Tracking, but not catching the elusive deer

Bill Burton ^

December 06, 1991|By Bill Burton

Deer are not unlike those who chase them this time of year in blaze orange garb. They appreciate the comforts of life.

With this in mind, I switched tactics when hunting a western Anne Arundel County farm. The mercury was dropping steadily, the wind was increasing, and I figured deer would do what I wanted to do -- find a secluded spot, bed down and stay comfortable, then feed at night.

But if both game and hunter do that, the hunt is sure to be a flop. No way can one encounter the other.

There was little I could do to influence the pattern of deer, so I had to change. Instead of settling down as planned in a tree stand in a patch of woods adjacent a large field partly in corn, I would have to go to the deer.

The farmer told me he knew of at least nine on the farm, four does, two young of the year, and three bucks, one of which carried eight points. There had been no gun hunting on the farm, and very little hunting pressure nearby so he was confident they were still around.

He had seen four of them including the big 8-pointer just before dark Sunday, and the two does in the rain shortly after daylight on Tuesday. "All you have to is find them," he said in a tone that suggested a challenge.

"I've allowed bowhunters on the farm, but they haven't had them close enough for a shot. These deer are smart, but maybe your rifle can reach 'em."

My rifle was a 50-caliber muzzleloader, certainly with a range far greater than that of an arrow, but I knew I should get within a hundred yards for a halfway decent shot -- if it was out in the open; much less in thick going.

With the weather conducive to deer moving at a minimum -- the winds probably whistling close to 30 miles an hour -- it was obvious chances were slim that one would come to me. So it meant resorting to my favorite style of hunting in deep woodlands; walk a couple of minutes, wait a couple of minutes, walk and wait again.

But these woods and thickets were in small patches, mixed in with open fields to complicate the walk-and-wait technique. The howl of the wind through trees and the moist footing from three previous days of rain would mask the sound of my footsteps, but the greatest advantage of deer is not in hearing and sight (though both are exceptionally keen), but that of scent.

There were only two ways to approach any of the woodland patches. Expose myself by heading to them via open fields, or approaching them from the other side with the wind to my back. Any good hunter knows he should walk into the wind so his scent won't be carried to a deer, which can smell man a quarter of a mile away in a breeze.

I took the open field approach, and in the hundred yards to the woods I saw many tracks in the muck, one set especially large. Anne Arundel County, which didn't even have a deer season until 1959, now -- like most other counties -- has too many of them. Last year 401 were taken as compared with six 20 years ago. That's how fast they're multiplying.

Everywhere inside the woods there were rubbings, scrapings, tracks and droppings, but no actual deer sightings. Confident they were resting in thickets I approached each one, then stopped and waited a few minutes. When nothing happened, I practically kicked through each as one works a grassy clump to flush a pheasant.

Once I sent a covey of quail to flight, and twice I roused squirrels chasing after acorns. I periodically worked back to oaks in hopes of encountering a deer also feeding on acorns, which are a favorite of both whitetails and squirrels. Some claim Maryland's mushrooming deer herd works to the detriment of bushytails because whitetails get most of the nuts.

But this day I didn't help squirrels by thinning out the resident deer population. You can't eat tracks.

Those who think deer have all the advantages should have been along. I was hunting on their grounds and on their terms, but their natural instincts can be exceptionally difficult to overcome.

Tomorrow is the last day of a season jinxed by bad weather, but like nearly 100,000 other deer chasers who haven't got their venison yet I'll be out trying to beat the odds.

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