As fall approached last year, I reminded myself “Don’t waste October.” For a hunter there is no other month with the unlimited possibilities of October. Oh how I wish it lasted longer, but the magic lasts only 31 days…
Between September’s heat and mosquitoes and November’s cold, dark days, lies the wonderful month of October. In October, the stifling summer heat is gone, yet winter’s bone chilling temperatures haven’t arrived yet. It starts with green forests turning to bright red and yellow, then to gold and bronze. It ends with bare tree branches and maybe a light tracking snow. The earthy smell of damp, fallen leaves seems intoxicating. At daylight, the fallen leaves might be covered with the first frost, but by afternoon the sun might be shining from a crystal clear, blue sky to warm the world.
During October whitetail bucks go from being buddies traveling in bachelor groups, to rivals, who pin back their ears and glare at their old friends. It’s bowhunting season. I’m a bowhunter; have been for years. For me traditional bowhunting is a year-round thing. I love the history of it and the old school skills and woodsmanship needed to be proficient with simple archery equipment. I enjoy the regular practice sessions which are needed to develop the strength and hand-eye coordination for consistent shooting with a longbow or recurve bow. I especially love bowhunting during those golden days of October.
I’m not a trophy hunter. Oh sure, I like big bucks, and I’ve taken a few, but since I make and hunt with much of my own archery gear, and I love the taste of venison, well, I’m just a bowhunter. I count any buck taken with my simple gear as a trophy.
Bow hunting is not easy though. Last fall I’d been on several hunts without seeing a deer within range or without even seeing a deer. Then, as the sun rose one October morning, two whitetail bucks were making their way along a deer trail that passed 15 paces in front of the big maple tree my stand was in. I turned my feet on the stand, raised my handmade bamboo backed Osage longbow, and silently watched and waited. The deer were taking their own sweet time as they fed along, relaxed yet alert. Then, for no reason that I could see, the bigger of the two bucks turned 90 degrees and walked straight away from me, feeding as he went. The smaller buck stood and watched him leave before continuing on toward me. Just as he was nearing my proficient shooting distance, he veered off the trail on an angle that would take him behind me, and downwind of me. Before he could catch my scent, I twisted to my left and pulled the bow to full draw. The solid anchor at the corner of my mouth was as familiar as an old friend. I knew the shot was good as soon as I let the arrow go. The cedar shaft sailed cleanly through his ribs and the hand sharpened Zwicky broadhead did its job well. Two or three crashes into the thicket behind me were all I heard. I knew he was down for good. I quietly sat down, pulled a small thermos from my pack, and poured myself a cup of coffee. It felt good to sit there and enjoy a half hour of October’s beautiful morning sunshine. After giving the buck time for a dignified death, I climbed down to take care of my venison.
As much as I love bowhunting, however, there have been years where I developed tunnel vision. I put too much emphasis on bowhunting and before I realized it, October was gone. I had been in a self-imposed rut and had missed some of the magic. I missed walking the open woods and fields, bird hunting like I did as a kid. I missed the joy an accurate squirrel rifle can bring to a sunny afternoon spent in the hardwoods. I had put too much time into getting that one good shot that ends a successful deer hunt and missed the continuing action and successes of small game hunting. I vowed not to miss October again. I was going to do all of the above.
My grandson, Chance, and I went pheasant hunting one day in early October. With the shortage of wild birds now-a-days about the only place to work a bird dog is at a pheasant hunting preserve. Although the weather was too warm, our old Chocolate Lab, Hershey, showed a lot of heart and did a great job for us. Chance was shooting his Browning 12 gauge and, just for fun, I carried my grandfather’s ancient 10 gauge double barrel. I had carefully hand loaded the brass shell casings with black powder and #6 shot. The pheasants at Jank’s Pheasant Farm are good runners and strong flyers. I remember that first rooster cackling as he got airborne into a clear blue sky. The old 10 gauge let out a bellow and a great cloud of smoke. The rooster folded in mid-air. Hershey grabbed the bird as soon as it hit the ground, then dropped it, looked at me, and refused to retrieve it. Dumb dog never retrieved a bird all day. (Grin) But he did flush eight pheasants out of the thick cover for us, and we got six of them. That was a great day of good dog work, good shooting, and good companions; granddad and grandson.
I hadn’t hunted for grouse in years, but I made an effort to get out a few times last fall. I walked some state ground, where I used to hunt, carrying a 16 gauge single shot that my dad bought for me when I was a kid. The gun was used when I got it and the initials CH and year 1935 are wood burned under the forearm. I don’t know who CH was or how he did with it but I’ve taken a truckload of small game with that old hammer gun. My first time out there were still leaves on the trees and low brush, making visibility poor. I flushed a grouse right away. Didn’t see it though, too many leaves. Same for the next one. And the next. In three hours of busting brush I flushed eight grouse, but only caught a glimpse of a couple of them. The birds would run ahead of me and fly out from behind brush where I couldn’t see them. I saw the next one as it ran for the far side of an alder clump to make its escape. I blasted it just before it got airborne. (Grins again) Yea, I know, purists would shame me for shooting a Roughed Grouse on the ground, but I just laughed. That was too much fun to feel ashamed. I did claim some “honest” grouse on other hunts, but that first one still makes me smile.
October is the best month for squirrel hunting. Between acorns dropping and corn available from harvested cornfields it seems squirrels everywhere are busy gathering a winter’s supply of food. Many are active on the ground where shots can safely be taken with a small bore rifle. For the past few years my favorite squirrel rifle has been a little .40 caliber flintlock. My Southern style rifle has a 42 inch octagon barrel and weighs in at about 8 pounds. From a rest it will put several patched round balls through one ragged hole in a 25 yard target. That type of accuracy is needed to make consistent head shots on squirrels. The .40 caliber can ruin some meat with body shots, and squirrel meat is delicious. I do hate to skin the little buggers though, they have tough skin.
I like squirrel hunting because I’m actively hunting, ghosting quietly through the woods, keeping in the shadows, and using trees for cover. When a squirrel is spotted, foraging on the ground, I start my stalk. Most shots are taken offhand at fairly close range. I aim for the eye, but sometimes I miss and hit ’em in the head. (Smiley face goes here) Actually a squirrel head is a challenging target and I’ve missed my share of shots.
There are a lot of black squirrels in my area and they are a challenge to hunt. It seems they never sit still, like a fox squirrel, but are always moving through the woods. Last fall I found an area of mature white pines where black squirrels seemed to be obsessed with burying as many pine cones as possible. I spent a couple of hours stalking from tree to tree trying to catch up to the busy animals. More than once I closed to within good shooting range only to have them quickly move off without giving me a good shot opportunity. Using a flintlock rifle gives me only one chance for a shot, so I try to make it count. I managed to make several good stalks though, and ended up taking two black squirrels with only three shots. I consider that a very successful hunt. To me, squirrel hunting is more about the hunting than the killing of a lot of squirrels anyway.
The pages of my memory are filled with past hunts enjoyed during the wonderful month of October. Some were successful in taking game. Others, where no game was taken, were enjoyable in many other ways. This fall, I plan to get out and enjoy it to the fullest because before I know it another October will be gone, and it will be a full year before it comes around again.
Don’t waste October.