Thoughts from a ground blind on a frosty opening day of deer season
By John Holyoke, Bangor Daily News Outdoors Editor
On Saturday morning, my hunting buddies and I joined thousands of other Mainers in the woods on the residents-only opening day of the firearms deer hunting season. So, how’d it go? I’m glad you asked. Here are more than a few thoughts and observations. And (spoiler alert) a deer might even have participated in this year’s opening day.
3 a.m.: I’m awake. Man, am I awake. My alarm is set for 5:45, but I can’t get back to sleep. Am I eager? You bet I am. But man, I wish I could go for a little more sleep.
6:40 a.m.: I’ve arrived at our favorite hunting spot. Pete Warner is already here, before legal shooting time, as is his custom. Chris Lander and his brother, Billy, will arrive soon. I gather my gear, lock up the truck, and start to creep into the woods toward my ground blind.
7 a.m.: It is 22 degrees out, and all of the wet leaves that coat the forest floor are icy. There was no creeping. Instead, it sounded as if I were walking in a bowl of Rice Krispies, and I’m sure that every deer in the forest heard the loud snaps, crackles and pops as I tried to sneak into position. Oh, well. At least I’m here.
I have vowed to try new things this hunting season, in hopes of changing my luck. This year, I’ve decided, might as well be the year that I shoot my first deer. So today, I’ve decided to issue myself a challenge: I will sit, perfectly silent, for at least an hour before I make a single deer call. No rattling. No grunting. Nothing but silence. Here goes nothing.
7:30 a.m.: Man, is it quiet out there. There’s not a puff of wind. If there was a deer within a couple miles, it seems like I’d be able to hear it walking on the crunchy leaves. Do I hear anything? Of course not.
7:51 a.m.: I look up and notice all of the icy condensation on the ceiling of my blind. When the sun rises high enough to hit the blind, I think I might be in for a little indoor rain shower as all that ice melts onto my head. Great.
8 a.m.: I waited an hour. I was silent. Challenge met. Now, fire up the handy deer-calling app on my phone and see if I can get anything to answer back.
8:01 a.m.: The not-so-handy deer-calling app seems to be out of date, or its inventor went out of business. It won’t load.
8:02 a.m.: I carry too much junk into the woods. One benefit of my packrat tendencies: Redundancy. Turns out I’ve got my rattling antlers and a few other calls in my pack. Victory! Who needs an app?
8:40 a.m.: Apparently, I need an app. There are no deer in these woods. Nothing answers. And the wind has begun to blow, making that 22-degree morning feel like about 5 degrees.
9 a.m.: Have I mentioned that I am a packrat? Yes, I’m getting cold. But this year, I planned for the weather. I haul my old propane-powered space heater out of the pack, light it, and soon I’m nearly basking in its glow. Yes, I took a space heater to the blind. Don’t even ask me about the extra-large hand warmers that I’ve got in my pockets. Or the microwaveable hot seat that’s keeping my rump warm.
Yes, I may be a wimp. But this year, I’m a warm wimp.
9:40 a.m.: My blind is located in a rural part of Maine with very sketchy cell phone service. It’s also down in a hollow near a brook. This morning, I was surprised to learn that I could actually text my hunting buddies with important questions like, “What time is lunch?” Then, wanting to improve my sight lines, I moved my chair to the other side of the blind — all of five feet. Guess what? There is no cell service — none — on that side of the blind. I’m not kidding.
9:45 a.m.: I move my chair back to the other side of the blind so I can receive texts if my buddies shoot a deer.
9:56 a.m.: There were no hunter’s breakfasts on the route from my house to the spot we hunt, so I showed up hungry. I haul a few miniature Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups out of my amazingly full pack, and start munching. Breakfast of champions? No. But they’ll do.
10:04 a.m.: Furtive footsteps, approaching from the rear of my blind. Can it be? Is a buck stopping by for a visit? Unsure, I pick my rifle up from my lap and get ready. This might be my year after all.
10:05 a.m.: A lone red squirrel scurries into view. Red squirrels and I have some history. I should have known better than to expect those footsteps were being made by an actual deer. Well-played, squirrel. Welcome to hunting season.
10:10 a.m.: BOOM! (Pause). BOOM! (Longer pause). BOOM! Welcome to yet another time-honored tradition: Someone has stopped by the gravel pit nearby to sight in their rifle. On opening day. When I’m trying to hear the furtive footfalls of deer (and squirrels).
10:45 a.m.: Cold, sore and bored, I load up my pack and head for the truck. Hunting buddies have said they’ll meet me there at 11:30 a.m., and we’ll head into town for lunch. Sounds good to me. Lunch is never a bad idea in my book.
11:20 a.m.: After clambering over blowdowns and over rocky terrain, I have turned what should have been a 20-minute stroll into a 30-minute sweat march. Finally, I pop back onto the trail I’d been seeking and arrive back at the gravel road.
I’m just in time to see Chris and Billy drive by, apparently abandoning me (and more importantly, not taking me to lunch). They see my blaze orange vest, lock up the brakes and roll down their window.
Chris lets out a joyous whoop. Bill is all smiles.
“Pete’s got one down,” Chris says. “Big buck. We’re going to get Billy’s Jet Sled so we can haul it out.”
I hadn’t heard the shot, and apparently I’d been on the wrong side of my blind when Pete sent out the group text.
A buck on opening day? That was a novel idea.
The opening day hunt, for all of us, was over. There was some work to be done, and a buck to tag and transport to a butcher. Everyone pitched in, doing their parts to help out our friend.
So how was my opening day? It was fantastic. Couldn’t have asked for better.
No, the buck wasn’t mine. I didn’t pull the trigger. But that really doesn’t matter.
When one of our group succeeds, all of us celebrate. That’s always been our motto, and that’s the way it was on Saturday.
An opening day that none of us will soon forget.
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