When I mentioned to my editor at the Addison Independent that I would be writing this week about hunting and not about fishing, he was glad. After all, this weekend is the opening of Vermont’s rifle season for whitetail deer. The state’s woods and forests, cornfields and meadows, swamps and mountainsides, will be inundated with tens of thousands of hunters from near and abroad trying to fill their freezers with fresh, low-fat, free-range venison — and perhaps get for themselves a new rack to hold hats on the wall.
I will be one of those hunters.
Of course given that our state is second in the nation only to Alaska in terms of percentage of the population that participates in outdoor sports, you would almost have to have your head in the ground not to know what this weekend was. Even if you didn’t know, if you drove by Vermont Field Sports and looked at the full parking lot this week, you’d be able to make a good guess that something was going on.
For the next two weeks the hunting camps that lie empty for 11 months a year will be full, beer sales will spike as the camps are supplied with the essentials, and businesses across the state will be operating shorthanded as employees take their vacations days (or get “sick”). More than a few businesses will simply close. It is a ritual. Indeed, it is several weeks of rituals, many of which start well before the actual hunting season.
I, for example, spent many free hours in October assembling some old scrap lumber into a new hunting platform. Setting up, repairing, replacing, or improving a stand is a big part of my annual ritual. Then I dug my hunting garb out of the closet, and dug out of the pockets of that garb various items I had left there 11 months ago and forgotten about. I counted cartridges to make sure I had enough both to sight in my scope (in case it had been bumped out of alignment over the winter) and to actually harvest the venison (in the remote possibility that some antlers actually walk past my new stand).
And then, to complete the ritual, I went down to Vermont Field Sports. I went in part to replace the few items from my hunting supplies that had expired, been consumed, gotten lost, or emerged from my pocket in less-than-savory condition. But mostly I went just to listen to the chatter: the mixture of rumors, speculation, sage advice and tips. Will it be a good year? The colder weather we are experiencing this week is certainly a good indication that bucks could be more active. That is the consensus, anyway.
Much of the hunting business this week centers around the same stuff that is selling every year at this time. At VFS, one half of an aisle is devoted to products that create scents. The most popular of these is the urine of an estrous doe. They must have at least a dozen varieties. Buck urine sells well, too. A less obvious but still popular scent is fox urine. It is a strong smell that masks human odors without threatening deer. (It may, however, prove to elicit some strong threats from your spouse should you attempt to wear it into your house.)
The other side of that same aisle, oddly enough, is devoted to chemicals that eliminate odor. My favorite is Scent Killer by Wildlife Research Center. I have had deer feeding within five feet of me when I have been sitting on the ground with my scent masked by it. But there are other products that do the same thing. And there is also some very effective scent-blocking clothing.
Warm clothing is also a popular sell at this time of year. Warm boots. Socks. Hats. Insulated shooting gloves. Long underwear. Younger hunters seems to be returning to wool as a favorite fabric over more modern synthetic fabrics, though the new wind-blocking fleece is also popular.
Of course the most important, and most popular, item to shop for this week is ammunition. And that has been a bit of a problem this year. A nationwide shortage of many calibers continues. The popular deer calibers that are currently difficult to come by include the .308 and the 30-30. VFS is having no more luck finding stock of these than any other store. And .22 caliber ammunition — though not a deer-hunting caliber — is nowhere to be found.
Fortunately there is still a good supply of 30-06, which may be the most popular all-around whitetail cartridge, and also happens to be what I shoot. When I finish this column (another part of my annual ritual) I plan to double-check my supply and decide whether to restock now or after the season. Then I’ll also check my supply of foot- and hand-warming packs.
And finally, when I am confident that all my hunting gear is in good shape, on Thursday I will warm up (or, depending on the weather conditions, chill down) for the whitetail hunting season by taking an annual ritual pilgrimage with several other avid Vermont outdoors enthusiasts to Pulaski, N.Y., to chase another type of big game: steelhead on the Salmon River with my L.L. Bean 8-wt caliber rod. Because that’s the other thing Vermonters do in November.