Not even the postman has the dedication of this Delaware deer hunter.
It was ironic that I had just finished reading a Buckmasters article titled ”Bow Bucks in the Deep Freeze.”
I wasn’t planning to hunt with my bow the next day since it was the end of Delaware’s late muzzleloader season, but it got me pumped, anyway. It was the last day of deer season for the year, and I was going to be out there.
Then, I watched the news, and weatherman predicted a major snowstorm with high winds – a real nor’easter.
It’s easy to plan how a hunt will go while sitting in a La-Z-Boy in front of a big fire. It’s like being a Monday morning quarterback; it all looks easy until you try it yourself. Still, I know reading about hunting or watching it on TV doesn’t actually put anything on the wall, so I firmed my resolve to go. I figured the combination of falling temperatures and dropping barometric pressure would surely make deer move.
Around here, by the time the season is winding down, the deer have been pushed hard – since September, in fact. In January, they’re either at the meat processor or hiding in secret spots nobody ever finds.
I think that worried me more than the weather.
We have a saying in Delaware that ”if you don’t like the weather, just wait an hour and it will change.” Hunters are used to going out in snow and ice with temperatures below freezing, and also during bluebird days in the 50s. Sometimes you get both in the same day.
I’ve been a hunter since I was a kid. I harvested a large Maryland Eastern Shore doe the first day I sat in a treestand, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Whitetails amaze me. No book has ever covered everything I wanted to know, and many of the well known truths I was told about their habits turned out to be just plain wrong.
Even with all we know and continue to learn about deer, I’m convinced anyone claiming to be an expert is a puffed-up fool.
With all the years I’ve been afield and all the tags I’ve used along the way, I still get that same kid-at-Christmas feeling on the first crisp fall day in my stand. It’s what so many hunters write and talk about: that first-day smell of fall.
I’ll confess I didn’t have quite that same enthusiasm heading out the door on Jan. 30, 2010, but I felt like the weather would get the deer on their feet. It was going to be 17 degrees with a wind chill of minus 5. I reasoned it would be best to have a deer on the ground before the snowstorm hit.
As I walked across the hard, frozen ground, the small stubble of the cut bean field popped and snapped loudly in the crisp, cold air. Every noise was magnified, and there was no way to get to my stand quietly.Once I had settled in my box blind, I struggled to rearrange my clothing layers to keep in the heat. It was downright frigid, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
Toward daybreak, it felt like the temperature dropped even more. I started to shiver and had serious doubts about my ability to remain in the stand, let alone make a good shot. I looked at my watch and made up my mind I would stay until at least 9 a.m.
It was so cold the squirrels were moving in slow motion. Their normal frisky hops and acrobatic jumps seemed to require a great deal of thought and energy. I watched them as they frantically searched for the nuts they had hidden throughout the fall.
The squirrels helped me pass the time until 10 a.m., when I couldn’t take it any more. I headed to the truck and chugged down several cups of hot coffee. Being warm again felt so good that I decided to go home and return later in the evening.
As I was heading home, a warning light flashed on my dashboard indicating one of my tires was losing air. I stopped at a country store for air for and more coffee.
While filling the tires, I could feel the snow coming. There’s a certain pressure and smell to the air that lets you know it’s about to snow. That feeling made me think of a similar day in November when a family had told me about seeing several deer, including a few bucks, on one of the properties where I have permission to hunt.
That property was only a stone’s throw from the store, so I decided to give it a try. It was the last day, and I didn’t want to spend it sitting in the house.
As I slowly walked toward my stand, the wind picked up and it began to snow. It was light at first, but it quickly turned into fast-falling giant flakes that sometimes flew sideways thanks to the wind. It was a true blizzard!
Once in the stand, I realized it was going to be a struggle to see deer, or anything, moving. Maybe that helped make my hearing more sensitive, because it wasn’t long before I heard something moving in the brush.
When I turned to look, I noticed several deer scurrying along in a hurry to be somewhere else. Even the intense wind couldn’t hide the sound of their hooves in the frozen, dry leaves.
A doe soon popped out in a clearing about 50 yards away. I held my muzzleloader relaxed across my chest and stood perfectly still as she looked straight at me. Finally, she took a few steps into the brush. I noticed more movement just before a nice 6-pointer stepped into view.
I put the crosshairs just behind his shoulder and was about to squeeze the trigger when I saw more movement. It was an even bigger buck!
The 8-pointer stood next to the 6 for so long my scope was filling up with snow. Then more antlers appeared at the edge of my vision and a giant buck stepped into the clearing, right between the other two bucks.
He took a few more steps and proudly took his place in front. I couldn’t help notice he wasn’t content to stand behind the smaller bucks. I think perhaps he didn’t want them between him and the doe.
As he stood there looking so majestic, I realized I’d been admiring him way too long, and there was something else I needed to do.
I slowly swung the crosshairs from the shoulder of the 8-pointer to the vitals of the giant. Focusing on remaining calm and steady, I gently squeezed the trigger. There was a big puff of smoke, and then all the deer were gone.
The buck took off like he wasn’t hit, but I was sure my aim was true. I gathered my things and began to track, discouraged at the sparse blood trail. At times there was nothing to follow but tracks.
Just as I was wondering if I was following the correct set of tracks, I found blood about 18 inches from the ground on some saplings. It’s likely there were small droplets on the ground, but the snow was falling so quickly the tracks were almost gone.
So much goes through your mind at times like that.
Even as I continued to track and agonize over every little bit of sign, I was replaying the shot over in my head and wondering if I was remembering it correctly. Did I hold steady when I squeezed the trigger? Did the deer react to the shot?
Finally, after 200 yards, I came upon my buck.
I not only felt a great sense of relief, but also amazement. It was even bigger than I thought.
After many years of hunting and passing up smaller bucks, it was nice to finally collect dividends.
The note I left for my wife that morning read, ”Gone hunting. Last day. Wish me luck!”
I guess she did.
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