Last weekend marked the opener of Minnesota firearms season for deer hunting. A weekend my family celebrates as though it is a holiday. It's that time of year when we use our vacation time to go and sit in the Northwoods and wait for our shot to fill our freezers with venison - and if we are lucky to add a trophy mount to the wall at the cabin.
This year, despite the pandemic, was no exception. On Friday, we all made our way to the cabin and began celebrating our first night of Deer Camp. Finally, around midnight, the few of us that were still awake looked at the clock and realized it was well past time for bed. At 4:30 am we all woke up for breakfast (as per tradition my sister had made us biscuits and gravy for opening morning). After we ate, we packed up our gear and got dressed for the morning hunt.
Once I got in the stand, I regretted not getting more sleep but was thankful I brought my coffee thermos with me. I unpacked my essentials from my bag; my calls, rattle bag, binoculars, and rangefinder. I was tired but I was ready. The weather was unusually warm for November, though I was not complaining because I was able to leave my hand warmers and heater back at the cabin. I rotated through my calls, using a light rattle first, then waiting, then using the buck grunt, waiting, and finally using the doe bleat. It was a new strategy for me and I wasn't sure if I'd have success. I wanted to experiment though and see how it would work - if it would work at all.
At around 10 am, after a quiet morning, I finally saw movement on the ridge opposite of where my stand was. It was a doe and a fawn moving quickly through the thicket towards my direction. They were moving fast and I knew if they didn't slow down, I'd never get a good look at them. I made the quick decision to use a grunt then a bleat. I'm not sure why I chose that strategy, but it worked. The doe and her fawn slowed to a walk. They were in the thick brush but I could see them. For about 5 minutes they looked around, walking slowly, but never came into a clear viewpoint. The doe was very sizeable, but deep down I've always struggled with the ethical decision behind orphaning a fawn or filling an empty freezer. I understand that it is important to manage the deer population in any given area and that the fawn would likely survive (think of Bambi) - but when the doe and fawn disappeared from my sight, I wasn't upset. I knew I'd have another chance to fill the freezer and I knew I'd have the opportunity to take a clear shot at a deer another time - after all, it was only opening morning. After another hour, I decided to call it and head in for some lunch and a quick nap.
When I woke up from my nap at the cabin it was 2:30 pm. I had forgotten to set an alarm. Originally, I had planned on being back out in the woods by that time. I got dressed, grabbed my bag, and headed back into the woods. By 3 pm I had settled into my stand again. I only had two and a half hours to hunt, but I had a good feeling. The first hour went by slowly as all I heard was a squirrel rustling around. That squirrel kept on making noise until about 4:30 pm and I was getting fed up with how similar he sounded to a deer. At 4:54 pm, sunset had come and I knew I only had 30 minutes of shooting hours left. I took my rattle bag and lightly moved it between my hands. My brother-in-law had success with a slow, light, and gentle rattle during bow season, so I figured I'd try it out myself. After all, a lot of magic can happen in the last 30 minutes. I followed my rattle with a series of aggressive grunts and a couple of estrus bleats. Only a couple of minutes later, I heard it. The distinct sound of a deer walking in my direction. By now it was about 5:00 pm and I could hear the deer in that same thick brush I had seen the doe and fawn in previously. I let out another grunt and another bleat. The sound of a deer walking was clear and getting louder, but I could not see any movement at all. Until finally, 10 minutes later, it appeared 40 yards in front of me, walking slowly and looking around.
Through the brush, I couldn't see any antlers so I thought it was a lone doe. I let out another series of six short grunts (call me crazy, I know) and two more bleats. The deer turned and started walking towards a clear shooting lane. At 30 yards, it stopped and looked for the source of the calls. He was curious. I lifted my gun and got the deer in the scope. The first thing I saw was the antlers. I looked for the perfect shot as the deer looked straight at me. The shot was tough as he was standing broadside but behind two trees. However, his shoulders were just far enough forward that I knew I could get a clean heart shot - as long as I could thread the needle and not hit the trees instead. There was some brush blocking him as well, though it was no match for my 30-06 at 30 yards. At 5:15 pm I turned off my safety, took a breath, and took the shot. I was quickly startled by the sight of the blast of fire that emerged out of the front of the barrel. I snapped the safety back on and heard the deer crash through the woods. My heart pounded and my stomach turned. Through the woods came some loud crashes and the snaps of tree branches - then, silence.
I was worried I had missed or made a bad shot. I immediately texted my husband, my brother, and my dad to let them know I had shot at a buck. After 25 minutes, I couldn't wait any longer to get down and check for blood. I figured by then if it was a good hit the buck would be down and if it wasn't, he'd be long gone. With my headlamp on, I climbed down and quietly walked to the spot where I thought I had shot him - and there it was - bright red blood. It was definitely a hit. I looked a little further up the trail and saw more blood. I was now certain that it was a good hit. I walked back to my stand and waited for my husband. When he got to me, I was beaming with excitement. I showed him the blood and we began following the trail. This was my favorite part of the hunt - tracking the blood trail. As we looked for blood, I felt like a kid helping my family trail a wounded deer (some of my favorite deer camp memories.) About 40 yards from where I shot him, Lucas and I saw eyes glowing in the light from our headlamps. At first, I worried that the buck was still alive and ready to bolt. That wasn't the case. The buck had run straight into some downed trees and laid there, dead.
As we walked up to him, I finally noticed the size of his rack. "Oh my gosh, babe, I got a six-pointer!" I exclaimed to my husband. He quickly pointed out that it was a seven, as we lifted the head to see one of the brow-tines was long enough to count as an extra point. I was ecstatic. This had been my 2nd deer ever, my 2nd buck, and my second opening day harvest ever. My lucky 7-point buck on November 7th. It wasn't long before I realized that in my excitement, I had left my gutting gloves at my tree stand. But, before long my brother, my dad, and my step-mom were all walking through the woods to see my buck.
With some guidance (and help sawing through the sternum), I was able to gut my buck by myself - something I had not done with my first deer. We dragged him through the woods out to the wheeler trail, loaded him in Pop's side by side, and brought him back to camp to hang.
That feeling of accomplishment still hangs over me nearly a week later. I had used deer calls to bring in my personal best buck with a calling strategy of my own design. Though my calls may have been a little excessive or unusual in the opinions of some, they were nothing short of successful for me and my opening day hunt. A hunt that I will always remember.