When I hunt Augie Williams I only hunt one small group of trees that borders the Girl Scout Camp. It’s only about 5 acres but deer pass through it a lot. Since it is so small I hunt it very carefully, the stands are put up months or years ago, the entry and exit paths are carefully followed, and I let it rest at least a day between hunts. Two or three days’ rest is even better. Because the GSC became public this year it was very difficult to hunt it as carefully as I have in the past. But it’s still my favorite hunting spot so I went there this evening. I saw about ten deer on that hunt, three were bucks, all too young to shoot. One chased a doe close under my tree, with her two fawns following and probably wondering what was going on. There is no doubt, the rut is on.
So far this year the deer hunting has been poor, for bucks anyway. This is not surprising, typically Halloween is the first day that I consistently see daytime rut activity. Before that day almost all the lead up to the rut takes place at night, and almost none of the does are interested anyway. But everything changes on Halloween. The 30th of October was a day before Halloween, but close enough for me to get excited. On that morning I put out a buck and a doe decoy on the east end of a long CRP field. The wind was howling from the west, coming down the length of the field and delivering bursts of rain, then sleet, then snow. It didn’t take long for me to be cold. After an hour or so the decoy blew over; considering the wind I was surprised that it lasted that long. Actually, I was surprised that I had lasted that long in a tree stand as well. So I unbuckled my safety belt and started to climb down to fix it. When I was about halfway down the tree, from out of the woods in back of me a doe charged past and headed out across the open field. Close behind her were three bucks, all trying hard to keep up and grunting like a bunch of hogs as they passed by. I never heard a thing until they almost ran me over. One stopped to stare at the decoys for a few moments then turned to catch up with the party, and by then the others were almost out of sight.
So I got the decoy set up again and got back up onto my stand with a new sense of optimism. I was still cold but now optimistic as well. After about a half hour more the doe raced crossways across the open field again, only this time instead of three bucks chasing her, now there were five. Four of them were one, two, or three year olds, but the fifth was much bigger, clearly the kind of buck that I was looking for. They all chased around in circles for a while and then she stopped and laid down. Meanwhile I’m starting to wonder what this old gal might be willing to do for five bucks! I know it’s an old joke, but hey, what better time to use it. Besides I can’t help myself anyway.
Back to the story. After stalling for a little while buck number six showed up. This one is much bigger than any of the others and I don’t have to look him over twice to know that I would try for him if I had a chance. He is a high, wide and very white racked 8 or 9 pointer, with the heavy neck and body of a fully mature buck. So then the doe gets up and leads the chase again, around in a few circles but staying in sight in the field this time. Then she stopped and stood to let the new big boy mount her. All five of the others just stood there, less than twenty yards away with no attempt to challenge or interfere with what was going on. It was interesting also in that he stayed mounted for a long time, perhaps a minute or so, not the few seconds or so that is usual. Was he staying to intimidate or torture the overeager onlookers, or was he just enjoying the moment? Clearly, I’m starting to overthink this stuff. But to appreciate this you have to know how rare it is to see wild deer breeding. Many hunters never see it, and with all my time in the woods I’ve only seen it a few times. Anyway, after he dismounted she took off again, this time angling towards me with the whole bunch of bucks once again in hot pursuit. As they raced by, still out of range, two of them peeled off to check out my decoys. One was a yearling that kept his distance. The other got close, about ten yards away and right between the decoy and me. Then he got nervous and circled downwind and presented an easy 15 yard shot. I passed. He is almost certainly a two or three year old with a fairly heavy, dark 8 point rack with short tines. I hope he makes it a few more years.
The rest of the morning was uneventful, but Chris Knutson was hunting a few hundred yards away and thinks the big buck and doe went sneaking by him a bit later. I think he’s right, they went his way when they left me and the buck he saw had a big white rack.
Here are a couple of photos of our pheasant hunting this year.
The first photo is from opening weekend. My daughter Hannah and I, my nephew Evan, and family friend Dennis Johnson hunted the Saturday opener and Sunday morning. We walked many miles, missed a few birds, and ended up with seven roosters and an unlucky Canada goose. The dog in the second photo is my yellow lab Bella. She hunts slow and close and we never lost a bird. Everyone got at least one pheasant. They were all good looking, early hatch birds from this year.
We were hunting near Wilmont where I grew up and where our family still has land. We camped on an old school ground that we call the “two acres.” The campground is surrounded by good pheasant country and the birds we got were taken on public WMA (Wildlife Management Area) lands. I was the hired hand on this land a half a century ago when it was still farmed, and so I know the land well. It is beautiful upland rolling prairie, now well-managed for wildlife. The weather was perfect, the country looked great, and the birds were there if you were willing to hunt hard. The company, along with other family and friends, was great as well.
A week later Hannah and I hunted the same area along with her boss Dr. Charles (Charlie) McCann. On Friday we hunted hard in winds that hit 35-40 miles per hour. The birds were wild and tough to hit, and Bella had a hard time tracking them in the wildly blowing grass. Saturday was a bit less windy, but the rain set in by noon. Another difficult day. On this weekend we also hunted on the Fenmont WMA north of Wilmont on the county line. We saw a fair number of birds and finished the weekend with a rooster for each of us and a mallard as a bonus. We had no easy shots, the birds were wild again and the wind made their flight unpredictable at best. Despite the challenging shooting opportunities Hannah made a great shot on a long-range broadside rooster in the strong winds on Friday. Charlie kicked the rooster out of a shelterbelt, it passed by me and I declined to shoot, it continued on past Hannah, and she folded him dead. I was amazed to see him fall. Despite the weather we had a great weekend and all left very impressed with the quality pheasant habitat that is returning to that part of the state.
The next few weeks I’ll be turning my attention to bowhunting whitetails near home. We still have a lot of venison in the freezer after last year’s hunt, and so I don’t feel a lot of pressure to shoot does early. I’ll take a couple later for sure but not right away. I’ll keep you updated on my annual quest to take a mature buck–always a challenge.
Also, mark your calendars for our gallery holiday open house on December 2-3. We’ll say more about that later.
Recently I got the good news that I won the Minnesota Pheasant Stamp contest. The last time I remember that I entered was in the 1980s and didn’t win back then, so I was very pleased to get this news. I will be entering more stamp contests in the future for two reasons. The first is to practice for my entries into the Federal Duck Stamp, to develop ideas and to work on the skills it takes to be competitive. The second reason is, as good friend and art dealer Chris Knutson suggests, “to take advantage of the free publicity that goes with winning.” These stamp programs raise a lot of money for habitat and so I’m pleased to be a part of that also.
What an exciting weekend at the 2017 Federal Duck Stamp contest! Mike entered this piece depicting two mallards in flight. There were 217 entries in the first round, in which each of the five judges simply indicated In or Out. Mike’s entry was Number 48, and his was the first to receive five In votes. We knew then that the judges liked his piece, but he still had a long way to go. The second round of judging took place the next day, and in this round each judge assigned a score from 1 to 5 to each entry, with 1 being the lowest score and 5 being the highest. Mike’s piece was the first to receive a score of over 20—four judges gave him a 5 and one judge gave him a 3. His score of 23 remained the highest score through the first half of the second round, but there were a lot of good entries yet to be judged. By the end of the second round, only twelve entries remained, two with a score of 23 and two with a score of 24. We were feeling very hopeful, but contests can be tricky, and we knew that things could change quickly in the final round. Unfortunately, we were right. Mike’s piece was the first to be judged in Round 3, and his score went from 23 down to 20. At that point, we knew that there wasn’t much chance of his entry being in the top three. In the end, he received the fifth highest score, but with several ties in both fourth and fifth places. We are saying that he finished in the top ten. In first place was Bob Hautman with his third Federal Duck Stamp win. He and his brothers Joe and Jim have thirteen wins among the three of them, so they are tough competition. Luckily, the winner must sit out for three years, so that will help level the playing field for next year. We were thrilled to see Mike’s good friend Greg Alexander take second place. Third place went to 23-year-old Christine Clayton, and it was wonderful to see a young woman do so well in the contest.
We truly enjoyed the entire weekend, and Mike is already working on his design for next year!
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