They say there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and that seems to apply to whitetail bucks, too.
By Kevin Cote
It had been another fruitless deer season, even though I had spent the entire summer scouting and patterning a tremendous buck in the swamp woodlot behind my house.
My obsession with it had begun when I stumbled onto a monstrous shed while tracking snowshoe hares. With five solid points, two of which were longer than 12 inches, and a base I could not get my hand around, this was truly a monster buck for this region of New England. I determined that this deer, and this deer only, would be hanging on my game pole come deer season.
It didn’t take long to find sign of the swamp monarch once spring arrived. Its large track stood out dramatically compared to the other deer that took up residence behind my house. I spent countless hours locating all possible food sources, monitoring various deer trails, finding bedding thickets and placing stands where I could take advantage of changing wind directions.
This crafty old buck was definitely a loner. It did not travel the usual trails, instead staying parallel and downwind of them, rarely leaving the security of the thick undergrowth.
I had shot a few trophy deer before, but this was the first time in my hunting career that I had become fixated on a particular buck. I was going to “get inside this deer’s head.” As summer wound down, I spent less time in the woodlot so as not to leave too much scent there. Besides, I had already gotten the information I was going to need – or so I thought.
When archery season was about a week away, I went for a short scouting cruise through the woodlot just to make sure there were no surprises. Everything was just the way I left it in mid-July. On my way out, I cut the track of the buck and decided to follow it. The next 50 yards brought me by four rubs, all on trees at least 6 inches in diameter. This old boy was getting ready for the annual party, and so was I.
The weather did not cooperate much in bow season, remaining unseasonably warm and dry, and the deer were moving in the cool of the night. The leaves were so dry and crunchy that I couldn’t even think about stalking. I filled one of my tags when a small deer came limping by my treestand late one afternoon. My neighbor’s wife had injured it with her car the night before, and I decided that the little button buck would be better in my freezer than supplying the local coyote population with an easy meal.
Archery season passed without any sign of my buck, so my hopes turned to blackpowder. Our muzzleloader season coincides with the pre-rut, allowing me to rattle and grunt. Three rattling spots brought in just one small buck, but my mind was set on something much better.
On my fourth and final rattling setup, it finally happened. The buck came in downwind, trying to find the brawl. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get it to leave the security of the high-bush blueberries that grow all over the swamp. It just stood there, leaving me with a view of its tall, wide rack above the bushes. Then, for whatever reason, it just turned and walked back into the sanctuary of gnarly bushes and hemlock trees in the wettest part of the swamp.
As disappointed as I was, the encounter refueled my obsession. It wouldn’t be able to escape me during rifle season. No way.
The first two weeks of rifle season were pretty uneventful, as the warm weather had continued, causing most of the rutting activity to occur under the curtain of nightfall. Then a cold front swept down from Canada and dumped about 6 inches of white tracking powder. I hit the woodlot with a fervor and rejuvenation I had not felt since opening week. It didn’t take long to cut the fresh tracks of a doe and two yearlings. Trying to think like the buck, I paralleled them, hoping to see the big one’s track.
About an hour later, I saw movement in the tres. It was the two skippers whose tracks I had cut earlier, but where was the doe? They passed within 10 yards without seeing or smelling me, but there was still no sign of the doe. With only bucks being legal at this time, and not having heard any shots, it suddenly occurred to me that the doe had possibly come into estrous and her new beau had run off the youngsters.
Backtracking, I came across the hoofprint that I had been looking for. The buck had intercepted the family unit and chased the doe in the other direction, so it was time for me to get moving. They didn’t waste any time traveling through the open swamp maple groves. The buck was herding her right into the thick hemlocks and briars where I had seen it a month earlier.
I eased into the thicket, stalking very slowly, hoping that the doe’s condition would distract the buck long enough for me to get my sights on it and bring an end to my quest.
Suddenly, my ears picked up the undeniable sound of a tending grunt to my right, and it was close! Next thing I knew, the doe barreled out of the hemlocks and almost ran me over. Startled and still rattled, I had just gotten my wits back when I came face to face with my goal.
Our eyes locked, and its nostrils flared as I snapped my trusty old Remington 760 to my shoulder. The buck wheeled, and before I could get the bead on its shoulder, it disappeared into the hemlocks and briars. I tracked steady for six more hours, but it never let me close the gap.
That was the last I saw of it for the rest of the season.
Deer season was over and the holidays were upon us, but I couldn’t stop replaying that dreadful day in my mind. I could see the buck’s bulging neck and tall, dark antlers with a spread that extended well beyond the ears. Hunting is many times a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but mine was a case of being in the wrong place at the right time. If I had only been 20 yards later, they would have crossed in front of me instead of at me. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.
Thinking that I needed a distraction, my wife arranged for us to go to a New Year’s Eve party a couple of miles up the road. Even though I was not in a festive mood, I agreed to go.
The party was fun, with good friends and lots of hunting conversation between the husbands. While most of the other guys had success stories to tell from the recent hunting season, I was left retelling my sorrowful tale. The ball fell on Times Square, we all made some New Year’s resolutions that we probably wouldn’t keep, and then we decided to call it a night. The men had managed to arrange an ice-fishing trip for the next morning, so it was time to get some sleep.
It was a beautifully crisp, clear, starlit winter night on the drive home. For the first time in months, my thoughts were of something else besides the buck. It felt good to be back in the normal world with my wife and friends and no thoughts of giant antlers or anything else related to deer hunting. We were almost home, and I was enjoying inner peace when my wife screamed, “WATCH OUT!”
As my truck screeched to a halt, there in my headlights was the deer in all its majesty, staring through the windshield as if to ask, “What do you think you’re doing interrupting my crossing?”
For the first time since my quest began, my wife understood why I had become so fixated on this animal. She had been prodding me all season to shoot any legal buck so my frustrations would end. Now she was singing a different tune. “You have to shoot that buck!” she exclaimed. “He would look great up over the mantle, wouldn’t he, honey?”
“He certainly would,” I replied.
I couldn’t sleep that night, knowing that the buck of my dreams had just crossed the road into the woodlot behind my house. I made a decision, regardless of the fact that deer season was over, that the buck would be mine at daylight.
I got up just before daybreak, kissed my wife goodbye, called Jim to tell him that I wouldn’t be ice-fishing, grabbed my camo and snacks, slung my weapon over my shoulder, and headed out the back door. Close to an inch of snow had fallen since our sighting of the monster in the wee hours of the New Year, and it was still snowing lightly. I was going to win a one-on-one battle with this buck and put it on my wall.
It didn’t take me long to cut the tracks it had left when it crossed in front of my wife and me. Even though there was snow in them, I knew exactly how old they were. I made up my mind that I was going to follow them right into its bed and get a shot right there.
The buck was traveling along the same route it had used all summer, and I had a pretty good idea where it was headed. I kept looping on the track, hoping to see it first so I could plan a stalk and get a good close shot. Using my little bottle of powder to keep track of the wind, I was soon in the thick hemlocks in which the deer frequently bedded.
The wind was perfect, blowing into my face. The sun was at my back so as not to cause any alarming glare off my face or weapon. Everything was perfect! Then it hit me, like a belt-high fastball … the unmistakable aroma of a rutting buck. The slight breeze that I had been monitoring all morning so that it didn’t betray my presence was now betraying the deer. It had to be really close for me to smell it, but where? One wrong move would send it fleeing before I could take a shot.
I crept slowly, trying to find this deer amongst the thick hemlocks. Getting down on my hands and knees to look under some of the tree boughs, I could finally see a part of its body bedded about 30 yards in front of me. It was too thick for a good shot; I would have to sneak up another 10 feet or so. Fortunately, the newly fallen snow was keeping noise to a minimum, and the wind was staying true and keeping my presence a secret.
As I went into stealth mode, my heart was pumping so loud it surprised me. Eight feet left, and it was still there. Five feet, and the buck hadn’t moved. Three, two, one – I was finally there! It took me half an hour to go 10 feet, but the important thing was that we were both still. It was time to settle down and prepare for the shot of a lifetime.
I was still shaking terribly, and the adrenaline was going to make it tough to make a good, clean shot. The snow was too deep to take the shot while it lay there, and I couldn’t see enough of its body below the snow line. There was no mistaking those antlers, though. He was a truly awesome 10-pointer with a dark chocolate hue from living in the darkest, thickest part of the swampy woodlot.
As much as I was enjoying observing it in such a relaxed state, the sight of its huge rack was unnerving. “Concentrate on the shot,” I told myself. “Stop looking at the rack.” I had to make it stand in order to get my shot. I prepared, centering the objective lens where I anticipated it to be when the deer stood. I was ready and let out a short whistle. Its ears perked up, and the buck jumped to its feet. I started applying pressure with my index finger before it fled.
“Click, click, click!”
Its head snapped to my position and it didn’t take it long to find me. Just like before, the deer bolted into the thick hemlocks and briars.
I am sure you can imagine how I felt at that point. I was elated! I had finally beaten the swamp monarch. You see, that “click” was from the shutter of my 35mm camera. Now the buck hangs above my mantle in a beautifully crafted frame. I’d taken the trophy of a lifetime in a way that most hunters never will. What a way to start the New Year!
This article was published in the December 2005 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.