© John Jeanneney, July 2008
For most of the natural world spring is the time of renewed energy and growth after the long winter lay-off. This is not the case for hunters. Fall is the time when everything comes together after a summer of preparation. My problem, during my working years, was that I could not take time off in the fall when it mattered most. I was a teacher; unfortunately, this meant that hunting and tracking with my dogs conflicted with my job. Teachers can’t take vacations during deer season. Like a coon hunter, I learned to get by without much sleep.
During the day when I wasn’t in the classroom, I would deer hunt, often sleeping in my stand, eyes closed with only my ears turned on. Some brain mechanism would sort through the woodland sounds, tuning out the intermittent leaf rustling of squirrels, but putting me on alert at the steadier cadence of a walking deer.
In the evening, well after dark and after the wounded deer call requests had come in, I would start tracking. The increased humidity of the night made scenting better for my tracking dog Clary. The adrenaline factor was a good substitute for sleep.
It was a good setup except for one thing. I worked in the suburbs of Long Island, one hundred miles from where I chose to live in upstate New York. Gas was cheap in those days, but the lost time hurt. Later on, books on tape alternated with Blue Grass music helped to fill the long hours of driving.
Sometimes I taught evening classes, and it was after one of these had just ended that a deer call was relayed to my office. I had my Clary and my equipment with me, and I soon was on my way through still-heavy suburban traffic, headed for my destination and the wounded deer eighty miles north. I was still quite new to the tracking game, and I had no one to give me advice. I was pretty excited because for me finding a deer for someone else was as important to me as shooting one for myself. Come to think of it, this is still true some 30 years later.
I met the hunter at the gates of a big estate where he had been given permission to hunt. He was an Old World Italian with a heavy accent, and he was quite agitated. He knew exactly the direction that the big doe had headed after the slug hit her, but there was no blood. Clary and I were his last desperate hope.
I buckled the tracking collar and leash on Clary at the hit site and started her off toward the north as the hunter urged me to do. Clary would have none of it. She wanted to go in the other direction. I had driven all this way, and now she wouldn’t cooperate. I insisted; Clary insisted. After the third try, I gave up and let her do her own thing. Very sure of herself, Clary went about 150 yards through thick cover, and there was the deer. Trust your dog!
Dogs aren’t always right, but they are much more likely to be right than excited humans. Some dogs will just shut down when overruled by a human with his pitifully weak nose. Clary was a good and patient teacher who didn’t give up on her inexperienced and unbelieving handler. Her patience inspired me then in the woods and later in the classroom.
There was great joy as we gutted out the deer. My pleasure in the hunter’s happiness erased my own feelings of incompetence. What closed the deal was the old hunter’s reaction as he pulled forth the liver. He held it and admired it. Then he sank his teeth into that warm, raw liver without benefit of tomato sauce.