O-Dark-Thirty


“We have to be in the woods by O-Dark-Thirty,” my hunting partner Jeff always says. This means at least a half hour before first light.

Today is the closing day of the rifle portion of deer season. There’s not the same hoopla that accompanies opening day. It just kinda ends.

I hunt because I love the woods and because I love venison. It’s very healthy, less fat than chicken, so much so you have to be careful not to turn it into shoe leather cooking it.

Other than the standard hunter safety rules, Jeff has a few hunting rules of his own, simple, practical and to the point.

1. Hunt where there are deer.
2. You can never be too warm.
3. Wear orange.

I like O-Dark-Thirty, that darkest just before dawn period. I like settling into the silence of the woods, the nocturnal crowd, skunks and coyotes, owls and opossums, making their way home before the light.

Daylight comes in stages, first deceptively slow, then a quick burst and another, a receding pause and another burst. Around eight o’clock squirrels venture out. A single squirrel can sound like a half dozen deer moving through the woods until you learn to recognize their particular rustle.

Deer hunting requires patience, stillness, waiting for hours on end. It’s cold sitting still. You wear lots of layers, feel like the Michelin Man, but three or four hours later you’re glad of it. One morning several years ago I hobbled back to the truck and with the heater blasting couldn’t feel my toes till we got to Kozel’s for lunch. I bought a new pair of boots that year; rule number two. I also used to wear my old John B. Stetson in the woods and took a lot of grief from the other fellas. Few years back I got a warm orange stocking cap; rules two and three.

Sound and light of the forest has fascinated me since I was a boy. The unseen hand of the wind giving voice to trees, the ever changing play of shadows and light on limbs and gnarled stumps is magical. The high whistle of a red tail hawk, the crows alarm, squirrel chatter, turkey clucks or a lone lost goose barking for companions creates a feral communications opera.

The other day I heard what I thought was a squirrel charging up behind me, “No, sounds more like a dozen squirrels, what is that?” Just as I was about to turn, an enormous feathered stealth bomber “V” glided overhead. Usually flocks of geese chatter and honk in flight, but this particular flock, better than a hundred strong was silent, except for the sound of their wings. If you take a nut or bolt or other weighted object and tie it to the end of a length of fish line and spin it around with a regular rhythm you’ll get an idea of the sound I’m talking about. Now multiply that sound by one hundred, then by two and you’ll approximate the sound I heard that morning.

Sometimes in the woods, you have a tendency to nod off. Your eyes close for but a moment and when they reopen, light cinematically fades in from black. “Where am I?” you think, feeling you’ve been gone for hours.

Jeff once nodded off. He was standing between two trees, leaning against one, his rifle against the other. When he opened his eyes four deer were walking past, one was standing next to him. “I reached out and slapped this big doe on the rump.” He laughs, “Why not? I figured I’d never get a chance like that again.”

Sitting for long periods leaves your tailbone sore, your back aching your fingers and toes frozen. Just at the moment you’re getting itchy to move, you see it. There, through the trees a shadowed loping motion, the object of your wait. Your heart quickens, adrenalin shoots through your muscle tissue, choosing the right moment you raise the rifle, steady, waiting.

Every year prior to season, I sight in my rifle. The first time I fire the rifle at the range I am always amazed how loud it is. I never consciously hear the sound in the woods.

I used to know Fred Von Sholly, not well, but I liked him. Fred’s gone now. He was a great sportsman and an even better man.

Fred once told me a hunting story. “I’ve shot a lot of deer in my time,” he said. “So now every year I buy my license and on opening day I go out into the woods. I load my rifle and put on the safety. I sit down, lay a blanket over my lap, take out my thermos and pour a cup of coffee. When I see the deer, I raise the rifle, find a clean shot, leave the safety on, squeeze the trigger and quietly say, ‘bang.’ Then I put down the rifle, finish my coffee and go inside.” Fred smiled his wide warm smile, “Hunting isn’t about how big a trophy buck you get, it’s about how much you enjoy your time in the woods.”

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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