GRAYSVILLE, Ohio - It is called the buck doldrums, the couple of weeks before the rut, when the big-antlered boys just disappear.
That, at least, is the observation of veteran archery hunter Ottie Snyder, who has a professional stake in putting hunters onto deer. He manages the hunting camp here for Horton manufacturing, the crossbow people, and has all the incentive in the world to put his guests onto deer.
The crossbow camp lies deep in the rugged hills and hollows of Monroe County, which can be about as remote as Ohio gets, hard by the Ohio River across from West Virginia in the state's southeast quadrant. The county is dubbed the Switzerland of Ohio for its seemingly endless ridges and scenic vistas, and it is perfect deer country - a mix of small farms and forest and few people. "It's two hours from everywhere," Snyder quipped.
For all that, during a hunt last week his four veteran archers by Monday night had hunted two evenings and a morning - about nine hours each for a total 36 man-hours on stand - and had seen just one passing doe.
Bill Parker, of Lake Orion, Mich., had seen the doe and passed it up as a marginal shot Sunday evening, figuring there would be plenty more chances.
It was, after all, the Horton Camp, and Snyder has well-managed its 100 acres and acreages on adjoining farms where the company has permission to hunt. (Horton recently was taken over by Greg Ritz, former CEO of Thompson/Center Arms, and "is up and running," Snyder said.)
In addition to prime woodlands, open fields of alfalfa and mixed clover and two long plots of standing corn offer a variety of food. More than 20 treestands and ground blind "boxes" are strategically placed. The hunters all were well-versed on no-scent tactics - rubber boots, scent-free treated outerwear and scent-free showers. All have killed plenty of deer over decades.
Which is what had Snyder awake at night, thinking about the buck doldrums and of what he might have missed. He was right when he said, "deer don't read." Indeed, deer follow their own lights.
"I don't know where they go, but it sure makes my life miserable when they do," said Snyder about the white-tailed MIAs. "If I could find the cave they hide in ..."
Well, that was last Monday night. Tuesday morning the camp's luck started to change. Three deer slipped out of the deep, brushy bottoms of the Little Muskingum River onto an open-wooded knob where a 15-foot treestand was beautifully situated. Only two of them left alive.
One, a mature 125-pound doe, which Snyder estimated to be at least 2 1/2 and possibly 3 1/2 years old, was down and out with an arrow launched from 14 yards from a 150-pound crossbow. I got lucky, I guess. But the crossbow worked just fine, like any archery equipment properly used.
"Archery is archery," Snyder said. "Twenty yards is a long way in the woods; it just doesn't look like it on the range."
Ethically, he acknowledged, any bows - whether held vertically or horizontally - are 20 to 30-yard hunting tackle in typical white-tailed deer habitat. "A crossbow is not a .30/06 with a string." Nor is a tricked-out high-tech compound bow.
In any case, I was very happy with the doe, which will provide prime venison for the coming year. The Ohio Division of Wildlife also would be happy. It has been campaigning for years for hunters to shoot more does to control the state's deer herd - still estimated at 650,000. Snyder was happy too for one of his hunters had scored and presented him some skinning and processing chores at the meatpole and in the kitchen.
Camp rules dictate that does are fine to take, but only take a buck if you intend to have its head mounted. That eliminates taking of smaller bucks and allows them to grow up to be big boys - such as the ones that trip the shutter on Snyder's trail camera after dark.
Snyder displayed a gallery of photos of the trail-camera bucks on his laptop and some of the animals sport jaw-dropping racks. It showed what quality deer management can do for an area. These were the big guys hiding in their mythical pre-rut caves last week.
The barometer dropped some during the day Tuesday - and the weather was warming up from Sunday's night's hard freeze, which loosened up the brilliant autumn leaves and caused them to fall like rain Monday. Deer were moving finally. By Tuesday night, everyone but Parker had opportunities at their stands.
Editor of Michigan Outdoor News, Parker had a stray dog virtually camping on his territory and it barked and yowled and kept the deer at bay morning and evening. So much for coming down to Ohio to experience crossbow hunting - his native Michigan finally is getting into the act in a bigger way, as is neighboring Pennsylvania.
The Tuesday night opportunities, however, didn't mean more deer for the freezer, however. Jeff Frischkorn, outdoors writer for the News Herald in Lake County, had a huge-bodied four-point show up at his stand. But he already has taken a nine-pointer back home and is done for the year with hunting "horns." He wanted a doe.
So did Greenie Grewell, a freelance writer and photographer from Mount Sterling, Ohio. He drew down on a big deer in the closing minutes, only to see it was also a four-pointer. He would have taken a doe, but is saving his buck opportunity for the rut and a chance at a trophy.
Speaking of which, no trophy bucks ever did show up during legal hunting hours last week, at camp's stands at least. One hunt's experience does not a book make, but maybe there is something to buck doldrums before the rut.
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