I need it. Badly. The state of the world requires it. I need to get away. Quickly. Away from others. I need my sanity back. I need to get back into the woods.
I spend all week dealing with people in an ever-changing and extremely fast paced environment. And that is before the pandemic. Expectations, deadlines, crazy behavior from others dominates my week. Technology is wonderful but it only enhances the expectations. Everywhere I turn, someone expects something of me. And the cold, honest truth is I can only provide a fraction of what they want.
So, the week is shot, leaving the weekend as my time to regroup and refuel. The woods provide that respite for me. Only I can’t get out there! The past four weekends have bit us with either a blizzard or temperatures in the single digits. I’m sorry, but as much as I love the trees, I do not wish to freeze up like one!
I miss the solitude that only the forest can give me. I miss the fluffy snow that masks my footfalls. I miss the squirrels chattering as I approach their space. Give me the white deer tails, bounding away as I get closer. Let me hear the songbirds. Give me the ability to collect my thoughts. Perhaps I can even come up with a solution to a problem that plagues me during the week, as long as I can form a single thought without interruption.
It’s the woods where I come to my senses. It’s where I understand that the noisiness of the week will pass, and everything will work out. The woods give me back my confidence, my mojo, at least until about 8:15 Monday morning.
It was a dry, crisp day. I was hunkered down in my favorite ground blind. I was sitting on top of a bank, with a great view through the hardwoods in front of me. Oh, the hours I have spent there, left to only the solitude of my thoughts. Sure, I have seen plenty of deer in this spot, and pulled the trigger on a few, but when you spend daylight to dark in one location day after day, season after season, there’s a significant amount of time for one to be all alone.
It was a little past noon. I hadn’t seen a deer all day. The only excitement to that point was the mouse that insisted we share the blind together. I heard a few crunches in the leaves and turned around to see my dad heading my way. He hadn’t seen anything either and had decided he was going to head to another spot that parallels a power line down by where we park.
Dad did give me a handy piece of information, however. He walked along an active scrape line that began approximately 150 yards from my stand. Fresh rubs dotted the landscape, rubs that were not there five days prior when Dad was on a late scouting trip. These rubs had been made since then. His words to me were, “You need to stay put.”
A shot rang out from the direction of the power lines, some 750 yards below. Understanding that jumped deer tend to make their way to our piece of the woods, Dad decided to head back to his morning stand. I settled in for the afternoon. My mouse friend reappeared, and we shared the peace and serenity that only the deep wilderness can provide.
As the 4 PM hour arrived, I had yet to lay my eyes on anything exciting. 4:30 came and I began to resign myself to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen on this day. I began to prepare a mental checklist of where in my backpack my headlamp was, as well as my orange hat. On days like today when there isn’t a lot of action, it seems that last half hour of shooting light lasts forever.
At about 4:35 PM, I heard the succinct sound of walking in the leaves. I turned my head to the left and saw him. A deer with a nice rack was unsuspectingly walking my way, on top of the same bank I was sitting on. He turned slightly to the right and was now directly over my left shoulder. The buck closed the gap to about 15 yards and stepped behind a tree. It was at that moment I knew it was a done deal. He took two steps and I fired, dropping him where he stood. After injecting another shell into my 35 Remington and putting the safety on, I walked up to my 7-pointer.
Dad heard the shot and came up to admire the deer. It was dark by the time he got there. We had a long, but enjoyable 3-hour drag through the darkness, reaching the truck by 8:25 PM. An unassuming and quiet day in the woods paid off in the last few minutes of legal shooting light. Patience and perseverance had won the day.
Tracking whitetail bucks is a method of deer hunting like no other. The idea is to locate a track and determine the sex of the deer, the size of the deer, and the age of the track. Once the track has been deemed appropriate to follow, the hunter must match wits, will, and engage in a battle of endurance against the beast on his home turf. Vermont’s Larry Benoit, patriarch of the famous Benoit hunting family, is often credited with revolutionizing the art of buck tracking, and his book, How to Bag the Biggest Buck of Your Life, originally published in 1974, is considered the classic read of the genre.
Becoming a successful buck tracker, like anything else, not only requires extreme practice and preparation, but also a keen understanding of the animal itself. Benoit leads the book off with an extensive tutorial on the trophy buck, his mannerisms, his personality, and how the deer has mastered pure day to day survival. Furthermore, Benoit provides a convincing reason as to why hunters should pursue these giants and not settle for smaller deer.
Much of the outcome of a hunt or a season is determined well before opening day. For instance, you most certainly cannot track a buck all day for days on end if you aren’t able to walk across the street without huffing and puffing. Benoit lectures the reader to not smoke, drink too much, or become overweight. He explains the importance of being in shape for the woods, able to maneuver stealthily around blowdowns and other obstacles without making a sound.
Benoit dedicates time to outline important equipment, such as proper firearms and ammunition. While he used a peep sight, he relents to say that hunters can use a scope, provided it is light. More importantly, Benoit warns against bringing too much stuff into the woods, weighing the hunter down, which acts as a hindrance to the objective of traveling miles for that one specific buck.
Preparation is key, however, there is plenty to know once the hunter sets foot into the woods. The hunter must be able to read tracks to avoid following a deer that was there three days prior. He/she must know when to go quickly on a track, as to not lose ground, and when to slow down and sneak, as to not bump the deer. In addition, there is a skill to shooting at a buck that most likely will see you and bolt before you ever lay eyes on him. Benoit gives us his expert opinion as well as a taste of his personal experiences that dealt directly with these make-or-break matters. The most fascinating aspect of the book is how he recaps the hunt that took 13 days to close the deal.
I know a lot of deer hunters. Most, like myself, are sitters, who may still hunt a little. Many, like myself, have a fascination with tracking and may not have the courage or the knowledge to take the method up. How to Bag the Biggest Buck of Your Life, although written nearly 50 years ago, is certainly not outdated, and can give those hunters on the fence the one necessary boost to give it a go.
It was a brisk 25 degrees as my boy and I trudged through the front door and to the trusty Jeep. It was Youth Hunting Weekend, and we were on the prowl for his first ever whitetail. A mere 45-minute drive and we would be heading up into the sweet mountains of peace and serenity.
My son is 12 years old. He passed his hunter safety requirements during the Covid jail sentence that was the summer of 2020. This would be his second youth weekend. We were interested in a buck only, as we do not shoot does in my family (just a family thing).
I chose this mountain for several reasons. First, the temperature was to get up to 60 degrees later in the day, severely cutting down on deer movement. This meant that our best chance at seeing anything was to wander through the woods and try to bump something. This leads into the second reason why I chose here, and that is the fact that the mountain is huge and doesn’t receive any hunting pressure, reducing the possibility that we would push a deer onto someone else. The final reason was that by being on the move, my boy would not get bored.
The plan was to walk along an old trail, stopping to sit when we got tired. As I have hunted this mountain on and off for more than 30 years, I was aware that we could go for miles and hunt this way. The plan also allowed us to dress lightly, which is much more conducive to this style of hunting.
We started up an old wood road that tested our cardiovascular limits right away. Sweat quickly began to form on our foreheads and even through our light attire. Each rise was met with a forgiving shelf which we utilized to catch our breath. I cursed myself for the pepperoni pizza that I indulged in the prior evening.
Thankfully, we cut into the woods and perpendicularly sideswiped the growing incline for a while. We reached a spot where my dad had shot several bucks over the years. I took the time to show my boy, careful to explain the key details of deer hunts from years gone by. The woods had grown a little thicker over time, limiting the range of vision we used to enjoy.
We meandered past Dad’s spot and into a flat that was thick with green ferns. This was a nice place to sit down. The boy and I grabbed a seat up against a yellow birch and dug in. My grandfather’s old 35 Remington was nestled across his lap. The squirrels and blue jays kept us occupied for approximately a half an hour. Before setting off, we pulled our water bottles out of the back of my hunting vest and each of us took a swig. My bottle was blue, his red.
It was time to move again. We crossed a small brook that cascaded down the mountain, inspiring us to delay our march just long enough to take in the beauty. Immediately after cresting the gulley, we came across a scrape that was made by a buck, the first telltale sign that the rut was approaching. I showed my son the licking branch and did my best to explain why male deer behave a certain way this time of year.
A short hike through some hardwoods revealed what I was already aware of but pleased to see some confirmation. A huge buck rub on a tree. As this is the big woods in my state, I was cognizant of the fact that large, mature bucks roam this mountain. We studied the main rub and noticed the pieces of bark that were torn off by the secondary antlers a little higher on the tree. The slight coloration told me this was probably made a few weeks ago in an utmost effort to eliminate the velvet from the horns.
Our juices flowing a little, we made our way toward the walking trail. Here, we would creep along, with the trail providing us ample opportunity to sneak above a downward valley to our right, with a significant flat area on the left. This would give us the rest of the day to hunt just the way we wanted to.
Unfortunately, given the unseasonably warm temperatures for late October, the leaves had barely detached themselves from its trees. Once on the trail, the woods choked with the blinding of green and yellow leaves, rendering any sneak and peek attack useless. After walking about a quarter mile, all hope for this trail was lost and we turned around.
Tired, we found a flat spot with some visibility and sat down. It was getting quite toasty now, way too warm for chasing an immobile and unwilling opponent. This sit lasted about 15 minutes before we decided to move again. My son asked for his water bottle and was wide-eyed when he couldn’t produce it out of my vest. I removed the vest and laid it flat on the ground. Reaching around, I pulled out my water bottle, along with irrelevant gloves and scarves. No red water bottle.
This little setback determined our way back to the truck. We sauntered past the big buck rub, through the hardwoods, around the scrape, and across the brook, back to the ferns just above Dad’s old stand. Amazingly, poking out of the leaves right where we first sat was the bottom of a bright red water bottle. We laughed at our experience and decided that was enough for one day. There was little excitement or anything in the way of an adrenaline rush on this day, however, none of that really matters. I got to spend a quiet half day in the woods with my best friend.