Bowhunting bonuses and an eventful opening day
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.
Bowhunters who head out to our Chester County deer woods can enjoy the sights and sounds provided by Mother Nature.