It was 12 degrees out there, according to my Jeep Cherokee temperature gauge, when we pulled into the Warren County game lands parking lot at 6:30 a.m. on the last Thursday of deer season. A fresh six inches of powdery snow kicked up around our boots as we walked toward the fire trail gate, and there was little wind. It was a perfect morning for hunting deer, just the opposite of opening day, when heavy rains and murky fog had made conditions miserable.
Our plan was for Billy to wait near the lot while Todd and I headed west down the trail. At daybreak he would hunt up the eastern face of the mountain and hike along the high plateau toward Todd and me. I would go one mile deep on the fire trail and then climb to the high bench where nephew Tommy often hunts on opening day, while Todd would hike back to the two-mile point and then hunt back toward us along the edge of steep bedding ridge and escape bench. I would be in the best position for this first hunt of the day, with Billy moving toward me from the east and Todd converging later from the west.
I reached the designated one-mile point on the trail and began climbing the steep slope. My destination lay at least 800 yards up the ridge, and getting there was a challenge, due to the slippery, snowy hillside and the hidden branches and loose rocks under the snow waiting to trip up any misstep I might make. It took me 40 minutes to reach the crest of the high plateau bench and approach Tommy’s boulder.
Just as I got there, I heard a deer snort in the thickets to my left. I walked over and discovered a large deer bed in the snow and fresh tracks running off to the northwest. I had made too much of a ruckus struggling up the mountainside, and the deer had spotted me before I had a chance to identify it. The key to success in late-season bigwoods deer-hunting, when very few hunters are stirring up the hunting grounds and you have to push out your own deer, is to move through the woods with stealth and try to spot deer before they realize you’re there. This time the deer had won, and I had not even seen it.
I paused for a few minutes before I began my hunt, to catch my breath from the climb and to look around at the stark black and white winter scenery. To my left stood a small village of large boulders, each one as big as a house, and to my right lay a secondgrowth stretch of forest with charcoal-colored tree trunks, rocks of various sizes and shapes, and windfall logs in the snow as far as the eye could measure. Everything in the deep forest was touched by the silence and the whiteness of the snow.
I started moving slowly, carefully toward the east, facing into the slight breeze to prevent the deer from winding me and straining my eyes in all directions for the patch of brown, curve of neck, or horizontal line that might be a sign of a deer.
A half hour later I spotted a small brown shape 100 yards to the north, and I stopped and stared in that direction. Soon I made out the curve of an ear, and then two ears, and I knew I had a deer in sight. I leaned against a tree for support, put my scope on the animal, and saw right away it was a buck.
I began scoping the antlers, and then something moved in the right edge of my view. It was another deer, another buck. I had two bucks standing within 100 yards of my position, and both had high forkhorns at least, and neither had spotted me yet.
Forkhorns aren’t good enough under the current antler restriction rules, of course, so I kept studying the antlers through the scope and — there! — a brow tine appeared on the deer on the left. That made three on a side, a legal buck, and I now ignored the second deer and focused entirely on this one. He began looking edgy, sensing something was wrong, and started moving, laterally. I placed the scope sight on an opening just ahead of the buck, squeezed the trigger on my .270 Remington pump, and dropped him in the snow.
Later Billy appeared on the scene and admired the deer while I told the story. This was my fifth buck in six years, my best stretch ever, all on public land, and ironically it occurred during the time when the Game Commission has drastically reduced the deer herd. I’d rather get lucky later than never, I guess.
“The Evening Campfire” from The Herald, December 16, 2007