If mist and fog can make sound, then I was hearing it- though I have no words to describe the shroud enveloping the forest. Fog lifts from the cold snowpack, rising shifting and waving in a slow motion dark swirl through the wet black tree trunks. It lifts up, clinging to every twig and branch until gravity pulls it back down again-”splat” on my fleece covered shoulder. “Drip,” “splat,” “ping”- a droplet ricochets off the barrel of my gun.
This is the late season for antlerless deer. The woods are dead quiet but for the drops and drips and a few crows talking among themselves in a distant corn field. It's still.....there is no anticipation like filled these driftless coulees a few weeks ago on opening weekend. Just quiet reverence to be out here, not so much hunting as waiting. It really is waiting- quickly scouting a spot to take a stand, now with rifle in hand, overlooking a greater part of the forest than with a bow. No one else is out here. No one but crows, a flight of nuthatches and chickadees and soft yelps from unseen stirring turkeys.
The gun and muzzloader seasons are behind leaving only melted tracks from tired hunters venturing up and down logging roads and sign that deer are still here. My prints press deep and sharp into the corn snow and quickly fill with vapor. The headlamp cuts through dark and mist and end up on a small knoll, its hillsides tore up from hoofs and claws in search of acorns. The draws on either side are white or brown depending on the digging of feeding animals. I like this spot-daylight should provide good visibility, my back against a higher steep hill leading to a bluff top. A blowdown top of a huge oak provides a blind. This will do.
Some jays move in and converse in the weird “rilling” squawk talk. They stay a while pounding their beaks into bark separating seed from chaff. They are apparently unconcerned with me, for their usual woodland alarm call is not sounded. Time passes, the cloud on the ground remains and daylight only barely budges in.
Three black BBs, two eyes and a nose, stare directly at me, burning a hole in my hiding spot. I'm pegged. The silent snow and murky air allowed her to slip in unexpected. The doe was there now-right there...and I can't move a muscle. I fear the stream of steam from my breathing will send her tail to, but doesn't. It's a don't blink contest and I'm not confident I'll win.
The Winchester is right next to me but unreachable. Nothing between us twitches. She's done this before as have I. The usual result is watching the tail waving bye after a few tense minutes. The crows and jays continue their chatting oblivious to the standoff beneath them. Not to be pessimistic, but I'm pretty sure of the outcome here- rarely will a mature doe let her guard down. She'll not afford the hunter pause to swing a gun up once she is locked onto to....something, that doesn't belong.
I have wind to my advantage or this wouldn't be happening-she is just confirming with unblinking eyes and a dull thump of a foot striking the ground. No, the safety won't be clicked off or crosshairs find their mark-she'll end this soon.
A sheet of fog moves up the draw, my eyes get burry from staring. She ends the game-spins and with amazingly few bounds, puts trees and brush and enough distance between us that I just watch. And take a breath.
In the minutes that follow I wonder where the doe came from before appearing as a statue aimed directly at me. That's not where a deer was supposed to be-I had shots all visualized and set in my head other directions. I'm not frustrated, it's the way of hunting, of waiting. This place is their home, not mine, at least not mine enough.
The sun is up somewhere as the surrounding timber slowly grows lighter. The fog won't burn off this day, the just at freezing temps will keep the pea soup clinging close to the ground. No matter, I'm comfortable so far in the mild damp air and the woods are waking. There are worse places to be.
Trying to put venison in the freezer late season can be tackled two ways-bring some buddies and make pushes through parcels or solitary, taking the opportunity to have backwoods to yourself. I chose the latter.
This property normally has a small group of friends with bows and broadheads in hand when I hunt here. It's the rut then and deer habits are different than now. Bucks run all day and night, camo clad men tromp every acre, quite the opposite from December, when everything settles down for the approaching winter. There is no big drama like during the rut or rifle season, but rather just an opportunity to be here on the animals terms.
Corvis the crow and his clan shift location-perhaps finding tidbits to feed on, their caws echoing off the trees inviting others to join in. A chainsaw fires up and the clug of a diesel powered skidder drones on the far side of the property. The logging operation I drove though in the dark produced vast hi-ways of deer tracks-the tops proving browse. They'll be well fed this winter.
Free from the distraction of another deer showing up-one has more than enough time for the mind to wander. A common trait for most hunters I'd think. Quiet time on a stand is different from that of sitting in a comfortable chair at home, much like the outdoors enhancing the flavor of coffee poured from a thermos. I think about why no other deer have waltzed by, why the raucous crows have moved again and what they are up to. Deeper thought takes me to what this woods will look like when the skidders and saws move this direction. Good for wildlife eventually, but changed.
A bigger change will happen later and I wonder about that as well. Word passed down that after logging, a frac sand mine would be developed here, a big change. The ridges will be gone along with the deer and hunters who will move on. My friends and I have had a good run here, hunting this land and fortunate the owner has been gracious enough to share his property. In a year or two I'll have to find another place to sit on a snowy fog filled day. It won't be quiet or still then and there will be no staredowns with suspicious does. I'm thinking of this and a pair of crows alight in a tree nearby-clicking, rattling and grating crow talk, maybe sensing the thoughts drifting up from my blind.
A second pour of coffee into a tiny stainless cup warms my hands-the very best way to do that. A scan left and right concludes no whitetail has snuck into range. I guess while sitting here contemplative and scribbling notes, part of me was aware and keeping an minds-eye out for game. I think hunters develop a sixth sense for these things.
The crows move off having kept me company long enough apparently, while the jays return. A drawn-out, downward "kaaaar" of a Rough Legged Hawk is somewhere just beyond the limbs of the oak and white pine below me. Wonder if his hunting is going better than mine?
I start to think I maybe dressed a bit too optimistically, as my toes are starting to ache with cold in my too-thin boots. I can hold out a bit longer I think-there is still hope something might walk by from feeding to bedding grounds. “Wump wump” - a distant set of shots. Maybe I'm not the only one out here today?
Eventually, the feet win the argument that we're done. I'd been fidgeting a bit too much as well and realized I'm just staring blankly at the same trees, not “seeing” any longer. The reality that my season is over for the year sets in as I stuff and zip my pack, the backtag pinned on it at a strange angle and ready to retire.
There are always thoughts of pulling the bow out again, but I know better, the skis and fatbike and maybe an occasional foray with the black lab will not allow another deer hunt this year. The freezer will be venison-less again. I'll need to make mental note to prepare the pheasants and salmon still hiding there before it's too late and rely on successful family sharing a few steaks and roasts.
The hunt or wait or any time in the woods is all good and although this day, in the mist and fog and drips and melting snow, I'll return home empty handed...but with everything I needed.