An evening deer hunt is practice in appreciating diminishing possibilities.
It is time well spent learning to live with the failure that is more likely than not fated to you. All the while you’re resigning yourself to the slim odds, you’re also convincing yourself that at any moment in the span of a few fading moments of human sightedness that many of us call “the golden hour”, the probability of success will suddenly spike as night gnaws at the edge of the waning light.
Today I sat in the deer pasture —a little valley that sits at the edge of the modest mountains some call the Chauga Ridges. A hogback called Buzzard’s Roost fills the horizon’s frame and big pines along the spine of the mount help me understand the porcine moniker. There are big black bear wandering around in the coves and oak-hickory forests up there. Although I sit in a man-managed landscape they keep my mind on the wild side. Others in the hunt club have seen a gargantuan bruin wandering about and I wonder if I’ll ever have the thrill of seeing one during my quests. Today though, I am all deer. The pasture is filled with persistent persimmon drupes and honey locust pods- sweet fruits allegedly so irresistible to any whitetail within sniffing distance that they throw all caution to the wind and beat cloven-hooved paths to eat the fallen manna in broad daylight. My time-to-hunt-o-meter told me that the place needed my attention today and so off I went.
Beyond the banquet that was offered the opportunity seemed perfect. The remains of yesterday’s cold front chilled the air and the cloud quilt hung low-- pulled to the southeast by a northwest wind to cover the scant patches of blue struggling to peek through. The oaks and other hardwoods hanging around the little valley are mostly bereft of leaves. The only green beside the little patches of scraggly fescue forage are stands of aromatic eastern red cedar and a few corkscrew-needled Virginia pines.
Like so many places in the Piedmont where the landscape’s character is betrayed by clay, the abundant acidic-soil loving broomsedge is everywhere. It waved like tawny buffalo grass on a high plains prairie in the light breeze. Green, gold and cold-It was the kind of day with venison written all over it. Or so I thought.
The trick to deer hunting—any hunting--is thinking like the thing you pursue but not thinking too much. Too much thinking spoils instinct. It is like calculating a kiss. Better it should just happen. Some would call me an experienced hunter but I know better. I am an evolving "quester" learning to appreciate the failure that dominates the hunt and to embrace the slim odds of “success” that keep drawing me back for more.
The spot where I chose to sit -- a little copse of the prickly cedars and an accompanying seasonally appropriate and scraggly “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree—sits on a western facing slope with views to the north and south where I thought the wary whitetails would filter through. I could see the persimmon tree with fruit still hanging a couple of hundred yards to my right and to my left a little remnant of forest next to a piece of mangled cut-over laden with frostweed, head-high fall-withered pokeweed and a jungle of brambles—the perfect spot for a buck to bed until hunger or hormones stirred him to move.
And so I sat; nestled into the cedar closet confident that I was hidden at least from deer view and hopefully from scent-view too. The wait begun and with no whitetails in immediate site, I tuned in to the birds that always provide company. White-breasted nuthatches “yank-yanked” in the line of oaks on the ridge behind me while a few brown-headed cousins did their best tin toy imitations in the pines. A hairy woodpecker hammered and “peeked” in a little snag not far away. Somewhere in the bramble tangle a few towhees hurled insults at one another and a crow curiously flip-flapped in some sort of corvid self-play as it made its way across the little valley. Still no deer though-not a grunt, bleat or hoof beat.
So in the interim of birds and potential bucks, the bovine owner s of the pasture rumbled clumsily through the pasture where the deer should have been. I counted the hours by cows. There were brindle-coated ones with up-swept horns and roan-coated Herefords nattily trimmed in white. There was a skinny black cow that seemed to sense that something was amiss on the wind and bunches of others with coats of every color combination. The bulls and cows had apparently been at their business as a few new calves gamboled through kicking up their little hooves in some sort of ruminant jubilation. They were cute and added a bit of whimsy to the day. But then any amusement with the domestic animals faded. To add insult to the deer-less-ness, the cows were snuffling up the deer food. Like so many giant hogs they were eating the mystical, magical deer bait. The possibilities of seeing something beyond the beeves diminished with the gluttony.
And so as the golden hour approached, and the cavalcade of cattle came to a close, a million song sparrows started “chimping” at the edge of the bramble tangle jungle where I knew the buck—big, burly and wide of rack-- would emerge to defy the odds of the diminishing day. I was ready on that expectant edge; eyes narrowed and focused to see gray against gray-the muscular form and outline of tines against blackening sky-but still no deer.
A few white-throated sparrows, turned on by their little brown kindred “spinked” like so many little ball-peen hammers hitting little anvils. and an ambitious one even spilled the plight of “poor Sam Peabody”. The towhees would not be outdone and laid their claim to vespers answering the roll call for roost. There was no amber-purple blush of sunset as there seemed to be no sun to do the setting. Instead the cloud quilt thickened and any chance I would have to make an ethical shot on any antlered monster that was surely waiting just on the dark side of the cut-over was gone.
I often imagine what’s just on the other side—of some wild place; a thick mountain forest; a brooding cypress swamp; an impenetrable thicket. Maybe it’ll be the biggest buck in the wood or perhaps some reclusive, skulking warbler I’ve tried a lifetime to see. Maybe there is some fantastical creature so stunning that will take my breath away. Most often, the fantasy doesn’t meet the reality. But then I keep wishing—wanting. And I keep coming back just to roll the dice again on a day when maybe it will all come together and it’s even better than I dreamed it could be. I rose from the cedar blind and made my way back to other possibilities beyond the deer pasture. I’ll come back to maybe "fail" again another day.