Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Frost Buck

My mother-in-law, Johanna, firmly believes that all big bucks deserve a name that preserves their memory for generations. She has the Christmas buck, an enormous 6 pointer that weighed in at over 200 lbs dressed. As you can probably guess, it was shot on Christmas day. My wife has Talisman, a giant non-typical buck that is one of the biggest in Massachusetts history with a score of 199. The skull of a third giant buck hangs on the wall of Johanna's house. The Bilger buck is a massive 12 pointer that was shot in 1949 by Les Bilger, a renowned hunter and trapper from the area who was a family friend. That buck rough scored 174-175. The buck I harvested this past Saturday wasn't quite at the level of those deer, but he certainly deserves a name. Because of the story that goes with the hunt, I think I'll call him the Frost buck, as a tribute to "The Road Less Traveled." This is how he earned it.

The Frost buck

After a night where Cullen woke up screaming every hour or so, I somehow managed to roll out of bed and make the drive to one of my favorite hunting areas. The wind was howling, with gusts over 30 MPH. I set up downwind of a feeding area, with a bedding area to my south. I was hoping to catch them making their morning commute. Just before first light, I set out a couple pieces of cloth I had sprayed with doe urine. About ten minutes later, I heard what sounded like crashing toward the bedding area, sounds that faded quickly away from me. I suspect a young buck was bedded and came to investigate, only to get a strong whiff of me and head for the hills. In all likelihood, the wind had forced them out of the open feeding area and into the sheltered bedding area earlier than usual.

After a while longer, I crept to another spot where deer move, albeit randomly, throughout the day. It wasn't long before I looked up the ridge to see a couple deer moving. Unfortunately, the wind was swirling toward them in a direction it hadn't blown all morning. I am pretty sure they scented me or something else because they didn't stick around long and never got close to being in range.

My wife is pretty famous throughout MA and New England for this giant buck 

Eventually, I headed back to the house to meet up with Mary May and my father-in-law Jerry. We decided to push an area where we suspected those deer had headed; however, the push yielded nothing. With only about an hour before lunch, we decided to try another short push in area we know well. After getting set, I started to slowly climb a long hillside toward where Jerry was situated. My job in the push is to cover the back door via a route I've walked dozens of times. Generally, I either push deer up toward Jerry or re-direct deer coming from MM's direction. Of course, if you sneak in, it is a great spot to sit and wait, which I have done many a morning. As I walked, I was noticing fairly fresh sign here and there, as well as giant coyote tracks. Suddenly, I came over a knob and saw a blob of orange near one of my old spots. I had to do a double take. At this point, I was way off the beaten path, and we never see other hunters in that area. I was somewhat let down as I pondered what to do next. I decided to circle back a few hundred yards and cross a flat well above him to not disturb his hunt too much. Typically, I avoid that route because walking across it leaves too many gaps in our push, rather than funneling deer toward Jerry's position. In this case, the less-preferred route was my only option.

I slowly made my way up a small secondary ridge and onto a flat that angles uphill for a few hundred yards before hitting thicker woods. I was moving fairly quickly and quietly, as the ground had thawed and allowed me to walk without a crunch beneath each step. As I stepped into a small lane in the trees, I caught a glimpse of the outline of a deer about 50 yards away. I was directly down wind, and he had no clue I was there. As I raised my gun, the deer raised its head, and I could see the reflection of an antler. I took a deep breath, focused, took my time, and squeezed the trigger. The buck dropped instantly.

In full disclosure, it was hard to tell just how big he was originally. I never got a great look at the head, and I could only see from the base of the neck down from where I was standing, but it looked like a big-bodied deer--the perfect kind for filling the freezer. I waited about 20 minutes while trying frantically to get a text message to send to MM letting her know that the deer was down. Of course, I also texted her earlier that there was another hunter in the area, and that text didn't send right away. So, she got the "there is another hunter down here" text and the "deer down" text at the same time. "Yours?!" I eventually got back. I'm sure the suspense was killing her.

In that span, I also heard the other hunter climb down and walk out of the woods. I feel a little bad about the way it happened, although he couldn't see or hear that deer from where he was. I guess luck was simply on my side that morning, and hopefully that luck finds him this season as well.

As they say on those annoying hunting shows, "big buck down"

I eventually walked over to the deer to check and make sure he was dead. The neck shot was a quick kill, and I got my first good look at him. He was bigger than I had thought--way bigger--in fact, the 9 pointer is the biggest deer I've ever killed (granted, I didn't really hunt for about a decade while in college and both rounds of grad school).

Soon after, MM and Jerry got to me and saw the buck. I'm not sure who was more excited, MM or me, but all three of us were smiling from ear to ear as I told the story of how it happened. Our family has been pretty successful the past couple years, harvesting three bucks and a doe, but this is the biggest buck that has been taken by the group since the Christmas buck in 2006.

A family buck! 

We were a long way from the truck, and although over half the drag was downhill, the terrain was fairly unforgiving. The last 1/4 mile or so was almost all uphill. Needless to say, I'm still sore a couple days later, and I'm glad Jerry and MM were there to help me drag it out. Per tradition, we took the buck to Gould's Sugar House to check it in with a state biologist. Processing will begin for us tomorrow, and fresh loins, steaks, burger, and sausage will soon be on the menu.

I always enjoy checking in my deer here in MA and learning more about them from the biologists (also, of course the kid who never wants to look at the camera is staring right at it in this pic)

I always get sentimental after a successful hunt. This year was particularly special because it was the first hunting season for Cullen. Of course, he won't be out there with us, but I like to think of him as my little good luck charm. Additionally, it was my first MA buck, which goes to show that curses can be broken (for more on that, see my synopsis of last year). Of course, I always think about my grandfather, who taught me so much about hunting, and although I never met him, about Ted Howes, the namesake for Cullen's middle name who had such a special influence on MM and her parents (as well as numerous others). Thanks for looking down on us with your amazing facial hair, old timers! You, and fate, steered me down a path in the woods I rarely take, but this time, it was meant to be.

My two favorites snapped a selfie while we were cutting down our Christmas tree last week

Until next time, tight lines!

Monday, December 5, 2016

I @$*!# Missed

There aren't many feelings like seeing a buck approach through the woods. Your heart rate cranks way up, and remaining calm, cool, and collected can be a challenge for any hunter. If you are lucky, the time comes to line up a shot and squeeze the trigger. Often, that moment is the culmination of months or even years of patience and hard work. Bang!

@#!$%*...I missed.

This sequence pretty much sums up my opening day of shotgun deer season here in western MA. I was up early and headed for a section of woods with fresh sign where I had spent a lot of time archery hunting last year. After about a mile walk, I was tucked in behind a large, split-trunk beech tree. I had about 20 minutes before first light, but I was able to survey some of the surroundings in the early twilight. Literally, one minute after legal shooting light I heard something charging up the ridge to my south. "No way", I thought to myself. This is not how hunting works. You don't see deer just one minute into the season. I was almost positive it was a deer, and it was headed right to me, but it slowed down before reaching me, and instead of continuing to the top of the ridge, it split off and headed southwest on a lower secondary ridge. I never saw the animal, but it had me optimistic.

About 40 minutes later I heard something moving fast from the west. It sounded too human to not be a fellow hunter. Notably, there was a slight swishing sound between distinct bi-modal footsteps. Maybe it was Sasquatch or some ridiculously giant buck or bear, but I never saw it either, as it continued west without hitting the upper flat where I was situated. Still, my optimism was high.

I then spent about an hour scanning the woods and trying to shake the cold. Even multiple insulated layers were no match for the mid-20 degree Massachusetts morning. Then, I heard crashing through the woods to the south. It almost sounded too clumsy to be an animal, but to my surprise, a young doe was moving briskly in my general direction. Then, she turned and headed directly toward me and eventually paused about 20 yards away. Suddenly, I heard crashing behind her, and I knew exactly what was happening. I could hear him grunting as he charged, love struck, in my direction. With his neck bristled and nose to the wind, the buck only had one thing on his mind. I could see a rack, although it was tough to tell how big, but likely in the 6-8 point range. Unfortunately, by the time he got within about 100 yards, the doe had started to make her way directly east from my stand. In turn, he started to angle away from me. Seeing my chances of bagging this buck quickly decreasing, I could only hope that he gave me a chance at a shot. He briefly paused pseudo-broad side about 70 yards away. It wasn't the clearest or easiest shot, especially with an open-sighted shotgun, but I knew my hunting time would be limited this year, so I decided to take what the buck gave me.

I rushed the first shot, focusing my eyes more on the brush in front of the deer than on him or my sights. I'll chalk it up to nerves. The second shot was better, but still a little hurried before the deer realized what was going on. By his reaction (or lack thereof), I didn't think that my slug had made contact. I waited for about 20 minutes before surveying the scene, and sure enough, there was no blood, no hair, and clean tracks headed east. I had missed.

It is hard to believe how far my hunting strategy and mindset have come since bagging my first buck 17 years ago

I hate missing. It happens to everyone, but dang is it a tough pill to swallow. As I made my way out of the woods to meet Mary May an hour or so later, I was able to put some of it into perspective. I rushed the shots, and I didn't go through my usual mental progression before I shot. Some of that can be attributed to being out of practice. I haven't shot much this year, and practice goes a long way, even for the most experienced hunters. Also, the idea of my first MA buck has filled my head for years, and I think buck fever got me a bit, as this was the first MA buck I've shot at since moving up here in 2014. However, failure is probably the best learning tool there is, and I learned a lot from my mistakes that morning.

The rest of the day was quiet, and none of us saw another deer. Fortunately, I got a chance at redemption the following Saturday, and this time, I made the most it. That story is coming soon. Until then, tight lines!