Twenty minutes after the first call and maybe two after the last sip of coffee, a gray body walked casually behind a smattering of brush in the middle of the muskeg.
I had heard what sounded like legs moving through salal a few minutes before, but figured my excitement to be out under blue skies made a trophy squirrel sound like a deer.
The morning was still and cool, bordering on cold — perfect for enjoyment, but not ideal for creeping.
The hike from shore to the muskeg had been loud, and more than a few times I was so frustrated by the tangled brush and sucker holes that led to devil’s club patches, I charged forward, valuing speed over silence.
We arrived carefully on the edge and stood in a lightly-worn game trail while the reverberations of our approach dissipated.
Few things hold the promise of an untouched muskeg on a calm, quiet morning as rut kicks off. It may have been walked before, but not today.
“Go with a fifty,” I whispered to my wife who responded with a sequence meant to travel roughly 50 yards and inspire a buck in the immediate vicinity to stand up, move or step out. Rather than post up in a muskeg and try to bring something in from a mile away, we like delicate approaches and quieter calls which focuses our attention on hunting the muskeg well, not treating the call as a magical apparatus. If nothing responds, then we try to bring something in from further away.
I scoured the edges with my binoculars, looking for a set of floating eyes or antlers fixed on the noisemaker, or any movement. There was none. We crept to the edge of the muskeg and sat at the base of a tree and behind enough brush to conceal us yet still allow for any shooting lane I might need.
When nothing responded, Abby went to work on the coffee while I ate a breakfast of trail mix. This was the first leg of a circuit that would take us through almost two miles of prime terrain. But we needed to eat too so what do you do? Risk spooking a deer with the sound of firing up the Jetboil?
I have sworn off pre-dawn meals and hiking in the dark during rut after a morning in which I was 20 yards from an alder that ended up being a fat-necked buck in the early pre-dawn light. Not a minute after that one spooked, another appeared off the logging road spur my buddy and I were walking. Our plan had been to hunt the muskeg at first light rather than hunt our way to the muskeg at first light. So thanks to that morning, I emerge from the tent ready, assuming there is a buck lurking and saving breakfast for a more convenient time. It also serves as an excuse to be patient rather than moving boldly through too much territory too fast.
Trail mix chewed, coffee sipped, I caught the movement. Perfect. The program was validated. Just be cool and make the shot.
The deer had vanished behind a thick clump and would emerge on the other side maybe 30 yards away. I’d have a lane and a broadside shot. Perfect.
I waited as patiently as I could, now under the influence of the first dose of caffeine mixed with anticipatory adrenaline.
An ear flicked and the deer broke the stillness. Doe.
We called and waited for the buck, but it never came. Next time.
• Jeff Lund is a freelance writer based in Ketchikan. His book, “A Miserable Paradise: Life in Southeast Alaska,” is available in local bookstores and at Amazon.com. “I Went to the Woods” appears twice per month in the Sports & Outdoors section of the Juneau Empire.