For the love of hunting
It’s been a couple years since I’ve had the opportunity to put pen to paper, and comment once again on my passion for public land hunting in the Adirondacks. Since starting to seriously hunt in my late twenties, my obsession has only increased as the years go by. The past five years of hunting have yielded a plethora of plodding hours spent scouring the hardwood hillsides, heartbreaking scrambles up steep granite slopes, a handful of heart-in-your-throat encounters with our favorite quarry (and a few black bears), and an absolute mountain of experience and lessons learned.
Steven Rinella, an outstanding hunter, cook, author, and defender of public land and wild places has become a sort of cult leader for me. His hunts, televised on the Netflix “Meateater” series, focus on fair chase, the experience itself, and harvesting meat for consumption. You are preaching to the choir, brother. Here in the ADK we would tend to agree with your short list of priorities. In a recent episode he endures a particularly grueling hunt for Sitka deer in Southeastern Alaska, and his comments bear repeating. He talks about “relishing in the punishment. Deep down I know that Southeast Alaska is tough, but fair. You get out of it what you put into it. If you can manage to keep getting up after it repeatedly kicks you, and scratches you, and freezes your fingers, you will earn its respect in some strange and bizarre way, and it will eventually reward you.” The same adage could easily be applied to the Adirondacks, and especially to the hunters who scour the mountains on foot still-hunting for whitetail bucks. Hunting is hard work, but as with anything in life, effort is rewarded. It might not be immediately, and it may not be in the way you expected, but it is rewarded. I thoroughly enjoy spending time in the big woods, and I’m proud to say that I have a few stories of my own to add to the rich tradition of Adirondack hunting.
I had hunted a specific buck for weeks. His rubs and scrapes littered the area I was focused on, and a few weeks into the season I had little to show for it. I always seemed to be arriving just behind him, a freshly pawed scrape or a Striped Maple torn to shreds acting as both a slap in the face and fresh fodder for the fire. Mid November found me easing into the woods an hour before daylight, headlamp on, in the hopes I could catch him at first light visiting his line of paw beds. Frozen at first light, I survived the sit until 9 a.m. With the sun up it was apparent he had already passed through, and I was furious. Shouldering my pack, and cursing the crunch of frozen leaves, I walked back out to my truck. There was a spot a couple thousand yards down the road, and a mile deep, where I had noticed a long ridge of Hemlock that made for incredibly silent foot travel on a day like this. I hiked into the ridge, and sat for a few moments to enjoy a cup of strong black coffee and a fresh pumpkin roll. Man I love fall. Enjoy the day, relax, have fun with it. Rejuvenated by the coffee and a fresh perspective, I started a slow creep up the ridge. Peering down both sides, trying to dissect the shadows in the Beech valleys on either side, I bleated softly every 15-20 minutes. Some motion in my peripheral, and as I bring my head around a beautiful high racked eight pointer peered over the knob above me 40’ away. My shot was good, and I spent the next five hours wrestling another beautiful backcountry buck out to the road with a couple of good friends.
I woke up a little late and in my slightly dulled state took a second to realize that the soft glow in the bedroom could only mean one thing...fresh snow on the ground. I hurriedly packed and hit the road. The woods were incredibly quiet, and I was hopeful I would cut a fresh track soon. No dice. Four miles and seven hours later I caved. A text to my wife was answered, and I headed to the highway for a ride back to my truck. Just a quarter mile shy of the road the smell stopped me dead. A buck’s tarsal glands during the Rut become downright pungent as he continually urinates on them over fresh scrapes to leave his scent. Too tired to pursue, I cut his running tracks continually as I made my way to the highway. The next day I had only a few hours to get in the woods late in the afternoon, and I concentrated on that area once again. Just 45 minutes into the hunt I watched a doe ease down the ridge toward me, when she suddenly stopped and peered to my right while her tail and ears dropped. The four pointer slinked into my field of vision like a cocky frat boy heading for the prettiest girl in the bar. As he eased by me he passed within 30 feet and it was all over.
Last year it took me a while to even see a deer in the big woods, and I was thankful to fill my buck tag on a snowy Sunday morning in mid November as he got up out of his bed. A week later I stumbled upon some fresh bear tracks late in the afternoon. With a bear tag in my pocket I eagerly followed them through the beech flats and up a steep ridge. The weather was mild, the sun quickly dropping in the west. I found a comfortable spot to sit, and marveled at my luck. A happy healthy family, rewarding work, a home in the mountains, and a great view to close out a relaxing weekend. Minutes later a noise to my south. Nothing to see. More rustling, still nothing. Through the beech a shape appears, moving quickly left to right. The sow was running along my tracks and the original bear tracks I had followed in. We are still enjoying the snack sticks, and her full mount permanently resides above my entryway.
An underlying theme represented in the stories above, and one that I continually have to remind myself of on dismal, dreary, disheartening days in the big woods, is that success is generally representative of the effort you put in. For me, successful hunts start the same way. I wake up rested, packed, and organized. I go in the woods knowing my family is safe and warm, the dog is fed, the bills are paid, and my professional tasks are completed. From there I can focus on cadence and speed, my calling, wind direction, and weather. With the details looked after, I find the hunt enjoyable, and my optimism and confidence soar. Even with the proper preparation, however, a good psyche shellacking is sometimes in the cards. Last weekend I had my latest lesson handed to me by a young eight pointer. Responding a little late to a rattle, he surprised me on a ridge during a heavy downpour. As he sailed off into the swamp, out of my scope and out of my life, I marveled at how quickly he rallied from his surprise. As the day wore on I thought about his reaction again and again. Whitetail bucks spend almost every moment of their lives focused first and foremost on survival (the Rut being a notable exception). Beyond that, calorie intake, rest, and healthy competition round out their to do list. We as humans, on the other hand, have developed a billion ways to complicate our own lives, and continue to do so at an astonishing pace. I don’t think we can backtrack now, but when we do get the chance to unplug and head into the woods, make it a priority to go all the way. Get lost (figuratively), put some honest work in, and enjoy every moment. Relish the punishment. It makes the reward that much sweeter.