Rob Weber has been hunting for 35 years. For him, the hunt is so much more than bagging a deer.
Nine days in November
NO DEER? NO MATTER. WHY I'M STILL THE LUCKIEST GUY.
I heard the deer coming long before I saw them. The sound of ice cracking in the cedar swamp to the south of me took my attention away from watching two red squirrels that were chasing each other endlessly around the hemlocks and white pines on my little island oasis in the swamp.
It was certainly deer moving and they were coming fast. There! Through a thick screen of hemlock boughs I caught a flash of one deer — no, two deer — coming in my direction. The first to appear in an opening 40 yards in front of me was a good–sized doe. She stopped to survey the woods in front of her and started moving again. It took 15 or 20 seconds for the second deer to materialize in the opening. In that time, my mind had painted a picture of a majestic 10–pointer stepping out from the cedars.
Of course that didn't happen. Instead, a fawn ambled into view and followed its mother down the edge of the hemlock island and into the cedar swamp to the north. I realized then that I was shaking.
I have been hunting for more years than I can sometimes believe. I have seen and experienced just about everything one can in the woods over the years. So why would the sight of a doe and a fawn cause me to shake like a boy seeing his first deer?
I pondered that question over the next couple of hours, interrupted only by the red squirrels occupying the neighboring hemlock. I concluded it was not the doe and fawn that had caused me to shake. It was that 15– or 20–second period in which my mind had painted the picture of the 10–pointer stepping out of the cedars. That brief moment at 8:45 on opening morning and the excitement that came with it had made my whole season worthwhile.
That excitement is what hunting is all about. Even if nothing else would happen the rest of the season, it was already a success. The license fee, all the early risings, the long hours on stand fighting the cold, it was all worth it.
But plenty more happened that season.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving morning. Several inches of fresh snow blanketed the Chequamegon–Nicolet National Forest where I was hunting. I had decided to take the fight to the deer, so to speak. My plan was to find some good looking fresh tracks and follow them until I caught up with whatever was making them.
I had walked for about 30 minutes without seeing any fresh tracks. As I moved along an area of open hardwoods bordering a spruce bog, the woods seemed to turn an exquisite peach color. I saw the veil of clouds was thinning and the sun was beginning to break through. My eyes shifted back to the forest, and I enjoyed the light show for another 30 seconds before the emerging sun put an end to the scene. It didn't add anything to the meat pole, but it was beautiful. I filed the memory away in the scrapbook of my mind. That moment, too, had made my season worthwhile.
With the sun fully out, the woods were brilliant. Every view was crisp and clear. Eventually I saw a pair of adult deer tracks milling about on the edge of the hardwoods. I began to follow them and they soon led into the spruce bog. About 150 yards in, the tracks took off. The deer were scared by me no doubt.
As I followed the tracks, I realized they were taking me right where I had come from. Soon the tracks left the bog and as I expected, turned down a little ridge and proceeded to run right through the boot tracks I had made 30 minutes earlier. Over the next three hours these two led me on a merry chase from one bog to another before heading out into the big hardwood ridges to the north of me with their feet to the floorboard.
I decided to call a truce and end the chase. Turning south, I headed for some ridges that kept watch from high above a wilderness lake. Along the way I encountered a pair of wolf tracks. I followed them for a while just to see if I could discover what they were up to. Maybe they were just moving through, or maybe they too were enjoying this beautiful day for hunting. Who could blame them? After following them for 400 yards or so, I wished them well wherever they were headed, and I set a course for the lake.
I noticed very large tracks moving out of a spruce bog and up into the big ridges. The deer that made these tracks had to be a good size and my heartbeat picked up as I followed the tracks, scanning intently into the woods in front of me for what I am sure was that majestic 10–pointer I had chased in my mind for years.
At the crest of the first ridge I caught movement in the brush 80 yards to my left. I saw only flashes of it as it first followed the ridge, and then abruptly turned and ran down the ridge, disappearing into the spruce bog. Was that my big buck that made the tracks I was following?
I found the tracks of the deer I had seen and confirmed that it was not the same deer I had been tracking. I continued following the large tracks to the last ridge above the lake. The sun was dipping below the trees in the western sky, so I decided to end the chase for the night.
Heading toward my vehicle, I thought back on what a great day it had been. Not only because of all I had seen and experienced, but also because of the one thing I hadn't seen all day. I hadn't seen a single human footprint, even an old one, in a whole day of tracking around a Wisconsin forest. In fact, I hadn't seen or heard anything human–related all day. The only sign of other hunters I had encountered was the pair of wolf tracks. This, too, had made my season worthwhile.
As it always seems to, the last Sunday morning of the season was upon me all too quickly. After sitting for a few hours and seeing nothing, I started back towards my vehicle with the melancholic realization that a whole year must pass before another deer season. On the way out I came upon a fresh scrape etched in the snow under a low hanging balsam limb. That sight would keep me company over the long wait for next November.
My season ended with 11 deer sighted, eight does or fawns and three which could not be identified. That is a fairly typical season for me and much better than the one deer I saw during the season before.
My tag went unfilled again this year, but I'd like to paraphrase an Aldo Leopold line from his book A Sand County Almanac. What was big was not the rack, but the chance. What was full was not my tag, but my memory.
As I closed my mind's scrapbook on the season, it went down as a success, as have all my seasons. When I hear so many talk about horrible seasons, waste of time and such, all I can do is say, “What?” I really and honestly pity that point of view.
I am reminded of a line from the story, Just Look at This Country by the great Wisconsin outdoor writer Gordon MacQuarrie. In it he writes, “Hunting. The means are greater than the ends and every deer hunter knows it.” That line has been with me ever since I read it at the age of 19. Nowadays, it haunts me more than ever, though. Hunting for many is becoming a pursuit in which the ends are all too important and the means seem to mean less and less each year.
Killing is a part of hunting, but it doesn't have to be a necessary part of a successful season. We live in a time where many hunters want, and even demand, assurances that they will see lots of deer and have the opportunity to shoot one or more.
The number of people who feel that way is growing, and it is a disturbing trend, as in the end, it diminishes what hunting is all about. Hunting should not have to come with guarantees other than a communion with sunrises and sunsets, having a front row seat to the play that is nature and the chance of hearing a twig snap as a 10–pointer steps out of the spruce bog.
That may happen in the next five minutes, just as all seems hopeless. Maybe that happens five seasons down the road. Maybe that never happens. But there is always the chance.
I believe that the interlude from one November to the next is what makes deer season so special. After a long, hot summer, as the days shorten and the leaves put on their spectacular color show, the anticipation begins to grow. When the bright October woods give way to the steely, cold November landscape, the excitement reaches a fever pitch.
For me, I feel a primal pull towards a small cabin on the crooked shores of Lake Namakagon in Bayfield County. There is no more special place on earth and this is a most special time. Our deer camp will gather again to write the next chapter in the story, not really knowing how it will begin or how it will end. That is how it should be.
At the end of the day, no matter what comes or doesn't come down the trail, for nine precious days each November, I am the luckiest guy alive. As hunters, aren't we all?
Ron Weber has been hunting for 35 years. He has a degree in forestry and natural resources and calls Weyerhaeuser, Wis. home.