What you bring into the deer woods with you has a tremendous bearing on how much you’ll enjoy your hunt.
It was as though the animal had popped out of the ground, as deer are seemingly apt to do in food plots.
I had been staring at the empty field for minutes that felt like hours. Nothing.
I eased my eyes to the right to scan the awakening woods, and then turned my head back forward to continue the watch of the small green field.
There, out of the blue or thin air or the ground — whatever the case was — a deer had appeared.
From my vantage point, tucked away 20 yards off the edge of the plot, I could see only the back half of the deer. The view of the front half was obscured by a young, leafy oak on the perimeter of the plot.
But even with my limited view, I could tell within moments that the deer was a buck. They just seem to carry themselves differently than does.
My heart was already racing from merely viewing the deer, and then with the realization that it was a buck, most of my internal organs jumped into my throat.
Buck fever had invaded my senses like a flu virus, and my case was acute.
I pulled back the hammer on my single-shot H&R .270, and fought to control the adrenaline that was racing through my body, seeking possession of my entire being.
The deer moved slightly to my right, and now my view of it was totally obscured by the oak, and other smaller trees growing beside it. Even with a scope, picking up the slightest hints of the deer was impossible through the tangle of brush.
All I could do was wait and wonder if my big buck had moseyed off out of the plot and back into the woods. I still had not seen its rack, and had no idea if it was merely a big spike or a grandson of the McMurray buck.
For the next five minutes — which seemed like three weeks — I glared at the oak, straining my eyes to see any movement through the brush. My initial thrill was fading, and disappointment was taking root and beginning to sprout. I thought for a moment about getting out of my ladder stand and trying to stalk the buck across the wet ground.
Fortunately, before I got too far along in that thought-process, I saw a hint of movement through the oak leaves, and the deer emerged into my field of view. It was quartering away from me, and I had to glass it through oak twigs, but I saw enough to know that if I were able to reduce it to possession, it would be the biggest buck of my life. The shakes came back like I was a wino in his second week in a locked cell.
I forced myself to ignore the rack while I scoped the deer and moved my pointer inside the trigger guard. But with the position of the deer and the presence of the twigs, I just didn’t feel good about the shot.
The rutting buck ate the new rye shoots — or at least pretended like he was, perhaps hoping to look nonchalant for any admiring does — while I debated taking a shot that could produce my first trophy.
Before I decided to pull the trigger, the deer again moved behind the oak. For another five-minute period, I was sure my opportunity had vanished. Bucks just don’t stay in food plots for very long, especially during the morning hours.
I had already begun thinking of the details of the sighting. It would be a great — if somewhat heart-breaking — story back at the camp.
Then the deer made a mistake for which it would never be able to repent. It moved close to the same area it had been before, this time presenting me with a total side view. In micro-seconds, I scoped the twigs, found the deer behind them, and adjusted my rifle to shoot under the small branches.
Before I even knew it, the rifle roared. The buck jumped straight up in the air, and fell over on its side, stiff-legged.
I climbed down the ladder on legs of Jell-O. On the ground, I loaded another round into the chamber, just in case, and trotted to my buck.
It was a 9-point that you’ll never see on the Boone & Crockett listings and it wouldn’t even make the outdoor section of a small-town newspaper, but because of the quality of the hunt, it was a trophy to me.
I admired my buck for several minutes — trying to guess its weight, sticking my arm between its antlers to measure inside spread — and then I looked at my watch. It was a hair past 7 a.m. I had been on the stand for no more than 30 minutes when the buck showed up, and now I had a whole lot of time to kill before International Paper biologist Tommy Smith, my host for the hunt, showed up. We had agreed that morning we’d hunt until 9:30.
So I moseyed back to my ladder stand, climbed it and retrieved my hunting back-pack, intent on reading “The Fellowship of the Ring,” a classic that I’d never read but had dived into the day before.
I looked all through my bag, and the book was nowhere to be found. Then it dawned on me — I had fallen asleep reading it the night before, and obviously left it next to the bed.
For the next several hours, I waited for Smith with nothing to do but watch the sun evaporate the dew from the grass on the side of the road. I made a vow repeatedly to myself that I’ll never again forget a book when I go deer hunting.
A good book is a pack essential for me on a deer hunt. I enjoy reading, but with a job, a wife and three kids, I seldom have quiet moments alone to get engrossed in a juicy plot.
That’s not true during deer season, when I’ll spend three or four hours on a stand with absolutely nothing to do but be quiet. What better to do than read?
Hard-core hunters say that those who read on a stand risk missing stealthy deer that slip by unannounced when the hunter’s eyes are on his book and his mind is away in Mordor or some other distant place.
But, I say, if it makes the deer hunting experience more enjoyable, there’s nothing wrong with it.
Call me hyperactive, impatient or a poor hunter, but to me, there’s nothing more boring and time-robbing than four hours on a deer stand when nothing’s happening. So I read on the stand, and sometimes I even manage to kill a deer.
But a book isn’t all you’ll find in my deer pack. I also carry a Streamlight flashlight that I’ve grown to love. The green light it emits isn’t great for following the blood trail of a wounded deer because reds show up as blacks — and there are a whole lot of blacks on the forest floor — but the light is wonderful for everything else involved in deer hunting.
The bulb, which is actually an LED rather than incandescent, takes 100,000 hours to burn out, and it will run for 60 hours on its AAA batteries.
The pen-sized stylus is waterproof, and it provides plenty enough illumination to light the way to my stand in the dark and, more importantly, to be seen by other hunters.
I also carry a safety strap that I use on every type of stand I hunt out of except a box stand. Mine is the type with a belt that locks around your waist and a separate strap that wraps around the tree and has a hook on one end that is fished through the other end and then hooked to the belt.
Fortunately, I’ve never had the misfortune of seeing if my safety strap will hold me, but it provides a sense of security that I didn’t have in my early years of hunting when I seldom carried one. I know I can stand up on the platform or climber to stretch my legs without also feeling like I want to give the tree a honeymoon-style hug.
At the beginning of my hunt, you’ll also find in my bag some type of breakfast, usually a calorie-bomb like a honey bun or a fried fruit pie, and a bottle of water.
Depending on how much coffee I drank that morning, I might also carry another bottle to serve as a portable, sealable urinal. Some hunters will climb down from the tree and go to another area to relieve themselves, but I’ve duck-hunted enough to know that as soon as you unzip, that’s the time your game of choice is going to make its move.
Lastly, but certainly not least important, I carry 140-grain Winchester .270 loads for my single-shot H&R. The loads are inexpensive, and gun nuts like our own columnist Gordon Hutchinson mock my choice of the rifle as well as the cartridges, but I’ve shot seven deer with the combination, and six have fallen in their tracks. The other ran 20 yards.
Until that ratio falls precipitously, I’m sticking with both.
Following is a look at what some other deer hunters carry in their packs. Some of what they tote is essential; other items are luxuries. But perhaps you’ll run across something you’ve never thought to bring along with you in the deer woods.
When it comes to most outdoor pursuits, radio personality Don Dubuc is a minimalist.
“I’m not a big gadget freak or a gear nut, but with deer hunting, you just don’t get as many opportunities, so you need to make them count. You have to make sure you’ve got everything you could possibly need.
“If a flight of ducks comes in and you’re not ready or you miss them, that’s really no big deal, but if a big buck comes out and you don’t have what you need to take him, that is a big deal.”
In keeping with that line of thinking, Dubuc packs just about everything but a spare 4-wheeler in his waterproof camo Allen back pack.
Like most hunters, he carries at least two flashlights — one a large Maglight that he uses for deer tracking and the other a small Coleman sealed-beam waterproof light that he uses for finding his stand in the dark or his way out of the woods after a hunt.
He also packs an assortment of clothes, including camo gloves (ranging from thin net-type ones for bowhunting in warm weather to thick winter gloves for frigid days), a face mask (for concealment when bowhunting), a Frogg Togg camouflaged rainsuit and a full Bug Tamer suit.
The Bug Tamer suit works well, but it can be somewhat confining, so depending on the type of hunting he’s doing, Dubuc will also carry cedar-scented Smart Shield mosquito repellent.
“(The scent) may scare off some deer — I don’t know — but my feeling is that if the mosquitoes are so bad you can’t bear to stay on the stand, you’re not going to kill a deer anyway,” he said.
That’s frequently an issue in the Madisonville swamps on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, where Dubuc does a lot of his deer hunting.
On that lease, Dubuc and his fellow hunters have a few box stands erected, but he does the bulk of his hunting out of ladder stands and climbers. Consequently, Dubuc always carries a pull rope in his pack to pull his gun, and the pack itself, into the stand.
In fact, the pull rope played a major role in Dubuc taking the best deer of his life on a Vicksburg, Miss., lease in 1998.
The veteran hunter selected a food plot to hunt one afternoon, and used a climber to gain some elevation over the green field. There was a bunch of brush about 10 feet off the ground, but Dubuc climbed high enough to be able to shoot over it if given the chance.
He pulled all his gear up, and the next few hours were fairly uneventful.
“I saw a few deer come into the plot, but nothing that I was interested in shooting, and I didn’t have the feeling that anything was going to come out,” he said.
So as the evening light began to fade, Dubuc tied his pack and his bow to the end of his pull rope and lowered it to the forest floor. He then began winching his stand down the tree.
“I got it to about 10 feet off the ground, and six deer just appeared out of the woods,” he said.
Unfortunately, the deer were moving toward him, so with 12 eyes looking in his general direction, Dubuc had to pull the bow and pack back up, nock an arrow and stand to shoot.
“But where I was on the tree now, all that brush was right in front of me. I had one little hole to shoot through,” he said.
Dubuc’s luck, however, made a turn for the better. Four of the deer were small, but two were noticeably bigger than the rest. One of those two moved into the hole that Dubuc could see through, presenting the hunter with a quartering-away shot. He drew back his bow and let the arrow fly.
“I heard it hit,” he said.
The shot took out both the deer’s lungs, and Dubuc and two buddies found it 150 yards away from the plot. The 165-pound 9-point stands today as his biggest deer ever.
Although he didn’t need them on that trip, Dubuc also carries a pair of Cabela’s 10-power compact binoculars. He uses them mostly to identify deer he sees.
“When you’re selectively hunting, you need them to count points or to identify spikes or does,” he said.
When hunting long food plots or pipelines, Dubuc will also use the binoculars to scan well-worn trails.
“A lot of times, those deer will stand right on the edge of the woods waiting to come out. If you can find them with the binoculars, you can get yourself set up for when the deer does come out — or shoot it before it even comes out if you’ve got a good shot,” he said.
After he takes a shot, Dubuc likes to have Bright Eyes and orange flagging along to help him keep track of where he last saw the deer and any blood spots he finds. He, obviously, uses the flagging for daytime tracking and the Bright Eyes after dark.
In case he runs into trouble, Dubuc always packs Coleman waterproof matches.
“That’s just one of those things I like to have along for safety purposes,” he said. “Something you’ll probably never use, but invaluable if you need it.”
To relieve boredom, Dubuc will bring along some type of reading material.
“I’ll read my copy of Louisiana Sportsman on the stand,” he said.
He also will take a portable Walkman-type radio/CD player with headphones.
“In the fast-paced life we live now, it’s hard to sit for six hours with nothing to do,” he said. “I get antsy. I’ll bring the radio and listen to the news or, if I’m lucky, a football game.”
Another electronic gadget Dubuc brings along is a remote deer call. It has a speaker that he places in a select spot on the ground and a long wire connected to a VCR remote-sized touch pad. The device will play rattles, grunts and footsteps, among other deer sounds.
“I killed a deer last year that I know came in because I was playing that,” he said.
He said the real value of the device is that it’s on the ground and it requires very little motion on part of the hunter.
“I’ve grunted so many times before (with a mouth grunt) and had the deer look up in the tree at me,” he said.
And believe it or not, even with all of this, Dubuc still finds room in his pack for a snack and a drink.
Louisiana Sportsman gun columnist Gordon Hutchinson has been hunting in Louisiana since the days when deer were seen here about as often as Sasquatch.
In that time, he’s grown to have a real appreciation for having a little bit more than just the bare essentials on a stand.
“There are certain things that I have to have, and other things that I just really want to have,” he said.
Fitting into the former category is a pair of Bushnell custom-compact 8-power binoculars.
“I have to have them. I’ll go back to the truck to get them if I forgot them. I can’t hunt without them,” he said.
Rather than scanning the woods for deer, Hutchinson uses them only after he sees a deer or movement that might be a deer.
He also packs a Bushnell Yardage Pro 800 laser range-finder, which actually is 6-power and can also be used as binoculars.
“I use it constantly, but most of the time I’m just playing. I like to look at things and see if I can guess their range, and then see how close I got,” he said. “It really makes you a much better judge of distance.”
Hutchinson also packs a folding Gerber knife that he uses to clean any deer he kills, and a Leatherman multi-purpose tool that is always needed for something.
“That’s a good safety device to have in case of an emergency,” he said.
So is a compass, which Hutchinson has never had to use but always carries just in case.
For safety purposes, he also packs a Bic lighter.
“I don’t need it to smoke — I quit three years ago — but you never know if you’re going to fall out of the tree and break your leg, and you need to start a fire,” he said.
Hutchinson also packs snack cakes and 1 pint of water.
“I don’t bring in a lot to eat or drink because I really don’t sit on the stand as long as I used to,” he said.
But to entertain himself during the time he’s there, Hutchinson always brings a book.
“I’ll tear up the camp looking for something to read before I go out on the stand,” he said. “I look at hunting as a vacation. I get to sit on a stand in the middle of nature; it’s peaceful, quiet, and I get to read. That’s my definition of a vacation.”
As PR director for Realtree, Dodd Clifton spends his fall and winter days hunting with sponsors, hunting with advertisers, hunting with media, hunting with industry reps.
Hey, it’s brutal work, but somebody has to do it.
Over the years of paying his dues, Clifton has perfected a checklist for what he needs to have with him when he’s out in the deer woods.
“When I’m walking out the door, I have this list that I run down, and I’ve got it memorized — bullets, knife, gun, license, orange, flashlight, compass,” he said. “There are other things that I like to have along, but those are the essentials. If I have all those, I can hunt.”
Clifton’s loads are 140-grain, trophy-bonded Federal .270s, his knife is a folding drop-point type and he actually brings two flashlights.
“I use a headlamp,” he said. “I love those things. I use them for everything. It always points wherever you’re looking, and it keeps your hands free.”
In addition to that, Clifton packs the pen-sized Streamlight because it’s bright and easy to carry.
Though most hunters consider a compass to be a safety item, Clifton uses his on every hunt.
“After I shoot, I’ll pull out my compass to see the exact direction of where I shot. That makes it much easier to get there and find (blood),” he said.
He also tries to determine with the compass the direction the deer ran.
“If I know the direction the deer was when I shot it, and the direction it went, I should be able to find something,” he said.
He also likes to determine a compass reading to the nearest road in case he gets lost while hunting. This is crucial because Clifton hunts so many different areas across the country, and he’s not always familiar with the lay of the land.
But in addition to Clifton’s “essential” list, he also includes a few luxury items in his back pack. They aren’t true essentials, but some are very close.
“I always bring a pair of binoculars,” he said. “I hate hunting without them.”
Clifton estimates that he spends 20 percent of each hunt looking through his 10×42 binoculars, and unlike many hunters, who use binoculars only after they’ve seen movement, Clifton actually uses the binoculars to find movement.
“I’ve seen things through the binoculars that I would never have seen without them,” he said.
If he’s hunting a long right-of-way or pipeline, Clifton will use a rangefinder to map out distances in his field of view.
“If you know what distance, say, a certain tree is from your stand, you can get a pretty accurate guess of how far a deer is that comes out anywhere near that tree,” he said. “If I have time, I’ll range the actual animal, but usually, I’ve got to make a decision pretty quick, so I like to have all that mapped out in my head.”
Something else that’s less essential but Clifton loves to have along if he’s hunting a treestand is a Realtree EZ-Hanger. This device screws into the tree, and has hooks that’ll hold just about anything and keep it within arm’s reach.
Other luxury items that Clifton likes to have along are calls and scents (which, he says, are sometimes essential), a head net, extra gloves, a seat cushion, a cell phone, Motorola hand-held radios, a first-aid kit and water and snacks.
He doesn’t take a book along with him because he doesn’t want to be distracted from the task at hand.
Oh well, to each his own.