By Bill LeConey
-- Hunting state woods in southern New Jersey isn’t the “ideal” hunting conditions. The whitetails receive a lot of pressure. There aren’t vast corn and soybean fields for them to eat. And without antler restrictions, many young deer are harvested during the weeklong shotgun season.
In short, chances at a really nice buck are rare.
My 2007 archery season started off on the right foot, as I shot an antlerless deer during my first evening in the stand. Now that my “Earn-A-Buck” tag was filled, I was ready to start selectively pursuing some of the nice bucks I caught on my Moultrie infrared trail camera throughout the summer. Those bucks had other plans, though, and the season went by in the blink of an eye.
I couldn’t go out on the morning of Oct. 27, 2007, opening day of the permit archery season. But I did make it out to hunt that evening. I’d been looking forward to spending the afternoon in the woods.
Barely 20 minutes after I’d settled in my treestand, I spotted movement out in front of me. Before I knew it, a 110-inch 8-pointer stopped to snuffle up some acorns in a shooting lane 27 yards away, offering a broadside target. I should have known it was too good to be true.
As I released the arrow, I watched it sail merely inches over the buck’s back. I was in shock that it all happened so quickly, even more surprised that I had blown a perfect opportunity to harvest a wallhanger.
Although I had two hours of daylight left, the combination of anger and disappointment forced me out of the tree and back to my house.
With the bad taste of missing a great archery buck still in my mouth, I set out for Fort Dix, a military base in central New Jersey, to hunt their early November muzzleloader season. It was my first time to hunt that ground with a blackpowder rifle.
Knowing the quality of deer on the base, I couldn’t wait to get my .50-caliber Omega in my hands during the rut.
My father and I scouted the area the weekend before I was going to be hunting. We looked for scrapes, rubs and well used trails. Not too long after we split up, my dad called me on the radio and told me he’d found a few fresh scrapes and antler-ravaged cedar trees.
From that point on, we put the pieces of the puzzle together, found a couple of trails and marked a suitable tree. As I directed, my father helped clear a few shooting lanes. I was excited about the spot and couldn’t wait for opening day.
I reached the tree at 4:45 a.m. on Nov. 5. I wanted to set up early and secure my spot due to the amount of hunters in the area. Five minutes later, while screwing a gear hook into my tree, I heard footsteps approaching, along with grunting.
It was pitch black, of course, and I had no idea how big the buck was. But something told me I’d found a quality spot.
It seemed like an eternity passed before the sun finally rose. I’d hoped the buck I heard was bedded within sight, but I couldn’t see it. As I was scanning the woods, I heard footsteps behind me and turned slowly to see two mature does eating acorns at 30 yards.
Over the next 12 ½ hours, I saw 11 deer. Five of them were bucks that came to my grunting. I was doing it about every 20 minutes. None of the responders were shooters, due to the three-point (on one side) antler rule in effect. But it was a great day to be in a stand.
The next day wasn’t so great, at least at first. I woke up at 3 a.m. to the sound of a downpour. The weather forecast called for heavy rain up until 11:00, so I went back to bed and set the alarm for 9:30.
It was still drizzling when I awoke, but I showered and drove the 45 minutes to the base. I was aloft by 11:00, dry and watching the sun peeking through the clouds. It was a comfortable 45 degrees.
Once in place, I dug out my grunt call, hoping it would produce the same results as it did the previous day. But nothing came running.
Twenty minutes later, just when I was starting to feel like the day before had been a fluke, I heard the distinct sound of multiple deer blowing somewhere behind me. The animals weren’t downwind of me. Something else had to have spooked them.
Eventually, I saw a half-dozen deer running full speed at approximately 150 yards. I also happened to glance to my right and saw a nice 8-point buck barreling through the swamp. For the next five minutes, it was pandemonium.
The 8-pointer was chasing a young spike, grunting every step of the way. In no time at all, they were both within 40 yards and I had the scope on the big 4x4. I was unable to get a shot off, however, because the deer never slowed. Soon, they both disappeared and the woods seemed empty.
I called a buddy of mine and told him what had happened. He assured me that the buck would probably return and that I needed to sit tight.
As I hung up the phone quietly, I noticed two does feeding in front of me. They passed without a concern and walked in the direction where the 8-pointer had disappeared minutes earlier. I hit the grunt call five or six times, short and quick.
Within seconds, I saw two more deer bodies. One was the young spike; the other, I assumed, was one of the does that had just walked by. The spike was 20 yards away when I saw and heard the 8-pointer raking its antlers on the branches of an oak sapling.
The 4x4 was no more than 45 yards away, but behind a laurel bush. I rested my muzzleloader on the cable of my treestand and waited for what seemed like an hour (perhaps a minute or two) for the buck to step into the clear. At approximately 11:45 a.m., I found his rib cage in my scope, gently squeezed the trigger and “POW!”
The spike froze, the other deer ran, and I could see nothing in front of me but a cloud of smoke. Afterward, I was hoping to see antlers on the ground, but I didn’t.
My first thought was that I’d missed. I couldn’t believe I’d done it again.
I waited 20 minutes, looking and listening all the while. Eventually, I made out the tip of an antler through the laurels and knew the deer was down for good.
While approaching the downed buck, the excitement grew with every step, knowing I’d just harvested a beautiful, symmetrical 8-pointer during my first muzzleloader hunt at Fort Dix. Granted, it isn’t as big as the one I missed during the archery season. But knowing my father played an important role in my hunt makes it special. Thanks, Dad!
-- Bill LeConey