Hunting unpressured deer in Nirvana
A pod of whales.
A copse of brush.
A gaggle of geese.
A brake of cane.
A slash of palmetto.
That last one is an old Southern term — and appropriate. It depicts wet, low hardwood bottoms covered profusely with bayonet plants blending long stalks, sword-like leaves and stabbing pain for anyone attempting to enter.
And the noise if you enter the slash!
It is like flexing large sheets of tin, or the roll of distant thunder. The sound disturbs the tranquility with jaw-clinching strain.
But not the deer.
Here is an anomaly worthy of our brightest: How is it a man cannot move 2 feet into a palmetto slash without announcing his movement to every creature within a hundred yards?
Yet deer can wander unhindered, slipping silently as they enter the rights-of-way that cross this fascinating country.
Today, it is cold, misting, and gray — a drizzly day, three mornings after Christmas.
It has rained all night, and the skies threaten even more. Yet I am in Nirvana.
Or perhaps the name should be Mecca — or Eureka! — for I have found it.
The search by the purist deer hunter is over. This low, water-logged several square miles of hardwood bottoms, so reminiscent of the swampy lowlands of south Louisiana, is filled with deer — deer that can live their existence without ever falling within the gaze of man, so thick is the slash in which they live.
I am reminded of the brush country of South Texas in which the mesquite is so thick, hunters set up stands looking down senderos — bulldozed rights-of-way deer have to cross in their daily movements.
Except for the senderos, these deer might never be seen by man.
The hunting on this land is similar. It consists of setting up on pipelines and roads along the low ridges between the swampy, water-filled bottoms — these are called “brakes” — from which countless ducks call out, safe in their dank haven.
This is Mecca for the deer, too. For these woods, so lush with vegetation and towering hardwoods, are surrounded on all sides, in all directions, by miles of open fields. From an approaching airplane, the woods leap out of the barren landscape of cotton and soybean cultivation as a great, green oasis — a massive food plot situated in the middle of a brown desert of soil.
I am stupidly, haphazardly, seated on a camp stool in the middle of an intersection of two roads. To my right, the right-of-way drops off sharply, perhaps 20 feet lower at the bottom. A drainage seeps across it at the lowest spot through a copse of wax myrtle and willow, and then into a nearby canal.
To my front, rear and left are straightaways extending far past my shooting abilities.
The implacable march of the palmetto is stopped at the edges with knife-like precision, given up to the attack of tractor and bush hog. To leave the road is to be instantly stabbed, and to wince — both from pain and the abrasive, aggravating noise of the palmetto blades.
Yet, like ghosts, deer appear.
To my left comes a doe. She steps into the cleared ground and sees me sitting a hundred yards away. She snorts slightly, turns and disappears.
Behind me, I hear another snort. I look over my shoulder at a doe standing in the road, 50 yards to my rear. She jumps into the brush.
To my front, a doe steps into the road, stands and stares at me. Two steps, and she has entered the green morass of the other side.
And then, he comes out.
Following her, he has stepped into the road.
I catch a glimpse of his large and curved antlers. He identifies the lump in the middle of the road as unnatural, and leaps into the palmetto — as suddenly safe as if he had leapt behind a steel wall.
“Come up and hunt,” he had said when the phone rang. “We aren’t killing any bucks for two years. But the herd is way out of balance, and does need to be taken. You’re welcome to help us level them out some.”
He is successful in business. Hard work and brilliant ideas in the computer industry have afforded him the opportunity to acquire this land, a lifelong dream for this contradiction — a computer expert who loves the outdoors.
He spends every available moment in the woods, planning his future, intertwined with these bottomlands. Ducks are everywhere in the bottoms. Deer wade the brakes, slip through the palmetto, tread across the open places in such profusion that to throw one’s hat on the ground is to have it land near a footprint.
Yet, in years past, these deer have been hunted very hard — by a club that had leased this land for generations. No longer — the pressure has been removed.
And I am observing a phenomenon I have experienced only rarely before — deer becoming acclimated to the sight of man so there is no mad crashing of brush in a frantic attempt at escape. Placing their noses in the edges of roads does not produce a rifle shot as an immutable law of nature.
“Unpressured deer,” he calls it. He has seen it in other places where one can walk into the woods, take a stand, and pick and choose a large, antlered buck. The herd has been managed. The does have been hunted back to the perfect, natural balance of one-to-one.
They do not have pressure, the range is good, the genetics are in the herd and the bucks have been allowed to age.
And to find a doe, those bucks can’t stand up in the morning, stretch, raise their heads and look around. To find a mate, they will actually have to move — to search for a willing partner.
And this is why I have seated myself as I have.
Amazed at the sign and deer I am seeing, I set myself in the conspicuous open, disdainful of the need to hide, and let the sights, sounds, smells and aura of a morning in the woods with deer wash over me — inundating me with a feeling almost of rapture as deer cross in and out of rifle range.
I did not fire a shot. There will be plenty of opportunities to do that. To release the cracking sound of a rifle would destroy the serene magic of the morning.
This morning, the woods belong to the deer. They have graced me with their presence, allowing me glimpses and looks that identify them, as they do me, before moving on in their pursuit of whatever it is that moves deer.
Some look and walk slowly off the roads. Others, perhaps remembering past seasons where loud noises accompanied the strange, two-legged creatures, leap snorting into the slash.
But I can see the phenomenon beginning to occur — some of them look, identify, stare a moment, then move on, unhurriedly.
I did not fire a shot.
It is a morning I will never forget.