Lessons From A Late Start

Posted on December 8, 2015

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“Experience is the hardest kind of teacher.
It gives you the test first the lesson afterward.” – Oscar Wilde

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Ten years ago a freshly minted, green horn neophyte who wanted to hunt showed up on the first morning with high hopes, grandiose imaginations, and a gun that was, well, let’s just say a hack saw came into play to get this guy on his hunting way. Little could I have known how this experiment would turn out after all, I’d had numerous others who thought they’d like to hunt go by the wayside when learning the difficulty of hunting wilderness whitetails. In ten short years, Ian has gone from being a rank amateur to a legitimate hunting partner with woods savvy and deer hunting expertise. In his own word, the following is what Ian Warnberg has learned over that span of time. – R.G. Bernier

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“There are dead deer everywhere,” said RG, commenting on the number of road kills on the highway home from our hunting trip. “Not everywhere. There isn’t one in the back of the truck,” I replied, as we laughed. I’ve spent nine of the last ten seasons hunting with RG. I call it: “Boggin’ with Bernier.” I started hunting late in life, since I didn’t come from a hunting family. However, I have always loved the outdoors and been active. When I started, I was in a season of life where I wasn’t pursuing adventure like I used to. Then one day I saw RG Bernier’s book, On The Track, in a store. Dick and I were good friends, so I chuckled because I had forgotten that he had written two books and I had never even considered reading one. When I finally did, I learned that adventure was still out there. I wanted to hunt like he described in his books. So I asked him to teach me. I had no idea what I was in for.

 

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Being 36 at the time, I was old enough to know I didn’t know anything, and my best approach was to listen well and pay attention. Fortunately, I had someone very much worth listening to to teach me, and he happened to know some folks that also had great wisdom to share. One of those I’ve come to know quotes his grandfather a lot, saying “The thicker the quicker; the wetter the better” in regard to hunting big bucks. RG is first-rate at putting us into situations where this runs through my head, because I’ve followed him through some of the wettest and thickest terrain in the north-woods. We’re talking about knee deep in swampy ice-water with spruce trees so thick you can’t raise the brim of your cap, let alone your rifle. Those are funny moments filled with tremendous expectation, as I humorously imagine the biggest buck I’ve ever seen suddenly appearing less than a foot away. I would need to be lightening “quick” with my lever-gun in that “thick” growth! Those experiences often conclude when RG breaks the silence with a barrage of personal abuse uncommon to man. You see, he likes to cover a lot of ground, so being immobilized by deep slush in what looks like the inside of the Christmas tree truck isn’t his favorite place to be. If I’ve led us into such a place while hunting, he disappears from behind me and usually re-appears somewhere out in front of me at the exit, dry and sitting on a log eating an apple. However, if he has had the lead and we find ourselves in such a place, well, let’s just say his creative side takes over as he describes himself in many unflattering ways. Other days have us dancing on 6-inch rotten logs crossing beaver ponds, one slip away from hypothermia and giardia, or fording flowing rivers hanging onto life by the strength of an alder branch. Yup. Boggin’ with Bernier. We usually wind up wet and grumpy, hurling insults at one another. It’s the adventure I was looking for.

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Along the way I’ve learned many things. Some of them from calm explanations over dinner after a days hunt, some of them from my own mistakes, and many from routine observation. There have been lots of opportunities to track, a few rainy days in the truck, but mostly we’ve been still-hunting. It’s come at me fast since I’ve had to make up for 20 years of not tugging a rifle through the woods in November. So here it is, a bit of what I’ve learned about deer hunting in the big woods with RG Bernier and company:

1. Study the map of the area and memorize it. You have to know the geography of the area you are hunting. It is a vital. Know how to use a compass instinctively. Use it often to keep your head oriented to the map picture. If you are worried about getting lost, or how to get back to the truck, your mind won’t be on hunting, and you certainly won’t be willing to go where that buck’s track leads.

 

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2. Geography matters. Deer live in an area for a reason. Learn the reason why. Start with water, and then look for nearby ridges. References to deer being in these types of terrain can be found in the Bible, so these must be good places to start. It’s ideal to look for traffic in the edges of areas that transition from hardwoods to evergreens near a beaver pond or swamp. Rule of thumb: If there’s beavers, there’s deer.

3. Don’t waste your time hunting an area that doesn’t have deer. You can’t hunt what isn’t there. Find sign first, then slow down and hunt. Too many hunters waste time in an area that looks like it should have deer, but doesn’t. I’ve actually heard guys sit around complaining about bucks not being where they are “supposed to be” or, “not rubbing where they’re supposed to rub” and even saying “the rut hasn’t started yet.” Those conversations still baffle me.

 

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4. Use the wind to your advantage. It’s easy enough to check the weather forecast and expect wind out of the East at 8 mph, but you must also understand how the wind works on ridges and valleys, in the low wet areas, and the transitions. These will destroy your hunt fast or make finding deer easier, depending on what you know about it. Deer understand how the wind swirls and how to bed under a ridge crest, catching the rising eddies from below and the dominant wind from above. If deer understand it, then you need to.

5. Learn deer behavior. Learn their body language. Learn where they bed and why. Learn how they respond to the weather conditions. Learn what happens during the rut and when. Learn the mannerisms of deer in different parts of the country. Learn what preys on them and how that affects their reactions to being startled. A buck in Maine may run three football fields before he stops, while a buck in Idaho may only go 15 yards so as not to be trapped by wolves. It matters.

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6. Deer go downwind if they don’t know what startled them. That should impact your response if you jump one. Sprinting downwind yourself can put you into a good position for a shot. In my case, a 6-inch black spruce bearing a .45 caliber hole can testify that this works. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the tree I jumped.

(Join us on 12/22 for the second part of this two-part post.)

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer