It’s that time of year again. For whitetail hunters, the most important two weeks of the entire deer season are just around the corner. Increasingly, in recent days, hunters are finding signs of the rut, with scrapes, rubs and does traveling in small groups and becoming increasingly evident. If you can find the does, you’ll find a buck.
On Sunday, Nov. 7, the clocks will be turned back an hour. That adds an extra hour of sleep, but it also means it will get dark an hour earlier. Hunters, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts should plan their travels accordingly and make sure the flashlight in your pack has fresh batteries.
The woods are more open now, as cooler temperatures and heavy winds have removed much of the forest canopy. Although heavy frosts have yet to appear, the forest floor is relatively noisy. On a morning watch earlier in the week, it was cold and — as always — it seemed the sun took forever to rise. As the sun’s rays finally filtered through the tree tops, they silently slithered down the trunks at an interminably slow pace.
While waiting and shivering for the first ray to stretch across the scene and reach me, I could almost perceive the earth’s rotation. I watched as sun slowly inched down from the tree tops, to the trunk and finally across the forest floor to my location. Just as I was about to be overcome with shivers, the morning sun finally reached out and touched me.
Although it warmed me more psychologically than physically, I was finally free of the shakes. It was daylight in the swamp and my senses were keen.
There was an odd noise on the outer edges of the swamp. Entire tree tops were being denuded as the sun warmed the air. Sheets of leaves fell like giant yellow and tan snowflakes floating down from the hardwoods. In a matter of minutes, entire trees were transformed into stark, skeletal remains of their former majesty.
The woods were awakening. Birds were calling and squirrels were chattering. In the distance, I saw a movement in the woods. It was a pine marten, black, blonde and bounding along the bank of the small stream that flowed by my watch. It approached curiously and cautiously, and in the blink of an eye, it disappeared.
In no time, the woods were again quiet. The sun was up and I was enlivened and on my game. I could feel the warm sun on my face and taste the fresh cold air deep into my lungs.
In recent years, researchers have determined that our engagement in natural surroundings has important implications on human health. Immersion in natural settings can alter how we think and how we function. It can affect our levels of stress, both physically and mentally.
In effect, we become alive. As hunters, we tap into a deep well of undiscovered and unrealized skills and senses that are rarely visited in our ordinary daily existence.
Hunting offers an opportunity to recapture an element of genuine personal adventure that is woefully lacking in everyday life. The combination of sights, sounds and scents amplifies the reality of being there as a true component of the scene rather than a complacent outside observer.
On occasion, I experience a shiver of excitement with the realization that a deer can appear at any moment. There comes a rush of adrenaline with the simple discovery of a deer’s ear or the black of its nose.
We are recreating our age-old bonds with the natural world and re-establishing our place among the predators. In some inexplicable manner, we reach into the core of our being to tap an unrealized natural skill that rests dormant within most members of our species. As naturalist John Burroughs explained, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.”
I did not grow up in a hunting family. Even though my father was a former riflery instructor, guns were considered pretty much off limits.
However, over the years I have been fortunate to learn the skills and expertise of hunting from a wide range of experienced hunters. Although, I still consider myself to be far from an expert, I have traveled with many experts — both hunters and not. Here is some of the advice they have offered to me (in no particular order):
n Know your prey, their habits and their habitats. Whitetailed deer can run as fast as 36 mph, jump as high as 8 1/2 feet, and leap as far as 30 feet. They are also very good swimmers.
n Like any good coach, scout the other team in the preseason to learn their movements. A deer’s home range is usually less than a square mile, but they surely have the home-field advantage.
n Be prepared. Use an equipment checklist so that you don’t forget essential items such as bullets, rifle clips or a hunting license.
n Get out early and stay late and never believe that skill can trump luck.
n Know what to do when you see deer. Have a plan.
n A deer’s nose is its greatest defense. Shower with scent-free soap and be sure to dry yourself with a towel that isn’t washed with scented detergents.
n Dress appropriately for the conditions and your expected travel. Not too warm, not too cold. Keep hunting clothes relatively odor free in a sealed plastic bag or bin with cedar or pine boughs to ensure the clothing has appropriate woodland scents.
n Be alert and on the hunt from the moment you enter the woods until you depart. Use a rifle sling only when dragging a deer. At all other times have the gun in your hand, at the ready. The thrill of the hunt is the realization that at any moment an opportunity can arise.
n Pick up your feet and put them down. Don’t shuffle your feet. Learn to pick your feet up and step over and around obstacles, rather than kicking them out of the way.
n Never walk more than 3 or 4 yards without stopping. Turn slowly when scanning the terrain and every 100 yards or so, sit on a good watch spot for about 15 to 20 minutes. Take a step, pause to sweep the woods with your eyes and your ears and repeat. You cannot detect movement or noise when you are moving.
n Squat down or get on your knees to look for deer on their level and learn to view through the woods in three dimensions. A deer’s back and belly are usually the only horizontal features in an otherwise vertical forest world.
n Pay attention to noises. Complete silence in the forest is bad. It means other animals are on guard. Sit tight and be quiet.
n Take a watch from an elevated position. The higher you are, the more land you can see and the more you can see the more likely you are to see game.
n Don’t track deer in the snow by watching their tracks all day. Keep your head up, move at a slow speed and pay attention to the wind and weather.
n Especially after daylight savings, know when to turn back and call it a day. Make sure you have a reasonable idea of how far and how long you must walk to get back and allow yourself time to do so. This is especially important on afternoons in unfamiliar territory.
Hunt safe! Always remember that other hunters may be in the woods in your vicinity. If using a treestand, be sure to utilize a safety harness. The vast majority of current day hunting accidents, and related deaths, have come about as a result of falling out of a treestand.
Turn in poachers and unethical hunters. Don’t overlook the fact that they are stealing from everyone. The deer you saved may be in your territory on the next hunt. Report activity to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s 24 hour dispatch at 1-800-TIPP DEC.
PFDs must be worn on your person, when you are on the water after Nov. 1. It is New York’s new aquatic seat belt law.
Report your harvest. Remember, reporting your take within the first 48 hours of kill is a requirement in New York. Reporting your game take is mandatory and necessary for proper game management. This information is used to determine game harvests and to set future hunting seasons. Report your take toll-free at 1-866-GAME-RPT.