my valley. Chances are that between 6:30 and 9AM I will have seen more than half of the deer I will see over the next three days.
There are about a half million reasons for this. Hunting pressure is perhaps as intense as it is anywhere in America right now at this hour in this state. About 500,000 people participate in the Wisconsin gun deer hunt and almost all of them are out for opening morning. That means a half million people are walking out to their stands at about the same time, pushing deer. Those deer that I probably scared up on my walk in, started moving and they alerted other deer. Now repeat that hundreds of thousands of times across the state and you catch my meaning. If I’m going to see deer this weekend, my best chance is in the hours right around sunrise on opening morning.
So, did I shoot one of those deer? Well, if I had a good shot at a nice doe, I hope the answer is yes. I’m in deficit territory to the Jordahl farm. That’s because my last deer was a big buck in 2018 and Jordy has his own “earn-a-buck” rule. That is, if a guy shoots a buck, he must shoot a doe before he can shoot another buck. The rule is in place because Richland County has more deer than it needs and Jordy just planted 4,000 oak seedlings on his farm. Deer love oak seedlings and fewer does mean fewer fawns next spring and fewer mouths chomping on Jordy’s seedlings.
Fewer deer also mean less chance of spreading Chronic Wasting Disease, the scourge of Wisconsin deer hunting. It has been creeping toward Richland County since it was first discovered in the deer herd 20 years ago in western Dane County. It arrived a few years ago in Richland, but so far not in overwhelming numbers. The deer herd here is still pretty healthy, but thinning it helps.
If I did shoot a deer it’s most likely still where it fell. Soon I’ll climb down from my stand, walk over to it, remove my coat, pull on long plastic gloves that reach my elbows, pull out my knife and go about what needs to be done. Cleaning a deer can be thought of like cleaning a pumpkin for Halloween. There’s a lot of gooey stuff inside that needs to be removed. Simple as that. I can’t say I enjoy the work, but I do find it interesting and engaging. The best thing I can do to honor the animal I just killed (I killed it — I don’t like the euphemistic “harvest” which tries to obscure the reality of the act) is to treat it with some reverence. To protect the meat so that it can be consumed and not wasted.
Then I’ll return to my stand and sit and wait some more, now with the books back in balance, and shooting a buck a possibility.
I can write about all this in such detail and with such confidence days before it will happen because it has happened in just this way. more or less, for the past 30 years — last year’s strangeness the one exception. There is stability in a deer camp of which one has been a member in good standing for three decades. The rituals, down to the minute sometimes, are deeply set.
It seems to me that one reason for the current state of discontent in the world is too much disruption and not enough ritual, not enough routine, not enough things that we can count on for dead certain. In short, what we lack is stability.
We’d be better off, I think, if everybody had a deer camp, if everybody knew just where they’d be at 9AM on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
Welcome to the 276th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!