WARNING: This post contains some graphic description of things that some people may find offensive. If you do not like hunting or are squeamish, you may not want to read this.
Last year I had my first hunting experience. I barely knew what I was doing and didn't even see a single deer, but it was still a great time in nature. This year was a lot more of the same, but I was much more prepared for the experience, and got to spend even more time hunting.
I've been looking forward to deer season for literally months in advance - I bought some new gear, did a lot of reading and other research, and was generally much more confident going in.
Last year I bought all of the basics gear-wise except I was borrowing a friend's gun. Earlier this year I bought my own rifle (a Browning X-Bolt Hunter 30.06) and had a few opportunities to get some practice with it. Compared to the 7mm I was shooting last year, my gun is a bit lighter and has significantly less recoil - I've found it much easier to handle. A few days before going out I ended up at Silverdale Gun Club which, at 2h from Toronto, is the closest rifle range open to the public. Happily, I was able to verify the sights on my scope and shoot a 2" grouping at 100m without using an entire case of cartridges.
A few months back a friend gave me a large stack of old hunting magazines. In the week before going out I read through just about all of them to pick up tons of deeps on deer behaviour, location, calling, etc. After reading some of those I picked up a a couple of deer calls (a grunt and a bleat) as both seemed very commonly used. Reading these also reinforced with me the fact that wind direction and scent are extremely important when deer hunting. This is something that I've been told before, but I learned a lot more about how to use wind direction to your advantage by reading so much. For example, when you call a deer it's rare for it to come directly to you -- it will usually try to get downwind to catch your scent before it comes in close. If set-up correctly, you can put yourself in a place where you can intercept it before it makes it downwind.
A friend of mine recently purchased a large property primarily for hunting purposes. He's spent a lot of time getting it ready for deer season - including building two tree stands - and I was fortunate enough to be invited to hunt there with him. I'm certainly no expert on this, but compared to last year's location it seemed like it had more potential - there was more varied terrain (hardwood forest, cornfields, swamp/marsh) and because much of the property is marshy, there's large amounts of land with absolutely no human traffic.
The weather was a little warm for this time of year. It started around freezing, went up over 10C for a couple of days, and then back down almost to freezing again, with rain on and off.
Like last year, we got up very early so we could be out in the field before legal shooting. Thankfully, this new property was closer to where we were staying and we got to sleep until 4:30am most days - what a luxury!
Monday and Tuesday
I spent the bulk of Monday and Tuesday in a tree stand on the edge of cornfield. I didn't see a single deer these two days, but one of the largest rabbits I've ever seen poked it's head out around dawn and hopped into the cornfield. It must've been hungry because it didn't return until dusk. I did take some time to walkabout the property a bit and found numerous signs of deer: tracks all over the place, scat, and a series of buck scrapes on one of the wider trails. After finding these on the second day we set-up some trail cams to try to get a better sense of where the deer are coming from, and when they move about.
Wednesday and Thursday
I spent on Wednesday in the stand again but gave it up pretty quickly after absolutely no activity the first couple of hours after sunrise. That afternoon I spent some time looking for a spot to set-up deeper in the hardwood part of the forest. Despite being quite dense there's very few places with a decent amount of cover - meaning it's hard to sit without being easily spotted. Eventually I found a spot that wasn't completely exposed and got set-up. Because the forest is so dense I needed to bend and break quite a few branches of trees to have a viable shooting path. With that done I sat down for the remainder of the day. I tried some calls and I tried complete silence - but I had no luck at all. No sightings and no sounds (other than the irritating red squirrel). Still no deer. On our way home we noticed that all of the corn in the fields had been harvested - this change in scenery gave me some hope for the next day.
Thursday morning I didn't look to the stand at all, and sat in a simple ground blind on the edge of a different field. Again I tried calling and again nothing came. Like Wednesday, I didn't last long before I gave up on the cornfield and went back into the bush. We also checked the trail cams again and found that there was a nice buck wandering around just 30 minutes before we got there - how frustrating! Once again, I was on the hunt for somewhere with good cover to sit - but this time I got as close to the marsh as I could, as we thought that it was the most likely place that the deer were bedding. After an hour or so of slow walking and searching I finally found somewhere to my liking:
It looked to my like this was something someone constructed a few years ago - the logs are arranged so that there's pretty good cover for small movements (like shifting of legs) but low enough that they can be seen over. There was also a nice big pile of dirt behind me to lean against. As sitting on the ground goes, it doesn't get much better than this. Once again I needed to cut shooting lanes. As I was moving branches directly ahead I looked down and saw a fresh looking deer track. I won't lie, I got pretty excited about seeing a deer track 30 yards from where I was sitting for the rest of the day. Again I sat down, again I called, and again nothing came. Heading out that night I was starting to feel a little dismayed. I know that even if you do all the right things the deer may not come, but it was pretty disappointing to be coming out of my second last day without so much as seeing a deer. On the way back my friend suggested that we come out even earlier the next day to get sat down long before legal shooting to give even more time to let things settle.
So, Friday morning we got up at 3:45am and left the house blearly eyed around 4:30. I decided to head back my spot from the day before which meant I had to walk close to 10 minutes into the woods in pitch black. The fact that there's coyotes and possibly a bear in these woods made this a little nerve wracking. I made it in safely and was set-up, sitting quietly and motionless by 5:30. With still nearly an hour before legal shooting I took a short nap. A minute before legal shooting I gave out a short grunt with my call hoping to entice something out. After having no success with it all week I didn't expect much, but 2 minutes later I caught a climpse of something moving to my right. At this point my heart started to beat faster and I did my best to move slowly to get a better look. I quickly realized that it was in fact a deer! It was upwind of me and unfortunately not in either of my shooting lanes. I started to think about what I should do next but before I could decide the deer made the decision for me -- it started moving left, probably trying to get downwind of me to catch my scent. It moved behind a series of trees and I took this opportunity to shoulder my rifle, though I was unsure if I would get a shot at it. All of a sudden it appeared directly ahead of me and completely motionless. I looked down my scope, told myself where to aim, and pulled the trigger. Despite shooting my rifle many times before, this shot seemed louder than any other.
For the next 30 seconds I was in a state of shock. I looked ahead and saw nothing. Looking slowly in either direction was the same. Because of the recoil of the rifle I had no idea whether or not I hit my target. I wasn't sure what to do at first but soon realized that I had to get up and check things out. It's possible that I wounded it, I thought, and that I'd have to chase down a blood trail. Getting up, I grabbed my rifle and turned on my headlamp. As I walked through the dense bush my gaze was fixed on the spot I last saw the deer. At first I didn't see anything but then I saw something reflecting light. I approached slowly once I was within a few metres I saw it: a deer, laying motionless on the ground, with an exit wound clearly visible on the upturned side of the body, just below the neck. To make sure it was truly dead I poked from a distance a few times (something I'd been told is always smart to do). No response came from the deer, which I could now tell was a doe. Then it really sunk in: I'd done it. I killed my first deer, and my shot killed it instantly, ensuring it didn't suffer.
I worked towards this moment for more than a year but it still feels unreal. Killing this animal gave me no pleasure, but directly providing food for my family gives me immense satisfaction. Whether or not I bring home anything in the future I look forward to contiuning this journey.