Wait a minute, was that a buck? Could one really be that big?
Fran Balback took his eye from the big doe in his scope. He had been about a half-second away from squeezing the trigger on her, but something, a big something, had stopped him.
It moved again and he zeroed in on the spot. Mixed in with the swaying reeds of the marsh, the antlers of a big deer were moving, as if the buck that wore them was scanning the area from side to side — but what was reed and what was bone? It couldn’t all be bone, could it?
"As it got up, it was like a huge rack just came up out of the ground," Balback said. "First it was in the sitting position, and all I could see was that rack, sticking up above the reeds."
Balback, his son Stephen and their friend Eric Gould, were hunting Delaware’s Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge, established in 1937 near Smyrna in Kent County. About four-fifths of Bombay’s nearly 16,000 acres is a tidal salt marsh, making it one of the biggest tidal marshes in the mid-Atlantic area. Included in its flat sprawl are 1,100 acres of fresh water pools, brush and timbered swamps, and another 1,000 acres of agricultural fields, timber and grassy uplands.
"I’ve hunted there all my life," Balback, 50, of New Castle, Del., said. "The best way to hunt it is by walking and driving for each other."
Hunting Bombay Hook Refuge
Bombay Hook hunting pressure is controlled through the use of a dual lottery permit system. In the first lottery, hunters’ names are drawn preseason. In the second, called the "no show" lottery, the refuge awards permits to take the place of the preseason permit holders who don’t show up for hunting that day.
Balback and his son spent the morning hunting together. They heard shooting, but no shots or deer came close to them. It was a warm morning, typical for Delaware deer hunting, Balback said.
"We don’t really have a freeze for months and months, just a little freeze now and then," he said. "We had a little lunch and decided to head to a marshy area, and do some walking."
They worked fingers of woods, about five acres each, which stuck out into the marsh. One person would wait while the other two walked out through the finger.
When it was Balback’s turn to be on stand, he jumped a doe on his way to the point. He fell in behind her on a well-used deer trail, which ended at a big opening in the marsh.
"That’s when I saw the really big doe and picked up on her," said Balback, who was using a scoped 12-gauge shotgun. "But something caught my eye."
Balback had to be quick, and everything happened in a split- second he’ll remember all his life. The huge buck materialized out of the reeds, first sitting then standing. He whipped his sights from the doe and settled them on the buck, which was bunching to run as it got up.
"I shot and deer exploded everywhere — does, bucks, I don’t know what size, there were deer bedded all around," he said. "I was keeping my eyes on that buck, and only aware that there were deer running all over the place around me."
The buck only took a few steps and went down, and elated, Balback ran right over to it. In his excitement he had started counting points when he realized all was not well.
"I happened to notice that its eyes were closed, and I remember thinking that wasn’t right," he said. "Just as I noticed that the buck started to get up, and I had to get out of the way of those antlers."
Balback hurried a few steps back and took a finishing shot. Soon, his hunting friends arrived.
Fran Balback’s Delaware buck was a marsh monster.
"As it turned out, as they started into the woods they had jumped a spike and Eric got it," Balback said. "It all happened at the same time and none of us three knew the others had shot — but they had heard my second shot."
They cut their admiration party short, knowing they had work to do. They had to drag a big buck out of the marsh to a dry spot for field dressing, and then drag the 194-pound field-dressed animal to a vehicle.
It wasn’t until Balback got home that the reality of the buck’s size really hit home. His wife, Kellie, was thrilled for him.
"She was just as excited, if not more excited, than I was, calling the newspaper and all our friends," Balback said. "That made it all even more special, knowing that she’s always behind me 100 percent."
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