Saturday, November 11, 2017

Big Six

My first buck with a compound bow was a hunt as memorable as any I’ve the had in a lifetime afield. I had been eagerly anticipating an early November hunt as soon as the calendar flipped to the eleventh month...a magical time of year to be in the Pennsylvania woods chasing bucks.

On the morning of November 2nd, 2017, I was settled in a good stand site along an acorn laden ridge; I had good luck spotting deer in the spot through the first several weeks of archery season—especially in the mornings. A storm system had passed through the previous evening, leaving the forest floor saturated and silent.  An hour after sunrise, a crafty six point buck sneaked in behind me and offered no shot. Soon after another six point buck worked his way down the ridge toward me, and I foolishly rushed a shot in fear of losing another opportunity. The buck ambled off grazed but no worse for the wear. I would see one more buck, a nice 8-point out of range before concluding my morning hunt. I was not discouraged, but rather hopeful that more action would come my way before the day was through.

After lunch I switched to my favorite evening stand, a long walk from the trailhead in the state game lands near my home.  Hiking in, I met my father, George, and my Uncle Tom, who were concluding their first hunt of the day. They planned to grab some lunch and pick up my brother-in-law Danny, who was visiting from Paris, France, and who had jumped at the opportunity to spend some time hunting with us after practicing with my old crossbow.

Little did I realize how fortunate I would be to have family hunting with me on this particular day.

It was a lazy, comfortable November afternoon. The sun was warm on my back and the woods were quiet. But soon, the last hour, the magic hour would arrive.  The cooler air incited deer activity almost immediately. A small pod of does worked along the ridge to my right at 70 yards enjoying an evening meal.  I began to hear movement in the bedding area directly in front of my stand. A doe hopped out of the cover and behind her, a beautiful buck gave chase. I stood, heart hammering, watching classic rut activity. The doe worked her way toward me, feeding on acorns. I knew she was my ticket to the buck, so I concentrated on her position and movement in order to keep my cover. She seemed at ease and continued to feed, occasionally glancing back at the mature buck, who stood sentinel still at the edge of the thicket. My heart continued to hammer and my mind willed him to move into a shooting lane. For nearly ten minutes the buck stayed put, scenting the air and checking the surroundings. Finally...finally he moved toward the doe. Slowly he worked toward her and then with a quick burst he pushed into a decent shooting lane and I drew the bow and placed my 20-yard pin on his side as he quartered away.

Hindsight is 20-20. I probably had more time than I realized in the moment, but I was worried the buck was about to charge off in pursuit of the doe and I would lose a good chance at him. The buck paused and looked toward me and then away, and I let an arrow fly from my PSE 3G Stinger.

It was a hit. The buck wheezed, turned tail, and burst away through the hollow and into the heavy brush. My arrow had hit a bit farther back than I intended, and I could see the bright green and white fletching sticking out of him as he ran.

Initially, I was concerned that I had only struck muscle and the deer was lost. Light was fading fast, so after 15 minutes of anxious waiting, I climbed down and checked for blood. Almost immediately I picked up a decent blood trail and followed it into the bramble nearly 80 yards away.  I found my arrow, covered in bright red blood.  At this point, I had to switch on my headlamp to see in the gathering darkness.  Concern grew. I did not want to push this buck if it was still alive and lose it. So, I began to back off, and decided to hike out and check in with my family who were by now waiting and wondering what I was up to.

By the time I made it to the trailhead, everyone was there waiting and so was WCO Michael Ondik. Officer Ondik checked my license, checked out my arrow, and offered advice about how to proceed.  We were all thankful for his help and good nature in the matter. He did much to instill in me the confidence that the buck was indeed down and out.  At this point nearly two hours had passed since I arrowed the buck.  For the rest of my life, I will be thankful for two specific pieces of this particular hunt. First, I was glad I backed off. Successfully recovering the buck may have certainly depended on it. Second, the help of family is invaluable.  Having four sets of eyes to follow a blood trail in the night is exponentially better than being alone.

An hour later, our party of four arrived at the search site and took up the endeavor of finding the buck. Excitement pervaded, and with each new discovery of fresh blood my doubts dissipated.  Things looks good. But still no deer. Then, Uncle Tom picked up a penultimate clue and Danny found the final one, and there he was catching the rays of my headlamp, a beautiful mature six-point whitetail buck!

How shall I ever forget the joy of the moment? With shouts of joy we all embraced and a litany of thank yous I expressed to my family not only for helping but also for being there to enjoy the memory. Barred owls hooted in the dark night, and we cheered the good fortune a buck brings to the archer on a November evening deep in the Pennsylvania woods.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Rocky Mountain Rendezvous

Backpacking into Pebble Creek in the northeastern section of Yellowstone National Park kicked off our adventure in the Montana/Wyoming wilderness.  In its opening act we were greeted with a 1,400 elevation gain in the first two miles, but it was worth the effort, as the meadows that followed made us feel like we were in a movie set. An explosion of wildflowers greeted us for the next two miles. Bright red Indian Paintbrush, lavender lupine, and bright yellow sunflowers highlighted the show. Close to the early evening we were closing in on camp, and Joe and I spotted a hefty black bear in the distance as he powerfully clawed apart fallen trees likely for a supper of ants and grubs.

In the days that followed, we lived like mountain men, enjoying our own little slice of the backcountry which we seemed to have all to ourselves.  Our site overlooked meadows of willows that bordered meandering Pebble Creek. The flyfishing was fantastic. We fished downstream and upstream catching more cutthroat than one could imagine. Beautiful trout with crimson gill plates, sunset slashes, and golden bodies. Simply put, the fishing was the best I've ever experienced. For its size, Pebble Creek produced some unexpectedly large trout, each and every one feisty fighters ranging from 10-16 inches in size. Green hoppers, PMDs, and caddis were our flies of choice, and the uncomplicated nature of the fish made our options interchangeable.

One morning we trekked up nearby Bliss Pass and enjoyed the alpine views of the Absarokas and Beartooth mountain ranges. We had a snowball fight at 10,000 feet, checked out the whitebark pines the grizzlies would soon visit, and enjoyed a lunch of trail mix and jerky before scrambling back down to the creek for another afternoon of terrific fishing.

We encountered bear and moose. The first afternoon of fishing I had just released a foot long cutthroat and looked up to see a set of bear cubs on the far bank looking at me, one standing upright. There was no sow in sight, so I quickly unclipped the bearspray from its holster, my head on a swivel as I hiked back upstream to gather up the rest of the gang: Joe, Josh, and Shawn.  Both cubs treed, and soon, the mama sauntered along. She was quite amiable really, for she napped under the tree wholly aware of our presence. Giving her a wide berth we continued fishing, and later in the evening, she and her cubs showed up in our meadow. It was quite a show watching the cinnamon cubs wrestle while the jet black sow settled into their bedding site for the evening. 

The following evening we were visited by an immense cow moose and her calf. We were able to watch them devour willows from the comfort of our campsite for over two hours.

Each evening we gathered firewood from the downed wood of the forest and passed the time enjoying its warmth, pumping drinking water from the glacial cold creek, and creating meals from our freeze dried pouches and whatever else we packed. My personal favorite was Mountainhouse Chili-Mac with Fritos sprinkled atop.

The time passed all too quickly. We found ourselves hiking out and experiencing the only unpleasant weather of the entire trip.  We made it nearly five miles before ducking into pines to allow a rolling thunderstorm to pass.

In reflection, this was the best backpack I've ever experienced. Everything came together on this trip, especially the fishing. Yellowstone's backcountry holds many secrets and surprises, and  I was thankful to be a part of it if only for a few magical Rocky Mountain summer days.

The wildflowers of the upper Pebble Creek plateau

The view from camp

A feisty Pebble Creek cutthroat

The beautiful colors of the cutthroat trout

Sunset over the mountains

Bliss Pass overlook

Pollarine points out the Beartooth Plateau to Joe

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Golden Moment

The 2016 deer season was a wonderful learning experience from start to finish. From hours of archery practice with a compound bow as I made the switch from a crossbow to scouting and performing deer drives in December and January, I gained invaluable insight and information that I know will serve my hunting life well for the coming years. Perhaps the finest moment of last season was not scoring my first deer with a compound bow (although it ranks high on the list), but rather, helping a fellow hunter score his first whitetail.

Rifle season brings with it a special nostalgia and camaraderie that sets it apart from the more personal and intimate mood of archery season. Both seasons are highly enjoyable. What I enjoy most about rifle is the chase. Driving deer from thickets and attempting to push them past the rifle sites of the hunters in our party is thrilling.

Often times the deer play the smarter counterpart, meaning they get away much more often than we harvest them. But, when we somehow manage to do everything right and the deer cross us at just the right moment, and we make a good shot, well then, it's a golden moment.

One of these moments occurred on a fine December Saturday afternoon last season. My brother George and I were pushing a nearly impenetrable thicket in hopes of kicking out a whitetail in the direction of our posted hunters and suddenly everything fell into place.

It had been a bittersweet morning up though midday. Some ups and downs if you will. The morning started with Spencer harvesting a nice button buck from a stand I had actually set up the previous evening, so when his 8 a.m. text came asking what township we were currently in, it brought a smile to my face as I posted up a mile away in my own tree.  One deer down for our party of six (Uncle Tom, Dad, Spencer, Charlie, George, and I).

The "downs" included two doe that slipped into a thicket not fifty yards from my Uncle Tom's spot. I could see Uncle Tom and I could see the deer clearly, but because of the micro terrain, he could not see them.  Dad also had a moment with a fine 8 point buck in his scope, but the time was not meant to be and the shot missed cleanly as the deer bounded away unscathed.

Around midday we reconvened and strategized our afternoon hunt. It was then that my brother and I decided to drive a long, nasty thicket that always seems to hold deer.  There is a nice wooded ridge above the thicket which allows a few good shooting lanes if anything should pop out. We first placed Charlie on a mound I like to call "milk crate hill".  It's a rocky outcropping beneath a stand of oaks and there is an old, broken, red milk crate nearby worn down by nature and time. I often think that fifty years ago it provided a nice perch for a hunter.  Charlie found a seat on a flat rock there and I told him to keep watch on the end point of the thicket where eventually a deer might run out of room and be forced to break into the edges about 60-70 yards in front of him.  I was speaking hypothetically, but hope glimmered for some action.

Dad and Uncle Tom, we placed together about 100 yards away along the middle of the thicket more toward the mid-point of our drive. We gave them more or less the same instructions. Keep watch on the thicket below you, you might see some whitetails flashing through there, so be ready.

George and I hiked all the way back to the very beginning of the trails and worked together pushing, crawling, and ducking through the snags, deadfalls, and wicked thorns so characteristic of a deer hideout. We were about 20 yards apart. To my right was an open, grassy trail that I wished to keep the deer from crossing, for if they did, there would be no shot opportunity for our posted hunters. The deer would simply bound up the opposite ridge and be long gone.

About twenty minutes into our drive we were nearing the mid-point. We stopped for a moment to weave a bit closer as the cover began to get even heavier. I remember thinking that the position of the late day sun provided a nice spot for a deer to warm up in amongst the brambles. I took a single step toward my brother when suddenly a doe jumped up from a bed not ten feet away. She was in full sneak mode as she darted like an arrow straight away from us. I took a knee and kept saying, "Come on....Come on....Come on...." as I waited for the sweet sound of a rifle shot. We knew the deer would run straight past all three of our posters if she kept the current course. Just when I began to think it might become another crestfallen moment, a shot cracked, and I knew it had to be one of our guys.  It was only one shot, but it was one of the best sounds you can possibly hear as a driver.

We threw down and started running out of the thicket hoping beyond hope, someone had scored. As we made our way up the ridge toward Dad and Uncle Tom, hope began to wane a bit. They saw no deer and they were busy downing some hot chocolate. But, they agreed the shot sounded close and they thought it was Charlie. God, did I hope it was true. I began trotting up the ridge along the trail toward the rocky outcropping where Charlie had set. But, as the clump of trees and rocks came into view, I did not see Charlie anywhere. George and I hurried along, and about 60 yards later we spotted him along the ridge with his rifle slung over his shoulder.

Oh no! I thought. Another hunter somewhere further down the ridge has taken the shot. But, then, my brother exclaimed, "There's the deer!" And, sure enough at the base of Charlie's silhouette, rested a nice, plump doe. Charlie's first whitetail.  What followed was a blur of happy exclamations, back slapping, and broad smiles.  A single success erased countless empty handed hunts. Joy pervaded.  We knew we were living the highlight of the season in that moment.