Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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An end-of-the-year gift for deer hunters

The best holiday gift is one you might open right now.

You might be reading this the day before Christmas, or maybe the day after, but either way this is true: The best holiday present is right outside your door. Opening now is the last week or so of the generously long Michigan deer season.

The chaos of Christmas giving is over, except maybe for the return lines and the odd extended-family or company gathering. If you celebrate other holidays, they’re tapering off, too.

Sure, only a handful of days remain before New Year’s Day drops the curtain on almost all deer hunting, but each of those days can be absolutely splendid. I haven’t killed many deer post-Christmas, but I’ve logged some wonderful memories, large and small.

Some are dramatic: Not too long after New Year’s Day was added to the archery deer season (a gift of its own – the season long closed Dec. 31), we headed up US-10 toward a favorite late-season cedar-swamp hunting spot along a branch of the Au Sable River.

Several hours pre-dawn, several hours after the Times Square ball dropped on TV, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised when a driver, probably homeward bound after a night of revelry, approached us – southbound in our northbound lane.

Dumb luck saw each car stay in its own lane. It was a reminder to appreciate each safe arrival, each new hunting day.

Another New Year’s Day we journeyed to that same cedar swamp, several of us taking posts in scrounged-material ground blinds or portable treestands to wait for a couple others who would trudge through the deep snow and cedars in hopes of pushing deer past us.

One of our drivers, not long out of the bar, quickly over heated despite the single-digit temps. He peeled off a few layers, and sweated so heavily we could smell the alcohol in his perspiration, 50 yards away. I made a resolution to avoid similar mistakes.

In a second drive, nearby, one of us put an arrow in a fleeing deer, and it crossed the shallow river. Our hunting partners shook off boots, rolled up pant-legs, and waded across to re-dress, track, and recover the deer – after which they had to repeat the fording.

Yes, harvesting a late-season deer brings its own challenges: hang it to drain and age, sure, but don’t leave it too long: I don’t think there’s anything in the outdoors colder than a frozen deer; my knuckles ache at the very memory of cutting up a hindquarter from one.

Other late-season memories bring warmth, like the morn ing I shot a doe 200 yards from the home of my sleeping friend/host and his wife.

Confident in my effort, he rose, dressed, and drove out in his lawn tractor to pick up my prize (including the backstrap I’d leave with him – it would never see a freezer.) Meanwhile, his wife warmed cinnamon rolls for us.

Another time, in a blind we named The Library for its supply of newspapers and magazines, I looked up from my Detroit Free Press to see a fawn that might have been reading the backside of the page, just feet on the other side of the sliding plexiglass window.

He scampered off; I laughed and poured another cup of coffee.

Another time, I hunted from a hayloft in a centennial farm barn, launching an arrow successfully at a fat doe through cracks that the years had created in its rough-sawed siding.

December hunting was easier, admittedly, when it was legal to place and tend a little pile of food likely to draw deer. You brought them to your warm haunt, if things worked out. Now, the challenge is meeting them near their food supply or shelter; the pop-up blind and portable heater are often the ticket this time of year.

A food plot’s another option, maybe for next season, and it can bring thrills: a friend, checking his deer garden this December, found a freshly shed pair of antlers. Reading his game-camera chip later, he saw a pair of bucks, a six-point and a seven-point, thrashing racks; the seven-point’s antlers were shed in the battle.

Other late-season thrills are less dramatic, such as deer tracks punched into snow so deep one can’t see the impression of the hooves.

So, what’s left?

The second segment of the archery deer hunting season runs through Jan. 1. (U.P. hunters can’t use a crossbow now unless hunting in the Core Chronic Wasting Disease Surveillance Area or under a permit to hunt with a modified bow.)

The late antlerless firearm deer season – private lands only – runs through Jan. 1 in all mainland Lower Peninsula deer management units. Getting private-land permission from a deer-badgered farmer likely will never be easier than now.

And in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties, an urban deer management archery season runs the entire month of January; check local ordinances, the DNR advises, to make sure where hunting is allowed. State game and wildlife areas in all three counties are open to hunting during this extended season.

For each of these hunts, you can hunt under a universal antlerless deer license, single deer or deer combo license.

And any of them can be an end-of-the-calendar year gift.

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