Last Saturday was a special day for those sportsmen who have a penchant for hunting whitetail deer. For many, it’s sort of a combination of Christmas, Halloween, the last day of the school year (back when kids were in school) and your birthday all rolled into one. The first school where I taught used to schedule a “teacher workday” for the first Monday of the deer season because the administrators there knew that a large number of the boys (and many girls) enrolled in that rural temple of higher education would be absent that day; they’d be in the woods with their dads and grandads.
They didn’t do such a thing at Smithfield High School when I was a teen for the simple reason that there very few deer in Johnston County in those days. Now it’s different. Thanks to a lot of dedicated sportsmen and hard-working wildlife professionals, the whitetail population in our state is larger than it has probably ever been, even in early colonial days. Strict but sensible conservation measures have allowed the animals to increase in places where they’ve always been and expand their range in areas where they were almost extinct in the early 20th century. In addition, expansive farms and woodlands provide excellent habitat, especially in the coastal plain.
Even in suburban neighborhoods, homeowners’ decorative plants present irresistible forage in many cases. Such is the case in Trent Woods, N.C. I walked out the front door one morning last week and was startled to see a half-grown deer bedded down in the border right next to our front porch. A couple of days later, I went out to get the newspaper just in time to see a doe and three young bucks come loping across our next door neighbor’s front yard.
You can actually deer hunt (with a bow and arrow) in our little community but I choose not to. To me, hunting is more than just bagging game. It’s about spending time with old friends and family, exploring the magnificent autumn woods, and having opportunities to interact with all kinds of wildlife in their natural habitat. That’s why I get out of bed well before daylight, flush deer out of my wife’s flowerbeds as I walk to my truck, and then drive a half hour or more to where I’m going to hunt out in the country.
I did that on opening day last week just as I have for a number of years. My destination was in Jones County where I met several friends at the house where one of them grew up many moons ago. He lives in another town but maintains his old home place as a gathering spot for those who like to convene there, sit on the front porch, and visit a spell before dispersing to various spots in the nearby woods where they hope a ten-pointer will make an appearance. One does just often enough to make everyone think it can happen again, exactly where they’re waiting.
All experienced hunters know that bagging a trophy buck on any given day is a long shot as best. But, the idea that it could happen is enough to keep them rising well before dawn, trekking through the dark woods and sitting for, sometimes, hours on end waiting for that deer of a lifetime. More often, what they see are does and small bucks, as well as lots of squirrels, turkeys and other critters but not what they’re after on opening day.
That was the case this year. As I sat in a wooden “box” stand along a logging road, I spotted something moving in a lane in the piney woods just as the sky started to turn gray. As it got lighter, I was able to discern that it was four russet-colored does that apparently had no idea that I, with my rifle, sat no more than fifty yards away.
As the sun continued its incessant climb, others began to appear. Several more does as well as a couple of small bucks came and went in the lanes and along the logging road. One fellow – a forkhorn – appeared directly out front, about 70 yards away and began browsing. Suddenly he froze and stood, peering into the adjacent thicket. I thought, this might be it; he might be seeing that buck-of-a-lifetime getting ready to step out. I quietly reached over and gripped my rifle.
Before I could bring my gun up, another deer did appear but not what I was hoping for. This one was a cowhorn – an immature buck, probably a year or two old with just one antler tine sticking up on each side. I relaxed, sat back and watched as the deer approached his smaller counterpart. They moved toward each other stiffed legged, paused for a moment, and then began fighting!
Perhaps fighting isn’t the best term. What they were about could better be described as sparring. They didn’t seem to be trying to kill one another but they were definitely going to it – butting, pushing, thrusting, grunting. They reminded me of two teenage boys trying to determine who was the baddest man on the street corner; and who would be most impressive to any girls who happened to be watching.
I reached in my pack for my camera and began snapping shots as the bout continued for about fifteen minutes. Then, they did a strange thing. The two deer stopped, stood facing one another and turned to look directly at me. They didn’t seem to show any concern but just stood there motionless, almost as if they were posing. I could almost imagine them saying, “Ok, did you get our best side?” Then, after a few moments, they dropped their heads and went at it again. Their antics continued for another ten minutes or so until the four-pointer, apparently tiring of the whole affair, turned abruptly and disappeared into the bushes.
I saw several more does later in the day but the big buck I was hoping for never appeared. As I walked up the logging road toward my truck in the gathering darkness, I thought about it. It would have been nice to have at least had a chance at a trophy deer but, all in all, it was a good day anyway – an opening day that afforded unique experiences and memories. And, my hunting buddies waited on the front porch with a cool drink in hand and their own tales to tell.