On The Trail: Bottomland buck

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The cold, waxing Wolf Moon peered from the low southern sky through the black upper limbs of my struggling front-yard sugar maple — it long-ago struck by lightning but still hanging on — as my thoughts traipsed off a half-mile or so away to my daily walking path, bordered east by the Green River, known to Eastern Algonquians in deep history as the Picomeagan or “boring river.”

There, walking late mornings with my dogs, rain or shine, hot or cold, I’m always searching for little changes, subtle hints of the critters who share this riverside wetland parcel, some freezing silent and still in an attempt to let me and my pets pass. Plus, when the time is right, I’m always searching the edges for salubrious fiddleheads and occasional oyster mushrooms, healthy, wild foods to warm my simmering soul.

Although I once hunted deer and still love hunting pheasants over my gundogs, I am no threat to the whitetails who were born and live in my terrain and are seldom far away during my daily travels. Signs of them are everywhere: in the hayfields, through the Christmas-tree farm, up and down escarpment paths, and at river-crossings. I have learned their patterns and do believe they know mine, not to mention the sound of my voice, my whistle and my black Tacoma pickup. These deer along the periphery of my daily travels have accepted me as a non-threatening daily intruder sharing their place, just passing through with a lame, robust gait. Even my dogs are no threat. They occasionally alert me to deer presence, most often Chubby, who’ll stop and face a scent or soft sound in an erect, attentive stance that points me in the right direction.

Always alert and searching the landscape for wildlife, I can’t deny my once-exceptional eyesight has diminished, so now more than ever I rely on my dogs to sharpen my own senses. It works. The dogs have no interest in chasing deer, treating them the same as horses and cows, sheep and goats — as curiosities with whom they’d just as soon sniff, touch noses and befriend.

The past four weeks, I was enjoying my annual December vacation, time I once reserved for deer hunting, which no longer excites me. Frankly, it’s too much work, especially when you’re lucky enough to kill one. Though I love venison and it’s good for you, it just isn’t worth the drag, the hoisting of the carcass on block and tackle to the barn rafters, the skinning and butchering chores. That’s a young man’s game. They can have it. These days, I’m more than content savoring occasional venison that comes to me by way of gifts from friends and family. It always tastes great, especially chops, seared in bacon fat and served with onions, peppers, garlic and mushrooms, the wilder the better. Even the cholesterol is good for you.

I do miss sitting on stand and blending into the habitat in a place where deer often pass, and I also miss quietly departing such morning stands at 10:30 or so and picking my way along a slow, observant walk, still-hunting along upland spines and dropping down through marshy depressions checking daily feeding and breeding sign. Fact is, I still do a lot of that stuff daily without a gun in my hand, and that includes during deer season, walking through places where deer lurk, even trophy bucks, the likes of which few hunters ever kill. This was such a month. As hunters searched the uplands for trophy bucks, I was entertained by a nice one in the bottomland, often in places too close to occupied dwellings for legal hunting. Smart buck. Why chase around the hinterlands for does when neighbors are reporting eight routinely feeding in the hayfield bordering their lawns at dusk? Plus, along the rims on both sides of the river, there are many giant oak trees with acorns scattered below. So why test the upland ridges echoing out shotgun roars? It’s A fool’s errand.

All summer this big buck has lived in The Meadows where I reside, feeding through croplands and hayfields with a couple of subordinates until rutting season began. Then the tagalongs were on their own, being extra careful to stay out of the dominant buck’s way. In the week leading up to shotgun deer season, I had twice seen that big buck tending a doe off the side of the road on my drive home before midnight. Then, at 11:10 a.m. the day before shotgun season began, with a Sunday trip loming to transport my grandsons home to Vermont, there he was again, in broad daylight, looking me square in the eye from 20 yards away, his wide antler spread extending far out beyond his ears. I couldn’t count the points, but there were at least eight, and off he ran, halfway across the open field, stopping broadside 60 yards out to look back at me and the dogs, the tree of us standing on awe. Then, off he went, dropping down into a marsh, probably hot on the trail of does.

A tall, dark, distinctive deer, I saw him again just after 11 a.m. on the final day of shotgun season, walking with my dogs down into a secluded floodplain, a snowstorm brewing. Head down, the big buck was drinking along the opposite bank of the river. My eyes aren’t what they used to be but I thought I saw a deer down there, obscured through a thin patch of woods, my dogs out ahead of me. Not certain I wasn’t seeing an optical illusion created by flood-strewn tree trucks tangled along and S-turn riverbank, I continued 20 yards down the hill to an opening that provided an unobstructed view. Sure enough, the big buck raised his head and faced me, clearly displaying his incredible antlers from some 80 yards away. Seemingly unalarmed, he proceeded to take three or four slow steps toward me before dropping his head to within a foot of the riverbank and pawing at the cobbles a couple of times like a bullfight bull before taking three or four slow steps and disappearing into the brown riverside knotweed stocks, never a trace of a flag. What a sighting. For the second straight time, not so much as an alarmed tail, just a stroll into cover concealment.

Since that day, I have tracked that big buck’s movements daily. I know his track, where he’s bedding, where he prefers crossing the icy river, and when he prefers to pass through the habitat. A neighboring farmer reported to his son that he saw the buck in his backyard last week, describing it as a beautiful buck, the kind you don’t often see, sporting “at least 10 points.” I’m sure others in the neighborhood have seen him. Maybe someone has a photo. Plus, I must admit a hunter appeared to be on to him. I crossed the man’s boot prints in fresh blackpowder season snow, obviously trying to pattern the buck’s routine.

If it hasn’t already happened, the big buck’s antlers will soon drop, making him off-limits to hunting. Though I’d love to find his shed altlers, I don’t intend to kill myself looking.

“You ought to pile corn or apples along a fence to feed him,” offered a clever old friend. “That’s what some people do to get a buck to drop his antlers where they can find them.”

Hmmmm? That’s the first I’ve heard of that trick. I’m gonna pass.

Hopefully, that big buck will be back next year, bigger and better. Maybe his face will start graying. I’m not sure I could hunt and kill that buck. I guess I’ve grown soft-hearted as I age, have developed great respect for old-sage bucks with trophy antlers.

Like they say, you can’t even get soup stock out of the horns, and young bucks are better eating, anyway.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.