It had been a slow season for many Virginia bowhunters, yours truly included. The weather was unseasonably hot and dry. Crops were strong and acorns reasonably plentiful so deer didn’t have to move much. And they didn’t.
Then, when I finally had chances and does walked into range, I foolishly passed them up in hopes a mature buck might be coming next. Venison in the freezer from last year was running thin, though. Something had to be done.
When early muzzleloader season for Virginia came in, I finally decided enough was enough. I needed to get serious and harvest a doe for the freezer. I could worry about antlers later when the rut kicked in and rifle season arrived.
Does are legal throughout the two-week black-powder season, so I decided this day I would finally bring home the bacon, or rather the steaks, roasts and burger that I would get from a corpulent doe.
It was Veteran’s Day. As I sat on stand wiling the minutes away, I said a silent thanks to our country’s armed forces. My mind also drifted back to the greatest veteran I knew, who I’d lost too many years ago, my father.
Then I thought about deer. And precisely, why weren’t they showing up?
This was a natural transition corridor they used moving from daytime bedding areas in the wooded foothills of Little North Mountain as they headed towards farmers’ alfalfa fields and food plots I’d planted. The wind, for a change, was perfect. But where were the deer?
Finally, with the sun sinking lower in the West, a fawn appeared, then another, then two deer that looked like mature does. Food had been so abundant the fawns were almost as fat as the does! I scanned particularly hard to make sure I targeted a doe at least 1-1/2 years or older. A dark, gray-coated one with vivid white circles around her eyes looked like she fit the bill.
Aiming carefully with the .50-caliber rifle, I settled the crosshairs behind her shoulder, calmed my nerves, and squeezed off.
The cap fired, and then a split-second later, 120 grains of Triple 7 pellets ignited and the sabot bullet was on its way. I couldn’t be sure how the deer reacted. It was a close shot—maybe 60 yards. I didn’t know how I could miss. But anything can happen in hunting — a flinch, a twitch, a sudden move by the quarry.
I lowered the rifle, climbed down, reloaded, and went to look where the deer had stood. I found a few clumps of hair, a tiny speck or two of blood.
Unsure, I decided to wait. An hour later, I began my search. For 30 minutes, the situation looked grim. No deer. No blood.
Finally, with daylight dwindling fast, I glanced up a steep, rocky creek bed and there was the doe lying dead at water’s edge. She had not gone 100 yards after the shot. She was bigger than I’d thought — probably close to 100 pounds field-dressed.
It was almost dark. Getting this deer out would be a challenge. It was a steep 60-degree angle on each side of the rocky slopes bordering the creek. They were wet and slippery. And it would be an arduous, potentially dangerous drag out in the dark if I opted to go down the creek bed.
I decided to field dress the deer and retrieve it during full daylight the next day. Rolling up my sleeves I completed the chore and saw that the bullet had hit both lungs.
Placing several stout branches under the doe for air circulation, I spread the ribs wide to facilitate cooling. I left a sweaty hat on the carcass to ward off coyotes and walked back to my home, half a mile away, as the sun set. Propped open, she would cool overnight. I’d haul her out and hang her behind the shed at first light the next morning.
It was a routine I’d done before when harvesting a buck or doe late in the day. I had no qualms about leaving her and had never had a coyote or anything disturb the animal overnight with all of the human scent and a hat or jacket left at the site.
Finally, I had a fat doe for the freezer. She would make some tasty venison.
Unfortunately, that was the same thought someone else had.
When I returned shortly after sunrise the next morning, my jaw dropped. The deer was gone. No drag marks, no chewed remains from coyotes. It was simply gone.
Chillingly, it dawned on me what had happened. There was no other explanation. A bear had taken the deer. A shudder went up my spine when I conjured the image of a 300- to 400-pound bear calmly snatching up the doe in its jaws like we might casually grab an apple as we pass a bowl of fruit sitting on a table, and then lumbering up the mountain as the deer’s limbs dragged limply on the ground.
Examining the area more carefully, I made out a single footprint of a bruin. The pad measured 6 inches across: a massive 7-foot bear, likely 400 pounds-plus!
I searched far and wide looking for the deer or what might remain of it that day and the next, with no luck. I watched the skies for buzzards or alert crows that might home in on the doe’s remains. Nothing. The buzzards I did see were high in the sky, searching without focus. No crows were around.
As I continued to search, wandering through some dense, thick cover, the hair bristled on the back of my neck. What if I did find the bear, or stumbled upon him 10 yards away in a thicket munching on my doe? How would he react? What would I do?
Eventually, not knowing which direction he might have headed, I gave up the search. There would likely be little left of the doe, anyway.
It was a hard lesson learned. The next deer, I vowed, was coming out with me, even if it was midnight when we made it out of the woods!
Postscript: Not only did I drag my next whitetail out the same evening I shot it, as a precaution, I wired it to the 20-foot extension ladder behind my house where I hang deer. If the bear could drag that 150-pound, 8-point buck, along with the ladder up into the woods, well, I guess he’d get that one, too.
Fortunately, he didn’t.
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