There are reasons why we call it deer hunting instead of deer shooting.
A couple of random things happened to me Wednesday at the Old Belfast Hunting Club in northern Grant County that wrecked a potentially classic deer hunt.
Rutting activity among deer has been increasingly evident at the club in the last couple of weeks. On opening day of modern gun season, for example, I hunted a stand that I haven't hunted in years. Even in my absence, I kept the feeder full and regularly put out Nut Grub for deer. That spot is tightly confined. It's only about 75 yards to the feeder. In the past, if you hunted it when the wind wasn't right, you might drive deer out during the daytime for the rest of the season. Now, they are so accustomed to browsing in peace that they only glance at the stand.
On opening day of modern gun season, one button buck visited briefly at dawn. When he left, a matronly old doe and her yearling daughter came and stayed for about 90 minutes.
Usually, you have to hunt that stand with a southwest wind or better, a west wind. On opening day, the wind was straight out of the north, which blew my scent directly at the feeder. It was too far into the morning primetime to leave, so I hoped for the best. The deer occasionally glanced at the feeder, but they remained comfortable. I heard a buck grunting softly in the thicket the whole time they were there, but he did not appear.
I left shortly after the does did, took a lunch break and returned at 2 p.m. The same does returned about 4 p.m. and stayed until dusk. The buck continued grunting, and I expected him to break cover at dusk.
The does drifted into the thicket, and the buck made his move. Commotion erupted as he chased them. The young doe tore across the opening ahead of the feeder and vanished into the thicket on the other side. The matron doe dashed back into the opening, put on the brakes and looked at me. After a few moments, she started eating again, but the buck did not show. I believe it was because he smelled me.
Since then, a couple of big scrapes have appeared nearby. I sensed the time was right for a buck to make a fatal daylight mistake.
I returned to that stand on Wednesday, but again the wind was out of the north, as my weather app said it was. The same two does lingered, but no buck grunted.
That north wind was killing me. I would hunt the afternoon in another stand that benefits from a north wind. On my way to that stand I saw two new scrapes on the access trail, but the big surprise was in the shooting lane. One of the darndest scrapes I've seen was at the edge of a dip. It looked like the buck had a grudge against the dirt. He had practically dug a hole with hooves that looked as big as an elk's. Dirt was flung everywhere.
The air was still and cool. I had seen two doe browsing on the way in. I walked in behind one that never noticed me. The other bounded a short distance away, but not in great alarm. Apparently they had moved all day. It felt like a hunter's evening, and I believed greatness would happen.
When I settled into my stand, my first and most critical mistake became apparent. I wore a different pair of boots in the afternoon. They're made of neoprene. As I sat, I smelled something acrid, like burning tires.
"What fool could be burning tires way out here?" I wondered.
Not long after, I realized my boots were the source of that odor. They stunk really bad when I got them, but I a couple of months exposed to the air seemed to have neutralized it. It didn't fully neutralize it, and I was powerless to do a thing about it.
Worse, the air moved from the south on that hill, blowing my scent toward one of the two most common approach paths for deer. If they came from the west like they usually do, I should get a good look and an opportunity before the scent hit them.
At about 4:30 p.m., the wind shifted to the southeast. That wasn't great, but it was better than southwest. Deer usually approach from the northwest on the backside of a hill about 170 yards away. That wind would blow my scent behind them.
As well as we pattern deer over a decade, they don't always follow the script. From behind me, to the hard northwest, a buck snorted in alarm. It was so loud that it sounded like a semi-tractor venting its air brakes. There was no doubt that it was my elk-hooved monster, and he was coming from a direction from which no deer has ever approached. He was going to his big scrape. I'll be surprised if he doesn't go nocturnal for the rest of the season.
A doe did the same thing from almost the exact place about 40 minutes later. A doe makes a higher pitch wheeze, and she wheezes multiple times.
I was disgusted. A pair of stinky boots and a random swirl of wind that was already coming from a direction it wasn't supposed to be coming from torpedoed all of my best laid plans. With different boots, the wind might not have hurt me.
"To heck with the both of you," I grumbled mentally. "I didn't want to spend the rest of the night jacking around with a dead deer anyway."
That was a lie. I would have been very pleased to spend the rest of the night jacking around with an exceptional buck, and I'm sure that buck is one of the biggest on the property.
Not long before, I heard three shots to the northwest. Two were quick. The third was a short while after.
As I approached camp, I saw a headlamp flitting through the pines. My friend Ross Romine was skinning a fine 8-point buck. Its antlers had an 11 inch inside spread. The right beam was 17 inches long and the left beam was 17 3/4 inches. The brow tines were 3 1/4-inch and 3 3/4 inches long. The G2 tines were 4 3/4-inch and 5 1/2-inch.
"It's a good Grant County piney woods buck," Romine said, pleased. "He was running across a cutover. The wind was really weird tonight. It was swirling real bad. I think he scented me, and that's probably why he was running."
For a deer hunter, there could be no better way to usher in Thanksgiving. We shared the details of our afternoon while we measured the antlers in the glow of our headlamps.
Among those details was the scent of my "burning tire" boots. I have relegated them to turkey hunting. Wild turkeys can't smell. If they could, nobody would ever kill one.