This fall should go down as one of the longest “Indian Summers” ever, at least as far as recent memory is concerned. Normally we’ll have had a frost or two by now, in some years even a short but undeniable burst of snowflakes, but so far it has been warm and humid during the day and comfortably cool at night. I have to admit that I had stocked my indoor wood rack to the hilt on Oct. 1 expecting to need a fire in the stove most nights but thus far I have not burned a dozen sticks total. Most of my blazes have been “companion” fires, more about ambience than heat, and when I dared to put a second piece of wood in the stove it became so hot in the room I’d have to open a window. Fortunately, I have more than enough firewood on hand so wasting a few bolts won’t make much difference at the other end of winter. It just all seems so odd!
I have been traipsing the woods quite regularly of late, scouting for deer but still carrying a .22 or shotgun in case I run into other “legal game in season.” Because I like to eat what I shoot I limit myself to one squirrel, rabbit, grouse or duck per day, but most of the time I just sit on a comfortable stump, brew some tea and while away the hours watching the leaves drop. I’ll shoot if I see something but most times I’m content to observe.
What’s notable about the fall of 2017 is that, once again, the oaks are raining acorns on us by the bushel. The woods are literally covered with acorns right now; in some places they are so deep that it’s treacherous to walk on them. I avoid slopes, rocks and rutted areas because the acorns are slippery as marbles. Even my best Vibram-soled boots are like roller skates when walking beneath a heavily-laden white oak. In my area there are several stands of black oaks, which produce bigger, rounder acorns than the average white oak. The footing underneath is challenging to say the least because those black oak acorns are about the size of small plums. The deer and squirrels love them, so it makes sense to hunt near black oak trees. I’ve learned to move slowly and deliberately through these areas – walk, don’t run!
It’s also dangerously dry and crispy in the woods right now, as bad as I’ve ever seen it in October. In fact, I have taken to bringing my snack trash out of the woods rather than burning it because the forest duff is so dry. Even the dirt below the leaves is like dust, fine as wood ash. It’s simply not safe to kindle a fire in the woods these days – the risk of igniting a spreading forest fire is way too high in my opinion.
Generally an abundance of acorns means the hunting will not be as productive because the animals and birds have so much food to choose from and don’t have to travel far to find it. However, I am one who hunts cover, which means I look for game in the places they like to hide, and I’ve been seeing a lot of turkeys, deer and other game as a result. All of these birds and animals will venture deeper into the woods at dawn or dusk, some at night, to feed, but in most cases they’ll stick to the safety of the thickets during the day.
Knowing this, I like to pick a high spot that overlooks a brook, old logging trail or some other natural travel route and spend some time watching and listening. It is so dry in the woods that it’s easy to tell the difference between a scurrying chipmunk, a foraging squirrel or a meandering deer. In fact, one evening I made a game of it, staring at the ground while listening to each critter in turn and trying to determine which was which. By the end of the afternoon I was batting 1.000. I’d even picked out the sounds of birds fluttering about in the leaves – they all make a distinctive sound and, with conditions as dry as they are, there’s little room for overlap. On wet days it’s difficult to hear the smaller creatures moving through the leaves and even a deer or bear can sneak past if you are not on high alert. As dry as it is even the mice and shrews seem to be tromping around in the woods. I could hear them rummaging about under the leaves from 50 yards away.
As a rule all of the above animals are still quite furtive in their movements, dry leaves or not, but I was surprised when I heard how loud (careless?) a porcupine was being as he roamed the swamp below me, and later when a roving opossum came by I was amazed at the clatter he made. As a rule woodland animals are shy, nervous, suspicious and extremely alert, but apparently they realize that they can’t avoid making noise among the leaves and so they don’t bother trying. Two of the deer I saw were just strolling along without a care in the world, making such a racket that at first I thought they might have been dogs or other hunters. One whitetail, a small buck, walked past me just 30 yards away, fully absorbed with the glut of acorns available all around him. He never even stopped or looked around. I could hear him walking long after he disappeared into the greenery. A month from now he’d be a candidate for the freezer!
I have noticed that, dry as it is, there are not as many puddles, vernal pools or other small water holes where I might find a wood duck loafing during the day. In fact, even the larger brooks and small ponds are in drought mode, barely containing enough water to qualify as wet holes. I have not seen a duck since the season opened (Oct. 2). No doubt they are spending their time in bigger, wetter places. All I have to do is find them – and isn’t that why they call it “hunting?”