Category Archives: The Sportsman’s World

Leon Archer, Outdoors Columnist – Leon has been writing “The Sportsman’s World” column since 1985. He is a five-time first place winner of the New York State Outdoor Writers Association’s Excellence In Craft Award in addition to numerous other writing awards. He is currently an active member and vice president of the New York State Writers Association. His column covers a wide range of outdoor topics far beyond just hunting and fishing.

A Sportsman’s World — Smelt Fishing, by Leon Archer

By Leon Archer

I have many fond memories of smelt fishing with my father and additional memories of doing the same with some of my children.

I am confident many of my readers remember the great spring smelt runs with the same relish that I do, their thoughts very likely mixed with the same despondency that comes to me as I mourn the collapse of the smelt population.

There are still rainbow smelt in Lake Ontario, but their numbers have fallen to a level where very few hardy souls still search for them on cold spring nights, at least in the streams of the Eastern Ontario basin.

In the 1950s and 60s, when the lake’s water temperature hit 42 degrees, the smelt would move onshore for their annual spawning run. Fishermen by the hundreds would be waiting for them dressed in warm clothes and waders, holding their long handled nets.

The catching was easy, the cleaning arduous the next day. The delicious aroma of frying smelt could be detected escaping from homes on every block. The smelt was a fish for the common man, but all good things come to an end.

The decline of smelt populations has occurred over much of their range, not just in Lake Ontario, and there is no one reason that fisheries biologists have been able to single out as the culprit. It appears smelt have been negatively affected by a combination of factors. Among them are: the huge increase of major predators due to stocking of trout and salmon, the invasion of the zebra mussel, alewives and overfishing.

Probably the greatest factor at work in their decline in Ontario has been the decrease in the food they eat, both as fry and as young adults. A high percentage of the microorganisms needed for smelt fry survival are filtered out of the water by zebra mussels, and alewives, causing a great loss of baby smelt due to starvation.

Alewives (mooneyes to some) prey on the slightly larger organisms that the tiny surviving smelt need to continue growing, plus they also consume large numbers of smelt fry. It is a tough life for smelt right from the beginning, and the survival rate is extremely low during the first year of their lives.

As soon as the remaining smelt are large enough to migrate to the open lake away from the near shore (one to two years depending on growth rate), they join whatever smelt school they encounter and spend the rest of their life searching for food and trying to avoid trout and salmon.

Overfishing was not a significant factor on smelt while there were huge shoals of them throughout Ontario. They could absorb man’s overenthusiastic harvests and still grow their numbers back in the 50s and 60s. There was no creel limit on Ontario’s smelt in those days.

Things began changing in the 1970s and 80s, and smelt runs began their decline, almost unnoticed at first. Catches of washtubs full of smelt slowly gave way to a few five gallon buckets full of smelt and then to small buckets partly full.

The day finally came when men no longer swarmed onto the beach in the night at Selkirk State Park and Port Ontario in April and May in search of smelt. The runs had become only a memory.

As I said, there are still smelt in Lake Ontario. They are smaller and far less numerous, but they are there. I’ve heard rumors that a few are still caught in Oswego Harbor each spring, but it’s been at least 25 years since I’ve taken my Coleman lantern and gone smelting.

I do miss it, but I’m not sure I would go again even if they made a comeback here in the Oswego County area. I miss the excitement and camaraderie, but I’m not crazy about late nights and cold, plus the occasional dunking.

Should you have a hankering to try to regain a bit of those smelt fishing days of yesteryear, you could give it a try on the western end of the lake. They still get a pretty good run on the Niagara River.

It’s sort of a long drive for little fish, and the daily limit is eight quarts of smelt. The place to go, if you are so inclined, is Lewiston. There is plenty of parking by the dock area, and it’s open to dipping for smelt. The run can be as early as late March, but usually comes in April.

Lewiston is a little too far to run to just take a chance or to see if they are running, but you can find out when the run is on if you would like to take the trip.

It’s possible to stay abreast of the smelt run by checking www.outdoorsniagara.com. There is a regular fishing update on the site all year long, and it will make it easy for you to zero in on the best time to go.

Could be fun to get some of your fishing buddies together to share the expenses and catch some smelt once more in memory of the old days. If you go, let me know.

A Sportman’s World, by Leon Archer

By Leon Archer

This has been a great winter so far for Florida.

The Sunshine State has been getting big numbers of people trying to escape the cold and snow of the frozen north; In fact, they have been getting record numbers.

Motels, hotels and resorts have been putting out ‘no vacancy’ signs on a regular basis. The number of people getting out of the cold on a permanent basis is on the rise as well. Florida’s population has inched closer to that of New York’s.

A lot of us northerners like to take our fishing tackle with us and spend some time trying to come up with the makings of a fresh fish fry. Party boats and charter boats do a brisk business, but not like they would have been doing if Florida’s fishing regulations were a little more tourist friendly.

Party boat captains are able to find plenty of fish for their customers, but many of those fish, especially the most desired species, are off limits during the winter tourist season and have to be released.

The state regulations provide the wonderful gag grouper (don’t let the name put you off, you’ll never gag when you catch one or when you eat one) and the red snapper with full protection along the Florida Atlantic Coast between December and May. That takes the two major targets off the table right through the party boat’s best season.

I haven’t been out on a Florida party boat in the last six or seven years, and I’ve only been out on one charter boat during that time. I used to go several times a year.

I enjoyed fishing for bottom fish, but I also liked to bring a few fish in with me even if their fillets ended up being pretty expensive after paying my fare on the boat.

The odds of bringing a dinner in these days have gotten a lot longer. The only bright spot is the state has decided to allow fishermen to take black sea bass this year even though the limit is a lot smaller than it used to be.

Personally, I prefer to just fish on the Indian River or off some of the ocean piers. The chance of catching large fish in the river isn’t great, and in the section near Sebastian, the odds of catching anything isn’t great either.

But from Vero Beach south, the river is still fairly decent fishing. That’s where I’ll put my efforts when I’m in Florida.

If you are thinking of visiting Florida this winter and want to do some fishing, don’t despair. Check with the local bait shops and get some advice about where to fish and what to use.

Those shop owners are probably the best source you can find, unless you have a native to show you the ropes. If you see people fishing from a bridge or a pier, stop for a bit. Watch what they are doing, what they are using for bait, and what they are catching.

Then you can visit with some of them if they are willing to share, and most are. Those are two ways that I have learned a lot of what I know about Florida fishing.  Watch and learn.

A Sportsman’s World, by Leon Archer

By Leon Archer

Just as most outdoorsmen are getting their ice fishing gear in order and enjoying the new snowmobiling season, a cadre of diehard water fowlers are preparing for the late duck and goose season.

In the western zone of the state, ducks and geese become legal game again from Dec. 28 until Jan.12.

Lake Ontario and the largest Finger Lakes provide hot hunting on very cold days. Open streams can be great producers of puddle ducks, but the lakes will host considerable numbers of diving ducks. Those hunters who love to hunt divers are willing to put up with rotten weather, bitter cold and iced up decoys, just to bring home a few bluebills, canvasbacks, and redheads.

The Niagara River is another diving duck magnet, and so has an equally strong attraction for the cold weather hunters who pursue those hardy birds. The Niagara gets a big influx of canvasbacks, and there are hunters who wait all year for this short opportunity to match wits and skills with the reputed king of waterfowl. All the other divers are represented there, but it really is the cans that lure the hunters.

Other hunters will still be looking for Canada geese and snow geese, and a stubble field with a light dusting of snow is attractive to both hunters and geese. Mallards may also swing into a big corn field to feed. Hunters drag their layout blinds and decoys far away from roads to set up early before the birds have started to fly.

Geese usually keep a safe distance between themselves and roads. The goose hunters can get up a little later than their open water brethren, because very few geese get into the air before the sun is well up. Flights of geese may move only for a few hours in the morning, but many days they will trade from field to field most of the day.

I have hunted hunkered down in snow covered fields, and I have hunted from ice covered blinds overlooking the dark gunmetal waters of big lakes. There is a thrill and a challenge to such activity that is hard to describe or understand. I have asked myself on more than one occasion, “What the heck am I doing here?”

But when a big flock of geese swing into the wind with their feet down, talking to the decoys below, and loom huge with their wide wingspread, it all seems to become worthwhile.

At that moment, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. The cold that had been creeping into my body disappears as I sit up and swing the barrel of my shotgun out in front of a goose clawing for altitude.

I have set decoys from a boat being rocked by waves on water that could bring on hypothermia in short order. Wearing a life jacket was a necessity on water like that, but it also helped to be just a little crazy. It also helps to be putting out decoys while it is still dark out; you don’t get a full picture of just how foolish you are being.

On the other side of the equation, late season water gunning can be some of the fastest, most challenging shooting there is. Passing shots are the rule rather than decoying birds, and unless the duck drops dead at the shot, a wounded bird can give a hunter a merry chase, out on those waves where he would rather not be.

Fortunate is the man who has a retriever he can depend on to do the job for him. But for all the discomfort and potential danger, such days will probably remain fresh and fond in a hunter’s memory as long as he lives – mine have.

For those guys who just can’t get enough, snow goose season is open until April 15. I have never shot a snow goose, and spending much of my winter in Florida does not make it likely that I ever will, but I’d sure like to have the chance at least once. You diehards will have to take a few for me.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

A Sportsman’s World, by Leon Archer

By Leon Archer

I watched the pair of Mallards circle Paul Woodard’s Pond several times as I crouched down next to a Juniper bush being careful not to move, which included resisting the temptation to turn my head to watch them each time they went out of sight.

I was hunting with Lyle Taber, who was trying to look like part of the cement dam where he was huddled as the birds kept trying to decide if everything looked safe.

It was the very first time either of us had ever hunted ducks, but we had read a lot about how to do it, and these were the only birds we had seen that morning.

The pond was only about 150 feet wide and a little over twice as long, held back by an 8-foot-high cement dam that had been built many years before across a small creek at the North end of Sandy Creek, not far from the Oswego County  Fairgrounds in Sandy Creek.

It was hardly a big duck magnet, but before the season opened, we had seen a bird or two on the water on several different occasions. Paul Woodard owned the little pond, and he allowed many of my friends and me to fish there anytime we wished, trap muskrats there in the spring, and even hunt ducks there if we wanted to waste our time.

We were both hoping we weren’t wasting our time that morning. My eyes picked up the birds as they came into view after another circuit of the pond, but this time they didn’t bank around for little lower orbit.

Instead, they took a straight course to the southeast, fast becoming dots low in the sky.

I was about to move out of my uncomfortable crouch and try to see what Lyle was doing, but wisely I still kept my youthful eyes on the nearly invisible birds, and at the very last moment, I noticed that they had veered to the left, and soon I could tell they were on their way back.

It seemed like forever, but then, there they were at the far end of the pond heading right at me. I thought they were going to drop into the pond right below where I was hidden, but instead they swooped up and climbed for altitude, passing above me.

I couldn’t stand it any longer; they were well within range and I had a clear shot at the hen. I swung the double barrel 12-gauge ahead of her, my cheek tight to the stock, and pulled the trigger for the modified barrel.

I felt the recoil, and almost as fast as the roar of the shot had faded, the duck was on its way to join me on the ground. I forgot about the other bird and hot footed it over to when the hen mallard had struck.

It had been a good shot and she had been dead before she hit the ground. I was ecstatic. Lyle, on the other hand, was a little bummed out.

When we got together after I had picked up my bird, he told me he could have shot several times, but he was waiting for them to land so maybe we could get them both.

I told him I was sorry I screwed it up, but I was only lying to make him feel better; I felt about as great as a boy could feel. I can close my eyes and see those birds and that shot as clearly today as I did that beautiful October morning back in 1955.

My father wasn’t much for duck hunting; in fact he never once went with me, but he did give me one piece of advice that has served me very well over my 55-plus years of water fowling.

He told me to always pick out one bird to shoot at even if there was a whole flock of ducks.

“Sure,” he said, “you may sometimes kill a duck if you brown a flock, but more often than not, you will come up empty handed. If you pick out a target instead of trying to kill them all, you’ll do a lot better.”

I asked him why that was when I was shooting a shotgun for Pete’s sake. He looked at me like I was some kind of ignoramus, and his last comment on the topic I will always remember, “Son, there is always a lot more space where they ain’t than where they are, so aim close.”

I hadn’t had to worry about a flock for my first shoot, but the next day when Lyle and I hunted Carter’s Creek near Sandy Pond, I jumped a flock of wood ducks. There must have been 30 panicky woodies filling the air with flapping wings and squealing calls.

They were within reasonable range as I raised the double barrel to my shoulder and proceeded to do exactly what my father warned me not to do.

I didn’t swing, I didn’t get my cheek down on the stock and get a good sight picture, I didn’t pick out a target, I just pointed at the middle of all those ducks and pulled the trigger. Even as I did it, I was wondering what Lyle and I would do with all the extra woodies I was going to kill when I blasted the middle out of the flock, because the limit was one a day back then.

I didn’t have to worry, because as it turned out, I only dropped the very last bird in the flock. I had come extremely close to proving my father right.

I’ve thought many times about that shot I took on the second day of my first fall of duck hunting, and although I actually did get a beautiful drake wood duck, I realized it was just plain luck.

I actually have never flock shot since that day. I’ve shot birds out of a flock; I nearly always got the one I would be aiming at, but sometimes I brought down an additional bird as well. I have grown to prefer shooting at single birds, and if I find a flock in front of me, I try to pick one off away from the main group if possible.

Over the years I have made some memorable multiple shots, and the one I remember most was the day I had a big flock of mallards respond to my call and my decoys.

There was no one else in the swamp to scare them, and I let them come right in until with feet down they were nearly on the water. As I stood, I knew there was a trio of drakes in line across formation directly in front of me at about maybe 20 yards.

I pulled onto them before they could flare, pulling the trigger as my barrel moved ahead of their bills. Two birds that were behind the trio caught my attention as they began climbing for altitude, almost as one, and my second shot knocked them from the air.

I looked for another shot and a single was racing off to the right about 40 yards out when I shot, dumping the bird at the edge of the cattails. I love it when a plan all comes together.

Three well aimed shots in a lot less time than it took to tell about them, left me with six fat mallards floating in the little pothole. I have never had a better opportunity nor shot better than I did that day.

My advice for new duck hunters is, let them get as close as possible, pick out a bird, and aim small. It works for a lot more than ducks too.

A Sportman’s World, by Leon Archer

By Leon Archer

My brother, Warren, was five years older than me.

He had his own older friends who weren’t interested in my hanging around with them, and in all honesty, I had no desire to hang around with him and his friends either.

There were only two exceptions to that mutually acceptable separation – hunting and fishing. I fished with Warren whenever he gave me the opportunity, but it wasn’t until I was nearly a teen that he went out of his way to take me with him.

Hunting was a little different story. When I was about 9 or 10, I got the chance to go with Warren and my father as they hunted together. I had to walk behind my father, but I didn’t care, and I did get to take my BB gun with me.

It was all so exciting for me, especially when they would shoot at a rabbit or partridge, or even a grey squirrel in the limbs high above us.

I got the job of carrying whatever they shot. It wasn’t child abuse, it was a labor of love. Warren became a pretty good shot during the two years that he apprenticed with my father, and once he was 16, dad let him go hunting on his own, confident that he would be fine.

My father was not a big time small game hunter; although, when the time arrived, he came out of retirement long enough to get me through my two years of being a junior hunter.

I was especially fortunate that none of Warren’s friends were all that interested in hunting, so when he started hunting on his own he often took me with him. My job was to jump on all the brush piles the farmers had made in the fields. Back then, just about every third pile of brush could be counted on to have a cottontail hiding in it.

I also took it upon myself to walk through big clumps of low juniper bushes which were fairly consistent rabbit holders as well. Warren knocked off a good percentage of the fleeing cottontails, so I often found myself carrying three or four rabbits by the time we headed for home.

My best memories are of the times that Warren would bring down a partridge. To my way of thinking, the Ruffed Grouse was (and still is) the premier game bird, even more so than the gaudy ring necked pheasant that I also love to hunt.

I had the greatest admiration for my brother’s shooting ability when it came to grouse. I was present many times when he quickly zeroed in on a rapidly disappearing bird with a load of sixes.

I can close my eyes and picture a spot that my brother and I never failed to check out for birds when we were hunting in the fields and woods in back of our house in Sandy Creek. The lots and the adjoining woods belonged to a dairy farmer, Mr. Allen, who had no objection to our hunting there as long as we didn’t disturb his herd of Guernsey cows, and we took full advantage of the opportunity.

The spot I am writing about was at the edge of the fields that comprised Mr. Allen’s pasture. On one side there was a stand of new poplar saplings that jutted out into the field.

Walking farther west after clearing the thicket of saplings (which itself often concealed grouse or wood cock) we would come to what is my favorite grouse spot of all time. There had been an apple orchard there countless years before, and a couple of long untended trees still managed to survive. They continued to bear well year after year, and the fruit was a magnet for every partridge living in the big woods beyond.

My brother took his share of unlucky grouse from that locale each year he hunted, and I followed suit in the years after he moved away. I have many memories of that tiny portion of my world, but the best is of the first time my brother shot a partridge there.

It had thundered out from underneath one of the apple trees as we approached, putting leaves and apples between himself and my brother. Warren had been tracking the bird even as he brought the gun up to his shoulder.

He shot quickly, directly through the leaves that pretty much obscured the bird, but instinctively targeting the spot where the bird should be.

A moment later, I could hear a putt, putt, putt sound. I did not know what it was then, but like most every other grouse hunter, I have learned it indicates a successful hunt.

It is the sound of wings still reflexively beating, in their diminishing futile attempt to carry the now dead bird to safety. Running underneath that apple tree, I found the bird about 30 feet beyond, while its wings still jerked spasmodically. In moments; however, all movement ceased as I clutched the limp, beautiful warm bird in my hands.

I admired the exquisite brown patterned feathers of its back, the black ruff around its collar, and the long, barred feathers of the tail fan. The breast feathers were darkly barred over a creamy white.

As I held that bird, exulting in the feat I had observed, and feeling  that somehow I was at least a small part of it, for some reason I was drawn to smell of its warm body. I can still smell it today.

It was the wild smell of the woods, the fallen leaves and the ripe apples, yet that poor description does not truly do it justice. Over the years I have shot many grouse, but I have never failed to bury my nose in the feathers of each and breathe in that day once more.

I would give a great deal to be able to hunt grouse just once more with my brother on a warm October day, and match skill and wits with those magnificent birds. Perhaps there will come a day.

Who knows? I for one have no problem with the American Indians’ description of Heaven as the Happy Hunting Grounds, but if it exists, it must contain Heavenly wild apple trees and celestial grouse.

A Sportsman’s World, by Leon Archer

My next year at deer camp was the charm.

Back in the late 1950s, the last day of deer season in the Southern Tier was “Doe Day.” Anyone who had not filled their deer tag could take a doe if one came along. As you might well expect, Doe Day was a big draw and everybody and their uncle was in the woods for a last chance at putting some venison in the freezer.

Our group was no exception.

On Doe Day I was out in the woods before dawn. It had snowed a couple of inches the night before, and it meant that deer would be easier to see. I had a spot where I knew deer had been coming through from time to time. I was counting on hunters outside the valley we were in to move some deer our way, hopefully coming by my watch. Amazingly, I remained on my watch until 8:20 that morning, and it paid off.

I saw a couple of deer moving down through the hardwoods above me, and my mouth got dry and my heart started beating faster. I tried wishing the deer to come close enough for me to get a shot. I was hunting with a 30/40 Kraig rifle that I had purchased during the summer, and I was pretty sure I could hit any deer that got within 100 yards.

Those deer vanished as they moved away from me into a bunch of hemlock trees. I was bummed out, but then I saw a single deer that was actually coming in my direction. I hunkered down, my mouth still dry, my rifle resting over the log I was sitting by.

Closer and closer the deer came, but I resisted the urge to shoot when it got into shooting range. I figured as long as it continued on its course, I would be wise to let it get even closer. It was a good plan, and the deer passed where I was sitting at a range of about 30 yards. It stopped behind some small spruces, but I could see its head.

At the crack of the rifle, the deer disappeared. At first I was afraid I had missed it, but as I stood up I could see legs kicking where the deer had been. I ran to where I had seen the legs, and there was my deer. I thought it was a doe, but instead it was a button horn buck. I didn’t care what it was as long as it was a deer and it was mine.

By the time I got to the deer, it had stopped kicking. It had actually been dead a split second after I shot; a 30/40 to the head will accomplish that quite easily. I got to field dress my first deer all by myself, and I like to think even today that I did a great job of it. I was so proud that I almost popped my buttons, my chest stuck out so far. I fastened the front legs up around the neck of the little buck with my dragging rope and hauled him back to our camp.

That night when I got back to Sandy Creek and presented my deer to my father, was one of the high points in my young life. I felt somehow like I had arrived. Later in the week, dad showed me how to go about butchering my venison. Nothing has ever tasted as good before or since as my venison that my mother cooked and put on the family table.

The following year at deer camp, I took another deer on Doe Day, but it was new landmark for me. That deer was a large doe that I shot with my trusty 30/40.

There were five does running about 100 yards away in an open field. It was a quartering shot going away, and I wasn’t very confident that I could hit one of them.

They showed no sign of stopping, so I drew down on the last deer in the group and fired. To my surprise, the deer faltered, indicating that I had hit it. The five deer went into a thicket at the other side of the field.

I watched and saw four deer come out the far side before going out of sight in the field, but the fifth deer remained in the thicket.

Fellow hunter, Leon Canale, remained behind watching from where I had shot, while I took off across the field for the thicket. I struck the deer tracks and soon came upon hair and blood. There was a considerable amount of blood from that point into the thicket, and I expected to find the deer dead up ahead.

As it turned out, the deer was still alive and attempted to leave the cover as I entered it. One more shot from my rifle and it was all over.

It was a mature doe, much larger than the little button horn I had gotten the year before. I say it was a new landmark, because I had shot it on the run, and it was out at a pretty good distance. I have always had great confidence in my own shooting ability since that day.

That night I was not feeling very well as we headed back north, but I was still elated by my trophy. I was feeling sicker when I got home, and early the next morning my father took me to Doctor Reed.

He in turn sent us to the hospital in Watertown, because he said I had appendicitis. The doctors at the hospital checked me over and told my father I had some sort of stomach bug. They gave me ginger ale and put me in bed.

The following morning they brought me in coffee and orange juice which I promptly barfed onto the floor. The doctors came in, checked my temperature and pushed on my abdomen which was painful.

They called my parents and told them they were going to do an emergency appendectomy. As it turned out I had a ruptured appendix, and it took a long time to get me cleaned out.

I was a sick puppy for a couple days, with two tubes draining my abdomen and one down my throat. I got so many shots of penicillin that I lost track. The doctors told my parents that I had nearly died, and it was seven days before I finally went home.

And thus ended my deer camp adventures. Most of us went off to college, and I never hunted there again, but the camp still has a place in my heart and mind.

A Sportsman’s World, by Leon Archer

By Leon Archer

I couldn’t help myself; after writing last week about my memories of the deer camp itself, I had to follow up with the other things that flooded into my mind.

While the physical deer camp itself was a part of the lure for me and my friends to hunt in Deposit, N.Y., one has to remember the overarching purpose was to hunt deer.

We were young and inexperienced and we expected we would see a deer behind every tree and come home with a big buck at the end of our stay.

It seldom worked out that way even though we hunted long and hard from morning until the last light of day. We spent a lot of time walking and not much time sitting.

It’s hard for a boy of 16 or 17 to sit for very long hoping for a deer to walk by; our system just isn’t wired that way. Fifteen to 20 minutes always seemed to be sufficient to convince us we were sitting in the wrong place, and a better hunting spot was probably one more hill or valley away.

I spent a lot of time looking for that perfect location.

We actually got a little better with time. We learned to efficiently drive a section of woods with watchers placed in logical spots for deer to use when fleeing the drivers.

The amazing thing is that sometimes we got it right. Dale got a spike horn buck one morning on his watch, and Rex got a nice 8-point one afternoon. He always had the patience to sit for hours at a time, and if you were driving towards his stand, you could be confident that he would be there when you arrived.

The first year I hunted at the camp, I blew a chance at a 4-point one afternoon when I was still hunting by myself.

I had just reached the top of one of the Catskill foothills, and looking at a steep angle into the ravine below I saw this magnificent deer, and he had no idea I was there. I was hunting with a 35 Remington lever action. I was sure that deer was dead meat.

I drew the bead into the rear crotch sight and placed it on his shoulder. I expected that when I pulled the trigger, he would drop like a rock.

The woods reverberated with the blast, but the deer still stood unharmed. I racked another shell into the chamber and aimed even more carefully if that was possible.

When I fired the second shot, the deer began looking around, no doubt wondering where those shots were coming from, but he was none the worse for my efforts.

As a relatively new hunter, I figured the deer was too far away and that I should raise my sights. My next shot was aimed about two inches above his shoulder, the next about 6 inches and the fifth and final shot was launched with my aiming point about a foot above his body.

He finally realized that he might possibly be in danger and trotted out of sight. I couldn’t believe what had just transpired. I reloaded my rifle, and walked down to where the deer had been standing in hopes of finding blood, but it was in vain. I had missed five shots at a standing target.

Later that evening as I recounted my tail of woe back at the camp, three things happened.

First, Rex took out his knife and cut off the bottom of my shirt tail and nailed the piece on the wall. Next he asked me what I had the rifle sighted in at. I told him a hundred yards. Third, he asked me where I had held on the deer. I described my efforts in detail and as I did, a smile grew on his face.

Rex explained what I had done wrong. Basically it was this; when one shoots uphill or downhill over a fair distance he needs to hold low. Shooting more closely to parallel with the pull of gravity has a much different effect on the flight of a bullet than when shooting perpendicular to the pull.

In recognition of gravity, a rifle is sighted in so the barrel is actually pointed at a spot above where the sight is pointed. The bullet ends up dropping over the distance of its travel in order to arrive at the aiming point of the sights.

I guess I had a blank look on my face when he was talking, because he finally tore up a paper bag and drew an illustration to show what he meant. It took a little while for that to sink in, but learning it has helped me put venison in the freezer a number of times over the years.

I didn’t get a deer that year, but I could hardly wait for the next season to roll around and give me another chance. I knew the deer camp would be waiting.

A Sportsman’s World, by Leon Archer

Deer Camp Memories

 

When I was a kid, I was a Boy Scout, and I had many adventures as a result of my association with that wonderful organization. We had a great scout master, Lyle Rexford Huyck, but we all called him Rex. He had been a drill instructor in the navy and he transferred a lot of his knowledge and abilities into his role as our leader. He was a no nonsense sort of guy when it came to scouting, but he tempered that with a good sense of humor. Thanks to him, I could hardly wait for the meeting to roll around each week to see what we were going to be doing.

When I turned 14, I became an Explorer Scout, and scouting got kicked up a notch. We went on a number of trips, and we attended jamborees. We went to the east coast several times. We went to Boston and did a tour of the historical sites there including touring the USS Constitution. We took a side trip to Lexington and Concord. But the thing I liked best each year that we went to the coast was we would go out on a party boat to do some deep sea fishing. We caught a heap of fish that none of us had ever caught before. It was fantastic.

In addition, most of us Explorers took our hunter safety training together and got our junior licenses. Often several of us would get together with an adult to go hunting. It all seemed to be a natural outgrowth of our scouting experience. Many times some of us would hunt with Rex and his son, Dale, who was also an Explorer, but hunting opportunities abounded in those days, and there was always an adult that was willing to get us out. Once we turned 16, we often hunted together in groups of two up to as many as six at a time.

Thanks to Rex and Dale, I had the chance to hunt deer out of an honest to God deer hunting camp located on a farm near Deposit, New York. Rex’s in-laws owned the farm, and there was a small cabin that had been built near the woods in the back lot. For three years, Rex and several of the Explorers transformed the cabin into a deer camp. I was 16 the first year I hunted there, and it was where I shot my first deer. In my mind, I can see that deer as clearly today as I did the morning I shot it, but what I remember most is the camp.

The cabin was small, roughly 16 feet by 20 feet, and there was nothing fancy about it, no insulation, no running water, and no electricity. It had a metal covered roof that kept out the rain, and the sides, though uninsulated and unpainted, were sealed well enough that the wind never found its way in. There were three small windows, and there was an even smaller window in the door. It was possible to look in every direction for any deer that might come wandering by while we were enjoying the relative comfort of the inside of the cabin.

There were six bunk beds along two walls. I always seemed to end up with an upper bunk, but I didn’t mind. There was a wooden table and four wooden chairs; if we had a full complement of six in camp, there were a couple of folding chairs under one of the bunks.

We had an old kitchen wood stove that we cooked on and it doubled as our source of heat when the weather was cold. It was often also the reason for sweaty bodies when the weather was warm. The stove was part of the reason for the cabin being a hunting camp, not just some quaint little getaway in the woods. It was the odors that tagged the camp for what it was and they remain indelibly etched in my memory.

Here’s what I remember. Once the deer camp was up and running, the first thing that hit you as you came through the door was the overarching smell of wood smoke (when you came home from deer camp you usually smelled for all the world like a ham). It didn’t matter what time of day or night it was, there would also be the lingering smell of bacon that had been cooked each morning before the eggs were slipped into the hot fat. Coffee that had been boiled on the stove added to the aromatic patina of the camp. Those were the good things.

As the days went by, sweaty long underwear, which doubled as pajamas and was seldom changed, began to radiate cosmic rays as well as a strangely sweetish addition to the atmosphere of the camp. Boots drying behind the stove and wet socks draped over the end of bunks in hopes they would dry before time to go hunting in the morning each did their part in creating an odor that is hard to forget.

Once those things were flavoring the air the hunters were breathing, a few other items could be added. Most years someone would bring a brick of limburger cheese, which if eaten up quickly only added a momentary spike in the toxicity of the camp vapors, but the wrapper with the scrapings from the rind often ended up in the paper trash bag in the corner, and for days hunters would comment how the smell of that cheese had lingered on. If a deer was shot early in the season, liver and onions frying in a cast iron pan on the stove would add another layer.

The variety, quality, and volume of the food and drink being consumed often led to intestinal problems which were often relieved in the evening, producing gasps, groans, shouts and inane chuckling as one more gaseous substance was added to the already burdened air. Fortunately this addition quickly dissipated, unfortunately it could be pretty much counted on to be reintroduced each ensuing evening. You have to remember, we were just boys.

By the end of just the first week, a deer camp would have usually taken on enough olfactory markers that any deer hunter with deer camp experience could identify it blindfolded just standing outside the door. I will say, leaving camp for my stand in the morning, I hardly noticed any odor in the building, but upon returning later in the day after hunting in the fresh air, I became acutely aware of what would eventually find a forever place in my memory. I wouldn’t want you to think that was the only thing that impressed me; I have other memories of deer camp as well, but I will come back for them another day.