By Nick Simonson
While the North Dakota Deer Archery Season opens at noon on a Friday, I rarely get out for an afternoon hunt, like I do for the firearms opener. The end of summer, the beginning of school, family events and the busy Labor Day weekend tend to curtail any hopes of getting on stand for the first few hours of the season. However, the following morning is usually blocked off in red on my calendar, as it was this year and the start to my season, even if delayed by 18 hours or so, reminded me of all the little things that make bow hunting grand.
I had set my final stand up on the west edge of a creek bottom parcel I was granted access to by a kind married couple who had allowed me pheasant hunting privileges over the past couple of years. While the encouraging results on my trail cameras throughout the summer made it an easy decision for the bottleneck of brush and steep breaks to serve as my starting point, I knew there would be much to see, as the wildlife management area to the south and the surrounding buttes and hills had displayed birds and creatures of all kinds in previous seasons. As I made the trek in the pre-dawn darkness under the blue light of a headlamp along the abandoned cow trails which disappeared under cedar roots and around oak trunks and reappeared as a split in the grasses on the other side, I thought how much easier the journey was during the day, even when hauling in the forty pounds of unwieldy metal which hung at my destination a half mile in.
The area around the small trickle and the surrounding acres had been placed in a conservation program and the last flowers of summer dropped their petals as I walked through the final meadow before my stand. I climbed up, knowing the clank of my safety strap would be the last sound of the morning and I secured myself to the tree overlooking the wide creek bottom that spanned 200 yards in front of me and opened up into the hills to my north. I figured it would take 15 to 20 minutes of stillness before the world around me would forget I was there, but it only took a few moments.
In a matter of seconds, the muted woosh of dark wings pumping on the air brakes blurred in front of me and a large owl settled into a bough not ten feet to my right, and slightly higher than my vantage point. Oblivious to my presence, the bird spun its head on its axis, and I watched its silhouette in the first breaking blue light of the approaching sunrise. There the raptor sat silently for a few minutes, until it began letting out a repeated shriek, as if to give warning of the rising sun. The calling went on for several minutes, as I cracked a smile beneath the lightweight camouflage clava which covered my face from detection and the swarms of late summer mosquitoes which clouded the creek edges and occasionally made their way up into the canopy where I sat.
As the eastern sky lightened, the owl took off with a final loud call, and the world began to wake up around me. A trio of fast-moving waterfowl whistled through the air over the creek and headed toward the lake a mile away. A raccoon or some other ground critter wandered through the deep brush of the steep hill behind me and after it had passed, the trees began producing doves in singles in pairs at a rate I felt could not be sustained for long, but they continued on until I lost count. They all seemed to come from the little fifty-foot stretch behind my stand, as they’d bumble-flap their way up and out of the branches to head off in the direction of a nearby cut grain field, meeting other incoming birds on their way.
As the sun peaked over the far hills and began painting the western breaks with golden light, motion to the north caught my eye as a doe moved out from a draw and up the hill. She was followed a moment later by her fawn which disappeared into the buckbrush. Further north from them, a line of five deer bounded toward the trees, and seeing they were on my side of the creek, my heart rate jumped. To match the thumping in my chest, a bumping on the far side of the creek in the remaining shadows caught my attention as a mule deer doe jumped her way on high alert across the trails etched in the side of the hill. She paused only when she cleared the dilapidated fenceline which ran perpendicular to the creek and slow-stepped her way to the top of the hill, ears rotating like satellite dishes trying to pick up an extraterrestrial signal. As she made her way up and out of the valley, a whitetailed doe and her fawn came more casually across the steep embankment.
They worked their way down toward the creek and I watched intently to study their travel habits as they dipped into the trickle and came up into the meadow in front of me. I marked the spot as a crossing and tagged the gray washout on the far side as its entry point for future reference, and perhaps a blind location in the adjacent brush for next season. As they slowly worked through the scrub and buffaloberry bushes, I watched as the doe went on high alert. From behind a small rise another doe came out, but it was a mule deer. I had never seen the two species interact before in my limited hunting in these areas where they can both be found. For the mule deer doe the encounter did not go well.
The mother whitetail snorted and sniffed and dropped her head, and time after time ran the larger-eared female in my direction. On the fourth such charge, the mule deer doe bolted for good, and stood a mere 20 yards from my stand, covering nearly two football fields in her repeated retreats as the whitetail went back to her fawn. The muley doe looked into the woods to my left, and as if by magic, summoned her backup – another doe of her species and a fork-horned mule deer buck in velvet. Immediately identifying both as non-shooters, I kept my heart rate in check as the trio milled about under my stand and in the grass before me. The buck and second doe worked unseen trails in the brush, and I craned my neck to make out their forms in the still well-foliaged chokecherry trees and undergrowth that hid not only the secret paths, but also much of their bodies. In time, they moved on as the wind began to rise and gray clouds spilled hastily in from the south, signaling the shift in the weather which was promised for much of the day.
The world around me – from the owl, to the doves, to the countless calling meadowlarks, waterfowl and other creatures, including the close ranging deer – had awakened and come to life on the first morning of bow hunting season. The whole experience reminded me of how wonderful it is to be there when it happens, and what can be seen from such a unique vantage point. Making the sights and sounds of the outdoors at the start of the season as much a part of the hunt as the rush of an incoming shooter buck and a drawn and fired arrow, and probably even more important in setting the stage for what’s to come.
Featured Photo: Framed by the branches of sorrounding tress, a young mule deer buck and doe make their way across a meadow near the author’s treestand. Simonson Photo.