As the days start to shorten, and our thoughts turn to the upcoming fall hunting season, our minds turn to successful seasons past. Below is part 4 of my son Tony’s write-up of shooting his first buck on November 13, 2011.
When my alarm went off at 4:30 Sunday morning, I turned it off and laid in bed, deciding. “Do I roll over and sleep in,” I asked myself, “Or do I get up and give it one last go?” “Chi dorme non piglia pesci,” [KEE DORM-ay KNOWN PEEL-ya PAY-shee] I thought. It’s an old Italian expression that literally means, “He who sleeps, catches no fish.” It’s the Italian way of saying “The early bird catches the worm.” I’d like to say that I sprung out of bed, but after four straight days of hoofing it up and down hills and valleys, it was more of a crawl.
I ambled downstairs, wiping the sleep out of my eyes. Dad greeted me in the kitchen. “So what do you think?”
“I think I need to take the bear stand,” I said.
“Sounds good,” Dad said. “You walk in the usual way. I’ll walk in from the end of the road. I’ll give you a 15-minute head start. That way you’ll be settled in the stand before I push through those beeches.”
We followed the plan to the letter, not that it was that difficult. Even in the low light, I was able to follow my dad’s ubiquitous pink tape without much trouble. As designed by Dad, I came up behind the stand from the north side, the opposite way that we would expect a deer to come to the area, especially if my dad pushed it through the beech grove to the south of the stand. Of course, deer never come into your stand the way that you expect them to, but I was wearing rubber boots, which ostensibly don’t carry scent.
I climbed up in the stand, just as those two young bears had done. I brought up the rope that they had pulled down, and I tied it back into place. There hadn’t been a trail camera here since Dad brought his home a few days ago, so we weren’t sure whether those bears had been back. That made me a little nervous.
I was rushing to get to and into the stand to make sure that I was ready to go if Dad pushed a buck by me. In all my haste, I worked up a decent sweat. Once in the stand, I stripped down my upper body, and I hung all my damp clothes on the branches around me to air out.
It was still well before sunup, and I cooled down quickly. I redressed, and prepared to stand vigil for the next few hours.
Normally, in a situation like this, something happens right away or not at all. A couple hours after sunrise, my expectations lowered by the second. I expected to see my dad walking in to my stand within the next half hour, asking me the usual one-word query, “Anything?”
My mind started to wander. My nephew Ian had moved in with us two years prior, and although we had a great start, things weren’t going well at this point. Hunting was supposed to be my way of getting my mind off of all of the issues that my wife and I were having with Ian, but now it was all I could think about. I was running through all of our past confrontations and imaging future ones. As this played out in my head, I grew more and more angry. I was standing in the tree stand now, pretending to be focused on a deer or my dad heading towards me from the south, but I might as well have had my eyes closed. All I could see were the infuriating images playing over and over in my mind.
All of this was interrupted by a cacophony of hooves hitting the ground. For a moment, it sounded like a stampede of caribou. I quickly realized that it was just one animal. My first thought was that it must be a moose to make such a racket. As it came closer, I wasn’t so sure.
The first thing I saw were antlers. “Fork horn,” I thought as I saw four distinct points on its head. Its head was down, when it wasn’t looking back, and its tail was straight out, a sure sign that it was startled but it felt secure that its pursuer didn’t see it.
The scenario was playing out exactly as we had drawn it up in the playbook. I couldn’t believe it. That never happens.
I took off my safety, watched the deer run towards me, and I thought, “I don’t deserve this.” I was feeling guilty for all the angry thoughts I was having about my nephew.
I quickly changed my mind, raised my rifle, and thought, “Yes, I do.” There was just one problem, the deer was moving at more than a trot, and it was quartering towards me to boot. I’m unlikely to take a shot with one of those factors; with the two combined, it’s strictly a “hold your fire” situation for me. I kept my sights on the animal, hoping that it would stop. It didn’t. It ran right past my stand and stopped just a few yards behind the right side of it, from right where I had approached the stand.
It stopped still, completely obscured by all the conifer branches between us. Although I couldn’t see it, I was sure that it was looking back towards Dad to see whether he was on its tail. Instinctively, I grunted twice with my mouth, not having a store-bought grunt call with me. I can thank my friend Matt for teaching me that trick, which he used to shoot a spike horn. Dragging that deer out turned into quite the adventure. But that’s another story.
The buck immediately started to backtrack itself, but it had its head down in my tracks. I guess my rubber boots weren’t so scent-proof after all. It was 40 yards away; well within range of the 50 yards for which I had sighted in my .44 magnum Ruger. The only problem was that it was walking at a quick pace, and it was walking through lots of thin maple saplings.
I glanced ahead of it for an opening, leaned the stock of the .44 against the tree trunk to steady it, and promised myself that I’d squeeze off a round as soon as the deer stepped into that opening. I can’t remember all of the times that this technique didn’t work out. The deer usually stops before the opening and wanders off through the cover of thick brush, never presenting a shot.
Luckily, this time was different. The buck stepped into the opening and stopped, still with its nose in my tracks. As it was moving from my right to my left, I decided to wait until it moved its front left leg forward, fulling exposing its vitals before squeezing the trigger. It did, and I did.
Normally, even with a direct hit to the heart, a deer will run a few yards or make a couple of bounds. Again, this time was different. The deer fell over as though it were frozen solid and someone had pushed it.
I kept the safety off, and I kept aiming for its vitals. I thought, “If it moves a muscle or gets up, I’m going to shoot until it stops moving.” The last thing any hunter wants is an animal to suffer. “Quick and painless” is the mantra. To my surprise, it never flinched a muscle. It lay stone dead after just the one shot.
I radioed Dad. “You got a drag rope with you?” I actually had a drag rope with me. That’s an inside joke. My friend Matt has, on more than one occasion, including when he grunted in that spike horn, shot a deer and not had a drag rope or many other necessities with him (such as his license, a knife, and so on).
Dad radioed back, “I’m already running to you.” He had started running as soon as he had heard the shot.
“Take your time,” I said. “He’s dead in front of me. I can see him. It’s a fork horn.”
Dad came running up two minutes later. “Where is he?”
I pointed Dad to the deer while I remained in the stand. “I hate to tell you this, buddy,” he said. “It’s a six.”
From the tree stand, I had one bar on my cell phone. I called our wives to let them know that we’d be occupied for a while.
“I shot a buck,” I said to Debbie.
“Holy mackerel,” she replied. “I’ll bring some snacks by.”
After taking a few pictures from the stand, I climbed down. Dad shook my hand and gave me hug.
“Nice job,” he said.
“You did all the work,” I said. “All I did was grunt and pull the trigger.”
As I field dressed the deer, Dad asked me to recount the whole story. After that, he told me his side of the story. During that time, Debbie had dropped off a cooler with snacks and drinks at Dad’s truck.
After completing the field dressing, I made the half-mile hike back to Dad’s truck alone to drop off a bunch of our stuff and get some of Debbie’s snacks and drinks.
“I’ll wait here with the deer, and I’ll keep my rifle in case those two little bastards show up,” Dad said, referring to the young black bears that had attacked the camera and climbed the stand.
When I got back to the truck, I dropped the tailgate to make our lives easier getting the deer in the bed of the truck.
The drag out wasn’t bad. It was mostly downhill, and there weren’t many blowdowns. Dad kept trying to help me drag the deer, but I kept telling him to just carry our gear because he was dealing with a hernia. I didn’t want it to get worse. Besides, I was so excited about getting my first buck that dragging it didn’t feel like work.
When we got close to the truck, we waited until no cars were driving by to put the deer in the back. We didn’t want everyone to know about our great new hunting spot.
We went home to eat something and take the deer to a checking station. As I went outside to cut out the tenderloins, Dad’s neighbor Jean came up the driveway with a hearty “Congratulations!”
“What brings you by?” I asked.
“I saw you parked down the road earlier,” she said. “I figured that you had your tailgate down because you got a deer.”
Right then, I made a mental note to never leave the tailgate down on a pickup truck at any of our hunting spots.
She took a couple pictures of Dad and me with the deer.
“Look at that smile,” she said. “You can’t wipe that grin off your face.”
“What can I say,” I said. “It’s my first buck.”
To my surprise, she offered to hold the legs open so I could access the tenderloins. By this time, her husband Mike had come over to check out the deer as well. He wasn’t surprised that Jean was willing to hold the leg. “Jean is fascinated with dead wildlife,” he said. “Haven’t you seen the beaver pelt in our house?”
We didn’t have much time to chat. Being Sunday, the local sporting goods shop closed early, and we had to rush to get there in time to check in the deer.
He weighed in at 106 pounds; not bad for a 1.5-year old buck. We’ve always butchered our own deer, something I took great pride in, but it was getting to be late in the afternoon. I had an early meeting the next morning, and I was still two hours away from home. Luckily, we bumped into one of our favorite game wardens at the checking station, and he gave us the name of his favorite butcher.
When we arrived at the butcher’s, he asked, “Is he a beauty?” I was thinking, “He’s the most beautiful deer I’ve ever seen,” but before I could respond, he answered his own question, “They all are, aren’t they?” I agreed, but I was stunned that a guy who spends day after day butchering dozens of deer would still think that deer are beautiful. It was refreshing to talk to someone who respects the animals as much, if not more than we do.
Having finally tagged my first buck, I felt a huge weight lift off of my shoulders. I felt like a real hunter, not just some city slicker that runs around the woods on weekends. Of course, I had very little to do with my success. All the credit goes to the guide.
As the days start to shorten, and our thoughts turn to the upcoming fall hunting season, our minds turn to successful seasons past. Below is part 3 of my son Tony’s write-up of shooting his first buck on November 13, 2011.
Opening day in New Hampshire is always on a Wednesday. Dad’s brother-in-law, Dana always comes up from New York for that week. For reasons I can’t remember now, we decided to hunt other places, like J.E. and our other usual haunts. We hunted hard Wednesday through Friday, and none of us so much as saw a deer. We were frustrated. At one point, Dana and I were admiring one of Dad’s neighbor’s shed antler collection.
As I started a three-point turn to leave, we noticed a nice buck hanging in a tree at the end of his driveway. “So that’s what they look like,” Dana said wryly. “Some hunters we are,” he added. “We didn’t even notice one 10 feet from us hanging in a tree!” Defeated, Dana and I headed home for lunch. Dad was still out scouting, earning the G in WLAGS.
Just as Dana and I finished our lunches, Dad came home furious. “Someone screwed with our new ladder stand,” he yelled. “And the camera! The camera was on the ground, facing the tree stand, and the rope we tied to the stand was on the ground. The strap for the camera was on the ground, but it was still locked to the tree. But they screwed up! They left the SD card in the camera! I’ve got them now! Let’s go see if we can recognize them.”
Dana, my dad, and I headed to my dad’s computer in the basement. As my dad popped the SD card into his computer, we anxiously awaited what the videos would reveal. Dad hadn’t checked the camera in a long time. Thus, there were many videos on the card, including videos of the following:
We were still anticipating seeing the would-be thieves. “OK, we should be getting to the most recent videos now,” Dad said.
The next video was of a young black bear walking from right to left in front of the camera. Just as it’s about to walk by, it stops and walks towards and eventually behind the camera.
In the second video, the bear is sniffing and pawing at the camera. With each successive 30-second clip, the bear became more aggressive with the camera, biting at it continually. At one point, you can hear the strap coming out of the camera as the bear pulls it with his teeth. The camera ends up on the ground, facing the stand, which serendipitously allows you to see the bear and its sibling climb the tree stand. The very next video is of Dad showing up on the scene four days later. He is visibly confused and upset. That’s the final video on the card.
We nearly fell off of our chairs laughing. Dad’s would-be thieves were two yearling black bears, who had it in for Dad’s camera and tree stand. We watched the videos over and over, and they never ceased to send us into knee-slapping, howling laughter. “Are…you…kidding…me?” was all Dad could manage between guffaws.
Despite all the laughs, we learned something important. This tree stand had a lot of activity—a lot more activity than all of our other stands—and that couldn’t have been a coincidence. Clearly something was drawing all these animals to this area. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that it was the beechnuts.
On Saturday, Dana left very early to get home for opening day of gun season in New York. My dad and I continued to hunt, and we weren’t having any more luck. I was pessimistic.
As the days start to shorten, and our thoughts turn to the upcoming fall hunting season, our minds turn to successful seasons past. Below is part 2 of my son Tony’s write-up of shooting his first buck on November 13, 2011.
In the summer of 2011, my dad had been retired for a bit, and, like any good guide, he made scouting for the upcoming fall his full-time job. He was hell-bent on helping his brother-in-law, Dana, or me to get a deer that season.
2011 was an unusual year in my dad’s neck of the woods. There was an uncharacteristically small acorn crop and no apples to speak of. Oddly, beechnuts, which are usually no factor at all in the area, became the predominant food source for nearly all animals that year. Once my dad discovered this, he realized that he’d have to start scouting lots of new places, and we’d have to put up new tree stands. He got right to the task.
He found an area that was loaded with beechnuts. He scouted the area hard, and he found where three different bucks were working the area. He had always liked this one break in a stone wall. Lots of animals had always used this as a crossing. This spot was between two beechnut groves and near bedding cover. It was a good transition zone. He’d always wanted a stand here, but with few oak trees in the area, it wasn’t worth putting a stand here during the usual acorn-heavy years. This year, it made perfect sense.
He decided that it was worth putting a ladder stand in a large white pine that overlooked the break in the stone wall. The hard part would be getting the ladder stand there. As he scouted the area, he found a good way to get to the stand—not the fastest way, and not the easiest way, but the way that would allow a hunter to “sneak in the backdoor” of the stand without disturbing any deer that might be feeding on those beechnuts.
Pink surveyor’s tape has become my dad’s calling card. As he discovered this way of accessing the stand, he started to place bits of pink tape along this homemade “trail” that spanned the half mile from the pull-off where he parked to the stand.
Each time he went in to scout the area, he carried one piece of the aluminum ladder stand with him. The ladder stand has four pieces: three 5-foot ladder sections and a platform and seat section. After each trip, he would hide the sections of the tree stand under some branches. Once they were all in place, he waited for me to come visit for a scouting weekend to help put the stand in the tree, which is definitely a two-person job, at a minimum.
When I arrived, I could see that he had everything in place, like a good guide should. We parked in his pull-off, and he showed me the pattern he used to put up the pink tape along his route to the stand. He showed me all of the beechnut trees along the way, along with all of the deer sign, not to mention all of the bear claw marks in the beechnut trees.
He had been through there so many times, that he had created nicknames for some of the spots along the way, as he is wont to do. For example, he nicknamed one SUV-sized boulder surrounded by beech trees Turtle Rock, due to its tortoise-like shape.
These nicknames come in handy when one is mentioning locations of deer sightings or deer sign. You might say something like, “I saw a fresh scrape about 100 yards south of Turtle Rock. It looks like it was from one of the fork horns.”
For the uninitiated, that means that a buck with four antler points had scraped the ground with one of its front hooves to mark his territory. Bucks make scrapes under a licking branch, a branch that the buck can lick and reach up to rub the glands near his eyes. These branches give you a good indication of the buck’s size, as they are usually about as high as the top of his head. To add more scent to the location, the buck also urinates down one of his legs so that the urine runs over one of his tarsal glands. This gives the scrape a pungent, musky odor. I’ve smelled fresh scrapes from hundreds of yards away, and as my Uncle Franny used to say, “My nose is big, but it don’t work worth a damn.” You can imagine how far away a doe and other bucks could smell a scrape, given that their sense of smell is better than a Blood Hound’s.
We arrived at the stand site, and we assembled and put the stand on the tree. It didn’t take long. By this point, we were old hands at this. We had put up and moved many a ladder stand over the last several years. We locked the stand in place with a chain, just in case.
About 50 yards from the stand, the break in the stone wall was over the shooter’s left shoulder, perfect for a right-handed shot, like all of us who hunt with my dad. About 35 yards away, straight in front of the shooter, was my dad’s trail camera on another tree, pointed to the left, ever vigilant of that break in the stone wall. We were ready for opening day.
As the days start to shorten, and our thoughts turn to the upcoming fall hunting season, our minds turn to successful seasons past. Below is part 1 of my son Tony’s write-up of shooting his first buck on November 13, 2011.
As is well documented in “The Best Season, Part 1” and in “The Best Season, Part 1: Tony’s Take,” I shot my first deer at the tender age of 15 by way of bow and arrow. That entire experience went so perfectly and easily, that I thought that harvesting a deer would quickly become a yearly event.
I felt much the way that Bronson Arroyo must have felt in November of 2004 after winning the World Series with Red Sox. He probably thought, “Now that we’ve broken this 86-year drought, we’ll probably start a dynasty that will win several more World Series titles.” Little did Arroyo know that 2005, a year in which the Red Sox would be swept out of the first round of the playoffs, would be his last in Beantown, and he’d spend the next eight years with the underachieving Cincinnati Reds, while the Red Sox would go on to win two more World Series.
When you get cocky, as I had after shooting my first deer, life has a way of humbling you awfully quickly. I spent the next 10 years underachieving as a hunter. I had several opportunities over those years, but all were undermined by bad luck, bad decisions, or bad performance on my part. I had lost my mojo as a hunter.
I finally redeemed myself 11 years after shooting my first doe by shooting a very large doe with the rifle, but that is a story for another day. To the point of this story, I would then endure a post-1986 Red Sox-like, 13-year dry spell without harvesting another deer. I continued to archery hunt for the first few years of that dry spell—Dad even gave me a recurve, which I hunted with for a couple of years.
But I eventually had to give up bow hunting, as my busy, city-living lifestyle wouldn’t permit me the time or access to practice. I instead alternately picked up the black powder rifle and my trusty Ruger .44 magnum carbine.
Again, with both of those weapons, I had opportunities, but was never able to put venison on the table. Over those years, my frustration ascended as my confidence descended, particularly as my friends and relatives continued to have success. I then entered the final stage of grief; acceptance.
I looked at my successful fellow hunters, and I realized the difference between what they were doing and what I was doing—scouting. I came to realize that my lack of success was almost entirely due to lack of scouting. It was in those years that I truly learned just how invaluable scouting is to successful hunting. My corporate ladder-climbing lifestyle just wasn’t allowing me the time to do the necessary scouting to have a successful hunting season, and I accepted that. I stopped looking at hunting as means to putting meat on the table, and I started looking at it as what it truly was for me—a hobby to get me out of the city and into the woods with my closest friends and relatives. My frustration tapered off the more that I decided that I wouldn’t care about “success” in the woods; I simply cared that I was *in* the woods and not sitting behind a desk. I began to enjoy myself more. I looked forward to simply *seeing* all the moose, bear, coyotes, and occasional deer, as well as the non-game animals. I also looked forward to being unplugged from the rat race of my daily life and just being.
I’ve found again and again in life that when you change your attitude in this way, success has a way of finding you, but not without a little help. Enter WLAGS.
You have all heard my say time and again that in good mast years the deer don’t have to move, resulting lower kill rates, fewer sightings, and heavier deer. Case in point is the video we got a month ago of a button buck eating while laying down at Stand #2 (click the image to watch the video).
Button Buck Eats While Laying Down
That theory was also dramatically proven this weekend. On Saturday morning, Tony went to Buck Knob while I hunted towards him on my normal trails. The still hunting conditions were awful. The snow that had fallen the night before was now crusted with ice from the falling rain. I reached Tony after a few hours without ever cutting a track, and he never saw one either all the way to his stand.
We decided to split up. He would head towards Stand #3 and I to Stand #2.
Just a few feet from the Tunnel, I was greeted by a loud snort. It caught me totally off guard as I still had not seen a track. I radioed Tony to make him aware and then proceeded to Stand #2. The place was filthy with sign. I knew there were at least three or four deer that I had spooked. I got it down to three and started tracking them towards Mtn. Rd., but one turned east. I hoped Tony would see that one or its track. I followed the other two to the highest point on Mtn. Rd., where they crossed, and called Tony to meet me there.
When we met up, I suggested that he take up the track. My days of tracking deer up the mountain under those conditions, after 70 years, are now behind me.
He said that he never saw the third deer’s track as he started after the other two. We knew that one was a buck, but we didn’t know whether it was legal size.
Tony tracked the two deer uphill for two miles. He hiked over five miles Saturday morning.
Those two deer took him past a couple of rubs.
Eventually, he caught up with them, getting within 50 yards of them, where they met up with a third deer. Tony couldn’t see the head of one of the deer. The other two were not legal. Tony tried to follow the largest track, but got confused when the three of them scattered through two sets of moose track. He continued following what he thought was the biggest track, hoping to see some droppings to determine whether it was a doe or a buck. Eventually, the smaller track met up with the larger track. They ran for a long time before they slowed down, always heading uphill. Tony kept Paul’s advice in mind: “When the deer run, you run. When the deer trot, you trot. When the deer walk, you walk.” He determined from the track that eventually, after crossing a wide gully, they slowed down, turned towards him, saw him coming, and continued running. This is where the larger deer finally left some droppings.
Were they droppings of a nervous doe or a buck standing and watching for his pursuer? Was the smaller deer a doe running with her mate, or the button buck running with his mother? About 40 yards later, the smaller deer left some droppings as well. Tony was sure that these were from the button buck. He had been pursuing two non-legal deer. It was time to pack it in.
As he walked back down Mtn. Rd., he saw this giant tree that had split in our last storm. Note his Ruger .44 leaning against it.
Meanwhile, I went back to the original spot to see if I could find the third deer and to see how the heck (not my first choice of words) they got in there without making a track.
As it turns out, the third deer lost me when he got in the track of the other two and then leaped well off the trail, and I was never able to pick up where without spending a lot of the energy that I was quickly running out of.
The most amazing thing about all this is when I back tracked the group. Even I was shocked at the lack of ground that they covered in the previous 12 hours. They had spent the night in the thick evergreens, which are interspersed with oaks, overlooking the gully below Dana’s Knob. Then a couple of hours before I showed up, they proceeded to feed and rest and chew their cud in the open oaks. In total they did not move 50 yards in 12 hours!
No wonder track was so hard to find. Think of what an advantage this is to them:
- They eat while not expending any energy.
- They get to eat 24/7!
- They are not making any track or leaving any scent for predators to follow.
- They are in perfect cover within two or three bounds of disappearing, completely unseen.
The only downside I see is for the rutting bucks. Instead of depending on the usual trails to find does in estrus, now they must hunt for them too.
It was my early days of bowhunting (in the early sixties) when I first noticed this phenomenon. In those years the odd years were our best because there was no mast crop forcing the deer into the orchards and the fields. I have seen as many as 115 deer in a week’s bowhunting in those years. The next year after that (one with a mast crop) I saw seven deer! I later discovered ways to deal with it better, but it was a lot more work and a lot less dependable.
I would rather have been wrong about this long standing theory of mine, but this incident proved it beyond all doubt.
With Tony’s deer in the freezer, I was able to scout to my heart’s content over the remaining bow season and the weekends in between then and gun season.
Opening day of gun season would fall on my birthday. It wasn’t the first or last time that would happen–and all of them were memorable–but this one most of all.
We awoke on opening morning to almost every hunter’s dream–4” of wet snow and little wind. I had been intrigued by a particular hill east of town because I thought deer were transitioning there between a hill where they fed and another where they bedded. So foregoing my previous scouting, I decided this snow would prove my theory right or wrong.
I started climbing up a fairly steep grade, and in no time I was in two sets of tracks. I figured that they were does, but with the rut on, they were worth following. In the next
5 minutes I caught up to them where they were bedded, and I got a good look at them as they bolted up the hill.
Right where they were was a third set of tracks. It was obviously a buck, and needless to say, fresh. I tracked him for a good deal of time. It became obvious that I had spooked him, so now I concentrated on getting to know his turf. After I thought I had a handle on it, I headed out to make ready for the afternoon hunt. On my way out, I was surprised to see the buck’s track in my track. It was plain that he was tracking and winding me at the same time. He knew exactly where I was every minute.
I went back to the motel and declared to all that I was going to get my birthday buck that afternoon. I asked for a volunteer to go with me to help drag it out and maybe get a shot at him too. Jim offered his services. I was not as confident as I made it sound, but I knew that I had a handle on this buck and his M.O.
Jim and I split up about halfway to where I had jumped the does. He would be below me. I have no idea how much time passed exactly, but it was less than a half hour I’m sure, when I reached the spot where the buck had tracked me earlier. A few minutes more and I was above the bowl where he had made several scrapes.
Knowing that he liked to know where I was at all times, I kept taking glances at my back track. Sure enough, there he was with his nose buried in my track, about 40 yards behind me–a very nice Vermont 6-pointer with an almost ivory-colored rack. I got off a good shot into his neck before he dashed off. He didn’t go far.
Between the snow and Jim, the downhill drag was one of the easiest I ever had. This capped off one of the most memorable seasons of my life.