By Chris Harris
-- Until last year, I had taken a 10-year sabbatical from hunting. But then after the wife had half a dozen encounters with deer in one year on her 5-mile drive to the interstate, I decided that I needed to take up hunting again - in self-defense, of course. Fortunately, most of her mishaps were just minor scrapes and dents.
So, having made the decision to start hunting again, I needed to get re-outfitted. I decided to purchase a new muzzleloader as my weapon of choice. That would give me a two-week head start on the regular gun season. Color me surprised. The weapon system has significantly improved in the past decade. The break-open breach, inline 209 shotgun primers, premeasured, pelleted powder, and sabot bullets sure make firing a blackpowder rifle almost as simple as chambering a cartridge in a bolt-action.
With just a week before the season opened, I had obtained permission to hunt on a 476-acre farm within a mile of my house but had never stepped foot upon the property. I knew I would not have time to scout the area, so I turned to the Internet to obtain free maps and aerial photos of the farm.
Most of us have used USGS maps to survey our favorite hunting spots for years. In fact, I have used them since I first started hunting back in the 1960s. Over the years, I learned to pre-scout areas using maps to determine where deer would be located, and with frequent success.
Last year in that week prior to opening day, I spent a few evenings studying the maps and photos online. I identified three potential hot spots where I was confident I would find fresh sign. On the maps, I look for intersecting ridgelines and creek bottoms as well as saddles along ridgelines where extensions of the creek bottoms up a slope make crossing the ridge easier. Then with the aid of aerial photos, I observe how the ground cover may funnel deer moving from one covered area to another. Changes from open pasture, clear cut areas, replanted pines, and hardwood forested areas all form edges and corners that allow deer to stay concealed most of the time during the day.
Well, behind my usual opening day preparedness, I sighted-in the new muzzleloader, and readied myself for a 100-yard shot.
Finally, I headed out to the farm to start hunting at 11 a.m. Nothing beats actually getting into the field. I found the aerial photos were a year or three behind times. Some previously wooded areas were now fresh rye grass pastures and a recent heavy rain had almost put the major creek through the property out of its banks, thereby making it impossible to cross safely.
Some minor setbacks but my spirits were still undiminished. I continued getting a feel for the land and found fresh sign exactly where I had predicted, along with droppings, scrapes, and rubs. I took a stand overlooking a creek bottom on the side of a small ridge where the hardwoods narrowed between two open active cattle pastures.
After just 20 minutes standing next to the tree where I pushed the leaves away to clear a small quiet zone for myself, a gang of turkeys flew across the creek, landing about 70 yards down the ridge. The turkeys then proceeded to scratch for acorns, working their way up the ridge.
I did see three doe on opening day. They were 250 yards out and had crossed the creek into the open pasture heading west toward a 100-acre parcel of hardwoods not included in the farm that I was hunting.
On Monday after opening day of muzzleloading season, I was up and out before daybreak. I jumped in my pickup and drove the mile to the back of the farm. I parked and waited until 30 minutes before sunrise to head toward the same stand I was on Saturday afternoon. Before I had covered half of the 500 yards to the stand, I saw eight deer exit the hardwoods within 50 yards of my destination. They eased into some cedars that I was using to cover my own egress to the area. I stepped over the edge of the ridge behind a large brushy cedar toward the creek, but before I could settle into a concealed slot four deer rounded the cedar. They snorted, threw their tails up, and bolted along the ridge, heading west.
One deer I noticed was a small spike buck. Instinctively, I removed the safety, cocked the hammer, shouldered the rifle with the crosshairs, and found the front shoulder of the spike. I dropped my point of aim a couple of inches and squeezed the trigger. As the cloud dissipated, I reloaded and stepped toward the deer lying motionless 30 yards from me. As I closed the distance, I could see the other four deer had taken a lower route along the ridge bottom next to the creek. Seeing me crest the rim, they snorted and decided to cross the creek and then also headed west.
After field-dressing the spike, I went back to my house and was having a cup of coffee with my wife at 7:30 a.m. My first deer in 10 years, total time in the field - six hours spread across two days.
The second Saturday in the season would be my third day hunting. I headed back to my new favorite stand. I drove around a little earlier determined to get to the stand before first shooting light. On my way into the stand, I jumped two large deer feeding about 150 yards from the truck. Busted! They bolted for the cover of the finger of hardwoods jutting out into the pasture. I now knew that if I could get to my stand, I had them cut off from several bedding areas unless they were to venture back into the open pasture. That finger of hardwoods is only about 100 yards wide and 300 yards long.
I made it to the stand without further incident and then waited three hours with only squirrels hiding acorns for entertainment. About 10:00, I decided to still-hunt the finger of hardwoods to see if I could create my own action.
By 11 a.m., I had only moved 150 yards toward the end of the finger. I had seen another large deer working the edge of the finger but could not catch a clear view of the deer. Regardless, we were headed in the same direction. I decided to work up the backside of the hill toward the ridge crest and woods edge and had moved another 50 yards before I spotted a good-sized buck that had been bedded in the woods within 10 feet of the fence line between the pasture and the woods, stretching.
There were several trees and a bramble patch between the deer and me. I was catching glimpses of his antlers as he milled around the same spot. I eased to within 70 yards of the buck, using a large, sparsely limbed tree as cover and then as a shooting rest as I knelt down to steady my aim.
Removing the safety and cocking the hammer, I took aim but could not place the crosshairs on his boiler room. I could see the rack, which appeared to be at least six points with the rack well outside of his ears and tines at least six inches above his ears. His body size was a lot larger than any of the eight deer I had seen on Monday.
As he continued to mill around, browsing on the brambles, his shoulder and ribs finally cleared the brush, and in another cloud, my second buck was down. Upon examination, the buck was only a 4- pointer eastern count. He was missing both brow tines. Still he had a 20-inch spread, balanced 16-inch main beams, and two 7-inch tines. I was home for lunch before noon.
I didn't take another deer for the remainder of the season. I was holding out for a larger buck, and I didn't have any more room in my freezer.
This year, I vowed to be fit and ready for the season. I have already walked 16 miles, seen over 50 deer, excluding fawns, and obtained permission to hunt the same farm and two adjacent properties including that 100-acre tract, which seemed to attract every deer in the area last year.
I hit the maps again and wanted to pass along what may well be the absolutely best resource on the Internet. Many counties have created GIS (Geographic Information System) data, which contain a wealth of information. The county where I live has just brought its online. It combines topographic contour lines at 5-foot gradients, recent aerial photos, and property boundaries linked to owner names and addresses.
I have decided to only take doe this year unless a true trophy-class buck walks into my crosshairs. We have a need to reduce our local deer population. The local hunt clubs seem to only take bucks. As I stated earlier, I've seen over 50 different deer this year. What I didn't say is that only four of them have been bucks with visible antlers.