December is when a hunter’s will gets tested. It’s easy to look at short, cold days, gray skies and often dubious road conditions and think “maybe I will just call it a season.”
But in the back of your mind, you know what you might miss. If you’re a waterfowl or upland bird hunter, you’re also greeted almost daily by an expectant dog with an excited, questioning look on its face that heartbreakingly withers when you say “no hunting today, buddy.”
I’m no stranger to this struggle. It’s possibly more acute this year because I spent so much time this year big game hunting at the expense of other hunting.
I kicked it off in mid September with a high country hunt that included my first snowstorm of fall, although technically it was still summer. I took advantage of the early deer opener in a backcountry unit, and I envisioned cool mornings and sunny afternoons where I could scan vast swaths of landscape through my binoculars for deer.
Instead I woke up to blowing snow and visibility shorter than rifle range. I hiked for miles up and over ridges and through timber patches and caught a glimpse of one deer across a canyon weaving its way through the trees and disappearing into a lush creek bottom. I never could never tell if it was a buck or a doe.
That hunt wasn’t what I expected, but I was unfazed. I don’t expect to hit the jackpot on my first foray into new territory, so the following weekend I returned to better weather, but similar results.
Fast forward to October, I went to an adjacent unit, but packed a bow this time. My friend had an archery elk tag for the Sawtooth Zone, and I had an unfilled deer tag. Our priority was to fill his elk tag because it was the last weekend of his hunt. A bull decided to play along by bugling back at us from across a broad canyon.
We went in pursuit, only to be intercepted by three mule deer bucks coming up the canyon. We could only see the lead buck and were unaware of the pair trailing it. As I waited for the lead buck to clear within bow range, I heard a rock roll and watched the other two boil out of a draw and pull the lead buck with them. It was a cool sight, but not the ending I had anticipated.
In the meantime, the elk slipped away, and we went from the thrill of possible victory to the deflating disappointment of defeat.
I was far from finished, and knowing where a nice herd of bucks was hanging out, I made return trip for the opening weekend of the rifle deer season, only to encounter another blizzard. Technically, the blizzard hit Friday when I was driving in, but left behind ankle-to-shin deep snow and single-digit temperatures. To their credit, the deer had moved to lower elevations.
I followed their lead, and after a long morning stalking a single buck that kept playing hide and seek and using does for decoys, I filled my tag.
My elk hunt was a story unto itself, but let’s say I deftly avoided a long, heavy pack out by scheduling my brief November hunt for the same time another blizzard hit. It’s a longer story, but that’s the gist of it.
So as I sit with a freezer full of venison and a dog that I can bribe with a few tosses of a tennis ball and a walk around the neighborhood, I find myself asking “is it worth the effort to go hunting again?”
Short answer is yes. I may have to leave my warm, cozy house on a frigid, pre-dawn morning, but I also get to see ribbons of pink on the horizon at sunrise and hear whistling wings and a cacophony of waterfowl. It’s not just what I hunt that makes the trip worthwhile, it’s the wintering songbirds flittering and singing in the willows, and an occasional mink or beaver working the shoreline.
It’s common to flush a covey of quail while walking to or from the blind, and to see the momentary confusion on my dog’s face as she wonders what we’re supposed to be hunting.
December hunts may not be as user friendly as during fall, (although this year I could make strong argument otherwise). But I know if I don’t do it, I will look at a V-formation of geese flying overhead, or hear a lonely quack of a hen mallard, and long to sit in a blind on a frozen morning and await silhouettes to appear in the dark sky, circle the decoys, and with a little luck, pull back their wings and drop their feet toward the water.
You know what comes next, and I don’t want to miss the chance to experience it live rather than sitting in a warm, cozy house and wondering what might have happened if I went I hunting instead of staying inside.