This is adapted from a writeup of this hunt that I originally wrote for friends of mine on a British hunting forum. I've taken out some things that are irrelevant to people who already know about PA hunting, but anyone whose interested can view it here
I emigrated from the UK to the U.S.A in early 2016. Prior to that I had taken up hunting in 2013 – shooting my first deer in 2014. I mention this to give a sense of how new to hunting I was and am.
I shot my last UK deer in Scotland, January 2016 – I didn’t know, but that was my last deer for a long while. Our first year in the U.S. was extraordinary for many reasons – but money was very tight. I worked an hourly paid job and nearly every penny went toward a deposit for a house. There was no question of a new hunting rifle, and none of the local gunshops would accept my temporary green card. I eventually acquired a mil’surp Finnish M39 from a colleague who was also a small time FFL, and whom I was able to convince that the stamp in my passport was legally the same as a distinct green card. It is by the way.
2016 passed and very quickly I was into the winter of 2016-17, and Whitetail season in Pennsylvania. I got out into public Game Commission land with my M39 and some homeloads, and looked for deer. In total I took 2-3 days and being hopelessly inexperienced I failed to even set eyes on one. I saw other hunters – and I probably spoiled some of their hunts blundering around not really knowing what I was doing. I found tracks, droppings and even bedding areas, but ended the season empty handed.
The following 2017 season was better but still barren. I had by this time changed job, bought a house, acquired a dedicated hunting rifle (my Marlin 336 in 35 Rem) and learnt a little more about whitetail. I was beginning to understand that the stalking as I learned in the UK was not going to work in the public land of my new home. What I have here is dense woodland punctuated by small rocky clearings and little swampy bogs. It’s beautiful and I love it, but I just couldn’t get close to the deer. That season I at least saw two deer running away from me in the last few minutes of legal hunting. Again I saw plenty of other hunters but couldn’t make a shot opportunity. Then I discovered that my scope rings were slopping back and forward on the Weaver sight base that was on my Marlin when I acquired it. With no more paid time-off and no time to get to the range to secure and re-zero the rifle/scope combination my 2017-18 season came to a halt.
The 2018 season was again better than the one before. I had another new rifle and load to try, and I had switched form a scope to a set of Skinner sights on my Marlin. I was able to get out on a couple of days, and acquired a hunting buddy, sadly one even more inexperienced than me – but a good guy with the right attitude. Neither of us filled a tag but at least we each have someone willing to hep share a drag if and when we lucked out and a day or two in the woods is never wasted.
Throughout last year we worked a lot on our yard. We had some success with vegetables and through June and July I quite often looked out to see deer in the beds. And I thought, “that feels like a shot I could make with a bow”. I had resisted archery prior to this year. Coming from the UK I had been indoctrinated in the belief that fullbore centrefire rifles are the minimum level of force required to humanely kill a deer. I went to my local sports outfitter Dunkelbergers in Broadheadsville and started asking some questions. I had still a very limited budget, and I didn’t want a crossbow or compound bow. They didn’t have a bow for me, but I met another customer, Walt who heard what I was asking about, gave me his phone number and said he’d help me make a start. Walt suggested a bow to me that I could get on Amazon at a decent price, and said I should call him when I had it.
My wife was in a good mood, and $100 purchase did not upset the budget so I ordered my bow and called my new friend Walt. Walt was, and is extremely patient, and essentially taught me how to use my bow, gave me a bunch of kit (much of which I didn’t even know that I needed), fletched my arrow shafts for me and talked a lot about whitetails. I renewed my license, and applied for and got 2 x tags for antlerless deer.
Initially my form was poor, and my accuracy questionable – but I worked all through the summer, shooting at least every other day and sometimes more. One good thing about archery is that it’s feasible to practice at home. I got myself to the point I could repeatably hit inside of the vital zone of a deer at 25 yards, and about a week before the beginning of the first archery season I ordered my broadheads. Walt had lent me an archery tree stand on the condition that I buy a harness.
Having learnt a bit more about the habits of whitetail deer, I did some map work and identified some ground through which I believed deer would pass. And after some scouting, and a couple of tutorials from Walt on how to choose a good tree and hang the stand, I chose a tree and on the opening Saturday morning, drove to the ground I was going to hunt, packed my bow, my backpack, the stand and hiked to my tree in the darkness.
I blundered around in the dark a little trying to get back to the right tree, found it, climbed and hung the stand, arranged my kit and waited. And waited. And then I saw a deer. Outlined in the mist and about 40 yards away. Too far for my recurve, but a good sign. Then I saw a small group of deer to my west, but they were too far, and onto private property where I had no right to follow. I’d already seen more deer in one morning’s hunting than in my previous four seasons in Pennsylvania and that had my pulse rate up a good bit. At around about 1115 it happened that a small group walked straight into the clearing in front of my stand. I think I remember biting my lip to help manage my breathing. I raised my bow and started to draw back the string. And had to stop. I could not come to full draw. I had forgotten the safety line securing me to the tree was running up behind my left shoulder. I could not draw, neither could I turn. I had secured the line at about head height thinking that if I slipped and fell that would make it easier to regain my position on the platform of the stand, but I had failed to consider the geometry required to shoot from the LHS of the platform. What was almost worse was that in the heat of this moment I could now hear a voice from my top pocket “Hello?”, “Hello?”, “You OK?”. Walt and I had been exchanging a few texts, he was at work and I think vicariously enjoying my first day out with the bow. And why not, he had put a lot of time and effort into getting me there, but now as I’d drawn back past my chest I must have swiped the screen of the phone in my pocket there and caused it to dial him. Well, I hoped he’d forgive me for that, and I was still fighting with the harness and trying to contort myself into position where I could draw back fully. I was sorely tempted to disconnect the safety line to be able to take the shot, but the prospect of the combined rage of both my wife and new mentor should I then fall out of the tree brought me to my senses and I didn’t. I put down my bow, loosened the line and worked it back down the trunk of the tree until it no longer restricted my shoulder.
Somewhere in the course of this process I alerted the group of deer to my presence and they drifted down the slope out of bowshot. They didn’t panic and rush away through the trees, merely looked pointedly in my direction and sidled away.
Idiot! I was so new to all of this that I had simply not considered the space and shape of my own body at full draw. And they had been so close. I also realized that I would have a significantly better left and right of arc (I would say “field of fire” but bows don’t fire) by pivoting the stand about 120 degrees anticlockwise. By this time it was almost lunchtime, so I took my kit to the base of the tree, adjusted my stand and left.
That afternoon I came back, but although I saw deer again there were no shots I could take. Had I been using a compound or cross bow that day I could have tagged out several times over (at least that's what I told myself at the time).
Over the next few weeks I would return to my tree for an hour or two before work whenever I could. Over that time I saw bucks, does, a family of coyotes, turkeys and any number of squirrels and small birds. On one morning a good sized buck walked almost underneath moments after I’d climbed up to the stand. It was an especially early morning, before hunting hours and by the time there was enough light for me to count his points he had backed away from me to behind a hedge. I didn’t kill him and I hope he’s still out there. On another morning a doe crashed passed my stand with a buck hot pursuit. They were oblivious to me, and it was he not I who “made contact” that morning. And on yet another morning a real big bodied buck walked past me. This was a shock, (a good one) for I hadn’t seen any rubs or scrapes and had expected only to find does on this ground. I drew back, shot and missed. Straight under his brisket. He looked at me, grunted like Clint Eastwood and moved off out of range. I continued to hear him challenging me for the next 10 minutes or so. I wasn’t sure if I might even have hit him, but the recovered arrow and ground gave no sign of it. On at least two occasions a little spike-buck walked right beneath me ignorant of my presence and safe in his immaturity. He came so close to me I could literally have splashed with my canteen. Lastly, one or two days before the beginning of rifle season a single antlerless deer walked down past me and presented a shot. Again I missed, and running late for work already I climbed down from my tree, spent a few minutes unsuccessfully trying to find my arrow and departed.
Then on the last day of November rifle season began, but childcare, work and family needs prevented me from getting out. Finally on the Friday morning, the seventh day of the season, I got back to my stand, carrying my Marlin in place of the recurve. I had a strange mixture of resignation and confidence. Resigned to the fact that I had been unsuccessful for so long, including some recent misses, and knowing that I only had a brief time before work. But also confident in my ability to make a good shot. I was on top of this rifle and this load. A couple of days previously I had shot a decent 50 yard group, four rounds freehand, as fast as I could crank them out. I knew that if I saw deer at all, they would be inside of 50 yards.
I always try to get into position before the start of legal hunting, and this morning was no exception. Immediately I got to my stand I fastened the lifeline to my safety harness, and that done, chambered a round and set the hammer to the half-cock. What I did not expect was the almost immediate appearance of the black silhouette of an antlerless deer. This deer started walking, following the same approximate path as the deer I had missed the week before. I checked my watch and I was less than a minute into hunting hours.
I raised my rifle, thumbing the hammer to full-cock and squinting through the aperture in the predawn light. I tried to pick out my front post on the deer, but could not see it. I lifted the rifle skywards and could pick out the post against the pale early morning sky, but tracking back down it vanished again against the outline of the deer. I almost wept with frustration. I knew the probability was that if I shot I would hit. But I won't take a shot with an incomplete sight picture. Again I checked against the sky, and back to the deer. It stepped over a log and out of view. I forced myself to breath and continued to view the shifting undergrowth through my sights. The sky was lightening visibly now, and the deer stepped back into view and skirted the edge of the small clearing beneath me. I made out the brass bead at the top of my post and saw that it was on the front shoulder of the deer. Exactly where I wanted it – I didn’t want to have to trail a runner. I pressed the trigger the moment my eye found that brass bead. The deer dropped twitching and kicking like a person being tasered, but in slow motion. I had reloaded on the shot and remembered to set the hammer to half cock before unclipping the safety line and climbing to the ground. The distance to the deer was between 20 and 30 yards. The deer was unable to walk but twitching and kicking. So from about 8 feet I fired a second shot into the head and it stilled immediately. I removed the remaining rounds from the magazine and checked the time, 0645 – six minutes into hunting hours.
My drought was over. Looking at the carcass I saw a scrotum between the back legs and realized that what I had taken to be a doe was in fact an immature buck. I confirmed death (not that I had the slightest doubt after the second shot) by tapping his eye with a slim branch, and cut into the throat to try and find the jugular to help bleed the carcass. I then filled out a game tag for the first time in my life. In my tiredness I actually got the date wrong, thinking that we were in the 7th of December not the sixth, but no wardens or anyone else asked to view the tag. The land was frozen and too steeply raked for me to feel confident about performing the gralloch on the spot. I rearranged my gear and dragged the carcass back to my car. I had had vague notions about lining the trunk with contractor bags, but in the end took the simpler solution of slinging it across the back of the outside figuring that the outside of the car is essentially a “wipe-clean” surface. One good thing about the area I now live is that nobody is bothered by the sight of a bloody deer carcass. I ran the deer home and performed a quick gralloch in the snow behind my house then hung the deer up in my garage and went to work.
My garage was colder than my fridge peaking at about 35. I don’t know if that is good or bad or whatnot, but the carcass hung for about 36 hours before my wife and I butchered it. It was only after I’d hung it up that really studied where the first shot had entered and exited the deer. As I wrote above I’d been intending to anchor the deer, and had done so, but I’d hit higher partially severing the spine as opposed to smashing the shoulder. That overall result was good in terms meat damage, but shows that I need a better front sight, and/or more practice of shooting from trees. The following pictures show the entry and exit wounds, that 35 Rem makes a pretty decent hole!
Whilst my whitetail is not the buck of my, or anybody else’s dreams, it’s put me back in and on the game – and brought my family firmly onside with my hunting. Especially my wife who has excelled herself by butchering far better than I think I could have.