Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Good Start

On Friday I returned home again to my favorite stream, Standing Stone Creek just over Pine Grove Mountain in sleepy Stone Valley.

It was a day a dreamer dreams. Warm sun on my face and shoulders.  Enjoyment in watching a Canadian gosling all yellow in downy feathers find its way to family downstream. A flight of wood ducks, sharp red, teal, white, and yellow painted faces. A majestic blue heron taking full, graceful flight.  Soft breeze.  March Browns escaping risers, and the final rainbow, a feisty foot-long brawler that slammed my mayfly imitation on the third cast and stripped line for a few short runs. After releasing him back into the cool deep waters, I packed up my gear and hiked out. It was all too perfect to continue angling,  just too perfect of a day. One that is already forever etched in memory.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Six Points in December

Two thousand twelve has rolled into existence and as it hurtles through its first four months, a period of reflection seems appropriate. 

"Never, ever give up hope."  Hunting season in general had a less than auspicious beginning in 2011, and the theme carried through most of October, November, and December. The pheasant crop was literally wiped out by a September hurricane that exacted significant damage across much of the commonwealth. My effervescent beagle lost her bubbly nature with several health setbacks throughout autumn, and she was never really able to hunt like her healthy self until late February after a nearly two month break.  The stress of taking six credits to gain a certification and my new job all wound me tight. I found solace through venturing into the woods with a new crossbow.  Of course, I hunted the two-week rifle season too.  I was buck crazy this year.

I found his tracks first. On the north side of a high ridge opposite the lake.  I could see that the lone deer liked to move through the dark pine bows before dropping down into a thicket near a stream before following the low-land out across the road and into the farm fields of crop.  This land I've hunted for a long time, and I know it well. Yet, it always surprises me how stealthy a buck can be.  The first time I ever saw the buck was in the darkness of a Saturday night.

It was the end of week one of buck season,  an early December day that everyone who ventures into the woods hopes for. Frosty, yet clear and sunny. I had placed a stand at the edge of the swamp for my dad, and my friend Spencer would be hunting a thicket on the opposite hillside. Full of hope I climbed into a tall hemlock in the middle of the marsh and waited. About 10 o'clock I heard a single shot, and knew it was Spencer who had fired. According to plan, I would meet my dad and Spencer at noon, and we would all gather up and hike a mile or so along trails to the far side of the lake.

Dad saw a small buck at first light. And, Spencer had missed an eight-point buck. It was exciting to have some action, and we carried on our way pushing a few thickets without success. It was getting warm when Spencer and I pushed out the maze of thorns along the lake around mid-afternoon. Dad's rifle reported several times until the clip had spent itself. Two large does had galloped away from the drive, escaping without a hit.

We would finish the day back in the swamp without success. After dark we had not driven more than 400 yards up the road towards home, when a sturdy six-pointer confidently spanned the road in graceful bounds as he headed toward the promise of food in the open land opposite. He had come from the way I almost knew he would, the dark pine bows and the lowland way.

The next opportunity I had to hunt was the following Thursday during the comfortably quiet second week of rifle season. I tracked the buck again as best as I could.  Around dusk I decided to peak into the open lake bed in traveling a round about way back to my car. Suddenly, I spotted two mottled brown shapes along the stream. Two does. I swung my scope up and confirmed them. Both were decent. But, alas, shooting hours had passed not five minutes earlier. It was a time of test for a sportsman, and I took the higher road, and let them pass. But, I did have a little fun in getting as close as I could to them during the moonrise jaunt to my vehicle.  At one point I was within 10 yards of them, and they stomped and snorted at my presence the whole time.  The next day I didn't see deer until well past dark as I hiked home.  My solace was the beautiful late fall day I had spent in the woods.  And the iridescent sunset framed by a crescent moon and an evening star...unforgettable.

And, so rifle season came and went, and it had now been two years since I last harvested a buck. The holidays were upon us, and it was time for a break. 

The day after Christmas, I ventured back to my favored hunting ground. My father had his blackpowder rifle, and I had my crossbow. The late season was upon us.  It was late afternoon when we spotted a  buck feeding high on the ridge above us, but it was too late to get a good shot. He had seen us, and trotted off.  I circled about in hopes of cutting him off or directing him toward my father, but he slipped away like a ghost.  Dad had to get back, and I finished the day without seeing another deer. But, I made a mental note to return with another stand.

Five days later, I hiked into the forest in the pre-dawn light. It was nearly daybreak by the time I had selected a tree, a dark hemlock to break up my profile, and settled into my stand. The forecast was for rain later in the day, so I hoped that the buck we had seen might venture forth for an early feed.

Around 9:15 a.m. I looked down at my watch and made myself a deal to sit for a while longer before I would get up and stretch my legs for bit.  Then, the buck materialized on the ridge.   He was almost moving in a direct line toward my tree. We were nearly eye-level on the steep slope. Initially, the buck looked to be a long, tall spike set.  But, then, I saw some points. He was nearly 40 yards out.  The world fell silent and my heart hammered.

The deer spotted me and moved his head left to right, right to left,  trying to identify the object before him. Only the vapors of my breath made motion. For many long seconds, I thought for sure he was not a legal buck. But, as he continued browsing, a better visual angle presented itself, and everything changed. He was a legal, six-point buck. A late season buck. It was now or never. It had been an enjoyable, but long season so far. The waiting can be the hardest part.  I knew I had to make a good, clean shot. The buck moved between my position and the top of the ridge. He was broadside. There were a few quick moments when I almost sent the bolt flying, but the quarters were too tight, and I didn't want to risk striking a tree or branch...or worse, delivering a non-fatal wound to a buck that was affirming all the worth of my patience in the woods.

I placed the 30-yard site along his mid-line, and took the shot as soon as he stepped into a clear lane. The arrow struck clean, and the buck ran. Two crashes and silence.  Common knowledge is to wait 30 minutes after arrowing a deer, but I knew it was a good hit, and my excitement got the better of me. I found the arrow in a tree. It was a clean pass. A little while later down the blood trail, it was obvious that both lungs had been pierced. The buck was sprawled over a a fallen tree; he had run no more than 50 yards.

As I leaned down to dress him, I admired his sturdy six-point set. He was a good late season deer, and I was thankful for the opportunity to hunt him. It had been a great season, and the wait was worth the reward.  It took me two hours to hike to my vehicle, but I could not have been happier.  Late that night, I had completed the butchering and packed away the venison in the freezer.  The steaks and roasts have been spectacular.

On cold, frosty nights as I walked out of the forest, I was happy to be part of the wilderness this season.  I never quite knew if I would be fortunate enough to score a buck, let alone a late-season stag, but the not knowing is the excitement.  In essence, all we are really hunting for is an opportunity. Some you let pass in hopes of a bigger reward, and others you take a chance on in hopes of finding whatever it is we seek. My third Pennsylvania buck will always be memorable.  I had never hunted harder for a buck, and the wisdom I gained through the experience will certainly pay dividends on all future hunts.