Friday, November 18, 2011

My Biggest Buck

Several years ago I traveled West to Southeast Ohio for deer gun season with my friend Bob to hunt private property belonging to his family and friends.  Bob grew up in the area that we hunted and talked about "humpin' the hills" to get far away from people in search of some tasty venison.  I wouldn't call them mountains, but there were plenty of very steep hills.  Cutting through the hills was a deep winding creek, a tributary of the nearby Ohio River that most certainly would hold largemouth and smallmouth bass.  Along the flood plain and tucked between the hills were farms for animals and various crops.  These deer ate well and had plenty of room to roam and cover to hide in.  On this particular trip it was my second time hunting this part of Ohio. 

The previous year, I walked the logging roads of his Uncle's property in search of a good spot on my last day of that trip.  I hadn't seen a deer in two days.  I found a spot with an old rusty car along one of the logging roads.  I imagined that car being a relic from the moonshine days.  The mystery in my mind about that car intrigued me.  With something like that in the middle of the woods in the middle of nowhere, it had to be a sign.  In addition, the natural shape of the ridge and hills around that car seemed like the perfect funnel. 

That afternoon, the snow started to fall with temperatures in the lower thirties.  It was dead quiet as I searched for a place to sit.  I just knew that I'd see some deer.  I felt it.  It was mid afternoon, about three o'clock.  I sat along the edge of a ridge on a stump that seemed like it overlooked  a big bowl.  The bowl consisted of a ridge that was C shaped with a series of gullies that cut deep down the hillside that converged into one nice ravine that veered to the right out of sight behind the right side of the bowl.

From my right side, I caught a glimpse of movement, then a lot of movement.  I was sitting on that stump with my shotgun on my hip as I counted 29 deer walk from my right to my left in front of me.  Some of them were as close as 10 yards away as they passed in front of me, down wind!  None of them saw or smelled me as I sat motionless.  It was my first year wearing Scent-Lok clothing.  I was now a believer.  I passed on shooting any of the does because with that many deer moving through, I was absolutely certain that a buck would follow some time later.  I could have shot from the hip (not that I would have) and taken any one of those does, but that's not what I was after and I didn't want to ruin a chance at a buck.  But it wasn't meant to be that year.  The buck never showed.  That's how that trip ended, no deer shot, no buck seen, and two empty tags.  Bob ribbed me all the way back to Maryland for not "popping one of them does".  This isn't the story that I wanted to relate, rather, it sets the stage for the next season, and story about my biggest buck.

I visualized that bowl and how to hunt it for an entire year.  As we left Maryland and headed for Ohio, I daydreamed about sitting in a tree overlooking that bowl.  The old rusty car with it's mystique left an image in my mind that seemed like a totem to the herds of deer that pass by.  I was up all night the night before we left for Ohio packing my hunting gear and clothing making sure that I didn't forget anything.  I had a check list that seemed two pages long, all checked off.  I purchased one tag this time.  I figured if I got a deer the first two days then I could go back and purchase another tag.  I was ready.

Bob's hunting style is a bit different than mine.  He likes to sneak, then sit, then sneak, then sit a while, then sneak again, then sit and so on.  His brother Gary, who lives in Ohio with his Mom, likes to hunt on the ground too.  He also moves around quite a bit.  This time, I had my Old Man climbing treestand and a new toy, a Remington in-line blackpowder rifle.  I literally had a blast sighting it in near my home a couple weeks prior to the trip and was eager to go "pop one of them does", as Bob would like to say.  My style is much different.  As a bowhunter, I like to get in early, blend in, don't stink, try not to move, stay there all day, and most of all be quiet.

That day, the weather was quite balmy for the first week in December.  When we approached the property it was dark and foggy and the temperature was already 70 degrees an hour before first light.  I packed my Scent-Lok coveralls in my back pack and tied the parka around my waist.  My Scent-Lok clothing was charged and scent free.  I had scent free boots and my clothing was washed in scent free hunters laundry detergent.  About two hours earlier I had showered using scent free hunters soap and shampoo, and applied a thick coat of hunters scent free deodorant to my normally stinky arm pits. By the way, when I'm at home all I have to do to get some extra elbow room on the couch is to spread my arms out and lay them on the back of the couch.  The wife and daughter always give way.  After cleaning up scent free, I proceeded brushed my teeth with baking soda.  I was confident, like the previous year, that deer wouldn't bust me because of my scent. I love to bowhunt and in my opinion, my success depends on me not being seen or smelled by deer.  I'm anal about that.  I keep my hunting clothes in a thick plastic bag. Sometimes I shove a few handfulls of dry leaves in the bag a day or two before my hunt.  Even when I hunt with my gun, I want the deer to come close to me. 

I don't crave the 200 yard shot, I want 40 yards or less if I can.  Why?  I guess it's the challenge.  I just like to see them on top of me, to blend in, and get off a shot that I know will put that animal down humanely.  Bob and Gary aren't quite as concious about scent as I am.  Although now they understand that it pays off and currently practice being as scent free as they can.  They both had confidence in their shotguns that the added range over a bow makes up for them not being so scent free.  They bag their share of deer every year and are not necessarily in it for the rack.  They're content with bagging a doe or two and harvesting the meat first, then look for the rack if one comes along.  Normally, I will take a doe if the opportunity presents itself because, quite frankly, venison tenderloin is God's tasty gift to me and I simply relish it.  But, when I'm in Ohio, I'm thinking big buck.  I can get my share of does at home. 

I loaded my backpack on my treestand and with a straining grunt hoisted it over and onto my back.  I picked up my Remington blackpowder rifle, slung it over my shoulder and was ready to go.  The three of us shook hands and wished each other luck, and off we went into the foggy dark morning going our separate ways.  I told them that I wasn't coming out for lunch and had planned to be in my stand all day.

As I walked the logging trails, I tried to keep from stepping on sticks and I also avoided dry leaves as best I could.  When I arrived at the old rusty car, I crept quietly to the right corner of the bowl shaped hill.  I was determined to find a tree suitable for climbing in that corner because it gave me the best cover and view of the entire bowl.  It had several shooting lanes.  After about 20 minutes, I found a fairly good tree that would work OK.  It wasn't quite as big as I would have liked and not quite as straight either.  But, it was the best one that my tree stand would fit on given the time that I had to get ready before first light.  Most of the other trees were either way too small, way too big, or bent.  I quietly set up my tree stand and climbed. 

By now it was already light.  I was late.  I was bummed because I'm never late.  I'd much rather be in my tree an hour early in the dark. I double checked my safety harness.  Then, I removed my blaze orange vest and put on my Scent-Lok parka, and after that put my blaze orange vest back on.  I pulled up my backpack that had all of my blackpowder supplies as well as food and drink because I was there for the least that was the plan.  It also contained some medicine for headaches and such, some deer calls, attracting scents, my binoculars, a small first aid kit, and a gun cleaning field kit that I put together at home.  After getting settled in the stand, I used my other pull rope to pull up my unloaded gun for my final hunt preparation.

I sat in my treestand about twenty feet above the ground and readied my rifle.  The top of the ridge and the old rusty car were now at eye level to me but at my back.  The sun rose to my right and would be behind me later in the afternoon, perfect position if deer come from below.  First, I cleared the nipple of any possible debris with my nipple pick.  Then, I dropped two blackpowder pellets down the bore followed by a patch and my sabot style slug designed for blackpowder in-line rifles.  Next, I inserted the ramrod into the rifle bore and pushed the bullet and patch firmly down to seat my charge.  You don't want to pump the rod up and down and bang the charge like you see in the movies.  Next, I removed the lens caps from my shotgun scope.  Then, I placed a percussion cap on the nipple and I was ready to go.  Off to my left I heard what sounded like thirty or more noisy turkeys leaving their roost, clucking and almost gobbling - though not like you hear in the spring.  I saw them briefly through my binoculars as they moved away from me.  My anticipation and excitement grew exponentially.

The temperatures climbed as the morning went on.  I was already sweating bullets from all the effort of getting to my spot and into my tree no matter how careful I was to avoid that.  And, remember, I'm anal about my scent in the woods, so by now I'm feeling like a big giant Fat Boy of a skunk.  After two hours in the tree I was still sweating as the temperature climbed above 80 degrees.  I still hadn't seen a deer.  Was I too late?  Did I kick them out?  Am I in the right tree?  Did they bust me because of my sweaty smelly underarms?  I was sure my Scent-Lok couldn't keep me scent free by now.  Could it?

Every squirrel seemed to be behind me out of sight, rustling the leaves and scampering about as if to taunt me.  I knew they were squirrels and I didn't want to move to blow my cover by turning around.  Still, I kept wondering if deer were in range behind me.  Yet, I sat motionless, waiting, sweating, only occasionally lifting my binoculars ever so slowly to scan the trees below.  For over two hours now, nothing.  I wondered if I should stay, maybe climb down, take a short nap and then eat some lunch, or just bag it entirely and meet up with the boys for lunch.  I always hated hunting in the heat.  Bugs and mosquitos were buzzing me.  I couldn't believe this was December.

Around ten o'clock, my confidence was waning.  Should I get down and relocate?  I kept looking at a few trees that seemed to be a bit bigger, a bit straighter, and maybe in a better spot.  I was hot, cranky, getting hungry, and getting sleepy.  It was difficult to maintain focus.  But, I stayed motionless and watched for movement.  I try to put my eyes in wide angle lens mode.  I don't know how else to describe it, but I'm not focusing on detail.  Rather, I'm watching for general movement, any movement, and hopefully some white of a tail or flicker of an ear.  I thought to myself that I'd stick it out until at least 10:30 a.m. and then make a decision on what to do next.  I wasn't sure that sitting in the heat covered in hunting apparel was going to be productive.  Over and over I had to convince myself to stay in the friggin' tree all day.

About five minutes later I noticed some movement down in the bowl, moving up the main gully.  It was a doe, then another, then several more.  They seemed to fan out in my direction as they maneuvered through the different gullies below and up the bowl shaped hill.  My attitude changed entirely.  I went from doubting my resolve to stay in the tree to being in supreme predator mode.  I felt like a crouched mountain lion in a tree ready to pounce on my unsuspecting prey.  Then, I caught a glimpse of something else moving up the hill.  I saw a set of bright shiny antlers bobbing up and down heading up the hill on the heels of a doe.  I could hear it grunting repeatedly in excitement.  Holy Smoke was it big!  The doe and what looked like a massive buck were heading up the left gully moving up the hill from straight ahead of me towards the top of the hill to my left.  They were about 100 yards away.  I tracked them through my scope waiting for them to move into one of my planned shooting lanes, but they were moving fast.  I had to make a decision to fire in about three seconds and then my opportunity would be lost. 

All of a sudden, the doe decided to turn left and headed right to me bringing the buck with her.  I didn't notice it before, but she was walking a deer trail that was poised to take her and her buck right under my tree!  It was my shooting lane!  To my amazement, the buck followed grunting the entire time.  I no longer worried about that long shot.  Instead, I worried a little about the does that were now surrounded my tree stand, that they'd spot me moving for a shot and blow my cover.  The doe was now 30 yards away and moving closer by the second along the deer trail.  The buck had its head down and trailed the doe about 20 yards behind with his massive neck supporting a fine set of antlers, and still grunting. 

My heart was thumping in my chest and I could feel the pulse in my temples.  My breathing increased rapidly.  I was sure that one of those deer around me would hear the cadence of my breathing.  The doe passed right under my stand and the buck followed, drawing closer.  I had a bead on him now.  He was going to be mine, I thought, now get a good shot and don't ruin that cape!!!!  The massive buck stopped about eight yards away to sniff at something on the ground nearly under my stand.  It may have been the smell from my boots, or the doe, I'm not sure.  Either way it didn't matter now, it wasn't alarmed and I was ready to pull the trigger.  For crying out loud this buck was in bow range! 

The good Lord put that buck in the most perfect position for me to shoot and I took advantage of it, gently squeezing the trigger.  The cap fired first and in less than a tenth of a second later the main charge fired.  The sound of the shot echoed in the bowl.  Flames shot out of the barrel followed by a cloud of thick smoke that filled the air around me.  The big buck dropped and kicked a few times with it's hind legs for a very short while.  It seemed like forever though, and my instincts told me to reload.  My excitement played tricks with my mind as I feared that he wasn't dead and would get right back up.  But logically, in the back of my mind I knew he was down for good.  In less than 10 seconds he was still and lay there with his rack beaming in the sunlight looking to me like the holy grail had appeared before me. 

Does snorted at me while they bounded away as their fluffy white tails danced back and forth in retreat up over the ridge.  It was all I could do to keep from falling out of my tree from excitement.  Good thing I had my safety harness on!  I climbed down and picked up the rack and counted the points...13 with a ticker.  It was a non-typical with two points extending back from the brow tines toward the rear of the animal.  Weird, but cool.  I laughed out loud and laid back on it like a pillow, oblivious to possible tick infestation, and gazed at the sky.  I sighed in relief and thanked God for this wonderful day.

This is the head and cape of the biggest buck of my life. 
What a thrill.

Now it was time to get to work.  It was nearly eleven a.m. and I dressed out the deer.  My Scent-Lok had that dressed deer smell now but I didn't care any more.  I figured that if the smell ruined the suit it was worth bagging the big buck.  I could always save my money and buy a new Scent-Lok suit.  I gathered up my gun and gear and left the stand on the tree. 

I could purchase a bonus tag that I could use for a doe the next day if I wanted to.  It nearly took all of my energy to drag my massive buck up the hill, past the old rusty car and to the logging road while the antlers caught just about every sappling in between. I heaved and lurched the deer along and eventually reached the logging road.  I had about three quarters of a mile of hilly logging road ahead of me to drag that massive deer with temperatures in the 80's. 

I luckily still had a bottle of water left.  I knew that if I could get that deer to the main logging road, Bob could get his truck up there.  It seemed like I had to rest about every 20 yards and catch my breath.  My hair and clothing were drenched with sweat.  Around 1 p.m., I finally reached the main trail and saw Gary sitting there about 40 yards away.  They had already gone home, eaten lunch and returned for the afternoon hunt.  I walked up and told him that I shot a big buck.  Of course, he laughed and he called me a liar, but at the same time curious that I was truthful.  I took him back to where I left the buck and his jaw dropped.  He blurted out, "Holy crap" as I lifted up the head and rack.

We both left the deer and my gear there and tried to find Bob.  We found him along one of the logging roads and told him what happened.  He was extremely excited for me but at the same time jokingly yelling phrases at me (that exceed my PG rating for this blog) and saying that I shot his deer.  Bob went to retrieve the truck and drove it up to the top of the trail.  When he saw the deer he said it was the biggest buck that he, his friends, or anyone in has family had shot on their property to date.  He punched me in the arm for shooting the deer that eluded him all these years, then we hoisted the deer into the bed of the truck.

Here is the mount of my Ohio buck, thanks
to Martin's Taxidermy in Boonsboro, MD.

That afternoon we took the buck to the check in station.  It dressed out at 204 pounds.  To this day it's still the biggest buck that I've harvested.  He now is on my wall downstairs.  My only regret was that I didn't have a camera while in the woods to take a field shot of my trophy.  I learned my lesson from that.  I always carry a digital camera now.

The mount of my deer was done by Martin's Taxidermy of Boonsboro, Maryland.  Tim and Christy Martin have done several of my brother's deer.  I have some friends that also took their bucks and other game to them and all of those projects turned out to be fantastic mounts.  They've done two of my deer too.  They do outstanding work and have won all kinds of awards.  Not only are they some of the best in their field, they are down to earth and just plain nice people.  For those of you within a days drive of Maryland, if you're looking for some great work on your trophy, you can reach them via their website:

Please check back on this page in the future as I have several interesting and funny hunting stories to post here.  Next, the bigger Ohio buck that got away.  Not all stories have that fairy tale ending!

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