The deer are active on the Eagle Mountains, hunters say, and expect by the end of Friday’s opening day of shotgun season there will be deer hanging at camps.
Kevin McGuire of Dwight pointed out the two hanging racks that appeared to have been hewn from cedar trees at the large deer camp at the top of the mountain.
“I guarantee there will be some hanging there tomorrow morning,” McGuire said.
Each year the men bounce their pickup trucks over the ruts of Eagle Mountain Road to the ridge top camp and friends come and go as they are able. Some hunt in the archery season, some in the turkey season and some — like Mike Jacobson of Dwight — stay through much of November. Jacobson arrived Nov. 2. He and Joe Thatcher were “charter members” of the group, coming each year for over 40 years.
Thatcher and some of the others came back to the campsite for spring turkey season this year and in April he died in full camouflage, shotgun at his hand of a heart attack.
Law enforcement searched starting April 11 and found Thatcher April 12.
Thatcher’s absence lends a bittersweet tone to this year’s camp. The group memorialized the spot where he died with a boulder etched with his name. McGuire said they got the exact coordinates of where his body was found from the U.S. Forest Service and knew they had the spot when they found a shell casing. That casing was left by the man who found Thatcher and he fired the shot as a signal to other searchers.
“I didn’t know how much I’d miss him, but I sure missed him this year,” McGuire said.
“He didn’t pull in like normal.”
For about 40 years the two hunted together in Southern Illinois. McGuire picked Thatcher up to drive west to hunt elk and Thatcher picked McGuire up when it was time to head south for whitetail deer season.
“Joe was the true woodsman out of everybody. Joe was out picking mushrooms, any reason to be out in the woods,” McGuire said.
Russ Whitesell of Watsika said Thatcher is especially missed around the campfire.
“He was the best storyteller,” Whitesell said.
Thatcher became a mentor to the young people who joined up with the group of hunters and took the training seriously.
“He would show them how to field dress a deer and say, ‘Don’t Tom Sawyer me, I’ll show you the first time, but next time you’ve got it.’ He took time for them,” McGuire said.
Through the various hunting seasons in November there might be as many as 26 hunters staying at the camp at different times. A few years ago they decided they needed to start letting each other know where they were going to be when Andy Boseo of Manhattan fell from his tree stand. Boseo has hunted with the group since age 14 and was one of the kids Thatcher passed knowledge onto.
One day Boseo fell from his tree stand.
“He broke his cheek bone and had a mild concussion,” McGuire said.
“And we didn’t know where he was hunting.”
The group found him, but knew there was a need for better communication. They pledged to let each other know where they would be. That pledge proved insufficient in the spring as they knew about where Thatcher intended to be, but finding him still required a search party.
They have devised a new method this year. The group obtained a large topographical map and numbered push pins with the numbers coinciding with their names on a chart. When any man leaves camp to hunt he pushes his pin into the map so if he doesn’t come back when expected anyone in the group can know where to start the search immediately.
On the map held with pin No. 29 is a photograph of Thatcher’s monument with a bottle of Crown Royal scotch on it, Thatcher’s drink of choice.
“He liked Crown Royal to drink after the hunt. He never mixed alcohol with firearms or bows and arrows,” McGuire said.
Jacobson knows the area as well as anyone, having hunted it since the late 1960s. His sister married into the Chrisman family and George and Anna Lee Chrisman of Raleigh owned the land. Now it is Forest Service land.
“You should have seen that road 30 years ago,” he said.
“It wasn’t a road, it was a rut.”
The site is ideal because it is at the top of the mountain. It usually rains during camp, but the water does not linger at the mountain’s top.
“It’s high and dry,” McGuire said.
“We got 2 inches of rain Sunday and it’s already dried out.”
Jacobson killed a deer with his bow earlier this month. The temperature was warm enough he had to take it to the Eldorado meat locker. Temperatures are about ideal now, cold enough the flies are not around to spoil the hanging meat, but not so cold to freeze everyone in their stands. The hunters observe the deer are in full rut right now, so the bucks should be on the move.
The group anticipated leaving the campfire early Thursday and retiring to their sleeping bags so they could be up and ready to hit the woods at 4 a.m.