THOSE WHO hunt the national forest while observing the tri-county baiting ban are a hardy bunch living on optimism, for their odds of seeing a buck without the rut are quite slim.

Yet we do it for the tradition of the hunt and the joy of deer camp in this scenic North Woods, a reunion of family and friends that never gets old.

While heading for my stand opening morning, the eight sets of fresh tracks I’d cut the weekend before while putting up a ladder stand in a swamp had faded and were not replaced, suggesting that the breeding was over and the buck moved on. 

Still, I would not be denied my chance to experience a November sunrise in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest — a chance to hear a late fall woods as it awakes.

My stand was overlooking a small creek that carved itself through a wetland mix of tag alder and marsh grass since the last drought was replaced with high-water conditions.

I picked swamp over hardwoods this year thinking that the latest possible opener for the nine-day hunt, Nov. 23, might be a good time to catch a buck laying low in heavy cover.

The first sound of wildlife was a ruffed grouse leaving its roost tree before dawn just a few yards away. Once on the ground, it flushed and flew right past my tree, headed for parts unknown.

Not much was moving in that first hour with the mercury around 20 degrees and wind chills in the lower teens. But then the red squirrels, chickadees and crows got active, and the entertainment began.

I never knew the bluejay made so many crazy and different calls until one sat in a tree next to me and spewed at least four totally unique sounds. And none in that volley were the annoying caw-type sound they make when alarmed over something.

There were a few shots heard in the distance but nothing very impressive for volume or numbers, as the deer herd just came off a tough winter with near-record snow levels.

Without food plot, garden, bait, acorns or something for a reliable food source, it’s just a hit-and-miss adventure sitting in the deer woods hoping something uses the trails in your area.

Of course half the hunters are still using bait, especially on private land, despite the state’s call for a CWD-related baiting ban in Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties. And that puts the law-abiding hunters at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting deer.

It was more noticeable than ever this year that a week or two before the opener, most gas stations and stores more than doubled their pallet volume of corn, apples, sugar beets and the like. And that’s not being used for recreational deer feeding.

Though I never saw a deer, it was an enjoyable morning to be sitting in a tree as the sun was shining and the mercury climbed above freezing. It was toasty for a change.

About the time I was wondering what might be the highlight of my outing, there in the shadows of marsh grass and windfalls was the fanned, twitching tail of a ruffed grouse.

It could no doubt see the blaze orange blob sitting in the tree and like a gray squirrel flicks its tail when alarmed, this grouse was doing the same.

I froze anyway, for almost 30 minutes, hoping it would pop out from its hiding spot in the heavy cover. I just wanted a better look at this bird, out of the shadows.

And suddenly, to the right, a second bird jumped up on a windfall momentarily. It jumped off and walked toward the other bird, and was joined by yet a third grouse during its little march in the tags.

When it was all said and done, I got to watch five adult grouse emerge from that big windfall and walk their way to the creek edge to cross. And that’s when it really got entertaining.

The first bird just jumped to a clump of weeds, made a little splash and was up on the other bank in a blink. That one hit an opening and got a really good look at my orange jacket. For some reason its red-brown tail came to full fan and its neck ruff flared, though I’m not sure why.

The second flew across with a short burst of its wings. The third flew and landed on one of the hitched trees I had felled to create a shooting lane in the swamp. It walked right down the length of the alder and jumped off into the snow.

The fourth walked across the creek on an old windfelled tree. The fifth flushed and flew right at me, landing at the base of my tree.

For a longtime grouse admirer and chaser, seeing that covey was a real treat — something I’ve never experienced before in decades of deer hunting. You just never know what you are going to see from the treestand.

Several red squirrels got so close while trying to check out the orange guy that I thought one was going to end up in my lap. They would go up the tree in front of me and walk out on a branch, face high and a couple of feet away before they panicked and retreated.

My brother’s place on Sevenmile Lake was deer camp central once again. Five of us ate, drank and laughed, visiting several deer camps on Friday night in anticipation of the big hunt. 

The evening dinner menu included dishes such as venison stroganoff and creamed pheasant with wild rice, two favorites of our deer camp gang. It all got topped off with homemade pumpkin pie.

Though I returned to work Monday and won’t get more than my usual two days of hunting, there’s still a 10-day muzzleloader season and a statewide four-day antlerless hunt that might provide some opportunities.

With the late opener and late Thanksgiving this year, those extra gun-deer seasons won’t wrap up until Sunday, Dec. 15.

Good luck with the rest of the hunt. Be safe.