Sitting silently in the gray light of dawn, that magical hour when the woods come alive and the deer are most active, I hear a branch snap. Instinct and experience have taught me the significance of this sound and suddenly my senses are on full alert. So many successful deer encounters have started with just that sound.

Straining my eyes and ears I hear more commotion and struggle to pinpoint the location. It’s close. A prolonged silence is interrupted by a loud gobble — yes, turkeys do gobble in the fall. I’ve inadvertently set up near a roost, and the birds are stirring overhead as they prepare to fly down for a day of foraging. “See you next spring,” I whisper, and my pulse returns to normal and I begin my vigil again.

The wind stirs, I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and snap my head around. What at first appears to be a distant leaf hanging lifelessly off a bare branch turns out to be a tiny leaf fragment dancing on a cobweb a few feet away. Some artistic cutworm managed to carve out a tiny replica of an oak leaf. The light grows and I settle back and study my surroundings.

Soon I hear footfalls on the frozen leaves, pit-pit-pit … pit-pit-pit. My heart races again and I try to squelch my heavy breathing. More footsteps, then the unmistakable chatter of a red squirrel. I’ve gotten pretty good at distinguishing the sound of a squirrel from that of a deer, but sometimes they still get me. This one sure did.

I once hunted bear with a fellow from Florida. He said, “If bears made the same amount of noise for their size as those red squirrels, you’d have to wear ear plugs to go in the woods.” I tend to agree. They have to be the noisiest creatures in the forest, and sometimes seem to take sport in taunting me.

I tune it out and am soon lulled by a distant stream and the occasional whooshing of a light breeze through the trees. As a result, I almost dismiss the swaying of a distant hemlock bough. But wait, none of the other branches are moving. So I rise slightly, and catch a glimpse of brown and white. Deer!

Binoculars up, I see the deer rubbing its head on the overhanging branch, but I can’t make out any antlers. Then I can, two little bony nubs barely protruding above the skin — not the mighty stag I’m searching for. “Maybe in a year or two …,” I think.

Every stirring in the leaves, each flash of movement gives a start, and ignites a fire of hope that it could be the quarry I’m after. A rustle in the tall grass down by the stream materializes into a flock of foraging juncos. A flash of white is only a blue jay flitting by in the distance. A loud snap, crack and a pop turn out to be a pileated woodpecker hammering grubs sequestered in the bark of a decadent pine.

A morning on the deer stand is filled with false alarms. I could dismiss them as mere distractions, annoyances, but I endure them and hope eventually one will be that which I seek. And I welcome their beguilement, for without the non-target species occasionally quickening my pulse, it could be an awfully boring sit.

And they remind me why I’ve really come to this place, where the sounds of humans are merely a distant din.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at:

bhhunt@maine.rr.com