By Shawn Perich
The sound of gurgling water, punctuated by an occasional snort, emanated from the frozen beaver pond. Appaarently, something was going on beneath the ice. Curious, I paused and listened. But the source of the sound was a mystery.
I sneaked down a steep bank above the pond for a closer look. Then I could see the source of the sound–a place where water was sloshing beneath the ice along the muddy face of the dam. But why was the water doing that? The skim of ice was clear like a pane of glass. The water was muddy where the sound was coming from, but I could make out some movement. The occasional snorts continued.
Suddenly, whatever was making the commotion turned and shot like an arrow just beneath the ice. The streamlined body and long, pointed tail were easy to identify as a river otter. It crossed the pond to disappear in the undercut bank beneath my feet. Then it crossed back to the dam.
Now I was able to watch what it was doing. The otter seemed to be furiously digging into the dam. It must have found something to eat that was buried in the mud. I could see its body twist and writhe beaneath the ice, no more than 50 feet from me.
I heard something rustling in the leaves along my bank, but whatever was making the noise was hidden by the brush. I remained motionless, fascinated with the otter beneath the ice. Eventually, the rustling stopped at the water’s edge. I could hear water gurgling on my bank and see the busy otter across the pond. Suddenly it swam to my bank and then zipped back to the other side. A second, larger otter was followed it back. The two of them went work on dam.
I stood on the bank and watched the otters for awhile. There must have been an air pocket where the ice met the dam, because I heard them snort but never saw them break to the surface for air. Eventually, they swam to my bank and disappeared beneath it. When I looked at the place where they disappeared, I discovered it was a beaver bank den. Apparently, no beavers are wintering in the tiny pond.
Watching otters swim beneath the ice is not any everyday occurance. Conditions that allow you to do so exist for just a few days at freezeup, before the new ice disappears beneath an ever-deepening blanket of snow. Yet river otters spend nearly half of the year living in this frozen world. Many times in winter I’ve happened upon otter tracks while snowshoeing on a frozen river. They emerge from beneath the ice in places where the current keeps the water from freezing, loping and sliding over the snow until they reach the next place where they can slip beneath the ice. It is difficult to imagine their cold and dark winter existence.
But I wasn’t in the woods to look for otters. My quarry was the ever-elusive whitetail buck. So far, the score is bucks two, maybe three, and me zero. I jumped a buck off the top of a narrow finger ridge, because even though the frozen scrapes had been recently worked, I figured any deer in the neighborhood were aware of me. So I just walked slowly and quietly, rather than sneaking along like a hunter. Somehow, I must have caught this deer by surprise. Although I didn’t see it when it bounded away and then stopped just beyond view in the brush, my gut tells me it was a buck.
I walked on, heading for another area where deer were likely to be hanging out in heavy cover. Once again, I was moving faster than a hunter ought to be and jumped another deer. This time, it was likely where there was one whitetail, more were nearby. I downshifted to hunting mode.
The cover was a mix of evergreen, aspen and brush. I could carefully pick my way through it without making much noise, taking a few steps and then making a long pause. Once, a blue jay and red squirrel started a racket not far away. I wasn’t sure if they were sounding off at me or something else, but I went in another direction.
It was difficult to see 30 or 40 yards, if that. I was paused, contemplating the poor visibility when I heard sticks breaking in the distance–lots of sticks. I listened. Something was coming through the woods with no concern about how much noise it was making. Crashing along, pausing for awhile, then crashing along again. It was coming more or less in my direction, because the sound kept getting closer.
Even if the noise-maker was coming my way, the big question was whether I’d be able to see it. I had a couple of avenues through the brush where I could see clearly for maybe 40 yards. I was pretty sure whatever it was had approached within 100 yards. But what was it? Truth be told, is sound more like man busting though thick cover than anything else. But I really didn’t expect to run across anyone else hunting here. On occasion, I’ve encountered deer that made an awful lot of noise. In my experience, big noise means big buck.
Closer and closer came the sound. I stared into the cover, hoping to see a flicker of movement. But the maker of all that noise stayed hidden in the trees. The sound started to pass by me, so close, but out of view. It was time to make a move. I slipped a bleat can out of my pocket and made one bleat. The big noise started coming my way. Then it stopped.
If there is one lesson I’ve learned in a lifetime of still hunting, it’s that whitetails are more patient than me. The noise-maker undoubtedly pinpointed my location and was waiting for me to make a move. You don’t live long enough to become the noisest deer in the woods by being hasty. Time is always on a whitetail’s side.
So I stood, hearing nothing, for what seemed a long time. So long, that I grew restless. I was about to take a couple of steps when I heard two soft grunts. Then the big noise started again. I saw nothing. The noise stopped. I tried another bleat and heard a couple of sticks break. Then it was quiet again. After waiting several minutes, I tried a grunt. One stick broke. Then there was silence.
I stood there without moving for an hour and a half, until it started getting dark. After all, the noise-maker may have still been around or all of the commotion we made could have attracted another buck. What I think really happened is the big noise-maker suddenly got cold feet and silently slipped away.
Walking to where the sound was coming from, I found the thick evergreen cover abruptly changed to a more open overmature aspen woods about 50 yards from my position. Many of the big trees had fallen down, so the ground was a mess of dry limbs and branches. Making lots of noise was easy. If the deer stayed in the aspens–and the sounds indicated it did–I couldn’t see it.
At this writing, in three days of hunting, that’s the closest I’ve come to seeing a buck. Did I tell you about the otters I saw beneath the ice?