Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Last Chance

There are some moments that will stick in the mind forever. The 2009 deer season will be one I'll always remember quite simply because it was the first "season" I hunted until the last drop.  Opening day of whitetail hunting in Pennsylvania is a circus event.  In the event one is fortunate enough to hunt private land, the memories can be peaceful and memorable.  However, public land is a different story.  I've learned to prepare myself mentally for disappointment.  I don't mean disappointment in not scoring venison; that can happen on any type of land one may hunt.  Disappointment in mankind is more like it. My brother uses the term "hilljack" quite liberally to describe your run of the mill fool in the woods.  We encountered one on opening day this year, and he ruined our hunt.  I do blame myself for what happened after our dear friend departed the forest, however. Around 4 p.m, a group of drivers walked right under my stand as they attempted to push out deer.  I've never seen this happen on opening day, so I wasn't expecting it—mostly because I was hunting public land.  I consider it downright discourteous to make a drive on the opener and destroy another man's hunt.  Jaded and discouraged, I packed up my stand about 20 minutes early.  This was my biggest mistake. It literally broke my heart when I returned to retrieve the rest of my stand at dusk and there was a deer standing not 20 yards from my tree.  I hadn't spotted a deer all day, and suddenly the tail end of one was bounding gracefully away into the thicket.  I never saw if it was a buck or a doe, but it was a nice-sized deer. My imagination ran wild and added to the heartache. The next day I discovered my scope was off after shooting at a doe in the cross-hairs. I couldn't understand how I could have missed her, until I decided to check the rifle at the range on the following Friday. Turned out the scope was inaccurate, and I thought I had done well by sighting it in August— before the mad rush of shooters who appear Thanksgiving weekend. 

Hunting is good for the soul; it teaches one humility.  Boy, was I ever humiliated by the events of the first week.  I had spotted on deer when I was unarmed; I missed a deer when I was armed.  I had to re-sight my scope, and I was leery of returning to some of the most promising spots we had scouted before the opener, mostly because I didn't want another day ruined by severe hunting pressure.  Regrouping, I began to read.  Articles in regards to locating late season deer, especially bucks, flashed across my laptop screen on a nightly basis. The same themes continued to dominate:  thick cover, bedding areas, food, and south facing hillsides. In the end I discovered that one of my favorite haunts was the best place to start all over again. I had pegged a grouse there a few weeks before, so I decided to venture into an area a little less accessible to hunters in general.

Six days into the season, I was growing desperate enough to set up my stand at midnight in the complete darkness.  I had a two-hour class Friday night after teaching all day.  I sacrificed a hour and half break in the late afternoon to site in the scope at the range.  So, as the chill bore down, I set two stands with the aid of a headlamp.  One of the stands was for my father who was able to hunt with me that Saturday.  No luck.  But, the morning was spectacular as two inches of snow fell serenely throughout the wood.  I returned the following day to retrieve one stand and scout the area for tracks I hoped would give me an idea as to where the deer were moving. It was a bright, sunny Sunday morning, and I did find tracks, and I did kick up a deer.  It was sheltered in the thicket on a south facing hill. How about that? Discerning a small pack of does, some bear tracks, turkey tracks, rabbit tracks, and grouse tracks, I noticed a separate set of tracks that belonged to a lone deer, a large set too.  Blood pumped a little faster as my mind entertained the idea that the tracks belonged to a buck. 

The following Monday I was able to hunt for a little over an hour—I repositioned my stand to overlook a dry lake bed and running stream.  There were tracks all over the area.  I didn't return until Thursday evening.  New snow had covered the old tracks, and an icy layer of sleet crusted the terrain.  However, for the first time in a few days, I spotted the lone set of large tracks again.  This time I decided to spend my hour of daylight trailing them.  I discovered a bedding area, and with what little time I had, tried my best to pattern the trail.  I repositioned my stand again.  This time moving it well back behind a thicket.  I no longer had an open shot at the stream, but I now could cover a small, piney thicket off the to my left—the large tracks were peppered along that same hillside.  An uncanny confidence coursed through my mind, but I continued to play down my chances mentally.  After all, who really gets a shot at a buck on the last day of the season? The percentages are low.

Saturday, my last chance, arrived.  The beginning was anything but auspicious.  More ice had fallen, but it was a gem of a day.  The best day we had all season.  Clear, cold, sunny, and no wind.  However, the crunching snow announced a hunter's presence to every creature within a square mile.  Placing my father in a small hollow on the other side of the piny hill, I climbed into my stand just in time to see a doe galloping across the lake bed and hear another one rise and charge away.  Damn the snow!  As fate would have it, however, the snow would later turn out to be my greatest ally.

The sun rose and warmed the hillsides.  A group of drivers passed, and I guessed everyone was encouraged by the weather.  I nearly gave up hope after the drivers walked through, but remembering the lessons I had learned on opening day a fortnight previous, I stayed put. Four does galloped out of the thicket across the stream and stopped, listening to the drivers who were oblivious to their presence.  I scoped one of the does, a large one.  At 110 yards and shooting through bramble, I decided not to take the shot.  I didn't think I could make it. Suddenly, the pack reversed direction and sprinted across the lake bed, giving me a wide open shot, but I could not glass them with enough confidence to take a shot.  Dejected, I seriously pondered packing it in, but I remained glued to the tree.  I had watched five deer run away, and listened to another amble off in the predawn light, all on the last day!  I was sure I had lost my chance. 

An hour later, the sun continued its unimpeded climb—washing winter trees in a warm, golden glow; I watched another driver emerge hundreds of yards away along the same thicket I had traced tracks to a few evenings prior.  He swung left and disappeared.  For a fleeting moment, I thought, "I wonder where that buck is?" The does had long since departed, and I began to wonder if I had been chasing ghost tracks for a week.  The drivers disappeared much to my relief, and expecting things to quiet down until noon, I pondered the location of the afternoon hunt.

Crack, Cuh, Crack, Cuh, Crack! Adrenaline washed out the cold and brought me fully alert. Immediately, I knew it was a running deer.  Nothing moves that quickly over hilly, forested terrain. Focusing in the direction of the crunching snow, I saw a beautiful set of curving antlers moving up the lake trail.  I was awestruck. It was the buck! Exactly as his tracks had indicated, he cut into the thicket on the evergreen hill.  Somewhere within my inner cognitive confines, his three points on one side registered:  a legal buck.  Swinging the scope I sighted him.  One step beyond a scrubby pine, and I had a plate-sized shooting window.  Not hesitating, I squeezed the trigger. He collapsed immediately. 

The next few moments were surreal.  I moved up the slope through the bramble to a beautiful six-point whitetail buck. His hooves told the story; it was him.  Pausing a moment to thank him for the venison he would provide my family, a smile broke open. "Dad! Dad!"  Of course, my father couldn't hear me, so there I was sprinting through cracking snow.  In the morning light, we celebrated as primitive man would after a big kill. It was the first deer I had ever taken in the presence of my father, and perhaps, it was fitting that it was just the two of us. As he displayed a  different way to gut a deer, my boyhood days at hunting camp were brought back to life.  A memory I never had was taking shape before me.  The buck did not suffer.  He died within seconds, as the well-placed shot struck him in the neck, breaking it.  He was large in body—though his rack was smaller than average.  It did not matter to me.  The last day of the season, and I had harvested a buck.  A half-mile later, perspiring in the midday sun, we loaded up our prize and made a joyful trip home.  A successful hunt obliterates all unsuccessful adventures. It was a fine day.