Buck Season 2018
Many years ago, while fishing a little stream on a State Game Land (SGL), I had a large-racked buck in velvet cross the creek ahead of me and bound up over the side of the steep mountain. At the time I already had a traditional spot to hunt on another SGL, so finding a new place to hunt was not really a priority. However, I always kept this sighting in the back of my mind. A few years ago I decided to find a new spot to hunt and ended up not far from where I had seen this big buck. Here is the story of my 2018 buck season.
Thanksgiving morning, November 22, 2018, dawned clear and cold. With snow on the ground and no family obligations to attend to, I decided to take a hike up the mountain on a local SGL to the spot where I have hunted deer with a rifle for the past several years. My main reason for going was to take my deer cart and hide it in the rhododendron near my on-the-ground stand, but I was also interested in how much deer sign I would see in the snow, particularly buck rubs.
The cart makes it much easier to haul a deer out of the woods since it would be about a 2.2-mile drag with a rope. This would be doable with snow on the ground since it is almost all downhill, but on dry leaves I do not think it would be feasible for me at my age. It has been a long time since, as a teenager, I worked on a vegetable farm and could toss around a bushel of cucumbers with ease. Of course, it was a little embarrassing back then when the one woman I worked with, who was just a couple years older than me and as thin as a rail, always carried two bushels of cucumbers at one time out of the field to the wagon.
The walk up the mountain on an old logging road was uneventful. There was about 3” of snow on the ground at the bottom of the mountain, but it deepened the farther I trekked. A few deer tracks crossed the path in places.
I was excited with anticipation for Monday’s season opener and could not help but daydream about the fine 9-point buck I got at 4:00 p.m. on 2015’s Opening Day. (See above photo.)
My mind also drifted back to Opening Day 2017 and how fortunate I was to harvest this 11-point buck in mid-morning.
After hiding my cart in the rhododendron about two-tenths of a mile from my “blind,” I went to my hideout and kicked the 6” or so of snow away from the rock I sit on and the two-trunked yellow birch tree that I hide behind. From there I overlook a wide flat area at the top of a hollow. There were so many deer tracks in the snow that it almost looked like a cow pasture around me. However, ominously, there were no buck rubs on any of the small striped maple trees that are usually scratched-up pretty well.
After getting this annual ritual done I decided to walk a circle on top of the mountain in the 25-degree air and bright sunshine to look for buck rubs and scrapes. I was pleased to see grouse tracks in the snow in several places.
It is believed that West Nile Virus has decimated the ruffed grouse population in Pennsylvania. It was a pleasant sound when one flushed nearby, unseen.
There was a good 10” of snow on the ground on top of the mountain, the top two inches of which formed a crust hard enough for coyotes to walk on but not nearly thick enough to support my weight.
Several times I found bear tracks. I was pretty sure they were not Sasquatch tracks due to the claw marks.
In total my hike lasted about four and a half hours and I covered nearly seven miles per my GPS unit. Only two small buck rubs were seen during the entire walk, and both of them were side-by-side about a mile from where I post. I found no buck scrapes, old or new, which was not surprising considering the snow. I jumped one deer. I thought back to last season’s opening morning when I heard more gunfire on the mountain than I had in several past years combined. Since this is a vast wilderness with no cultivated fields for miles, food for deer can be quite scarce. I believe in most cases it takes a buck at least two and a half years before its antlers are of legal size based on the number of small-bodied, small-antlered bucks that I have spotted over the years in this area. I wondered if the buck population could be low, either from last year’s apparent banner year or perhaps an unusually high archery season harvest this year.
Of course, one thing I had going for me was that the snow would likely linger until Monday. Spotting deer with a snow background is much easier than when the woods are brown and the deer blend into the surroundings like wild trout in streams. Of course, the snow also makes it easier for deer to bust me, too.
Like a little kid anticipating Christmas morning, I did not sleep too well on Sunday night. It was a relief when my alarm finally sounded at 3:30 a.m. By 4:25 a.m. I had my SUV parked at the SGL parking lot at the base of the mountain. Unlike prior years, I had arrived first, probably because the other guys had scored in archery season, I thought. Before I got out the first rain drops of the morning pitter-pattered on my vehicle’s roof. The air temperature was 34-degrees. I hoped that I would make it to my spot before the forecasted, heavier rain arrived.
Knowing that I always work up a drenching sweat while walking up the mountain, I dressed lightly but wore my waterproof pants and jacket that I usually reserve for trout fishing. My heavier clothing and a fresh set of undies, plus all of the gadgets that I carry for an all-day sit, were carried in a large scent-free garbage bag.
Even though the snow lit my way, I still used a flashlight during my journey. I recalled one year, I believe it was on the first Saturday of the season, when a twig knocked my contact lens out of my right eye while walking to my stand in the dark. I did not want a repeat of that. In fact, since then I usually wear clear goggles while walking in the woods in the dark, but I had forgotten them on this morning.
I arrived at my spot at 5:50 a.m., fifty-five minutes before legal shooting hours. I had circled in to my hunting location to avoid disturbing the area I watch. It took about a half hour to change clothes in the dark while a light rain fell. And yes, it does take some intestinal fortitude to strip down in the cold air to put on dry underwear, but it is a necessary evil; otherwise I would be shivering all day in wet clothes.
By 6:20 a.m. I was quietly seated waiting for the curtain to go up and the festivities to begin. This is a special moment for a hunter. I usually like to watch the stars fade away, but today the sky was cloudy. It was now time to reap the reward of all of the planning necessary to put me here.
The wind was strong as trees crashed into each other now and then, but luckily there was no fog which can seal a hunter’s fate. The rain picked up as it got light. I wear Cabela’s MT050 coveralls and coat to stay warm and dry. This year I wore a new pair of rubber boots with 1000 grams of Thinsulate rather than my leather Gore-Tex hunting boots that seem to always let in a little moisture.
I sit on a rise between two benches, sort of like being in the bleachers at a high school football game but also having another football field behind the top of the bleachers. The “football field” behind me is a jungle of mountain laurel and rhododendron and I do not turn around to watch the edge of it, unless I hear something back there. This area was logged in the early 1980’s so there is little browse for the deer. But something draws the deer to this area.
The way my seat is situated against a double-trunked yellow birch tree I need to commit to watching for deer on my left or to my right. The two trunks block my straight-ahead view, but I feel it is a good compromise in my attempt to remain hidden from the deer. Believe me, it is possible for unseen deer to spot my movement from two hundred yards away and vacate the area without me even knowing they were there. Seeing deer tracks on top of my boot prints in the snow years ago confirm this to be true. The best-case scenario is for there to be dry crisp leaves and no wind so that I can hear the deer coming from any direction and quickly adjust to it, but on top of the mountain where the weather can be brutal I can count the days I have had like this on one hand.
All was quiet except for two quick shots that possibly came from the bottom of the hollow about a half mile away around 8:00 a.m. At 9:40, after turning my attention from my right side to my left, the first deer of the day busted me on my left. (See the “1” in the photo.) This is the view I see on my left (no deer in the photo).
The deer was to the right of the rhododendron bush on the left and ambled down to the right at the edge of my field of view until it vanished. (See the “2” in the photo for the direction the deer traveled.) I could not tell whether it had any antlers. I was kind of bummed at having possibly blown my only opportunity of the day since I pride myself in remaining undetected by the deer.
I know it is ironic, but in the days leading up to buck season I am often daydreaming about buck hunting, but then to pass the time while watching for deer my mind often drifts off to trout fishing. I recalled this 22” rainbow I caught in October.
And this 20” wild brown trout I caught on Spring Creek in early November.
Although no deer were spotted for hours, time passed quickly. Around 1:00 p.m. the rain quit for a brief spell, so keeping my scope clear was easier, at least for a short time.
Occasionally the woods grew darker as a light fog drifted through the area. As time passed I watched the area to my right more since there is a trail there dropping down off the flat behind me where the buck in my first photo made the fatal mistake of using late in the day three years earlier. (See the “3” in the photo.)
At 3:15 p.m. I spotted the legs of a deer moving against a background of snow right at the edge of my field of vision perhaps two hundred yards away. (See the “1” in the photo.)
I quickly put in my ear plugs and settled in against the two yellow birch trees for a solid rest for my rifle. With my scope set at 4-power and the deer standing broadside facing left, I could see quite a few tines sticking up as he rubbed his face and antlers on a hemlock limb that hung down at head-height.
My heart started to pound. I had always dreamed about having a big buck coming my way where I could watch it for a while. This tends to really amplify the excitement. The two bucks shown in the photos above were both shot within seconds of seeing them so there was not much time for buck fever to set in. My fear here, however, was that the buck would continue in the direction it was facing and quickly disappear in the mountain laurel, rhododendron and hemlocks. The thought of taking a shot at this range never occurred to me.
Luckily, he continued my way. I could count six points on his left antler. The right antler did not seem to have as many points but I was not sure. Amazingly, he continued walking toward me. I thought this was going to be one of the easiest shots I have ever had at a buck.
At the spot where the “2” is in the photo, he stepped out from behind a tree and stopped, offering me a near-broadside shot of his right side at about sixty yards. Knowing that it is wise to take the first good shot offered by a deer, since you never know what is going to happen next, I squeezed off a shot with my .270 Remington Gamemaster.
He bolted, seemingly not hit, and stopped where the “3” is in the photo, staring at me broadside from about thirty yards away. Quickly, perhaps too quickly, I centered in on his chest and shot again. He never moved so I ejected the spent shell, concentrated on his vital area, and fired again. He never flinched and ran up over the rise to the right, still seemingly unscathed.
I waited about a minute to see if I could spot him for another shot in the laurel. Not seeing any movement, I then walked over to where I had shot the final two rounds. No blood. No hair. No sign of a hit. Just fresh tracks in the snow. Had I just totally blown some of the easiest shots that I have ever had? Did my bullets hit twigs before reaching their target? Was my gun not calibrated properly? I felt sure my gun was hitting well since I had gone to Scotia Range a couple weeks prior to the season and shot two shots, both hitting two inches high at fifty yards. Doubt crept in. I began to worry.
I slowly moved through the dense mountain laurel for about fifteen yards, scanning the snow. Then I saw blood on the snow. Lots of blood. I took a couple steps higher on the rise and looked up on the flat and saw him lying dead facing me on an unusually clear area in the laurel.
He did indeed have six points on his left antler, including an odd tine near the brow point. The right antler had four points, missing the G4. The ten points made him the second largest buck of my life after 47 buck seasons. Coincidentally, this year was my second best year for trout fishing, too, after 40 years of spinner fishing.
Upon examining the buck I saw that my first shot hit him low behind the front leg, and what was likely my third shot hit him squarely in the chest.
I took a few photos and then began the arduous chore of getting him out of the woods. Luckily it was not raining any more. After properly tagging and field dressing the buck I dragged him by the antlers about 300 yards to the old logging road. From there I retrieved my deer cart, loaded him, and began the two-mile journey to my SUV. My headlight revealed snow flurries during the trip down the mountain in the dark. I took it slow, savoring the day’s events, much like I do after a successful day of trout fishing.
By the time I reached my SUV at 7:20 p.m. my biceps were like jelly from holding the cart back from going too fast down the mountain. I could not help but think that someone should design a deer cart with disc brakes, since holding the cart back was more difficult than pushing it, even up hill. With the back seats down, I covered the back of the SUV with some old vinyl ponchos and newspapers. After backing up close to the bank, I slid him into the vehicle on some boards that I carried in my SUV for that purpose. From there I made a brief stop at my residence and then continued onward to the butcher shop. Later I got out of my wet clothes and took a long hot bath to thaw out.
Overall it was a long but rewarding day. I was glad I stayed out in the cold rain. Now I can begin to dream about next year’s Opening Day.
Some Nostalgia Moments
Last year while upgrading my “Spin Fishing for Trout” slideshow to a PowerPoint presentation I had some of my 35mm slides made into digital photos. I thought I would share a few of them here.
This is my brother Paul with a 19” wild brown trout that he caught on a spinner on August 4th, 1984, from what is now a small Class A limestone stream in Bedford County. I credit Paul with teaching me about wild brown trout and the streams they live in.
Here is the pool where Paul’s 19”er was hiding. (Photo taken on August 6th, 1983.)
This is my brother John retrieving a spinner on Spring Creek on June 15th, 1987.
This is my father Eugene holding a 16” wild brown trout on Spring Creek on July 29th, 1988.
And last but not least, my brother Mark with a 16.5” rainbow trout on Spring Creek on September 20th, 1992.