Real Cold, Real Bowhunting

I prefer to bowhunt during autumn’s glory days, when the cold, gold rays set maples ablaze and mirror off the brassy aspen hills. That fleeting phase of fall, when wild-eyed bucks run fluorescent forests and Blaze Orange makes perfect camo, is bowhunting at its best.

Some years when that glorious season passes me by, the deer do, too. I find myself in the all-too-familiar tree stand cursing the stabbing wind, the impotent sun, and the bucks I let walk in autumn. With that icy gale, I’ll need a 2-foot lead on a standing target, but I’m convinced there’s not one within a week of these bleak woods. It seems they migrated south with the Canadas. I wasn’t that smart.

But I love to hunt now, too. I enjoy bracing against the hostile elements. The deader the woods the more alive I feel. I always end up imagining what it was like for the real bowhunters — people long ago whose lives depended on bowhunting success in forbidding conditions like these. I know I’m feeling the same things they did: the same sharpness of cold, the same suppressed urgency, the same thrill as a deserted forest comes alive with hooves squeaking on hardpack snow. The difference is that if the forest never squeaks, I can go home to a warm cabin and steaming pizza rather than a cold wigwam and hungry clan. It doesn’t quite seem fair — for me, that is. I’ll never know what it was like to be one of those really real bowhunters.

Bowhunting in the cold can be exasperating, but also rewarding.

It’s real easy to get discouraged this time of year. I know there are 30 percent fewer deer out here than before the guns went off, and the ones that remain are 100 percent smarter. I know the cold makes me and my equipment a good piece less effective. And I think the raw challenge all that adds up to is what I really like.

Winter past I decided to close out the season at our cabin in northern Wisconsin. It hugs the shore of a lazy shank of river opposite one of those classic cedar swamps that draw deer from miles of surrounding highlands come hard winter. A couple weeks earlier, I’d braved the ice and found a pretty little place where deer funneled through the swamp in search of food, already noticeably scarce. I built a blind of evergreens broken down by heavy snow, piled some cedar boughs to make it more enticing, and let it be.

By the time I returned, thigh-deep snow and a frigid front had settled over the valley. I broke trail through heavy fog of my own creation and, overdressed for the job, was wet when I got there. I stayed two hours — too long — and suffered the driving nails of frostbite back at the cabin. It was tempting to stay by the fire and study the works of Jacks — London and Daniels — but I hunted hard over the next couple days, again and again going through the tedious routine of getting dressed and set up, trudging through the snow, sitting till cold made my bow muscles ineffectual, then heading back and warming up.

On the third day I was feeling that familiar sharpness of cold when I thought I heard a squeak. Soon, the forest awoke from the dead.

In the moonlight, it was a struggle traversing the flowage with that heavy burden in tow, but I didn’t mind. It would be fresh tenderloin instead of stale pizza tonight. And just for the moment, I felt I really knew what real bowhunting was about.

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