Department of Environmental Conservation

It is all new to me, my rookie season I suppose.

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A friend of mine here in Ithaca has been trying to talk me into hunting with him for years.  An interesting guy, the only meat he and his family eat, he hunts.  As a conscientious omnivore, I’ve always admired this way of life.

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I’ve finally given in to his prompting, and this season I am trying out deer hunting for the first time.  In all began about 2 or 3 weeks ago, the two of us went out on Saturday for about six hours, to some open farm lands in northern Tompkins County.  And I’ve gone several times since then.

Hourigan Family Farm

A few weeks ago, I took a hunting safety class in Wellsville through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.  I got my license, and borrowed a shotgun from my friend.  I missed opening weekend, but have finding time each week since.

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Day 1:
We went out for close to six or seven hours, but all this time, and I never saw a deer.  I saw some lovely things, and learned something about being alone in the woods and reading that world.

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We were out for several hours in the morning, and my feet got cold.  I went for a little walk about on the land designated as my spot.  I’ve stationed myself in a grove of trees about a mile for a dairy farm in North Lansing, NY.  For my walk, I headed out of the woods into a dormant corn field, and up to a man-made reservoir used to water the cattle and the corn.  I rounded a small hill up to the lip of the reservoir, and looked down.  Sitting on the water must have been about 50-60 geese; when they saw me, they all took flight in perfect unison, honking feverishly.

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After a lunch break, we both headed back out to try some more.  I went to a different spot further up the road.  Right as I parked my car, a hard snow began, pushed about by an intense wind.  As I walked into the woods, I held my chin against my chest, and kept my eyes on the ground.  Not long after I made into the trees, the snow stopped as abruptly as it started.  The sun came out for a few minutes, giving the trees a wonderful and surreal color.

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Day 2:
I went out again on my own 2 days later, just during the afternoon.  I saw lots of hoof prints in the show and mud, but still never saw a deer.  After about an hour, I head lots of honking again, and looked to the sky.  The clouds were a light grey as far as I could see.  Just behind my grove of trees, I could see hundreds of geese flying in the air, all headed in my direction.  There were so many of them, they flew in several formations.  Their honking loud and syncopated.

As it grew dark, I walked back to my car feeling discouraged and dejected.

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Day 3:
I made it out to North Lansing at 5:30 in the morning.  It was 9 degrees outside, and not a cloud in the sky.  I had a clear view of the morning stars, and horned moon illuminated the corn field as I traversed my way out to the same grove of trees.  There was about 2 inches of snow on the ground, leftover from a Thanksgiving storm.

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I bundled tight, and crunched my way through the snow.  I followed deer tracks out to spot, and I stood on the mounded earth containing the reservoir, with a clear view of the woods on either side of the field.  I watched the sunrise, various shades of orange, pink and purple filling the sky.

I heard deer in the woods to my left, the north side of the field.  I heard a few shotguns going off in the distance, but again never saw an animal.  I stayed out for a little more than 2 hours, and then the cold got to be too much.  It took me another three hours after I left to really feel warm.

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So I went home around 8:30, took a long hot shower, and took a nap, before heading back out for the afternoon hunt.

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It was 20 degrees warmer, but the sky covered with a thick layer of grey clouds.  The corn field before me had a harsh beauty about it.  The winds were strong; I could no longer see the footprints I left in the morning, swept away by the wind.

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I walked across this frozen tundra, back to my spot in southern grove of trees.  I started to climb up a tree into a stand we’d posted before the season really started.  I was about two thirds of the way up the tree, and saw my first deer of the season.  A large doe.  She bolted when she saw me.

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I decided to climb back down.  Now that she saw me, I figured the chances of her coming back my way were slim.  I ventured into the woods, to see if I could find this doe, or really any other deer for that matter.  I walked quietly through woods, trying to walk against the wind so as to help keep my sound and scent at a minimum.

I was excited, my heart beating fast.  It actually felt like a possibility that I might find and hunt down a deer.  I found and followed lots of tracks in these woods (not too far fetched to think that I had actually heard them on some of my previous outings), but never caught sight of them again.

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I walked out of the woods to a beautiful sunset, mixes of a fiery orange, pink and purple threading the grey clouds above.

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I can’t remember the last day I’d watched both the sunrise and sunset.  There’s a harsh beauty to these winter days alone in the woods.

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Interlude:
So bow season starts a couple of weeks before shotgun season.  The week before shotgun season started, I headed out to my friend’s house to make a plan for our hunt (they repeated it time and again in my safety class, Plan the hunt, hunt the plan).  Each year, another friend of his comes down from Vermont, Herb, during bow season to hunt in Central New York for a couple of weeks.

This guy from Vermont, he’s hardcore.  Only hunts with a bow, or when the shotgun season starts, he’ll use a muzzle loader.  When I arrived in the late afternoon, Herb had just returned from a day’s hunt.  There were two doe hanging from a tree in the yard.  Herb had spent the day chasing after another deer, another doe he struck with an arrow the evening before.  He didn’t take her down with his first arrow – still lodged in her back – and spent the day trying to follow her blood trail to finish the kill.

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When I arrived, Herb was preparing to butcher the two hanging doe.  He took them back into the barn, and began his work.

When field dressing the day before, he saved the hearts.  Herb decided we’d have the hearts for dinner that night.  He cut them down, rubbed them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and then grilled them over a hardwood fire, cherry.

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We talked a lot that night.  Herb thought I’d be a good hunter.  It’s clear you respect the animal, he said to me.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the heart

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Day 4:
So I went back out again, again for the afternoon hunt.

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It was pretty warm that afternoon, mid thirties.  I started the walk from my car into the woods, and quickly found some coyote tracks in the snow.  I followed them back to my grove of trees.  I climbed back into my tree stand, and began the wait.

The sky was an even grey across the horizon, really as far as I could see, and the air was remarkably still.  I sat in the tree, saw a few white moths flutter from tree to tree, and watched the winter birds scavaging for food before returning to their hollowed trees.  I felt I heard deer in the brush behind me, but it was hard to get a decent view behind my stand.  Regardless, I thought it would be best to stay still and quiet, rather than trying to venture down to try and flush them out.

Again, I never saw deer that day.

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I was sitting in the tree for about an hour when a light snow began to fall, quite lovely actually.  And again, that same symphony – or perhaps cacophony – started up again as the sun approached the evening horizon, as hundreds of geese filled the air above me.  This experience has given me a new window on the landscape.

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And besides, I’m always thirsty for new experiences.

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