Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Old Tree Stand

During a December trip back to the Midwest in 2009, to visit family and friends, I slipped away from everyone early one morning for a walk down through the oak covered woods I had known as a boy. My destination was a series of cultivated crop fields which ran alongside a sizeable Illinois creek. I was curious to see if there were any remnants of an old wooden treestand I had built 46 years earlier.

It had been my first real deer hunting stand, built when I was 14 years old. I had located it along a wooded ditch line that separated two of those fields, offering a corridor of cover for whitetails to follow back and forth from the hardwood covered ridges to heavy creek-bottom brush. And that year, I took my first bow-killed deer and my first antlered muzzleloader buck out of that stand. During the 20 years that followed, I had taken another dozen or so deer from the 2'x4' wooden platform that sat about 10-feet off the ground. It was great to see the two heavy oak two-by-sixes still spanning the gap between a pair of black oak trees.

I sat on a nearby log and fondly remembered the young button buck I had arrowed with a bow my favorite Uncle had given me for my birthday...and the eight-ponter (4x4) buck I had downed with the .45 caliber muzzleloader I had worked so hard and saved two real monster whitetail bucks taken when I was in my late 20s. It had been 25 years since I had last layed eyes upon the stand, and I left the area filled with great memories, knowing that I would probably never again return to the spot.

The stand in the photo at right is not that stand, but another stand I came across while whitetail hunting 60 miles from where I now live in Missoula, Montana. That hunt was during the first week of November 2009. I was hunting a several hundred acre tract of private creek-bottom land that was surrounded on all sides by National Forest. I had gotten permission to hunt the property when I stopped to help an elderly man in his 80s wrestling with tight fitting lug nuts on his pickup as he tried to change a flat tire. Between us, we got them off and the spare on. He asked if I was hunting, and I said yes. He then offered to let me hunt his place, which consisted of about a hundred acres of timber and about an equal amount of hayfields and pasture. I had not seen much deer sign where I had been hunting a few miles away, so I took him up on the offer - figuring that the deer may be coming to the hayfields. The previous year, I had hunted the public land adjacent to this tract of private property, right along a great little trout stream.

Most any morning, I would see 15 to 20 deer. Anyway, I saw that many deer every morning early the first week of the season. And the great thing was, I never saw another hunter in the woods. The general firearm season here in Montana is 5 weeks long. So, I held off hunting again until the end of the second week, then headed back. I figured the rut would be kicking in, and the deer would be on the move even more. Plus, by then there was a light 4 to 5 inches of snow on the ground.

I was hunting alone for a few days, and once I had camp pitched, with my short and fast handling .54 caliber Green Mountain "Brush Rifle" slung over my shoulder, I figured I'd spend the entire afternoon still hunting back along the far end of one hayfield, actually hunting a thick stand of aspens on the public side of the line...then work over to a treestand I already had in place...and spend the last hour or so of daylight watching that end of the field. It was during that slow saunter through the deer woods that I came across this old stand.

The snow on the ground was fresh. In fact, I had driven through falling snow the entire trip over. Here and there, I could see deer tracks that had been made early that morning or the previous day, then filled in with snow. I also noticed other tracks, which I had never seen in the area before - wolf tracks...some fresh.

In the past, I had never hunted this area without jumping a half-dozen or more deer during any walk into the area. Following an old snowmobile trail from where I camped, back into an area that bordered a swampy brush thicket, I never cut one fresh deer track in more than a mile of walking...but wolf tracks were everywhere. Most times, when I eased through the aspen patch during earlier scouting trips or hunts, I'd see a moose or two. Not this afternoon. I didn't even see a moose track.

By the time I reached my portable tree stand, I still had not seen a single fresh deer track. I finished out the day 15 feet off the ground, at the edge of a 50 acre hay field, where deer generally fed almost every evening. Not this evening. Nothing moved. In the very dim last light of day, I climbed down and as I started my walk back to camp, taking a short-cut across the open field, wolves began to howl on a high knob about a half-mile behind where I'd spent the afternoon hunting. And they continued to howl on through early evening as I cooked dinner over the campfire.

I had a small heater in my well ventilated tent, plus a propane lantern. After dinner, I read a little, then shut down the heater, crawled into a hefty sleeping bag, and threw a heavy comforter on top. It was going to be a cold night, with temperatures getting down to about 8-degrees, but I knew I'd stay warm with the thick foam mattress under me and all the insulation on top. Come early morning, I could have the heater going in a few minutes and warm the tent before sliding out of the sleeping bag.

Knowing there were wolves in the area, I had slipped my old Browning A5 shotgun out of the truck, and had it stoked up with "00" buckshot loads. And about two in the morning, I was glad that I had. Wolves had surrounded the camp, and howled for more than an hour. Some sounded less than 75 yards from the tent, and my guess was that the pack consisted of 7 or 8 wolves. It was very comforting having that semi-auto 12 gauge laying next to me through the night. When they finally stopped howling, I fell right back asleep. Then, about a half hour before daybreak, when I got the heater and lantern going, several started barking at the illuminated tent...and I knew they were no more than 50 yards away. I got dressed, then waited for daylight before unzipping the tent and stepping out - 12 gauge in hand.

The woods were very open, and I could see 100 to 150 yards in just about any direction. No wolves were in sight, but when I walked around camp, still carrying the shotgun, it became very evident that wolves had come very close during the night. Some tracks were less than 20 yards from the tent.

I slipped on my required blaze orange vest, shouldered the custom .54 in line muzzleloader, built on a Knight DISC Extreme action, and headed for the knob where I had heard the wolves howling the evening before. (There was a valid 2009 wolf tag in my pocket.) I followed a closed Forest Service road that went to the knob, and while heading down a long open grade, a big black wolf shot across the roadway. I got over to a pine quickly and took a leaning rest. Three more wolves stepped out onto the road cut, and I yelled. They all stopped and looked back in my direction. I guessed the distance at about 175 yards...held for the top of the back of the biggest wolf, then eased back on the trigger...and the heavy 400-grain Harvester Muzzleloading "Hard Cast" bullet flew right under that wolf...and in a flash they were gone. I discovered that due to the huge size of those wolves, I had misjudged the distance by at least 50 yards, and there was just too much drop for such a heavy bullet.

I'd covered about two miles that morning, and still had not cut a fresh deer, elk or moose track. I did find the remains of a wolf-killed adult doe and her fawn, and not much was left. The kills looked to be about a week old. What the wolves had not already killed in this area, they had apparently pushed somewhere else. The game normally found in the area was completely gone. In three days of hunting, I failed to see one single live deer.

I went back for a couple of days this past season (November 2010), after a fresh 5-inch snow fall, just to see if I could find any fresh deer or elk tracks. The snow had quit falling the evening before I got there, so I knew any tracks I found would be just hours old. That first day, I walked at least 5 or 6 miles, and drove another 15 or so on mountain backroads. And did the same thing on the following day. In all, covering some 35 to 40 miles on foot or driving very slowly, in two days I saw a grand total of 7 sets of deer tracks...and each time those tracks were being followed by two or three sets of wolf tracks. I saw absolutely no elk moose tracks.

On the way out, I stopped by the elderly landowners place to see if he'd been seeing anything in his hayfields. He sadly reported that he had not seen a deer in weeks...nor an elk in months. He then shared that 10 to 12 years ago, he had between 30 and 40 elk that wintered every year on his place, but since the wolves had moved into his area 6 or 7 years ago, none have wintered there again. He also said that just ten years ago, his hayfields often had 40 to 50 deer in them just about every evening. However, he could now count on two hands the most he had seen in the fields at any one time during this past season.

I then asked him about the wooden treestand in the photo above. He said that he had built the stand about 25 years ago, and hunted out of it for about 10 or 12 years. He then showed me a half-dozen very nice whitetail racks and two exceptional 6x6 elk racks he had taken from that stand. He shared, "Back in those days, you could have killed a buck just about any evening. There were days when I would see five or six good bucks within easy range...but back then I would hunt for a particular really good buck...and if I didn't see him, I just wouldn't fill my tag. I feel we'll never see those days again."

Wolves have changed the Montana landscape. As this is written, Congress has authorized management hunts in Montana and Idaho for 2011. But with the low (187) quota that MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks is recommending, there will not be any "control" of wolf numbers. At best, that quota is no more than 11- to 12-percent of the current wolf population (pre 2011 pup birthing)...and by the time that season (fall) opens, there will be at least 1,600 to 1,650 wolves in Montana...and another spring's calf crop will be once again destroyed by wolves. Even if the quota is this time next year, with the 2012 wolf pup crop, there will still be 100 to 150 more wolves than at the end of the 2011 hunt...and still fewer elk, moose and deer.

More on this issue can be found on the LOBO WATCH website, at .

Toby Bridges

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