After weeks of cold, snowy weather, a warm day at the end of February was a welcomed change. The blanket of snow had been pulled back and the curtain of leaves that will fill nature’s proscenium had not yet arrived. A whiff of Spring was in the air. For the next several weeks the woodlands are a drama to watch and book to be read. After lunch, we headed out the door to search for antler sheds and any other stories from days gone by that might be revealed.
Throughout the fall and winter, a lot of deer were showing up on the cameras scattered around property. During a recent cold snap, a few does would regularly spend their evenings curled up on a hillside behind our house, including an adult and her fawn we call Split Ear. Split Ear has a right ear that is deeply split in two and this identifying mark is our justification for giving her a reprieve during any future hunting seasons. During the bitter cold, four bucks also visited the backyard searching for some easy treats near the bird feeders. Amid this group was one boy with a badly injured front leg. The injury severely hampers his ability to walk and run and so he spends a lot of time these days nearby rather than traveling with the others. Unable to run and jump, his future would likely be short.
All but one of the bucks had dropped their antlers so we knew it was time to look for those ornaments before the mice and squirrels leave their marks of defacement. Before the last snow, I found one small shed near the house, likely belonging to Lefty, a small three-point buck with an antler on one side. Lefty regularly showed up on the cams throughout the fall and winter and once walked by my stand during a backyard hunt. This Boone County unicorn is a neighborhood celebrity.
Today we would walk the sanctuary, a place where deer live deep in the woods, undisturbed and unscathed. The land we will traverse is rough with a long history that is occasionally uncovered. In the past I have found a few arrow heads and shards, pieces of crockery, old fencing, and an array of discarded trash dating from 100 years to present. Deer trails that have existed for decades would be where we would focus our effort.
As we hiked, deer sign was evident; fewmets, scores of rubs, occasional beds and old scrapes. Turkeys had also worked the area intensively. A few long-abandoned box-turtle shells were found. Remnants of maiden hair ferns lay flat. A still frozen plunge pool in the drainage creek shown bright against the lifeless, rocky landscape below. The old cross fences told us where we stood. Bright orange flagging marked the area where a large shed was found last year along a remote trail that crossed between two deep cuts. After about an hour, my wife would find a doe skull, and then nearby a nice four-point antler with good mass and shape. Minutes later I would find a 50-year-old whiskey bottle, empty. We crisscrossed the area a few more times, found nothing more, and headed for home.
As we headed east, I moved up to trace a fence line that deer frequently used. At 30 yards I could see a deer motionless on the ground, its hind leg caught in the neighbor’s fence. A cautious approach revealed it was alive. A double time walk back to the house and we retrieved wire cutters.
The buck had been there a while but not an extraordinarily long time. He was exhausted so approaching him to cut the wire without a lot of fuss was easy. Once set free it was clear his hind quarters were injured. It was also clear he was the buck with the badly injured left leg. A conversation with the county Conservation Agent was next.
For me the death of a deer during the hunting season has a yin and yang, complimentary yet opposing feelings and thoughts. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Today’s actions, however, would be necessary, merciful, and sad. That evening as I sat and sipped a cold beer, I reflected on the day’s events. I could feel a few aches in my back from the walk on uneven terrain and the stress of other deeds. It had been a good day, a day of reward and stark realities; nature’s drama. As I held the antler in my hand, I pondered silently and wondered to which animal did this belong, knowing that it is now forever assigned to a memory of deer whose time was cut too short.
Originally Published CFM, Volume 82, No. 3; May, 2021