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To Pass or Not to Pass

It was the fall of 2017. The snow was crunchy; the sun bright, shining on the bitter cold mountainside. I’d just kicked 4 doe off a small open hummock to my right, and I got that old familiar feeling of more deer in my presence, I just couldn’t see them yet. I slowed to a metered cautious walk, attempting to sound more like a deer in the loud conditions. The mountain rose tall to my left as I side-hilled forward hoping to maybe catch a glimpse of a buck or two.

It was early season and a cold snap with snow blew in from the North a few days prior. I was on a remote tent camp hunt with Dave Williams. The remnants of the squall made tracking plausible. Early hunting in the Adirondacks can make for tough days because the bucks don’t travel as much, making your chances of cutting a decent track in the unending wilderness a tough proposition. I’d already spent a few days searching this new area for tracks of the large variety, and was coming up empty relatively handed.

I decided to curve downhill in the direction of the does when I heard the telltale sounds of deer walking up the mountainside towards me. It was a fairly open slope below me with scattered whips and a small island of black spruce winding its way to the valley floor. The deer were making their way up the mountain on the other side of the green island when I caught glimpse of a doe and buck in tow. They were running now, headed straight for me. The doe broke through the spruce and into the nearside clear first. I already had my 35 Whelen green machine up and planted firmly into my shoulder. Next came the buck. He busted out of the spruce and I got a good look at him through the 1x4 scope as he slammed on the brakes staring at me. By this point the doe had stopped in the foreground not 30 yards away – he was at fifty or so. He was a pretty buck, 8 points, symmetrical, but young. I guessed 2 ½ or 3 ½ years old. I put the circle reticle on his chest, put my finger on the trigger…and then I waited. It was only the third day of my hunt and the season had really just started. I put the gun down and watched as they spooked and ran from whence they came. I thought to myself, “I hope I didn’t screw myself just now.” A few years prior and that buck would be on my wall. But I wanted something better…

A Week Later

I travelled up the mountainside, wet snow blanketing the ground; rain falling. I cut a decent track and made my way cautiously. At first I thought he was looking for does, but then I came over a small rise to see him jump from his bed. I saw antlers, but could not judge them from the angle he took in the thick brush. He had been pawing and eating beechnuts on the hillside before he laid down. Now I knew he was tired. I texted Hal for company – we texted back and forth as I waited for the buck to calm down.

I got on his running tracks. Down and into a valley he went. I wasn’t that enamored by the size of his tracks, or the stagger of them. But it was a track, and they seemed to be sparse this season. I could tell that he wasn’t too concerned about me because he stopped running within a few hundred yards and immediately was feeding again. I texted Hal that I was in “death creep and that my hands were cold.” He texted back, “Put the damn phone down!” I laughed knowing I wasn’t going to shoot this buck, but Hal didn’t know that – he must have thought I was nuts. I was smiling to myself thinking about that when I followed his tracks walking around an old blown over hemlock. There, not fifteen yards away, he was feeding. A small “little bigger than basket” eight. I stood and watched. I slowly pulled my gun up, was about to put the peep of my Marlin 30/30 on his shoulder when he caught me moving. He began to run and I pretended to shoot him running. A time not too long ago and that buck would be gutted and in the back of my truck, but I wanted better…

Another Week Gone By

It was a perfect tracking day. Snow everywhere, wind blowing, pillows on the tree limbs. I made my way from the truck in search of a track. After 2 miles of searching I came to a small lone buck track making his way on the top of a familiar mountain. He went straight to the very top where a single tree was busy eking out its life on the windswept rock. As if that tree’s life wasn’t hard enough - it now showed the fresh scars of the buck’s antlers. He was a smaller buck. I contemplated following him, but decided against it. I looked into the distance at the valley below and then across it at the second mountain rising in front of me. I made a mental note to myself that “I bet he went up and over that mountain too.”

I broke off his track with the intention of climbing the other peak but by curving through the valley in a criss-cross pattern in the hopes of finding a bigger buck track in the lowlands first. The valley was devoid of life – not even a red squirrel track was made in the pristine fluff. I found an old familiar ridge that brought me to the top of the second mountain and found the little buck’s tracks again. I giggled, feeling vindicated.

As I was dropping off the set of cliffs that make the back side of the peak I saw some motion to my right. A small 6 pointer made his way towards me, and then winded me. He blew, and then stopped; bobbing his head and nervously watching me through the brush. I could see another deer further in the brush behind him. Was it a bigger buck? I strained to see but could not make out antlers. I hit my grunt call. The little buck came closer. The other deer remained where he/she stood. Ten years ago, that six pointer would be on my wall. But on this tracking day, and at this stage of my hunting life, it wasn’t even a consideration. I waited another minute or so as me and the little guy played the stare standoff, hoping the bigger deer would come forward. Then the wind shifted and in a flash they silently dissolved into the quiet snow.

I felt good. My blood was pumping, and I could sense the deer all across those mountains were on the move. I’d only gone another quarter mile on the leeward side of the mountain when my eyes locked with a big 8 pointer that was coming up the mountain! As fast as that moment occurred was as fast as he spun and began motoring away. I pulled up the 30/30 and took a Hail Mary shot hoping to connect. This one was worth shooting!  I knew we had enough snow and cold weather that if I made a bad shot I’d still have snow to track him and get the job done. I hurried down to where he was running. It was a clean miss. It was turning out to be a great day, even with the miss. Any time you shoot at a big buck in the big woods, you’re having a good day.

The Last Three Weeks

But as fast as luck comes, is as fast as it can vanish. I spent the next three weeks barely cutting a decent track, much less one I actually wanted to follow. The snow eventually left, and all I saw were bears, bears and more bears. The bare ground and masses of beech nuts laying around kept them actively out of their dens. This would prove to be my season’s undoing.

Bob and I went into new territory and found some great areas, but with the snow all gone, the odds of placing a bullet in the vitals of a monster were slimming with each passing day. That is when it hit me…I could have shot a few bucks and I let them all walk. Now I was starting to doubt that decision. All were respectable animals. No one would judge me poorly if I took any one of them. A buck in the Adirondacks no matter how large or small is a trophy and all the locals know it. But I needed to stick to my guns. I set the bar higher than usual and yeah, it bit me. But in the end, I’d rather have stuck to what I actually wanted, then have compromised and felt I cheated myself. Besides, there is always next year!

Copyright ® Mark Scheeren 2018 all rights reserved

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Hal Blood, whitetail buck, Adirondack hunting, Mark Scheeren, tracking whitetails, big woods hunting