Old School Opening Day

They say there aren’t many public land deer camps in northern Michigan anymore. No use hunting the big woods. If you want to kill a big buck, you have to hunt southern Michigan. Lease some farm property. Go to Ohio. Or Kansas. Maybe Iowa. That wasn’t what I was after, though...

This article appears in the Winter 2017 edition of Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine. Subscribe by becoming a member of Michigan United Conservation Clubs at www.mucc.org/join_mucc!

On the Friday before Michigan’s 2015 firearm deer opener, I navigated my SUV up a rutted dirt road in the Pigeon River Country State Forest, about 25 miles northeast of Gaylord. My heart swelled in anticipation of the sight I’d find, even though my brother had texted me a picture of it a few days earlier. After travelling through hardwood hills, I rounded the final corner with five-year old clear-cut regrowth flanking each side of me. One lone pine towered in front of me. I knew that pine. I turned into tire tracks just before it. And there it was.

Set back from the road, where the old logging access was blocked by boulders placed by the DNR, lay the Big Wild Bunch deer camp. My cousin’s orange Ram pickup backed up to a worn Montana Canvas wall tent. My brother’s gooseneck horse trailer next to that. I parked my SUV and got out. I walked inside and saw the custom portable bunks my cousin had built over the summer. The wood stove wasn’t assembled yet and, on the floor, a light green canvas cook tent and its metal poles on the ground. I walked back outside and saw a figure in camo walking down the closed logging trail that faded off behind the tent.

It was my cousin, Scott Youmans. He drove up from Newago earlier in the day. He was a welcome addition to our camp when my dad, brother and I started it the year before. For years, my dad and I had gone to a deer camp on Beaver Island started by my grandpa in the late sixties. After my grandpa had moved to Wyoming in the seventies, my dad bought his share. I’d been a guest there since I was twenty, except for a few years when I was living in Chicago. I shot my first deer there, a doe, the first year I went. My grandpa was there that year for the first time in over 20 years after moving back to Michigan. We drove him to his blind and wheeled his oxygen cart in with him.

“If I’m dead when you come back, I died happy,” he joked. He made it back one more year with my dad, my college roommate Dan and me. Three years later, only my dad and I remained on this earth. So to say that it was a hard decision to leave that deer camp wouldn’t do it justice. But my brother, who lived in Gaylord (as did my dad), had a three-year-old daughter with another on the way and wasn’t into hunting enough to make the trip to Beaver Island, which usually meant a full day there and back that you weren’t actually hunting.

So my dad and I decided we should start up a new camp on public land. The Pigeon River Country was the perfect choice, close enough to Gaylord that my brother could come out after work and join us. Plus, we all knew the Pigeon well. I’d spent countless days and nights backpacking and hunting solo in its 105,000 acres, my dad and brother had ridden horses through some of it, and my brother hung out here with his high school buddies a little over a decade ago.

The Pigeon River Country State Forest covers the hilliest country in the Lower Peninsula. It’s a mix of hardwoods, pines and swamps through which three blue ribbon trout rivers flow north – the Sturgeon, Pigeon and the Black. Hemingway fished and camped here. After it was logged off in the early twentieth century, its sandy soil didn’t lend itself to agriculture so, using tax-reverted lands and purchasing more with game and fish funds, the Department of Conservation began piecing the forest together in the 1920’s under the guidance of Parrish Storrs (P.S.) Lovejoy.

He called it the “The Big Wild,” hence the name of our deer camp, the “Big Wild Bunch.” He had a vision of The Big Wild as an undeveloped wilderness, with only enough roads to serve as firebreaks. He wanted rough country. It still is, but there are more roads and pipelines since oil and natural gas were found under the Pigeon. An epic legal battle in the 1970’s set the stage for the compromise that became the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, where oil and gas royalties are used to purchase public outdoor recreation land, including more additions to the Pigeon. And so the circle goes.

Our camp is just north of one of those pipelines, which provides an unofficial dividing line between where our camp hunts and where another camp hunts south of the pipeline. We chose the area we hunt because a friend who worked in the forest for the DNR at the time told us no one had been hunting that section during firearm season for the past couple years. We had scouted a few other locations in the summer of 2014 but heard they were usually heavily hunted. During our first year, both my cousin Scott and I had seen elk – a spike bull and a cow – but only a few deer. The Pigeon River Country is also the home range of Michigan’s elk herd, which has grown from about 20 released near Vanderbilt in 1917 to about 700. And apparently they have a regular highway that crosses our hunting grounds.

I saw a few elk while scouting the area in the summer of 2015. I kicked up a bull while following a trail along a ridge just up the hill from a saddle. A more faint deer trail crossed the saddle, and I marked it on my GPS as a possible hunting location. I scouted the area five times in the off-season, usually camping somewhere on the section, including a few times when organizing one of Michigan United Conservation Clubs’ wildlife habitat projects, one before our Annual Convention in Gaylord that year and two with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Most times when you hear about “scouting” for deer these days, it means setting and checking trail cams. Not me. I do it old-school. I hike the area. I look for sign, food sources, bedding areas, doe trails, for terrain features that might hide bucks, and for places where I can ambush them. I look for routes I can take while still-hunting, depending on which way the wind is blowing and the ground conditions. I take notes in a Field Notes notebook with sketches, and last year I started marking GPS coordinates a smartphone app, so I guess it’s not totally old-school.

The work had already paid off this deer season. On the Opening Day of archery season, I backpacked into the area, still-hunting, and set up my spike camp just before noon. My Kryptek camo SJK tarp serves as my shelter and can act like a blind, too. While sitting under the tarp eating my protein shake for lunch, I saw and passed up a forkhorn buck fifteen yards away. That afternoon, while still-hunting a half-mile away from camp, I saw two does and arrowed one from twenty yards. It turned out to be a button-buck and it fed me well for a month and a half. I brought the last few steak strips I had left of him to deer camp to cook on the wood stove. And I wanted more venison.

Scott and I tried to set up the twelve-by-twelve cook tent to no avail. Honestly, we couldn’t figure out how the poles went together and with my brother’s horse trailer to store wood and gear, we didn’t really need it.

A DNR Conservation Officer, Nick Torsky, stopped at our camp while making the rounds. It was a very positive experience. He remarked that there weren’t many camps up yet, but some would be setting up the next day. We let him know that Scott and I, who both brought our bows, might be bowhunting the next day, and let him know the general areas where each of us would probably be hunting. He checked our dispersed camping permit, and we told him to stop by the camp if he needed anything. My dad and brother arrived shortly after and we set up the cast iron cookstove and pipe. We split firewood and got it started. We cooked a tin of barbeque beef on the stove and made sliders. We played euchre and drank beer. Scott and Dad verses my brother Kellen and I. We lost badly, which are still reminded of often.

The next day, my dad and brother set up pop-up blinds and Scott and I bowhunted without seeing a deer. I did hear a dog collar beeping, likely some upland bird hunters as the area is great grouse habitat. My dad picked up my Uncle Kenny from town and brought him out. Kellen’s friend Matt Koronka stopped out. We ate dinner and played more euchre and told stories that don’t leave deer camp, then got to bed early, waking occasionally to stoke the fire. The next morning was Opening Day.

I awoke a couple hours before light to Slaid Cleaves’ “Breakfast in Hell” playing on my phone. It’s a song about an Ontario logging camp in the old days, an appropriate alarm for five guys sleeping on cots and bunks in a musty canvas tent in the middle of a state forest. There are still some massive burned out stumps from those days all over the section, remnants from Michigan’s logging past and the forest fires that followed. My brother rekindled the fire in the wood stove.

We dressed by the light of our headlamps, loaded our packs, stuffed jerky or granola bars in our pockets, double-checked that we each had our licenses on us, and put a few cartridges in our pockets to load when legal shooting hours arrived. Leaving the tent, my dad said, “If you get anything, just hike out to your car and honk the horn, okay?” “Sure,” we all said. “Sounds good.”

I drove around to the opposite side of the section we hunt. The wind was blowing northeast to southwest, so I wanted to still-hunt east back toward camp, not west from it. I parked at a truck-size clearing off the dirt road and ritually applied camo to my face.

Even since I started bowhunting a few years ago, there’s something different about the early morning hours before the firearm opener. Maybe it’s just because it’s a re-creation of the feeling of anticipation all those years before, since the first time I went deer hunting at fourteen. We had two days of excused absences for deer hunting and I had permission to hunt a forty down the dirt road from us because I mowed the lawn and did chores in the summer for the owners, the only time they were there. My dad was a still-hunter so we did some of that, then he sat me against a tree overlooking a valley and told me to be still. “Only move your eyes.” I saw a couple does that day but I didn’t have a doe tag.

That anticipation is like waiting for Christmas. When shooting light comes and you take off your gloves to feed rifle cartridges into the bolt-action magazine and feel that cold metal, it takes you back to every other time you’ve performed that ritual. Even though I’d already been bowhunting that year, that feeling always says, “Now we’re hunting.” You’ve waited all year for this and now it’s here. You take that first step into the forest and feel the whole world change. You are a stranger in a strange land. You wait and listen until you are part of the forest again. Take another step and don’t make a sound.

I still-hunted around a clearing, keeping inside the edge of the woods by about ten yards. I worked my way across and against the wind. I saw a few fresh tracks, but not many. Then I leveled out on a bit of a plateau and found some fresh rubs on trees with about a three to four inch diameter. I heard some shots in the distance. They could have been one of our party, but I doubted it. Most shots sound closer than they are.

I hunted behind the saddle I’d scouted in the summer and emerged in a clump of short red pines. Making my way through, I spotted my cousin sitting on a ridge a couple hundred yards in front of me to the east. I backed out and made my way south to get out of the area where I might disturb his hunt. I meandered south and west, going with the wind but getting into position to still-hunt against it again once I made a wide enough arc. I went straight uphill into the high elevation point of the section. Months of trail-running paid off as I was able to climb hills, duck branches, and stay slow and quiet without getting tired and rushing it. I passed the location where I’d shot the button buck during bow season. I came out of the section on the dirt road south of camp without seeing a deer. It was almost noon. I hiked up to camp and walked in the wall tent.

My dad and uncle were sleeping on their bunks. My dad awoke and we reheated the leftover barbeque beef from the first night. My uncle awoke. They’d come back in mid-morning. My uncle didn’t hunt, but we set him up in a pop-up blind close to camp so he could watch for deer or elk and maybe get a story to tell when he went back to Central Lake and made the rounds at other deer camps. My brother and cousin came back in. No one had seen a deer. My cousin hadn’t seen me, either. We ate lunch and figured out where we’d sit for the afternoon.

I decided to go back to that saddle. In scouting all summer, I thought it was the best terrain I’d found. There was a swampy area to the north that provided bedding and cover. A few oaks in the hills to the south and west. The swampy area became a valley that crossed the ridge at the saddle. There were faint side trails downhill from the ridge crossing at the saddle, and those rubs right above it. The wind was right for a sit from the south looking over the valley. I thought about using the climbing treestand I’d brought to camp, but couldn’t find the tether rope to my safety harness. Just as well. I’d sat in it twice during bow season, but didn’t like it much. I’m a still-hunter. A ground hunter. Fast, light and mobile. I’d hunt the afternoon my way. Except…

Except that the wet leaves covering the forest floor had dried. Every step elicited an audible crunch. I altered my steps to a three-step cadence, “deer walking,” like I learned by reading G. Fred Asbell’s “Stalking and Still-Hunting: The Ground Hunter’s Bible,” and then practicing it over the course of a decade. I found a good tree overlooking the valley, but about ten feet back from the ridge where I wouldn’t be skylined and sat against its trunk. Old-school. Just like my dad taught me when I was fourteen.

The first couple hours were slow, testing all my patience to sit there motionless, eyes alert. It’s an amazing time to think, though. I thought about work and family. Then I let my thoughts take me wherever they would go. I looked all around me, not for deer, but to appreciate where I was. I was in a moment in specific place and time. I thought about where I was geographically right down to the tree I was sitting against. There was no other place I’d rather be. Then I heard it.

Swish, swish. Footsteps. Four does with dark gray hides appeared out of nowhere. They moved like ghosts. They meandered at the bottom of the hill opposite me, ranging from about sixty to seventy yards away. They moved up the valley in fits and starts. The does in front would stop and wait for the does in back. They went up the hill opposite me crossing above the saddle to the area where I’d found the rubs earlier. They never saw me.

About an hour later, I heard a furious rush of leaves. A doe trotted out in front of me, downhill at about twenty yards. She looked behind her. A spike buck followed. I raised my rifle but never took off the safety. I had no intention of shooting the spike. I wanted to see if I could get a shot without being detected. I could. Even though I had shot a button buck during bow season, I had thought he was a doe. It happens, especially when the buttons have yet to show. I had already passed a forkhorn that day of the bow opener and had my own personal rule to let young bucks go and shoot does when I could. Otsego County is outside of the northwest Lower Peninsula Antler Point Restriction zone, so it would have been legal to shoot the spike.

I firmly believe that every deer hunter is a deer manager, though. The deer we see are up to us as hunters, not just the DNR and Mother Nature. I want the bucks in the area I hunt to grow up more. I want them to live past a year and a half. I’m not sold that that has to be everybody’s goal, but it’s my goal, so it’s my responsibility to pass bucks that don’t meet my goals, even if someone else might shoot it. With each decision to pull the trigger or not, we as hunters are voting about what kind of deer we want to see. So I let him go.

As the end of legal shooting light drew near, I had no regrets. I began to resign myself to another Opening Day without a buck, but I had a few more days to hunt and I was happy with my decision. Then, with ten minutes to go, I heard it. Swish, swish, swish and where is he?

There he is: Nose down, cruising. A thick neck arced to the ground with antlers leading the way, hot on the scent of those first four does. Raise the rifle. Safety off. Find him in my scope. At least a six-pointer. Seventy yards. Okay, next break in the trees. There’s the shot. Center the crosshairs on his lungs. Take it. Muzzle flash. Bang. Work the bolt.

He sprinted up the hill climbed earlier by the four does, cut sharply and ran back across and down the hill in the direction from which he’d come. Behind a blowdown and crash. A few swishes from his leg kicking the air and hoof raking the leaves. A few ragged breaths audible from where I kneeled fifty yards away and uphill. Safety on. I never took my eyes off that blowdown. Darkness.

I sat there for a half hour, during which I heard a distant elk bugle. It wasn’t a time for celebration; there was much work ahead. My all-consuming thought was making sure I recovered him. I was certain he was right behind that blowdown, but could I be wrong? Of course I could. Where would he go? What was my plan for finding him? Could I follow his blood trail in the dark? I marked the spot on my GPS app and walked downhill, straight toward the blowdown. He was there, and he was dead. I knelt beside him and patted his thick neck. He was bigger than I thought, an eight-pointer, maybe two and a half years old. He was shot through both lungs, with red bubbly blood surrounding the wound. Right where I’d aimed. I thanked him and promised to eat or share all of him. Which I did. I took a couple pictures. Then I got to work.

He was heavy. I made the incision below his rib cage and opened him up with my Grandpa’s old Wyoming Knife, like a zipper. I cut out what needed to be cut out. It was fairly clean until I nicked his stomach and its contents spilled onto the liver on the ground which I had planned to save. His lungs were bloody and shot through. His heart was intact and I put it in a zip-lock bag I’d brought just for the heart and liver.

When I was finished, I had a decision to make. Hike up to my car, about half a mile away, uphill, in the dark, honk my horn and return to this exact spot, or haul him up there myself and honk when I got there. I was paranoid about failing to find him if I left him. I also knew coyotes were in the area – I’d already heard them. A scare with my button buck fed into this paranoia.

When I’d killed the button buck during bow season, I had left my backpack at my campsite, including my Buck Cuffs deer drag. So I took off my base layer shirt and tied up the button’s front and back legs, then slung it over my shoulder to haul back to my campsite. It was heavy, and as I got closer to my campsite the knots were coming loose. So I cached the deer next to a prominent stump in the regrowth field I was hiking through, went ahead to my campsite to grab the deer drag and returned to fetch the deer. But I couldn’t find him.

I spent about ten panicked minutes crossing the field trying to find the stump before I found him. I used the Buck Cuffs to make a shoulder strap and carried him back to my campsite over my shoulder and out to my SUV, but I felt noxious during those ten minutes at the thought that I might not find him. The worst thing I could imagine would be killing a deer and not recovering it and fully utilizing it. That happened to me with a doe once on Beaver Island during a downpour and I never wanted to have that feeling again. So instead of heading back to my SUV, I grabbed the antler of the eight-point and started pulling.

It was slow going. Even though I’d been working out and running diligently in the off-season, pulling a mature buck through the woods uphill was another beast. So I took my time. I pulled a little at a time and rested. I thought I heard shouting in the distance. I called back, “Hello!” I thought it was my brother, come to find me after I didn’t return to camp immediately after dark. I thought that was unnecessary, as I’d backpacked and hunted solo more times than I could count in this forest, but I appreciated the help.

“Got a buck. I’m downhill from the ridge,” I called. Eventually I saw a flashlight and heard my dad. I guided him to me. My cousin Scott was with him. They congratulated me on a nice buck. My dad hugged me because he knew like no one else how hard I’ve worked over the years to get this opportunity. Scott grabbed one antler and I the other, and we started pulling. The going was much smoother. My dad was a little upset I hadn’t returned to the car to honk like we’d agreed, and he was probably right. We hauled it uphill and found we were actually closer to camp than my SUV, so we pulled it toward camp, a little over a half-mile. We stopped every few minutes to rest.

We talked about the day’s hunt while we dragged, as hunters do. My brother had seen a bunch of does and passed on a four-point. My dad saw a bachelor group of elk that spooked through the woods and passed in front of my brother. My cousin didn’t see any deer but could hear elk bugling and sparring on the ridge across from him. My brother had driven my uncle back to Gaylord, who got his story to tell. While walking back from his blind to camp, a group of spike bull elk “almost ran him over!”

The next day, we loaded the buck on to the roof of my SUV and I drove it into the Gaylord DNR check station, but not before stopping at the Sparr Mall to have it entered into the log book and have Phyllis take my picture. Pete Datema and DNR Wildlife Tech Mark Monroe were manning the check station. I got my patch and they determined that the deer was three and a half years old. My brother and I drove it over to his friend Matt’s place, where we hung it in his pole barn overnight. Matt’s grandpa used to process deer commercially, so Matt had a few (hundred) under his belt and offered to help me butcher it the next day, which we did.

As we were processing the buck, I couldn’t help but to marvel at the muscles on the buck’s neck, his forelegs, his hindquarters. I thought about how those muscles helped him leap deadfalls, evade predators like coyotes and us for three and half years, and how he survived that long in a public land state forest. Had Opening Day not fallen in the heart of the rut, he might still be out there. Had I not stuck it out until the final minute of legal light, he might still be out there. Had I taken that spike, he might still be out there. So many factors went into his surviving this long and him being in that spot for me to take at that exact time, the most important of which was public land.

Without that public land, there would be no place for us to hunt. No place for my uncle to see elk, for my dad to spend time with his sons, for my cousin to hear elk bugle and spar, for my brother to actually get into hunting, which he is fully into now. There would be no place for us to have this experience and harvest wild meat. Nothing can unite like the experience of dragging out a deer, planning a hunt, and telling stories at a hunting camp. It’s what we were born to do. It’s what our species has been doing since we were a species. And only public land ensures the opportunity to hunt to anyone who wants to take part in this ancient rite.

There are still some public land deer camps in northern Michigan. There are still opportunities to take a mature buck without treestands, without trail cams, without private leases, food plots or farmland. There are still places where, by putting in a little boot leather in the off-season, you can set up a canvas tent on public land, hike in a ways, sit against a tree on a ridge next to a saddle overlooking a valley, hear elk bugle, watch spikes chase does and, maybe if you’re lucky, have the best Opening Day of your life.

Old school. Right here in Michigan.

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