Turkey, coyote, bobcat…but not a deer in sight

It is the third day of the 2011 rifle season for deer. I’m sitting in a folding chair inside my hunting tent atop a small hill. In terms of my chances of success, I’d be better off 12 feet up in my tree stand rather than on the ground in a tent. I can see a lot farther from a dozen feet up in the air. Plus, my scent dissipates from a tree stand rather than lingering on the ground and warning deer of my presence.
But I have work to do today. I want to spend at least the entire morning hunting, but the work is calling out my name in an urgent manner. “You can’t afford a whole morning hunting,” it tells me. I tried not to listen, but it is insistent. So I compromise. I am in the tent, but I have my laptop computer with me. Not only would it be unsafe for the computer to be on my lap up in a tree stand, but all that reflective metal would be sure to scare any deer away even more effectively than scent creeping along the ground.
And, truth be told, my butt is sort of sore, too. I’d spent more than eight hours hunting on Saturday, and almost four more on Sunday. So I needed to get some writing done: this biweekly column as well as a chapter of another book project expected by an editor. And I need to give my butt a chance to sit in a softer, folding-fabric, soccer-dad chair instead of another four hours in the rock-hard, half-sized little platform that calls itself a “seat” on my hunting stand.
Over the first three days, the four hours this morning brings me to a total of 16 hours in the woods. And what have I seen? I saw one deer. I saw it at 5:40 a.m. on opening morning, about 40 yards away, as I walked into my stand. That’s roughly 65 minutes before sunrise, and 35 before the legal start of the hunting day. I hadn’t even put a cartridge in my rifle and I was already seeing deer just a short distance from my stand. Good sign, right? Except that was the only large mammal on opening day.
And on Sunday? Thirty minutes in the stand and 30 minutes before dawn I hear something coming through the woods. Not the deliberate step-step-pause step-step-step-long-pause of a deer, but a constant light trotting through the brittle brown leaves lining the forest floor. I knew it was a coyote even before I saw it. I turned and spotted it a few seconds after hearing it. It was on the trail of something — presumably of the deer that habituate the trail on which I put my stand. In some sense, that was a sign that I’d put my stand in a good place: A much better predator than I was hunting the same ground.
It was also a bad sign. I have never once seen a deer come past me within several hours of a coyote. The scent I leave on the ground is nothing compared to coyote scent for driving away deer. So I enjoyed a few moments of watching a fellow hunter doing his (or her) work. It trotted right around my tree, sniffing as it went. It was a big one. Certainly over 40 pounds. A beautiful gray coat. Not mangy at all. I know hunters who shoot coyotes on sight. I am not one of them. Except that I tried to shoot it with my camera. It caught the movement and bolted. I stayed out in my stand for another 90 minutes, but with little hope.
That evening the turkeys moved in around my stand. These are the turkeys that were nowhere to be seen for two weeks earlier during turkey season, but who have no problem walking all around me during deer season.
The deer didn’t come around. The turkey were still around this morning.
I think that’s what brought the bobcat in. My son Peter, who has eagle eyes when it comes to spotting wildlife, was the one who saw it just after breakfast. It was walking along the stonewall in the woods behind our house: a big cat, tawny and proud, wonderful grace as it balanced along the wall. It was the first bobcat we’ve ever seen from the windows of our house. I say “we.” Actually, I didn’t see it. Only Peter and my wife did. I didn’t realize they were calling me, and by the time I went to the window the wild cat had disappeared into the woods in the direction of my tree stand. The direction where the turkeys were, and the deer weren’t — or, if they were, they would soon not be.
A minute later the turkeys started clucking, and then gobbling. Presumably they had just spotted the bobcat and were warning each other. I’ve never heard fall turkeys calling so loudly. That was another reason I decided not to bother going to my tree stand that morning. I don’t know if bobcat scent will keep deer away as effectively as coyote scent. I imagine it does. Certainly a live bobcat must. But even if it doesn’t, those turkeys were delivering a pretty good “stay away” warning message to any other wildlife within earshot.
So I went in the opposite direction, toward my tent instead of my stand. I passed about half the flock of turkeys on the way. Bearded males, it turns out. They were still vocalizing — not just clucking, but gobbling. At first I thought they were still warning each other about the bobcat. But I later decided they were laughing at me. Not so much because they’d avoided me all through the turkey season. Rather, I think they’d caught sight of my computer.

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