Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Chasing a Ghost

Panoramic of Ryley in the treestand.
The shrill sound of a woman being attacked pierced the darkness. We were in the middle of the woods, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and we most certainly were NOT alone. But I could tell that although the sound had caught Ryley off guard, he wasn’t the least bit scared. This wasn’t some zombie apocalypse or an escapee from prison wreaking havoc in the woods. It was the bugle of a sika deer, a Japanese relative of the European red deer and American elk.

Due to Ryley’s successful youth hunt we had two deer in the freezer. This took the pressure off of me for opening day of our firearms season so I opted to take Ryley on a bit of a journey to see if we could connect with a sika deer or another nice whitetail. As luck would have it, my brother-in-law, Ronny, was part of a hunting club on the Eastern Shore about a 30 minute drive from the public land we were going to hunt. Ronny is my surrogate Father in a way. My Dad really wasn’t much into hunting and fishing, but Ronny came from a family passionate about the outdoors. So growing up he was my mentor and it was time that the three of us spend some quality time together at deer camp.

So if these were Japanese relatives to our American elk, what exactly were they doing here in the marshes and pine woods of Maryland’s Eastern Shore? As far as the Maryland Department of Natural Resources can tell the sika deer were brought to Maryland in the early 1900s by Clement Henry when he released about 5 or 6 deer on James Island. They currently can be found in four counties as well as on Assateague Island. They prefer the marshy habitat which has earned them the name of “Marsh Ghost”. Luckily for hunters in Maryland they seem to be able to coexist side by side with our native whitetail and are not in direct competition. This means we have two thriving deer populations in the state which can be hunted during the same seasons. To find out more about the Maryland Sika Deer you can read up on them on the Maryland DNR website.

The original plan was for us to travel down on Black Friday and spend the night in his camper. We would hunt Le Compte WMA on opening day and then hunt the private property at his hunting club on Sunday. Going into the hunt I was optimistic but was definitely prepared for failure. The area we would be hunting would see high pressure on opening morning. Coupled with the fact that we both had to hunt out of a climbing treestand and you can understand what I wasn’t overly optimistic.

Safety first.
Sure enough when Saturday morning came I realized that the treestands were going to be an issue. Ryley simply didn’t have the strength or height to properly work the treestand I had for him. My treestand turned out to be a little easier for him to operate but not by much. So we switched stands and I helped him get himself in the tree. The problem was he could only get himself about 7 feet up the tree, with my help. So I fashioned my stand at the base of the tree and we tried to make do with what we had.

I think we would have been successful that morning had it not been for the extreme high winds that were keeping the deer bedded as well as making it almost impossible to hear anything. The only thing we really could hear all morning were the endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrels running around like kids playing in the backyard.

Le Compte WMA.
After a few hours we headed back to the truck to go have breakfast/lunch at deer camp with Ronny. When we arrived he already had the fried potatoes going along with a couple pounds of sausage already fried up. He whipped up some scrambled eggs and we sat around eating and talking about our morning’s hunts. Turns out we weren’t the only ones not seeing deer, sika or whitetail. The weather seemed to be keeping the deer bedded and we only saw two does hauled in on four-wheelers that morning.

Buoyed by the fact that others weren’t having any success either, Ryley and I set back off for the woods to get nestled in. I opted to not take the treestands as they took too much time to set up and break down and didn’t make it any easier for us to see. Again as we got comfortable in our spot the squirrels came out to drive us nuts!

Me and Mini-Me.
We drove back in the darkness in silence. We had closed out the opening day of deer season completely skunked. We hadn’t even seen a glimpse of any deer and the only signs of deer around us were the bugles that broke the silence of the darkness and gun shots indicating the few deer that seemed to have made it out of bed that day. When we arrived back at camp we received even worse news, Ronny had read the regulations regarding guest hunters. It would cost me $50 per person for Ryley and I just to be allowed to go out in the field to hunt and another $200 if we shot something. For those prices Ryley and I could go on a really nice pheasant hunt out of state. The saving grace of the night was Ronny’s hand cut, triple fried, French fries and venison burgers.

On the bright side, we got to sleep in on Sunday morning and we took our time driving home. Driving back Ryley and I discussed our successful and not-so-successful hunts this year. The wind had ruined two (one bear and one deer) of our hunts but we had still succeeded in spending quality time together as Father and Son. I had the ability to take him to deer camp so that he could experience it with the man who introduced me to the outdoors and for that I will be forever grateful, whether we got a deer or not.

So as the sun sets on our deer hunting season this year I am looking to the future and trying to figure out what we will get ourselves into in the coming year. I definitely want to get out with Ryley and do some squirrel hunting before the winter has passed. In the Spring we are going to try our hand at turkey hunting and I have already committed to bringing Ryley back down to the Eastern Shore in the early Fall to chase that marsh ghost again. Until then keep taking your kids outdoors…