Weather and an empty stomach get the best of this old warrior.
I heard it close behind in the belly-deep powder snow. It was a quiet, sifting sound like salt being poured into a shaker. It was heading west into a northwest wind that blew my scent above it, and it kept coming. I couldn’t see anything through the cedars, but I knew it had to be a buck, traveling alone through the deep snow, not using a trail.
The glaciers in the last ice age really did a number on the top end of Glengarry County, Ontario. They leveled off the tops of limestone outcroppings and bulldozed the rubble ahead of them, filling depressions with the finer stuff. The campfires of neolithic hunters must have sparked the last great period of global warming, forcing the glaciers to retreat and leaving behind low boulder ridges and silt-filled valleys — perfect stomping grounds for the ancestors of Canadian whitetails.
Ten millennia later, they still travel the ridges, bed in the cedar swamps and feast on soybeans, alfalfa and corn in the low fertile areas. My hunting buddy and business partner Jim Picken and I had cleared a stand site on the most northerly of two east-west ridges.
The treestand overlooks a small field where we had planted a wildlife mixture in early August. The crop came up fine, but the initial buck results had been anything but spectacular. Our hunters saw lots of does, a few young bucks and a decent 9-pointer. But none of the really big boys showed up. That changed during the second week of shotgun season.
I took a midday stroll between the ridge and field and found two small scrapes. Scarcely more than a foot in diameter, they were hardly worth looking at. But I could see the moss and roots had been flung out in the field for quite a distance, so I went over for a closer look. I’m glad I did, because I could just make out the outline of a huge hoof print. A big buck was apparently checking on its younger brethren, so we started to pay a little more attention to that field.
Then the snow came ... and more snow … and more snow on top of that. By early December, we had 2 feet of the white stuff on the ground. The does and yearlings had a few deep trails running down off the ridge into the field, where they dug through the drifts for turnip tops and other greens.
The big track was there, too, but the buck shunned the doe trails and entered and exited the field from all points of the compass. Sometimes it dropped in from the east or west ends of the ridge, and sometimes it came in from the highway to the north. A few times, it hit the west side of the field from a neighboring property. And it was doing it all by moonlight. Our hunters never saw it.
Then along came the storm of Dec. 16, 2007. The snow started around suppertime and continued through the night until noon the next day. When it was over, we had 18 new inches on top of what we already had.
The sun came out at 1:30, bringing the temperature up to a balmy 7 degrees. As I pounded away on my computer, I kept thinking about how hungry that buck must be. It most likely had waited out the storm in the cedar swamp south of the ridges and hadn’t eaten in about 30 hours. If it was ever going to venture out for a daytime feed, it would be today. What’s more, if it was ever going to use a predictable trail, this just might be that day as well.
I decided that if I was going to get a deer in 2007, I had best get to it. I shut down the computer, packed up my bow and headed out.
When I shouldered my climbing stand at the end of the skid road leading to the second ridge, I knew that the next couple of hundred yards would be hard slogging. It took about 20 minutes to get to the base of a good hickory that overlooked the doe trail.
The cedars fringed the southern edge of the ridge and made a boundary between open hardwoods and the fallen, broken jungle on the ridge that was created by an ice storm in 1998. I’ve seen roaming bucks hug the edges of lines like that on several occasions.
I shinnied up about 20 feet, pulled up my bow and checked the time — 3:30. Then I leaned back and closed my eyes for a few minutes. And that’s when I heard the sound.
The shhhh, shhhh, shhhh noise stopped for a few seconds, and I knew the buck had made it to the doe trail. I wondered if it would take the path of least resistance or continue through the deep snow. I had my bow ready and was pretty relaxed by the time the buck came out of the cedars — and it was on the doe trail.
The first glimpse of the rack just about choked me. The buck was long, thick and gray, and its rack had twice the mass of the 11-pointer I had shot the year before. The old warrior walked slowly, hesitating — not a bad thing, because I needed some time to calm down and concentrate.
It stopped behind a clump of bigtooth aspen, and when it stepped into the open, it was slightly quartering away at 20 yards. Autopilot kicked in, and the green fiber optic pin tracked onto that magic spot behind the shoulder.
When the arrow hit home, the buck bronco-kicked and sped down the doe trail. Within seconds, I heard a great crash, then nothing. I checked the time. I had been in the stand seven minutes.
I couldn’t wait to get down and find the buck. As an outfitter, I know what you’re supposed to do, but I was positive the crash I heard was the buck going down. I found it piled in a clump of cedars about 80 yards from the stand. Lucky for me, a slight bend in the doe trail coincided perfectly with a bend in the skid road. My buddy and I only had to drag the behemoth about 120 feet to the bucket of a waiting backhoe.
The stats? A preliminary and very unofficial estimate put the rack at about 145 inches. The base circumferences are well over 6 inches and it weighed 218 pounds (after eight days of hanging).
The worn teeth and other physical characteristics indicate it was an older buck, probably 7½ or so, and the rack had probably been declining for a year or two.
When we skinned it, there wasn’t an ounce — and I mean that literally — of fat on this buck. It was nothing but muscle, bone and antler. Knowing that mature bucks up here routinely shed up to 20 percent of their weight during the rut, and factoring in how long it had hung and dried, we estimate the live weight would have been between 270 and 290 pounds.
The buck’s condition made me happy for two reasons. First, it’s a pretty good indicator that it had been very busy with the does during the previous few months. Second, without any fat reserves, odds were against my buck making it through the harsh winter months yet to come. I much preferred the thought of memorializing the old fighter on my wall to an inevitable slow death and disappearance into the belly of a wolf.
I realize that deer hunting is different everywhere and that many of you won’t fully appreciate the harsh effects a Canada winter has on deer and other wildlife. It’s humbling to witness first-hand the struggle for survival presented by a northern climate — and to fulfill my role as a hunter. I hope all Buckmasters readers get to experience that feeling at least one time in their hunting years.
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This article was published in the Winter 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.