Hunting, Outdoors

Opening Day

From the snowy hardwoods of the North to the piney forests of the South, hunters make their pilgrimage each autumn to remote farms and forests to celebrate the most special day in the deer woods – the whitetail opener. Here are two views.

OPENING DAY IN DIXIE

You’re already awake when the alarm goes off. Heck, you’ve been awake most of the night, one minute restlessly dozing, the next jerking upright in bed to check the clock, partially out of anticipation, partially out of fear that you’ll oversleep and miss the most important sunrise of the year. But each time you sit up, you’re reminded that, at least for now, all is well with the world. You’re surrounded by the peaceful rumble of the snores of your fellow hunters.

Whether you’re in a rough-hewn hunting cabin, a spacious farmhouse turned hunt club or a cramped camper, every bed is filled tonight, for dawn marks the start of another deer season. You’ve been preparing for this moment all year, really all your life. Today you’ll bring all of your hunting experience with you as you attempt to tag that one huge buck or capture that single incredible moment that will live forever in your memory.

As camp roars to life, the hacking of old men splits the silence and the toilet growls from repetitive flushes. Somewhere somebody lights a cigarette–is he actually doing that right now? and you quickly back far away or step outside to prevent the smell from poisoning the camouflage you’ve so carefully protected from stray odors.

Outside, you gauge the temperature. Opening day in the South is not a mackinaw-clad affair, as Hollywood or old Elmer Fudd cartoons would have everyone believe. Down here, the first day of deer season is apt to look more like a Labor Day dove shoot, with hunters dressed in short sleeves and light cotton pants. The one notable difference is the blaze-orange hats. Today, you can be sure they will be everywhere.

You stand in the silence and allow the air to wash around you. There’s actually a pleasant chill, enough to require a stout jacket and light pair of gloves, even though by noon you know you’ll be in shirtsleeves. But for the morning, at least, you’ll be comfortable–and more important, so will the deer. They’ll move today. That’s certain.

As your fellow hunters linger for the eggs and bacon sizzling atop the stove, you can’t help but notice a slight brightening in the sky toward the East. Gotta go.

You grab a pack of nabs and a bottle of water for later in the day and wish everybody good luck. Then you march alone into the darkness, the weight of your rifle riding comfortably on your shoulder. With each step you take closer to your stand, the bills, office politics, deadlines, headline news–all your troubles – fall away, and somewhere in the faltering darkness it dawns on you that this is what it feels like to really, truly live.

A NORTHWOODS OPENER

It’s 7:04 a.m., opening day of deer hunting in the big northwoods. Your back is to a tree, and you sit just below the top of a hill. From behind you, a ray of sun breaks free, and the whole forest opens up before you. The land slants away at your feet. Lines of oaks and hickories march off to your right. On your left sits a stand of white-barked birch trees, and below that lies a small swamp of tag alders and marsh grasses.

You can pick out your shooting lanes now. You raise your rifle and begin calculating: That shot? Oh, man, I’d take it all day. But if he comes from there? Pretty thick. Best wait until he makes it to those stubby jack pines.

The fresh coat of snow on the ground enhances the smell of the forest this time of year, the damp earth and the rotting leaves, that hint of pine needles in the frosty air. And the way the hard, cold ground thumps when a deer bounds over it.

And where are those deer?

It’s 9:27 now. You’ve eaten both your sandwiches and all your cookies; you’ve drunk the thermos of coffee. Your rump’s sore. Though it’s not cold cold–upper 20s probably – the little toe on your left foot is going numb. Wildlife? You saw two chickadees and a raccoon. You heard a crow off somewhere.

You’re fighting the Big Drowse when suddenly your eye catches deer brown among the birch trees. Your finger reflexively grasps the trigger guard, but you relax almost immediately. Three does. The two smaller ones are frisky, unconcerned. But Old Momma, with that blocky rear end, has her nose in the air, sniffing, her ears turning like radar panels. She knows something’s up.

You’re pumped now, scanning between the trees, listening for the snap of a fallen tree branch beneath the snow. But your sense of time is gone. You don’t know how long you’ve been scanning. (Ten minutes? An hour?) Suddenly there’s a horizontal line moving through the marsh grass. A deer’s back, and it’s not a doe. He’s walking from your left to right, picking his way slowly. He eventually comes to the edge of the cover, stops for a few heartbeats and then nudges out a half-step forward. He has muscular shoulders, a massive neck and 10 points.

Your chest tightens, and that twitch starts way down in your stomach. You begin to lift your rifle, but the buck fades back into a swirl of alders and tall, brown grasses. You try to keep your breathing even. Slow down, damn it. Minutes pass. The buck’s head jerks up above the brush. For a panicky moment you think he’s seen or smelled you. But he’s looking intently ahead, into the oaks and beyond.

The buck takes a step forward, hesitates, then takes another, his head and shoulders visible now. In that absolutely still moment, you raise the rifle to your shoulder and slowly let your breath out.

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