Our Outdoors: Sense of the Hunt

By Nick Simonson

Amid on-again-off-again training for an upcoming half marathon (which will be run at a leisurely pace this year, I can assure you) I found myself headed to the stand in the white glow of my LED headlamp for the opening of North Dakota’s deer archery season.  Stiffness in my legs and left hip – a new trouble spot as I approach middle age, and vividly recall the moment of cause from my younger years – were evident as I climbed up and settled in on the small camo seat on a rest day after a week of training runs and workouts. I clicked off my headlamp, rendering the world around me dark once again.

Lights from the highway to the north, and the faint glow from the big cities to the east provided just enough illumination to make out the edge of the hayed field.  The almost-full moon of Labor Day weekend provided no guidance, having set a few hours earlier, and Orion’s form was a mere observer on this first morning of hunting season. Nevertheless I alternated squinting and opening my eyes wide to take what light was available. What I lacked in visual stimulation in the pre-dawn darkness was made up for by the auditory kind.

To my right, in the woods where the highway of deer trails wound, the movement of feet and even the crack of branches caused my heartrate to jump, despite being a half hour away from legal shooting light. I strained and followed them along the far side of the creek which cut a deep channel in the tangled stand of boxelders, ashes and buck brush of various sorts, until they were no more.  On cue, a den of coyotes began yelping and howling on top of the butte to the west, and a second set joined them from the other side of the small river valley behind me.  Soon, four packs of song dogs heralded the coming of dawn, and after four or five minutes, as if on the direction of some unseen conductor, they cut their symphony short without a single stray note.

Light crept over the landscape, and grey grasses slowly turned green, but again the sights of morning were outdone by the sounds.  Scratchy notes from nuthatches and chirps from robins filled the air with the light of the spreading dawn, and the latter began flying in all directions of the small hayfield to my left, landing in the top branches of the trees around me, including just above my head in the stand tree.  Rooster pheasants joined in the morning chatter, their loud ker-kerks like cymbals crashing from around the field and along the gravel road.  With light taking hold, I stood up in the stand to stretch my legs and grabbed my bow, lining up shots from the 10 o’clock to three o’clock shooting area I had cleared, covering a good portion of the field edge and into the winding paths in the grassy area to my right.

After a couple quick turns and stretches, I sat down and felt the first sensation of impatience creep in.  I lifted my left leg up slowly and put my foot on my right knee, and pushed down to loosen my tight hip and hamstring.  I repeated the process with my right leg, but as I was about to complete the stretch, a whitetail doe covered the five-acre field to my left in about three bounds and ended up 15 yards in front of my stand.  Frozen, I began to feel the tremblors of adrenaline amplify the sensations of sight and sound.

It never ceases to amaze me how even a deer I don’t plan to shoot can send a rush of endorphins through my body.  There’s something about being a matter of feet away from an animal that has no idea you’re there which sets the bodily systems alight.  My thundering heart, so loud it seems it will send a deer running, barely controllable breath, booming out of my nostrils, and a shaking in the legs that makes me wonder if firing an arrow would be even possible when that shooter buck does come through.

Closing in to five yards, with my super-charged senses I could hear the snap-and-munch as the doe picked off small strands of alfalfa that had sprung up from the recently cut field.  I could see the patches of golden summer fur – and even what seemed to be individual strands – which remained in her coat, scattered about the gray underfur that was taking hold in preparation for the colder months to come.  Her sharp eyes watched the far side of the field when she lifted her head from time to time, and her nostrils flared when she lowered it, picking up the scent of the next edible piece of vegetation.  Though I was 15 feet up from her, it felt as if I was 15 inches away from her face.

All the while, I shook on stand; foot still on knee, adrenaline flowing freely and relieving any stiffness I had felt from the prior week’s workouts as the doe nearly brushed the ladder portion of my perch.  As she meandered by I slowly lowered my leg with the help of my free hand and exhaled out a relieved breath, while craning my neck to watch her departure through the leaves of the tree.  With a couple nervous yawns, the last of the rush left my body.  Checking the time, 20 minutes had passed since the doe came into view, though it seemed like less – or maybe more – it was tough to tell.  In the midst of the sights and sounds on that first morning sit, and the elevated, endorphin-fueled experience, perhaps the ability to feel the passage of time was the only sense that wasn’t heightened from finding myself in the thick of the hunt once again…in our outdoors.

(Featured Photo: Even a doe the author didn’t plan to shoot elicited a rush of adrenaline while on stand the first morning of archery season. Simonson Photo)

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