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Sunday, December 6, 2015

There's only one first. 12.05.15

The first deer I ever shot came several seasons after I was first able to purchase a hunting license and go afield with my uncle Paul. Although that memory occurred many years ago, it might as well have happened yesterday. Yesterday was also a day that I will be able to recall for as long as I'm on this side of the dirt. It was the day that my son, Caleb, shot his first deer.

My son and I have been hunting deer together for several years, but this was the first season in which he was prepared to be on the trigger during a deer hunt. Saturday afternoon found us hunting with our friend Nick after he extended us an invitation. After several hunts with limited sightings, we graciously accepted the offer with high hopes of at least seeing some action. A shot opportunity would be a bonus. 

At 2:00 pm, we pulled into the farm, reviewed the game plan and headed out to hunt. We slowly followed the terrain along an overgrown ditch which lead us to the treeline we would eventually settle into. Along the way we spotted a doe who was already watching us before we realized. Uncomfortable with our presence, she bound off when we paused and looked her way. 

A little farther up the treeline we brushed our position in with a few fallen limbs to help break up our outlines along the hilltop, then settled in for the afternoon. I was in the cover to the left with Caleb seated field-side on my right. The shooting sticks cradled the muzzleloader barrel, aimed toward the inside corner identified by the white-barked sycamore. This is where we expected the deer to appear. Right at the twelve o'clock position. 

On cue, the sun settled below the barren treetops behind us and the deer appeared. The only issue was that they appeared at the two o'clock position off to our right. The deer browsed comfortably in the bean stubble 130 yards away. A young buck soon popped out next with November still on his mind. Thankfully, he pestered every doe he saw which eventually caused two of the deer to break away. 

The two annoyed deer were headed into range but we had to adjust the shooting sticks. The deer moved farther to the right, now at about the three o'clock position. We tried to move only when the deer were distracted. Several short moves put us into shooting position, but the target deer was on to us. She knew something wasn't right. She saw something but wasn't quite sure what it was. We would later learn that the wind was in our favor due to the evening's falling thermals. Unable to catch our scent, curiosity kept her wondering.

I thought for sure we were busted as the deer closed to within 70 yards. Determined to cause us to move, she gave us the infamous deer head fake. She had us pinned down. We couldn't move. I kept whispering to Caleb, "Don't move. Stay still." She was at about the four o'clock position now. Too far to the right even after moving the shooting sticks. She should have continued off to the right, leaving the area, but she didn't. Still fixated on discovering what we were, the deer walked back toward the hilltop and into our shooting area. 

Back on top of the knoll I talked through the situation with Caleb. He was anxious to shoot but we had to wait for the right opportunity. She stood facing us for an eternity. "Get ready. Keep looking at her trough the scope. Keep your head down. Just be ready." Finally the deer turned broadside and the gun's safety was slid to fire. "Shoot her as soon as you're ready. Shoot. Shoot." 

The muzzleloader blast instantly cleared the field as the doe dropped in her tracks. The deer was down. A congratulatory smack on the shoulder was my first reaction, followed by fist bumps, high fives and hugs. The expression and excitement on his face was priceless. Smoke from the muzzleloader now drifted down the hillside as we walked toward to downed doe.  It felt spiritual in that moment.

The teaching moments continued as we approached the deer and throughout the entire field dressing process. It was exciting, emotional, powerful and indescribable all at the same time. I couldn't help but think about my Grandpa looking down upon us, smiling from ear to ear. I could hear his voice, "Atta boy Caleb!" Atta boy indeed. 

You have to get a tailgate picture with your first deer!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

2015 Archery Buck 11.20.15

There was nothing particular about this day other than I was itching to get back into the woods. The inside corner pinch point that I was hunting produced an exciting hunt several days before, with lots of does active in the area, young bucks cruising, active scrapes along the edge of the woods and plenty of rubs inside the treeline. The dropping temperature and favorable wind made the decision a no-brainer. It's November and I'm playing the rut lottery, hoping for a winning ticket.

The first sighting of the morning was a young buck that worked perfectly through the woods at twenty yards. With the wind in my favor and his nose preoccupied on the ground, he bird-dogged his way around trees, clearly on a mission. It was exciting to watch and my mind couldn't help but hope that more deer would follow the same script.

An hour and a half later I heard the telltale cadence of deer hooves shuffling through the leaves. Instantly reaching for my bow before I made visual contact, I knew it wasn't one of the squirrels that had kept me entertained. With my release automatically clipped on the string, the deer had already crossed into shooting distance but paused facing me. No shot.

If he maintained the same line I would have a shot. Set in motion again, I drew my bow back while he stepped behind a cluster of trees that blocked my movement. The deer was at 15 yards, paused again, quartering toward me. I needed a little better angle. A few more steps were taken and a perfect window to his vitals was open through the intersecting sapling branches. Picturing my arrow's exit path the pin hovered tight to his right shoulder.

It's this single moment, frozen in time, that is forever tempered in my memory. The seconds just before the release surprised me, everything is silent. My eye captured the flight of the arrow burying through the fur of the deer. Then, as if a hypnotist snapped his fingers everything awoke in commotion. The deer jumped and quickly fired off like a rocket through the woods. I lost sight but still listened intently. Nothing.

Analyzing the arrow I was confident it was a good shot, but the lack of blood in the immediate area told me to be patient. I texted my amigo John. An hour later we met at my truck and prepared to take up the trail. The blood was visible but less than impressive. Certainly not a trail that Helen Keller could have followed but we managed. Periodically we lost sign then picked it up again. This pattern repeated several times. Finally we lost it for good. Another drop could not be found. John continued to micromanage every square inch while I lost patience, ready to start a grid search.

We looked at the aerial map on my phone and planned the next steps. About three steps later John said to me, "Hey, look over there!" Immediate relief lightened my mood. The buck laid piled up in a slight depression, not twenty yards from where we lost blood. The arrow passed completely through but the exit hole had plugged up. The shot was lethal as the deer didn't make it a hundred yards before sliding to a final stop. I felt complete gratitude for the great hunt, deer and friend to share the moment with. Smiles, hand shakes and pictures were next. Then a trip to the Mexican buffet.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Hunting with Grandpa

My Grandpa passed away on October 14, 2011. He was a huge part of my life and his influences are felt everyday. I knew before I answered the phone that day what news was waiting on the other end. It didn't make it any easier knowing that he was gone, but I had prepared myself and knew how he would expect me to carry on. The next morning I went duck hunting, and he was with me.

Since then, I've always tried to be someplace outdoors on October 14. As the man who really introduced me to the outdoors, he is always alongside me one way or another. My time in the treestand yesterday was peaceful, just what was needed. I didn't see any deer, and missed a shot I took on a squirrel, but some days just being out in the autumn woods is satisfying enough.

As the setting sun was forcing my hunt to a close I decided to return in the morning if darkness arrived without any last-minute action. I admired the stars on my walk out to the truck. It's always prettier the farther you can be from the light pollution of the city. 

Morning rolled around and I was again looking toward the stars as I crept along the field edge. The wet grass soaking my pants from the knees down. With the quietness of my steps and the breeze in my favor, I walked within 15 feet of a deer as I turned to enter the woods. The loud wheeze made me jump as the deer stomped it's foot and blew again before bounding off a few more feet. Pausing for a while, I shrugged my shoulders, took about ten more steps and began ascending the tree. 

As the sun lit up the morning sky the day officially started as deer were moving from the woods out into the standing beans. Likely the deer that blew at me 45 minutes earlier. She was joined by several others and before long they were all browsing along the field edge. 

The urge for acorns must have been too strong to stay in the beans or work toward the corn. Soon the group was heading back into the corner pinch point where the oaks dropped food on a constant basis. 

In range, then out of range. The dance seemed to go on for a while. I was drawn once but as the deer turned broadside it also turned behind a tree. As she walked away I let down, then took a seat as the group was drifting off toward the bedding area. 

Minutes later three of the does decided they weren't done eating, circling back around and heading into an area with several shooting lanes to my left. I was picking the spots as they were heading back into range, drawing and holding for the right moment. 

At about 25 yards the right moment appeared as the biggest of the does stepped into a clearing. I held the pin behind her shoulder and waited for her to stop. "Take your time. Follow through" echoed through my head as my body went into autopilot. I can still see the arrow flying in slow motion. The white vanes and red nock almost glowing from the morning sun. 

Fletchings disappeared. The deer leaped, kicked, and dashed off. Coming to a stop seconds later at the field edge, pausing behind a giant oak. The next steps out into the open field were wobbly as she bedded down for the last time. It's moments like this that I want to call my Grandpa the most, to relive the story and hear his voice ask questions about the hunt. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Youth Waterfowl Season Success

Sunday October 4, 2015 was the second day of Ohio's special youth waterfowl season but the first day that my son and I were able to hunt. Saturday was a complete wash between the weather, other youth sporting events and family commitments filling the schedule. Getting kids out is tough and getting tougher it seems. It's no wonder that youth participation and recruitment rates are struggling to keep pace with so much going on in our lives these days, but I digress.

Thanks to an offer from a good friend to catch the sunrise in the marsh, my son and I were out the door at 5:00 am with everything needed to shoot and retrieve any legal waterfowl that crossed his gun barrel. The safety discussion was had, the decoys were set and we waited patiently as the dawn approached.

Silhouetted wood ducks lifted from the opposite shoreline, calling to each other as group after group erupted from the cattails. None of them interested in responding our calls or decoys however.  An impatient dog trembled on the platform behind us, sending ripples into the water with every exhale. Probably wondering why we weren't shooting at anything yet. 

It wasn't too much longer before a lone duck returned to the marsh, splashing down on the opposite shore, near the area the wood ducks had roosted for the night. I'm not sure how long the duck hung out by it's lonesome self before it decided to fly over to the decoy party across the way, but I'm glad that it did. The teal crashed the party, plopping down in the duck weed covered water. Simultaneously, my son was shouldering the 20 gauge. Click, BOOM! 

"Shoot it again!" shouted Mike. 


"Timber, fetch 'em up!!" The dog super-manned off the platform straight into the water. Wrong way. Maybe the handler should've lined him up better since the cattails obstructed his view of where the duck was shot. 

"Timber! NO!! Timber, over!!" 

After a quick correction, Timber locked onto the location on the downed bird and finished the retrieve. It was an awesome moment with both of my boys. One that I know I'll never forget, and one that I hope my son will carry in his memory for years as well. 

The rest of the morning was spent telling stories, making jokes and doing things that guys do when they're duck hunting. It was a perfect morning even though we didn't have any other birds join the decoy party. We hunted a few hours, picked up the spread and finished things off with a hearty breakfast at the local diner. Life is good. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Daddy Daughter hunt

This weekend was completely dedicated to getting the kids outdoors. It was my daughter's turn first, and we crafted bowhunting plans throughout the week for a Friday afternoon adventure. I had the truck loaded up with the few necessities required so when she hopped off of the school bus all that was left to do was change clothes and hit the road.

A short drive later we arrived at the farm where three weeks earlier a ground blind, some corn, a trail camera and a little wishful thinking were all set up. A quick conversation with the landowner raised hopes as he had been seeing deer in the field somewhat regularly. The wind was favorable and the light drizzle couldn't dampen the excitement as we came around the barn to see a deer feeding a few hundred yards away.

We eased along the fence row with the wind in our face and the deer oblivious. It stood between us and the ground blind so we decided to try to make a stalk. There was a one in a million chance that this deer was blind and wouldn't pick us off, so after a quick conference we dropped our gear and began the stalk. Ainsley was tight to my side checking the rangefinder to let me know the distance. At 120 yards, she wondered if we were in range.

"Not quite yet. We need to get closer." We conferred again, then slowly pressed forward, low to the ground and moving only when the deer would face away from us. 80 yards was the next distance check and I could see the excitement in her eyes. For a moment, I thought this might actually happen! Those thoughts quickly faded as the deer looked our direction, wondering where the two camouflage blobs in the field came from. It raised it's tail, flagged it back and forth a few times, then calmly trotted off into the woods. We sat in the open field, smiled and fist-bumped from the fun we just experienced and headed to the blind where snacks became the priority.

A short time later we spotted our deer again as he returned to the field to feed some more. Ainsley's attention was as sharp as ever. She quickly resumed her job as the rangefinder consultant marking him at close to 100 yards. 

Both of our hopes were high as the deer was now grazing his way closer to the blind. Maybe this is going to work after all.

However as things often do, the script that was written wasn't matching up with what we were wanting. The button buck never came closer that 79 yards before he casually worked back into the woods with a belly full of alfalfa.

A mole that entered and exited the blind all afternoon kept us entertained while the deer were feeding elsewhere. We hunted until dark without spotting another deer, but the time spent together was perfect. We talked about whatever it was we decided to talk about. Some silly stuff, some serious stuff, it didn't really matter. We just got to spend some time together and that was really the important accomplishment that day. These simple times won't last so I will strive to make the most of the opportunities as often as I can.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Go farther. Work harder. Hunt smarter.

With Ohio's bow season just days away I find the anticipation level is as high as ever. Certainly not because I have a booner buck patterned and the forecast is perfect for an opening day hunt, but rather to simply start another season and experience the adventure that awaits.

One of the most intriguing aspects of bowhunting deer in the Midwest is knowing the unknown. To further clarify, it is knowing that at any moment you can find yourself hunting an unknown deer that calls your hunting grounds his home. Quality whitetails aren't hiding behind every tree, but there are enough around that you know anything is possible.

Even with trail cameras deciphering much of the unknown there are still deer taken every year that hunters are completely unaware of until they lay eyes on them during a hunt. More often than not this happens during the whitetail rut when bucks throw caution into the wind, but it can also happen as bucks shed their velvet and shift from summer ranges to their new fall and winter homes.

In an attempt to locate a quality buck in heavily hunted areas I reanalyzed the grounds I have been hunting and focused on where I felt deer would feel secure. Under the blazing summer sun I trudged to isolated pinch point where several wood lines intersect, out of sight from any nearby road. The rolling terrain bottoms out at the creek flowing through a small section of swampy woods criss-crossed with active trails. A camera was hung and quickly the results provided confidence.

Bachelor group frequenting the secluded bottom.

The Dude. 

Once I knew quality deer were comfortable roaming the area, I returned to prepare a tree stand. On my return trip I decided to work smarter using my old mountain bike to reduce the time it takes to hike the 8 tenths of a mile back. Dry ground along the unplanted area between the fence row and beans helped me cruise through without issue.

The stand is located at an inside corner, situated in a mature tree to hide my outline as deer approach from the neighboring property to the south and provides a nice view out into the field to watch deer cruising the edge.

The mountain bike will be deployed again when forecasters call for a SSW wind. Time will tell if going farther, working harder and hunting smarter will pay punched-tag dividends. Grandpa told me anything that comes easy in life isn't worth a damn. I can honestly say that nothing easy will come from hunting the 8 mile stand and it sure feels like a good spot to shoot a quality deer. Let's hope that these ingredients mix for a successful season.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Season's Journey

The last evening of the 2014 – 2015 hunting season proved to be surprisingly memorable. Not because I filled the neatly folded deer tag waiting in my wallet, but because I spent the time reflecting on all that I was able to experience over the last few months. As I enjoyed the winter calmness that is only known in a deerstand, I glassed eight deer filtering from the snow covered tree limbs to forage for food in the cut bean field. The quarter sized snowflakes that nearly whited out visibility earlier in the afternoon had transitioned into a wet mist by the time the end of legal shooting light arrived. As poetic as the weather change seemed at that moment in time my spirits were not dampened.

The waning hours of the late season's gray light found my mind looking back to a much warmer September opener with good buddies John and Charles. We didn’t even come close to limiting out on doves. In fact I don't know if we actually saw doves? As only good hunting buds do for each other, we passed the time making fun of one another and enjoyed every minute of it. I don't know who picked the farm we hunted on for the opener but their decision making rights are under review. 

Hunt preparation for Ohio's dove season is damn serious business.
L to R: New beard growth Sean, Charles. Also pictured Jumper Johnny

It wasn't long before I was reminiscing about the youth waterfowl hunt that I shared with my son again this year. It was our second hunt in which he shouldered the decision on whether to shoot or not if the chance should present itself. This year the opportunity never arrived, but the memories created and the bonds my son and I share through the outdoors are indescribable. I look forward to experiencing this same rite of passage with my daughter in due time. She's already reminded me that her brother was allowed to hunt when he was eight and she IS going to be eight by next season. I'm guessing that she will be ready. 

Learning to blow a duck call is dang serious business.
Photo by Kali Parmley
October is one of the most gorgeous times of the year outdoors and spending time in the treestand with my friend Kent was another highlight to add to the season. We came close to arrowing deer on a few occasions, but as is often the case with bowhunting the stars didn’t always align. The closest occasion had me at full draw on a mature doe who decided to bolt instead of stand still as I bleated at her to stop. Oh well, we were actually able to experience all of the fun without the mess and work. I’ll chalk that up as a W.

Kent getting situated for a shot opportunity.

I have yet to experience a hunt with someone who I didn't end up considering a friend afterward. That is certainly the case after a small game hunt hosted by Adam and his father, Dean. These two guys gave up their entire day to have me and my son up to hunt on the family farm. We chased rabbits briefly until one the beagles gashed open an ear and needed attention. After the tailgate triage our game plan was to exchange beagles for squirrel dogs and take to the woods. Within minutes we had one squirrel treed. At the pull of the trigger, one squirrel magically multiplied into at least three bushy tails raining down from the oak tree canopy. One came down ready for the dinner plate, while the other two kamikazes dive-bombed the forest floor, sprang to their feet and had us on the run again! Any hunt where you laugh so hard that you actually cry is hard to beat. We managed a few squirrels, a lot of laughs and some lifelong memories that day.

The next trip of the season was sharing deer camp during the mystical mid-November rut with some of the best guys I've had the privilege to hunt with over the years. Since college, hell even before we knew each other’s last names (inside joke - all good deer camps have inside jokes, it's required), we were hunting together in southern Ohio.  If I have my way I’ll still be dragging deer out of the woods with Big Frank, Dr. Frank, Alan, and Adam when we’re older and grayer than we already are. Campfires, cold beers, mortars and ridiculously good food are the four staples that make any deer camp worth a damn. Anything else beyond that is just gravy. As I said before, any hunt where you laugh so hard that you actually cry is hard to beat. You simply cannot beat deer camp with these guys. I can hardly wait until next November; in fact I’m hoping that we can initiate turkey camp again this spring.

Waterfowl season was coming back in and hopes were high with geese actively feeding in a field I had permission to hunt. Plans were made with John, Charles and our newcomer Kali. We met up at the field shortly after o’dark thirty, set the spread, brushed in the layout blinds and had time to drink that early morning coffee while we waited on the birds to show. When the geese finally decided that it was breakfast time they decided to try the new restaurant next door, landing across the street in a field they had not fed in during any of my scouting trips! We made some adjustments (i.e. ran across the street and kicked them out of the other field) and worked a couple groups so we could scratch out a few honkers. Like always, we shoulda-coulda knocked down more birds but what fun would it be if every hunt worked out perfectly?

L to R: Charles Robertson, bearded Sean, Kali, John's mustache, John
The rest of the season balanced out between bowhunting deer and playing hide and seek with waterfowl. When the goose migration finally arrived the season was nearly done for the year. Fortunately, my friends and newly addicted waterfowlers Jeff and Zac were able to locate some honkers on open water next to their deer hunting grounds. I put in three hunts, the first with Jeff and Zac, the second with Jeff and my brotha-from-another-motha Rob, and the last with Jeff, Zac and Alex (and I don’t know his last name either). The third time proved to be a charm as we were finally able to coax some birds into the decoys and finish. It was the perfect setting to close the waterfowl season for me. We didn't limit, but the journey to that final hunt spent with good friends was the reward.  

L to R: clean shaven Sean, Zac, Jeff with some migrating lesser canada geese.

Timber doing work.
As I drove home for supper with the family after that last bowhunt I felt content, at peace. Not burnt out and run down like other seasons in the past. I was satisfied with the ups and downs that hunting season brings with it. Yet I was still looking forward to the next hunt. My personal goal for the 2014 - 2015 season was simple... have fun. 

Mission complete and then some. Thank you to all of the friends who I have been able to share the journey with. May we live each and every day to it's fullest, and may the memories that we make today become the stories we tell tomorrow! Cheers!