Summer Colors


by Jill Joines Christensen, Staff Writer, Georgia

My first day ever in the deer woods I was treated to a very special surprise...

Read more: Summer Colors

Ghost King

Prologue: I do not hunt to kill. I hunt for the whole experience. I count as success the discovery of the lair, the habits, or the glimpse of the mysterious rulers of the wild: the bobcat, the deer, the coyote, the wild hog, the proud old gobbler. Hunting is just an excuse to insinuate myself--to lose myself, temporarily--in their world of woods and wind, and sun and mist...

Years ago I went deer hunting on a friend's land. A week before the hunt was scheduled, I had a chance to scout. I parked near my landmark, a lightning scarred tree with broken chair beneath. I sat on the bumper of my truck and pondered both while I pulled on my zippered snake boots.  Walking around my truck I could see at a glance everything about the terrain that my friend had sketched out. Before me lay a grassy hill that fell away toward a narrow strip of hardwood trees. Though I could not see it, I knew that just beyond them was an electric fence, and beyond that, a farm. To the right, from the road all the way down to the fence, was a thick stand of pines. The clean evergreen scent reminded me why I love to get out of town. To my left, a deep wash started at the road and ended below a thicket, which perched above it like a castle. Just behind the stand where I was to hunt, the land rose sharply. Behind the stand and the thicket the land dropped off sharply to a dark rocky creek. There was only a narrow path up that hill and it opened out just behind my stand. From there, a trail ran left of the stand and along the fence, under cover of the hardwoods.

When I finished reviewing the lay of the land, I allowed my eyes to rest with anticipation on three trees in the center of the strip of hardwoods.  They were white oaks, and their acorns are ambrosia to deer, the most desired of all foods. Acorns had not yet fallen in my county just to the South, but maybe, just maybe, they had just fallen or would fall here, before my hunt next week. Enough daydreaming, I thought, let's go check this out. I put my knife and flashlight on my belt and grabbed my day pack. I had asked some friends to listen out for me, and if I didn't check in by 6, they would come looking for me. But I still had plenty of time, so I decided to take the pine trail rather than straight down the hill to the white oaks. Halfway down I found a rub on a small pine, but no other sign. When I reached the fence, I turned left and started toward the white oaks. When I did, I looked across the field in time to see a doe bound out of the wash and cross the road in front of my truck. Well, that was a good sign. I found a larger rub and a fresh scrape, which I kept well away from.

Then I saw them: Hundreds of big, beautiful new round acorns lay on the ground under the white oak trees. I had never seen so many in one place.  It was breathtaking. Only a small area had been worked. God was smiling on me, I felt, and I gloried in his grace. I decided to take off work two days from then, rather than wait a whole week, when the acorns would be long gone. I wanted to take advantage of the feeding frenzy. I still had to look at the stand, so I slipped into the field to keep my scent off the trail. The stand was sturdy, not too old, and perfectly situated to hunt the narrow trail. It was too close to the field for a late afternoon greenfield hunt, because the sun would be in the hunter's eyes, and the hunter in the open. A few small limbs flanked the stand, providing cover from the ground. Perfect. I would come in early to avoid alerting the deer. Unless the wind was blowing toward the thicket, I would have time to reach the stand somehow without alerting any deer inside en route to the acorns.

But it didn't happen like that.

I went home and prepared my clothes, pack, and gun, remembering my checklist--License-ID-Weapon-Ammo. My rifle was zeroed. I practiced with my BB gun to reduce the chance of jerking the trigger, then freshened the batteries in the flashlight I hoped I would not need.

Two days later I was up at 3:30. Breakfast was quick. I brushed my teeth with baking soda--there were no scent-free products then--and placed my gear in the truck. It was 40 degrees and cloudy, with a forecast of rain later, followed by colder temperatures. There was fog on the road, which was good. It would help me get on stand unnoticed. I tucked my truck into the pines and ran through my checklist again--License-ID-Weapon-Ammo. I had worried that I might have to use my flashlight, and reveal every step of my trip down the hill; or that the wind would be wrong, or  the sky too clear, any of which would require extra time or trouble. But I was lucky--the wind was in my face, and it was cloudy here too, but the sky was just bright enough that, if I moved carefully, I could go straight down the hill to the stand. As I descended, swirls of fog hid my feet, slowing me further but camouflaging my movements. However, right in the middle of the field, where it seemed for some reason darker than when I started, the clouds cleared, and I descended the rest of the way under a few twinkling stars.

At the base of the hill, I ran into the white oaks, as planned, and dropped my gear. I pulled my collar away from my skin and let out the steam from my walk. I pulled on my outerwear, finishing with my raingear and pack. I left the jackets unfastened until I got settled, as they would cause me to sweat more. I knew that in the cool air of the morning my scent would probably go straight up, but I didn't want to take any chances. Besides, a wet body is a cold body. I got my bearings, and tied my pull-up rope to my gun and pack. A quick climb and I was up, going through my checklist again: License-ID-Weapon-Ammo. I fastened my pack to the side rail of the stand so I could reach my gear easily. But before I could pull up my gun, there was a new task to perform. I had received a gift from an ingenious, caring friend, something no one else had, not yet, anyway: a hunter safety harness. It was simple: a black webbing belt with a short sliding piece with a sturdy carabiner on the end. The carabiner hooked into an anchor (screw eye), which I had to install in the tree. I got the anchor started but could not turn it in with my bare hands, so I twisted off a small limb to use as leverage and got the job done. I was hooked in. For the first time, I felt secure in a stand. Grasping the thin rope, I pulled up my empty rifle, butt first, keeping the barrel out of the dirt. For a few minutes, I practiced acquiring imaginary targets. This drill prevents me from locking up after sitting still for hours in a stand. As quietly as I could, I loaded the gun, chambered a round, and set the safety. I got comfortable and exercised my peripheral vision.

I dozed and woke to a steady drizzle, not sure what woke me, on high alert. My whole body was oriented to the left, yet I felt certain there was something to my right, which was nearly behind me. It was no longer night, but it wasn't daylight either. Everything was still shades of silver and black. Would it wind me?  Would it see me? If I moved at all, I knew I was busted. But I had to at least see what it was. I moved my head and eyes just far enough to pick up a fleck of light--no, several flecks of light.

Suddenly a large shape materialized--it was clearly a buck. Instead of the rectangular shape of a mature doe, it was much larger and higher in the upper body. The flecks of light were the points of his very respectable rack.

This was the first big buck I had ever seen, or partly seen, but I could not turn my body and gun around in time for a shot. By the time I could see the buck fully, I saw his tail as he disappeared into his fortress, the thicket. Seconds later, I heard a strong stomp, and a grunt that was nearer a roar, and then he was off at a gallop I could only feel through the tree, but barely hear. The Ghost King of the bucks was gone.

I stayed on stand till time to go, just so I could replay what happened in my mind, and saw nothing else.  But then, I didn't need to.

About the Author:

I've been a textbook writer and editor for a very long time, and it was difficult at first to move to a new vantage point. What helped me the most is realizing, just before I wrote The Wake, my last story before Ghost King, that a story should be musical and magical, especially if it is telling facts.

I remember hearing a local feature writer in the halls of the Ledger-Enquirer, where I worked for a while, playing with phrases out loud. "She picked up the vase. He handed her the vase. They turned the corner and there was the vase." She was less concerned with accuracy than with story.

And then there is that quintessential advice in Paul McCartney's song "Michelle," "sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble," ("these are words that go together well").

So first I block in the story I want to tell. Where I want to start. Where I want to end. I fill in the blanks, then see how it "tracks"-- whether you will know what I'm saying. In this final draft of Ghost King, I have added explanations to add appeal for nonhunters. And then, I added music. I rode the rhythm of the words and smoothed off the burrs. Hopefully, what you find is a lyric.


Scout Early and Set-Up Right for Archery Season

In most states/provinces archery season gives deer hunters the first opportunity to tag a trophy buck. By using this advantage through wise pre-season scouting and proper stand placement, you’ll have your best chance of the year for a shot at an unpressured buck. Note, I stated "unpressured". Once the woods become infested with human activity and a buck has heard the thunder of guns he learns fast to lay low during daylight hours. His regular lifestyle is halted. In my opinion, your only real hope of taking an old, educated buck under pressure is catching him at a weak moment in the throes of the rut or if he has been pushed from his lair.

Serious bowhunters should start pinpointing their buck during the summer when antlers are branching almost weekly. All racks look impressive when covered with thick velvet but those having trophy status are easily recognized. Usually bucks of varying ages will be congregated together during the summer and early fall. This gives the observant hunter the perfect opportunity to compare headgear and determine age. Time and good optics are the two most necessary tools for early scouting. Deer become less reclusive and more relaxed as the days become longer. Low-growing agricultural fields such as soybeans, milo, alfalfa, or clover become afternoon magnets for whitetails especially if they happen to border thick cover. View these fields from a distant vantage point always with a favorable wind direction. If the fields have irregular borders with secluded nooks and pockets, these will most likely be the first places deer emerge to feed. A few afternoons behind a spotting-scope will give the early season hunter a fair evaluation of the quality of bucks the area is holding. Make note of their habits, pecking order, entry and exit routes even personality traits can be distinguished by careful observation. Invariably, the dominant buck of the herd will be the last to appear. The more you know about your quarry the better informed and prepared you will be come hunting season.

After your dream buck is sighted, back off. While it is thrilling just to watch a good buck, each time you frequent an area is an opportunity to get busted. Once a mature buck catches on the fact that he is being watched he is likely to move on to a more private surroundings. Undisturbed deer will usually maintain a predictable routine at this time of the year.

Since archery is such an up-close and personal type of hunting the set-up for a successful ambush is crucial. I have some very fixed ideas about what it takes to get close enough to a bruiser buck for a shot with a bow and arrow. Act quickly. The element of surprise is always your best strategy. Your scouting observations should have revealed the most prevalent travel routes. Get into this area using the same caution and stealth as if you were actually hunting when hanging a stand. Try to find a suitable site off the field edge at least 50 yards and 15-25 yards off the trail. Often a mature buck will remain bedded longer requiring you to hunt closer to his sanctuary in order to get a shot during legal shooting hours. Extreme caution must be taken when penetrating into bedding areas to avoid bumping the deer completely out of the region. Always be mindful of wind direction and choose a tree appropriate for the type stand you are using. Keep trimming to a minimum when pruning limbs and shooting lanes. Use the trimmings to brush-in or disguise your stand. Seek structure in the form of tree limbs, forks or clusters of saplings to break up the outline of you and the stand. Have more than one clear shooting lane. Now is the time to check for squeaks or any stand shifting that might create the slightest noise. Get high enough to be out of the normal field of view for any deer passing by yet not so uncomfortably high that you compromise safety and create an extreme shot angle. Have a clear plan for approaching and leaving the stand undetected.

I like to have at least three stands in place when pursuing a particular deer. This allows me to hunt the same area longer without being detected. I will hunt a stand for no longer than two consecutive days. After that, it is time to relocate to avoid contaminating the area with your presence and alerting the deer. I’m ever mindful of wind direction and although I take every precaution to be as scent free as possible, I respect the incredible ability of a whitetail’s nose.

Hunt aggressively. The time to tag a great deer is as soon as the law allows or in other words, as soon as season opens. Remember, when the season opens it is open all day long. Undisturbed deer will feed and loiter at random throughout the day. Stay on stand as long as you possibly can.

Have a plan. Picture in your mind where you expect the deer to approach. Pre-range the distance to each opening where shots might present themselves. Look for places that might offer you an opportunity to draw your bow such as when the deer passes behind a tree or bush. Imagine the exact angle you will wait for before releasing an arrow. By rehearsing these steps in your mind, they will be an automatic reaction when the real opportunity arrives.

Know your abilities. Everyone has a shooting range within which they are comfortable and effective. Each person has a stance or position where they shoot best. If you shoot better while standing then expect to stay on your feet most of the time. Sitting on stand is less tiring and creates a steady base for a shot however it can limit your range of motion.

Hunt safely. The overwhelming cause of bowhunting injuries is treestand accidents. A full-body harness is the safest way to avoid injury in case of a fall. Attach the tether strap securely around the base of the tree and slightly above your head. Use treestands that bear the TMA association sticker. This insures that the stand meets all industry set strength and safety requirements.

Enjoy the hunt— savor each day spent in the outdoors.


Trail Cam pics

Last Christmas, my husband and daughter got me one of the best gifts a hunter can appreciate, a great trail camera!  It was actually the ONLY thing I had asked for, but I never really expected to get it.  I could hardly wait to get it set up in our woods near my stand to see if we had any deer left over after our four and a half month long season.  I was not disappointed, as a nice number of deer pictures showed up on the memory chip.  Sometimes I would count as many as six at a time.  How these deer manage to dodge hunters, some in stands, some with dogs, for over four months is beyond my comprehension.  We tend to lose one or two on the road here every year as well.  There must be a robust population, so now I won't feel so bad if I decide to put a doe or two in the freezer this year.

A friend of mine in Pennsylvania used his trail camera in a most interesting way during the off season.  He spotted a barred owl nesting in a hole of a tree, and he put a trail camera in place on a nearby tree across from the entrance.  He sent me some awesome photos of the brooding, hatching, feeding, and finally, the owlet's first flight.

Having a trail camera may seem like too much of a technical advantage, but I have found it enhances my hunting experience by adding to the anticipation.  I have only one spot in my property that is remote enough to hunt, so I need to know that there is a chance of seeing deer there.  Otherwise, I am simply taking my gun for a walk, and with my farm work and family responsibilities, I am much too busy for that.  Now I can get pictures of deer activity when I am not on the stand, so that I can better manage my free time.  Do I hunt my farm or my lease today?  If no deer have moved through in the past week, I know my chances are better elsewhere.
I have seen only two bucks in photos, one a good size and one a little spike, and they always came in the middle of the night.  I have not seen them lately, so I am not sure they survived the season.  Once the rut is on, I intend to make some mock scrapes and see what big boys are out there, if any.  The weather is finally cooling, and my buck goat is starting to stink, so I do believe things will get interesting in the deer woods soon!  The gift that keeps on giving will be there, ready to snap photos of the ones that have gotten away so far.  Maybe I can form a strategy to intercept them.  Let the games begin!


Scouting for Bear

Fall bear hunting starts in Minnesota on Sept 1, but scouting the bear signs should begin months ahead.  Examining the woods in spring when the bears come out of the den gives you a great picture of what is moving around.  Scouting then is easy since the foliage is down and you can see bear sign more clearly especially chewed bark and signs of digging for tubers.  This can give you a really good clue where the winter den was and that the Bear is still around your area.  Summer heat drives bears to stick close to water to cool down. Early fall starts the gorging on any food to bulk up for winter den.

Good scratching marks and rubbing Carlos Avery Wildlife management area, MN. Kalina photo.
Bark stripped and bite marks. St. Louis County.  Kalina photo
Repeated climbing scratches. St. Louis County, MN. Kalina Photo. Fresh out of the spring den, a bear will gorge on bark. He really tore up this tree. St. Louis County.  MN.  Kalina Photo.
Scratches from repeatedly climbing and sliding down tree. St. Louis  County. MN Kalina photo. Back print (left) and front paw (right).  Paw prints can usually only been seen in mud.  If only grasses are around, then prints are undetectable. Unknown photographer.
Scratch marks also may mark nearby berry patches.  Nearly every substantial berry patch has scratches on a nearby tree. (Where a bear has his circuit). Perhaps the scent from this mark, reminds him as he’s walking or it warns other bears that these berries belong to him.  St. Louis County, MN. Kalina photo. A good hunting dog can lead you down the typical bear paths. St. Louis County, MN. Usually a bear path is wide, but in long marsh grasses, the wind and water can make the grasses pop up and hide a path.  In this case, the dog led us through this marsh to an island where all the trees were scratched by bear, a good bear sign. Kalina Photo.

Berry bushes that are being visited by bears typically will have all the top berries gone and a few will be left on the bottom.   There is sometimes a flat area where the bear sat down.

Climbing claw marks. The bear sinks his claws deep into the bark as he climbs. St. Louis County, MN. Kalina Photo. Bear was running and left scat. Dark scat may indicate some berries and some seeds diet.   St. Louis County, MN. Kalina photo.
Chew marks in fallen tree.  Bark has been ripped off. St. Louis County, MN. Kalina photo Ant hill is picked at by claws to get ants to eat. St. Louis County, MN. Kalina Photo.
Bear rubs on paper birch, hair and oils still seen.  Dog went right up to this tree and stood on hind legs to smell it.  This alerted us to the tree.  Bear rubs are often done on major thorough ways of travel. St. Louis County, MN. Photo by Janice Baer. Close up of the bear rub showing hair and oils from the bear. This is very recent. The slightly muddy appearance shows he is spending a lot of time in the bog swimming. We know this bear will be around this area for a while. Photo by Janice Baer.
Bear scat on bridge is light colored showing vegetation diet. St. Louis County, MN. This scratch is a year old, but shows a deep long scratch, the tree grew and widened the scratch for another year.  Bears sometime pull trees down by shaking them. It’s thought that bears shake trees and pull them down to get bugs or to mark territory.  St. Louis County, MN.