When conditions are right, which basically means that the forest leaves and grass are damp from rain, fog, melting frost or, best of all, carpeted with an inch or two of fresh snow, still-hunting is my favorite method of hunting whitetail deer. On this afternoon I had been slipping along for better than an hour and had barely covered the length of a football field.
Successful still-hunters don’t get to see much country. Take five or six or seven, never more than 10 steps, and then stand still and watch and listen. How long? Stop for three, four, maybe five minutes, unless something tells you to stay put a little bit longer. That “something” I can only describe as a hunter’s instinct.
Good hunters have often told me of just “having that feeling.” They cannot describe the feeling. It’s just something inside of them, which tells them to wait and be still a little longer. Nobody is born with that feeling. It is learned, but not in school, not from books, not over the Internet, not from DVD’s or television shows. Experience is the only teacher here. The more hours you spend still-hunting the closer you are to having that special “something” work for you.
A deer stepped out of the timber and onto the trail. Even before I could see the small, 7-point rack, I knew the deer was a young buck and not a doe. Bucks, even young ones like this 1-1/2-year-old deer, are built differently than females. Although the buck was legal, I was not interested in killing it, but it was nice to see him. Especially since the young buck was the first deer I had seen during the four days I had so far been able to hunt.
“Things are looking up,” I said to myself. And so they were because maybe 10 minutes later, I watched another buck step out onto the trail I was slowly slipping along. At first glimpse, I knew that this buck was definitely a big, mature animal.
Bigger Buck Appears
Slightly pot-bellied and sway-backed, the thick-necked bruiser looked to me to be at least 4-1/2 years old, maybe even older. Unseen behind the low cloud cover and cold mist, which had fallen most of the day, the sun had set maybe 10 minutes before I spotted the big buck. In the low light, I was not able to count points on the bruiser’s rack and to be honest, at the time, it never occurred to me to do so. The buck was obviously a mature animal. That was good enough for me.
As the buck worked the overhanging branch above a scrape, I dropped very slowly to my right knee, cocked the big hammer on the .50-caliber flintlock I was hunting with that evening, pulled the rear set-trigger, which are common on many flintlock and percussion muzzleloaders and which make it much easier to shoot accurately.
I had the iron sights lined up perfectly just behind the buck’s near shoulder and was about to nudge the forward trigger when it dawned on me that with the new four-points-on-a-side regulation implemented in southeast Minnesota (in 2010), I had better confirm that the buck in front of me did indeed have the required four points or better on one side.
Yes, I am well aware that a mature buck almost always will carry eight or more total points. But what if? What if one beam had been snapped off while doing battle with another big buck and the other side had a point or two or three busted off? I’ve seen big bucks with all kinds of busted up headgear over the years. Or what if, the buck 70 yards away from me was one of those uncommon, but not unheard of bucks sporting a heavy 6-point rack? What if … ? So I ever so slowly lowered the Kentucky Long Rifle, resting the stock over my right hip and the full-length forearm on my left knee and pulled the 10×42 binoculars out from under my orange vest.
Usually, I carry a smaller, lighter pair of 7×35 Leica binoculars, which I have used with excellent results in the whitetail woods for 30 years now, but because of the new antler-point restrictions in place, I opted for higher magnification at the expense of larger size and more weight. One look through the binocular confirmed that the buck had more than the required four points on the side of his rack that I could see. I would take the chance that the other side was intact. Never taking my eyes off of the buck, I let the binocular drop and began to bring the muzzleloader back up to my shoulder. All of this might have taken four or five seconds. Which, as it turned out, was about a half-second too long.
Before I could snuggle my cheek down onto the stock and line up the iron sights, the buck simply took a step forward and disappeared into the timber.
Staying put, I waited a minute or two to see if the buck might return to the scrape he had been working. He did not, so I put my grunt call to my lips and sent out a series of grunts intended to sound like an excited buck trailing, or in the company of, an estrous doe. Whether or not the big buck even heard me, I have no way of knowing, but I know he did not come to the call. I got up and hurried along the two-track, which I knew from having hunted the farm for several years, circled all of the way around the 40-acre patch of cut-over hardwood timber. Once I reached the far side, I knelt down alongside the trail where I could easily use a mature oak for a sturdy rest for my rifle if I got lucky and got another glimpse of the big buck.
Tries Calling to Get Buck to Return
After waiting a few minutes and seeing nothing, I again pulled out the call and sent another series of tending grunts resonating through the darkening timber. A hint of movement in the thick, new growth of the cut-over caught my attention. I put the binocular to my eye and focused on the area where I had seen the movement. A deer was walking steadily through the timber headed in my direction. The deer had its head down as it walked, which is common for bucks during the rut, so I could not see it’s rack. But if the deer was the big buck I had seen on the far side of the cut-over, I was going to have to be ready when he stepped out onto the trail in front of me.
Again, I tucked the binoculars away, cocked the hammer on the flintlock, rested my left hand snugly against the bark of the big oak and got ready. The deer had obviously heard my grunts, because he was walking steadily and quickly in my direction. In a few seconds the deer would step out onto the trail just a few yards from where I knelt on the other side of the trail. I pulled the set-trigger, placed my right cheek firmly on the wooden stock and watched over the top of the long barrel as the deer broke cover and stepped into the open on the trail.
“Darn it!” was all I could come up with. It was the young 7-pointer I had seen earlier. I remained kneeling alongside that massive oak until shooting hours ended and then hiked back to my pickup.
Was I disappointed? Sure I was. What deer hunter would not be? But was I angry that the big boy had given me the slip! No way. That is the way the game is played.
And you know what us old deer hunters always say when a nice buck gives us the slip is really true. That dandy buck will be just that much bigger next season. God willing, I’ll be there to hunt for him!
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