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Matt Dickerson: Second-guessing after the deer season

Second-guessing: evaluating a decision after the outcome of that decision is known; being critical of an action with the added advantage of hindsight. “Monday morning quarterbacking” we call it. But this column is not about football.
I am a storyteller. This week I had planned for my column a story about my harvesting of a deer during the 2012 season. Maybe two stories: one about rifle season and one about muzzleloading.
Unfortunately, rifle season passed and I didn’t do any harvesting. I saw one buck on opening morning. He was somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred-and-thirty pounder, I’d guess. He came sauntering through the woods right down the trail that passes my stand. At 60 yards I didn’t need the scope to see the long curve of antler rising up above his ears. He could have made a nice scrape with that thing. He approached. I lifted my rifle, quietly flicked off the safety with my thumb, and rested the crosshairs of my scope on the front half of his body.
The problem was, those long curved spikes of antlers didn’t have any tines coming out. None that I could see, any way. Could it be he was not legal? He walked right across my shooting lane, stopping almost broadside 20 yards away. But no matter how hard I stared at him through that scope, I could not make a tine grow on his antlers. Eventually my arm grew tired. I let my gun drop an inch or two. Maybe I squeaked my chair. He turned and looked at me long and hard. Eventually he decided I was something unsafe, and bounded off.
That was the only deer I would see the entire rifle season. I didn’t even see any doe. I spent more time in the woods and saw fewer deer than in any of the previous 12 seasons. At least there was muzzleloader season, I told myself. And I had drawn an antlerless tag. That is usually a good bet for harvesting venison. Maybe I would not have to become a vegetarian after all. But by the time this column is being sent off to print, we will be five days into the muzzleloader season and I will still not have seen a deer. Granted, this thing called a job has made it so that I have only hunted two of the first five days. Still, that’s a lot of hours in the woods.
And thus the second-guessing. My stand has been good in the past. It’s in the middle of a nice cluster of beech trees. On mast years when the beeches are bearing, the deer are all over. I’ve gotten two bucks from that stand, and seen no shortage of does. This year my beeches were not bearing, but the stand is still on a natural corridor where deer used to move from a nearby hill onto a cornfield. Not this year. It’s been a corridor for turkeys all month. Just not for deer.
Making matters worse, I recently spent a lot of time replacing my old tree stand with a comfortable eight-foot-by-four-foot platform in the same spot. It’s downright cozy up there. Instead of that hard wooden six-inch wide butt-killing seat, I have a nice cloth folding chair. There is room for my backpack with snacks. I can stretch out my legs. I could take a nap up there if I wanted. Maybe it’s too cozy. Maybe I should have been trying other places.
Actually I did try a few other places. I put up a portable stand in my hemlocks. But then it turned out two other hunters were just across a property line from the hemlocks, no more than a 150 yards away. It would have been difficult for anything to get to me there, without going through them first. There were also signs of deer browsing on brassica in my tiny little meadow. So I did try the hemlock stand a couple times, and the meadow too, but I never saw anything in either place, and so I kept ending up back at my platform in the beeches.
And that led to even more second guessing. From what I hear, fishing has been good lately. Vermont has opened up more opportunities for catch-and-release fishing after the end of the regular season. Tributaries on both sides of Lake Champlain boast some good fall fishing now for steelhead, landlocked salmon, and even resident brown trout. It’s hard for an avid angler like myself to be sitting for hours in a tree (not matter how cozy it is), seeing nothing, not to wonder from time to time whether I might not be better off wading a river for steelhead. I’ve caught steelhead. They might not be legally classified as “big game” in the state of Vermont, but they are about as close as you can get to it with a fresh water fly rod.
But catch-and-release fishing does not help rescue one from a vegetarian life. And besides, as contemplative a sport as fishing is, hunting is even more contemplative. Life in our highly connected, fast-paced modern world leaves far too little time for contemplation. In my daily routine of work life, I often just move from one activity to the next, without a moment’s time to pause and reflect.
Sitting in my stand, however, I have no shortage of time to contemplate and reflect. Especially when there are no deer in the neighborhood. I contemplate family. The meaning of life. The fact that squirrels seem to combine play and work as they skitter around the forest floor. The differences between the barks of beech, black cherry, maple, sweet birch, hop hornbeam, paper birch, and hemlock (the trees most prominently visible from my stand.) The changing of seasons and the shortness of the day and the speed at which the sun moves across the winter sky. The beauty of mountains. Joy. Love. Hope. Sorrow.
And, mostly this year, I’m contemplating the fact that I’m not seeing any deer. I think I haven’t been hunting in the right location. Maybe next year I will hunt some place else, so I don’t have to spend so much time just sitting and thinking.

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