When I was younger, my dad and I shared a bunk in my uncle’s camper. I’ll be honest — those aren’t my fondest memories.
More recently, my dad and I have spent our deer hunting evenings in the somewhat-cozy confines of his old pop-up. No running water, no electricity, but hey, for the two of us to sit around the fire, then play a few games of cribbage before turning in, it’s fine.
This year, we tried something different.
We’re not hunting the north woods anymore. Now we’re hunting on a small farm in Calhoun County. Instead of setting up on a remote piece of state land surrounded by woods and wildlife, our camping options were pretty much limited to a small field surrounded by houses and horse barns at the Calhoun County Fairground.
This year, we called around and found a cheap motel that would serve our needs. We packed a folding table and a small portable grill, so that we could at least continue our tradition of feasting on T-bone steaks the night before the start of the firearms deer season.
The funny thing is, we never fired up the grill, never even took the steaks out of their paper wrappers.
There was no need.
As we pulled into the Arbor Inn outside Marshall, we were greeted by a parking lot packed full of pickup trucks. Guys were milling around, nearly all of them wearing some form of camo or blaze orange.
Back behind the building, we could see the luring glow of a fire. Mixed with the captivating scent of the campfire was the irresistible smell of meat cooking over a grill.
After dumping our gear in our room, my dad and I mixed a drink and wandered back to see what was happening behind the motel. It didn’t take long to realize we had picked a great spot to spend our opening-night eve.
We were warmly welcomed in by more than a dozen guys from all corners of the state, all of whom gather at this motel each year during Michigan’s gun hunting season. One guy brought a huge smoker/grill that’s built onto a trailer. He was cooking a giant pan of veggies, sausages, and a 17-pound ribeye steak that he periodically trimmed and served medium-rare to a ravenous group of hunters.
Another table featured a fryer churning out chunks of walleye. Venison jerky and a dozen other treats littered the tables. When they weren’t eating, the guys were milling around, telling stories from hunting seasons past, comparing trail camera pictures on their cell phones, or sitting around a roaring fire, soaking it all in.
There were guys named Bubba and Bullet; a few around my age (36) and a few more easily twice that; and all of them had that look of anticipation and excitement that means it’s time to go hunting.
We hung out for a few hours, then headed back to our room, turned on the TV and slipped into shorts and T-shirts for a late-night game of cribbage.
“Well,” I said as I looked around at our room, which featured an old TV, a sink and shower that spewed forth smelly but warm water, a small fridge that didn’t really keep things cold, and a pair of surprisingly-comfortable beds, “it’s not camping, but it’s not all bad, either.”
ON TO THE HUNT
When we actually made it into the woods for the opening of gun season on Tuesday morning, we found the landscape blanketed by a persistent fog that refused to burn off until nearly 10 a.m. By that time, the deer were done moving and I spent the rest of the morning reading and enjoying the beautiful weather.
I thought my day could only get better, but I was wrong.
Instead, I spent about 20 minutes listening to an irate neighbor berate me for setting up my pop-up blind near the property line, which he felt messed up his hunting, especially since he had been baiting a spot along the sparsely vegetated fence line that separates his property from ours.
I tried to explain to him that since he’s got nearly 100 acres at his disposal, he should have plenty of spots to bait without putting his pile of apples right along the edge of our property.
He didn’t want to hear it, choosing instead to unleash a profanity-laced lecture that nearly dislodged the disgusting wad of chewing tobacco from his bottom lip.
He ensured me that he’s not worried about me stealing “his” deer, and that he’s only concerned with my safety. The conversation ended when he basically threatened to shoot in my direction if I chose to hunt in the same spot that evening.
I headed back up to the front end of the property and shared the story with the landowners, who quickly phoned their good friend, a sheriff’s deputy. He and I shared a good laugh at the expense of the miserable old miser, who it turns out has had similar conversations with neighbors on every side of his property.
I hated to give in and let him feel like he won, but to me, shooting a deer isn’t worth another run-in with a hothead carrying a firearm, so I moved my blind that afternoon.
The next morning dawned clear and bright, and the deer were moving. I saw several does, and had a little 6-point poke his head out of the brush and stare at me for 15 minutes before turning. I took a shot as he melted back into the woods, but didn’t hit him.
We were skunked these first two days of season, but there’s still plenty of chances to fill a tag over the next two weeks. And if the deer don’t cooperate, at least we have a great spot to unwind after a long day of hunting.