The Elusive Buck: My 2019 Deer Season

As I sat there staring at the birds, I heard a rustle of grass….shoosh, shoosh, shoosh. I know that sound.

img_20191015_235710_01.jpgBear season seemed to go on forever, and just when I was ready to throw in the towel, the bear returned, and I trapped my first bear ever. By then, deer season was literally two weeks away, and I hadn’t so much as put out a game camera let alone scouted any place to decide where to hunt.

John and I did some quick scouting, and he and I put up a couple stands on the Saturday before opening day. November 2nd rolled around pretty quickly. I had all my gear freshly washed ad de-scented and hung outside. I have a menagerie of camo clothes: a little of everything from just about everyone for all types of weather. I scored some nice Sitka gear at Marden’s, a local discount store, this past summer so I would at least be warm. I stocked up on buck lure, hand warmers and lip balm. I charged my Ozonics battery and the Tink’s deer escent dispenser, which has become my favorite.  I was ready.escent

tripod standI decided to sit in my tower stand on the hill. I hadn’t even been there since last year. Last year was an awful deer season since there were no acorns, so the deer that normally hang out there, had to find food elsewhere. This year was looking much better, so John and I hacked down the chest deep weeds and made our way up the hill with the four-wheeler. Some quick scouting, and a nice rub line convinced me to sit in the tower stand. I wanted to move it, but forgot the keys to the cable lock, and there it stayed.

My first morning was mostly uneventful. I did get to see a bald eagle swoop down in front of me. It had spied something to catch, but I think it spotted me and changed its mind. I saw geese flying overhead, and I heard loons, mice, and chipmunks, but no deer. I sat a few more times in the morning and afternoons with no luck. I even moved and sat on the ground in chair where I thought I would have a better chance at seeing a deer. I finally put out a cell camera, a Spypoint Link, and found out the deer were coming through at midnight. I decided I was done sitting there.

John was also experiencing a lack of deer, so we headed over to “Bill’s” to scout out a spot. Not many, if any hunt Bill’s land so John was pretty psyched. We put up a stand in the exact same spot he shot one last year. The sign was good. The area had lots of scrapes, rubs and acorns…the perfect mix for a buck to show up. I even sat in the stand a couple times, but it felt dead. Not even a squirrel showed up, and with the road so close, it wasn’t an enjoyable sit for me, so back to the drawing board.

Not knowing exactly where I should sit, I decided to sit behind the house on the beaver bog (which no longer has beaver). John and I have had a stand there for years. It’s one of the only homemade ones left that’s still in a tree because it’s built strong and the branches help keep it secure. It requires climbing a ladder, then a couple screw-in steps, to climbing the tree branches and finally a shimmy onto the seat. When I was fat, I couldn’t climb it without going into a full sweat and asthma attack, which is why it ended up with a ladder on the bottom. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen does, as well as a bobcat, along the bog, so I thought that would be my best option.

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The only thing about sitting on the bog is that it’s a long walk in and the wind is never in my favor. It’s not somewhere I can sit in the morning since daylight comes barely before I have to leave for work. So the very first Saturday, I made my way in. It had rained so all of the oak leaves were wet and super quiet. I climbed into the stand. I had my gun on my back since there wasn’t a pull-up rope. When I got to the top, I found the pull-up rope had somehow ended up in the tree, so I untangled it and dropped it so that I could use it in the future. I was actually pleased to get into the tree without a lot of noise. After a while I did my buck grunts and then a doe bleat…then the wait began.

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My view 45 degrees to my right. Note where the barrel is for future reference.

As I sat there, I obsessed over how much the branches on trees out in front of me had grown, and how little I could see. I was quite annoyed and wondered if I’d even be able to shoot past the branches to hit a deer, should I be so lucky to see one. The animals around me were in full annoyance mode at daybreak. The mice, squirrels, and chipmunks were seeing who could yap the most, and the birds: blue jays, chickadees, finches, nuthatch, and even a partridge were all flitting and fluttering around me. It was hard to hear and to concentrate on listening for deer sounds.

Then a new sound. Annoyed, I looked to my right. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, off to my right, was a cardinal, flitting in the fir tree. I hadn’t seen a cardinal since last year, on the day I hung my deer in the tree. I got a bit emotional thinking about my mom, the hunter in my family, and wondered if she was giving me some clue. Then I watched it fly down to my left, slightly below me, before I lost sight of it in the brush.

As I sat there staring at the birds, I heard a rustle of grass….shoosh, shoosh, shoosh. I know that sound…a very distinct rustle that had me in panning the grass left and right trying to figure out where to hell that noise was…it was a deer. And then I spotted it…them…two deer on my left moving swiftly in unison. I think that cardinal was trying to tell me something. I saw the side and butt end of one deer as it followed another. I only saw its side for a second before it went behind a row of fir and spruce trees on the other side of the bog. I didn’t even have a chance to raise my gun. I kept thinking, “That has to be a buck“, but I didn’t see antlers. It shouldn’t have mattered since I had a doe tag, but geez, it would be nice to get one big buck in my lifetime. I hadn’t had a doe permit in so long, I was still in buck mode.Buck chasing doe

As I sat there, I couldn’t believe it. The deer finally emerged from behind the trees, and went up onto the hill on the other side about 150 yards away. It was a buck chasing a doe up and down the hill, in circles, chasing non-stop. This was so cool because it’s the first time I had ever seen it happen. I had only heard stories about it as told by John and my oldest son, Zack. It was also frustrating because I didn’t want to lose my chance to get a shot, but it was so far away and they weren’t standing still. The buck would chase, then stop and eat. The doe would run, stop and eat, then run again. At one point the doe did come down to the edge of the bog near the tall fir tree to the left of the X, closing the distance; however, the buck didn’t follow. When the doe bound back up the hill, he was right behind her. 

I sat there trying to decide if I should or could take a shot. I’ve never shot at a running deer, and I’ve never shot a deer more than 40 yards away…damn…what to do? So after what felt like forever, when I had enough watching them chase each other, I decided to take a shot. The buck was on the side hill standing broadside and eating acorns. There was a grove of young pine trees lining the lower, far side of the bog. They just tall enough so that they narrowly left an opening for me to have a shot at the deer just above the tops of the trees. I tried to increase my scope magnification from the normal 3 power up to 8, but then I couldn’t find the deer in my scope…gahh…they were running around again. Then the buck stopped. I dropped my power back, took aim and fired. I hoped I hit it, but I doubted it. I was silently cussing at all the branches in my way among other things. The deer had run off as if nothing happened. Now I’m thinking, that was a stupid move because I may have wounded it, or if not, then scared them off from coming back. I think I can say, this was my first, and hopefully last, case of buck fever. I sat until I couldn’t take the cold any more. I got down out of my stand and made my way across the bog to see if I was lucky enough to hit the deer. I certainly didn’t want to wound a deer and not go after it. After about 40 minutes of looking all over the hill, which didn’t seem nearly as big once I was there, I found no sign of blood or hair, but only some running deer tracks. So I headed home, mad at myself that I couldn’t make that shot and that I even tried.

I had several other chances to hunt in the morning. One morning, instead of heading to the bog, I went about half way, and sat on a rock just off the trail. I could see up the hill but not quite to the top of the trail, and I could see a nice area off to my right. I thought I heard what could be a deer, but never saw anything. As I left to get ready for work and headed up the hill, I was greeted at the top of the hill with fresh deer tracks of a buck chasing a doe. I couldn’t believe it.

img_20191112_080042485.jpgA morning later, work was called off due to the snow/ice storm. I got everyone else off to work and then I headed out. I figured I’d see if there were any sign of deer, and make my way to my stand in the bog. Just behind the house, I came upon fresh deer tracks. There was a very noticeable doe-in-heat pee and big buck tracks right along with it. Dang. I’ve never tracked a buck, so I wasn’t sure if I should plus I hadn’t prepared. I decided they were probably too far gone, so I kept to my plan and made my way toward my stand. Almost there, I came to the hemlock tree that had a scrape under it all season and where I caught a smaller buck on the camera. edited image of rabbit and partridgeAs I walked, I came across new rabbit and partridge tracks in the snow…literally walking together. This made me smile so I took a picture with my phone, which doesn’t do it justice. A few feet more, I came across the tracks of the same buck and doe. It was tempting, but I had to keep a clear head. They hadn’t traveled where I was headed, and I had already decided I wasn’t going to track them, so I continued to the stand.

Raincoat morning
Me in my raincoat under my blaze orange vest.

I stood at the opening by my tree stand and took a look out over the bog, remembering what I had seen days before. I had worn a raincoat, but my gloves were wet from the snow and rain so I decided I’d sit in my stand for a while, then head back home after a rest. I walked back to my stand and turned around to face the ladder. I took my rifle clip out of my gun and put it in my pocket. I secured my gun stock to the pull up rope so that the barrel wasn’t touching the ground, and then I started to climb the tree. I was bit nervous as I climbed. My hands were really feeling the cold now and the limbs were wet. I was literally shoulder height with the stand’s seat, when I heard something. I turned my head to watch a doe, followed by a chasing buck, which I made a point to look at his beautiful golden brown rack and then in desperation, whimpered no! no! no! as I clung to the branches in shock. Then for a kick in the teeth, the buck stopped perfectly broadside to take a look my way. A perfect shot and me climbing a stand with my gun on a rope at the bottom of the tree. I watched him trot off to catch up with his lady friend.

Deer laughing at me
Can you feel my pain?! Remake of me seeing the deer while I climbed the tree.

I climbed into the stand hoping they’d show up in reverse of what I saw on the first day. I pulled my gun up. I loaded it. I sat there in disbelief of what had just happened. I called John. At first I couldn’t reach him so I sent him a cursing text about what just happened. Then he called me back. I tried to tell him what happened with my angry voice, but instead I cried in frustration. I cried…I never cry, especially when it comes to deer hunting…then I was mad that I had climbed that tree stand. I walked home feeling quite defeated that not once, but twice this buck had eluded me.

That’s the second time I’ve seen a deer while climbing that %$#@*&^* tree stand, and right then and there, I vowed I wouldn’t be in it again. Next year, I’ll have a real tree stand that I can easily and quickly climb.

November 15th. I feared the rut was over, but it seemed like the perfect morning to hunt, and I had even considered calling in a vacation day. It was a nice crisp morning, so I decided I’d walk all the way into the bog, but instead of sitting in that tree stand, I’d plunk down where I could see and hear and possibly get a shot at a deer. The storm had left a hard crust, and walking in was never going to be quiet. So instead of trying to be quiet, I opted to walk like a deer. I’d take a few steps and stop, then take more…walking toe heel so I wouldn’t sound like a person. I took out my buck grunt and once in while I’d give a grunt. Every single step was a loud crunch. I made it right to the top of the hill where the buck and doe had crossed a few days before. The wind is NEVER in my favor here. It blows from right to left diagonally down the hill. As I made my way down the hill, I heard a loud crunch, crunch, crunch. It was, without a doubt, a deer breaking through the crust as it walked, and it was downwind of me. It seemed to be coming toward me so I got my gun up and tried to move closer to the opening to see if I could see the deer and possibly get ahead of the wind. As quick as it started, it ended. Where it went, I don’t know. I think it smelled me and made a quick exit. Even though I didn’t see it, I got excited again. It was the kind of excitement I get when I have these kinds of experiences.

DEER LICKING BRANCH ON BOG
A photo-shopped version of where my deer stood.

With a new perspective, I continued down to the bog. With my seat cushion in hand, I stepped up to the opening of the bog, just beyond my tree stand. As I stood there trying to decide where I should sit, I spotted movement out of the corner of my eye. There in front of me directly across from me on the other side of the bog stood a buck. He was licking branches on the same fir tree that the doe had stood under when she was being chased. I carefully dropped my seat pad, slowly took the gun off my back, and standing there, I took aim. I waited until he was broadside, and I shot. I knew I had hit him, he hunched and then just stood there. I shot again, and he went down. I had my deer.

IMG_20191115_183255_01I called John and told him I shot a buck. He came down and together we went to claim my bounty. I called my work and told them I’d be in late. I had just gotten my deer.

So that buck…that elusive buck showed up on my stand right behind the house, that I haven’t sat in for two years. He was chasing a doe. I’m pretty sure he was what I heard that morning. He’s still out there as is the other three bucks and lots and lots of does I had on camera. Next year can’t come soon enough, but as with every year, there are no guarantees that he’ll do a repeat of his territory next year.

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She was right there with him
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Same morning I shot my deer
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Not my buck but same genetics by the antlers and lack of brow tines
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One of three smaller bucks has uneven smaller brow tines.

 

 

 

No Land to Hunt? Ask….or Find It.

First of all, it’s important for anyone, man or woman to ask to hunt land that isn’t yours.

Sperson knocking on dooro I started following a group of women hunters, and a question came up about hunting when you have no land of your own, and what to do when you aren’t very comfortable about knocking down doors to ask.

First of all, it’s important for anyone, man or woman to ask to hunt land that isn’t yours. Even if the land isn’t posted, if you feel you have to sneak around, it just won’t feel right. And the last thing you want to do is be chased off land you didn’t ask to use, because you now know the answer would be no for sure.

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Town map…find your spot and then find the owner

There are ways to find available land no matter where you live. Look for access by permission only signs and find the owners if it’s not listed on the sign. Don’t be afraid to go to the local town offices to look at town maps, or get online and find landowner information from tax assessing records. You won’t find a phone number, but you will find a name and address, and that’s a start.

I was scared to death to ask a farmer to hunt turkey, especially being a woman. Low and behold, despite their surprised look of a woman asking, the owner was cordial. She had promised it to another hunter, but if I could wait until Thursday, then I could have it. Turns out she knew my Dad, and was happy that I was a Norridgewock native. Small steps may lead to a big opportunity.

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LaGrange to Medford Trail

There’s a lot of public land in Maine that’s accessible to hunters. Now I know it’s annoying that there are some places that people used to hunt that are now off limits because land was donated to a group or cause, and they make their own rules. Many of these organizations don’t consist of hunters, and because patrons might feel afraid, they restrict hunting…blah, blah, blah…it’s not going to change unless we are part of the process. The one thing that will help all hunters is making sure good landowner relations continue to protect what we do have access to use. So asking is best.

bigelowpreserve
Bigelow Preserve

So I did a little digging. I can’t give away all my spots, but this will help you find public land to hunt. Be thorough and do your homework on the area. First of all, you can hunt on public lands and even some state parks, but you have to put on your detective hat and scout the land. The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry has some great information on their website. Hunting is not allowed at State Historic Sites or Memorials, and there’s a list of places you can and can’t hunt right there to review. You can search by activity and these are the public lands and state parks that came up for hunting. Just be mindful to know the rules pertaining to state parks and when you can hunt. I was surprised to see so many options in southern Maine, since I’ve never really considered it anywhere near accessible to hunters…but it is. I live farther north and don’t hunt in southern Maine, but there are lots of opportunities to  hunt.

Bear hunting has more restrictions/requirements, but bear hunting is still allowed on public lands, but by permit or lottery. It’s either by straight application and the sites are split equally among requests, or a lottery is done if the number of requests outnumber the number of sites. More information about how to apply is found here.

There’s also information on gathering (berries, mushrooms, fiddleheads) which has become very popular, and as with hunting, permits are required for some types of gathering.

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My moose from zone 5 in North Maine Woods

Another source for hunting is the North Maine Woods, which is actually several timber companies that let you access their land for a fee. You pay at the gate, and the land is there to hunt. Just know the zone rules for whatever game you are hunting. Now when we hunt the NMW, it’s a trip, week long or at least three days because we live so far away, so it’s not something right out your door, but it’s nice to know it’s there. And there are several registered guides throughout the NMW that can help you get that deer, moose, bear or whatever you want.

IMG_20190826_120920641.jpgAnother source is paper company land closer than the NMW. We rabbit hunt “north” and it’s on paper company land. Some companies such as Wagner and Weyheuser, have a permit/lease system for bear hunting, and it’s pretty gobbled up by a few guide services, so don’t be totally discouraged because they hold some sites for DIY’s like us, and sometimes sites become available. They have roads to bird or rabbit hunt, deer hunt, moose hunt, and even bear hunt if you’re lucky enough to see one not over bait, so it’s not a total loss.

And a fairly new option I sort of stumbled upon is land trusts not state owned, such as the Ezra Smith Wildlife Conservation Area, donated by George Smith and family, and is managed by the Kennebec Land Trust which allows hunting on most of its parcels of land. There’s quite a comprehensive list so go to their website and check it out.

img_20191015_235710_011.jpgNow getting back to landowner permissions. The ONLY way we bear hunt on private land is because we got landowner permission, and in return, we give back by maintaining his road. We feel so privileged that we have this access and we take it very seriously. And all we did was ask.

My son hunts on land that isn’t his, and all he did was ask. And he asks every year. I’ve hunted turkeys on land that wasn’t posted, but we still asked. The landowner appreciated it and told us so.

no hunt signAnd you’ll have some landowners who are anti-hunting or what I call land greedy (it’s mine all mine and you can’t use it even if I don’t) and they have their signs posted everywhere, but sometimes conversations can lead to opportunity such as just asking to bow hunt instead of rifle hunt and a door opens. Sometimes not, but it’s worth asking.

Ask a farmer. He may hate those turkeys eating into his silage pile, and wants you to “shoot all of them.” And if all else fails, ask friends if you can hunt with them. You may just find a mentor. Many friends make a trip to hunting camp each year and/or leave their own property un-hunted. Opportunity….Ask. Ask. Ask.

You may just be surprised to find more people are willing to let you hunt than you realize. Access is only a knock away. The more we talk to landowners, the more we build relationships that will help protect the future of hunting.

Good luck and be sure to identify your target before you shoot.

 

 

A Cup of Courage

This was recently published in Boot Life Magazine. Buy a subscription and get your stories sooner!

August means the start of the hunting seasons, and bear hunting is one of my favorite, both for anticipation and actual hunt. It’s hard to believe that just seven years ago, I started baiting bear sites with my husband, John. I was along for the ride then. This was the guys’ hunt; my husband, son and son-in-law set baits in hopes on getting a big bruin, so there really wasn’t any room for me. I was always mindful to not crowd in on guys-time as I think it’s as important as the girl-time I spend with my daughter. Even though I didn’t tell anyone, I really wanted to try this bear hunting.

I remember helping John bait those first sites. Since the guys worked later than he did, I got to tag along and help schlep the barrels of bait and grease.  We got our first game cameras just for bear hunting, and checking our memory cards was always the highlight of the trip, especially when the bear would try to destroy or rip the camera off the tree.  Seeing bear photos for the first time was a definite WOW moment for me. The excitement of seeing bear while having the fear of them, was real. The whole time I helped bait the sites, I was constantly looking over my shoulder, leery of what may be lurking in the woods. I was never outright scared because John always had the .44 magnum on his hip.

Fast forward a couple years, and boys decided they didn’t have time to bear hunt north. There was my opportunity knocking! By then, I had grown more accustom to seeing bear photos and instead of feeling that fear, there was more taking the time to see which one was left or right handed into the bucket, and seeing how big the bear were. I was then, and still am amazed at the number of different bear we have coming to bait.

I was so excited to finally get to bear hunt; however I also knew this would be a challenge for me with my fear of the dark. John helped me prepare my site, but I ultimately picked the spot. For years we had driven by one side of the hill and I was just dying to check it out. Turns out it was loaded with beech trees, clawed up from bear climbing them in previous years. It was also shaded and would get dark earlier than an open spot.

We set my tree stand and barrel, then baited it up, and in no time, I had bear coming to MY bait. Once bear hunting finally arrived, I was faced with my first challenge. I had to walk into my bait site alone. John would have taken me, but if I was going to hunt, I was going to not have him have to hold my hand.

When I first hunted deer, John was right by my side, taking the lead and walking me into my tree stand and sitting with me the entire time, but over time, I learned to face my fear and walk into my stand on my own. This was different. It was daylight. How could I possibly be afraid?! I can’t say I was completely comfortable because there’s always a chance of encountering a bear on my way in, so I’d take a deep breath, taking in my cup of courage, and off I’d go.

I was always relaxed once I got in my stand, but until then, even encountering a snake in the trail would scare the hell out of me. Walking in was not one of my favorite things to do.  I would sit until legal shooting hours ended, but then I’d have to stay in my tree stand until John retrieved me. As dark approached, I would go from hoping a bear would come in, to hoping one wouldn’t decide to show up because what would I do then?! I would always be relieved to hear the truck coming down the road, and would watch for John’s light in the trail. He’d let out a whistle in the dark, and I knew it was safe to get down.

One night, I decided to face my fears by getting out of my tree stand and walking out to John. I knew he was on his way in to get me, so down the ladder I went. When I reached the bottom, I realized I had left my flashlight in my backpack. As I rummaged through the pack, I heard a noise on the trail. I gave a whistle. No whistle back. I gave another whistle. Again nothing. Then the sound of an animal running off in the brush with a good bristled huff. It was a bear, and there I was on the ground with nothing but a flashlight! In an instant, John gave a yell. The bear had run right at him on his way in.  I was glad he didn’t hang around me. I was pretty proud that I maintained my calm and didn’t panic when I realized it was a bear. Call me naïve or dumb, but that event actually helped me gain more courage when I bear hunt.

I moved my stand higher on the hill the following year. It was the very first time I had daytime bear. One night we went to our stands later than normal. I had been having a sow and cubs on my bait, so I was a bit nervous about the possibility of running into an angry Mama bear. I took a deep breath and my cup of courage, and headed in. I brought my trusty bacon scented spray to help cover my scent as I ascended the trail to my tree stand. I sprayed a small squirt of scent on the trees every few yards. As I made my way to my stand, I was going to spray up my bait site, but instead, jumped a small bear, that took off in flash of black. So much for my cup of courage. I decided I didn’t want to go any further so I put the bottle of spray at the base of my tree stand ladder. I climbed into my stand which I had equipped with a handy dandy hanging tree blind, so that I could go undetected if a bear came in. I thought I was sitting pretty.

As night closed in, I was pretty excited that I had actually seen a bear in the wild, since that was a first for me.  Then came the unmistakable sound of something coming up behind me, walking ever so slow and deliberate. I could hear minute pieces of sticks breaking almost silently under the steps…then came the sniff. The sniff of a bear directly under my tree stand, smelling my bacon spray. I didn’t dare move. I swallowed another cup of courage and tried to get my eyes on this bear, but the inside of the blind was small and unforgiving and I couldn’t move…or I didn’t dare move. As it went to my right, dark was closing in fast and I still could not see the bear because he was directly under me. When he finally made his way out in front of me, I could just make him out, and I only had five minutes left of legal hunting. It was now or never. As I pulled my gun up, the bear stopped. I slowly moved my gun so that the barrel came outside of the blind so I could aim. In an instant, the bear bolted. He had seen my gun. In a flash, my bear was gone, and he’s never returned.

My heart raced, and as bummed as I was that I didn’t get a chance to shoot my dream bear, Scrapper, I was overjoyed by the whole experience. It still remains one of the most memorable moments in my hunting adventures.

Bear season will begin the end of August, and hopefully by the time you read this, I will have harvested a nice bear for the freezer. I will still have to drink my cup of courage when I head into my stand, and when I leave, which I now do alone as I make my way back down the mountain to my waiting four-wheeler. I’ll drive through the trails in the dark, sometimes jumping a moose or two and make my way out in the dark to where I’ll leave my four-wheeler and get picked up by John.  And yes, I’ll probably swallow a cup or two of courage every time I do it. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. That cup of courage has made me more confident as a hunter and person, and any time I think I can’t do something, I just drink another cup of courage and say, “yes, I can.”

My advice to anyone who wants to hunt, but has fears. Find a mentor, and face them head on. Drink that cup of courage. You won’t regret it.

We’ve Come A Long Way

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One of the first fishing trips John and I went on with his family. We caught a bunch of brook trout.

As I was talking with John the other day, it occurred to me that we’ve changed so much over the last thirty something years. We married in October of 1984, and through all these years, we’ve persevered and have become what some have referred us to as a “power couple.”
IMG_20160507_110851408I laugh when I hear this because it’s usually in the context of hunting and fishing and all the things we do together. It’s quite a compliment, but honestly, it’s just about being together and enjoying what we do. Our kids are grown and off doing their own things with friends and family, so we have more time together that we didn’t have when we were raising our three kids. Hopefully they’ll take some of the times we spent hunting, fishing and wildlife watching with them and pass it onto their families.

So how did we get here?

My dad was pretty strict, but I think it was his own fears that made these rules. I remember not being allowed to go into the woods. My father’s house was only on two acres, but apparently he felt that was more than enough for us to get into trouble, so we (the kids) weren’t allowed to “wander off” and had to stay in the backyard. As an adult, this had lasting effects as I was dreadfully afraid of the woods and what might be lurking in those woods. The first time John and I went for a walk, I nearly jumped out of my skin when a partridge took off. I was never aware of my surroundings and all I remember was that I didn’t enjoy mosquitoes, and I certainly didn’t go looking for wildlife. Even when my family spent time at the camp lot, a parcel of land that my parents bought in the mid 70’s, that had an old school bus on it that we turned into a camper, we were not allowed to explore beyond our boundaries. Now when I hear partridge drumming, it only makes me want to find it.

From the age of 4, my oldest son Zack would want to go “hunting” with his BB gun, so he and I would put on our orange and take walks in the trails behind our house. We never saw anything, but he got the chance to work on his stalking skills and just loved every minute we were out there. I, on the other hand, never went beyond the trails because that’s all I knew.

One of these times, we hadn’t gotten further than 30 yards off the edge of the field, when I spied legs walking down the right trail. In my mind, I thought this was one of John’s cousins who is tall and skinny and who also lived next door. While I was wondering what he was doing out back, I soon realized it was a rutting moose coming down the trail. His head was down and his antlers…huge antlers…were going side to side as if to challenge us. I grabbed Zack by the arm and made a run for it back toward the house. I wanted Zack to see it, but I didn’t want the moose to charge us. I went into a full asthma attack as we hid behind a tree. We never saw it up close because I was so concerned about getting away from the scary monster, and meanwhile the moose changed course and headed down a different trail.

Zack grew to love the outdoors so much that he’d wander off all day. I’d worry and every night, I’d have to yell, “Zack-Ah-reeeeee“, for him to come home. He certainly explored beyond my boundaries, but would come home with stories of his travels and of all the stuff he saw in the woods.

When my husband was a young boy, he would sit around and listen to the men tell hunting stories, but moose hunting wasn’t allowed then so there were only stories of beastly moose and how scary and unpredictable they are. As a youth hunter, he had an encounter with a rutting moose that charged him, which left a lasting impression. John was set up in front of an oak tree while hunting deer. A moose came in to the smell of his buck lure, and when the moose saw John, he charged. John ended up yelling and kicking leaves at the moose and eventually shot over its head to scare it off. He retold this story  as a teenager and said it was one of the scariest moments as a kid he could remember. Then while in college, John was working the wood yard when a young moose wandered into camp. John decided to challenge himself and he was pretty impressed that he was able to make calls to the moose and eventually scare it off. It was then that he realized moose weren’t all that scary.

Thirty plus years later, we’ve grown to understand moose, and fully appreciate their presence in the woods. We’ve successfully hunted, tracked, and called them in just for the sake of seeing if they’d respond. There are no longer fears associated with moose or any animal for that matter.  If anyone had told me ten years ago, that I’d be hunting bear, or that I’d get my grand slam, I would have laughed. I am no longer afraid of the outdoors, the dark, the water (somewhat),  or going beyond my boundaries and stepping out of my comfort zone. I am still challenged when I face new adventures and those old fears creep in; however, I know I have the skills to be competent in the outdoors, so I just push forward challenging myself at every chance I get.

We’ve come a long way from where we were thirty years ago. I hope that if you’re thinking of getting into hunting and fishing or even just nature, that you’ll not put it off for another day. Don’t expect it to be perfect when you do venture out. Just take each time as a new and learning experience. I’m so thankful for who we’ve become both as people and as a couple. I can’t imagine life any other way.

 

A Successful Bear Season

This was originally published in the December 2018 issue of Boot Life Magazine. To see full photos, you can subscribe to Boot Life Magazine for only $24.95 a year!

As I listened to the radio, I heard Olympic champion, Scott Hamilton describe how incredibly hard it was for him to realize that in all the times he failed, he was learning and taking in information eventually to be successful. “Everything that I’ve ever been able to accomplish in skating and in life has come out of adversity and perseverance.”

And this pretty much is how I feel about bear hunting. Bear hunting isn’t as simple as it’s made out to be by the anti-hunting establishment. My husband John, and I love to bear hunt, and we do it all ourselves. Bear hunting on your own requires a lot of preparation and perseverance, and just as with any kind of hunting, it takes a little luck. We’ve been at this bear hunting for some time now, but I only started bear hunting four years ago. It’s quickly become my favorite season. The anticipation that builds with a month of baiting prior to the actual hunt, followed by hours upon hours sitting and waiting for a bear to show up makes for exciting adventures. Every year that we hunt, we encounter new obstacles, and each year we learn more and more on how to be successful, but no year is a guarantee.

Every year, the different weather patterns and natural food conditions directly affect how bears behave. Beechnuts were abundant in 2017, and literally the day the wind blew and the nuts fell, the bears stopped coming to the bait…well, except for the sow and cubs, which I wouldn’t shoot. They continued to visit the bait and I’d watch them for a bit in hopes someone else would show up.

This year, there were few natural berries or beechnuts, and the land that we hunt on has almost no oaks or apple trees, so come July, the bears were hungry to put on some extra fat before they den up for the winter. This makes for a prime baiting season, but these type of conditions can also be a problem for bear hunters since bears will den early if there isn’t enough food, i.e., the right kind of food.

We started off our season by securing three barrels of bait, which would give us enough bait for three sites. Given a few choices, we opted for the donuts over the trail mix and granola. We also has some really yummy frosting, but we didn’t get as many flavor choices as the previous year and had only one peanut butter bucket.

Once the baiting season began, we baited the two established sites we had, plus we baited two new sites further and deeper up the mountain where they would be less chance of any human interference that might keep bears away during daylight hours. These two new sites proved to be key in our consistently having daylight bears on our sites for the first time in several years. More importantly, we had several new bear that we had never seen.

Scrapper was an old bear that had been on my lower bait site for three straight years, but this year he never showed up. Along with one sow and a cub, we had several bruins, young and mature as well as a well-known sow that had no cubs this year. Last year, she had three cubs, but none were with her this season.

After testing out our sites, John opted for the “tunnel bait”, and I took the “top bait”. We continued to bait the established bait that was mine, but discontinued the other one since it had no bear on it.IMG_20180908_173425728

The first day of bear hunting was a well anticipated day. The sun was shining, but it wasn’t hot and humid as it had been the last two years. Bears move more in cooler weather, so I was optimistic that I’d have a bear this year. I even had a different gun than I had planned to use originally. My son, Tyler scored a moose permit so he bought a new .45-70 rifle. I was so impressed with how easy it was to shoot that I asked him if I could use it. This gun felt like a cannon with a short barrel, so it was easy for me to handle. The only obstacle was that it didn’t have a scope so I had to get used to shooting with an open sited rifle. I’m used to shooting rifles with scopes, so this was new to me.

NewtripodstandI strategically drove my four-wheeler most of the way to my stand, but left it about 100 yards away at the bottom of the mountain. I hiked up to my tower stand and took my seat. The sun was hot on my back. I had my new Ozonics running above my head, and I also had a jelly donut scent stick burning. Behind me I could see far off mountains, and the light breeze kept the mosquitoes and bugs at bay. I watched several gray and red squirrels duke it out over who could steal the most bait. As the afternoon closed to an end, and with only about thirty minutes left, I reached in my bag for my prescription glasses. As soon as I looked up, I watched the biggest bear from nowhere, come out of the woods from behind the barrel and step out in front of it. At this second, I had a “Holy Crap” moment. Seeing a bear that size, with his black face and back as tall as my barrel, that close, was not something I had ever seen. I pulled my gun up. The bear looked right up at me as I sat in my tower stand. I took aim making sure the front sight was seated at the top of the back peep site. I let out an exhale and shot. The bear acted as though I had hit it and it bolted into the woods.

IMG_20180819_172750541I sat there in shock. This bear was huge. I think I heard him go down, but I don’t know. I texted John a few expletives that I had shot a bear. I began to shake, which I never do. I had so much adrenaline running through my body, I didn’t think I’d ever stop shaking.

John came and met me at my stand. By then it was dark. Using flashlights, we went to see where I had shot the bear and to go over the whole scenario again so that we could find it. There was a tiny bit of red blood right where he stood. I knew which direction he ran, and we went that way. There was only a tiny drop now and then. I was afraid he was so fat that he wouldn’t bleed, but that’s why I had used the gun I chose…to make sure it made a big hole. We followed into the thickest woods I had ever gone. I heard the bear huff at one point. He was mad, and obviously not dead. It was just too hard and too unsafe to be tracking a wounded bear at night in those kinds of woods, so we backed out and decided to go back in the morning at daylight.

IMG_20180912_083630910Morning finally came after a toss and turn night. We spent the night in our camper and I awoke to rain drops coming in the roof vent. How are we going to track a bear in the rain?! I was devastated at the thought we might not find my bear. We searched for four hours following just tiny spots of blood, and we never found him. Later I went back to where I had shot at him in front of the barrel. There in the root of the tree was my bullet and some bear hair. I had only grazed him, just enough to make him mad and guarantee that he wouldn’t return this season. I was sick to my stomach that I had lost best chance yet at getting a bear, and a big bear at that.

When I told my son that I couldn’t believe I shot low, and explained how I lined up everything, it was only then that I learned I wasn’t supposed to put the front site at the top of the peep, but center it in the middle. A hard lesson learned for not using a gun I wasn’t totally familiar with, and this failure will haunt me for a very long time. John also lost a bear the same night; a bear that came in but was just out of bow range. He figured it would be back, but it never came back during daylight.

I didn’t feel totally defeated since I am a licensed Maine trapper and I still had a chance to get a bear. This is the second year I have tried to trap bear with a snare. Last year, with sow and cubs nearby, I ended up not being able to trap because I didn’t want to catch a cub in my bucket snare. This year, there was an emergency law passed that banned bucket traps. This left me with either not trapping or having to learn how to trap on a trail, which is what we did.

The very first time we trapped, we tried setting the snare in front of the barrel, but with so many squirrels running all around the barrel, the chances of them tripping the snare before a bear did was inevitable. Opting for a bear trail setup wasn’t hard because the bear had been using so many of them to come to the bait that deciding which trail to use was the hardest.

WGI_0015We moved cameras so that we could monitor bear activity in case the trail we chose wasn’t working. I had a small bear trip my trap, but with the cable stop, it prevented it from being caught. I moved my snare as to not educate the bear. The second tripping was simply the bear didn’t step perfect. I moved my snare again. This time, I put branches in the way so that the bear wouldn’t have any option but to go where I wanted it to go. I set the trap on a downhill walk right where it had put its paw time and time again. Two days went by and I had not hits. Then it rained, which washed away any of our remaining scent from being there. I think this was key to the bear being caught. Yes, I caught a bear. I caught a bear for over 8 hours! And he was mad! He fought and clawed, and chewed at trees to get free. He eventually got himself tangled around a small maple sapling that I had thought wouldn’t be a problem. And he got free. Bears two. Staci zero. So close but no bear for this girl.image

We continued to trap with different bait because we ran out of donuts and although we had several other close calls, we never caught another bear for any length of time. Eventually we had to call it quits because the bear never really liked our bait and instead, went to den.

It took me a long time to be able to talk about missing the first bear, especially when seeing posts on social media with picture after picture of “successful” bear hunts. I was embarrassed that I missed. Then I saw a guide post the number of his clients who missed a bear, and I didn’t feel so bad.

Time will heal the failure, and I’ve learned to look at the positive side. We had a successful bear season. We had the most bear ever come during daylight. I know where I’ll hunt next year, and what to use for bait, and I’ll trap a bear next year making sure my catch circle is clear of anything that could help my bear escape.

Next year, I’ll do it all over again because I absolutely love the challenge, the anticipation, the thrill and the rush of bear hunting. But the one thing I have to keep telling myself is that it’s not bear shopping, it’s bear hunting, where nothing is a guarantee. Wish us luck!

I’m Not a Turkey Hog, Honest.

We roosted the turkeys the night before and knew exactly where they would be in the morning.

I know it’s a little late since turkey season started in late April, but I had a lot of fun this year. I was lucky enough to bag two turkeys on two different hunts, and with two completely set of events. So while I watch and wait for bear on my cameras, I’ll recap the turkey season.

Turkey hunting is sort of odd. You watch turkeys right up until opening day fanning, strutting and gobbling in the fields only to often times find they just disappear as soon as you start hunting them. The signs always stick around: the dusting spots, the scat, the scratched up leaves where they’ve been feeding which begin to torment you since turkeys can be finicky and just not gobble no matter how hard you try to get them to answer….in fact they’re a lot like moose. They either gobble instinctively and uncontrollable, and do just as they’re supposed to, or not at all.

This was the case behind the house. Our first morning was a bust. We roosted the turkeys the night before and knew exactly where they would be in the morning. We set up and made our calls. Turkeys were coming out of the trees everywhere, but no toms in sight. The hens never spooked, but they didn’t stick around either. They simply left to join the turkeys gobbling on the other side of the field, and the toms never came our way.

We caught this guy on our game camera that same evening…and we hadn’t gone back for the evening hunt.Digital Camera

So off we went to make our truck run, hoping to spot a few turkeys in the fields where we have permission to hunt.

Sure enough, we spotted one lone strutting turkey making its way across the lush green field. We drove by, parked in the adjoining field and snuck along the tree line making our way closer to the edge of the adjoining field.

IMG_20180430_081242081John did a call. The turkey answered. We strategically kept trees between us and the bird, and made our way to the big hairy pine standing on the edge of the field. There was about 50 yards to the gully where a line of trees grew and separated the fields. The turkey was on one side, and us on the other. I was afraid the turkey wouldn’t cross the line of trees as they don’t usually like to do that. But luck was in our favor. That turkey was on a dead run after a couple more calls. I readied myself under the bottom tree branch, and waited until the turkey was in range. It crossed the tree line. It strutted. I could hear its feathers ruffling. It dropped his feather and let out its last gobble. I fired and dropped him on the spot. Textbook hunt right there, and I bagged a big fully-mature turkey. We went and tagged the turkey, but the store couldn’t weigh it. I think he was a good 20 pounds but we could only get 19.1 pounds on the deer scale.

So the second hunt was much different. In fact, this hunt wasn’t for me. It was for my friend Erin to get a turkey. I brought my shotgun because I could still shoot a bird, but I had no intentions on shooting a bird before Erin did.

John drove us around hoping to get a bird. We didn’t have any luck first thing in the morning, so we headed on our ride. Erin spotted a turkey and group of hens in a field. After some successful calling and her and I waiting for the turkeys to come our way, we gave up. The turkeys either spotted us or got bored because they simply moved away from us. So back in the truck we went. In our travels we spotted a litter of fox pups. It was really awesome to see. I didn’t have my camera, but Erin has some nice shots of them on her Instagram page.

So we headed to the spot that is known to have turkeys “later in the morning”. We headed up through the field…a long field, with a treeline in the middle. Just as we got to the treeline, John spotted a whole flock of turkeys coming our way. We dove for the ground. Erin and I scooted up to the treeline and John with decoys in hand started calling and dancing the decoys. The turkeys responded immediately. Erin and I had no idea how many turkeys were there, but they were coming fast and furious. One very vocal bird was making his way fast and was on the other side of us in a matter of 30 seconds.

I sat behind Erin telling her to get ready. Instead of the turkey busting through the opening in the treeline, it turned and headed to our right making its way down the treeline. I couldn’t see him, but it felt like I was ducking a Velociraptor that was hunting us. I was afraid to move a muscle because turkeys have incredible eyesight. But he was moving to my right. I didn’t even have my gun in my hand. I whisper to Erin that the turkey is coming to my right. She answers back to have me put my back to her. She is ready for a bird to just step through that opening and doesn’t dare move. I slowly put my back to her. I pull my knees up and pull my gun to my side.

In a split second, that tom turkey decided to fly through the trees and landed about 15 yards in front of me. He gobbled. I slowly raised my gun and POW! I dropped the turkey.

John jumped up and yelled, “What to heck did you just do?! Erin’s supposed to shoot the turkey!” Erin high fives me.

In all the commotion, we didn’t realize that there were about twenty more turkeys that HADN’T come over the treeline yet…and then we watched them all run away. Erin’s chance at a bird that day ended as quick as it began. And John now calls me the Turkey Hog.

My turkey never moved a muscle until we went to picked it up. It managed to spur John and then a bunch of  its tail feathers fell out even though I never touched them…weirdest thing ever!

I felt bad I had shot, but Erin was such a sport and congratulated me on my bird. She’s a lot of fun to hunt with, but unless I can actually help her get some game, she may not want to hunt with me again…and John says my success rate as a guide is dwindling…so Erin, I owe you! I promise the next bird is yours.

And you’re welcome to join me bear hunting over bait…but I get to shoot first…lol.

IMG_20180511_074552989_HDR
The opening in the treeline directly behind me.

 

I Spied a Rabbit

Yes, it’s true. I actually spied a rabbit huddled up in a snowbank trying to hide from me. I stood there looking at it for some time trying to decide if I was actually seeing a rabbit or just a bunch of tree limbs on a rock. After all, I’ve been faked out more than once while partridge hunting and thinking I was seeing a bird, only to realize it was a stump.  So after some consideration, I decided to take a shot. It sure looked like a rabbit, so I figured no harm, no foul, if it wasn’t. POW! And that rabbit literally jumped and squealed about four feet in the air, and after two hops, laid in snow.

IMG_20180208_165315479Now I was feeling pretty darned proud of myself…until my husband called out asking WHY I shot.

Copper huntingLet’s back up…John and I wanted to take Copper, our beagle, out for a rabbit hunt. He is still a pup and when we’ve taken him with Fly, Fly’s done all the finding, barking, and chasing, and Copper hasn’t barked a peep. So this weekend, we just took Copper to see if we could get him tracking and barking. We made our way across a bog and onto the mountain where we’ve had many rabbit chases. Sure enough we found rabbit tracks everywhere…and new one, which is key. John and Copper were ahead of me, following the track. They went into a group of trees, while John called, “what’s this” and pointed to the track and again, and again. Copper was doing great, and I was just waiting for them to circle. The idea was to get Copper to chase, bark and I’d shoot a rabbit and let him see the process. That seemed simple enough.

snowshoe_hare_in_winter_t810
Snowshoe hare, in its winter white phase, hides in a tree well. (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks)

As I followed their tracks to get set up, I came into a small opening. The rabbit tracks were everywhere. John had told me how rabbits will go on top of the snow covered rocks to watch for predators, and that’s when I saw the tracks leading up on top of a mound which is where I spied my rabbit. I stood there looking and staring, and it never moved. It never blinked, but that dot kept me looking…waiting.

IMG_20180117_130001751_HDR
A week earlier, John had shot a rabbit sitting on a rock..only Fly was chasing it at the time.

Back to the shot: Yay! I got a rabbit! It squealed for a second then as it flailed, it started to fall into a hole by a rock. I had already lost one rabbit that way this year, so I quickly grabbed the rabbit and held onto it; however it died quickly in my hand. By the time John and Copper reached me, I was holding a dead rabbit. No rabbit to chase, no reward for Copper.

 

I was so excited that I spied and shot a rabbit, I had completely left the dog out of the equation. John wasn’t happy with me, nor was my oldest son when I told him my story…so Mom still has a lot of learning to do when it comes to training dogs for rabbit hunting…but hey…I spied a rabbit and shot it…and not too many people can say that.   It was my first and only rabbit this season. After this, I’m surprised John let me go hunting with him at all. All is good…it’s a laughable moment and learning one too.

Copper never got a rabbit this year. Let’s hope next year works out better…and I’ll know not to shoot a rabbit if I see one unless Copper is chasing and barking after it.