Columnist Ben Smith tells a tale of his first hunt of the season and the unlikely companion that kept watch over him.
Hot. This simple word describes my first hunt of the season. Sure, I could have chosen some different words to sum it up. Successful, peaceful, unlikely, and bountiful all would have sufficed. Yet, hot is the one word that sticks out the most when looking back on my hunting opener.
A little over a week ago, I packed my truck down with enough gear that would make the neighbors question whether, or not, my wife had finally kicked me out of the house. Thankfully, they know what time of the year it is, so we haven’t had to have any weird conversations. With fall baseball, for the most part, behind me it was beyond time that I scaled a tree. Although I’d only planned to stay one night, I packed enough food to feed General Patton’s 3rd Army in the middle of a German winter. I wanted to make sure I returned home healthy, and with a fully belly. A full value sized bag of beef jerky, a pack of cracked black pepper turkey, a bag of Sun Chips, one loaf of bread, 3 cans of Vienna sausages, a box of Saltines, one can of peaches, and an entire bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups were just enough to satisfy a growing boy.
As I turned off of Highway 84 toward Copiah County, I noticed the leaves on the trees were beginning to take on their fall colors. Of course, they weren’t changing due to the fall season, rather their lack of water for the last four months. Many of them had already given up the majority of their foliage, more closely resembling a late winter appearance. More than one location along the way showed signs of a prior fire. I assumed the fires to be the result of dry conditions and a simple ignition from a cigarette carelessly tossed from a passerby’s window.
I pulled in our drive to unlock the gate to the land, and to a weekend of peace and relaxation. Even though dust clouds surrounded my boots with each step, I’d been needing this trip for a while and unfavorable conditions weren’t going to dampen my spirits. In true self-fashion, I was running late. I rushed to get my tent set up in order to catch an evening hunt. If you’re just joining in, yes you read that correctly. Over the last few years, I’ve gone a little more primitive and sleep from the friendly confines of a tent during my hunting trips. I don’t always smell great after a couple of days and some nights are absolutely miserable, but I enjoy the challenge.
After setting everything up, I finally get in the woods. It takes me a little while to find a suitable tree to climb and I finally get settled in around 5:15. After lugging my ancient Ol’ Man climber around, that feels like it was built out of cast-iron, and climbing about twenty feet up an oak, I can feel the sweat running down my back.
I hadn’t been in the tree more than twenty minutes when my eyes caught movement. A doe and two fawns were making their way toward me, only about a hundred yards away. Since I’m not the cold blooded killer that I used to be, I watched them ease past me and disappear into a thicket. Not ten minutes later, I caught movement again in the same direction. This time, a mature doe was heading my way and appeared to be alone. As she approached I could hear my heart thumping and wondered if it would give my position away. She walked past me before pausing to my left, giving me the perfect opportunity.
Almost as quick as I let the arrow go, I heard the familiar sound of a clean hit. The doe kicked and turned back the way she came, sprinting like a looter in San Francisco, when all of a sudden she stopped. She had that confused look all over her face before going into the stumbling phase. Within a minute, or two, she was done. Just like that, playtime was over, and work was to commence.
I dragged the big doe out and hauled her back to my camp to do what I came to do, procure meat. While skinning the deer out, I had this strange feeling that something was watching me. Earlier, I’d heard a group of coyotes in the distance, but surely didn’t think they’d already covered that much ground to get to my location. The snap of a twig confirmed my premonition that something was watching me. I did what any man would do, I went to look for what it was. I shined my light into the thicket and two eyes were staring back at me. Do I shoot it? I don’t even know what it is. I opted to investigate more and to my surprise, it wasn’t a coyote, but a gray fox.
I immediately felt like Kevin Costner must have felt in the movie “Dances with Wolves” where he plays Lt. John J. Dunbar and encounters the wolf for the first time. I was a little nervous, but thought it was kind of neat to have company. I decided that he could watch, barring that he kept his distance while I finished cleaning my deer.
I slept in late the next morning after listening to two different packs of coyotes cut up throughout the night. As I exited my tent, I couldn’t believe who was sitting forty yards away standing guard. My buddy from the night before seemed to be waiting for me to wake up so he could show me how beautiful he was. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing, or not, but we locked eyes and he showed no fear of me at all. I watched him stalk birds in a brush pile for a while before he disappeared back into the thicket.
Lt. John J. Dunbar named his wolf “Two Socks” in the movie after the visits got to be more frequent. I’m planning to return to the camp in the next few days with the weather looking more favorable. Maybe my newfound companion will still be hanging around. If so, I’ll have to come up with a suitable name.
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