Endurance is often the critical part of a successful deer hunt.
Growing darkness marked the end of another long day. Glancing at my watch, I calculated the time. For the third consecutive day I’d endured 11 hours of bone-penetrating cold in northern Saskatchewan.
Mornings began with temperatures well below zero, and on only one day did they soar into double digits — 11 degrees — by noon. An icy rime formed on my mustache and nose hairs, and I shivered against the biting wind, protected only by the thin cloth walls of my ground blind and as many layers of insulated clothing as I could wear.
As I mentally prepared to depart, I pondered the purpose of my self-imposed punishment. Why would anyone in their right mind subject themselves to such extreme discomfort?
The answer arrived moments later in the form of a dark shape ghosting through the dense evergreens. A sudden surge of adrenalin quickened my pulse, warming me just enough to realize how cold I really was. I fought to regain composure, shivering from both cold and excitement, a task made even more difficult by a glimpse of heavy antler.
Were it not for shooting sticks, I never would have managed the nearly bow-range shot, even with my Mossberg Patriot rifle. At the report of the gun, the buck went 3 feet — straight down.
Success comes in many different ways. Occasionally we get lucky, but the hunters who are the most consistently successful at taking the biggest bucks are usually those willing to go the extra mile, to sit the extra hour and endure what they must. That endurance can take different forms depending on where, when and how you hunt.
SIT A SPELL
Most stand hunters are accustomed to sitting for a couple of hours without much concern. Stretching that out to three or four can be a chore, but sitting the vigil from dawn to dusk requires a certain type of endurance. The first hour goes by quickly as deer are usually on the move and anticipation is high. Things slow down during the second hour, but there’s always a chance of catching a straggler heading off to bed late.
The third hour is when things start to turn. Limbs stiffen, the action has clearly slowed and you begin to wonder if you should get up and take a stroll. But other hunters are wondering the same thing, and their movement could stir deer from their beds, possibly sending them your way.
By late morning a good many hunters have headed back to camp for a late breakfast – a sorely tempting thought. But there might be a few deer slipping through the timber. Invariably, just when I think it’s time for a little midmorning scout, I bump into another hunter doing the same thing and wish I’d stayed on stand.
If you need a little more incentive, ask any outfitter when their biggest bucks are killed. I’d wager a fair number say between 10:00 and noon, particularly during the rut.
The toughest part of an all-day sit has to be early afternoon. The woods are still. Even the squirrels and jays aren’t stirring, and your eyelids grow heavy. This brief intermission might seem a prudent time to take a break, seek some refreshments or a short nap. Stay in your seat because the second act is about to begin. You’ve invested the time, and it could soon pay off.
By midafternoon you’ve been staring at the same stumps for seven hours, but lengthening shadows bring renewed hope. Peak natural deer movement is still a couple hours away, but hunters heading to their stands could send an early surprise your way. Meanwhile, the woods around your stand have been undisturbed for hours. Already being there could pay off if any deer have bedded nearby over the course of the day.
As twilight arrives you summon whatever mental and physical energy you have left. Senses become heightened as first squirrels, and then deer begin to stir. The payoff for long hours on stand could come any second. If it doesn’t, you’ll return tomorrow to endure another day.
Sitting for any length of time, particularly all day, is much harder when, in addition to long hours, you have to endure bitter cold. “The colder, the better” is what they say in Saskatchewan, and I’ve endured my share of bone-chilling sits in Iowa, Maine and even Alabama. Cold weather gets deer on their feet. They need to feed in order to obtain calories to warm their bodies. But long hours on stand in such conditions definitely requires endurance.
The first 30 minutes aren’t bad since you’re still enjoying the warmth you generated walking to your stand. As time wears on, cold begins to seep in. Shortly after sunup is often the coldest part of the day. Sunlight warms the earth. That warm air rises, and cold air from the atmosphere spills down to ground level. Inactivity becomes a big factor.
The more comfortable you make yourself, the less unpleasant the experience will be and the longer you can endure. Start by dressing in layers, and consider a moisture-wicking base layer a must. Moisture is your enemy, and just breaking a light sweat on your way to the stand could make for a miserable sit. Once you arrive, add an insulating layer and, if necessary, a wind and/or waterproof outer layer.
That alone is not enough. You don’t generate much heat sitting immobile for hours. Gradually, the cold starts seeping into any chink in your insulating armor. Fortunately, you can employ artificial heat sources like handwarmers. You should also bring along food and water to keep your energy up and prevent dehydration.
Enduring the elements is tough enough, but you must also remain ever vigilant. Shot opportunities, especially on mature bucks are few, far between and often fleeting. You might have only seconds to spot, size up and take aim at the trophy you’ve endured so much to obtain.
ON THE TRACK
In the Northwoods, there is no greater blessing to a deer hunter than fresh snow. Nature and hunter alike seem revitalized. The dark bodies of deer stand out starkly and, most important, every track is a fresh track.
Whether it takes a few hours or all day, following a fresh track in snow or still-hunting through a quiet forest requires an entirely different type of physical and mental endurance, which you can, and definitely should, prepare for.
Conditioning your body and mind for a potentially long day on the track is a necessity, not a luxury. You might walk only a few miles, or you might hike all day over arduous terrain. You’ve got to build your muscles and your endurance. The mental part comes only with experience, but the more time you spend doing it, the more keen your senses become.
Still-hunting is as tough on the eyes as it is on the feet. Rather than simply plodding along, you need to be constantly looking ahead and to the sides. Big woods trackers say they’ll stop and plan their next three or four steps, then look ahead before taking them. Remember, a deer’s eyes are extremely keen at picking up movement, and you have to spot them before they spot you.
Every step must be fluid and methodical. Set your toe or the side of your foot down slowly, feeling the ground as you gradually roll your foot flat and shift your weight, all the while scanning for parts of a deer, like a patch of brown. Look for sunlight glinting off an antler or the telltale horizontal line of a back or belly. Also look for movement, like the flick of an ear.
It might seem easy at first, but as minutes turn to hours, your leg muscles burn, your eyes tire and your concentration begins to lapse.
The physical part is tough enough, but you also need a tough mental attitude to endure long hours on the track. Maintaining concentration and focus becomes more difficult as each hour passes without sighting game. Let your guard down even for an instant and you might be startled by a snort, followed by the sound of crashing brush and a white-tail salute.
Also forgo the luxury of a sling. If you have one, put it away. Your gun needs to be at port arms and ready to fire in a split second. That calls for endurance of the arms and shoulders, carrying the weight of 8 pounds or more for eight or more hours.
In some respects, the greatest hardship hunters must occasionally endure is failure. We try our hardest, put in the time and effort necessary to create an opportunity and then fail to capitalize. Perhaps you nodded off on stand just as another hunter pushed that big buck past you, or you let your concentration slip momentarily while on the track. Whatever the case, take heart, for each failure comes with a lesson, and often we learn more from our failures than our successes.
BEGINNING TO END
Whether you sit all day or just the peak hours, suffer the cold or pick mild weather, hike the ridge tops or sit in the bottoms, those of us not lucky enough to tag out early or those who hold multiple tags must also endure the length of an entire deer season.
You begin each fall full of hope and enthusiasm, but as each day wears on without success you must endure the sight of heavily laden game poles, tales of success at deer camp and grip-and-grin photos of big bucks from friends and relatives.
They inspire you briefly but soon fade to discouragement, making it harder to rise each day knowing there are fewer deer in the woods and fewer hunters to make them move. Yet something in your subconscious drives you to keep going, to hold out, to endure until the last seconds of the last day tick away.
Whether or not you ultimately punch your tag, you can take comfort in knowing you have endured another season.
So I ask again, “Why would anyone subject themselves to such extreme discomfort?”
We all know the answer, although it can be difficult to articulate. Just as marathon runners withstand the repetitive pain of feet pounding on pavement and mountain climbers brave the perils of lofty peaks, we are compelled to persist, to withstand and to endure.
The true worth of a trophy is not measured in inches of antler or pounds of meat. It is calculated by the level of effort and endurance we put forth to attain it.
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This article was published in the September 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.