A Thanksgiving Day Solo Hunt
Thanksgiving morning 2013 dawned cold, a low pressure front having pushed through on Wednesday, delivering rain to most of the Hudson Valley, but ending with temperatures cold enough to deposit a couple of inches of fresh snow in the Catskill Mountains. Our New York hunting season had been unseasonably warm to this point, and having a couple of properties to hunt, I decided to head for the hills. The higher elevations of the Catskills has an entirely different type of terrain and feel to its forest; where the Valley has a multitude of oak, maple, hickory and underbrush, the high ground is mostly comprised of pine, hemlock, beech and birch. It can also be considerably colder in the hills, having a height advantage of over 2,000 feet above the Hudson River.
Like the fool that I am, I had stayed out too late at band rehearsal the night before, and realized when I got home at midnight that the next day would be spent without much sleep. Four a.m. came very early, but I got up and dressed in spite of the blood-shot eyes and allure of my wife in a warm bed. A quick cup of coffee and a Danish from the local convenient store, and I was on my way. Being Thanksgiving Day, I had only planned on hunting until noon or so, and would then join the family for dinner.
I had tagged a bear on the same piece of property on opening day, ten days prior, so I still had a whitetail deer tag in pocket. On this particular morning, my Ruger Model 77 in .308 Winchester was over my shoulder. I had loaded up some tried and true 165 grain Nosler Partitions, as the deer can get big up there, but the presence of bears always weighs heavy on my mind. I’d rather be overgunned than undergunned in the inky dark hemlock woods, especially walking to my stand in the dark.
Upon arrival at my hunting grounds, I was pleased to see the fresh snow, which would provide a great background to see movement as well as show what game had moved through the area. I was less than pleased to find out that it was a stark 18 degrees, and that the tail end of the rain storm had turned to ice underneath the snow, so that every step sounded like walking on potato chips. The swirling winds were blowing the snow from the trees, and the combination of harsh elements and a lack of sleep had me doubting my sanity. Nonetheless, I had come this far and decided to stick out the morning. The property is crisscrossed by logging roads, and these usually make for the quietest approach to the spots we like to sit in to wait for deer. Today’s walk down the logging road would prove a bit different, and lead me on a bit of an adventure. I am a Land Surveyor by trade, and had the fortune to have surveyed this property, thereby learning all the nooks and crannies of the terrain. Within 200 yards I found the tracks of a doe and her fawn coming off the higher side of the property and easing down the logging road. Ok, this is a good sign; maybe she’ll be in estrus and draw a buck.
Well, the universe shined upon my hunt, as I cut the large track of a buck within another 100 yards, and he was following the pair of does like a heat seeking missile. As the does walked in a straight line down the road, I could tell he was meandering back and forth, and by his path I guessed that he wasn’t far behind them, nor that far in front of me. This bleary-eyed exercise in sitting on a stand, in true Thanksgiving tradition, just turned into a stalking hunt in swirling winds and freezing temperatures. Game on!
I walked as quietly as possible, stepping on stones in the logging road wherever I could, to prevent cracking and crunching the ice under the snow. Fifteen minutes in, so far, so good, the wind held steady in my face, and I went along in a relatively quiet manner. That’s when the does, and subsequently the buck, decided that a left turn into a thick stand of young beeches was absolutely in order.
What to do? I tried about ten steps into the carpet of ice-coated, snow-covered beech leaves and decided that was useless, so I did the only thing I could think of. I sat on a stump and pouted. Well, I called it heavy planning, but I’m sure it looked an awful lot like pouting. I planned-pouted for a good twenty minutes, until I decided to take a chance and try to cut them off on the logging road that they were last headed for.
I stalked, so very slowly, down this aforementioned logging road, for over 200 paces without any sign of them, when I found the track of the does crossing the road in front of me. I was back in business, for sure. The only problem was that the buck’s tracks were ten yards further down. They had all beaten me there, headed into a very dark patch of hemlocks. The wind was starting to swirl again, and all hope had left me. I considered heading back to the truck and the comforts of my warm bed, but argued with myself, and I’m glad I did. The hemlocks had taken the brunt of the snow, and the logging road was bare in patches, so I crept along until something caught my eye. That something was the G2 tine of the biggest buck I’ve ever seen in the hunting woods, just 5o yards away through the hemlock braches. As best as I can figure, all three of the deer had decided to lie down, and when the buck saw me, he stood and tried to run, until I sent one of Mr. Nosler’s dandy little products through his heart and lungs. The buck hunched at the shot, but to be sure I gave him another to settle the affair. The buck crashed, nose first, on the edge of the logging road. Victory was mine.
I can’t put into print exactly what came out of my mouth at that instant in time, but rest assured it was joyful and colorful. A hunt that I didn’t expect to happen ended up successful, with a buck that scored an even 125 inches of antler.
How it did come together? Equal parts luck, tracking ability and rifle preparedness. I didn’t give up on this buck, gambling on the fact that not many hunters were as foolish as I to be out in the inclement weather, and the flanking maneuver I used worked out in my favor, albeit barely. The Ruger 77 that I have used for two decades isn’t a dream rifle by any stretch of the imagination, but it is rock solid and reliable. It wears an older model Leupold Vari-X IIc 3-9x40mm scope, with an adjustable objective, which makes the shots like the one I’ve described above a bit easier. Having a fast moving target completely in focus when the rifle comes to shoulder can allow you to connect that much quicker, with confidence. While this rifle is still equipped with its factory trigger, which breaks at over five pounds, I haven’t got around to changing it for an aftermarket adjustable trigger, and it works just fine for the ranges that I usually shoot this rifle. It is light, has a handy 22” sporter-weight barrel, and works well for me. The handload that I cooked up for this season proved to be sub-MOA with the 165 Nosler Partition over a suitable charge of IMR4064 and a Federal Gold Medal Match primer. This type of accuracy engenders a whole bunch of confidence.
As a note of interest, when we skinned this buck, he had almost no fat on his body. He was rutting so hard that he ran himself ragged. His left ear was torn in half for nearly the entire length from fighting. It was two days later when my good buddy Taxidermist Anthony DelVecchio, of River Bottom Taxidermy in Athens, New York called me in a very excited tone of voice. “Buddy, you’ve got to stop by the shop on your way through, I’ve got something really neat to show you.” As I wheeled the Chevy into the shop, Ant greeted me at the door, and extended his hand. A half-inch length of broken antler was in his palm. “I found this against his neck bone when I skinned the head out; this old boy was a fighter.” Ant’ny aged him at four-and-a-half years old, and I was proud to have taken a dominant buck.
I’m well aware that these stalking hunts won’t always work out, especially under crowded hunting conditions, where the risk of bumping the buck you’re tracking into another hunter is a stark reality. Sometimes, the stars just align for you.