Gone huntin’: A deer hunter tallies up the years

Shotgun week rekindles old traditions as Islanders take to the woods in pursuit of deer.

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In this file photo, Brian Welch of Oak Bluffs with a massive buck on Tuesday he shotin West Tisbury. The deer exceeded the 220-pound capacity of the state forest weigh station scale. Mr. Welch was hunting with his bow Tuesday morning. He posed with the deer prior to loading it into his truck, which is why he is not wearing orange. — Photo Courtesy of Brian Welch

Midway through the two-week deer shotgun season that began on Monday, I will turn 65 years old. The fact that this will occur on a treestand I carried into the woods and hauled up an oak tree by myself gives me some small comfort — as well as the fact that should I fall from the treestand, I am now covered by Medicare.

For those of you who must pay out of pocket to repair limbs, I highly recommend not trusting your body parts, or your life, to an aging stand — most hunting accidents involve falls, not weapons.

I was reminded of the risks at the start of bow season when I stepped onto a stand I had just placed in a tree. The platform support cables looked fine, but the corrosion was inside the plastic sleeve and not visible to me. One of the cables snapped. Luckily, I was strapped to a safety line and the other cable held.

I had tried to squeeze one more season out of an old stand. Is it worth it when a new stand can be had for under $200? Do the math using this formula: X new stands = 1 trip to the ER.

Another consequence of hanging onto stands too long, or buying cheap stands, is noise. This season I was bedeviled by squeaking stands. As any deer hunter knows, deer have an uncanny ability to pick up any unnatural sounds. A deer will ignore a squirrel frat party and traffic sounds, but jump at one click or squeak.

For the past five years I used a Summit Viper aluminum climbing stand that allowed me to shimmy up any straight tree with branches small enough for me to trim off with a small handsaw. This season the platform slats began to squeak no matter which way I shifted my weight. When I contacted the company, I learned that the warranty expired after five years, and the rep expressed surprise at the nature of my problem — although judging from my research on the Internet, I was not the first to experience it.

Some quick research brought me to Lone Wolf, a family-owned company based in Illinois that produces high-quality tree stands. Serious hunters I know swear by them.

I had my eye on the Hand Climber II, an easily packable stand that would give me good mobility, something the Viper, with its large profile, did not. Looking online, I read several comments from people who mentioned the need to be fit to use the climber. With a temperamental back and a bad shoulder, I was suddenly faced with a new consideration when purchasing hunting gear — I’m getting old.

I called Matt Gamache of Vineyard Haven and asked if I could try out his Lone Wolf climber. I had no problem with a test drive up a tree in Matt’s backyard, which led me to happily conclude that I am in the upper percentile of fit old people, which was reassuring.

I once thought of aging as something that happened to other people. It was theoretical. Not anymore.

Over the course of the six-week archery season that ended last week, I shot one deer. I ought to have been able to take a very nice buck, but when the deer stopped about 10 yards broadside from me, I was unable to draw my bowstring back with an aching shoulder that has seen too much abuse over the years.

The archery season was not a total loss. One afternoon, just after the sun went down and the light disappeared, I watched the outline of two bucks as they closed and begin to spar. Darkness took over and I could no longer make out their silhouettes, so I sat in my stand and listed to the clash of their antlers not more than 40 yards from my tree, as whippoorwills sang out from a nearby swamp.

My wife Norma has accepted the fact that during hunting season, my focus will be on hunting and not much else. And she appreciates the fact that my passion keeps me outdoors and not underfoot and in her space — most of the time.

Early in the archery season and on a day off, rain and summerlike temperatures kicked me out of the woods shortly after 8 am. Feeling slightly guilty, I told Norma I would accomplish at least one project: “I’ll move all my summer shirts out of the closet, and move up my warmer shirts,” I said.

She cringed at the thought and tried to dissuade me, recognizing she would likely have to retrace my steps to bring some order to the household.

The closet accomplished, I moved on to my drawers. I had embarked on a voyage of discovery.

“Where’s this been?” I said to Norma, “And this?” as I held up one piece of clothing and another.

Norma patiently explained that the thermal undershirt I held up like a long-lost friend had in fact been there all along, as had all of the other T shirts bearing various logos and phrases.

“What do you do,” she said, “just take whatever is on top?”

And that was the answer. Each week the top layer circulated, and the bottom layer of clothing never moved. I had a whole new wardrobe of familiar clothes.

On Sunday, I rearranged my hunting clothing in preparation for shotgun week. Out came the blaze orange and the warm clothing more suitable for gun season. Monday morning, I woke up well before dawn, anxious to get out to the woods, one of many eager hunters who look forward to gun season. For members of the Island’s hunting fraternity, this week is an opportunity to pursue deer with family and friends, in many cases carrying on an annual tradition. In between the day’s hunts, there will be plenty of time to swap stories over breakfast and lunch, an exercise in communal providing that dates back to the pursuit of mastodons.

One day this week, I will head out into the thick woods with my new Lone Wolf hand climber. The stand is exceptionally well built, and I figure it will still be capable of going up a tree long after I am not, but I plan to keep going up that tree as long as I can.