Michigan’s firearm season for whitetail deer has roots deep in history and tradition. For many years, people have been heading to deer camps and cabins to hunt on Michigan’s opening day. While bow season tends to be associated almost entirely with the pursuit of deer, rifle season encompasses much more than that. It is about spending time with family and friends, being a part of the orange army (the nickname given to the 500,000 plus hunters dressed in orange that hunt Michigan’s opening day), driving up North, and all the other things that go along with it. Many serious hunters are out hunting on November 15th, but there are also lots of people who may only hunt a few days a year and opening day is one of them.
Last season I hunted public land in Washtenaw county for opening day. While I was successful in taking a buck, I also had to contend with other hunters setting up near my tree and bullets whizzing too close for comfort all morning. Eager to avoid a repeat of the crowded woods and excited to hunt with my 300 winchester magnum rifle, I decided to head up North to take part in rifle season this year. I’ll be honest by telling you that I did no pre-season scouting up North. All I knew was that I wanted to hunt in the Manistee National Forest. My plan was to backpack in and camp for a few days while hunting. This would give me kind of a backcountry experience and allow me to audition some new gear I want to take on some mountain hunts next year out West. Before leaving, I spent a lot of time studying maps and determining where to hunt, but I essentially went in blind.
When I arrived up North on Saturday November 14th, the plan was to spend a night at my family’s cottage in Manistee county, before driving to the forest the next day. As those of you who hunted the opener know, November 15th was filled with severe gale force winds. Waking up and seeing the wind advisory, I made the decision not to camp that day surrounded by large trees. Instead, I drove into a section of forest near the North Country Trail and hunted from the ground. While I didn’t get on any deer, I was able to do a thorough job of scouting the new area. The Manistee forest is 540,000 acres. My biggest task was trying to narrow it down to an area that had water, public land, and conditions to hold deer. After an unsuccessful opening day, I spent one more night in the warmth and comfort of our cottage.
Monday the 16th, with the 35 mph winds reduced to 15mph, I grabbed my pack and rifle and drove into the forest. I took a two-track that cut through the region I wanted to hunt and drove back a couple of miles. The woods were covered with falling trees that had blown down in the wind the previous day. When I reached the point where I could no longer drive down the seasonal road, I pulled off to the side and headed into the woods. Heading in the direction of a creek, I hiked back about a mile and found a good spot to set up camp. After pitching my tent, I spent the afternoon following a set of deer tracks and trying to see if I could get within range of whoever left them. With no sign of the deer, and a semi-blizzard approaching, I went back to my camp to get some water and make dinner.
The next few days were filled with cold temperatures, wild animal sounds at night, and unfortunately no deer. My gear held up well and I stayed warm in my tent. Humbled by the experience of being in the big woods, I am determined to head back up next year, albeit with some more scouting ahead of time. Opening day of firearm season is about more than just getting a deer. It’s about being out in the woods and taking part in the tradition of Michigan hunting.
Back home, I am putting away the long rifle, and sighting in my 350 legend. There are 11 days left of firearm season and then another couple of weeks of muzzleloader. I plan to hunt hard and try to take advantage of the increased range that a firearm offers. I haven’t quite reached the halfway point of my deer season yet, and I still have 10 weeks to try and kill a mature buck.