By James Spillane
-- Tim and I huddled over the large topographical map of the mountain, studying every contour. I pointed to draws and benches, and explained why I thought several areas would make good stand locations for hunting the elusive deep-woods white-tailed deer we have in New Hampshire. Bill Winke had taught me a lot about reading topographical maps over the last two seasons.
The plan for the day was to stalk-hunt through the deeper mountain area we were studying. Normally, I would have wanted to be out in the woods and on stand well before first hunting light, but today I wasn't in any rush, and dawn had come and gone hours earlier. The weather report called for rain showers, and neither of us wanted to be sitting in downpours, nor did we think the deer would be moving about unless someone was making them move. So instead of picking a spot and sitting, we planned to walk the whole area, checking out each potential stand location first-hand. You could only tell so much from a map, but I knew from experience that every place I saw potential on the topographical map, we were bound to find trails and sign. Deer are, for the most part, as lazy as we are. They are inclined to take a gentle slope over a steep one, to travel the easiest path from point A to point B, and to bed themselves down on benches that provide them with a feeling of safety, and some protection from the elements in weather like we were supposed to be getting.
I gathered the rest of my equipment as Tim stepped into the next room for his own preparations, and just then the driveway sensor went off. It rang again. And it chimed one last time. Deer were crossing the driveway, moving up the mountainside. I felt certain it was the group of females that I had seen in the field many nights. Typically, I spotted them feeding in a group of anywhere from three to five deer. The excitement, which had been building as the morning approached, and the hunt, now laid out upon the table, had became a reality.
The knowledge that deer were crossing my driveway 100 yards away gave me an adrenaline hit, and made the day's possibilities all too real. Here in the Wildlife Management Unit my house occupied, we could still take a doe this morning if we chose. I'm not above taking a doe, and had already taken one this season with my bow. Truth be told, I had never taken a buck yet.
I called for Tim and told him what had just happened with the driveway alarm. I suggested instead of driving the truck up to the cistern and parking closer to the mountain top, perhaps we might want to hunt our way up through the woods on foot. He agreed, as excited as I was about our prospects with deer so close. We just needed to run into them or cut them off.
We hit the woods and climbed our way slowly higher up the mountain, watching for deer as we crossed each side trail. In retrospect, we moved too fast. We made the same mistake all day, in fact. This was Tim's first time hunting the area, so there was no practical way to spread out and then meet up later. I had the GPS and knew the terrain.
Tim was seeing it all for the first time, although the map prepared him for some of the steep terrain we had to deal with. As host, I was constantly hoping the hunting experience was not disappointing to Tim. He had come a long way to hunt here, and I was trying to expose him to as much of the potential the terrain offered as we could fit in one day. I was also making mental notes of the little clues about how the deer were moving around on the mountain as we scouted each area. I marked major rub lines, deer highways, groves of white oaks, and other important clues in the GPS as we went along.
Several times we found ourselves stumbling upon ridge lines and saddles where a beautiful vista opened up below us, allowing a clear view anything that might pass by on the next shelf down, 200 yards below us. The most impressive of these vistas included a rub line, and was at a place where several terrain features came together. It was by far the most promising spot we had encountered thus far to hang a stand.
When we were studying the topographical map this spot had presented itself as two possible stand locations for various reasons (on my map they were designated as potential stands 9 and 10). I had seen sign here in previous years and noted its potential because of the rubs in the area, but I could never hunt it alone. The spot was easily a full mile deep in the woods, over some very rough terrain. Dragging a deer out, if I was successful, was an almost impossible prospect for me all alone. Even if I worked out to the power lines and used them to cut back, the elevation went through variations of almost 200' several times in that mile. In short, it was steep and rough. But the potential!!
To hunt it with two men ... well, that was the only way. And from all the sign I was reading, I felt a morning hunt would be best. This was where we wanted to be before dawn some morning soon.
The saddle edged up to a steeper drop-off where one portion had a slighter grade, allowing deer to angle up the face from below. Another major trail took them back up to the previous ridge, and across the saddle was the rub line, crossing from one mini-peak to the next. This saddle also came at a point where a copse of thick hemlock gave way to an open expanse of hardwoods - mostly red oak and beech. There are mast trees - a major food source in the fall. The signs of deer foraging through the leaves were everywhere under the hardwoods, and the rubs from bucks were all over the hemlocks. Some were torn apart savagely, and one was even broken in two.
The rain never came, and although a part of me wished we had gone out on stand
and hunted as we had originally planned, I was overwhelmed with all the new intelligence I had gathered. I had hours of data to consider for various scenarios of wind and weather, time of day, and type of hunting. After we got back to the house I downloaded the data from the GPS, and over the next few days I poured over my topographical map to help me correlate what the deer should be doing based on terrain with what I saw them doing when we were scouting.
Thanksgiving was approaching, and the season turned from "Any Sex Deer" to
"Antlered Only" in my WMU, as Tim and I planned for an all-day hunt in the far-reaches we had explored. We decided on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, and our destination would be the area we now called "Buck Run Ridge", the spectacular spot where hemlocks met hardwoods, and trails converged from all directions. That saddle between the benches seemed like the most incredible spot, and I was very optimistic that we would see a buck out there. All those rubs were recent and active. We planned to approach the spot by walking down the power lines with our treestands and weapons, then cut in across the side of the mountain, following the GPS.
Tim was set to arrive at my house Friday evening and stay overnight. That enabled us to wake early, shower and dress, and be out to start the long walk into the woods well before first light. Our intent was to actually set up our stands and be in the trees at least an hour before dawn. Legal shooting light starts half-an-hour before dawn, so this timeline would allow the woods to settle down after we walked in and set up.
When that Saturday morning arrived, we both arose and showered according to plan. I made coffee and got dressed in several layers for the cold. The weather had been quirky all season, with some bitterly cold days starting off the rut, and then suddenly turning to balmy warm days that threw a wrench into everything. I remain convinced that the rut was never in full swing this season because of the quirky weather.
Saturday morning returned a chilly bite to the air. I knew that if I were going to sit for the entire day, I'd need the layers. Two layers of Scent-lok clothing, and then my camo pants and shirt, followed by my camo overalls would keep me warm enough. The problem was the long walk out, carrying a steel treestand on my back and a .35 Remington rifle in my hand. My hope was that if I sweated too much, the double layers would hold it in.
Tim came downstairs and started dressing as well. He had left his hunting clothes out on the deck overnight to de-scent, and we both had coffee and talked while we finished pulling ourselves together. We tossed the gear in the truck, and within four minutes, we were parked under the power lines. I felt the cold, calm air of the morning nipping at me as I gathered my gear, and thought again about how welcome this change was to the run of strangely warm weather we had been having. Cold and calm weather was exactly what I wanted to get the deer moving and keep the scent down.
Tim and I started the walk in, headlamps guiding us and casting a dim aura as we treaded along the rugged ATV trail. Although the map shows the power lines as a straight line, the ATV trail winds back and forth out of necessity. Some places are too rugged even for an ATV, and the trail escapes the boundary of the line to meander through the forest for a while, eventually coming back around to the line and rejoining it at the base of some steep and rocky cliff. I frequently checked the GPS to see how much further we had to hike before we could cut into the woods. We underestimated the time it would take us to hike in, loaded down as we were with the heavy treestands and other gear. At one point, when we stopped for a breather and GPS check, I looked at Tim in the brightening gloom and told him I didn't think we'd be there an hour before dawn as we had planned.
There was a definite feeling at that point of having potentially ruined a good hunt by not taking into account the rugged terrain and the time it would take us to arrive. After descending and ascending two more peaks, we hit a point where the GPS showed us parallel to Buck Run Ridge, and we needed to cut in. I was sweating under all my layers and pretty out of breath. The last bit of climbing was particularly steep, and the steel treestand was feeling heavier than ever. Several times during the hike in, I reaffirmed that I needed to get myself a lighter climbing treestand for longer-distance hunts like this.
I stopped just in the wood line, and told Tim I had to rest a bit. I wanted to quiet myself down before I tried stalking into the woods. I was afraid that no matter how quiet I tried to be, as tired as I was, I would not be able to sneak into the woods, especially not while carrying this treestand.
"So how are we setting up?" Tim whispered, taking advantage of our rest break.
"Good question." I whispered back to him. "We're just about parallel to Buck
Run Ridge here, and should be about even in elevation. If we work our way in to where that bedding spot was and Cowboy Rock, one of us can set up there. Should be able to watch the bedding area and the hemlock grove where the trees are all torn up with rubs.
ìEither find a tree and get in it right away, or wait until it's a bit lighter to pick out a good tree." I arched my back to stretch it a bit more, knowing I soon had to shoulder the treestand again. The sweat inside my Scent-lok layer was ice cold against my skin, and I shivered inside. "The other person can slowly make his way out to that wide-open spot where the hemlocks give way to the oaks and beech trees. On the ridge there should be a good spot for the second stand, where deer had been disturbing the leaves looking for acorns. The person in that stand should be able to see pretty far down the ridge."
Tim shifted his own treestand on his back. "You take the open area." He looked at me and hefted his shotgun. "You have greater range with your rifle and can cover that open area. I'll take a tree by Cowboy Rock and watch the bedding area and hemlocks."
I nodded. "Okay. Sounds good." I shouldered the treestand and it pressed the ice cold and clammy inner layer of clothing against my skin.
"How long are we hunting until? 9:30?" Tim looked at his watch.
"I don't know." I paused. "I just thought today I could sit all day if I have to. I think we'll sit as long as we need to." Then I thought of one last thing. "Oh, and if I hit the talk button on my radio three times, it means I can't hear you."
Tim had been having trouble with his radio earlier in the morning, since he didn't have an ear piece or microphone. "Okay, how about this: Once means ìattentionî, twice means ìdeerî, and three times means ìI want to talkî"
I nodded my agreement, checked the GPS again and headed into the woods, trying to pick an unobstructed and relatively quiet path through the leaves, fallen trees and thicker crops of young trees. I felt like we were making far too much noise, but part of me thought that at least with two of us walking, perhaps it sounded like four-legs instead of two. Maybe we sounded like other deer. Big clumsy deer, I had to admit to myself.
I knew how the coming light would make me want to rush in and find a stand location, but that be the worst thing we could do. Even though dawn was approaching, we had to maintain a slow pace. I exerted every bit of my self-control to slow my pace and forced myself to stop often. I used those opportunities to check the GPS and look for the best route through the trees for the next 20 yards or so. About 10 minutes later, we reached Cowboy Rock. I looked around with Tim, and he slid his treestand off his shoulders.
"I think I'll go up this tree." Tim surveyed a hemlock standing almost alone with a good view in three directions. It wasn't very tall, but it looked good enough in the awakening dawn. I'm sure that, like me, he wanted to get up in a tree as soon as he could.
I whispered and nodded my head. "I'm going to make my way over to Buck Run Ridge now. I'm going slow and quiet. Good luck!"
"Shoot straight." Tim whispered back. He then focused his attention on the tree as I turned and headed off down the ridge line. I heard the occasional snap of a branch as Tim cleared the low dead ones from his tree and attached his climbing stand. I worked my way just outside of the hemlocks, about 20 yards into the oak and beech expanse, and found a really nice, tall and straight oak tree. A neighboring beech had some branches crossing and almost rubbing the oak trunk about 14 feet up. I could hang my stand there and get a little cover from the beech tree, even though it was devoid of leaves.
I leaned my gun against the beech and hung my stand on the oak tree, slowly working the catches and pins, trying to avoid any clanging of metal against metal. Once the stand was in place, I stalked out about 30 yards away and hung scent wicks on the younger beech as I went. I had gotten out as far as I planned to go setting scent when I heard what sounded like a squirrel in the leaves a way down the ridge. I cursed to myself, realizing I left my gun leaning against the beech tree by my stand. I slowly circled back to the stand, hanging more scent wicks as I went. The first four had been "Doe in Heat;" the second four were "Dominant Buck". To finish, I sprayed a little "Red Fox Urine" around the base of my tree to erase my own scent.
The sound in the leaves persisted intermittently as I attached my pull-rope to the gun, and fastened my feet to the climbing stand. Once I was secure, I worked my climber up the trunk of the oak, spiraling as I ascended so that when I was about 14 feet up and had reached the point where the beech branch gave me some cover, I was also sitting with my back toward Tim's stand. This had me facing down the ridge. The sounds in the leaves came now and again ahead and off to my right. I locked my stand in place, hung my fanny pack on the stand and pulled my rifle up to me.
Normally, I stand my rifle up between my legs when I'm settling into the stand for a long wait. I started to do just that, but the continual sound of the rustling leaves in the distance, or perhaps some other passing feeling I couldn't put my finger on, changed my mind. I held the gun at a more ready position, across the railing in front of me. The woods were calm and silent, save that occasional rustling. Even if I didn't see any deer, I felt it would be a perfect day. I could have sat in that stand until sundown. The beauty of the forest was being revealed as light filtered over the neighboring mountain peaks, and out of the gloom colors in gold and rust were coming to life. I felt incredible. Right then, I was glad I was there.
I reached into my shirt pocket, pulled out my can call and let out a few bleats. I was pretty sure that rustling was a squirrel now. I sounded off a few more bleats before returning the can to my pocket. Not five minutes passed before I saw a deer break the horizon. It was coming across the ridge. Seeing that deer appearing as if from nowhere immediately pumped my adrenaline and I looked closer. I saw antlers! This was my first encounter with a buck in the woods. It stopped about 60 yards out, off to my right, behind some small beech trees. Head down, he was nuzzling through the oak and beech leaves, rooting for buried acorns by a fallen birch tree.
I pulled my rifle around and held it awkwardly off to the right, positioning it and myself for a shot in that direction. My arm started aching almost immediately from the bad angle, but I had to ignore it. I cranked my scope up from 1.5x to the maximum at 4.5x. I could clearly make out four points, and thought perhaps I saw two additional smaller ones, but the small beech trees were obscuring his vital area. I had no shot yet.
I held my aim as long as I could, muscles burning from holding that position on my off-side, but the buck refused to move. My breathing was out of control. I realized I was shaking hard, and I forced myself to slow my breathing down. I needed to collect myself if I was to make any kind of shot. I slowly started to regain some control, yet the buck wouldn't take that one step forward. I had to let down for a minute, but I kept the rifle pointed in its general direction.
I realized in the excitement of seeing the buck that I hadn't let Tim know there were any deer around. I thumbed my talk button on my radio twice. I heard him click back once. I hoped he understood my message, and I thought to myself, if he tries to talk to me I'm yanking the ear piece out. I don't want distractions.
The buck looked up! I froze. Suddenly that buck stared almost right at me. I heard rustling behind me, and I thought about the possibility that there was another buck off to my left. Something got this buck's attention. Something was rustling. But what if I looked away and the buck startled off? I'd lose my chance. The buck flicked its tail and looked down again, but still refused to move. I took that opportunity to quickly glance over to my left. I didn't see anything in the fraction of a second I allowed myself, so I focused on the buck again and raised my rifle.
I placed my crosshairs on the spot I knew the deer needed to step into if I wanted a clear shot. All it needed to do was take one or two steps forward. The buck looked up again, right past me. I kept perfectly still, holding my gun right on it. Again it flicked its tail and looked back down, and I sighed inwardly.
Just as I relaxed a little, the deer unexpectedly took two steps forward and paused. I squeezed my trigger. My .35 Remington exploded in the calm morning air, and the buck seemed to duck slightly. I was breathing heavily again, and shaking. I knew I had hit it, but the buck was slowly walking forward ñ very slowly and almost stiffly. I knew it was a good hit.
But how far would it walk before dropping? And would the deer turn and head down the ridge? I didn't want to drag it up that steep ridge. The buck walked clear of the trees in that slow way it was moving. I couldn't tell if it was truly walking so slowly along, or if it were some trick of the mind where time seems to slow. I chambered another round, and fired once more. The buck dropped where it was standing, as though some giant hand just pushed him over sideways.
I pushed the talk button on my radio and spoke into my collar: "Deer down." I looked at my watch. It was 6:50. One minute before "official" sunrise. I was having so much trouble just breathing, let alone speaking, but I thought of Tim hearing my shots. I knew how excited he must be getting. When I hear gunshots in the woods, it's almost as good as seeing a deer to me. It means someone, somewhere, saw a deer; it reaffirms that they're around, and I feel as though I might be the next one with a shot ñ especially if they get scared my way.
I figured Tim probably felt something like that as I excitedly thumbed the talk button again. "It's either a 4- or 6-pointer. Dropped in his tracks."
"Okay," Tim's whispered response came. "I'm going to wait here for a while and see if anything comes along."
"Right," I replied. "I'll be slowly making my way down out of the tree. I have to be careful because I don't want to slip. Radio silence now." I was still shaking as I attached my pull-rope to my rifle and lowered it to the ground. I felt like my smile was bigger than my face. I reminded myself to breathe as I looked over at my buck, assuring myself this was all real.
After throwing my fanny pack back around my waist, I strapped my feet into the stand, unlocked it, and slowly made my way down the trunk. Reaching the bottom, I kicked my feet out of the straps and bounded into the leaves. I grabbed my rifle, unfastened the pull-rope, and slowly walked toward my buck. I felt like running all the way. I felt like jumping and shouting. But if another buck was around, I wanted Tim to have success as well.
When I reached the buck, the first thing I did was grab his antlers and lift up his head. I counted the points. Five. My guess from the stand was four or six points ... split the difference. It was a 5-pointer, and he looked amazing. I noticed the blood where he dropped. That was my second shot. I looked back to where I made the first shot, and there was a very clear blood trail from that point to this.
In retrospect, I didn't need that second shot. The blood indicated to me that he wasn't walking much further. But I had done what I thought I had to do at the time. As I was looking at the blood, and replaying the whole experience in my head, I heard Tim approaching. I'm sure I was still smiling the biggest smile ever. I greeted him, hefting the antlers again so he could see.
It took us some time to gut and clean the deer, and then we used Tim's saw to cut down a beech sapling. We tied the buck to the sapling, shouldered the load, and walked uphill until we reached my stand. At that point we realized we would never carry the buck, our guns, and our stands out of there together. "Besides," I told Tim, "You still have to come back for your buck after we finish registering this one." Tim smiled, and I stashed my gear with my treestand.
"How much do you figure he weighs?" I looked at Tim after securing my stuff.
"Hundred and five, I think." Tim looked down at the buck. "Hundred and ten, I'm thinking."
I smiled, optimistically. "He's not huge, but he's my first!" After we checked the deer in, and weighed him, we would later find out we had to split the difference again. He weighed 108 pounds.
I shouldered my rifle on one side, the buck on the other, and we started our mile-plus hike out of the woods. Even using the easier access provided by the power lines, it took us well over an hour to get the buck out through that rough terrain. We had to move 40 yards or so at a time, resting frequently and swapping which shoulder was bearing the load. I never want to try and drag a big buck out of that area alone. I'm guessing that the inaccessibility is the reason there are so many bucks out there. I will hunt it again, with Tim.