Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Close Scrape on a Gloomy Day


With the leaves falling heavily and the last of the white oak acorns already on the ground, finding a dominant tree wasn't an option last weekend. Even if the deer were feeding on a particular tree (which I don't believe they were since acorns weren't dropping) any sign they left behind would have been quickly covered by freshly fallen leaves. It was time to change tactics.

After the success that Ted and I had rattling the prior weekend, I decided to try rattling again. As I mentioned in the post describing that hunt, it was the first time that rattling had worked for me. Now I was like an addict. I had to have another fix.

I spent most of Saturday scouting for fresh buck sign and late in the day struck paydirt when I found a hollow that had several large rubs and fresh scrapes about every 100 yards or so. My son had a basketball game that night, so I picked out a tree to climb the next morning, marked a brite-eye trail in from the nearest logging road and headed out.

The next morning was overcast and cold, with a 10 mph west wind. I spent the first couple hours in the stand seeing just one spike. With the wind blowing steadily and the leaves on the ground still damp from Friday's hard rain, I decided that conditions were right for moving silently along the scrape line. I decided to ease up the hollow, rattling every time I had moved far enough along for the sound to cover a new area.

I climbed down the tree as quietly as I could, left my climbing stand on the tree and eased about 100 yards up the hollow. The first spot I rattled was at the confluence of two small creeks. I sat down under a small maple tree with lots of yellow and orange leaves at ground level to disguise my orange vest and hat. As soon as I finished a short rattling sequence, a six pointer trotted off the ridge to my right, crossed the trail about thirty yards in front of me and headed up the ridge separating the two creeks. "That was cool," I thought. "Things are looking good."

After the buck passed out of sight, I continued up the hollow repeating the rattling process every 200 - 300 yards. I passed lots of scrapes and rubs as I worked my way about three quarters of a mile up the hollow, but didn't see any more deer.

At about 11:30 I decided to turn around and head back to the truck for some lunch. A short way back down the trail where I had seen a pretty good sized rub on the way up, I noticed a very fresh pile of deer droppings in the trail. I was pretty sure I would have seen them the first time through the area, so I decided to try rattling there again.

I backed up against a large beech tree and tickled the horns together lightly for about twenty seconds then picked up my muzzleloader. Almost instantly, I heard the sound of a deer moving quickly toward me about fifty yards away. I threw the muzzleloader up to my shoulder and scanned over the top of the scope for movement. Within seconds I spotted a large buck headed directly toward me and dropped my eye down to scope level, quickly getting a fix on him. He was moving too quickly to make much of an assessment of his headgear, but I could tell he was wide and had good mass. That was all I needed to see! He was definitely a shooter.

At about thirty five yards, he paused to thrash some small bushes with his antlers. He was not happy that some competitors had invaded his turf and he was about to do something about it. All of a sudden he stopped whipping the brush around and looked directly at me. He was facing me with his head down low. I knew I only had a split second left to get a shot off before he bolted. I had a clear shot over the top of his head at his spine, so I settled the cross hairs at the base of his neck, between his shoulder blades, and squeezed the trigger.

Boom! Crash, crash, crash! Through the smoke, I watched him roll down the hill and pile up against a tree, motionless with all four feet straight up in the air. "Yes!"

For about two minutes I stood there, looking at the fallen buck and processing what had just happened in the course of about twenty seconds. I tried to make out the details of his rack, but couldn't because his antlers had plowed under the leaves. I had just started to contemplate the logistics of getting him out of that hollow single-handed when a leg suddenly moved. Then another.

In an instant, the deer rolled over, got his back legs under him, and drove himself down the hill like an otter sliding on his chest and dragging his front legs. He crashed into the creek bed and spun around violently as his back legs searched for traction on the flat wet rock. After a couple 360s he stopped and lay there looking around.

As this was happening the realization that I was standing there with nothing more than a club to halt his progress quickly set in. I frantically dug into my belt pouch and found a reload tube. I managed to quickly and quietly get two powder pellets and the bullet seated without the buck noticing me, but as I pulled the ramrod out of the barrel, it hit the side of the bore with a soft clink.

Well, that clink was all it took to send the buck into a frenzy. As he began scrambling to get away, I focused my attention on getting my multi-tool out of its sheath, pulling the fired primer off the nipple and replacing it with a fresh one. I was moving fast, but I wasn't too worried about him getting out of the creek bed without the use of his front legs.

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally had a fully loaded weapon and was ready to apply the coup de grace. There was only one problem. The buck was now a hundred yards away on all fours and moving at mach speed up the steep ridge on the other side of the creek.

I can only describe the feeling I had as a mixture of agony, disgust, and nausea, all rolled into one. If I hadn't been a grown man I'm sure I would have cried. "This can't be happening," I thought. "I sat there for two minutes gawking at him without reloading. What a dumb-@#*!"

There was blood where the deer had laid against the tree, but I couldn't find the first trace where he had run off. After searching for three hours I reluctantly admitted defeat.

I can only guess what might have happened, but my theory is that the .44 caliber pistol bullet I was using must have hit the spine at a shallow enough angle that it ricocheted off without penetrating the bone. The impact of it must have been enough to temporarily knock the deer out and incapacitate his front legs.

Needless to say, I learned a valuable lesson that day. From now on, the gawking and antler sizing will have to wait until I've reloaded.

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