In deer hunting, as in life, it can be easy to lose track of what matters most. A certain number of inches of antler. A bigger buck than the next guy. More whitetails on the meat pole. The fastest bow. The sleekest rifle. The latest high-tech gear.
Many factors can send a hunter adrift. That’s why anchors are so important: the camps, family and friends — places and traditions that always bring us back to the simple rewards and truths of deer hunting.
MUST DO DEER CAMPS
My original deer camp was not really a camp in the traditional sense. Rather, it was a state of mind. The place was simply home — a small house tucked into the edge of a small town nestled among the dairy farms and rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin. It was the place where I grew up, and to which I returned to find boyhood memories. If my count is correct, I spent 37 gun deer seasons there. Some were when I was a boy. But most were return visits.
The best night was always the opener’s eve. The house would be a shambles — abuzz with activity as two brothers, father and I tried to get organized by finding warm socks, laying out layers of clothes, claiming the best hats and gloves, digging out slugs and patching boots.
Toward the end of that wonderful home-as-deer-camp phase, I’d set the alarm clock earlier and earlier each year, because Dad moved slower and slower. The last few years, he wouldn’t come out to the hunting grounds until well after shooting light. I’d watch for his station wagon tooling along on the township road, then walk up to meet him and take him to a spot, usually a lawn chair along a nearby fencerow. The late arrival didn’t seem to hurt his hunting too much. He shot his last deer at age 87 on just such a morning.
These days, one of my favorite deer camps involves the generation I helped produce, instead of the one that produced me. I call it our late-season prairie antlerless camp.
At my best count, we are 10 years into this camp, which has seen my sons grow from first-time deer hunters into young men. Our favorite place to stay was a cabin on a high bench atop the breaks of Missouri River’s west bank in South Dakota. We’ve recently moved to a cozy old farmhouse along Nebraska’s Keya Paha River. The venues might change but the anchor is the same: being together at a time of year when everybody can find a few winter days off from work or school.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
Deer camps are more about people than places. Back in Wisconsin’s hill country, my father and mother have long since passed away, and their home sold. But I have a new deer hunting family there — proof that you can in fact go home again, and that when it comes to deer hunt- ing, friends and family are the most important anchor of all.
Out in the rolling hills of Jordan Township, my friends Carolyn and Craig live in a big updated farmhouse. Carolyn’s brothers Pat and Mike come to hunt, along with various young cousins when they can. Down the road, or across the woodlots and old pastures if you choose to walk, is the camp of my boyhood friend Randy, his son Garrett and father Dave. Their deer hunting home is a cozy-warm trailer on the edge of the woods.
Everybody pulls in at various times the day before the season opener. We gather at the trailer or farmhouse to catch up, look at trail camera photos, decide who is going to shoot which big buck, and dole out plenty of ribbing on who is going to shoot the smallest and tastiest whitetail of the neighborhood camp.
Of course, there are places that are special preciously because they fill tags. My favorite is along a stream known as the Little Sugar, and is a sweet place indeed. At last count, I have shot eight whitetails right there, and one of my best bucks ever. It is a classic transition zone — the melding of a patch of native prairie grass and wetlands, a crop field usually filled with corn or soybean stubble, and a strip of river-bottom oak, ash and cottonwood timber.
It’s not an ace-in-the-hole every year. But there are always plenty of memories and entertainment to keep me going. I bring a turkey mouth call and fiddle with the birds that wander through. Fox and coyotes cross. A parade of cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches works back and forth all day. There is a place I would like to visit again. It is the place I shot my first buck, almost 40 years ago now.
I was waiting at the bottom of a steep, tangled hillside, where several deer trails converged below the draws that drained the horribly thick brush. My brothers were pushing toward me through the cutover when shuffling leaves woke me from an afternoon nap. A buck spilled off the hillside and ran toward me. I shot three times as he passed. We found the 7-pointer a few minutes later and just 30 yards down the trail, elegantly stretched out on his side in a perfect pose of his last stride.
The spot looks about the same on a satellite photo today, though I am sure the cover is different after all these years. I have promised myself a summer hike back into that anchor of a place this summer, if the current landowner will let me make the trek in. I have a feeling he will.
Traditions must start somewhere. When I needed to go to work establishing a new Minnesota deer camp, I turned to the landscape that beck- ons me more than any other — the prairies and farmlands. My friend Don, who is a fine deer hunter but a duck hunter in his soul, gave me access to a hundred acres of western Minnesota grass and duck slough a half-hour drive from his main farm. Where I can hunt, only 75 or so of the acres are land anyway, the rest being water for duck hunting. But it’s a decent little deer hole. Getting in on the traditions is the real anchor.
One tradition is a Friday night get-together at the farm’s retired milking-parlor-turned-hunting-clubhouse, where muddy boots, bloody knives and wet clothes will stay out of the farmhouse. Plans are made for the next day, including which sloughs might be good to push together during the midday hours.
Then there is an opening night meal, always made better when there is a buck or two hanging from the machine shed rafters. The fare might be pulled chicken, pork ribs, chili or a prime bear roast from a berry-eating bruin shot up north.
Down in our “own” little patch of prairie grass, my boy Noah and I have managed to score on a few whitetails, including a nice doe the very first year we hunted there, and a perfect 8-point buck for him (his first) a few years later. This past fall, after five seasons of trying, I took my first buck there as the 5-pointer ghosted through the bluestem at first light.
It’s easy to think of an anchor as something that holds you back and limits your horizons. Deer hunting’s anchors are different. They affirm, comfort and provide happy grounding for a hunting soul. It’s OK to drift off once in a while, in search of adventure and fulfillment. But when I start getting lost, it’s always comforting to just grab on and pull my thoughts back to one of deer hunting’s anchors.