Deer Camp: A Sportsman’s Tradition

In certain areas of Michigan deer hunting is a way of life, something that the whole family looks forward to the whole year long. There are many ways to enjoy this great sport close to home or very far away this story will be about a first trip up north to a deer camp. For many hunters in Lower Michigan being old enough to go to the family cabin or to a camping style deer camp in rifle territory is a rite of passage. Some of the best campsites are used by the same families for many generations. Being invited into another family’s camp is a real honor. In our case it was the camp of extended family and we were thrilled to except.

CampfireMy Dad and I have been on overnight camping trips before but never a whole week in the woods. I really didn’t have a clue of what to expect from him and his friends because of some of the stories I had listened in on during back yard campfires at home. What I was sure of is that they did come home with a lot of deer and many tales of numbers of deer that I never had a chance to experience, yet. I could hardly wait to get through all the preparation so we could get to the promised land of deer hunting.

During the preparation phase of the trip I had a series of questions for every item I was told get ready. My Dad answered each of my questions with a short story of what life in deer camp would be like without that item and I began to understand just how far out in the woods we were about to be going. After spending half a day loading up the old station wagon until there was just enough room left for Dad and I we were ready to make the six hour drive north.

With some final last minute instructions from Mom on what to do and what not to do, we finished our last check of our cargo and we hit the road with great anticipation. The first leg of our journey was short as we needed to stop at the corner grocery store to stock up on beef jerky, peanut butter and bread. I can’t help but remember the proud feeling that came over me as we walked through the store in camouflage pants and our hunter orange caps. I was going deer hunting with the other men and I wanted everyone to know it.

The drive went by quickly without a moment of silence, between stories of those we would be hunting with and pointing out landmarks for me there was never a dull moment. At four hours into the trip we stopped at a small restaurant that was also a sporting goods store for a bite to eat. The parking lot was full of other station wagons and trucks overloaded with the gear they would need to have an enjoyable week away from home, many even were pulling small camping trailers that would be their homes for the next week or so.

The restaurant was full and the chatter from all the hunters was deafening. Though there were no empty tables a group of five hunters invited us to join them. It didn’t take long before Dad and our new found friends were talking like they had known each other for years. It struck me as odd that there was not a clean shaven face among them, well that is except for mine. The grizzled old hunters picked me out as a first timer right away with one of them assuring me that after a week in the woods I too would be sporting a beard to be proud of. Being only fourteen I doubted this but liked the thought of returning home with a full beard feeling one step closer to being a man.

The rather plain looking waitress with a grease stained apron was fending off advances from the hunters at every table. I couldn’t help but wonder how she could put up with such behavior, and then I noticed that her apron was overflowing with the tips that gave her the last laugh. The way Dad looked at me when the others issued inappropriate comments told me that we would not be treating her this way, but to some this was just a part of their deer camp traditions. The meal of meatloaf and potatoes was just as good as homemade and by the time I finished I wasn’t sure if I would need to eat again for the rest of the week.

Back on the road we had another hour on the pavement then we hit dirt roads for thirty more minutes before the two track logging trail was reached. Once we hit dirt roads we started to see cabins with trucks in the yard and smoke chugging from the chimneys. On the two tracks every turn revealed another camp. At first it was bigger campers but the farther we went into the forest the campers kept getting smaller until there were only tents. The camps were becoming more primitive and we were still driving farther into the forest.

When we left home there was barely a dusting of snow on the ground but here there was a solid foot. The old wagon trudged through the snow much easier than I would have ever thought possible with a minimum of slipping and sliding. The last little hill was the worst of it but with a second try and a little momentum we made it to what would be our new home for the next week. There were already four tents set up and a big roaring fire to greet us. Out of the twelve campers that came out to welcome us I recognized six though they all seemed happy to see us. The more the merrier was definitely the theme for this camp.

Back home we were known to guard our favorite hunting spots like a jealous husband, but here everyone was pointing out on the maps where they had seen deer and giving suggestions on the best places to hunt. It was refreshing to see hunters working together so everyone could enjoy the experience as much as possible. The best part of this camaraderie was since it was my first time they insisted on doing their very best to try to give me the first shot at a deer. It would be hard to argue with a tradition that gave me an opportunity like that.

The tour of the camp revealed some nice surprises with every hunter having brought something special to make us more comfortable. Every tent had a radio and a heater of some sort with some being much more deluxe than others. The one pickup truck with a bed camper on it had a TV and propane stove. The big insulated tent had room for eight cots around the edges and a large folding table with eight chairs in the center. Another one of the tents used a wood burning stove and racks to dry clothes. Though our personal accommodations were simple we would stay warm and dry, I could only hope.

Around the campsite there was an abundance of light from gas lanterns, electric lights and the fire itself. The fire pit was lined with hundreds of fist sized rocks that flowed out to a nice pile all the way around. Outside of the stones the chain sawed benches gave the whole area a hillbilly Stonehenge vibe. The eastern side of the camp was dominated with a flowered shower curtain on a rope that hid a bench that backed up to a trench, the shovel that stood upright in the pile of dirt was for flushing your business and the system functioned well. Other than that there were a couple of picnic tables and the twenty foot long pole suspended 8 feet off the ground that we would hang all the deer on.

It is Funny how a bunch of guys that avoided chores at home pitched in to organize quite a tidy little camp. The tent that served as a pantry was stuffed to the zippers, much to my surprise the food stores showed a noticeable lack of meat. I was told this was because we would have plenty of meat once the deer season opened in the morning. It was then that one of the older hunters showed me two coolers he left in his truck that were full of packages of deer meat wrapped in white butcher paper tied with twine. This stash of deer sausage and ground meat I was told was just for the first night and opening morning breakfast but would last a few days if needed.

Now that we were all settled in darkness fell as if someone dropped a black canvass around the perimeter of camp. The tradition of showing off the guns began with each of us unsheathing our chosen weapon and placing it on one of the weather worn picnic tables with a short statement disclosing its caliber and origin. The pride of ownership was evident as each glowed as they told the story of target and game that had fallen to their weapons. Many bragged of how far they could shoot, while some boasted of the numbers of animals they had taken.

I didn’t have much of a tale to tell about my gun as it came to me on Christmas day less than a year before. The lever action 30-30 was a staple in the Michigan deer woods and I was proud of mine though the scoped rifles did gather most of my attention. It was hard for me to imagine hitting any target at two, three or four hundred yards, but no one doubted their stories so I could only assume they were mostly true. Dad was the last one to unveil his weapon of choice; Bertha was chanted by all as he removed the classic 870 Remington from the case. This gun was a bit of a celebrity in itself as it was responsible for countless numbers of fallen game of many species.

Being that we had traveled many hours from home to be in an area that rifles were allowed I had to ask Dad why he chose to bring a shotgun. Dad assured me that the place we would be hunting the shots were going to be close and there would be no need for a long shot. With Bertha being the gun he used for waterfowl and other moving game he had much confidence with its effectiveness on walking or even running deer. I had never even thought about shooting a moving deer but the idea of that intrigued me. Dad did offer to let me carry Bertha in the morning but nothing was going to get me to give up the 30-30 that I had been fondling for eleven months dreaming of this day.

The pot that held our first meal in camp was the size of a witch’s caldron holding gallons of beans and bacon. The large group of men around the glowing fire eating beans from tin plates reminded me of all the westerns that I had seen as a child. It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn toward how toxic the air would become in the tents once the beans had their well-known effect. Soon after eating the focus turned to the consumption of adult beverages. Personally I don’t know why someone would drink something that made a fireball when spit into the fire. To say some of the others enjoyed this vice would be a gross understatement.

Dad had a beer or two and offered me one; I had no idea if he meant it or if it was a trap and that really didn’t matter. Watching how some people act when drinking made me not want to take the chance. It was reassuring to see that at least my Dad was one of the guys that was here to hunt and would not sacrifice the quality of the hunt for a night of partying. I later found out the guys that were drinking the most were the ones that would be watching our camp while we hunted the opener. This was a noble sacrifice decided by random draw. The only way to get out of these duties was if someone else that was supposed to hunt slept in too late. Sleeping in is the same as volunteering to be camp guard.

The last thing we all did before hitting the hay was to tell a tale or two of hunts gone by. This would likely produce dreams of herds of deer sporting huge antlers. The stories started out mostly about recent hunts and they seemed believable, as the hour got later the accounts recalled were more and more outlandish. Whether true or a complete exaggeration didn’t matter much they were very entertaining. The end of each embellishment brought another hunter to comment on how deep it was getting and off to their cots they went. We had all been in the cold all day and it was time to enjoy a nice warm sleeping bag.

The morning greeted us with seventeen degrees and a dusting of new snow. If not for the excitement off the hunt leaving the warmth of the sleeping bag would have been the last thing on my list of things to do. The cold air was like a slap in the face as the door to the tent was unlaced; the smell of sausage cooking was just the enticement I needed to coax me from the comfortable sleeping quarters out into the bitter cold. Much to my surprise everyone was awake very early even those that chose to tie one on the night before. Nobody wanted to miss the most anticipated day of the year.

As I filled a plate of food and started to scarf it down I was informed that I would be on breakfast duty the next day. Not wanting to disappoint the others I paid close attention to how the meal was being prepared. The pan fried potatoes consisted of almost as much onion as potatoes with just enough green and red pepper for a festive look. The open fire gave every aspect of the meal a pleasing smoky flavor. The spiciness of the sausage served well as a warm-up for the belly. Cheese gave scrambled eggs a nice tangy touch that complimented the smoke very well. One hunter stated “this is a meal fit for a king served to peasants”. Everyone was agreed on that point with more compliments to the cooks.

One hour before daylight and we were all making our final preparations. Some insisted that smoking your clothes was the way to go while others avoided the smoke at all costs with their outer layers. Dad had put our coveralls in a bag full of dry leaves and pine needles hoping this would cover our scent from the deer, at least to some extent. No one was allowed to leave camp without a bright orange cap and vest. Safety was important with the woods full of hunters with rifles. Even in the dark the pumpkin colored army was visible leaving camp for some distance.

Though most hunters lined the four hundred acre field covered with natural grasses Dad had other ideas. He would place us near the cedar swamp over a mile from the field. Dad told me that the deer would most likely be pushed out of the field before light from all the hunters getting into position. The scouting some hunters did showed deer by the hundreds using the grazing land, but with the orange army descending on the field things were bound to change.

Thirty minutes before daylight found Dad and I sitting on opposite sides of the same tree on top of a small rise overlooking the damp darkness of an expansive low lying stand of cedars. The view was as breathtaking as the frigid air. Though we could see a long way over the top of the swamp the thick cover only allowed for shots of less than one-hundred yards. With the steepness of the hill we were on we were sure the saddles on either side of us should funnel deer within fifty yards of our position. For safety we were set up on the side of the hill and wouldn’t be able to see deer coming until they were within shooting distance, though the squeaking crunch of the snow should give us some warning.

With the rising sun came the sound of deer moving in the distance. Shots from the field rang out way before we could see but we knew our time would soon come. As I bit off a peace of jerky and started to chew Dad elbowed me and said “that’s going to attract bears” I almost spit it out before I noticed the smirk on his face that meant he was just pulling my leg. I elbowed him back and reminded him how the fact that I ran faster than him would come in handy if that was the case. He covered his face to laugh so as not to scare away our quarry. This kind of ribbing kept the whole trip fun and light.

Things took a more serious tone as the shots got closer and more frequent. We were now on high alert, eyes wide open in anticipation of what would follow. We each had tags for a buck and a doe, my plan was to fire on the first deer that appeared. Without notice six deer slipped through the saddle and stopped thirty five yards away and starred right at us. Being a rookie I lifted my gun and they bolted without a shot fired. Dad seeing I was bummed told me this was part of the learning process and I would get another chance.

As to not be caught unprepared again I rested the 30-30 on my knee keeping it up and ready for action. Five minutes went by and I was already getting quite uncomfortable. Dad kept looking over at me, checking to see how I was holding up while still maintaining a vigilant watch over his side of the trail. Soon the silence was broken with the tell-tale sound of limbs popping from the hooves of deer doing their best to avoid the orange army that had descended on their environment.

I tightened the grip on my weapon as the noise became louder indicating the animals were coming our way. When the large herd of deer bounded over the hill and into sight they appeared directly in front of Dad and that put them 180 degrees from the direction my gun was aimed. I strained my neck to see them stop and look back towards whatever had startled them. Dad took this opportunity to lift his shotgun to a ready position. As I waited for Bertha to bark the herd started filing by, first does and fawns then the first antlers appeared.

We were here to hunt for meat but we would of course make an attempt at a big buck if given half a chance. The longer the encounter lasted the more I began to shake; the sight of antlers had a definite amplifying effect that can only be attributed to the dreaded buck fever. This was one of those cases where reality went far beyond any dreams I had conjured up. Seeing me jumping out of my own skin with excitement had brought Dad a rush that deer hunting hadn’t provided him in quite some time.

With the entire herd now in view we had slowly worked our way around the tree till we were shoulder to shoulder both with guns up and pointing at the bigger bucks. I had no idea how many points or how the deer would score and didn’t care this would be the biggest buck I had ever seen in the wild and with a little luck he would soon be mine. Dad just began to whisper whenever you’re ready when the crack of the 30-30 echoed through the woods closely followed by the boom of the 12 gauge slug gun.

Chaos followed with thirty plus deer running for the cover of the cedars as fast they could go. In the confusion I lost track of my targeted animal while Dads buck barely stumbled before expiring mercifully without a clue of what had happened to him. As I started to rise Dad motioned for me to sit while telling me even though he thought my aim was true we should give the animal a chance to die in peace. The short wait seemed like an eternity with the doubts of my accuracy mounting.

As we waited the deer sightings for the day continued to increase giving us many opportunities to fill our doe tags all of which we happily declined. I never imagined deer hunting on public land could be so productive. With the action we had seen and the number of shots we heard the others in are group were bound to have had similar success. As we started to see other orange clad figures sneaking around the woods we thought we better get a tag on Dads trophy and find mine before someone else did.

We stood up shaking our legs to get blood flowing back into our half frozen toes. Pacing off the distance revealed that at less than thirty yards we had fired on the bucks. With little time spent admiring Dads shot placement he lifted the rack from the snow to find a symmetrical ten points with a spread of eighteen inches. What a fine representation of the species. Filling out and attaching the tag seemed to take forever as I looked towards the spot my deer was standing when I fired.

Only a few yards from the tagged animal we found cut hair and a few specs of blood, not nearly as much as I expected. Dad wasn’t worried but I was very concerned that my shot may not have hit its mark. We followed the tacks for a short distance and began to see copious amounts of spilled crimson blood upon the pure white snow. Dad slowed me down a bit as I started to trot along the path of red. Keeping my head down with my eyes going from drop to drop I was only fifteen feet away from the deer when I noticed him.

Falling to my knees I shouted YES at a volume that echoed through the swamp. Without bothering to get to my feet I scurried to the buck lifting his head and pointed it in Dads direction. He picked me up and gave me a very uncharacteristic hug, as hugging is something we just didn’t do. The pride in his eyes was impossible to miss and made me feel as if I had conquered the world. The antlers were thick and wide though only having seven points they were long and gnarly. I proceeded to count the points repeatedly as to make sure the tag was punched properly.

After taking care of the grizzly details of field dressing we began the tiring task of dragging the deer to the road. We were not the first to hang our deer on the buck pole but we did have the most impressive racks to show off. Nine deer were hung on the pole out of fourteen hunters that was pretty impressive for one morning of hunting. Six bucks and three does were harvested with one guy filling both his tags and being back to camp in time to let one of the camp guards make it out early enough for him to get one himself.

The evening hunt found us sitting at the same tree waiting for the deer to leave the swamp on their way back to the fields. An hour went by with no sightings, that time was occupied with some good natured banter about how my buck was wider and Dads had more points. The next thing on the agenda for bragging rights was who was to get the biggest doe.

The biggest doe controversy was soon settled when a small doe came limping bye. We looked at each other and nodded, no words were necessary we knew this was an animal that needed to be taken. I chose to fill my last tag and put the deer down without hesitation. That would end the hunt for the day and we returned to camp adding the doe to the pole and another story to the ones we had created earlier.

Sometime during dinner that night we decided three deer was all that we needed to fill the freezer and we would leave for home after watching the camp for the other hunters morning outing. Fresh venison dominated the meal with everyone taking their turn telling their account of the day’s happenings. Dirty cold and tired that night I slept like a rock not stirring until Dad shook me awake so we could make breakfast for the camp.

We had the car loaded and our goodbyes said before noon and hit the road so we would be home for supper that same evening. On the trip home we were already making plans for the next season. We were able to enjoy many more hunting trips together before age and busy lives made it difficult. Now that my sons will be old enough to go to deer camp soon I am anxious to complete the circle and pass the traditions to them to carry on.

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