The Last Deer Hunt
Posted In on Thursday, October 18th 2018
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The Last Deer Hunt

by Clark Corson

 

 

Even the sun was reluctant to rise. It just seemed not to want to break an otherwise ethereal calmness following a night of brutal freeze. An occasional hare's cry in the throes of death and the sporadic hoot of a vigilant owl was all that I can remember that night and that's because I slept more lightly than usual. It was a frigid minus 12 degrees F. When the smoke of a wood stove escapes vertically straight into the night and the remaining leaves of a beech tree don't stir, it's cold  -  "colder than frozen snake shit on a snowshoe" as Dad used to say. A gangling top heavy poplar, stiff with the cold that no living thing escapes, creaked ominously and every critter within hearing range paid attention, most with acceptance, some with trepidation. I was relieved when my Silverado turned over on the second crank and I left it running while I paid a hasty trip to the outhouse lest run the risk of getting relegated to a lesser place in the frosty woods to do my business.

That was the setting, no more and no less. I clocked my distance at 5.4 miles from camp to where I remembered the buck crossing the road, and as I drove I pondered whether the truck heater would significantly make a positive difference before I arrived at my destination where in the late afternoon of the previous day a monstrous buck had filled an active logging road. He was some 100 yards ahead as I returned to camp competing with the blinding rays of a sunset clouded by a dirty windshield, and he was gigantic. As I neared the place where I would park I reflected on what I was trying to prove by getting up earlier than anyone in a camp of five good buddies who had played cribbage well past midnight. It was they, not me, who had yakked late into the night and when I fell asleep after a hearty feed of my wife's lasagna earlier, it was with the dream of intercepting the buck on his early dawn run for his morning drink. Not far from where I had seen this deer is to a bend in the Connecticut River where I knew existed a spring hole that refused to freeze over. I had stumbled on this robust spring while traipsing the banks of this legendary river years earlier while fly-fishing. Its water was so cold it burned my teeth. Maybe, just maybe, that's where he might be headed.

The one inch dusting during the night layered 17" of settled old snow which really made it a study to figure the size of any white-tail leaving its trail, but this deer was different. The drag marks told me I wasn't chasing a doe. In my 69th season with hundreds and hundreds of hours logged in snowy woods, seasoned familiarity told me this stag knew exactly what he was doing. l could only hope that I might be the lucky hunter to see him at the very moment he carelessly exposed himself long enough for me to get a clean shot.

No one respects Mother Nature more than I, and to my way of thinking the white-tailed deer is the king of forest creatures. The 45th parallel is just about the most northernmost range for these critters and through countless decades these animals continue to struggle against the perils of rugged winters' harshness. To truly appreciate the lifespan of a white-tailed deer reaching maturity, one must first acknowledge the trials of survival that they must endure including freezing temperatures which use up their fat reserves, deep snow making it impossible to reach the right kind of nutritional browse, scarcity of available forage due to competing moose which are larger and more adept in deep snow, predators such as wolves, eastern coyotes, and bears - it seems as if there is no end. In no way however, does this imply that deer hunters have the upper-hand because they don't. Almost every advantage, if it is fair to coin it that way, belong to deer, especially the bucks who send does out to test the waters before they show themselves. The survival skills possessed by an adult full grown buck is second to no other animal living in the great north woods. More than once, I reasoned that I was doing a favor to any deer I harvested in the sense that a well placed bullet and instant death was a better end than starvation or a tortuous and terminal struggle against a pack of predators.

The tires crunched the frozen road's edge from the night before. A hundred yards after passing the spot where I remembered seeing the buck, I parked on an elevated rut just above an ice filled drainage ditch that would help hasten the end to the mud season so that trucks loaded with tree length logs could make their journey south to the paper mills in Berlin, NH. Two tires on and two tires off, I parked pointing directly east. The night remained black with no stars above, not even a visible tree line. Should I wear my mittens and stow my gloves, should I attach my hot-seat to my belt, should I have a hit from my thermos of day old coffee, how long would it take my binoculars to defog, not to mention my rifle scope; visions of this animal caused my thoughts to be uncommonly scattered.  I turned the Chevy off and sat still for a good five minutes, cracking the window to acclimate myself to what I would face when I began my search to this very special buck's run. Stepping out I wiggled my toes inside my 2nd generation L.L.Bean boots and quietly closed the truck door. These were Dad's first pair of hunting boots upon his return from flying B-26's in the Pacific Theater during WWII and the original leathers had been re-soled at least three times; they couldn't have fitted more perfectly. Long underwear, my Johnson woolens and a pair of hand-knit heavy socks filled the bill.  I had slapped the mink oil to the boots in June and left them in a sunny spot in the woodshed figuring that by this time, any semblance of foreign scent to a deer would have faded away which is precisely why I had hung my outer jacket and coveralls on the camp porch the night before. I couldn't guess how many more seasons I would be able to scale another ridge or two, but I felt the end coming sooner than later and I wondered if bringing down this one behemoth buck would be enough for me to hang up the rifle and toll the final bell for all the years and all the deer I had put a merciful end to before the winter season fell upon them. I suppose in the back of my mind I knew, too, that the end would put the final damper on my wife's deer stew and gravy on biscuits, and her knack to cook venison just the right way. We took nothing for granted, nothing was ever not appreciated, nor was anything ever wasted. Deer meat was a staple in our family for as long as I could remember, as was the reverence of life and sanctity of the deer hunt itself.

I did my best to look back where I had just come from and continued slowly.  The opaque halo was now rising and with slightly better visibility and the thin chain tread on my boots helping me measure each stride, I could almost anticipate whether a concealed branch or icy crust might snap before I committed to the next footstep.  My circuitous path back to where I thought this buck might pass was strategic. "Never walk so fast that you have to look down at your next step, then take a few steps and wait for two minutes.....patience, patience, and more patience and whenever possible facing whatever breeze there might be," was Dad reminding me from his special place at the Happy Hunting Ground.  It would take me twenty minutes to find a place where I might have a view of a deer moving on the trail, one way or the other so I moved slowly through the canopy close to where I guessed the deer might pass, careful not to brush a limb or crunch a fallen snow-covered branch.

Be it a reflection of spirituality or religion, I contemplated what a mere speck we are in the scheme of things. Have you ever listened to your heart thump while you are in the presence of the Creator deep in the heart of a silent forest?

Without knowing where this animal bedded down, what time he traveled to the river for his morning drink, had he already passed, the trail of his favorite path, and who was I to try to take him for a trophy - lots of things crossed my mind. My next step redefined my strategy as I broke through a layer of snowy stalactite ice coating a previous day's scrape. There was a loud crunch. If he was nearby, he could not have missed hearing my misplaced step. All my careful planning and stealth was out the window. My heart pounded because he and I had now officially crossed paths with neither of us aware of a timeline, or so I assumed. The scrape was unmistakably that of the trophy buck I had seen the afternoon before. It was under a scraggly hemlock bough that extended out a good six feet and perhaps five feet up the trunk and it was a good three rifle lengths in irregular diameter; I guessed his imprint to be at least seven inches. A couple of small frozen pools in his hoof depressions told me he had urinated more than once after his scrape freshening for the day was complete. I could not see any other deer tracks, only his. I had to presume that he had staked his territory successfully, but how could I know for certain? These are his woods and here, he's the boss.

I didn't move for at least five minutes, then drew my breath and recalculated my approach having to presuppose that he had heard my misstep a few minutes earlier.  Leaving his track I edged upward and northwesterly.  Every couple of steps, I would pause for a minute or two, taking time to adjust to the waking sun behind me.  I had traveled perhaps 30 yards before I spotted a fallen beech in a stand of black spruce perfect in height.  Out of the wind, my profile broken by evergreens the height of a small boy, the beech made a perfect seat upon which to wait and it suited me regardless of whether I saw a deer or not.  Stalking this deer for better than a mile and opting the quietest approach was deliberate and painfully slow and my legs were exercised.  While taking a breather, I thought of my wife and son, my brother and his bout with cancer and my parents and their parents and my upbringing as frequently I do when I am alone in the forest; silently I begged God to consider forgiving my transgressions.

In the balsamic serenity of the moment, I may have dozed off. At some point, he snorted I was instantly jolted back to reality.  That's when I first heard the buck and he startled me, almost to the verge of involuntarily jumping up from the melted snowy log seat. The cholesterol cleared with every pound of my heart. This monster deer was loud, distinct, unmistakable, and close. I have heard does whistle and blow but this was a booming blow with added emphasis from a big fellow and he was telling me that he knew where I was and that he wasn't especially pleased.  Could I be making more of a deal of this than it really was? I raised my head slowly and looked in the direction I thought the blow had come from, glad that I was wearing a camouflage beanie. The cold had teared up my eyes a bit causing me to repeatedly blink and refocus. I didn't move otherwise and tried to breathe only through my nostrils.  Was he watching while he winded me?  I guessed in the affirmative on both counts and remained still doing my level best not to move, wondering if he could hear my heart thumping because I could.

After what I calculated to be 10 minutes, I slowly stood and turning my head as little as possible tried to negotiate a plan. Thinking that if I moved and he saw or heard me he would be off and gone, I readjusted my weight to my left leg and took a step, and then another and now I was clear of the thicket. My sight of vision was a blend of open hardwoods interspersed with clumps of spruce and hemlock. I waited for what seemed an eternity. It was then that the buck blew again. This time his warning seemed to came farther away. Not wishing to further distance myself from him, and knowing that I had agitated him with my mistake of 45 minutes ago, I decided to pick up the pace and try to find his track from which he had startled me with his initial blow. It was from a copse not more than 35 yards from where I had dozed off that I spotted his trail, and judging by the way his tracks were reversed and crossed, it was obvious that he had turned and looked back more than once.

I estimated his second blow to be a good 80 yards from the thicket; he was following the spine of the ridge toward the west. With more elevation and less snow on the branches the full sun was now on the horizon and the woods were considerably more open. Knowing that he was being followed, the buck would seek higher ground from which to look back to identify his pursuer. The ridge was shy of a half mile long and it flanks were gradual and not too steep if I had to go to the top. Would I follow this huge veteran of the forest and hope to find him before he found me or would I double back down into the spruces and take a chance of ambushing him as he checked his path of scrapes, one leading to the next? I assumed one boundary of his territory would be the top of the ridge, buy why I didn't know. I chose the latter of these two options figuring that the buck might become complacent if he wasn't being tracked, plus down low I would have the advantage of a snapped branch or twig being muffled in the thicker undercover. I could travel faster and out of his line of sight by backtracking so that's what I did.

After crossing a brook and following it east for a couple hundred yards, I sat down on an old stump, gathered my wits and checked my old 32 Remington pump. The scope lenses were clear and I seized the moment to tighten my sling.  I often wondered why I had not removed the sling because I never used it, not even when dragging a deer. I preferred to travel light of heavy clothing and never carried more than five of the rimfire cartridges with me. A small sheath knife with a drag rope on my right hip and a folded poncho on my left with two extra cartridges one in each of my woolen side pockets is what I carried along with binoculars and a compass suspended from a lanyard. The sun was still not high enough to cast shadows, but the earlier chill of the morning darkness was less biting. A slight breeze rustled where I sat on the stump of an old tree felled by a two-man cross-saw a century before. Maybe 15 more minutes and I would relocate to a place where I could scan the ridge from a better vantage point. I couldn't be more than two miles from the truck. As I shifted my weight on the stump I thought I heard the buck blow again, but with the breeze to my left I couldn't be sure. The time seemed right to stand for an improved field of view to see if I could find this king of the forest.

An outcrop from the last glacier had deposited an elongated slab of ledge twenty feet in length and I edged up on it where I figured there might be a better vantage point and there was. It was a perfect spot because not only could I see for upwards of 90 yards through the hardwoods, but over the years a thick bed of spongy moss had covered it which would help quiet my footsteps. Growing up around this boulder were saplings of silver birch and they broke my profile nicely. The only question was how long would I be able to stand essentially motionless before my legs started failing me.

Then, as if scripted, it all came together. I saw it....20 yards at one o'clock was another small rug of bared stale earth constituting a scrape that needed to be freshened and 30 yards behind it standing and staring directly at me stood a stag that words cannot adequately describe. The buck was no more than a half a football field distant, the sun causing his huge rack to reflect the morning light. He was too far away to count his points but I guessed there to be at least six on each side due to his perfect symmetrical hooped antlers. I dared not raise my binoculars lest he see my movement, but he was the largest and most spectacular whitetail I had ever or will ever see again, whether in person or in a magazine. His crown was held was held stately and his foggy breath was emitted in even exhales. The white patch on his throat showed beautifully against his pale beige and broad tawny chest and he stood squared off to me, almost boldly fronting me; I still recall how he seemed so wary and alert, yet fearless at the same time. He did not move and was hypnotic though I doubt if he knew the effect his steady gaze was having on me. The scrape was between him and me. This was his territory, and an imaginary thread of demarcation separated us. After what seemed an eternity, he briefly lowered his head ever so slightly refocusing on the scrape. Or was he studying me?  Fifty yards can be a long interval of space and I had no way of determining exactly whether he was looking at me looking at him or what he was thinking I was thinking. I was fervently hoping that the space that separated us was too distant for him to tell if I was trembling during this incredible encounter.

This once in a lifetime experience would not remain a standstill for much longer. We both must have sensed it. Something had to give - it would me.  I slowly raised the Remington to my right shoulder and found a fork at the perfect height in one of the saplings. I couldn't take my eyes off this specimen buck.  What was he thinking?  Over the years I had fired hundreds of rounds with my rifle and I knew the end would be instant, that my aim would be perfect, and that this beauty of a white-tail would feel no pain. Barely moving my head, I adjusted my spot-weld and clicked the safety off. Never would I have thought that his hearing was that keen at the distance separating us, but simultaneously his head twitched, ears readjusting trying to find the source of metal against metal; the monarch cocked his head ever so slightly trying to hone in on this hunter. I aimed just behind and below his left shoulder. A shot there would not spoil the perfect mount, and it wouldn't compromise any of the meat; when possible this was my preferred kill shot and he was cooperating perfectly. How much longer he would wait was being leveraged against how much longer I could wait. And while I was thinking, he took a hesitant step forward, then another and another moving toward his scrape and closer to me at the same time. In all my years of pursuing white-tails I have never shot a moving deer and I would never violate this rule today, no matter what. Besides, I would rather take him in the boiler plate than risk a neck shot. Either way would be swift and lethal and immediate shock would precede his last breath. I owed it to watch over him for the last thrash of his legs and the glazing over of his eyes. He was the most spectacular and majestic white-tail ever! Testament to this magnificent creature's savvy and wisdom during his five or six years of existence was manifest in his size and furtiveness, but on this day he would be out-guessed by a very lucky me.

I studied him with every step as he approached his scrape. Then he was there. He looked at me again while cautiously pawing his scrape, extending his head upward and rubbing his eyes against the hemlock branch as bucks do when they are in rut. It was when he rubbed the overhanging branch to his eyes that I decided the chase would end. Momentarily he broke his attention to me and I drew a deep breath and placed my trigger finger inside the guard. Then he looked at me for the last time. I gently pressured the trigger, waited and then released my finger and for whatever reason I inhaled deeply again.  He stood there staring at me and I gently pressured the trigger again.  But for the first time in my lifetime of chasing deer, my right index finger wouldn't pull; it wasn't listening to me; the feeling had left; it was numb. I was numb. He and I were frozen in time. I was in a virtual state of stupor and paralysis.  gain, something had to give - this time he made the decision. 

In this minute of vacillation, my head came off the rifle and when he saw me move rather than flag me and bolt, his majesty backed up a couple of paces, walked ten feet to his right, stopped, and stared directly at me. I pushed the safety back to the 'on' position not wanting to take my eyes off of him, either. At this point, I was making a deliberate decision to spare this incredible buck's life. I wanted him to carry on, wiser for the experience. to live.  For whatever reasons, I was helpless to shoot this beauty and then he was there no more.  He disappeared. He never flagged me to show alarm. He simply blended back into the forest where we met and where we said goodbye.  

I never did look back as he vanished silently into the woods. Still today, I am at a loss of words to describe the profundity of the moment. I just sat down on the edge of the rock I had been perched on and smiled out loud for on this 69th year of my life and for the first and last time I was being rewarded with choosing life over another deer in the freezer. I can't recall all that I was feeling as i returned to the truck, but one thing I did know was that this would be the last time I would go deer hunting.

After several minutes, the truck was warm relief from the cold and I let it idle for awhile; I think I may have rested my head on the steering wheel, thanking God for the best day in a long time before I put it in gear for the trip back to camp. The drive took too short a time and when I pulled into the camp I could tell the guys weren't even out of their bunks. Had they been, the wood smoke would had been whiter and there would have been a well worn path to the outhouse, besides this gave me more time to wonder what exactly "buck fever" means and whether they would believe me anyway. Only the Creator, the greatest Buck of bucks and I will ever know what happened that once of a lifetime morning.

Epilogue.........that Christmas, this old hunter presented his son with a pair of weathered LL Bean boots, a half a box of 32 Remington cartridges, a never used 'fannypack', a compass, a pair of binoculars and a blood stained drag rope  along with a trusty old rifle complete with a can of bore cleaner and a cleaning rod. Regretfully he couldn't package the memories.