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  • Writer's pictureNelson Sigelman

Martha's Vineyard Deer Hunter Sees the Forest but Not the Tree

In October, the start of the deer hunting season on Martha’s Vineyard, I generally get out of bed by 5 a.m. so I can be in my deer stand at the start of legal shooting time, one-half hour before sunrise. My brain doesn’t work very well at that time in the morning. The neurons fire just enough so I can turn on the coffeemaker.

So Monday, weeks into the archery season, I finally realized what I’d been missing all those early mornings. As I reached for one of the many coffee cups hanging from hooks in the kitchen cupboard, I saw a singular mug tucked into a corner where I’d put it at the end of deer hunting season almost one year ago: “Yes.”

I had forgotten an important season ritual, and judging by my results so far — one doe — it affected my luck. My deer mug, which sports a drawing of a bemused buck, is one of the intangibles of my hunting kit. It’s a gift from my wife Norma, and I only use it during deer hunting season.

Does my mug help? I don’t know, but hunting an animal with acute senses of smell and hearing and that is very good at avoiding humans takes skill and some luck. You can put the odds in your favor, but there is often an element of chance and luck.

Will they or won’t they show up? Not deer — the crew of landscapers, each of whom is herding leaves with a leaf blower emitting decibels comparable to a small passenger jet. The steady drone makes it impossible to hear the subtle, exciting crunch of an approaching deer stepping on fallen leaves. That’s bad luck.

One of the basics of success is wind direction. For example, I have a stand that overlooks several deer runs that exit a swamp. If I sit in it on a west wind, my scent carries into the deer’s bedding area, and they’ll use another exit when they begin moving in the late afternoon.

Trail cameras help hunters to gauge deer movement and activity. The images can be exciting. Last week, one of my cameras captured two big bucks sparing. I’ll spend more time in this stand as the rut, the time of the year in mid-November when bucks with love on their minds begin chasing does, become more active in the daytime.

Hunting takes patience. I spend much time sitting in my stand, waiting for a deer to walk by, contemplating life. Early in the season, I was thinking about my sister,

who’s had some problems lately, when a nice doe came walking down the trail broadside to me with two young ones following. I flicked the safety off my crossbow. It was a perfect setup, but I hesitated and let them feed and walk on.

I’m not sure why. Did I expect that one day, my sister and I would come back as deer and be reunited with our mother? I shudder at the thought.

I was just having fun watching them and figured I’d have plenty of opportunities to shoot deer as the season progressed. But that was not the case.

One day, I took a shot at a deer and shot too low. I misjudged the angle or simply screwed up. Despite hours of searching, I was unable to recover the deer. It happens, but as every hunter who’s experienced the hollow feeling knows, that’s no consolation. I felt terrible.

There’s a property I hunt where, repeatedly driving into and exiting it, I’d see deer standing along the side of the long dirt roadway that bisects a thick grove of trees and brush not far from the paved road. I generally prefer to hunt away from traffic noise, but the deer were there, and the reason I’m there is to reduce the number of deer on the property, so I devised a strategy. I’d arrive before the deer, pick a good spot to sit where I’d have some cover, observe how the deer were moving, and, if I got lucky, get a shot.

Monday, it was dank and foggy. I was in position by 3 p.m. in front of a stone wall at the base of a tree big enough to break up my outline. I sat on a slight rise with my knees drawn up and waited, slowly scanning the woods.

Just after 5 p.m. I spotted a deer about 40 yards away across the driveway to my right. She was hard to make out, her coloration a perfect match for the tangled landscape. I rested my older model Excalibur Matrix crossbow on my knees and waited.

My crossbow is a recurve. Aside from the materials, the bow’s concept is the same as that of Genoese crossbowmen of Medieval Europe. Its simplicity and accuracy are outstanding. More expensive crossbows use pulleys, have a slimmer profile, and shoot faster bolts. For example, my crossbow bolt tipped with a Muzzy Trocar 125-grain fixed blade broadhead travels at a speed of about 350 feet per second, or 240 miles per hour (you can Google anything), and is accurate out to sixty yards (I don’t consider a shot over 30 yards). The newest Ravin crossbow incorporates a high-tech platform and pulley system, has an electric crank, and shoots a bolt at an astounding 500 feet per second, or 340 miles MPH. It costs a staggering $3,800.

A Timex or a Rolex, each watch tells the time. And when it comes to crossbows, arrow placement, not speed, puts venison in the freezer.

The doe started to walk parallel to the driveway. I watched her through my scope in the fog, gray deer against a monochrome background. I had her in my sights broadside in a small clearing at about 25 yards when she turned her head, looked directly at me, and began bobbing her head, unsure if I was a threat. I fired.

My crossbow bolt has a nock that glows when fired, allowing me to follow the arrow's trajectory and, when it works properly, locate the arrow and judge whether it was a good hit. The arrow flew straight at the deer. “Thwack!” I heard a loud impact. The doe charged off into the brush, I assumed, mortally wounded.

Not seeing the deer fall, I waited about 25 minutes for the deer to expire before I got up to look for my arrow and check for blood as the sun set and the woods grew dark. I was confident it was a good hit. I’d watched the arrow and heard the impact.

I found no arrow. But I was not concerned. The nock lights are very fickle. But I could find no blood. I began to search. I crawled on my hands and knees along the run I had watched her disappear. I became entangled in green briars. At one point, in the darkness and thick vegetation, I didn’t know which way was which.

I was tired. I’m 72 years old. Last week, Norma said she knew I was at Brian Athearn’s because she located me using the “Find My” app on her iPhone, a technological skill I didn’t know she possessed. I was comforted by the fact that if I had a heart attack, she’d be able to find my body in Chilmark’s greenbriar hell — small comforts, weird thoughts.

I saw headlights and headed for the road. I was feeling increasingly dejected. Ned Casey texted me to check on how I was doing, and he wisely suggested I wait until the morning to resume my search.

As I returned to my truck, I walked along the swamp's edge, hoping, even as disappointment tugged at me. Then, I found the answer I’d been looking for. I’d killed a tree, but I hadn’t wounded a deer. And for that, I was very grateful. Luck takes many forms.


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