The State Forest deer check-in station. File photo by Sara Piazza
Deer shotgun season taught many lessons
Hunters generally defer to their elders, who often have a wealth of experience upon which to make decisions when pursuing deer.
I do not feel old. My 14-year-old daughter insists I am.
Now 55 (as of Tuesday), my age does not reflect the shallow depth of my hunting skills. I am a city boy who took up deer hunting somewhat late in life, after I moved to the Vineyard.
So I continue to learn. The one-week deer shotgun season that ended Saturday provided me with many lessons but not a great deal of venison for my freezer.
For example, I learned that when I am attempting to be as quiet as possible prior to entering the woods before sunrise so as not to alert any deer or wake the dog with the hair trigger bark owned by the generous property owners it is not a good idea to have my gloves on when I press my vehicle's remote door lock button because of its proximity to the small red panic button that sets my Ford Explorer to honking, blaring, and flashing its lights.
Some lessons I thought that I had learned I relearned: that it is better to take your time and make one good shot than try to hit a deer with a series of poor shots; and of the need to keep a shotgun, particularly a Remington 1100, clean and well oiled at all times.
I also experienced my first case of "buck fever." A nervous affliction known to affect the judgment and aim of even experienced hunters when a deer with a serious hat rack pounds into view.
Over the last several seasons I had usually seen plenty of deer and enjoyed frequent hunting success. My lack of luck throughout archery season and extending into shotgun week had me depressed and frustrated. My frequent hunting companion and mentor in all shooting sports, Cooper Gilkes, was sympathetic to a degree.
"Everyone goes through it, bud," he told me midweek during our nightly, "how'd you do," telephone update.
My opportunity for redemption came late Thursday afternoon. I had decided to hunt with my Thompson Center Firearms Omega, a one-shot muzzleloader mounted with a scope rather than my 12-gauge Remington slug shotgun, which holds five shots. I wanted to take advantage of the Omega's superb accuracy.
I was sitting in a tree stand in an up-Island swamp anxiously watching a doe approach. The deer stopped to feed and putter approximately 50 yards away. Not a long shot, but one impeded by branches and sticks.
As I watched the doe and waited for it to present a better shot, I heard an animal crashing through thick brush. Suddenly a large 12-point buck emerged out of the thicket and charged up to the doe.
Thinking I only had a moment, I reacted immediately. I raised my weapon, sighted the buck, and fired. The doe ran off. The buck, unscathed, walked across my line of sight as I cursed my impatience and wished I held my Remington.
Why hadn't I waited? The buck probably would have walked right to me. Why hadn't I taken better aim? I could have turned up the scope and found a clear hole. Or maybe he would have run off chasing the doe? Had I dropped him in his tracks, as I had a smaller buck last year at a similar distance, it would have been a fine shot. I knew I was in for a fitful sleep second-guessing myself and dreaming of what might have been.
That evening I described the anguish I felt to my wife Norma. After days of being woken up every morning before dawn and listening to a nightly rendition of hunting stories, often in triplicate telephone form as stories were retold to hunting buddies, she feigned all the interest she could muster, and that was not much.
What was needed was a deer hunter hotline, I told her. I did a little searching and found what I was looking for at Buckmasters.com, a deer hunting publishing company.
The web site forum held e-mails from hunters mostly living in the mid-west and south. Under the topic of "blunders," a fellow from northern Minnesota identified as Jigglestick unburdened himself. After years of near misses he missed an opportunity to take a nice buck when he shot a muzzleloader that he had failed to reload.
Hunters responded by e-mail with a mixture of counseling and sympathy. D.F. from Florida advised him, "… anyone who has hunted very much at all has had "mishaps." Although they may be painful when they occur, they do make good stories! As far as spooking the buck, I would think that if there is not any pressure in that area the buck should return in a couple of days."
I e-mailed a description of my own mishap to see if the Buckmasters crowd would be sympathetic to a guy from the state that elected photo op goose hunter John Kerry.
Les from Missouri wrote, "Sorry Nelson, I feel for you.
You got to take your time. Breath and concentrate on what you got to do to make a good shot.
"Here's a little hint to help you make a good shot. I know this might sound stupid and you will never remember to do this the next time you need to shoot at a deer, but I do because I know it works. BREATHE! When you first see the deer think about breathing, Don't ever hold your breath."
On Saturday, the last day of shotgun week, I hunted with a small group that included Mike Amaral of Gilmanton, New Hampshire. Mike hunts with a one-shot 20-gauge scoped Thompson Center Encore shotgun during shotgun week.
In his view it is always the first shot that counts. Mike said many hunters used to learn that lesson at a young age because they began hunting only with a single shotgun.
That afternoon, using Mike's shotgun, Ray Long of Edgartown dropped a deer at 150 yards. I missed a deer that suddenly popped up in front of me at about 30 yards.
My 1100 failed to cycle the next shell leaving me without a second shot because after hunting in the sleet the previous night I did not take it apart and clean it.
Much to Mike's enjoyment I disassembled the shotgun in the truck, protesting that I had cleaned and oiled it a few days ago. I discovered that the slide mechanism that loads one shell after one is fired was dry and already showed signs of rust.
Mike would not let me reassemble the gun until Coop and Ray had seen it. He was enjoying the moment and I deserved it.
According to official and anecdotal reports many hunters were not as successful as they had been in the past. At the end of the day Saturday, the last day of the Vineyard's six-day shotgun season, I visited the state forest deer check station and spoke to John Scanlan, Division of Fisheries and Wildlife biologist.
"This is unusual for a Saturday. I am usually not out of here until eight o'clock," said John, who was expecting to lock up. "I never had a Saturday without a line of trucks here at six o'clock."
As of that evening John said he had checked in 162 deer compared with 240 deer through Sunday morning at the state forest location the previous year. He did not expect a last minute rush.
According to Spencer Booker, Wampanoag ranger, a total of 133 deer were checked during shotgun week up-Island. That would bring the unofficial shotgun tally minus any deer brought in Sunday to John up to 373 deer. The official 2004 shotgun harvest was 448 deer.
John told me, "A lot of experienced hunters seem to be seeing less deer, but it is hard to say there are fewer deer." He said that warm weather at the beginning of the week and fewer hunters in the woods could be factors in any drop. After several years of good harvests John was not surprised to see a drop.
"It tends to ebb and flow a bit, but the main point is the herd is still very healthy and there are a lot of young animals," he said.
The muzzleloader season begins one half hour before sunrise Monday morning and ends one half hour after sunset on the last day of the year. I will hunt with one shot and more experience.