Back in March of 2014, I wrote a blog post called “Opening Day 1965” in which I wrote the following:
I got only a glimpse of this big old doe as she bounded off. As it turned out she and I would have several encounters over the next two years. She taught me more about deer than all the other deer I would come across the rest of my life. But that’s another story.
Now is the time to tell the story of the big doe of Bemis Hill.
It is unlike me not to give this deer a name. I guess I didn’t because I didn’t want to humanize her. She was a deer after all. She was smart, but more importantly she utilized all of her senses to elude me and others. It was her senses that she taught me most about. Here are just three of the lessons that she taught me.
Lesson #1: Assume That a Deer Is Already There
First, I’ll elaborate on that very first time that I saw and heard her. Yes I said *heard* her. Not her footsteps, but her blowing or “snorting,” as it is called. It was my very first morning of hunting this area. I had just completed an arduous uphill hike to the same spot where everything I mentioned previously happened.
It was long before sunup. It was very cool, foggy, and consequently quiet. I was cramped up from sleeping in the front seat of my Falcon that night. I got to the spot where the tote road meets the field, which again I had no idea was there.
I was all consumed with the picture perfect place I was gazing on and realizing that this was a hunter’s dream come true. Suddenly I was startled to my core as un unbelievably harsh and loud sound emanated from the tree line directly in front of me just on the edge of that tree line.
It was this big doe snorting at me….repeatedly. She snorted at me more times than I can count. Then, as if to flip me off, she whirled and threw that huge white tail right at me.
This would be the first of many such encounters. She greeted me with her snorts and stomping hooves many times over the next two years. It got so that I looked forward to it each and every Saturday and Sunday morning for six weeks for the next two seasons.
I’m not kidding when I say that I missed that sound in the coming years. I am confident that she lived to a ripe old age. I only saw three other hunters there that first season, and two of them were gun hunters, who were not allowed to take does.
I saw another bowhunter that first day, but I never saw another hunter near there for several years. When I did see other hunters, I never saw them return.
Lesson #2: Don’t Fall for the Head-Fake
Then there was the one morning during the early part of a subsequent archery season, which was in mid-October in Vermont in the 1960s. I was coming out of the woods for lunch when I saw her just inside the woodline of a mature pine grove that bordered a substantial hay field. This was her turf. She knew every tree, every sound, and certainly every scent.
She did not see me, but I could tell by her very rigid stance that she knew that I was there. I also knew that I had the wind in my favor.
She was facing into the light breeze, but I assumed that she heard me walking along the tote road. It was late morning, and I was hungry so I paid little attention to my footsteps. She was about 40 yards from me on my right. I felt very comfortable that without a shift in the wind, she would not bag me.
She never moved a muscle for what seemed like several minutes. I was also feeling good about the situation because I knew that her trail of choice was about 20 yards in front of me. If she felt nervous at all, she would certainly take that trail for several reasons. First, she knew that she just traveled it without incident. Second, it would be very quiet because it was so well worn, and she knew every twig along it.
Next came my first bit of schooling for the day. She put her head down, and I took advantage of that to shift my feet to get into a more comfortable shooting position, but she no more than lowered her head when she snapped it back up in a split second. In so doing, she caught the movement of me shifting my weight. This is a common trick that deer use. We call it the head-fake.
At that point, she knew that she heard something, and she knew the direction of the sound. What was she going to do? Again she was to my right, facing in the direction where I just came from. I swear that I could read her thoughts, or instincts, if you prefer. She felt vulnerable, but she knew better than to panic because she was unsure of the intruder. Her plan was simple. Put the big pines between her and me. She turned 90 degrees to her left, and I was looking at her butt.
She then *very* quietly put one hoof in front of the other, put her head low, and went behind the two-foot trunk of the big pine. I immediately raised my recurve bow, anticipating her turning more to the left and probably trotting up her preferred trail.
I stood there looking at the left side of the pine for five minutes with my bow raised. Finally I dared a peek to see what she was doing. She was gone. To this day, I cannot believe she crossed that open field without me seeing her. I went to the spot where she was standing, and sure enough there was her track and trail going through the hay.
Example #3: You Can’t Sneak Past Someone in Their Own House
One time, in an effort to mess with her, I circled the field from a trail further south. I hoped that this maneuver would give me the advantage of surprise. She bagged me anyway. As I came along the trail from the opposite direction, after an additional 30-minute hike, she simply stood perfectly still and watched me “sneak” past her. She then blasted me with her signature snort. I can’t print the words that came to mind at that moment.
Each of my encounters with this doe taught me something. It is easy to read a book or an issue of Field and Stream magazine and to try and adapt the author’s experience to your situation, but *every day* in the woods is unlike any other, like snowflakes and fingerprints. You might be able to duplicate a situation, but never all aspects of the event–weather, wind, temperature, sunlight, clouds, and very importantly the moon and its phases. They each play a major role in how the natural world functions every day.
I will be forever grateful to that nameless doe for all that she taught me. Because of her, I was a lot more successful hunter over the next almost 60 years, and a much more appreciative one because of her.