It’s tough to beat the excitement of opening day – any opening day – and early fall in the upper Midwest provides a variety of them for sportsmen. Whether the dates on the calendar set the season for upland birds like sharptail and ruffed grouse and Hungarian partridge, waterfowl such as ducks and geese, or archery seasons for deer, bear and other big game, there’s a circled square that generates plenty of preparation and anticipation. That psyched up feeling culminates with time in the field, in the blind or on stand that reconnects hunters with the unpredictability of the natural world and reminds us that the way things work outside of the office, beyond our front door and off the beaten path aren’t always how we imagine them in those hours leading up to each season’s big day.
This weekend, while up in a tree on the edge of a large public parcel in the opening moments of archery deer season, I was reminded of the fact that the way things work in the wild aren’t always what we expect. While lamenting the slow start and the rising winds under cool and cloudy skies, I counted the number of deer I had seen in my multiple trips to that very same spot: two. They consisted of a large doe that snuck up on me on the first day of last year’s gun season, and a sprinting buck that was pushed from cover just a few minutes after the doe had passed. But beyond those two deer it was always cold, windy and quiet, with little deer activity, much like the opening hour of this archery season.
The spot held hope of a large buck and was too good to give up on with its wide impenetrable slough, surrounding tree cover and various pocket swamps and ponds in the complex. Trails crossed and wound their way out of the deep cattails, intersecting a mere 20 yards from the hand-shaped crux of the old elm tree that gave me an incredible natural vantage point just a few feet up from the ground with no need for a stand. It was that thought – that this was a high-traffic area, and that large deer had been seen and taken from this place – that helped me hold off the thought of abandoning my post for good.
The large gray body that was sprinting down the trail to my far left not only brushed that thought away, but trampled it into the ground as I caught the commotion from the corner of my eye. Above its head, a tall noticeable rack of at least eight points cut the morning grayness as it continued its sprint past my vantage point. I didn’t hesitate to clip my release to the string and draw back. Hesitation wasn’t on the deer’s mind either.
The buck ran full bore, from forty yards out until he was right by the tree, sprinting and grunting his way along the slough edge, and he didn’t stop or slow down to provide a shooting opportunity. I grunted at him as he passed outside of the 20-yard mark and continued away from my position, but instead of pausing and looking around, he did a complete wide-swinging u-turn at fifty yards and sprinted back the way he came, closing the gap between us and then blowing through the area in a gray blur before disappearing in the grove of trees to my north. Dumbfounded, I unclipped and watched as a small six pointer materialized from the slough edge and followed his big brother’s trail away toward the clearing horizon. The whole exchange took a matter of seconds, but defined the day and reminded me that the excitement we experience on opener is often unplanned and uncontrollable, like nature itself.
Later in the evening, in a stand on the other side of the county, I followed a rising commotion in a mess of gnarled trees and brush as the last of the day’s wind died out, allowing the snapping twigs and rattling branches to reverberate throughout the bottom meadow. I surmised it couldn’t be the careful steps of a cautious doe and was certain a rampaging buck banging the last of its velvet off would materialize, steamrolling the ancient cottonwoods with ease as it made its presence known in the clearing. I stood up and once again readied my release on the bow string. The crashing, rattling and shaking continued, and I strained to catch a glimpse through the tangled brush. With the swishing of field grass and the crackling of beanstalks, the moment of truth came.
I was right, in part; it was not a doe at all, but rather two does, jumping and playing roughly with each other in a manner which would make any monster buck quake if he couldn’t see them either. I watched them circle my position, chasing after each other, pausing only to pick off the few remaining green soybeans in the golden sun of the last Saturday of summer and the first day of the season. It was a fitting end to an opener filled with surprising experiences, unusual occurrences and the continued lessons of unpredictability that the start of each season once again provides us…in our outdoors.