By Shawn Perich
Out in the deer woods, about the only thing you can predict with any certainty is serendipity. Spend enough time hunting out there and you are sure to encounter deer and other critters. But when and where an encounter will happen is unknown. All you can do is count on your persistence, skill and luck…lots of luck…to make it happen. That’s because just having the luck to encounter a whitetail buck in the woods doesn’t mean you’ll be lucky enough to get a shot at it.
On the middle Saturday of our 16-day firearm season, an unseen deer blew at me from heavy cover as I sneaked through the woods. In the early morning stillness, I figured the deer heard me approach, but hadn’t identified me as a human. So, using a call, I made a solitary bleat. The deer responded by blowing again and, by the sound of its footsteps, changing its position.
Soon enough, I heard it walking my way. I caught a flicker of movement in the balsams–close, but not close enough. Then I saw the top of its back, and maybe a glimpse of antlers, crossing through the cover. It was just a few short steps from an opening where I could identify it as a buck and take a shot. Instead, somehow sensing my presence, the deer–I’m pretty sure it was a buck–took a couple of bounds in the opposite direction. I listened to it blow a few more times as it walked away.
I guess that buck was luckier than me. But my morning hunt was off to a good start. An hour or so later, I heard a second deer walking right in front of me, unseen in the heavy cover. That one was lucky, too.
My luck changed, kind of, about an hour after that, when I again heard the sound of smoething approaching, this time from my left. I turned to face the sound and immediately saw movement. Something was coming fast and directly at me. But it looked smaller than an adult deer. Was it a fawn? No, it was a wolf, trotting through the woods on a collision course with me.
“Boo!” I said, thwarting said collision. The wolf turned abruptly and made a beeline for points elsewhere. A second wolf somewhat farther away that I hadn’t seen did the same. Wolf Number 1, which was brown with a black saddle and had mange on the tip of its tail, had come within 14 steps of me.
Since it was nearly lunch time and the presence of wolves likely lowered my odds of seeing any more deer, I decided to head out. On the way, I circled around a couple of beaver ponds, looking at all the tracks made by deer, wolves and snowshore hares in the snow along its shores. As I walked around an ice-covered channel excavated by the beavers, the ice started cracking. Then I heard the sound of something swimming unseen beneath the ice in the channel–one of the pond’s resident beavers.
We went back to the same place in the afternoon, ever hopeful that we’d connect with one of the bucks that so far had successfully eluded us. The old road we followed into the woods goes by a long abandoned gravel pit. Over the years I’ve walked past this pit hundreds of times, always looking across the clearing for critters. On this afternoon I saw one. A big buck was standing broadside about 100 yards away.
I stopped and raised my rifle. My friend Alan Lutkevich, who was walking with me, stopped as well. Looking through the scope, I saw the buck was screened by brush that was growing in the clearing. The deer didn’t move, so I had time to shift and pick an opening through brush and squeeze off a shot. The buck simply turned and started walking away. I tok a second shot, more hurried than the first. This time the buck turned and disappeared with a bound into the woods, giving me a final glimpse of an impressive rack of antlers.
Al had been unable to step clear of me and shoot. Now he hurried ahead, hoping to cut off the buck on a likely escape route. I walked to where we’d last seen the deer, fully expecting, based on my first shot, to find the buck dead on the edge of the clearing. Instead I found nothing at all, just frozen hardpan covered with sparse tufts of grass. There was a dusting of snow in the woods, but it was difficult to discern fresh tracks. After two hours of searching, as best I could tell the buck just walked away…unscathed. My first shot may have been deflected by the intervening brush. I am certain I missed.
In a lifelong hunting career, only twice have I happened upon a trophy buck standing in the open. Both of them got away. Call it the luck of the bucks.
While such moments stay with you forever, it isn’t worth bemoaning the ones that get away. Instead you just start hunting for the next one. At daybreak Sunday morning, we tried another spot, the one we affectionately call “The Deer Park.” On the mile-long hike to our hunting grounds, we saw the tracks of deer, wolf, fisher and even moose. When we split up and started hunting, it was soon evident there were whitetails in the vicinity.
Coming upon a recently freshened scrape, I assumed the buck that made it was nearby. If I was lucky, we’d meet. Hunting slowly–a couple of steps and then a long pause–I sneaked about one hundred yards past the scrape when I heard something behind and downhill from me. Slowly turning, I saw a deer step out. Although it was behind a blowdown, I was able to see antlers. Unaware of me, it was just ambling along. In moments, it stepped into the clear, maybe 30 yards away. Sliding the crosshairs behind its shoulder, I squeezed the trigger.
The buck was by no means as large as the one I missed the previous day. But he was plenty big enough. Considering we had to negotiate a couple of deep and steep ravines on the two-hour drag to the truck, we were happy he wasn’t a whopper.
But whopper or no whopper, what a weekend! I had encounters with three bucks, a wolf and even a beaver. While it’s great to bring home some venison, the excitement and memories of those serendipitous encounters are even better.