The Year of Untouchable Bucks

Hanging some antlers on the wall is a dream that sparkles in every deer hunter’s eye. Unsurprisingly, big bucks dominate deer hunting marketing and media. I will admit I’m not immune to the images and hype.

But at this time in my life, my main priorities each deer season are observing tradition, pursuing new experiences, and doing all I can to secure meat for my family. My 2020 deer hunt embodied those three as much or more than any other, spread across two weeks and three distinct settings.

Three Days on a Chair

Opening weekend was spent at the family deer camp in the farm country of south central Minnesota. If nothing else it will be remembered for unusual circumstances, not the least of which was Covid-19 looming over everything. Traditions were observed, but there were concessions. For instance, instead of bunking all together, my brother and nephew crashed in the usual quarters, my dad slept at home, and I stayed on a cot out in the shop. Not that I had to worry about being cold or anything; it was an unseasonably warm weekend. 

It was already 49 degrees when I climbed into my deer stand opening morning. Almost immediately, a small buck came straight toward me out of the darkness. He passed within spitting distance, capturing himself on trail cam. Gazing out over a dirt field, he lingered just 15 yards away. I hoped he would stare into the distance long enough for me to get my gun loaded and the season to open. 

He didn’t. That first freezer load of meat wandered out of sight just two minutes before legal shooting time. 

A couple hours later I turned my head left to discover a doe galloping across the restored prairie at close range. She was obviously intent on leaving something behind. I was sure I’d spooked her somehow. 

Before I’d fully calmed down, a good-sized buck followed in her path. I pushed the muzzle of my shotgun through the window and whistled wildly, hoping to stop him. He also disappeared into the brush. 

The whole encounter with him was probably 5 or 6 seconds long. There was no time to count the points on his rack, but it was obvious he was one of the biggest bucks around. And there really was no chance for a shot, even if I’d had my gun at the ready. Still, it was easy to feel as though I’d failed somehow. I watched and waited, hoping he would emerge from the cedar trees. 

The southern wind increased steadily over the morning, bringing warmer and warmer air. It was 70 degrees by the afternoon with winds at a minimum of 15 mph. Conventional wisdom says deer aren’t likely to move in either heat or high winds, not to mention both. I felt lucky to have seen any deer at all. 

Twice more that buck appeared about 150 yards from me— straight into the wind. He was a good buck: a respectable 8-pointer from what I could see. But I was not comfortable taking a shot under those circumstances. I could only hope for better each time he melted into the woods to my southwest.

The last hour and a half slipped by without further incident. When legal shooting time had lapsed, I closed the windows and set my gear on the platform outside the door. 

While latching the door behind me, I glanced up to see a doe trot out of the prairie. She stopped about 20 yards out and stared at my decoy. Still hunched over, I considered my options. Scaring her off wasn’t ideal, but I couldn’t stay there indefinitely. Things became a lot more urgent when I heard a buck grunting behind her. 

That same buck was criss-crossing the prairie, following her trail. He would arrive in a minute, but having an unwelcome encounter with me and my deer stand was something that couldn’t be risked. I decided in the moment to scare the doe off, hopefully to take the buck with her. I stood up and made a hooting noise like an owl. 

It worked. Not knowing quite what to think of me, she turned and ran directly away, right past that buck. He stopped in his tracks and watched her go. Then he looked at my decoy, and again in the direction she’d gone. He followed, though reluctantly, it seemed. I hated to make him leave, but when he did I had reason to hope he would appear sometime the next day. 

Well, that never happened. In fact, I didn’t see a single deer over the next two days. 

The warm south wind raked over us until about midday Monday as dark clouds descended. Almost at once, it stopped completely. It was eerily still for a minute or two. Then the wind resumed, this time out of the West. The temperature dropped precipitously.

Not long after that change in the weather, a single shot from my brother blasted me from my daydreaming. A young buck— with a strangely formed right antler— had appeared out of nowhere. To our knowledge, he had been bedded between us all day in the prairie. It was good to know we finally had some meat to work with. I had high hopes my state park hunt would add another deer to the tally. 

State Park Teasery

Two days later, I headed off to western Minnesota to take part in a special hunt in one of the state parks. It was something I’d wanted to do for a couple years. That particular hunt is an antlerless-only one, but also has had a high success rate. In terms of prospects for meat and new experiences, it had seemed like the best place to apply in the lottery. 

One of the first deer I saw was an 8-point buck at close range. He presented me with many shot opportunities. But as with every hen pheasant, my hands were tied and all I could do was count coup. Having a staring contest with him at 10 yards was a moment I won’t soon forget. 

That afternoon, I spent some time looking for deer I could stalk. Over a couple miles I found three deer: two does and one smaller buck. One doe was small and the other was ultimately unapproachable. The buck, however, was in a place I probably could have carried out a successful stalk. Of course all I could do was imagine, and continued on. 

On the way back to my sitting spot, things were heating up. Among several deer I saw while en route was a large buck. He was pursuing a doe across the open prairie, just like the buck on opening morning. And just like that buck, he was clearly the dominant one in the area and did not intend to put the rut on hold so I could admire him. 

I ended the hunt that night by taking my allotted doe in the last hour. In retrospect, the day had a rather subdued start, but built in tension hour by hour and ended in dramatic fashion. All told, it was an experience I never could have predicted and wouldn’t have wanted to be any different. The full account can be read in my previous post. 

Gone in a Flash

The next week, my unused regular license beckoned from the bottom of my yet-unpacked backpack. Those achingly close calls with bucks had been tugging at me, asking me to try one last time to tag a deer with dragging handles. 

I gave in. This time, my destination was a place in the big woods of east-central Minnesota I’ve become familiar with— and had other tantalizing buck encounters. 

The first spot that looked promising was a junction of trails on the edge of a recent clearcut, about a mile and a half down the logging road. I picked a nook in the trees where the sun would eventually warm me, and settled in for the foreseeable future. 

Trees cracked and popped in the early morning cold. Two wolf packs howled back and forth in the distance for a couple hours. Then human voices came into the mix. Two young guys came up the trail the way I had, pulling a sled. I stepped out to whisper with them. 

They were there to retrieve their deer stands and were very apologetic about disturbing my hunt. I assured them it was no problem. After all, a person can’t expect exclusivity on public land. 

I left down a different trail to check out another spot I had in mind. The plan was to go there eventually, so it was no inconvenience. Besides, hunting is always better when I assess the situation and go with the flow. 

Only a moment later, a shot rattled the woods. I positioned myself in case any deer would cross the trail. It was apparent after several minutes that wasn’t going to happen.  

Another 150 yards or so farther down, a beast of a buck bolted across the trail, going as fast as any deer I’ve ever seen. By the time I could shoulder my gun, he was already dodging tree trunks on the other side. 

Like so many other times this year, I was left with a racing heart and a cold barrel. I followed his back trail to see what I could learn.

It appeared he had already been moving fairly quickly but picked up the pace when he got close to the trail. I couldn’t help but think I might have spotted him— and had a genuine shot opportunity— if I’d been more careful. 

I happened to meet up with those guys an hour and a half later, and we pieced together what happened. Just after parting ways with me, they’d seen that buck and got one shot off when he jumped onto the trail in front of them. His route took him past me, where he was inspired to continue his exodus indefinitely.

I had to wonder if that buck would have wandered past me in my first spot if he hadn’t been disturbed. I can say it was certainly possible, if not likely. But I’ll never know. 

The rest of my day was spent in yet another place that was tucked away in my memory. It is on the edge of a swamp where deer travel through a corridor of mature trees. I enjoyed my afternoon sipping coffee in the sun, observing several precocious squirrels and one reclusive fisher, and wondering the whereabouts and exact business of the bear whose fresh track I’d crossed. 

Near sunset, a doe emerged from the brush at the edge of the swamp. I brought her out with me on the half-mile trek as the light drained from the woods. It was hard work, but satisfying.

And at the end of such a deer season, I was grateful that if I could not lay hands on a set of antlers, I had one last chance to bring meat home for the winter. 

 

 

 


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All content copyright NAGC and Roy Heilman, 2018