Last Christmas, at his Colorado chalet in a similar setting, "snow tobogganing" suddenly sounded like it had merit. That none of us was exactly an expert on skis or had ever so much as sat in a toboggan seemed — at the time — to make the venture all the more meritorious. Cramming three people per toboggan and eschewing the "wuss" slopes for the "el guapo" slope added the crowning touch to the venture's meritoriousness.
ABC's Wide World of Sport thought it had a doozie of a clip to illustrate "the agony of defeat." Vinkto Bogataj was the hapless skier's name, and when he spun off the ski jump bouncing around like a rubber chicken, he got off easy — compared to us, that is. It took a few days for us to appreciate the humor, but finally we agreed with our guffawing wives: Pelayo's neck-brace indeed made him a ringer for John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
This plan sounded safer. The gun season was over and the last weekend of the bow-season loomed, Artie explained. The woods at his lease had been utterly free of hunters for almost 10 days. Free from pressure, all those deer trampling his food plots and gorging around his feeders at night would finally venture forth during daylight, sitting ducks for our broadheads.
To crown it all, a late rut was evident in this area. The bucks would be moving.
"We'll finally get a whack at 'em!" he blurted just as his leasemates "Yoko" (Priscilla) and "Neidermeir" (her husband, Wesley) walked by and nodded curtly on their way to Doc's wine-and-cheese table. Since he last invited Pelayo and me to his lease, Artie had been living in a balance of terror with his campmate officers. They run the lease the way Col. Klink ran Stalag 13, Nurse Ratched ran the Cuckoo's Nest and Fidel Castro runs Cuba. The rules take a little getting used to.
"Watch," snorted Artie to himself. "Next they'll impose penalties for jaywalking." The "six-point rule" goes without saying in such a Stalag of a lease, but arriving late one evening Pelayo and I failed to be informed of it. Either that or our "selective hearing" came into play when Wesley and Yoko, posing like Patton in front of his troops, gave us the camp's orientation/briefing upon our arrival. The ugly matter has never been solved satisfactorily.
At any rate, the results were some superb venison — steaks, burgers, nachos, chili, backstrap and cutlets marsala — for our friends during dinner parties and our families during the week. But these scrumptious and festive affairs were preceded by some extreme tension, rancor and ugly words with Artie's leasemates when they spotted some legs poking out from under the tarp in the back of Pelayo's truck shortly before our frantic tire-squealing, gravel-spewing getaway.
"Best of all," winked Artie as he lowered his head conspiratorially. "They (pointing at Yoko and Wes who glowered at us while sipping their wine) won't be there. Got some fancy Mardi Gras ball to attend, they claim. We'll have fun for a change. And come home with meat — without any ugliness or fines."
The logic and wisdom of Artie's plan seemed to speak for itself. Pelayo and I were nodding along with him when somebody cranked up the music, and those distinctive keyboard notes that signal the opening of a famous Tom Petty tune boomed from the speakers.
"Don't tell me....?" Pelayo said looking around.
"You guessed it," said Artie. "Eddie's here."
And in fine form. Our old chum from Tiger Plaza, Eddie Fleeks, now a disbarred lawyer, pranced through Doc's den, playing air-guitar and singing along with Tom Petty.
"You got lucky, BABE!" he bellowed. "You got lucky, BABE, when I found you!"
Eddie's brief romance with Priscilla at LSU before she met Wes was common knowledge to most of Doc's guests. Most of us had hung together at LSU. So when Eddie made it a point to stop in front of Yoko, point and snarl out the lyrics with particular vehemence, everyone turned politely and made as if to head for the porch.
"Too early for this kinda c**p," grimaced Artie as some of the wives walked by briskly, rolling their eyes and nodding.
I noticed Doc rummaging through his CD collection. In seconds, "Honky Tonk Woman" came on and quickly defused the scene.
No lounging around in box stands for our closing weekend deer hunt at Artie's East Feliciana parish lease. This was to be serious bowhunting, so we brought our climbing stands. We got there Friday evening for some scouting. The food plots looked like cattle pastures, completely churned with tracks. The trails entering them from the nearby woods and thickets looked like cattle ruts. The sight of so much fresh sign couldn't help but get me seriously pumped, though I suspected it was all nighttime sign. Artie hadn't so much as seen a deer from his stand in a month, he said.
Our plan was to follow the most heavily rutted trails back from the plots into the timber as far as possible. Then set up our climbers at a trail junction on the edge of the thickets that had sprouted in the woods due to some recent select-logging. These were bedding areas, we surmised. Conventional deer- hunting wisdom has it that morning hunts are generally best around bedding areas. Evening hunts, around feeding areas. So we forsook an evening hunt on Friday in order to properly scout.
We had the run of the lease, and the plan seemed foolproof. I set up my stand on a gum (my favorite for climbers. Pine bark is a little too soft and noisy; water oak's a little to hard for a good grip. Gum bark is perfect, and the trees usually grow straight) 20 yards and downwind from a major trail intersection.
It had rained two nights before, so I knew most of these tracks were fresh. And their proximity to thickets probably meant daytime sign. Even better, a ferocious cold front followed the rain, and temperatures in the 20s were forecast for the morning hunt. I even climbed up and pruned a few branches for good measure.
Everything seemed set for a successful hunt, and we forsook any partying at the camp. The prospects of a successful deer-hunt were intoxicating enough. We were seriously pumped as we turned in early that night.
Despite the 26-degree weather, I was sweating after humping it up and strapping myself tightly into my harness. Pelayo and Artie had similar set-ups about a quarter mile away. Daylight seeped slowly into the bottom, and the squirrels and birds came alive. It's only a matter of time, I kept saying to myself ... and saying ... and saying ... and saying. Strapped in and comfortable like I was, I finally started getting drowsy ... drowsy. ... Soon I was zonked and dreaming....
"This is Geraldo Rivera reporting from Denham Springs La. President Hillary Clinton, shown here during her daily sumo-wrestling lessons with instructor Rosie O'Donnel, took a break from those lessons this morning in order to declare a state of emergency near this South Louisiana hamlet, where PETA was staging a peaceful demonstration during a hunt at a popular wildlife refuge.
"PETA's activists located hunters in the woods and employed bullhorns to broadcast readings from the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
"As PETA spokesperson Paul McCartney explains: 'This works both to frighten the defenseless deer to safety and to enlighten the hunters in the ways of vegetarianism and non-violence.'
"With his right eye swollen shut and 21 stitches in his mouth, the ex-Beatle's appearance horrified his fans. 'These blokes certainly take their hunting seriously,' McCartney sputtered into a spittle-flecked microphone. 'Nothing like this happened in Michigan or New Jersey. Remember friends, all you need is love.'
"Nearby, rocker-activist Jackson Browne, sporting a neckbrace and holding an ice pack to a plum-colored nose, consoled a sobbing Woody Harrelson. 'We came in the spirit of Gandhi,' blubbered Woody, who nursed a grapefruit-sized ear and several facial contusions. 'And were met by that of George Patton!' Harrelson then collapsed in sobs.
"In a strange twist, songstress Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, who many feared was lost, or worse, was finally located. Hynde, long known for her chronic scowl and hard-edged lyrics, as well as her militant vegetarianism, turned up at a nearby camp smiling dreamily while strumming, "Do It To Me One More Time" by Cap'n & Tenille. Later she performed a version of Carly Simon's "Nobody Does it Better" and posed for cameras wolfing down a platter of a local favorite, Venison Sauce Piquante, while surrounded by several grinning hunters.
"'These Louisiana boys sure know how to, um, COOK!' was her only comment."
By 10:30, I was humping down the tree, totally skunked. The sighting tally for three hunters during three hunts that weekend was one coyote, two armadillos and a few hundred fat, appetizing robins. No deer — though we saw a doe in the headlights on Saturday night on the way to pick up a pepperoni pizza. We should have known better. This happens to us every year. It's easy to fool ourselves. The ugly truth is that 10 days of no hunting pressure on these deer simply cannot counteract four months of nearly constant pressure.
Cold weather, an active rut, sparse food in the woods — all of this is supposed to provoke major deer movement. And indeed it does. But by January — heck by mid-December in heavily pressured areas (which means practically all of Louisiana) — 98 percent of this movement is around midnight. Why keep fooling ourselves that it isn't?
The following Oct. 4, I found myself in my climbing stand again, but in abominable, low-deer-density piney woods, with hot weather (temperature in the low 60s at dawn) with no rut, with the woods packed with lush and abundant deer food — all of this is supposed to work AGAINST deer movement, right? RIGHT?
Right. But the fact is, in the type of places most of us hunt (not to be confused with the type of deer-hunting locales featured on the Outdoor Channel) hunting pressure is — by FAR! — the key factor in regulating daytime deer movement. It hurts to admit, but this truism should be abundantly evident to anyone who spends much time in the woods in pursuit of deer.
Let's acknowledge what's in front of our faces: Few deer late in the season, many deer early in the season.
When do geese decoy best? November? Or February? Come on! Gimme a break! Same principle at work with deer.
Let's face facts. Granted, late-season deer hunting means missing out on many woodland delights we savor only in October.
Chiggers, for instance. The joys of using kitchen implements to scrape the upper epidermis completely off your lower legs in a frenzy of scratching often eludes December hunters. Not that chiggers (also known as red-bugs) attack and infest only the LOWER legs. No sir. Being caught scratching frantically in more socially unacceptable anatomical regions at cocktail parties and important business functions is another treat we escape during gun season.
Ticks are another. And much like Elton John, Boy George and Barney Frank, if not removed early, ticks always manage to find their way to the bodily area encased by Speedo bathing suits.
And let's not forget the swarms of gnats and mosquitoes that bedevil you while on stand, the fire ants that emerge from the tree and sting your arms and neck, the spider webs that snare you like in those old horror movies, the huge yellow-and-black spiders you notice (AAAHHHHHHHH!) on your hat or shoulder only after you're perched 25 feet in a tree (I credit spiders with making a safety-belt wearer out of me), the thick, black cottonmouth greeting you (UUUGGGHH!) with fangs bared as you crouch to study a rubbed willow on the edge of a slough that produces that distinctive bowel-liquefying sensation (I credit moccasins with making a toilet paper bringer out of me), the stifling heat, the demoralizing sauna-like humidity.
To think that some hunters miss out on all this!
By the time I was in the stand last Oct. 4, sweat literally poured from my face. My camo T-shirt was soaked. So much for scent control. I quaffed the last of my Gatorade, and started the vigil as the gnats started on my arms, ears and eyes.
Squirrels started fussing and flicking their tails at this camo-clad intruder sitting in a metal contraption in their tree. An armadillo rummaged through a leaf pile. A 4-point ... A DEER!
Good golly, it's a deer! I knew these white oaks would draw them. All these tracks and droppings had to mean something. All those big, green white-oak acorns did the trick.
But he was still about 40 yards out. Please deer, just 10 more yards. There, grab another acorn. There, a bite of honeysuckle. Just keep walking this way, PLEASE!
I'll fall out of this stand if he doesn't hurry. He's at 30 yards now ... oh, oh, he stopped. Why is he looking around? Why is he twitching his tail!? There, keep walking, that's it.
Time to draw...NO! There goes the arrow! It slipped off the string plunged straight down and stuck in the ground at the base of my tree. I can't believe this! I guess the string came out of the nock when I drew on that squirrel earlier.
I blew it big time. And blew it again the following day and the following weekend and the following. But the point is, I saw multiple deer every time I got on stand, despite the heat. These deer had eight months respite from deer hunters. So they were moving during morning and evening hours during daylight. It's that simple.
Miss out on early season hunting, and you miss out on the chance for most deer sightings. It's elementary, my dear Watson.