CAMBRIDGE, Md. – I found myself amid a cloud of attacking flies and mosquitoes in the middle of a swamp, flushing wood ducks with almost every step while trying to remain silent enough not to spook the deer I was hopefully stalking.
I could hear something big just on the left side of the thick line of phragmites running along the thin island in the middle of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, but I couldn’t tell if it was a sika deer – my quarry – or a splash-happy nutria. As I kept following the sounds of water parting, I eventually lost it, my assumption being it went to dry land to rest.
“Let’s keep moving, I want to see if there’s a way to that island of pines,” I told my scouting partner and hunting buddy Pat, letting out a slight sigh after losing track of the animal next to me.
We continued to move down the long strip of land, fighting not just the attacking bugs but the climbing temperatures. It was our only day before Maryland’s archery opener to scout Blackwater due to restrictions, and I knew I had to ground proof my weeks of e-scouting.
“We should head back and check some places off that other parking lot,” I said. “I think there’s a lot of good things around here, but there’s no chance I’m going to get my stand back through here.”
I quickly realized once getting to the end of the trail that not only would it be a headache to strap all my gear to my backpack and carry my climbing stand across 100 yards of water at 5 a.m., it was too deep to do so. Albeit disappointed, that’s why I was doing this.
After spending those few weeks casually e-scouting Blackwater using OnX Maps, I knew some good transitional cover was close by. After getting back in the car and wiping the sweat off my face, Pat and I drove back down the access road from where we came. We stopped roughly a quarter-mile from where we had just been, found some good spots, reveled in that and I began marking it on my OnX phone app. This is why I was here, I thought, to learn and adapt so I can hopefully get a crack at these elusive deer in October.
If you don’t know, sika deer are originally from Japan. Legend has it that these non-natives found along the Chesapeake Bay were shipped in from Ireland to Dorchester County, where their owner then allegedly set them free. The population began growing through the 1900s and was never too popular among the local hunters. But now it seems almost a homage to say, “I killed a Sika deer!”
That is if people even know what you’re talking about. While the word is slowly getting out, sika deer are relatively unknown to the greater American population with most of the attention drawn from states around the DELMARVA Peninsula. Even in West Virginia, I’d wager not many people know what you’re talking about and a good part of our state is less than six hours away from the eastern shore.
So when I found out about them last year, I knew I had to go hunt them. My first experience hearing about sika was when I watched MeatEater’s Steve Rinella and Ryan Callahan sitting on a hunting club plot of land bordering Blackwater, waiting to take their shot during the archery and muzzleloader seasons, for their Netflix show. I remember thinking that I had to go there, and now, less than 12 months later here I was silently walking through the woods trying to lay my eyes on at least one.
I had three goals going into Blackwater: Find sign, find trees near that sign to set up in and see a deer. In this one spot, I had checked off two boxes. Not only were there clear travel corridors, but there were also hoof prints in the fresh swamp mud; I could see scrapes on small islands between that strip of land and where I marked the trees; I heard something big – which I’m banking was a deer and not one of those pesky nutrias. All I needed to do was see one, and I’d be happy before heading back to Morgantown.
About 15 minutes later we were driving down another access road to another set of islands I wanted to check out. Luckily, these were easier to access – unfortunately, the trees were all dead. No good for setting up a stand in. But it was OK because before Pat and I had even got to this spot there was a yearling stag munching on some grass in the middle of the road. After he took off into the swamp, I checked off box three.
There’s something to be said about going out of your normal area and getting ready for a DIY hunt, even if it’s on an NWR just six hours away. Sure, I could have spent my time going back to Ritchie County and scouting the land I’ve been hunting since college, or I could have even gone down to Canaan Valley. It would have saved me some gas, some headaches and probably have gone much faster, but just being in a new area and learning from what’s thrown at you has its perks. While I’m still a few years into hunting, and incredibly new to bowhunting, it’s been amazing to go away from my comfort zone and learn where I need to set up, how I should set up and more. Maybe it’s the Millennial in me, but traveling as a hunter is something that we all should strive to do.
To me, the pursuit of an animal should be rewarding not just for the result – hopefully putting meat in our freezer – but also for the work that goes into it beforehand. For some, hunting the same property every year until the day they die or can’t go out anymore works, and I commend them for that. But I need to chase the thrill of the hunt and new horizons; the sunrise over unfamiliar shores and the sunset outside the window of a bar I’m celebrating in after a solid few days on a hunt, recollecting my tales to whoever will listen. I need to feel the connection to the land whether new or old. I hope that no matter where you go this year, whether it’s 500 yards out your backdoor or 500 miles away, you find joy and success in your pursuit.