Bowhunt­ing bonuses and an event­ful open­ing day

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - Tom Ta­tum Colum­nist

Funny how a strange uniden­ti­fied sound in the pitch black dark of night can com­mand your ab­so­lute un­di­vided at­ten­tion. So it was many years ago as I made my way up the moun­tain­side to­ward my stand on a moon­less Ful­ton County night. Some­thing omi­nous was out there, and it was get­ting closer.

I was about half­way through the rig­or­ous two-mile trek to my hunt­ing grounds when I stopped to take a quick breather. Then I heard it – the sound of some­thing or some­one clam­ber­ing across the for­est floor some­where just be­yond the range of my fail­ing flash­light beam. With my climb­ing tree stand hitched to my shoul­ders, a fanny pack lashed around my waist, my bow in one hand, flash­light in the other, I ne­go­ti­ated the rocky, fallen tree strewn ter­rain over the steep grade. Add in the un­sea­son­ably steamy, hu­mid air and it made for slow go­ing. And what­ever was creep­ing up be­hind me was gain­ing ground.

I squinted vainly through the coal black night as imag­i­na­tion ran wild. What could it be? A hun­gry black bear? A fam­ily of ra­bid rac­coons? A pack of coy­otes? An elu­sive Penn­syl­va­nia moun­tain lion? Big­foot? An army of zom­bies? Or maybe just an­other hunter? The hunter the­ory seemed most plau­si­ble, so I called out into the dark­ness but elicited no re­sponse. That, plus the fact that there was not an­other light flash­ing in the woods, sug­gested the thing re­lent­lessly stalk­ing me was not hu­man. It all made for a heart-pound­ing, hair-raise­don-the-back-of-the-neck adren­a­line rush.

My ini­tial in­stinct was to pick up the pace, an ex­haust­ing option given the con­di­tions. When I paused again to catch my breath, I could still hear the thing lum­ber­ing be­hind me, so I changed tactics and de­cided to stand my ground as it closed in on me. At last I de­tected move­ment and caught my neme­sis in the dim­ming flash­light beam. What ap­peared in­stantly dis­pelled all those ret­ro­spec­tively ridicu­lous night­mar­ish spec­u­la­tions. Caught there in the beam of light was the big­gest, burli­est por­cu­pine I had ever en­coun­tered, drawn, I sus­pect, by the de­li­ciously salty aroma of my am­ple per­spi­ra­tion. I took a few steps for­ward and he wheeled around and clum­sily am­bled away, van­ish­ing into the night.

My hair-rais­ing episode with that hard-charg­ing porky (hey, quill pigs can reach bursts of speed ex­ceed­ing two miles per hour) rep­re­sents one of the many bonuses bowhunters may ex­pe­ri­ence while afield.

Although the pri­mary goal of a typ­i­cal bowhunt­ing ex­cur­sion is to col­lect veni­son and, with luck, bag that tro­phy buck of a life­time, it is of­ten those ex­tra bonuses that fill those long, ded­i­cated, oc­ca­sion­ally mind­numb­ing hours on stand — such as my silly yet ex­cit­ingly spine-tin­gling en­counter with that por­cu­pine.

After all, where do we find your av­er­age, non-bowhunter type at day­break on an Oc­to­ber morn­ing? Chances are he (or she) is rolling over in bed, sound asleep, ig­nor­ing that com­pelling call of the wild. But not you — you’ve been on stand for an hour, your ears keenly at­tuned to the busy, night­time mu­sic of na­ture – much of it a cho­rus of in­sect chat­ter like chirp­ing crick­ets and singing katy­dids.

And the Phan­tom of the Opera has noth­ing on Mother Na­ture when it comes to the “mu­sic of the night.” Join­ing in nat­u­ral har­mony with the in­sect sounds are those of a va­ri­ety of noc­tur­nal birds. Unseen owls are out there and ac­tive. The eerie, haunt­ing trilling calls of the screech owl sug­gest ghosts or ban­shees. Some­where in the dis­tance sounds the deep se­ries of hoots from a great horned owl while some­where a barred owl asks that fa­mil­iar, repet­i­tive ques­tion, “Who cooks for you?” You might even hear the chant of the whip-poor-will early in the season. And if you’re hunt­ing near a swamp or wet­land, you may also no­tice the hoarse squawk of a black-crowned night heron be­fore it wends its mi­gra­tory way south. And some in­som­niac mock­ing­birds might just ser­e­nade you all night long, par­tic­u­larly if there is a full moon.

As day­light be­gins to drain into the for­est, the night­time cho­rus sur­ren­ders to the am­ple bird sounds of morn­ing. The or­nitho­log­i­cal com­mu­nity has la­beled this “The Dawn Cho­rus,” the time of day when song­birds are most ac­tive in their vo­cal reper­toire, and we bowhunters are lucky to be out in the woods in time to sa­vor the con­cert.

While this phe­nom­e­non is most ev­i­dent in the spring when birds are mat­ing, it con­tin­ues through the fall, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing our early bowhunt­ing season as many species of birds pre­pare for their an­nual mi­gra­tions. The com­po­si­tion of each morn­ing’s cho­rus varies with robins and other thrushes join­ing larger birds such as doves, crows and jays fol­lowed by smaller species like spar­rows, wrens, and war­blers as the morn­ing pro­gresses.

But the sim­ple oc­ca­sion of sun­rise it­self pro­vides an­other bonus for early ris­ing archers as the skies fill with a pas­tel pot­pourri of pinks, pur­ples, and tan­ger­ine and the woods below comes alive with move­ment. And while we’re strain­ing our eyes and ears to glimpse a move­ment or sound of deer, the ev­ery­day busi­ness of other crit­ters can en­ter­tain us as we wait.

In the course of a bowhunt­ing ca­reer that has spanned five decades, for me, those sights and sounds have in­cluded a fam­ily of skunks nos­ing through the un­der­brush in search of break­fast, a face to face with a cu­ri­ous rac­coon de­ter­mined to claim my tree stand as its own, tur­keys launch­ing them­selves off the roost, and a pair of young red foxes play­ing a game of tag as they chased around below me. I’ve also had a few Cooper’s hawks at­tack, div­ing at my head, ap­par­ently be­liev­ing the move­ment they de­tected was a morsel that would serve as their next meal — be­fore they re­al­ized (at the last pos­si­ble nanosec­ond) the er­ror of their ways. On one oc­ca­sion a wingtip ac­tu­ally brushed across my nose as the star­tled hawk flared away.

So it was I met the dawn on Satur­day perched in my Chester County tree stand to take ad­van­tage of the open­ing day of archery hunt­ing here in Wildlife Man­age­ment Unit 5D. Mother Na­ture pro­vided ideal con­di­tions with cool tem­per­a­tures and calm skies. While I never once drew back the bow­string, I spent over an hour watch­ing a bach­e­lor group of three or four bucks wend their way across the wood­lot that morn­ing.

About 80 yards away they were well out of bow range as they fed into the un­der­brush and out of sight. I blew a few notes on my grunt call and even bleated a few times to no avail. While I’ve learned that call­ing is more ef­fec­tive dur­ing the rut, it has worked for me on young bucks early in the season. But what hap­pened next is most re­veal­ing.

At about 7:30 I heard a “thwack” im­me­di­ately fol­lowed by the sounds of deer scram­bling through the brush and an­other crash­ing to the ground. I sus­pected (cor­rectly) that a hunter on the ad­join­ing prop­erty had downed one of the bucks. In a few sec­onds two of the other bucks trot­ted into sight and started milling around, look­ing back in the di­rec­tion where their com­rade had fallen. Both of those bucks were older and boasted fairly de­cent racks. Although they stayed there for an­other half hour, about 35 yards from my ob­ser­va­tion post, they never of­fered me a de­cent shot.

Mean­while, as I would learn later, the suc­cess­ful archer had climbed down from his tree stand, walked over to re­trieve his deer, per­formed field dress­ing chores, and com­menced to trans­port his prize back out of the woods. The other bucks, barely fifty yards away, stood their ground, watch­ing him the whole time. Fi­nally, ag­i­tated and prob­a­bly a bit con­fused, the two bucks qui­etly ghosted deeper into the woods and dis­ap­peared.

Watch­ing that scene play out re­in­forced a bowhunt­ing truth I learned long ago: there are two times that white­tails are most vul­ner­a­ble to bowhunters. One is in late Oc­to­ber and early Novem­ber dur­ing the heat of the rut. The other is dur­ing the first few days of the season be­fore the deer wise up to the dan­gers posed by their bow-tot­ing ad­ver­saries. With our season here in WMUs 5C and 5D stretch­ing clear to Nov. 26, there’s plenty of time to whit­tle down our ex­pan­sive Ch­esco deer herd. I’ll re­turn to the deer woods later this week, but I sus­pect those two sur­viv­ing bucks learned their les­son on open­ing day and won’t be quite so care­less next time.

PHOTO COUR­TESY TOM TA­TUM

Bowhunters who head out to our Chester County deer woods can en­joy the sights and sounds pro­vided by Mother Na­ture.

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