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Article for September - October 2006

Gettin’ Ready
by Rick Leonardi
photography by Michael Foster and Phillip Jones

With hunting season right around the corner, some hunters go to great lengths to make ready.

Photograph by Phillip JonesIn the thin morning sunlight, the big buck froze in his tracks, ears pricked, muscles tensed, breath rising in frosty plumes. From the forest ahead came a sound, like the chainsaws he’d heard before, but different, more rhythmic . . . more primitive. He turned and, with great care, silently slipped away. Down the trail, high up in a sturdy pine tree, Jim Bob snored blissfully, swaddled in insulated coveralls, feet toasty warm in fur-lined mukluks, a thick stocking cap protecting his head and face from the frigid morning air.

He had done his homework. He knew where to be and what to wear. He was ready.
For hunters, there is no substitute for planning and preparation. As the heat of summer relents and our thoughts turn to the coming fall, we must ready our equipment, our bodies and our land.

Photograph by Michael Foster Land, of course, is always an issue. Without question, the earliest and most significant preparation we can make is to marry a member of the landed gentry, that is, someone with a big chunk of family property. Yes, I used the M-word. It is important to lock down this relationship (and that lovely hardwood ridge that runs down to the swamp) as securely as possible. Preferably, this would be an only child, eliminating the need to share with siblings, and while an attractive mate is a bonus, given the priorities we’ve established here, good looks are not essential. Actually, bushy nose hairs, a world-class monobrow, and toenail fungus would not kill the deal if the tract were large and free of encumbrances.

Having secured the land, we must make it ready. Planting food plots in wheat, corn, rye and Austrian winter peas is a common tactic, and it works. The farming—bush hogging, tilling and planting—is a rich source of spiritual nourishment, and though a deer or two may be taken out of these patches, a lot more will benefit from them. In the Lowcountry, of course, it can be a simpler matter. Here, many avoid the hassle of working the land, obviously deriving spiritual nourishment elsewhere, and simply put out corn. Some in my family believe that this is a very good deal for the deer because soon after the corn starts showing up the critters become wholly nocturnal, knowing they can find that corn pile in the dark. The debate rages on.

It is important to scout thoroughly before the season begins, checking for scrapes and rubs, heavily used trails, clipped wheat fields or completely eaten corn piles. There are those who say they like to pattern big bucks in advance of the season, learning their dining habits, work schedules and dating preferences. I must admit I’m not sure how this works. To pattern a big buck, it seems, would require seeing one, and that would leave me out. I strongly suspect those who actually accomplish this are neither employed nor married.

Photograph by Phillip JonesAs we grow more mature (read old), the use of climbing stands becomes a hassle, and for some, a physical challenge. Thus we have witnessed the proliferation of ladder stands and free-standing towers. The maintenance of permanent stands is essential given the risk associated with climbing high above the ground without a parachute. Wood and metal components should be evaluated and repaired when necessary. I know a gentleman in the Upstate who, on discovering an old, wooden ladder stand on his property, boldly climbed to the top to check on its condition. No sooner had he announced with a shrug that it “seemed okay” a rotted leg gave way and the whole affair collapsed, conveying him to the ground in rapid and ugly fashion. He lay there, dazed, while a companion fretted over him, but he soon recovered and insisted he was fine.

The following day, however, as he sleepily watched a Sunday football game, his eyes suddenly crossed and showed no inclination to straighten out. A quick trip to the emergency room confirmed a mild concussion, and, happily, it wasn’t long before his eyes abandoned their intersecting ways. So, check first, climb gingerly, and wear your safety belt.

Certainly, it is irresponsible and foolish to go afield with a rifle or bow that has not been zeroed since last year. You owe it to yourself and your quarry to ensure that the sights are still on, and you are still proficient. “It was fine when I put it away last year,” won’t work. All good hunters know that there are beings from a fourth dimension who invade gun closets, even gun safes, in the off-season and alter the settings on scopes and bow sights. Don’t laugh, they’re out there.

Photograph by Phillip Jones Perhaps the most enjoyable task associated with preparing for deer season is the gathering of necessary supplies. “Provisioning,” some call it, and much of this is done today by phone after a thorough study of lavishly illustrated catalogs. There still exist, however, a few traditional sporting goods shops, marvelous places with shelves full of essentials, guns and equipment lined up for the hefting and testing, friendly, knowledgeable staff ready to help. I’m not talking mega-stores here but small, cozy shops where most days you can actually find the owner on the premises. I love these places and frequent them, having favorites around the state, which points out a benefit of being on the road a good bit. I know of one in Spartanburg where the owner will whip up a mean bologna sandwich if you’re hungry.

The selection of gear available is overwhelming, and some of it is actually useful. I will discuss only one product I believe has had enormous impact on the early season deer hunter and would receive the “Rick’s Greatest Gizmos Award” if there were such a thing.

Photograph by Phillip JonesHere in the Lowcountry our deer season begins in August, and we suffer an abundance of mosquitoes at that time of year. In the old days one would immerse himself in bug dope to ward off the swarming pests, but that was fraught with risk. Breathing the fumes of a potent, 100 percent DEET product can make a hunter light-headed and, in extreme cases, cause him to decide he needn’t climb down from his tree stand, but simply fly. Today, though, there is available a wonderful contraption that burns a small coupon of repellent, providing a virtually impenetrable cloud of protection around the hunter. I have a good friend in Walterboro who actually hangs one of these devices from his neck like a pendant. Being a manly man, it is the only jewelry he allows himself to wear.

It is essential to stay abreast of new developments in our marvelous sport of deer hunting, and the best approach for this is to read informative, entertaining articles written by experts . . . well, like this one. Given you have hung in there so far on this story, I would like to share a special, secret method of attracting bucks to your position.

Rattlin’ horns and grunt tubes are commonly used during the rut, when the bucks are avidly seeking relationships and acting stupid. I must admit, without a hint of bragging, that I have successfully attracted deer by grunting but have never used a commercial product for this. I am blessed with the ability to burp at will, and have, by skillful application of what I call the “tactical burp” lured into bow range bucks that would otherwise have passed by my stand. And, when things are slow and I am bored out of my gourd, I will even burp to attract an unseen buck. I refer to this as “blind burping” and cannot recall an occasion when it has actually worked.

Lastly, one cannot be fully prepared for the rigors of deer season without being in top shape. The importance of this is evidenced by a quick look at our superbly conditioned legion of deer hunters—hard, ripped, sinewy.

How do we get this way? We watch what we eat and work out, of course. No early morning sausage biscuits for this crowd. No big plates awash in sawmill gravy, eggs and sausage on the side. We’re into jogging, push-ups, practice climbs with stands in the back yard, hauling heavy bags of corn over rough terrain, hiking with backpacks loaded to the zippers with bricks (and raw carrot snacks). That’s how we do it. When opening morning finally arrives, we are lean, mean hunting machines.

We are ready.

Rick Leonardi is free-lance writer and outdoor sportsman living in Charleston.

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