"Magical and Electrifying" Opening Day of Deer Season

By R.G. Bernier

“A sportsman’s life consists largely of three elements: anticipation, realization and reminiscence. We look forward to the trip by rail, by canoe and then perhaps a tramp on foot into the heart of the wilderness. Then comes the camp and its pleasant environments, and that lucky, radiant day when the early morning sun casts a glint upon the branching antlers of a mighty buck.” — George Shiras

There is something both magical and electrifying about opening day of deer season. Memories of past hunts flood your mind as you drive the desolate road in the predawn darkness. The coffee tastes especially good this morning; perhaps it’s the special blend, or the fact that it was perked instead of dripping from a machine. Conversation in the cab of the truck with your hunting buddy flows effortlessly with more than a hint of excitement in each voice.

As your rig nears the parking spot, the idle chatter now turns to more serious business. The well-laid-out game plan is gone over one more time. With the light of a full rutting moon illuminating the western sky, you quietly slip out of the driver’s seat and begin to retrieve your accoutrements for the day’s hunt. First, the leather cartridge belt is cinched around your waist. After ensuring that lunch is stowed in the back of your jacket, that familiar woolen garment that has served you well for many past hunts is once again pulled on. It seems a little snugger than you last remembered; maybe it has shrunk over time.

The last and most important item you grab is your rifle. No matter how often bullets are inserted into the magazine, there’s always something special about loading your gun on opening day. It’s really a simple process that requires little thought, but on opening day when the magazine is slammed tight against a live round…well, it’s just not the same as being at the range. Following the traditional ‘good luck’ handshake with your partner, you enter the dimly lit forested abyss and begin your stealthy stalk towards a particular ridge. It’s really no different than any other part of the woods other than it’s a place where you have found success on many hunting forays. You know it intimately. Although that parcel of ground doesn’t really belong to you, in your mind, on this morning it does.

Every step, every breath, each move is calculated and deliberate as you near the spot. You recheck the wind. Never is the hunter any more cautious and careful than he is on opening day. I don’t know why it is, but psychologically we, as hunters believe our first and best chance of scoring is always on the first day of the season. Even though deer are taken throughout the course of a deer season, and some as late as the final hours of the last day, the hunt is never undertaken with the same intensity or attention to detail.

This is the place, that familiar spot where many deer have been vanquished over the years. It is not really a lucky spot as some may think; there is a justifiable reason why deer travel this piece of real estate. Atop the ridge where the hunter has placed his stand is a mature grove of oak trees that rain down their mast each fall. Beneath the bench runs a river with thick vegetation growing along its bank. Betwixt the two, the land formation has created a natural funnel that deer feel quite comfortable traveling.

It was bone-numbing cold perched aloft, 15 feet above the still darkened forest floor. In the excitement to get into position before first light it didn’t seem nearly that bitter. But then again, it’s always darkest and coldest just before dawn. Time ticks by excruciatingly slow while waiting for the woods to awaken and its occupants to come alive. The mind begins to race with questions of uncertainties such as, “Is this the best possible spot? Will the big buck whose track I discovered weeks prior make an appearance? Is he as big as I imagine him to be?” Once assured that all of these misgivings are completely out of your control, and with nothing left to do but wait, you begin to reminisce about ‘big foot,’ the large buck that you chased unsuccessfully for two successive seasons. Reflections about the ‘marathon buck’ and the ‘hemlock ranger’ and all that it entailed to capture them puts a smile on your lips and a warmth in your soul.

It’s during these last few remaining minutes between darkness and dawn that we’re reminded of how Mer Speltz vividly captures the essence of being in this exact place when he writes, “It is this total silence that stirs your very soul with a deep sense of eerie loneliness. The absolute stillness brings you back vivid memories of past hunts and you fully realize that it is this very solitude that keys your anticipation and lures you back year after year…”

The solitude that only deer hunting can bring divorces us temporarily from our responsibilities and awakens the sleeping senses that have lain dormant while engulfed in civilization and all its trappings. The mind begins to think clearer and slowly you start to reflect and reaffirm who and what you’ve become. The quietness allows one to meditate without interruption or interference.

Deer historian, Rob Wegner, described this vividly when he wrote, “When pursuing whitetails we divert and distract ourselves from industrial madness and its laborious occupations. When we leave the city of Degeneration and go the woods, it is astounding how mutually and quickly we free ourselves from worry, tension and temper. A fresh and fragrant atmosphere once again circulates through our blood as we become submerged in nature. It’s almost like returning to the old homeland.”

Finally, at long last the blackness begins to melt away as shadows transform into stumps, bushes and trees. The deafening silence is broken with the first chirps of the chickadee’s cadence. And so it starts like rush hour on the freeway, the woods come alive as its occupants start their daily routine.

Akin to a hawk perched high on a sturdy limb waiting for his next meal to pass by, the hunter anxiously watches in silence for the mysterious brown apparition to appear. The leaves rustle behind him. His pulse quickens as he fingers the safety on his gun. Is that the footfall of a whitetail? Not daring to turn and look despite the agonizing curiosity looming in his head, the hunter waits. His heart thumps a little faster as the noise gets closer. Straining his eyes as far as humanly possible to get a glimpse of this intruder, he at last is able to identify the source. A squirrel searching for nuts in the dry leaf litter is the culprit.

Twenty minutes into legal shooting time the first shot is heard, the season has begun. The hunter grips his rifle a bit tighter as if the sound of gunfire will be the impetus that directs deer his way. Minutes tick by excruciatingly slow. More shots have been fired from all around his position. ‘Perhaps my buddy has scored’, he thinks to himself. Indeed, patience is a virtue just as long as you’re not the one that is waiting.

It’s nearly nine-o-clock when the first deer finally shows up. From out of nowhere it seems, where there was no deer a second ago, two does are now leisurely feeding on acorns. With only a buck tag in his pocket, the hunter can only watch hoping that an antlered suitor is following the pair. The does are very cautious as they feed, vigilantly searching their surroundings for any hint of danger. Suddenly, from down below, the distinct sound of a buck grunt is heard, then the choppy steps heading directly for the waiting hunter. Immediately, his breaths come in short, hyperventilating fashion. His heart is now pounding in his ears and feels like it will jump right out of his throat. His imagination runs wild with thoughts of, ‘How big is this buck?’ The buck has stopped just out of the hunter’s view.

The does are now within 30 yards of him and begin to act nervous. If they spook or catch any man scent on the fickle breeze the game will be over and he’d never get to see the hidden buck. There is nothing that can be done at this point but wait; the ball is in the buck’s court. The unknowing of what will transpire next coupled with the adrenalin rush has caused the hunter’s right leg to begin rattling with nervous anticipation. His hands are shaking uncontrollably like an aspen leaf in the midst of a gale. “Calm down! It’s only a deer, not an enemy that is armed and can shoot back at you,” he silently scolds himself. “Breath deep, think about the hundreds of deer that you have encountered, much closer than this,” he reminds himself. As the wind gust hits his face, the hunter’s eyes begin to water, temporarily blurring his vision. As he wipes away the tears it seems the stalemate is about to end as finally, the buck emerges only to quickly dash behind the security of another tangle of brush. The hunter has his gun shouldered. Seconds tick by like hours. The rifle weighing a little less than seven pounds now feels like the weight of the world. The buck is watching the does, which are now standing statuesquely still. The buck begins, oh so tentatively to step out, and oh, what a towering set of antlers that adorn his head. The wind suddenly shifts and the does snort. The buck halts — his shoulder is in the crosshairs — the hunter squeezes the trigger…

Approaching the downed beast with its eyes dim, its tongue out, its once vital body stretched prone upon the forest’s carpet of moss and leaf litter, the hunter intuitively knows his prize is dead. A flood of pent-up emotion spills out as the tension of the last few moments escapes. With a look of personal pride born from his accomplishment the hunter lets out a sigh of satisfaction; no ground shrinkage on this big boy. And then, with admiration and respect he kneels, grabs a handful of antler and gives this noble, elusive, denizen of the forest wilds his just due. Thank you Lord. Anticipation, excitement and the mystery of opening day are all the elements that keep each of us coming back…year after year!