An Early Christmas Present
The 2002 deer season, like every season before it, brought new twists and turns to my hunting experiences. The opening morning began with frustrations, included something that I’ve never witnessed in 40 years of hunting, and ended with what can best be described as an early Christmas present.
I had heard two different forecasts for the night of December 1. One forecast was for a low of 19 degrees that Sunday night and another was for a low of 10! Needless to say, I was quite happy to awaken at 5:30 on the opening morning of deer season and see the mercury pegged at a much friendlier 25 degrees. Although Altoona, to the south, had received about 2 inches of snow and ice the previous Saturday night, we had no new snow in the Bald Eagle Valley.
I packed a lunch and donned the many warming layers that had been laid out the evening before. The air was cold enough to curl the rhododendron leaves and the brown oak leaves were a little noisy underfoot. I like noisy leaf litter, but the nearby stream was also noisy – swollen from the recent rains. A few patches of snow glowed white in the dim pre-dawn light. I knew that the sun had melted the snow from the surrounding mountains a few days previously.
I climbed up into my maple treestand a little before the legal shooting time. Although the air was crisp, there was no wind. I slipped five shiny brass cartridges into my rifle, set the safety and leaned back against one of the triple maples, just waiting for the season to unfold.
Anticipation was building and several opposing thoughts tugged on my brain. This was the first season with the new three-points-to-a-side antler restrictions, a season of sacrifice, and my buck tally from this hollow in previous years had been a pair of spikes, a three-point, a “fork horn,” a small five-point and the seven-point that I had shot on last fall’s opening day. I knew that I had to be totally sure of three-to-a-side before I pulled the trigger.
On the bright side, a number of nicer bucks had been observed in the area during the summer and fall. Early last May, I had also seen a large buck already sporting high velvety antlers. When both sides were considered, however, I fully expected to watch a few smaller bucks go by and hope to harvest a big doe.
Shooting light was slow to arrive because of the mostly cloudy sky. By 7:30, I had only seen one red squirrel. At 7:50 a doe and two fawns caught me looking the wrong way — snort — and they were gone, white tails bounding through the rhododendron and hemlocks. Two reasonably close shots reverberated in the hollow, but none originated from within 500 yards.
The first rays of sunlight peeked over Bald Eagle Mountain, but the clouds pinched them off before they could make any headway against the cold. I saw a few gray and red squirrels scampering about, but not a single songbird.
At 8:12, I noticed a doe staring at me from under some dark hemlocks 75 yards down the hollow. It was with at least two other deer. Darn! That was the second group of deer to spot me before I saw them – the background noise of the rushing stream was taking its toll on my hearing advantage.
I had just finished trying to scope out those deer in the hemlocks when I heard a noise behind me and slowly turned my head, only to be greeted by a wide-racked buck at less than 30 yards, slowly walking straight towards me. If pressed to “guesstimate” the points, I’d call it a nice six point, but before I could do any serious counting, a buck wearing a much larger rack stepped out of the rhododendron right behind it. There seemed to be slender tines sticking up everywhere, but again, I can’t claim to have counted them, for much to my amazement, right behind it came a third legal buck.
I wasn’t sure if I had awakened in the middle of a hunting video dream, or maybe I was an object of a hunting cartoon! There I was facing the wrong direction with nice 3 bucks, now about 20 yards away, right behind me. I had never seen anything like this in all my years of hunting!
The first buck was completely behind me and out of sight, the second – “mister big” – at the edge of my vision, when the third, a medium-sized buck, stopped on a scrape just 22 yards away. Its warm breath condensed in the air and I was able to count eight evenly balanced points.
There was a pounding in my chest as I pondered what to do. I decided that I’d try to shoot the eight-point or the bigger buck number two if the opportunity presented itself. Just then, the two that I could see looked back up the hollow and away from me. It was now or never, or so I thought. As I slowly turned, all three took the shortest route into the cover. Three racked bucks disappeared into the hemlock and rhododendron – a golden opportunity vanished in an instant!
My heart rate gradually slowed during the next hour as I replayed the events and thought about what I could have or should have done differently. My pondering was interrupted as a doe crossed the hollow from my right to my left. A minute later a second doe came down the hollow, passed under my tree and disappeared into a wall of rhododendron.
It was 9:23 when I recorded the first close shot from across the hollow. A few minutes later, from the opposite direction, I heard the crack of a twig and then saw a deer slowly picking its way through the greenery at approximately 45 yards. Although it was about where the last doe had disappeared, this time I thought I saw antlers. Through the scope I could clearly see antlers, big antlers, and then he stopped behind a hemlock.
Seconds later I counted at least five heavy tines through the scope. It was time to shoot. His chest appeared through an opening. I centered the crosshairs low and just behind his right shoulder and squeezed the trigger. My .270 shattered the silence. I chambered a second round as the buck bounded across an old stream channel and was engulfed by the forested wetland. Then all was quiet.
I replayed the mental tape as John Kasun had suggested and began my wait. I thought that I had a good chest shot, but one never knows. I studied the shooting lane for damaged saplings that might have diverted my bullet and saw none.
At 9:45, I climbed down from my tree and tracked the buck for what I later measured to be 81 yards, and there he was. A beautiful heavy-beamed, perfectly balanced 8-point with an 16 1/2-inch inside spread, lay motionless in the soggy forest floor. It was my biggest buck ever. Chris Belinda, the local taxidermist, later aged it at 3-and-a-half years.
On dressing the deer, I discovered that my 150-grain soft point had done its job. Entrance and exit wounds low on the chest, along with a damaged heart, left an easy to follow blood trail.
When I arrived back at our house, I told my wife, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news — I got a buck. The bad news — I have to get it mounted!”
I can’t wait for next year.
Mark Nale can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com
An Early Christmas Present