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With the current state of the shrinking deer herd across many states in the Midwest, the 2016-17 deer season was a continuation of my attempt to be a thoughtful deer hunter. Currently we are trying to keep the population stable on our farm. I read articles on how many does should be harvested on a property and prior to the season starting I came up with a suggestion of no more than 1 to 2 does harvested for the amount of acres we own. We have a neighbor who we let bow hunt and he shot an adult doe in October. That left no more than 1 doe to shoot and I would leave that job to my husband which he accomplished during our week long gun season. For me, the choice was buck only. I’ve only shot one buck older than a yearling and so my hope was to get a 2 ½ year old buck or older knowing that in my “brown is down” heart of hearts if a hunt was exciting and eventful, I would shoot any buck.
My first chance was our week long regular gun season. Gun season was uneventful except for the fox incident (see the previous blog entry). The weather for the first 4 days sucked. The forecast for the first 2 days was a south wind. Without getting into details of the layout of my farm, let me just say that a south wind is the suckiest of all winds to try and hunt. On day 3 the forecast was for the wind to shift to the west which is much better. Unfortunately the wind didn’t shift and it was still from the south. Then day 4 the forecast was for the wind to shift only the wind didn’t shift and it was still from the south. Add to that the temperatures were unseasonably warm and the deer were not moving. At all. Days 5-7 finally saw that wind shift which made it easier to find better spots to sit but the minimal deer movement continued. Cold weather was needed and cold weather did not happen. Oh I did see deer from time to time mostly in the evening at last light. My husband did shoot a doe. We hung it in the garage and I cut out the backstraps, tenderloins and a couple roasts. Then I deboned the rest of the meat and took it to our local smokehouse for them to make deer sticks and hot dogs. A pretty bland 7 days of hunting.
Looking into an empty woodlot during a warm day of deer gun season.
The bonus weekend was a bit more eventful. We had 2 feet of snow the week before. Then on the first day of the weekend hunt it warmed up to rain. I spent the entire morning alternately trudging through soggy mid-calf deep snow, sweating, and sitting down to cool off then repeat. I didn’t see any deer until my walk back to the house for lunch and then I saw something like 11 deer with none being bucks. During one of my sitting breaks, a doe and fawn cruised by at 30 yards and I let them go. I went back out hunting in the evening and saw a few more deer that were all too far to shoot. The second morning started off by slogging through the marsh and through the melting couple feet of snow and getting melt water in one of my boots. I tried to sit for awhile but a soaking wet cold foot was not working for me so I walked back home. The evening hunt was much more exciting. The wind was finally right to sit at one my better spots. Lo and behold a mature buck came sauntering out of the bedding area well before sunset and in my gun’s range. I won’t go into all the gory details other than to say that I shot and cleanly missed the buck. I have been hunting deer for 20 years and this was the 4th time I had a mature buck in range of my gun. All I could do was laugh hysterically. A rare opportunity wasted. Such is the fate of a “brown is down” hunter who decides to try and shoot a mature buck. There was however still muzzleloader season yet to come.
The scene of a missed shot at a rarely seen mature buck.
Three weeks later, it was time to pull myself up by the boot straps, quit thinking of the missed buck and move on to the 4 day muzzleloader season. I was really really really really excited. I really was. I love shooting my muzzleloader. That gun is so darn accurate and it doesn’t hurt me like my shotgun does. Oh and it makes a big puff of smoke which is like chocolate sprinkles on top of a sundae. The weather forecast for the first 2 days was for high temps in the mid teens and strong northwest winds making wind chills below zero. The deer would be on their feet for sure. My husband wanted to shoot any deer in range to give to our friend that was unable to get out hunting this year. I was still after a buck only. We skipped the mornings and hunted the evenings by the fields where we knew they would be coming to feed. Yeah, baby. The hubs and I took to different spots on the farm and sat in below zero wind chills without using a blind. We are either tough or stupid. The first evening I had a doe and button buck in range and let them go. Between my husband and me we saw 23 deer, not a single one with antlers. The second evening I had a doe fawn in range and let her go. Between my husband and me we saw 21 deer, none with antlers. My husband never did have a deer in range of his muzzleloader. At least seeing deer made the cold temps bearable. Oh and I gave thanks to hand warmers and toe warmers and body warmers that were tucked into my clothing in strategic locations.
I pretty much decided that day 3 of the 4 day muzzleloader season would be my last day of deer hunting for the season. Day 4 had a forecast of sleet, freezing rain and winds gusting over 40mph. I will happily sit in below zero wind chills but that freezing rain thing was for the birds. Day 3 on the other hand was much more pleasant. With temps in the mid 20s, it felt downright balmy compared to the first two days. Well except for the strong south wind which is the suckiest of all winds to hunt on my farm. My husband and I had discussed wanting to get a deer for our friend that wasn’t able to hunt. This friend really helps my husband out on the farm and we really wanted to get his family a deer to butcher. I told my husband that I still did not want to shoot another doe off the farm but that if a button buck gave me a shot then I would take it. My husband set up in one of the best spots for a south wind. He took this spot because his gun has a scope and he can shoot a longer range than I can. That increased range would most likely be needed if the deer came out where they usually come out. I on the other hand contemplated which sucky south wind spot to sit. I decided to sit next to where the Brussels sprouts and kale were planted. The deer usually come out along the opposite edge of the field that is over 200 yards away. They would have to make the long journey across the field to be in range of my gun. I had low expectations of this happening but I was still looking forward to sitting out enjoying the evening. At least I knew I would probably see deer even if none came into range.
Which brings me to a short digression about the Brussels sprouts and kale. Every year for the last several years we have grown Brussels sprouts and kale and most years we have picked Brussels sprouts all the way into January. The deer never seem to bother either the Brussels sprouts or kale. Back in December we were getting ready to harvest all the Brussels sprouts at one time and take them to a processor to be frozen for sale. That’s when it was discovered that the deer had eaten every single Brussels sprout and all the leaves off the plants. All we could think is that with an extremely poor mast year, the deer did not have as much natural food as usual and instead turned to the Brussels sprouts and also the kale. That little escapade of theirs cost us a bit of money. But onward to the deer hunting tale.
Brussels sprouts reduced to bare stalks by the munching of hungry deer.
I got out to the field a little after 3pm. I found a tree stump to sit against near the edge of the field. About 50-60 yards to my left was a grown up hedgerow. The expanse of the produce and soybean field was off to my right. When I sat down, I thought the spot to be a little too exposed so I took a few minutes to carry some downed limbs over and fashioned a small quickie ground blind. About 15 minutes later a pair of chickadees came to inspect the ground blind. They were just 3 or 4 feet from me and I thought about this is why I love to hunt. At that moment it did not matter if my season ended without getting a deer. Watching those chickadees was pure magic.
An improvised small ground blind overlooking the Brussels sprouts and kale
At just after 4pm, I spotted a deer walking along the far opposite edge of the field 200+ yards away. It was by itself and walked until it was directly across from me and started browsing on bushes on the field edge. I pulled out my binoculars. I could tell it was a fawn by the short boxy face and since it was by itself I was hopeful it was a button buck. I still thought the chance of it crossing the field was slim but at least I was watching a deer. About 20-30 minutes later it was joined by another deer and that too looked like a fawn. Then 10 minutes a later another deer stepped out and it was definitely a big mature doe. I continued to watch all three deer and tried to determine if the fawns were button bucks or not. I convinced myself that both fawns were indeed bucks and waited. The first deer to step out started to work into the produce field and started nibbling on the remains of the Brussels sprouts. Slowly, ever so slowly, he fed in my direction. I picked up the binoculars once more and while not 100% sure, I was 98.7% sure this was a button buck. As he continued feeding in my direction, I had a whole lot of time to think. I thought about that deer (and his relatives) and how they ate all those Brussels sprouts. I thought about how my husband really wanted to get a deer for our friend that farms with him. I thought about how I had not shot a deer yet this season. I thought about the deer I let pass by earlier in the season and the buck I missed just 3 weeks earlier.
It took nearly 50 minutes but as the little buck got just over halfway across the field, he quit eating and started cutting diagonally in front of me left to right. About this time, I could really start to feel my heart beating in my chest. When he got closer, he saw me. Or he saw the ground blind. Whatever he saw it was something that wasn’t there before and he started staring. I went into statue mode. My heart beating in my chest was now so loud I could feel it in my ears. Yes here was a button buck heading my way and the excitement of the hunt was intense. It’s been 16 years since I shot my 1st deer and I’ve shot around a dozen deer in those 16 years. I cannot comprehend when someone says that they don’t get excited by a button buck. Any deer excites me. This deer that was heading my way was no less exciting than the mature buck I missed earlier. All deer are created equal in my head.
The button buck turned directions and while still coming toward me, he now was angling right to left. He started doing very brief pauses with short foot stomps but kept walking. I got my gun up and had to wait for him to clear a small clump of brush. He was about 40 yards away when I shot. Boom! Always a relief when the primer touches off the powder in a muzzleloader. The smoke cleared quickly in the strong breeze. The deer spun and ran. He ran straight back the way he came then started veering toward the overgrown hedgerow. He crossed through the hedgerow and there was a large crashing sound. I was hopeful that he went down. I reloaded my gun and waited just a few minutes. I could not see anything with my binoculars over where the deer was last seen. I didn’t wait as long as I should have but I really hate tracking in the dark. I have shot 4 other deer with my muzzleloader. None went very far but none of them left blood trails. At least today I had snow on the ground. I found the spot where I had shot the deer and there was no sign of blood. I followed his tracks and in about 20 to 30 yards I finally found blood. Whew! At least I know I hit him. The blood trail wasn’t great but it was there. Slowly I followed his tracks to the hedgerow. He crashed all they way through a particularly thick spot and there on the other side was my deer laying dead. It was indeed a button buck. The shot was a double lung, just a bit high above the heart but really a very good shot.
Crashed through the old hedgerow
My usual mode of operation is to forget to pack a flashlight and have to field dress a deer in the dark. I actually remembered my little light that clips on my hat and it came in handy as I field dressed him in the fading light. I had sent my husband a text and he texted he would go get the tractor. I decided to drag the deer to a tractor path about 120 yards away to keep the tractor from rutting up the spot where the deer had died. When I got there, I crossed paths with my husband who was walking up from where he had been hunting. He had seen some deer but none close enough to shoot. We decided to tag team and finish dragging the deer back to the house instead of getting the tractor. I think we dragged the deer about 580 yards total. Not too shabby for a couple of middle aged out of shape flatlanders. What followed was all the usual stuff. I checked in the deer online and fed and walked the dogs. We loaded up the deer and took it to our friend’s house. There was the usual telling of deer hunting stories and we hung the deer in the barn. Another deer season has passed and has enriched my life with more memories. I am blessed to be a part of this lifestyle.
I doubt there will ever be an opening day of deer gun season like there was in 2016. The day started out like a normal opening day full of excitement and hope for a good week of deer hunting. My husband and I were up early to get dressed to deer hunt on our farm. We went to two separate locations on the farm. About mid-morning my husband sent me a text to say he had not seen any deer. He needed to do a few things in town before hunting our picked bean field in the afternoon. I had only had a brief glimpse at one deer. It was a rather slow morning of hunting with only scattered gunshots in various directions. At noon I decided to head home for lunch, walk the dogs and take care of the chickens. Yes, it was a very average opening day of deer season.
About 10 days earlier on a warm 60 degree November afternoon, I was outside walking the dogs in the pasture behind the chicken barn. On a mowed path about 40 yards behind the barn, I found the remains of a chicken. There wasn’t much left at all: some feathers, the very tip of one wing and a bit of the tail. While I have had chickens killed by stray dogs and I have had wild animals (mostly raccoons) try to kill my chickens, this was actually the first successful chicken kill by a wild animal since I got my first chickens 16 years ago. I’ve really been quite fortunate in that matter. The speculation began as to what killed the chicken. We hear coyotes a lot so that was the first thought. Someone else suggested fox. Definitely possible but we don’t see or hear near as many fox as we do coyotes. I also added a big hawk to the list as there is a dead tree in the pasture and I often see hawks perched in that tree. Others suggested mink or weasel but the timing didn’t quite fit for those.
In the next 10 days the chickens got let outside only once. We had some bad weather move in and then we left on vacation for several days so the chickens spent most of that time locked in the barn. But opening day of deer gun season weather was quite mild and so when I got back to the house for lunch, the first thing I did was let them outside to free range in the pasture and yard.
I spent a couple hours inside the house eating lunch and relaxing. My plan for the afternoon was to get in the truck and drive around to the north side of the farm to hunt. I had left most of my gear in the truck from the morning hunt, but I had brought my gun inside the house. I picked up my gun that was inside a case and my truck keys and headed out the door. I was about half way down the sidewalk to get to my truck when a group of around 8 chickens came squawking and running from the backside of our big bank barn and into the backyard. This is not at all unusual. Chickens run and squawk from all sorts of things with the vast majority of them being imaginary. But with the recent shredded chicken event, I thought it prudent to just stand on the sidewalk and watch for a bit. It didn’t take long for a second group of squawking chickens to appear. This group came running around the front side of the big barn next to the garage and out into the driveway. The group consisted of two hens and a big Barred Rock rooster that had a fox latched on to the rooster’s tail. Somewhere around the fuel tank, the rooster’s tail feathers came out and the rooster was free of the grasp of the fox. Then the two hens and the rooster met up with the eight hens that had come from the backside of the barn. The whole mess of chickens turned and headed back around the backside of the barn with the fox in hot pursuit and then they all disappeared from view.
I’m sure at this point in time my jaw had about dropped to my knees. I also know for a fact that my brain was having difficulty processing the events of the last, oh, maybe 15 seconds. As I started to comprehend that I indeed just saw a fox chasing my chickens, my first thought was I needed a gun. Which gun? Should I get the .17hmr that was handy inside the house? Maybe a shotgun would be a better choice? Whoa! Wait a minute! I have a gun in my hand!!!!! Well what do you know? That doesn’t happen every day especially when a fox just chased a group of chickens through the driveway. I knelt down on the sidewalk and unzipped my 20 gauge Remington 870 equipped with a rifled slug barrel from its case. I reached into my coat pocket and fumbled for a shotgun shell. For a brief moment I thought about the expense of the sabots I use for deer hunting and having to use one on a fox. Yes I really did think that. But I quickly erased that thought from my head as there were chickens to save and time was of the essence. I loaded a shell into the chamber and put another in the magazine.
I trotted across the driveway, past the garage and when I got to the front far corner of the barn, I slowly peaked around and into the pasture. There sitting maybe 30 yards away was the fox with his teeth tightly clenched on one of my laying hens. The opportunity was right now. I lined up the open sights of my deer gun and aimed at the fox. The fox made a small target down in the grass of the pasture and it was difficult to just pick a spot on the fox like I would a deer. The front bead on the sight nearly covered the whole visible side of the fox. I looked up for a brief second to fully view the fox and then lined up the sights once more. I pulled the trigger and other than the big boom nothing happened. The fox didn’t move. The chicken in its mouth didn’t move. Then I realized that the fox didn’t move because the fox was dead. Whoa! Did that just happen? The shot went right through the chest at a slight angle from just behind the front leg on the entry side to mid-chest on the exit side.
As I walked up to the dead fox with a chicken in its mouth, my first thought was I had to get a picture of this. And as I stood there taking the picture, I started looking at the chicken a little closer. Her head was up. Hmmm? No way. No way was this chicken still alive. She hadn’t moved a muscle but her head was up and her eyes were open. There were feathers everywhere. I reached down, lifted the fox’s head and pried its mouth open with my fingers. The chicken squawked loudly and took off on a run back to the barn where the chicken pens are located. Several weeks later as I write this, she is alive and doing well.
In the aftermath I was shaking badly. I texted the picture to my husband and walked back to the house. He had just gotten home (after the gunshot) and was in the kitchen. He asked me why I left the gun case and the truck keys on the sidewalk. Hmmmm? I remember the gun case but have no recollection of dropping the truck keys. He pulled out his phone because he had a text message (mine) and I just stood there quietly. He looked up with surprise. Did this just happen?, he said. Yes it did, I replied. Then the story followed and we walked outside so he could see the scene of the fox’s crime. The story was as good as any deer hunting story. The emotion was just as intense. Yes indeed. I think it will be safe to say that I will never have an opening day of deer season quite like this one.
There is a time that falls between the last day of turkey season in mid May and opening of fall hunting season on September 1st. For many hunters, summer is a time for fishing or softball or golf. But here on the farm, hunting does not take a pause. Summer is all about woodchucks. What follows is a tour through my entire 2016 summer season. That’s what I get for taking a summer break from writing in my blog. Hey at least there aren’t 21 groundhogs like last year.
I knew going into the summer that nothing would beat the craziness of the summer of 2015 and I was quite content to let 2016 be more relaxed. Last year I spent most of my time on my neighbor’s target rich dairy farm. This year there soybeans planted on my own farm and boy oh boy do groundhogs love soybeans. This year was all about protecting the beans. And a bit of stocking the freezer for future culinary adventures thrown in because who doesn’t love eating some good woodchuck?
Number 1: June 5th
While I did say earlier that hunting does not take pause, really it does: for about two to three weeks. Spring turkey season runs for four weeks from mid April to mid May. For those who do not hunt turkeys, I can best describe the event as four weeks without sleep. Hunting every available minute interspersed with a full time job, mowing acres of yard and pasture, prepping for the arrival of meat chicks and by the end of the season the walking dead becomes reality. The week after turkey season is over becomes sleeping every available minute interspersed with a full time job, mowing acres of yard and pasture and tending to the newly delivered meat chicks. When I awake from my coma, I then pause another week or two to let the young groundhogs reach weaning age. I have this thing about not shooting a mama chuck and orphaning a whole litter that can’t fend for themselves yet. That is just way too creepy for me to think about even with varmint hunting.
And so on June 5th I set out on my first hunt of the year. The soybeans were just coming up and my plan was to walk a half mile to the back of the field where I knew there was a big den. I hadn’t seen one single groundhog around the house yet so my mind was geared up for the walk. 100 yards behind the house, the tractor road crosses over the creek as it runs through a culvert. I walked over the culvert and casually glanced to my left. A woodchuck! If I had been in a car, you would have heard the brakes squealing. I threw myself into reverse then turned right and crawled through the pasture fence and a multiflora rose bush. One must be willing to sacrifice some body parts to be a successful woodchuck hunter. The pasture fence is a bit overgrown so I had cover to ease on up to a place where I could see the woodchuck. I found a spot relatively free of blackberry brambles and thistle, sat down and cleared a small shooting lane.
Then one woodchuck became a mama chuck and a whole litter of young ones. I wanted a young one. They were good sized and I wanted a young one for the freezer. The problem was they wouldn’t hold still. After 15 or 20 frustrating minutes of watching them dart in and out of the weeds, I shot the mama chuck instead. The young ones disappeared but I would see them from time to time the rest of the summer. Last year was my first year to try eating groundhogs and I only dressed out a few young ones. This year I wanted to try an adult. I looked at mama chuck and I totally chickened out. She would feed the turkey vultures. Besides, they told me last year they appreciated the handouts. Yeah that’s my story.
Number 2, 3 and 4: June 13th
This time I made it all the way back to end of the soybean field. I set up a chair in the woods about 40 yards from a den and waited. And waited. And waited some more. This woodchuck would elude me all summer. Basically I would see it when I was not hunting and would not see it when I was hunting. Some woodchucks obviously have psychic powers. After staring at nothing but dirt and little bean plants for over an hour, I decided to head home. There was a dirt mound in the woods about 50-60 yards in the opposite direction. I could barely see it with all the spring foliage but I got out my binoculars to take a look and there was a groundhog on the dirt mound. I crawled over to my homemade turkey hunting blind where I could see the dirt mound a bit better. In less then two minutes, I shot a mama chuck and two young ones. Mama was one of the mangiest woodchucks I have ever seen. I didn’t even want to touch her, but I did so that I could carry her to the open bean field for a turkey vulture snack. The two young ones I took home to dress out and wrap them for the freezer.
Number 5: June 24th
Once again I went back to the end of the bean field to hunt the psychic woodchuck. Once again he/she did not show. Once again I checked the dirt mound in the woods and lo and behold there were more of mangy mama chuck’s litter. I ended up shooting two more young ones. One made it down a hole leaving a trail of blood but I never officially count those unless I have a body. The other one was DOA right where I shot it. This was evening of the self-timed silhouette picture at the top of the page. I would like to say the picture turned out that way on purpose but I’d be lying. I really do like the picture though.
After feeling pretty good about some great shooting at the dirt mound, I set my sights on a woodchuck that was living in our other bean field. The woodchuck had been carving a nice semi-circle in the beans and I had a good vantage for a 40 yard shot. I had a nice evening of watching deer and with the wind in my face there were several up close and personal encounters with deer feeding in the bean field in front of me. After sitting for a couple hours and after the deer had left, I slowly stood up. 20 yards out was a woodchuck. That was not where I was expecting one to appear. And like I am prone to do at such moments, I panicked. I chose a swaying sapling as a rest for my gun which for some strange reason made me miss the shot. The woodchuck ran to the woods which then erupted with alarm whistles from other whistle pigs. The gig was up. I felt dumb. Watching the deer was pretty cool though.
Number 6: July 17th
I actually don’t remember much about this hunt except that this was one of the litter of the very first mama groundhog I shot back in early June. I know it involved another crawl through the pasture fence and more skin lost on the multiflora rose bush. I also know that I dressed this one out as well to add to the collection of groundhog parts in the freezer.
Number 7: July 18th
On one of my walks around the field, I had found some groundhog damage in the beans near the division between the bean field and the produce field. I had never actually seen a groundhog here but the sign was there. The den holes were located along a fence line that separates our bean field from the neighbor’s hayfield which had been mowed recently. The question to be answered was: would the groundhog come out to feed in the beans where I could see it or would it venture into the hayfield where I couldn’t see it? I chose to sit in a spot at the end of a 5 acre patch of sunflowers. I had some cover, a comfy ground chair, some shooting sticks and something to read.
As I sat there and read, I would glance up periodically. This is my usual MO but I am always amazed at how it only takes a split second to go from relaxed reading to crazy fumbling around when a groundhog makes an appearance. Remembering the rushed twenty yard shot and miss off the swaying sapling, I took my time with this woodchuck. She was quite happily eating bean leaves. I could only see her when she stood up. When I finally took the shot, she dropped out of sight. The next few minutes are always nerve racking for me. Did I hit her? Did I miss? I walked up to find the bean eater dead with a leaf in her mouth. A perfect head shot. This would be my longest shot of the year with the .17hmr at about 65-70 yards. The day before this hunt I had not only dressed out a woodchuck for the freezer but we had also butchered our first 50 meat chickens. I was really tired of cutting up animals into pieces. Mostly I was just tired. I really really wanted to dress out an adult woodchuck this year but I ended up leaving her for another vulture snack. I spent the next week kicking myself for that decision.
Number 8: July 25th
This groundhog I spied for the first time just a week before. It was hanging out in the corner of my neighbor’s hayfield near the fence line that separates our two farms. It took me three attempts but on the third try I used one of the round bales still in the field to stalk in for a 30-40 yard shot. It was an adult male although not as big as some I have shot so I think it was probably born in 2015.
I was a bit apprehensive about dressing out an adult male as I was told they were smelly creatures. With a tentative sniff of the air near the dead woodchuck and also having flashbacks to other smelly male animals like buck goats which are by the way the smelliest of all male animals that I have worked around, I was surprised when I detected no pungent odor. My plan for the adult woodchuck was to make meatballs and so I tediously dressed out and de-boned the carcass. I froze the meat to be ground later. And best of all, there was no stink.
Number 9: August 21st
One week later, another groundhog appeared in the same spot as groundhog number 8. I saw it off and on from the road when I would be walking the dogs and then after a couple weeks, I didn’t see it anymore. And so one month after number 8, I decided to take a stroll to see what I could see. There were trees along the fence line to use for cover and I went 40 yards up from the corner. I leaned over the fence and looked into the corner of the hayfield to my right and saw no woodchuck. I swung my left leg over the single strand barbed wire fence continuing to look to my right where I expected to see a woodchuck. Then I swung my right leg over to stand fully in the hayfield. Seeing nothing to my right, I pirouetted 180 degrees to the left. 30 yards away was a full alert, standing woodchuck. It stared at me. I stared back. It was an impasse. I vowed I would not be beaten in this game by a lowly marmot. It stared at me. I was a statue. Except that after awhile things were beginning to hurt. First it was my left arm that was supporting most of the weight of the gun. Then it was my feet and then my legs. My back and shoulders joined in the parade of pain that was traveling through my muscles. I thought about how once I read about soldiers standing at attention and how they would sometimes faint from standing rigid and still for so long. I really didn’t want to faint but I really didn’t want to give in to the groundhog either. Then finally the groundhog sat down and instantly so did I. I dropped my ground chair, plopped my butt on the chair and then peered at what I knew was on the ground. Hello little poison ivy plants. Again, success often comes with sacrifice. The groundhog was now hunkered down and through my binoculars I could just barely make out its head. I stared through my binoculars. It stared back. This was getting old. After 15 minutes I was done with the waiting game. It was time to risk an aggressive move. I got up on my knees and slowly erected my shooting sticks. The youthful groundhog stayed hunkered down and staring back. The added height of being up on my knees was just what I needed. Another perfect head shot and I found the groundhog lying within less than a foot from the protection of its hole. And better yet, another young groundhog to add to the freezer collection. There is going to be some good eating at our house this winter.
This season I shot my thirteenth wild turkey. Seems appropriate that it was a jake and that I had not shot a jake since 2003, thirteen years ago.
The first time I ever shot a wild turkey was in 2000. My husband and I had started hunting turkeys a couple years earlier and had been quite unsuccessful. My boss is an avid turkey hunter and took mercy on us. I think he was just getting tired of hearing about my failed efforts at turkey hunting. One fine spring morning, he took my husband and me turkey hunting to show us the ropes. My husband shot a nice mature gobbler that morning. An hour later I found myself seated precariously next to a brushy hedgerow as first two hens and then a jake filed past not 5-10 yards away. That jake became the first wild game animal I ever shot.
That hunt broke the turkey hunting ice. Well sort of. I was determined to call in my own turkey after that and in 2001 I did not shoot a turkey. But of course I was now addicted to turkey hunting and in 2002 I was hunting on my own and called in and shot a jake. In 2003 I shot another jake. Then the running joke around my household became would I ever shoot a mature gobbler. The only way to do that was to quit shooting jakes. In 2004 during the third week of the season, I called in and shot a nice 3 year old gobbler. Since that last jake in 2003, I’ve let a lot of jakes get a free pass. Well I almost shot one a few years back. It was an awesome hunt where I called a hard gobbling bird from across the highway, across my neighbor’s field and into my field. The non-stop gobbling turkey turned out to be a jake. I had already shot a turkey the week before and I always consider my chance to fill my second turkey tag as a bonus. I let the gobbling jake leave. Still, I always have said that while I prefer to shoot older turkeys, if conditions were right, I would shoot a jake. Fast forward to 2016 and the conditions were just right.
Monday April 25th was the start of the second week of the 2016 season and my fourth day of hunting. After watching the local wild turkey flock spend the winter on my farm for the first time in a decade, I was quite optimistic about this season. That was until the break up of the winter flock in the third week of April when all turkeys mysteriously vanish each and every year. The gobbling stopped and all male turkeys had seemingly left town. Well I did hear one gobbler on my second hunt of the season but I left him alone because I had a friend coming to hunt the next day and I wanted her to have a shot at a turkey. That pretty much sealed the deal that except for some gobbling a mile across the road, my friend and I did not see or hear a turkey all morning. By the time I woke up to hunt on Monday, my turkey hunting frustration was at maximum level.
The day started in the upper 30s but with mostly clear skies and a warm front coming, the temps would work their way into the upper 70s by afternoon. As I watched another spectacular sunrise on the farm, the air was filled with the sounds of all sorts of song birds, geese and crows, but not one turkey was heard. When I got to the woods, I decided to not sit right up against the field as I usually do. There was a spot about 40 yards inside the woods where a few times I have had turkeys hang up on the other side of thick growth. The spot seemed to be well liked by the toms at least in years past. This year, a couple of hens that I called in on my opening day hunt went to this spot so I figured I would check it out. Turns out one of the guys I let bowhunt for deer had built a homemade ground blind from sticks back there which was perfect. A little before 7am, I could just make out two hens crossing way out in the open field. At 9am my husband sent me a text that the guys would be out on the tractors soon to start disking the field. I felt I was just a bit too close to the field to continue hunting in the blind. And so began my journey into the deeper part of my woods with my goal being a small grove of oak trees where the turkeys like to feed.
Now let me set the picture of my woods at the beginning of the last week of April. There is no real leaf cover yet as the leaves are just barely starting to emerge. The May apples and the trout lilies are up which is pretty much the only green in the forest. My land is about as flat as a pancake. Well no, not about as flat, my land is flat as a pancake. Thus I could see close to 100 yards through the woods in many spots. The turkeys have taught me a lot through the years with one lesson being: don’t ever set up against a big old tree unless you have at least a little cover in front of you. A turkey will pick you out every single time. I decided to “run and gun” on my way to the oak grove. Well more like “stand a lot, call a little, listen a lot, walk slowly and carry my gun”. I never ever make a call in the turkey woods though without standing close to a spot that I would be comfortable sitting in case a turkey answered my call. However the open woods were making it hard for me to find good spots. I would spy a tree that I think would do, but when I walked up to the tree, the surroundings were way too open. I remember once almost pulling out my slate to make a call and then thinking “no don’t do it because if a turkey answers, you are going to be really pissed you have to sit against this tree”. I did find a few acceptable spots from which to call along my route but no turkey would answer. By 10:30am I was settled into a spot in the oak grove and still had not heard a turkey. And then a horrible thing happened: my brain kicked in gear. I glanced around at the poison ivy leaves around me that were just starting to come out. The day was warming up nicely and I thought of all the things that needed done back at the house. Why was I doing this? Why was I sitting in the woods, in the poison ivy, on such a beautiful day when there were no turkeys? What a waste of time. I used the best technique I know for dealing with such a problem. I took a nap.
Shortly after 11am, I startled awake. My right hand slid off my lap and that startled a grey squirrel that was feeding close by. The squirrel ran up a tree and started barking at me. Ok then. I got out my easy yelper turkey call. Every time the squirrel barked, I would yelp back at it. The squirrel barked and I yelped. This went on for 30 seconds or perhaps longer and then I picked up my slate call. I did a bunch of loud cuts and the squirrel flicked its tail, ran down the tree and off into the woods never to be seen or heard again. But I wasn’t done. I rotated through my calls. I called loud and long. I called stupidly loud and long. Yelps, cuts and fighting purrs were all part of venting my frustration in the turkey woods. It was stupidly stupid. I was laughing because I never do this. Almost every single gobbler I have shot, I have won over with subtle quiet calls and playing hard to get. Instead I was letting it all hang out. I was a street walker in the red light district. I finally got sick of calling and set down my calls. The woods were quiet. I sighed. Not a turkey to be heard.
But not 30 seconds later, there was crunching of leaves coming up behind me. Turkey! It had to be. My ears were listening to something with two feet walking lightly through the woods. There couldn’t be any other explanation. Instantly I could feel my heart beating inside my chest. I pressed the back of my head up against the tree I was sitting against in an effort to hold completely still. My gun was lying across my lap but there was no way I could risk moving as the footsteps behind me were too close. I strained my eyes as far to the left as I could to try and see what was coming. Finally two jakes walked past me not 15 yards away. Their black feathers were glistening in the sunlight filtering through the open woods and their heads were bright red with excitement from hearing such a randy group of hens. Right here in living color was the moment that makes everything worthwhile. The sight was breathtaking. Every muscle in my body was tense as I was trying not to move. The jakes filed past silently, stopping to look but not finding the hens they were seeking. There was no way I could move my gun into position without being seen. I had to let them go. However I noticed these jakes were really quite good size for their age and I started thinking about how good wild turkey tastes. After all, the whole point of this hunting gig is to put food on the table. I decided that if I could call them back into range, I would shoot one of the jakes.
The jakes were about 40 yards out when they disappeared behind a cluster of trees. I got my gun up on my knee and lined up toward the last spot I saw them. I reached my right hand down to the ground and scratched in the leaves. Then I picked up my one-handed Do-Ral call and made a very very quiet purr. 25 yards away a red head peeked out from behind a tree. With one shot from my 20 gauge, the turkey was down. I kept quiet as I was trying to regain my composure from the events of the last several minutes. The other jake was confused. He yelped loudly at his buddy on the ground for a minute or two and then slowly walked away. As he walked away, he gobbled about every 20 seconds until he got far away and finally became silent. I walked over to my jake and as always, I admired his beauty.
And as always, I thanked the Lord for giving us these magnificent creatures to eat. I found a spot to clumsily take a self-timed photo so that I could remember this hunt for years to come.
As I walked the 3/4th of a mile back to the house, I struggled a bit with the weight of the turkey on my shoulder. The sun was shining down and I was still dressed to be comfortable in temperatures that were 30 degrees cooler at the start of my morning hunt. I had a carry bag with me but for some reason I didn’t feel like using it. For some reason I wanted the walk to be a bit of a challenge. If I am blessed to be able to hunt well into my senior years, there will be time enough for using a vehicle to get me in and out of the woods. For now though, it is important to me to walk while I still can.
There were people who know me that were a bit surprised when I told them I shot a jake this year. But even though I have told stories of letting jakes pass by without shooting them, I never said I would never shoot a jake again. My thirteenth turkey is proof. The range of emotions on this hunt was as deep and rich as with any gobbler I have shot. And that after all is what inspires me to hunt. It’s not just about the size of the animal shot. It’s about the experience. I will continue to hunt the rest of the season for a second turkey, but this jake fulfilled my wish for this season. Everything else that happens in the turkey woods the rest of 2016 is just sprinkles on top of an already delicious chocolate sundae.
I've been wanting to do this for awhile. Back before I started the blog, I would share my hunting tales within the Ohio Sportsman forum itself. It is getting harder and harder for me to find those posts from years back and there are a few that hold special meaning for me. So I thought I would transfer some of those tales over to my blog. While I'm impatiently waiting for the 2016 turkey season to begin, it seems appropriate to start with a turkey story. The first one is one of my favorite turkey hunts to remember. The hunt took place on the last day of the 2008 season and I was determined to get a turkey. I sat through pouring rain under a port-a-roof umbrella for 3 1/2 hours until the rain stopped, the sun came out and well, I'll let you read the story.
The story has been copied and pasted into this blog with no changes or editions. From May 18, 2008:
This is the way to finish a season
Well, it's been a LONG season. Lots of ups and downs and over 60 hours in the field for me. I do have to say that even though I am extremely tired, I am sorry to see it all end. Here is my story from the last day.
The plan was to head back to my homemade ground blind on my farm and spend the whole morning there. This is where I missed two gobblers last Sunday and my husband shot his gobbler this past Tuesday. The blind is situated on the edge of the woods looking over last year's picked corn field. Last night, there were two strutters out in the area so I hoped they would be there today.
Left the house at 5am and got to the blind just before 5:30am. Then it started to rain. I brought along my porta-roof camo umbrella and set up. Then it rained harder. Couldn't hear much of anything but rain. At 6:45am the rain let up for about 5 minutes and I thought I heard a gobble from the neighbor's field to my left. Then it rained harder and I couldn't hear anything again. The rain let up again at 7:30am and now I definitely hear a gobble. Got my slate call out of the plastic bag and yelp a couple times. Everything is so wet and damp and the sound out of the call sucks, but the gobbler answered. Put the call back in the bag and waited. Gobbler getting closer in front of me and off to my left. Now the rain starts again and I can't hear anything. All of a sudden there is loud clucking behind me. Darn bird snuck in from behind (in the woods) instead of using the field. Couldn't do anything but let him leave and besides I couldn't hear anything because, uh, did I mention it was raining!
9am: the rain finally subsides to a drizzle. I get my call out and yelp again. 5 minutes later I see a hen pop into the field to my right. A few minutes later here comes a gobbler in tow. They spend the next 30 minutes working away from me and then a second gobbler joins in. Now the hen has turned and is working in my direction. Instead of working through the field in front of me, she heads back into the woods about 20 yards to my right and angles directly behind me. Somehow I have to get turned, but the hen is now 15 feet from the tree I am sitting against. I built the blind to shield me from the field view, but the backside is all open and the tree I am sitting against is not very big. The two gobblers in the field are out in the field too far, but they are in view through one of my shooting lanes. I am stuck. If I don't get turned, I will have no shot. Finally the gobblers get close enough to edge of the woods that they are blocked from my view. The hen has moved off only a little, but I HAVE to move NOW. I know she will see me, but here goes nothing. I shift around to my right and the hen starts clucking. Not totally spooked, but something ain't right clucking. She quickly exits through the woods off to my right clucking the whole way. At least I am turned some. Gobbler #1 enters the woods and follows the hen, but he is too far out and in some thick stuff. Where is gobbler #2? Finally I spy a bit of movement working along the edge of the field toward my shooting lane. My gun is up and the gobbler walks right to my gun. The rest is history. My 870 20 gauge does its job at about 20-25 yards. Hardly even flopped at all. 9:54am.
Just like TheCream, as I was finishing up and walking back to the house, the sun came out. From raining cats and dogs to blue sky. So my pictures are in the sun too. Oh the stats: 20 lbs, 8 inch beard, 1 1/8 inch spurs.
There was a reason why I titled my blog “How Did This Happen to a City Girl?” and it had nothing to do with groundhogs. It had more to do with marrying a farm boy and learning about life on a farm. It was about adjusting to living in a house where chicken feathers mixed in with the dust bunnies. It was about touching a gun for the first time while in my mid-thirties and then nursing the bruise caused by shooting a shotgun for the first time. But most of all it was because of my decision to start hunting for food and groundhogs were not food.
My first 10 years of hunting were pretty normal. I only hunted things that most everyone else around these parts hunted like deer and turkey and rabbit. But if you trace my family tree back a few generations, you’ll run into a line of Appalachian hill folk. I think somewhere deep inside my DNA was a hillbilly wanting to come out. So I decided to start squirrel hunting. I love squirrel hunting. Well that critter was crossing the line a bit for not only my city kin but also for quite a few of my deer and turkey hunting brethren. Even so, squirrel hunting has become a bit trendy and while squirrel enchiladas for dinner raise a few eyebrows, most people have at least heard of people hunting and eating squirrels.
When my husband and I moved to the farm, I managed to avoid the job of varmint control for many years. And while we don’t subscribed to a “kill ‘em all” philosophy, we do protect our chickens and want to limit damage to the crops we grow. Somewhere along the way and by necessity, I started participating. One thing led to another and now 20 years later, I have become the chief of groundhog control.
On summer evenings, it is not uncommon for a few farmers to congregate around the tractors parked in the driveway after a day in the field. Some beer gets drank and once in awhile the conversation turns to groundhog hunting. There is always someone that brings up how their grandmother used to cook up groundhog back in the day. It is quite curious as to why our culture does not look at groundhogs as food. They eat the same things as a rabbit after all. At the end of the day though, I never paid a whole lot of attention to all the talk about eating groundhogs because well, those driveway meetings, alcohol was involved. Then one day I was talking to one of our former wildlife officers and he started telling me about these wonderful groundhog meatballs he ate one time. Here was a very normal person talking of eating groundhogs and the conversation was not even being fueled by alcohol. After this, I paid much more attention to the summer evening in the driveway conversations. I listened about which groundhogs to eat and how to dress them out. My hillbilly roots could not resist any longer. In 2015, I vowed that I would cook and eat some groundhog. Step one was acquiring a couple young groundhogs. That happened on June 20th and the story can be found in my blog post “Groundhog Trifecta”. I dressed out another young groundhog later in the summer which gave me three young groundhogs in the freezer to cook up later.
I decided to cook them as I would a squirrel. That meant covering them with chicken broth, adding a few seasonings and cooking them in the crockpot until the meat was tender and falling off the bone. The three small groundhogs gave me about 4 cups of cooked meat. I used 2 cups for a batch of white bean chili. The other 2 cups of cooked meat I froze and used later for some groundhog pot pie. (Recipes to follow.) The meat was delicious, very mild and light in texture. I could taste that I was eating a different critter more in the pot pie than in the chili but it was quite pleasant. The door is now open. I am even thinking about using a little bit older whistle pig, grinding the meat and making some of those groundhog meatballs. My hunting journey continues.
White Bean Groundhog Chili
2 cups cooked shredded groundhog meat
Chopped onion (I used about ¼ to ½ cup depending on my mood)
2 cloves of garlic
2 (15.5 oz) cans of Cannellini (white kidney) beans
1 cup of chicken broth
1 (4 oz) can of chopped green chilies
Chopped bell pepper (I probably use about the same amount as the onions)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ - ½ teaspoon black pepper
Shredded cheddar cheese and sour cream as toppings
I sauté the onion and garlic in a little olive oil. Then everything except the toppings goes into the crockpot on low all day. Top with shredded cheddar and sour cream and enjoy.
Easy Weeknight Groundhog Pot Pie
2 cups cooked shredded groundhog meat
1 (10 ¾ oz) can cream of chicken soup
1-2 cups of mixed vegetables of your choice (cooked or frozen)
1 cup of sour cream
Seasonings of your choice (sorry for the lack of specifics, but I do things different every time. Sometimes I add some sautéed onion and/or garlic. Or I might just add some garlic powder. Maybe some pepper. Maybe some herbs like oregano or thyme. Whatever I am feeling.)
1 (8 oz) can of refrigerated crescent rolls.
Mix meat, vegetables, soup, sour cream and seasonings in a large bowl. Spread in a greased 7 X 11 pan.
Unroll the crescent roll dough. There will be two squares. Pinch the perforated seams closed. Place the two squares over the top of the meat/veggie mixture in the pan. The squares will overlap just a bit. Press the outside edges of the dough to the edge of the baking pan.
Bake at 350°F for 25 to 30 minutes until crust is golden brown.
NOTE: The refrigerated rolls are enough to cover a 9 X 13 pan of pot pie mixture if you make the 2 squares into one big rectangle. That is a lot of pot pie for the two of us so I use a 7 X 11 pan with the above amounts of ingredients. If you wanted to make a full 9 X 13 pan, I would add more mixed veggies and a second can of cream of chicken (or mushroom or whatever) soup.
For awhile after my old girl Gabby passed on, I was quite content with just having two beagles in the household. But by the end of last year’s rabbit season, I found myself missing the sound of three beagles tracking a rabbit through the thick brush of the creek bottom behind the house. Eleven months ago, a few weeks after the close of last year’s rabbit season, I brought home a 2 and ½ year old female beagle to join my other two. With warmer than normal temperatures last summer, I did not do nearly as much summer running of the beagles as I usually do. It really wasn’t until October that I started regularly running the three hounds all together. Not many of those early runs were very pretty. There is nothing like throwing a new dog into the mix to upset the balance of a good working team. Rabbit season started in November and while the dogs and I were definitely having fun chasing rabbits and while there were occasional glimmers of hope, there was very little cohesiveness in this new pack of three. The signs were there though and so the dogs and I, well, we kept plugging along. The first weekend in February everything all came together. Finally. A perfect hunt on Saturday and a perfect run on Sunday. Oh if I could just clone days like those.
The Perfect Rabbit Hunt
My definition of a perfect rabbit hunt begins with the jump of the rabbit. The dogs track the rabbit for at least one full circle without straying and the hunter completes the hunt by making a good shot. Every season I’ll have a hunt or two that fits the description, but the truth of hunting is that more often than not things do not go as planned. The rabbit goes in a hole. The hunter misses. The dogs lose the track. But when everything comes together just as it should, there is no better high for a beagler.
Saturday was quite mild with temperatures in the upper 30s. In fact the entire week had been mild and only patches of snow remained. I had only put 3 rabbits in the freezer so far this season due to the fact that I love running the hounds more than I love shooting rabbits. At least half the time during rabbit season, I don’t even carry a gun. But February brings the realization that the end of rabbit season is drawing near and I do like eating rabbit, so on Saturday I brought my gun along.
I turned the dogs loose in the pasture behind the barn and then I went to do a few barn chores. It only took me about 15 minutes to collect eggs and fill feeders and then off I went to join the beagles that were already barking up a storm in the area of the old high tunnel. By the time I got over there, it was apparent that a rabbit had retreated to a series of groundhog holes in a mound of dirt. I rounded up the dogs and we set off to find a new rabbit. The next rabbit was hiding in a clump of tall grass along the pasture fence. Two of the three dogs saw it and a wonderful sight chase ensued that ended with the rabbit going down a groundhog hole not 50 yards away. So I rounded up the hounds again and we walked along the creek bank checking brush piles.
At the opposite end of the pasture from the old high tunnel, a rabbit sprang from the brush. I had no thought of shooting it yet. I hunt with dogs and the dogs are the reason for the hunt. Plain and simple, I never jump shoot rabbits. The rabbit took off running straight for a giant pile of brush called the “burn pile”. The pile is large and deep and it is extremely rare that the dogs can get a rabbit out of that pile. I tried to run at the rabbit to make it veer from its course but it made it to the pile, ran around the backside and disappeared. Dang it. But the dogs’ noses knew more than I did. They followed the track to the pile, around the backside and kept going up to the overgrown fence line along the north edge of the pasture. The rabbit had kept going. The circle had begun. The dogs pushed the rabbit to a blackberry thicket and then the chase slowed way down. The hounds were having a bit of difficulty figuring out the track. As I watched and waited, I saw the rabbit work along the far eastern fence line on its way back to the creek bottom. I could tell this was going to take some time and so I climbed up on the giant burn pile of brush, sat down and just relaxed. I’m not quite sure what the hold up was but 10 minutes later the dogs straightened themselves out and were back on track.
The dogs got to the creek and then after a short pause, they crossed to the other side. I always smile when they figure out when the rabbit has made the leap across the creek. I climbed off my seat in the brush pile, stood up and waited. Often the rabbit will cross back over at a spot near where the dogs first jumped it, but the snowmelt had the creek running a bit high so the rabbit chose to run over to the tractor road over a culvert and cross on dry land. The dogs had done their job. The rabbit had made a full circle. The next part was all up to me. I am not very good at running shots. I prefer to shoot rabbits that are sneaking through the brush where I can finesse a shot to the head and keep most of the meat free of pellets. But this rabbit was intent on covering the ground between the culvert and the safety of the north pasture fence line with blazing speed and there I was standing in between. I took a huge breath, gave myself the quickest pep talk ever and shouldered my gun. Aim, follow, follow, follow (another really quick pep talk) and pulled the trigger. Boom! The rabbit tumbled over from a perfect head shot. Holy jiminy crickets! The dogs were just figuring out that the rabbit had crossed the culvert so I was able to take some video of them finishing the track. I laughed at the dogs when they got the spot of the shotgun blast and lost the trail with the rabbit laying 5 feet from their noses. It’s amazing how little they use their eyesight when tracking a rabbit. The pack had done well. The hunter had even done well. This is the stuff rabbit hunting dreams are made of.
The Perfect Run
My definition of a perfect is run is one where the hounds circle the rabbit through multiple courses through the woods while the beagler listens and ponders how a little hound can follow the track of a rabbit using nothing but its hound nose to guide the way.
Sunday’s weather was even milder than Saturday and my neighbor called to invite me and the beagles down to his place. After an hour and a half of stomping through the brush behind his house, there was not a rabbit to be rousted anywhere. From there we decided to drive a quarter mile down the road to another piece of property we have permission to hunt. My neighbor had his bow and I had my 20 gauge. We walked down the edge of the wheat field to a thick corner of woods. We stepped inside the edge of the woods and in less than 60 seconds, a rabbit popped out from the brush and the chase was on. I left my neighbor near the start of the chase and I moved 30 yards over around a right angled bend in the woods. For the next 90 minutes neither of us moved.
As is typical the first circle or two the rabbit made were fairly small. The second time I saw the rabbit, it hopped through the woods and crossed in front of me not six feet away. I was really hoping it would cross in front of my neighbor for a bow shot and besides it was way too early in the chase to shoot. I watched the rabbit hop past. Each circle became a little bit larger as the rabbit tried to fool the dogs with its twists and turns. At one point the rabbit popped out of the woods and traveled the edge of the wheat field. I didn’t even know it was there until it entered the woods fifteen feet behind me. I heard a rustle in the leaves and turned to see the rabbit. Unfortunately the rabbit saw me too and in a flash it ran and disappeared into the thick dense woodlot. Except on a few rare occasions, the dogs were mostly about one to two minutes behind the rabbit. One particular circle carried the dogs further and further away. I could see where they were by looking at the screen of my Garmin but for the most part I could not hear them. I sat down and my neighbor and I chatted with each other from our respective positions in the woodlot. The dogs seemed to be having some trouble and I was worried about the possibility of the rabbit finding a hole. My neighbor seemed doubtful that we would ever see that rabbit again. But something told me to just stay put. Then after a good 15 minutes or more of not hearing the dogs, the sound of the pack of three beagles could be heard again. The sound grew louder and louder and the beagles were on a direct track toward us. In a few minutes I spotted the rabbit crossing through the woods but well out of gun range. A few more minutes and the hounds passed through the crossing as well.
The rabbit circled one more time after that and then took the dogs up to near where we had parked the truck. There were some oil well tanks up that way and so this time when the dogs quit barking, I knew the rabbit had found a hole. One hour and 30 minutes of listening to the sweet sound of a pack of beagles. As my neighbor and I walked back to the truck, I lost track of how many times he said “Wow!”. The rabbit got away but the hunters were all smiles. I must admit I said “Wow” inside my head a few times as well. There is no greater high to a beagler than the sound of a pack working together as one.
The great thing about a trip to the woods is not knowing what exactly is going to happen.
After a miserable week of hunting my state’s deer gun season with very few deer sightings and warmer than normal temperatures that kept deer movement to a minimum, I was quite happy for a bit of snow on the ground a couple weeks later. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. A day or two after a fresh 6 inches of snow, the weather was calm and clear and I had a day off of work. It was a perfect day for a walk through the woods looking for fresh deer tracks. I was hoping I could figure out where the deer were moving as they certainly were not moving through all the traditional high deer traffic areas on the farm. Yes I was on a mission to figure out those blankety-blank deer prior to the bonus deer gun season coming up the following week.
As with most scouting trips that occur during small game season, I took the .17hmr along in case I crossed paths with a squirrel or two. The trip to the main woods is a ½ mile walk but to get there I have to walk a lane through a narrow strip of woods that separates our two crop fields. I got about half way through the walk down the lane when I saw them. Turkeys! There is not much that I love more than wild turkey encounters. I stopped to ponder what to do what with the narrow strip of woods being fairly open. In about 75 more yards, I would be to a spot where there were several leaf squirrel nests and a hickory tree or two. If I could make it to that spot, I could watch the turkeys for a bit and maybe even see a squirrel. I left the open lane and walked through the trees and understory as far from the turkey flock as I could. Stop and start. Maybe they would think I was a deer. It worked and I settled my seat cushion in the snow with my back against a big maple tree.
Within minutes the turkeys started talking. There were yelps and kee-kee runs. I slowly realized that the flock was feeding in two groups. Half were in the field to the east of the strip of woods and half were in the field to the west. And there I was sitting in between. 30 minutes later I was still enjoying watching the turkeys when a squirrel appeared in front of me. It ran through the tree tops, dropped into a small cluster of leaves in the crook of a young maple tree and came out with a 4 inch long piece of an ear of corn. I started to get my gun in position but a couple of blue jays had noticed the squirrel as well. They wanted that ear of corn. I felt a bit sorry for the squirrel. I was trying to shoot it and the blue jays were trying to steal its meal. The squirrel made it safely into a larger proper leaf nest and disappeared.
Meanwhile the turkeys were still yacking it up and they were getting closer. The west group was moving to join the east group and I was in the middle. I tried to get some video on my cell phone. The first few turkeys passed through without seeing me. But then a sneaky young one came up behind me and saw something it did not like. It started clucking loudly as it passed behind me not 20 yards away. It seemed kind of pissed off that it couldn’t figure out what I was. I was only 15 yards from the edge of the east field. When the confused and mildly pissed off turkey reached the field, it stood there and continued to cluck loudly. The main flock of over 50 birds had been feeding 50 or more yards away. They really couldn’t figure out why their buddy was standing there clucking and so all 50 of them walked over to join the boisterous youngster. When all was said and done, the turkeys quieted down and took up feeding in the field 20 yards away directly in front of me. And then the squirrel popped out of the leaf nest with the corn cob in its mouth.
I had now been sitting in the snow with my back to this maple tree for a little over an hour. The action had been non-stop. I wanted to watch the turkeys. I wanted to shoot a squirrel. The squirrel was to my left and crossed through the tree tops between me and the turkeys. Oh heck I thought. I wanted to shoot the squirrel. The blue jays were gone by now but the squirrel was still quite concerned about finding a peaceful location to eat the corn. It ended up choosing a branch in a tree 30 yards to my right. With one eye on the turkey flock, I scooted myself around for a shot at the squirrel. I was now about to find out how a turkey flock feeding 20 yards away would react to a gun shot. The .17hmr barked, the squirrel dropped and the entire turkey flock jumped into the air and quickly settled back to the ground. But every turkey was standing upright in full alert posture. I sat quiet and they started to softly talk to each other. They decided that they would rather feed elsewhere in the field and so without much hurry, but with a decided purpose, they walked off to the north. When they were out of sight, I walked over and picked up my squirrel.
I was shivering a bit from sitting still in the snow for so long and the afternoon shadows were getting long. I decided to head home. Although I left the woods without completing my deer scouting mission, I could not have asked for anything more from that day. Sometimes I think it is crazy just how much fun I can have out there.
It is not very often that I have difficulty coming up with a title for a blog post, but this hunt was special for me in many ways. I could have called it shoot a buck and save a doe because that was my deer hunting goal this season. With the declining deer herd across the Midwest and specifically decreased deer sightings on the farm over the entire past year, I wanted to lay off the does this year. And because I hunt only for meat, any buck would do. I could have titled it something about paying dues because as you will read, that thought was going through my head as I was waiting for a deer to show. Or I could have called it being blessed with one more deer. A little more than half the meat we eat comes from wild animals my husband and I take off our farm. We needed one more deer this season to ensure we would not run out of venison before the start of next fall’s deer season. But what I will remember most about this hunt was the shotgun I used and a Christmas gift given to me by a friend several years back.
As a deer hunter, I find myself caught halfway between the world of the bowhunter and that of the gun hunter. I only hunt deer with a gun, almost exclusively from the ground and without a blind, and yet I have this strong desire to keep my deer hunting a bit up close and personal. Bowhunting does not really appeal to me although I could see myself taking up shooting a crossbow in the future. But right now, I don’t even have a strong desire to do that. I like my guns. Unlike most deer gun hunters though, I like to keep things simple and as I already said, a bit up close and personal. The fascination of outfitting a deer gun with a scope and being able to shoot a deer 100, 200, 300 or more yards escapes me. It is not wrong. I just don’t understand it. I like having to pay attention to wind direction, sitting perfectly still and finding a spot to sit on the ground that allows me to hide and blend in with my surroundings. I want to see the deer’s vital area with my own eyes and if it isn’t close enough for me to do that, I don’t want to shoot it. Both my 20 gauge Remington 870 slug gun and my CVA muzzleloader are fitted with open sights.
Earlier this year I took my niece on a controlled hunt that was shotgun only. I let her use my Remington 870. I was not going to buy a new gun for just one hunt and so I decided to try shooting slugs out of my 20 gauge Beretta 391 that I use when rabbit hunting. I bought some inexpensive rifled slugs, fitted the gun with a cylinder choke and started shooting targets at 30 yards. I was pleasantly surprised when I was shooting groups tighter than I thought possible with just a front bead and well within the accuracy I needed to shoot a deer. My shots were always an inch or two left and varied between even with the bullseye to 3-4 inches low. Yes there were occasional flyers but very few. Shooting at close range and at a deer standing broadside would be quite feasible with this gun. All this practice shooting gave me a strong desire to shoot a deer with this gun. It almost felt a little bit old school hunting with a smoothbore shotgun with nothing but a front bead.
I did not have the chance to shoot a deer on that controlled hunt or during my state’s week long regular gun season. A few days after the week long season, I was talking to a friend of mine about how very few deer I had seen. Several years back at Christmas time, she had given me something called “Legendary’s Lucky Deer Call”. It’s a gag gift: a wooden tube with a small hole to blow through and a leather lanyard to hang the call around your neck. When you blow through the tube, it just sounds like air rushing through the hole. According to the manufacturer:
The gotta have gift for every "serious" hunter! Undetectable to the human ear, our Lucky Deer Call emits an irresistible dinner bell to whitetails. Complete instructions included. Guaranteed! For amusement purpose only.
I remember how much we laughed at the gift. She had bought one for her husband too. Although the call is not a real deer call, the gift means something special to me and so I always carry it in the bottom of my fanny pack when I go deer hunting. When I told my friend about carrying the call during deer gun week and not seeing many deer, she asked if I actually blew the call. I said no that I had only carried it. She admonished me and said the next time I hunted I had to blow through the call. I promised her I would do so. We laughed again. Life is good when you laugh a lot.
My next opportunity to deer hunt was the first day of my state’s 2 day bonus gun season a few days after Christmas. Due to my work schedule I could only hunt one day. I was happy the weather was a good 15 to 20 degrees colder than during gun week but I was not happy about the forecast for freezing rain. My husband and I set out in the dark and headed to two different spots on the farm. The freezing rain held off until 11 a.m. Neither one of us saw a deer that morning and decided to head to the house when the rain started. The afternoon plan would be to head to the same field where my husband shot a deer during our regular deer gun week. He would sit in the same spot where he was sitting during that successful hunt. I would sit at the opposite end of the field.
At 3 p.m. I headed out the door. The temperature was 32 degrees and while not a torrential downpour, the rain was quite steady. My hunting spot was a cluster of aspens near the north end of our picked corn field. The field slopes gradually toward this end and with all the rain we had in the previous three days, a good portion of the field was under water. The woods alongside this edge of field belong to my neighbor and were logged several years back. The brush and logging slash in those woods is nearly impenetrable to a human and the deer love to hide there during the daytime. It was 3:30 p.m. when I got settled in and pulled out the lucky deer call. “shhhhhhhhhh shhhhhhhhh shhhhhhhhh” I blew on it at least 6 times. I paused and then blew two more times for good measure. It was hard not to laugh out loud. The rain may have dampened my mood, but blowing on that call sure lightened things back up. I put the call back in my bag and sat and waited.
Most of my attention was focused on a well used deer trail that came out of the woods a little left and front of where I was sitting. Occasionally I would look left into the field or right to an opening in some woods that leads to one of our other fields. I was thankful for good quality clothing and the heat from some hand warmers. As I watched the cold rain running off my gun, my mind thought how this is the type of weather one sits through to pay one’s dues. If I didn’t see a deer, I would be at least earning some kind of good luck points by sitting through these miserable conditions. At least that was what I was telling myself – anything at all to keep my spirits lifted. Collecting good luck points is always important to a deer hunter.
The view of the field to my left.
The phrase “sitting perfectly still is the best camo pattern” kept running through my head. It was hard to sit still but I did my best to just watch the main deer trail entering the field in front of me with very occasional glances left (open field) or right (opening through some woods). And then as things so often do when hunting, events started to unfold rather quickly. I looked left to check the field and there was a deer feeding. I may have jumped a bit. Where did it come into the field and how long had it been there? I could feel myself starting to shake. The deer had antlers. Wow, a buck. It was a young buck, but that makes no difference to me. The goal was to fill the freezer and to not shoot a doe. Slowly I had to move my gun to the other side of an aspen tree in my little cluster of trees where I was sitting. The deer kept feeding. My longest shot ever at a deer was around 60 yards. This was just a bit further at 70 yards. I told myself I could do this. A summer of shooting groundhogs and a fall of shooting squirrels had given me a bit more confidence than I usually possess. That was until I actually raised my gun to aim. With only a front bead, the gun nearly covered up the entire body of the deer. Holy crackers! That was a shock to my system. At least with my other deer guns, the fiber optic sights sit a bit above the gun barrel. I was clueless that this was going to happen. And the shaking, this too had to stop. The deer kept feeding. At first it was broadside but then it turned to face directly away from me. I took the opportunity to breathe. Oxygen is good in such a situation. Some deep breaths helped the shaking. The deer turned broadside facing the other way. Again I took aim and again I lost my nerve. The deer turned toward me and kept feeding. I took the opportunity for a pep talk. “I can do this. A little high. A little right. I can do this.” The deer turned broadside once more. I settled my aim at the level of the spine (not the top of the back, but a little lower where the spine runs). Safety off and squeezed the trigger. Boom! The deer dropped instantly and that was followed by the usual flood of emotions running through my entire body. The shot ended up going a little left of my aim, through the shoulder blade and hitting the spine where it dips downward before running back upwards through the neck. I must have just barely missed the front of the chest cavity. With the spine shot keeping the deer from running off, I was able to walk up and make a finishing shot.
My husband who was sitting at the other end of the field heard the shot. I texted him that I got a deer and he texted me he would go get the tractor. Between the excitement and the cold, I was shaking badly. I had to first drag the deer out of the flooded part of the field over to the plain old muddy part of the field so I could start field dressing. The mud was trying to suck off my boots along the way. I was glad to warm up my hands by field dressing the warm deer. My husband arrived with the tractor and we put the deer in the front end loader. Normally I would sit on the fender of the tractor for the ride back to the house. It wasn’t until I went to sit down that I noticed the entire tractor was covered in ice from the freezing rain. Sitting on the fender was like sitting on a slip 'n slide. Not wanting to end up under the tractor tire, I walked back home.
The buzz from a successful hunt was strong. My ol’ 20 gauge rabbit gun and cheap rifled slugs did the job. I could chalk up my success to all my practice shooting and choosing my shot carefully by waiting for the deer to be perfectly broadside. But I know I earned some good luck points in that freezing rain and the lucky deer called worked. What a blessing to have a freezer full of venison for another year.
There was a time when shooting a button buck would have been the last choice on the list of which deer to shoot. But then there was also a time when deer were plenty and I was not so secure in who I was as a hunter. Times have changed.
There is a huge dichotomy in deer hunting. On one hand, there are times I feel a bit sorry for the white-tailed deer and those male deer that have pointy things growing out the top of their head. Sporting antlers really makes hunting much more complicated than it should be. It makes some people act kind of crazy. It takes the focus of hunting away from the ultimate purpose of hunting which is killing for food in order to live. I often wish deer hunting were as simple as small game hunting. That I could just go out and shoot a deer so that I could eat a deer. But seldom is anything so simple for us human beings who carry around a brain that likes to think beyond basic survival.
And with that, you have the “other hand” of deer hunting. Because not only sex but also age class of deer can be figured out while a deer is still running around alive, those of us who hunt deer have the ability to thoughtfully choose what to shoot. Do we shoot a young female, an older female, a young male or an older male? There are circumstances where it would be appropriate to shoot any one of those classes of deer. Think how wonderful it would be if when the rabbit population was on the downward part of the natural population cycle, that a hunter could go out and shoot only male rabbits. Well that is exactly what can happen with deer. When the deer population is too high, a hunter can shoot more does. When the deer population is low, a hunter can shoot bucks and leave the does alone.
Which all leads up to deer season 2015 on my farm. One would have to be living under a rock to not realize that across many Midwestern states, deer populations are decreasing at least in areas with open access to hunting. Although there are still a decent number of deer on my farm, there is a definite downward trend to the deer population here as well. The only thing that will stop the downward trend is to leave more does. Most years we take two does and occasionally three off the farm. The plan this year was to cut that down to one doe and truth be told I would be just as happy if it were zero does. The problem is that I really really REALLY love venison and I’ve become very accustom to eating it year round. So the plan was to shoot one deer of either sex and then buck only after that. And I had an additional thought creep into my head. I took the entire week of our deer gun season as vacation from work. The weather was mild. I have always wanted to try and butcher a deer on my own but lack of time and hands that do not function well in cold weather always kept me from trying it. Time was not an issue and temperatures were forecast to be warmer than most of our past deer seasons. I told my husband that if either of us shot a young deer (button buck or doe fawn) that I wanted to do this. I wanted the first deer that I butchered to be a small tender young one. The best of both worlds would be if one of us shot a button buck. We would save a doe and get meat for the freezer. For the first time ever, I was hoping that one of us would shoot a button buck. My how times have changed.
My husband and I went forth into the week long gun season with much enthusiasm. Every morning I hunted a different spot on the farm. And every morning I saw no deer. The only place we ever saw deer was a 20 acre field we call the “side field” and we only saw deer in the evening. Part of the field was picked corn and part of it was planted in radish cover crop. Every evening six deer would come out into the field, mostly into the radishes but sometimes into the picked corn. So every evening my husband and I would choose a location to sit based on wind direction and where we thought the deer would enter the field. We sat on the south end, the north end, to the east and to the west. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, each evening the deer entered the field from a new location and each evening they were out of reach of our guns.
On Friday evening, my husband sat in a spot one of us had occupied for the previous two evenings. I chose a new location at the opposite end of the field. The wind was marginal for both of us but this was our fifth evening in this field and we were just trying to make something happen. As light was fading, I sat there enjoying the evening but also seeing no deer. And then a shot rang out. With 15 minutes of legal shooting time left, a doe and a button buck had come into the field near my husband. The details of his story escape my memory, but it was the button buck that presented the best shot. Soon after the shot the text messaging started. “Deer down” my husband said. I asked “buck or doe?” He answered back “doe” (he didn’t even check). I was hoping for that button buck but I was OK with the one doe. He texted me that he was going to walk back to the barn to get a tractor. I know my job in all this is to field dress the deer. I am much better at field dressing a deer than I am driving a tractor: a fact which my husband never lets me forget. The walk to the other end of the field was around 400 yards. My husband waited in the corner of the field for me so he could tell me exactly where the deer was laying and then he continued on his way to get the tractor. It was dark by the time I got to the deer. I was wondering if it was a mature doe or a young one so the first thing I did was slip my hand between the rear legs to feel for mammary gland development. That is when I felt testicles. Some doe I thought. Here was the button buck I was hoping one of us would shoot. My first adventure in butchering a deer by myself was going to happen.
I was just finishing field dressing when my husband drove up with the tractor. I was bent over the deer with my mini mag flashlight firmly clenched between my teeth and finishing up cutting around the anus. My hands were covered in blood and I did not want to take the perfectly positioned flashlight out of my mouth. I held up the testicles and grunted at my husband. It was difficult to see in the lighting but after a few failed guesses and several more grunts from me with the flashlight still between my teeth, he finally figured out what I was holding. With the deer placed in the bucket of the front end loader, it was back to the house, try to remember where the gambrel was, find a tarp, find a bucket, find the step ladder, find something to attach the gambrel to one of the trusses in the garage and hang the deer. Dinner was in the crockpot, we were tired and the night was cold so I would start butchering the following day. I spent the evening watching YouTube videos and giving myself numerous pep talks. Heck, I have butchered so many chickens that I could do that with my eyes closed. Certainly I could do a deer with my eyes open.
The next morning I got up early and hunted until lunchtime. I was in a new spot and was very optimistic. I saw no deer. So home I went to eat lunch and start my butchering adventure. Skinning the deer was much easier than I thought it would be. That was until I got to the neck when things slowed way down. I kept thinking that it should not be this hard after all the legs and body were a piece of cake. That’s when I realized I forgot to slice the hide all the way down the neck. I was trying to remove the hide like removing a turtleneck sweater turning it inside out. And the head was still on. OK first lesson learned. I was sure there would be more. I finally finished skinning the neck and removed the head. I removed the front legs next. Just as with any animal I’ve butchered, the front legs were easy. I take that back. Chicken wings. Enough said. Next I took off the backstraps. I cut down the spine just like I should but had a bit of difficulty figuring out the second cut that is needed to start peeling the cut of meat off the spine and ribs. There was a bit of swearing and a little bit of hacking of the end of the loin but eventually I figured it out. The main backstrap looked good but the end looked a bit like someone gnawed it off with their teeth. I swear I didn’t. The tenderloin was next and that was easy as pie once I figured out I had to cut the flanks out of the way to get easy access into the body cavity. Next I cut the flank meat totally off, deboned the neck meat and placed those cuts in a bag to be trimmed and ground later. Then it was on to the rear legs. I’ve since learned another way that I want to try and do the rear legs, but for this adventure I removed both rear legs. It was not as easy as removing legs off a chicken, or a rabbit, or a squirrel. Yeah yeah they are built pretty much the same, but I believe I was a bit intimidated by the size. I have come to the conclusion that there are too many attachments back there. Eventually though muscle and tendon gave way to my knife. The button buck was now in respectable pieces. I worked well into the afternoon and did not make it out to hunt in the late afternoon. At this point I was questioning my decision to do this. I really missed hunting that afternoon.
Later that evening I trimmed and packed the tenderloin whole. I trimmed the backstrap and cut it into steaks which I butterflied. I also deboned one rear leg, saved two roasts and threw the rest of the meat into a bag to be ground later. The next morning I skipped the morning of hunting and I went back to the garage to start deboning the other three legs. It was much colder and instantly my hands quit functioning. This is a big reason why I have never butchered my own deer. I’m missing out on hunting the morning and my hands are so cold that my Raynauds is flaring up and I’m asking myself why I’m doing this once again. One leg at a time, I went into the house to finish deboning and trimming where it was warm. The deboning was not bad. The trimming took forever! All my reading had told me to remove as much fat and silver skin as possible. I may have gone overboard. Or maybe not. After all I have never seen this part done so I was just “winging it” as the saying goes. In any case, I ended up with four gallon sized bags full of meat to grind. I did make it out for the final evening hunt of deer season and saw no deer but enjoyed a wonderful sunset.
The next morning I borrowed a meat grinder and finished butchering my first deer. I suppose I may surprise a few folks by how I felt at the end of this mini adventure. I cannot say that I felt like I had accomplished any great feat or that I really had any great sense of satisfaction. I know I did save some money. I also know I missed out on one evening and one morning hunt. I learned that I truly appreciate the guy that normally processes my deer for me but really I already knew that. Mostly I felt tired. In the end, I accomplished what I set out to do and that was to butcher a deer by myself at least once in my life. I learned a good bit and I know that if I do this again, it will go much quicker. Will I do it again? Time will tell. I really have no great desire at this moment in time.
A day full of small game hunting is a very good day indeed and nothing can be finer than going squirrel hunting and rabbit hunting in the same day.
As has been my tradition for all of three or four years now, I combined a vacation day with my off weekend to enjoy the first four days of Ohio’s rabbit season. And as the tradition goes, each year on opening day I drive to some nearby public land to kick off the season. With rain pouring down on the morning of day one, I was a bit doubtful of even making it outside, but the rain finally let up in the afternoon. With the dogs loaded in the shotgun seat of the old farm truck, I drove to the nearest piece of public land for 2 hours of fun. I saw a rabbit for one millionth of a second on the second circle and other than that I was listening to the dogs follow the track round and round in chest high weeds. Public land can be the ultimate challenge in rabbit hunting at times. Good habitat for the rabbits for sure.
The next day of my mini-vacation I had no real plan other than to hunt. What to hunt would be left to the randomness of the weather and my current mood. Last year once rabbit season started, it seemed as though I nearly forgot about squirrel hunting and ended up shooting only around 5 squirrels the whole season – barely enough to fill the crockpot. This year I swear I am going to try my best to continue to squirrel hunt through the entire squirrel season.
On day two of my mini-vacation, I decided I wanted to spend a morning watching the woods wake up. I didn’t quite make it to the woods as early as I hoped but I was settled in at the base of a tree by 7:30am. Not too shabby for having to do morning farm chores and being on vacation. I positioned myself downwind of a long straight path that opened into a mowed tile line opening and then into a field with the hopes of being able to see some deer moving on an early November morning. At 8:30am my hope of seeing a deer came true and I watched and smiled as a young 6 point buck stood and licked an overhead branch and freshened up a scrape about 100 yards away.
By this time the squirrels were also moving but I was having trouble getting a shot. The early risers are always the grey squirrels and they are busy bodies. Those greys are here, there and everywhere making it hard for me to settle the sights of my rifle for a shot. I was not in a hurry though and was enjoying the time in the woods. Around mid morning a fox squirrel showed up and while it took its sweet ol’ time getting close enough for a shot, it finally perched itself on the side of a tree long enough for me to get a perfect head shot. It turned out to be a very well-endowed male and I don’t think I even realized how long its body was until I saw it in the photo. I think us squirrel hunters are missing out by not having our own Boone and Crockett registry for trophy squirrels.
After that it was time to head home for lunch and a nap. Then it was time to don a pair of brush pants and ready the dogs to run some rabbits on the home farm. What a blessing to be able to walk out the door of the old farm house and start hunting. I took the dogs for a spin around the far pasture to start. There was some cold trailing and half-hearted barking but they couldn’t seem to get a rabbit up and running. I was going to try a second spot on the farm but wanted the dogs to first check out a clump of multi-flora rose growing by where the creek runs through a culvert. The dogs of course went flying past the rosebush clump thinking they were on their way to the next section. Not so fast little doggies and I called them back. I don’t remember who the first brave one was but one of them dove into the bush of thorns. Ouch! I don’t know how they do that. Within seconds that dog let out a long loud drawn out bawl and the other two dogs jumped in to the bush as well. The rose bush was wiggling around pretty good with three excited beagles inside of it and out popped a rabbit. Across the culvert and into the weedy creek bank that runs the edge of my backyard. The chase was now on.
Because rabbits in this area have been known to run through the yard and across the road, my job, other than shooting a rabbit, was to stand in the yard and make sure that didn’t happen. The rabbit took the dogs on a nice couple circles through the creek bank thicket before crossing the lower yard to the pasture behind the barns. I followed the dogs over there and took stand on a hay wagon that was sitting in the pasture. The rabbit circled and I missed my opportunity for a shot as it dove into a wild rose bush and across the creek to the original multi-flora rosebush. The dogs pushed the rabbit onward, out of the bush, back across the culvert and back to the weedy creek bank behind the house. So back to the yard I went to stand guard in the event of a road crossing. Another circle through the creek bank thicket and then another trip to the pasture behind the barn. Another walk to stand on the hay wagon to wait. This time the dogs tracked the rabbit into some tall grass in the pasture. I could occasionally make out a wiggling tail and so when I saw something run out of the grass coming straight at me, I thought it was a dog. When I realized it was the rabbit, it was already running right past the hay wagon I was standing on. When I got my gun up and turned, the rabbit was running underneath one of the sprayers sitting by the pasture fence. OK I cannot shoot at the sprayer. The rabbit went back to the weedy creek bank behind the house and I went back to stand in the yard. I parked myself next to a big silver maple and waited. The dogs pushed the rabbit on another round and then it happened. The rabbit made a run for a cluster of pine trees that sits in the middle of the yard. Gun up, point, follow, shoot and the rabbit somersaulted to a dead stop. Well I thought it was dead. It was definitely stopped and laying flat on its side. That was until I set my gun down with the thoughts of videoing the dogs on the final part of the track. And then the rabbit sat up and looked at me. Dang! Very cautiously I walked backwards over to where I had set my gun down and very cautiously I walked back trying to get the best angle for a follow up shot. I made the second shot and breathed a sigh of relief that the deed was now done. And because beagles were being beagles, I had plenty of time to set my gun back down and get the camera out to video the end of their tracking job. The first rabbit of the season and another two hour run. Well done dogs!
One of the things I love the most about hunting are the lessons that hunting teaches. And perhaps what I love about squirrel hunting is that the lessons occur out of the spotlight. There is no glamour surrounding squirrel hunting. There are no celebrities to take the lead. There are no high fives by family and friends back at the house or photos shared in the local newspaper. There are just the woods and the hunter and the life and death of the squirrel. The lessons are deep and rich and intense. Intense yes. Intensity is a natural part of a lesson that includes both life and death. Fortune has blessed me with a large circle of mentors that have ingrained a deep seated respect for animals I hunt, the animals that give their lives to feed my family. As much as I have learned from my teachers, the lessons that happen in the woods when no one else is there often hold the most meaning.
“Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching” ~Aldo Leopold
October 11th: Paying Attention
While respect may be the biggest lesson of all, there are many small lessons that occur along the way. It is the smaller lessons that often pave the way for the hunter to be successful or not. On the afternoon of October 11th, I set out to spend some time in the woods at one of my favorite sitting spots. Life was being its usual hectic self and all I wanted to do was sit in the woods and relax. This spot is only a hundred yards or so from the highway and so when hunting squirrels there, I almost always carry a shotgun so that I have a greater choice in safe shooting directions. As I walked alongside a brushy grown-up fencerow on the edge of a field, I passed an area where a small grove of hickory trees stood. The sound of large hickory nuts falling and hitting the ground caught my attention. I had no thoughts of stopping here. The ground beneath the hickory trees is nearly solid poison ivy and the leaves were still on. I paused briefly to listen and then walked on. Then I paused again. I thought about the sitting spot where I was heading. I thought about the poison ivy behind me. Opportunity was knocking. I turned around and went back. I walked through a deer trail opening in the thick brush along the edge and stepped into the semi-open woods. The sound of hickory nuts hitting the ground continued. Slowly I moved up until I was in shotgun range of the falling nuts. A ruckus broke out and a young fox squirrel was being chased by a very pissed off red squirrel. The fox squirrel scampered over to another tree and paused. It paused long enough for me to raise my shotgun, aim, and shoot my 6th squirrel of the season. That left the red squirrel sitting on a branch chattering at my presence in the woods. I don’t think I had ever shot a red squirrel before because they are so small, but they are listed in my state’s regulation book as legal game. I decided I would shoot if and only if the perfect shot developed. The red squirrel kept chattering until I looked right at it and stepped closer. It ran around the backside of the tree. Then only its tiny head appeared as it peeked around the back edge of the tree trunk. That was my perfect shot. Squirrel number 7 for the season. I did continue on to my sitting spot, took a nap and saw no squirrels.
October 31st: Scouting while hunting
There was nothing much remarkable about this day’s hunt except for two things. One was that I did come home with one squirrel but only after being in the woods for five hours. And two, this hunt would lead to what would be my craziest squirrel hunt ever on the following day. I started my day on the east edge of one of my favorite deer hunting spots. I wanted to avoid going deep into the woods because I knew the bow hunters would be coming soon to hunt the rut. I like to leave the thick deer sanctuary alone until our deer gun season comes in at the end of November. With a strong west wind, I figured I could hunt the very east edge of the woods with no problems. During deer gun season, I see squirrels along this edge all day long. On October 31st, I sat for two hours, contemplated life and saw not one squirrel. It was time to take a walk. I headed further to the east to an open mature woodlot belonging to my neighbor. I found a nice oak tree dropping nuts, sat down for two hours, contemplated life and saw not one squirrel. When I stood up to leave, three, yes three squirrels started barking from behind me. The problem was that through the trees I could just see the road that runs along the backside of the farm and the house across the road and I was carrying the rifle for the first time this season. I was not going to shoot a rifle toward the road. No way, no how. So I took note of the location and started walking back to the house away from the road. I took a short break along the way and sat down in another small oak flat. It was there, 5 hours after I started the day’s hunt, that I got squirrel number 8 for the season. This was the first one of the season with the .17hmr.
November 1st: Respect
The very next day, I went back to hunt the seemingly abundant squirrel population near the road on the backside of the farm. Instead of tromping through the woods to get there, I drove around, parked on the gravel road, slipped quietly into the woods along a well used trail and found a nice big oak tree to sit against. I was set up closer to the road than the day before and I would make sure any shot I took would be away from the road. Even with my quiet entrance to the woods, it still took a bit of time for the woods to relax around me, but in about 30 minutes, a grey squirrel meandered past 30 yards away. My rifle hit its mark and squirrel number 9 of the season fell to the ground. Unless I am ready to leave, I tend to just sit awhile before going to collect any dead squirrel. Several minutes went by and another grey squirrel started softly barking at me in front and off to my right. It was a little awkward turning to the right to shoot and my first shot missed. But as squirrels often do, it just ran to another branch and sat still again. I shot again and the squirrel fell from the tree but when it landed, I knew I had messed up the shot. It paused for a brief moment to grab at its jaw with its tiny paws before running off. My heart sank. I hate wounding an animal. I had no follow up shot with the rifle as I watched it run through the woods and disappear.
For the next 30 minutes I sat quietly. I got up to leave and picked up the one squirrel I had shot cleanly and set it on the ground next to my pack. And then not because I thought I could find it, but because it was the right thing to do, I took my rifle and went looking for the wounded squirrel. I had no expectations of finding it. Zero. But my heart told me to go look anyway. Respect runs deep inside me. The last place I saw it was a small beech tree along the well used trail. My approach was slow and cautious with a lot of start and stop. When I was about 30 yards from the tree, I saw a squirrel move up in the scrawny branches maybe 20 feet from the ground. At first I thought it was just another squirrel and decided that I would go ahead and shoot it if I could. But when I settled my scope on the squirrel’s head, I could see the injury to its jaw. The shot would be difficult with lots of small branches near the squirrel but I moved to where I thought I had a chance and a safe backdrop. Using a nearby sapling to steady my gun, I took the shot and missed. The squirrel ran down the tree, hit the ground and ran up the trail away from me. But it was still a wounded squirrel and it stopped. I had to walk a little closer to find it camouflaged among the leaves on the ground and it saw me and took off again. It stopped again. I had nothing to steady my shot but tried an off hand shot and it took off again this time into the woods. The squirrel went around the backside of a rotted tree that had broken off about 20 feet in the air and disappeared. Once again and very slowly I moved up to where I last saw the squirrel. From about 15 feet away I peeked around the rotted tree trunk and there it sat in the hollowed out base. When I moved to get a better angle for a shot, it saw me and scurried up inside the hollowed out tree trunk. Dang! I was so close to getting this squirrel.
The sun was getting low and it was about 45 minutes until sunset. I backed up into a small clump of brush about 20 feet from the hollow tree, sat down and I waited. Fifteen minutes later, I saw movement. When I moved my gun to take aim, the squirrel went back up into the tree but in just a few more minutes, it stuck its head out for a look. I took a deep breath, said a little prayer and took yet another shot at this squirrel. Again the squirrel took off on a dead run through the woods. This time it went about 15 yards straight into the middle of a swamp, flipped upside down and died. I estimated it had traveled about 100-120 yards from where I originally shot it. When I waded into the swamp to pick up the dead squirrel, I was amazed at how it could have made that final run with the trauma that had occurred to its head.
And there I stood in the woods all alone. There have been occasional wounded animals in the past that I have not been able to recover and I’m sure there will be again. We can strive to be perfect hunters but we are no more or less perfect than the hawk or the coyote and they sometimes wound too. But on this hunt and for the prize of one small squirrel, the lesson rang loud and clear. That squirrel’s life deserved my respect. My mentors taught me well. The woods have taught me well. And when my hope of finding this squirrel was all but lost, my heart remembered the lesson of respect and what was the right thing to do.
It was 2008 when I decided to start squirrel hunting. Now here I am starting my eighth season. It’s kind of crazy how the years roll past.
As per usual, the farm is a busy place when squirrel season rolls around on September 1st. This year the weather was unseasonably warm in early September and with a five month squirrel season ahead, I felt no rush and no desire to sit in the mosquito infested woods. But finally a bit of a cool down and I was off on my first outing to the squirrel woods. I don’t remember much of the details of the first hunt other than I came home with one squirrel and that my mind felt renewed from being in the woods again.
On September 20th, I had a little more free time than usual and so I trotted off to the woods with my 20 gauge on my shoulder. Usually I pack a few shells of #8 shot to try and shoot doves on my way to the woods. Perhaps because of the hot weather or perhaps because they are feeding elsewhere, doves have been few and far between this year. I’m hoping to dove hunt the late season. On this day the focus was squirrels. Last year I experimented with using #4 shot for squirrels as someone had given me half a box. I really liked the result so I bought a new box during the off season. I’ll switch over to the rifle once the leaves are down, but for early season with full leaf cover, it’s all about the shotgun.
The morning was cool, but not cold, with the sun peaking in and out of big white puffy clouds. I was feeling almost giddy as I walked down the farm lane that runs between a buffer strip of woods and the corn field. In fact it was so beautiful that I had to stop and take a picture. And is typical of my style, I felt the need to share that picture with some other people who I knew would feel the same way. It was awkward holding my phone and my gun and so instead of trying to type, I used the voice program on my phone’s keyboard. I spoke “Picture perfect walk down the farm lane to the woods to go squirrel hunting”. And then I read what the phone typed: “Picture perfect walk down the farm lane to the woods to go screw”. Giddiness turned to hysteria. With tears of laughter streaming down my face, I very very carefully made sure to hit “erase” on the keyboard and not “send”. Believe me when I say that was a very difficult task to accomplish as I was hyperventilating and could not see well with tear-filled eyes. Humor always seems to find me when I am in the woods. I was fortunate I had another ½ mile to walk to my squirrel spot because it took me that long to stop hyperventilating and quit laughing.
With my composure regained and a grin on my face, I stepped into the woods. I was heading to a spot I often sit to squirrel hunt and to contemplate life. But on the way I thought I would do some start and stop through a grove of hickory trees along the edge of a cow pasture. It is a great location for squirrel, but not so great for sitting as the forest floor is nearly solid poison ivy. I hadn’t been in the woods 5 minutes when I heard a rustle through the leaves of a hickory tree. I paused for several minutes and finally a fox squirrel made an appearance on the side of the tree. I shouldered my gun, shot and just that quickly, I had a squirrel to go in my game bag. I continued on and just 50 yards and a few minutes later, I thought I heard another rustle. I turned around and there was another fox squirrel sitting on the ground 20 yards away. Another shot from my gun and I now had two squirrels in my game bag. A very good start to my hunt.
Eventually I made my way to the sitting spot and pulled up to a comfy spot nestled up against the trunk of a big mature oak tree. The squirrel hunting here slowed down considerably but the fun did not. Oh I did see a few squirrels and probably could have shot one or two, but they would have been bad shots. I really try my best not to take bad shots. The point of this squirrel hunting venture is to bring home dinner and not to blast a squirrel into oblivion. I’ve taken enough bad shots in my early years of squirrel hunting and these days I tend to be a lot more particular.
About an hour into my sit, I caught a glimpse of movement up ahead. For a bit, I didn’t see anything else but eventually I saw it again. The strong dappled lighting of the sun through the leaves and on to the forest floor made it hard to pick out details. It took some time but the bits of movement weaving in between spots of sun and shade finally took shape in my mind. Turkeys! Oh how I love turkey encounters. They were heading my way and I was in complete camo. I knew this was going to be great. The flock was a group of hens and poults and in typical turkey style, they spread themselves out in a fragmented line as they walked through the woods feeding. The closest birds came within an easy 20 yards of where I was sitting. This is what I live for when I come to the woods. I watched and I smiled. The turkeys continued on their way but they made my day. I stayed another 30 minutes before I decided it was time to go.
Off to the east I had been listening to the sound of a squirrel cutting nuts and so even though the way home was to the west, I went to check out the sound. Slowly, I eased toward a big oak den tree. After a few minutes of just standing still and staring at the tree, I caught a glimpse of a squirrel. A few minutes later, the squirrel gave me a good shot and I added a third squirrel to my game bag. From there it was a short walk to the hickory grove where my squirrel hunt had started. I would have walked through the whole grove without shooting another squirrel if it weren’t for one pissed off full grown female fox squirrel. I was more than halfway through the grove when she started loudly barking at me. I’m not really sure what set her off as she was a good 100 yards behind me and I was walking away from her location. Finding a barking squirrel within the branches of a fully leafed out tree is a huge challenge for me. I didn’t have high hopes but this would be good practice. I slowly walked toward the barking squirrel. Actually I stood and scanned the trees more than I walked, but gradually I made my way closer. And then a flick of her tail gave her position away. I slowly closed the gap. I was almost in range when she bolted, but she didn’t go far. Up the backside of the tree she was sitting on. I closed the gap a bit more and just stood still. She peaked around the trunk and that was all I needed. Squirrel number four was in the game bag.
I hadn’t had a four squirrel outing in a while so I felt quite accomplished as I walked home. One of the squirrels had a tail that was the typical color of a grey squirrel but everything else about her coloring including the orange-tinged belly fur said fox squirrel. She was a unique looking squirrel to be sure. A picture perfect hunt from start to finish.
The cake. How could I forget the cake? In doing a little looking back at last year’s groundhog tales, I discovered a serious omission. A few days after shooting a particularly bold and pesky groundhog down at my neighbor’s dairy farm back in 2014, I came home from work to find a cake sitting on the kitchen counter. It was a thank you from my neighbor for shooting the groundhog. Well I like cake very much and considered that a great thank you. That cake has gotten a lot of mileage in stories told over the past year as well. “Remember when the neighbor brought you a cake for shooting a groundhog”. It’s not all that often that a cake is enjoyed both by being eaten and by being the centerpiece of groundhog hunting story. That is one mighty fine cake.
Number 18 and 19: August 18th
The groundhog hunting had slowed down a bit in August. The pastures and crop fields were growing up making hunting a lot more difficult. Plus I had been doing a good job of keeping the population in check in and about the barnyard. I quit actively hunting until one day my neighbor called to let me know he had seen a woodchuck by the infamous “blue water tank” from earlier in the year. Fortunately I now knew what he meant and where to look. So that evening I grabbed my gun and took a walk down the road to his farm. As I eased down the farm road I came face to face with a woodchuck next to a metal storage bin. We couldn’t have been 20 feet a part. It stared at me. I stared back. I tried to look through the scope but the scope was turned up and all I could see was a blur of nothingness. I readjusted the scope and almost had the woodchuck in the crosshairs when it ducked into its hole. Dang it! I wasn’t sure if that was the water tank groundhog or not. I took a peak around the storage bin and on down the farm lane I saw another woodchuck. It saw me too and ran for cover, but seeing as it was a good 50 yards down the lane I thought it might come back if I were quiet. I sat down among some old equipment and weeds and waited. The groundhog came back out. I took aim. Shot. And missed. Only this time the groundhog would not come back out and sunset put an end to my hunt.
Two evenings later, I walked back down the road to hunt the same area. I only had an hour or so before sunset but I’d had a long day at work and needed to unwind no matter if I saw a woodchuck or not. There was nothing by the storage bin so I used it for cover and peeked around the corner. A woodchuck stood up in some weeds near a drain tile opening 30 yards down the farm road and right near the “blue water tank”. I sat down behind the metal storage bin and then little by little scooted on my butt sideways until I could see the woodchuck. After what happened the last groundhog hunt, I kept repeating to myself “aim for the head, aim for the head”. I aimed for the head, pulled the trigger and the groundhog dropped out of sight in the weeds. I walked down the farm road and found the groundhog lying dead in the weeds. Perfect head shot. Ok then. I hadn’t been at the farm maybe 10 minutes.
I wasn’t sure where the second groundhog was hanging out that evening and it was getting late so I decided to just take a walk back the farm road to see what I could see. As I got to the back side of an equipment shed, I looked left and saw a groundhog dive into a pile of old logs. I put on the brakes, walked backwards out of view and then eased up to the very corner of the building and sat on the ground. The pile of logs was about 30 yards away. Maybe 15 minutes went by when a groundhog stood up on the log pile to look around. “Aim for the head, aim for the head” I thought once again. I took the shot and the groundhog dropped out of view into the log pile. When I walked up, it had fallen into its hole and lay there dead. Another perfect head shot. In less than 30 minutes, I had shot two groundhogs. I walked down the road to tell my neighbor of my good fortune and told him to let me know if he saw any more after that.
Three days later I came home to a giant bakery cookie sitting on my counter. This groundhog gig is paying off well in desserts.
Number 20: September 17th
Once September 1st rolls around and squirrel and dove seasons open, I don’t do much groundhog hunting except by need. The need arose at the start of the third week of September when I was getting ready to drive my little tractor out to feed the chickens on pasture. I looked up and saw a groundhog feeding in the backyard not too far from the house. The woodchuck ran for cover and I had no time to sit and wait it out. I put my husband on notice and for the next several days we kept watch. He saw it a couple of times as it ducked into the weeds behind the house, but it was always when he did not have the time to wait for it to come back out. Then four days later, my husband and I had taken the tractor back to the field to pick some apples. On the way back to the house, he was driving and I was sitting on the fender just looking around. As we came up the road from the creek, there was the groundhog feeding in the yard. My husband parked the tractor out of view and I went in the house and got the gun. In a near repeat spot and stalk of a backyard groundhog I shot earlier in the year, I used the big spruce tree behind the house as cover to get closer. From there it was a matter of sitting on the ground and easing around the trunk of the tree to take aim at the feeding woodchuck. One shot and number 20 of the 2015 season was dead. I’m not sure I’ll have quite another year like this past one. There were so many crazy hunts. Next year I will surely be hunting more of my own farm as we will probably have soybeans planted and groundhogs love soybeans. And there will be one more groundhog tale when I get around to cooking the young ones that are packaged in my freezer. For now though, squirrel hunting is up next and I love hunting squirrels.
I was listening to a hunting podcast the other day and the hunter being interviewed brought up a great point about hunting. He talked about how hunting shows and websites make it seem like a hunter can go out, sit in a tree stand and 5 minutes later shoot a big buck. He talked about how going out hunting and not seeing a single game animal is normal sometimes. It happens and it’s all part of the hunting experience. And even though woodchuck hunting is not big game hunting and even though I am hunting in a target rich environment, I have come to realize that on some level my summer groundhog tales have been guilty of painting a picture of walking out the door and shooting a groundhog every time. So before I go forth with another tale, I want to set the record straight.
I probably spent way too much time woodchuck hunting this summer. To me, sitting outside nestled down in a weedy fencerow is what sitting on the porch in a rocking chair is to someone else. And so 3-4 evenings per week after barn chores were done, I would grab my little ground chair and the .17hmr and find a spot to sit and unwind from the day’s activities. At least half the time I never saw a woodchuck. I had several hunts that ended with a shot (or 3) and a miss (or 3). There were a few woodchucks I thought I hit but they made it to a hole. Several of these I found no blood but then never ever saw the woodchuck again. The not seeing game, the shooting and missing, the no recoveries are all part of hunting. Boredom, frustration, shame are all part of the experience and you better be able to deal with those emotions if you are going to hunt. What you have to be able to do is harness those negative emotions and use them to make good. Frustrated at missing or not recovering your quarry? Then spend some more time practicing. Learn to deal with boredom because sitting still for long periods of time can lead to great success. Just remember, hunting anything from deer to turkey to ducks to squirrels to groundhogs is never a sure thing. Never. Ever. As the saying goes, that’s why they call it hunting and not shooting. And that’s the truth about hunting.
Number 17: August 9th
My first August tale was several weeks in the making. From about mid July on, I started seeing a groundhog that would come out in the evening to feed right behind my dairy farmer neighbor’s house. I would see it from a distance when hunting groundhogs out in the hay field. I would see it from the road when taking my dogs for a walk. For weeks my mind was focused on this groundhog and how the heck I would be able to hunt it. My safe shooting spots were extremely limited and all the approaches were mostly wide open. It took at least 2 weeks before I figured out where its favorite hiding spot was. I almost never saw it until after all was quiet and evening milking was taking place. I tried several stalks only to have them end with the woodchuck running to its hole and then daylight fading away as I sat and waited for it to come back out. A couple times I went out early, sat and waited for it to show and it never did.
And then one Sunday evening I walked down the road to my neighbor’s to hunt and I spied the woodchuck in his backyard. I thought it was a bit early for milking but all seemed quiet around the farm so I headed over yonder to the house. When I got there, my neighbor was relaxing in his chair by his front door. I walked up and said “hey you have a woodchuck in your backyard”. He started to laugh. I told him how I had been seeing it right behind his house nearly every evening after he left to go to the barn to milk. More laughter. My neighbor and I we laugh a lot. And so with his blessing, I was ready for the evening hunt. Of course all this commotion and laughter had sent the woodchuck to its hole but everything was in place. I had another advantage in that the farmer had parked his tractor and hay mower in the barnyard right next to his backyard. I could not have asked for a better blind and gun rest. And so as the farmer and his helper went over to start milking, I stood behind one of the large tires, pressed my body up against the body of the tractor and waited. The groundhog hole was only 15 yards away and I would be shooting at a downward angle toward a brushy swale. On the other side of the swale was open field rising up to a couple empty equipment sheds.
All my standing I do at work was good practice for this hunt. 25 minutes is not a long wait but it seemed longer when standing. The groundhog came out of the hole under the silo next to the calf barn, stopped and started looking around. When I’m close like this, it always feels like they are staring right at me and perhaps they are. I had spooked this groundhog before and I was not going to let that happen again. The groundhog crossed the gravel drive to the edge of the backyard and started to feed. It was so close. Too close I felt to safely reposition the gun and take aim. I was not going to spook it again (I repeat this stuff in my head all the time while I am hunting). I kept my body pressed to the body of the tractor and remained perfectly still until the groundhog continued feeding out into the backyard and out of my view. Big sigh. I peaked around the corner of the tractor and in typical groundhog hunting fashion; I got into position in increments: moving only when the groundhog had its head down feeding and freezing in position when it would stand up to look around. With my gun now resting on the tractor tire, I leaned forward to look through the scope, lined up the sight, waited for the groundhog to stand and I puuuuulllled the trigger. Only nothing happened. I ever so slightly tipped my head down and there I could see I had put the clip in the gun but had not chambered a round. Damn it! (I say that in my head a lot too.) The groundhog was too close and I was not going to spook it again (this talking to myself thing is never ending). I slid backwards out of view of the groundhog, chambered a round, took a couple deep breaths and collected my thoughts.
And repeat. I peaked around the tractor and moved into position in groundhog hunting increments. Again. Now I have this mental hurdle to overcome. I started out my hunting career with deer. It has been hammered into my head that head shots are bad. Although I take head shots with the rifle when hunting squirrels, for some reason I always want to shoot groundhogs in the chest. Don’t know why. Just do. Not that the chest is a bad aiming point but it probably has something to do with why several of the groundhogs I shot earlier in the summer made it their hole and I never recovered them. I always feel better though when I can recover the animal I shoot and know that it is not suffering. With my gun resting on the tractor tire, I leaned forward to look through the scope, lined up the sight, waited for the groundhog to stand and I pulled the trigger. The groundhog took off for an alternative hidey-hole right behind my neighbor’s house. My heart sank. “Not again” I said to myself. Only this time the groundhog piled up 3 feet short of the hole. A perfect heart shot. Next time I am aiming for the head.