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Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Land

As I said before, the land is heavily forested Northern New England hardwood/softwood mix. One hundred foot White Pines and Red Oaks along with Sugar Maple predominate the landscape. Hemlock stands provide ample winter cover for the deer. Our camp sits in the saddle of a (long, you guessed it) high ridge at about a thousand feet above sea level. The saddle is pronouced enough that migrating Canada Geese pass through it. On certain stands, you are actually eye to eye level with them, and can hear the clicking of their feathers as they stroke through. Once it was foggy and I was in the Tall Stand when a flock of about forty winged through. I thought they were going to run right into me, but didn't. Our land is 130 acres, but is surrounded by about 5000 undeveloped and fairly safe acres that has little hunting pressure. We habitually hunt about a third of the entire area, with most success within 3/4 mile of camp. Many deer have been taken within sight (several hundred yards) of camp porch. A walking/ATV trail winds roughly around the borders of our land, and there are several interior trails for still hunting. We used to ban ATV's from the trails except for retrieval of deer, but eventually learned that ATVing to areas to hunt disturbed the deer less than walking there. I have a favorite stand way up on the Far Ridge about a mile from camp and I routinely ride my ATV up within a 100 yards of that stand. I have arrowed some fine deer there. Most of the hunters here walk/still hunt to their stands anyway, and in a way that is more fair chase I suppose. In any case, when we do get one, we seldom have to drag a deer more than a hundred yards before we can sled it out behind a machine. Below is an entry and a typical one, taken from my 2004 journal I keep on the seasons.

"Nov. 17th, a big ground scrape is found at the Far Ridge . We hunt the area, no luck...only animal seen is a whitish coyote 100 yards from camp..on the 20th, I am returning to camp at midday on an ATV and pass a small Christmas tree plantation seventy-five yards from deer camp porch. I find a fresh tree rub that was not there the day before... the tree is big, and so is he. The damage is heavy and we are fired by the discovery that a large buck visits camp at night. Teasing us. November 21st, two deer jumped at Walker's field - no shot. Sunday at noon and most hunters head out for home, three remain at camp. One elects to go to Walker's fields - jumps two deer, but unknown sex and no shot taken. I take the Far Stand for a late afternoon sit. The last hunter in camp, a Long Ridge veteran decides to hike out the West side trail. It's four P.M. and I am feeling good, a buck is nearby...the occasional honk of a passing goose, a low guttural call of a bird high in the trees that I have never been able to identify in fifty years, and life is good. It is calm. 4:01 PM, terrific view of the Far Field, no wind, and I have THAT feeling. POW! - the shot comes from the Southwest, about a quarter mile to my left. I know immediately who it is, and where the hunter is. I reach for my radio, and flick it on... "Yeah, Jack, that was me, I got a hit, might as well sit tight until I check it out." Right. I am as a brother to this fellow SWAT Team member, and I know his skills. I heard his shot, and it is as good as done for me. "10-4" I answer, but I am already unsnapping my safety harness twenty-five feet above the ground. I have my rifle slung, my waist pack on and poised in ten seconds. Down I go, and as I hit the ground, I hear the radio crackle - "Jack, better get one of the ATV's up here, he's down, I'll leave my hat in the trail where I head West". I am already half way to camp, and my radio crackles from our third hunter, who has monitored and is on his way to help. Back at camp, start an ATV, load rope, extra knives, a towel, camera, and head out the West trail. At the moment I see the orange cap in the middle of the trail I glance west and see bright orange in the thickening gloom. Forty yards from the trail, this buck was heading south, parallel to the trail, when he was spotted, and shot. With a shattered heart, broken leg, and smashed ribs, this nine point beauty above managed to streak forty yards before piling up. Dead before his first leap, this buck had such a will to live, that he galloped without consciousness.
We took time to admire his coat, and his swollen neck, and his rack . Silently I said the ancient German prayer .. ‘…and we thank thee for thy beauty, speed and grace...’ By the time he was weighed, and photographed hanging in camp, on the weigh scale, next to hunters, it was late, and way past dark. Several toasts and promises later, I stood alone at deer camp. Pitch black I step off the porch to the fireplace. The fire just red embers, and all hunters gone until the last weekend of the season. The high of the hunt - the loneliness of it's end....there is NOTHING that can match either."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Back to Deer Camping...

I spoke in my earlier post about starting a Deer Camp, and making it now you may have questions about our camp and it's hunters. There are 17 hunters on the camp roster. Not all attend every year or every hunting weekend - I'd say about ten are hard core. Eight of us are police officers, several retired. Also on the list is a doctor, an accountant, a builder, a construction manager, an electrical company owner, a machinist, a custodian, and an insulation foreman. The cops rank from Captain to Patrolman. 32 to 67 is the age range. Our different backgrounds and occupations make for a broad array of evening discussion topics from all walks of life. A deer camp is one place where diversity really does work. Most of the hunters reside here in New Hampshire, one travels from Pennsylvania, one lives in Texas. We keep in touch all year by an email group address list.
Five of us are hard core bow hunters...six of us also hunt with muzzle loaders. All of the group are rifle hunters.
We have lost several hunters off the list over the years and we do not invite others in until we have a spot. Seventeen is about max for a camp this size.
Occasionally we have an April dinner or breakfast meeting with our families just to touch base. Beginning in July we bow hunters start getting together to practice and compare equipment.
We believe in good hunter ethics, and frown upon taking poor shots, hunting with untested equipment or unsighted in (annually) firearms. Chasing wounded deer does nothing for us. As a management practice I encourage the taking of does and usually take one for the freezer myself. We are not specifically a 'trophy hunting' camp. Small antlered bucks are sometimes taken, and proudly hung on the game pole. We hunt as individuals, rarely doing drives. Some of the hunters prefer to still hunt, while others use climbers or nestle into some favorite spot. I have seven strategically placed 20 foot high tree stands on my 130 acres,and the rest and those not afraid of heights use those. Except for a few ladder stands most of my stands are the Wedge stands which I install 22 feet up, and build a twenty foot ladder to access them. They are excellent, and last years and years. Most of the stands are either in acorn areas, or placed to try to catch deer moving toward our fields or food plots. We have a log inside the camp that you must sign in and mark which stand you are going to be in. That way, later arrivals won't bother you or approach that particular stand to use it. If we take a deer in the afternoon, we sit until shooting light is over so as to not disturb other hunters. I have a trail system that allows for ATV access to most areas of the property, so drags are generally short. Deer shot beyond my boundaries however have created some monstrous drags, not to be forgotten. We carry radios and cell phones so getting help when needed is no problem. But overall, the emphasis is on hunting as individuals. In fact, I preface every annual deer camp letter with the following:

"This will be the twelfth anniversary that deer hunting camps have been held at Long Ridge. For any that have not attended, these are three-day weekend camps for serious hunters and serious friends. No pressure, no demands, no work. Hunt in your own fashion, in your own way, on your own schedule. Come when you can, and leave when you will…if you cannot stay over, hunt for the day. If you cannot hunt for the day, join us here for a drink around the fire in the evening. Come for one, two, or all three camps …but remember this first…hunt in your own fashion…"

Sunday, February 22, 2009

February Deer Scenes

Here some pictures from our kitchen window on Friday. Generally we have about 20/24 inches of snow in the woods, but because of the last few weeks warmth and loss of some in open areas, the deer are roaming along our upper rear fields looking for open ground. Not much browse here, but it did hold their attention for awhile. They all looked fairly healthy.

They were able to walk off staying on top of the crust. They will go from here in a big circle up the hill to a large softwood bedding area. Years ago we fed them through the winter. We stopped when the coyotes began killing them right out side the kitchen. Even without feeding them, within several weeks the coyotes will be into them in a big way. They whelp around March and really require a lot of red meat. I have photographed some grisley scenes of coyote kills. I will say this. Absolutely nothing goes to waste in nature. Every bone, every hair, every hoof is utterly consumed by the canines. What they leave (and it isn't much,) is finished by birds, foxes and bears. Whatever they do kill does not seem to adversely effect the size of the herd here. When we fed them, we could count up to 35 deer in our yard at once. Once snow breaks, they scatter widely for food. My feeling is that the most predation (by coyote, fisher and bear) is on the newly born fawns in May and June.

I find that about half the does in our area lose a fawn, and sometimes both, by fall. In any case, over the past ten years we have managed our land for wildlife. Logging, bringing back the overgrown fields, freeing up the wild apples, and planting clover have increased the overall size and health of the deer in our area. In the 90's when we first arrived, it was a big deal to see a deer on stand. Now it is not uncommon to have ten or more feeding within sight of our elevated stands.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why a Deer Camp?

Before we talk hunting, let's talk about deer camps...what is the allure, and how do you join or start one?
It is time to address the question from a hunter last fall – “how do you get a deer camp started and what do you need to do it?” Good question, and the answer is totally fluid. You get a deer camp started with friend (s), and you need little to do it. I was a big city kid, and my first ‘deer camp’ was a huge colonial home in Marlow. We were there all summer, but returned to the city in the fall. In those days, deer season began about December 1st, so after Thanksgiving, Dad took us out of school, and up there where we started fires and furnaces, and lugged water, and made the place comfortable. In the evenings we would clean rifles, check gear, and get reviews on how to use a compass, start fires and things of that nature. By opening day, hunter friends of Dad’s would arrive and settle in a back room near an open fire and plan their hunts. We boys would listen, and learn.

By the time I was in college, the old place in Marlow was sold, and the only ‘deer camp’ I had ever known ended. My next deer camp, years later, was an invitation to hunt in Southern NH, where camp was the lower level of a split-level ranch, where the garage door looked out over a swamp. We all slept in the garage in sleeping bags, got up at 4 AM to grill breakfast, and then piled in trucks to our hunting destination. The night before the hunt was as always..planning, discussions on where and how, friendly arguments about methods, calibers, skills, and recipes. Bragging about families. Deer war stories. The past years’ work, the best truck, beer, rifle, and politics. Wasn’t fancy, wasn’t deeply rural, wasn’t even on land we could hunt – but was full of close friends, on the same quest, and we hunted hard.

Our present deer camp is deep in the Connecticut Valley on our farm. Over a dozen years ago, a hunting pal and I camped in the Eastern half of the old dairy barn, ready to hunt opening day. We had no water, and just a simple Coleman gas cooker to make coffee on. We slept in sleeping bags on the floor and used gas lanterns for light. We scouted the land and placed stands, and over the next several years, other hunters joined us, and the barn gradually transpired into almost luxurious standards. At the beginning the only heat we had was a hundred pound propane tank with a double-faced heater on it. It didn’t matter. We ate out of cans and made a stone fireplace outside. We got deer, some real trophies. Eventually, the place got tightened up, a wall gas heater was donated, and at twenty below outdoors, will bring the camp to a respectable 55 degrees. Another hunter donated a refrigerator. A portable toilet was rented. A real gas stove with an oven appeared one year. Big soft easy chairs were acquired, one by one. A bulletin board, a radio, electric coffee maker. Grill. Trophies from NH, Vermont, Colorado, Quebec, began to cover the walls. Deer hides, and antlers, Elk, Caribou, Coyotes, Fisher, Beaver, Moose, you name it. Bunks for eight, a four by ten foot dining table. Gourmet cooks among us, and wild game suppers have become an every camp expectation. The parking lot had to grow to accommodate up to a dozen big pick-ups and ATV’s. Game pole and hoists, huge woodpiles, and an early fall ‘deer camp letter’ to all hunters pretty much rounds out the scene. We have three long weekend camps during the regular firearms season, about all we can pull off. Some of the hunters hunt out West each fall, and bring elk or mule deer meat to camp. Others are busy hunting in other parts of the state, and have tagged their deer by the time camp is scheduled. They come anyway, and cook, and talk, and share their stories.

And that is my point. To have a deer camp, all you need is a friend who loves to hunt, and a place to share a coffee, a story and a good meal. A tent in a field, a garage floor, a real camp, a barn, a living room floor covered with sleeping bags. A love for the hunt. A place to introduce someone to the thrill of camp, of the hunt. Maybe a fireplace or an outside fire pit. If you start it, and invite a friend, it will grow. It will get better. Maybe you have to drive ten miles from ‘camp’ to hunt. So what? The sheer joy of planning, of strategy, of equipment and of luck is the same. Not all of us can afford a twenty thousand dollar guided grizzly hunt in Alaska. But any New Hampshire deer hunter can invite a friend, and share an evening fire. Deer camps can bring a wildly diverse group together and forge lifelong treasured friendships. Our regulars are as different as it gets – cops, and accountants, troopers and company owners, corrections and electricians, rich and the broke, old and the young. All with the same deep feeling of excitement each fall season brings, the opportunity to arrive at camp and see who’s there and to link up with friends perhaps not seen for the entire year. To check the logbook to see who is already out in the woods, and where. To find out who has tagged during archery or muzzleloader season. To hear the tales of those freshly back from Western hunts and to check out any new additions to the rifle rack. To enjoy the bustle of vehicles being unloaded and ATVs parked, and the clank of tree climbers on the porch.

To be a hunter, and to never have experienced any of this would be a tragedy. A deer camp is the perfect opportunity to introduce a non-hunter to the quest. There are those that hunt only because of deer camp ambiance. Think about that, and if you don’t already join your pals at a camp, make the big move this firearms season. Get together with a friend, or a dozen, and start your own deer camp. Stick with it a few years, and your camp will develop it’s own personality, it’s own culture. You will never regret it, and your lifelong hunting experience will be much richer in warmth and memories than without it. I guarantee it.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Who we are...

Welcome to Long Ridge Deer Camp, often referred to as LRDC. This camp is located somewhere in New Hampshire, in the Connecticut River Valley. Indeed, the river is less than a mile away. This is deep New England territory, mostly forested, with some agricultural fields and plantings. Very rural and uncrowded, there is a lot of land to hunt, snowmobile and hike on. As we go on in this blog, we will be talking about how to successfully hunt deer in New England. I have written for outdoor publications, and have subscribed at one time or another to most hunting magazines, including Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, American Whitetail, American Hunting Club etc. It has always amazed me, ever since I was a child (I have been hunting 50 years) how few deer hunting articles written in the national rags have any relevance to hunting Whitetail deer in New England.

We are definitely a Northern clime, with annual temperatures reaching extremes, from 100 degrees F to -35 below zero F. New Hampshire is about 85 % forested. We usually get 3 to 8 feet of snow during the winter months, so our deer definitely benefit from large softwood stands. Where we hunt it is almost entirely wooded, though there may be fields a few acres in size here or there. I would guess that deer density in our area is about 8-10 per square mile.
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