I've been communing with squirrels again, sitting in trees. They seem to trust me more at eye level. So do the chickadees and jays, the robins and the kinglets. They swarm me and cop a visit when they can, chittering and curious about this camouflaged entity perched among the branches.
The deer? Not so much - eye level or otherwise.
White-tailed deer are the reason I'm in the trees in the first place. It's hunting season hereabouts, and the only practical way to get close enough to a buck to shoot it with a bow is to sit in a tree. That keeps you camouflaged and out of the deer's line of vision. It keeps your scent off the ground, making it harder for the deer to detect you. And, last but not least, it provides a bird's-eye view of the surrounding countryside - just like those jays and robins.
I shot a doe last month. The venison is in the deep-freeze, succulent and wild. Unwrapping butcher paper from something you killed yourself - bereft of slaughterhouses or farmyard brands - is inherently satisfying. The sizzle of the venison chop on the grill must be like, in its own way, the popping of gristle over the frontier campfire. Ancestry has a flavour the hunter savours with every bite.
I don't have the benefit of Midwestern cornfields or acorns or so-called foot plots. There are no 'managed' herds around here, which is just as well, in my opinion. I see that akin to catching hatchery raised trout, which I shun both in practice and principle. I realize I'm handicapping myself by not spreading apples beneath my stands. So be it. We each set our own standards and abide by them; that's the nature of sportsmanship.
As often as not I don't see any deer, even at a distance. I know there are a few around, because they show up on the trail cameras - mostly at night and seemingly to taunt me. A few nice bucks are lurking, several years old now and somehow alive despite the ever-present cougars, wolves, and rifle hunters. Just viewing them on my laptop makes my pulse quicken and makes me want to get back out there, up in the trees.
Squirrels are like military sentries, posted on the periphery to warn of incoming animals. A loud caterwauling sometimes portends an approaching deer. Wise hunters learn to recognize and appreciate irate squirrels. The same goes for squawky jays. The woods are full of alarm bells.
You can hear a leaf fall in the forest, from a treestand, rattling down like something dropped from a desk. Sounds amplify at first- and last light, when vision starts failing but hearing intensifies. A deer walking on frosty leaves can be heard 50 yards away. More likely you'll hear: the patter of drizzle on pine needles; a dog barking down the valley; a barred owl hooting up the hill; your own heart thumping; a twig snapping; your bow shifting on its hanger; anticipation so palpable it rasps like a file.
Erecting a treestand is part science and part art. You need to know there are deer in the area, for starters. You need to know a bit about their habits - their comings and goings. Worn trails in the right spots. Bedding areas. Feeding areas. 'Pinch points' between the two. Are they primarily nocturnal? Will they be upwind? From which direction are they likely to approach? That's the science part of it.
The art part of it is, simply, gut feeling: this seems like a spot a deer might walk by, so why not?
I like constructing treestands. Cutting the branches out as I climb; securing the seat and footrest; clearing shooting lanes for the arrow to pass through. It's meticulous work, and satisfying.
I know I'm going to be sitting there awhile, each autumn. A sentry myself. Bagging a deer is really just a bonus. The real reward is being there.