At 3:00 AM, I get in my truck and head to Jackman for opening day of the 2016 Maine deer season. In the night, a front came through the state that was rain over most of the state except for higher elevations in northern and western Maine. Hal needed a cameraman for the day and I had volunteered to do it as a new Big Woods Bucks team member and was pumped to see the master at work.
I arrived at Hal’s house about an hour before daylight. I figured we’d be immediately heading out for the woods. I went upstairs to the kitchen and Hal is still in his long johns and is just starting to cook some bacon! He goes on to cook a whole pound of bacon and 5 or 6 fried eggs along with some toast. I’m sitting there thinking here it is, the secret is eating massive amounts of good homemade greasy food before you head out, I love it. I’m so excited I get maybe 3 pieces of bacon down, an egg and part of a piece of toast. Hal’s a calm, seasoned veteran and eats a normal breakfast. There’s a lot leftover, I guess for Deb and the dog! We are talking hunting and areas the whole time and Hal is being a great host even packing me a lunch. Then he decides it’s time to head out. Before I even have my boots laced up he’s in his full attire with all his gear heading out the door. I think he cooked all that food and got fully ready to hunt in 25 minutes! I’m rushing and trying not forget anything knowing how excited I am.
We strike out in his old Ram Charger and head for the high country. We start seeing that beautiful white stuff just about the time it comes daylight. As we go low in the valleys it disappears and as we climb it comes back. There is only one set of tire tracks before us and we decide they were there the day/night before. After quite a while driving we see that beautiful sight of tracks in the road. We get out to check and it’s a decent buck but nothing Hal is interested in, but what we did figure out was that the tire tracks in front of us were made that morning and they were ahead of us. Well Hal was not excited at all about that, he wants to be the only one around for miles! He whipped that old charger around quick style and headed for a place that he’d pointed out on the way in.
We got out and were already fairly high on a decent size mountain. It’s a nice morning, things are soft, quiet, and we’ve got 3” of snow. Only way tracking could have been better was with some weather/wind for cover noise. Off we go up this hardwood ridge on the mountain that has different levels and when you get high enough we can see the big, long, sweeping ridge that runs the mountain side for miles with softwood above it up high. It was beautiful to look at and it just gets you so excited to picture what that big buck might look like that is in that chunk of woods you’re looking at, as well as where he might be or where you might catch up to him. We were walking at a good pace just looking for tracks, slowing down for the steep parts but keeping a steady pace. Hal explained he’s found it best to go slow and steady up the steepest parts, so you don’t get too tired and in the end, you save time, gain more ground, and have more energy not needing as many breaks. I have since found the same to be true. As we go up the mountain there aren’t many deer tracks in the places where Hal had seen them in the summertime. What we did find was a lot of as we went higher was snow. We were dragging through 8” of wet snow for a while going just about straight up. Somewhat seriously joking about our big breakfast slowing us down a little. It was some good hiking for the first real hunt of the year. Hal and I also talked about how eating a lot slows us down and makes it harder to breath when we’re seriously hiking. Hal said especially as you get older the lighter you eat the better. We got high on the mountain before the softwood line and start doing our circle back down the ridge, Hal moving through this at a good pace the whole time but also not rushing at the same time. Every move he makes is deliberate and he goes through the woods with a purpose, but is also very relaxed at the same time just like he’s at home.
When we got down lower on the ridge, we saw our first real distinguishable track made in the night. We knew there wouldn’t be much deer activity as it was so early in the season and this was the first big snow of the year for them. Deer, especially the big bucks do not like to move on that first big snow. This track is that of a small buck’s and is fairly old. Hal thinks the deer might be up even higher than we had gone at first so straight back up the mountain we go. It is pretty steep the whole time and we go until we get up into the softwood for a while. The whole section of woods had just been cut and definitely since Hal was there the last time. We are not sure where the deer are, most likely just hunkered down somewhere out of the way, or maybe in a whole other area. Either way we decide it’s time for another area. We head down the mountain to a low area where we see the tracks of that small buck again, he had just gotten up out of bed and his tracks were very fresh. We’re hoping this a good sign for bigger ones as well.
We got back in the Ram around 10:30 and have some lunch while driving about 45 minutes to the next area. What we find is less snow and more hunters, Hal is not excited but makes due and comes up with a new plan quickly. Around 11:30 we head back out into the big woods. We don’t go far and there’s already more tracks than we have seen all morning, new and old. These woods have new and older cuts with skidder trails going different directions and much flatter. Staying at a good steady pace we cut a buck track, another decent deer but nothing he’s interested in. We start to loop and drop into the lower ground near a brook with softwoods and find many more tracks. We ran this brook/low spot for quite a while and looked at probably 3 good size buck tracks that many guys would take, fresh enough as well and Hal decides to pass. We start out of brook/low area because it seems to be loaded with does and smaller bucks, too many tracks as well. Hal wants to get out and find that big boy wandering on his own.
As we start to climb this time it begins to get foggy, just a very damp wet day that usually seems ideal for deer movement. This place had many deer, but we just had not crossed one of those real big tracks yet. We went on to climb one hill and then the next and then the next, going up a level each time. We see more tracks, but not the one we want. It’s getting a little later in the day and in the fog, when I see a beautiful cut hardwood ridge with a stream at the base of it and behind it is an extremely steep ridge. We are heading that way and at this point it’s late and we’ve covered what must have been close to 10 miles in that wet snow all-day and my legs are a little tired. I’m thinking I want to know what’s at the top, but it’s been a long day, and this is the perfect spot to run the edge of that ridge all the way back towards the truck, assuming Hal is thinking and feeling the same way. We stop at the base of the ridge and Hal says there’s a good chance one of those big bucks have run the top of that ridge or crossed it somewhere so up we go. We finally get to the top and run into a small patch of softwoods where we find something interesting. There in the snow is a nice, fresh set of buck tracks. I’m thinking alright here we go, the chase is on. I watch Hal look these tracks over and over and he’s trying to figure out what’s going on. He’s reading a whole story about this buck by looking at his 75 feet worth of his tracks. He’s figuring out an unbelievable number of things just by reading the tracks from how big he is, where he came from, what he’s doing and where he’s going just to start. We start on the track for about a minute and Hal stops and says, I just can’t get that excited about this track. As excited as I was to see him go to work I understood and appreciated him holding to a standard, as I feel the same way. It was one of those bigger probably 3 ½ year old bucks that probably would have gone over 200lbs that early in the season and may have had a nice rack, but he was not a dominate buck in that area. We stopped shortly after that for a candy bar and talked about the day. Hal showed me how to make a dry seat with fir boughs even when everything is wet.
We had stopped many times that day talking about what we’re doing, telling old stories, and everything else that has to do with deer hunting. Hal is wealth of endless deer hunting stories that have lessons in them, his knowledge of areas, what the deer have been doing in those areas at certain times, and what they may be doing now is incredible and fun to listen to. We started down the ridges completing our circle to the Ram. We got back to the vehicle about 4:30, this was before the clocks were turned back. It was clear the real big bucks we wanted did not want to move that day, we had covered many miles and were tired out.
We headed back home talking about the day, Hal was showing me different areas and telling different stories the whole time. He was a great host and everything you would hope for all day. He walks the walk, he does exactly what he says he does in his books. How he finds tracks, where he goes, how he hunts, what he hunts and the list goes on. The biggest thing I took away from the whole thing is how comfortable he is in the woods and about the time. Hal is not worried about the time, he sets a good pace and is calm, steady and confident. He knows there’s no reason to get worked up about anything, you will get much more done by setting a good steady pace everywhere and letting the woods come to you. Hal has no set plan, just roles with what he’s seeing but also has a good idea of where he is all the time. Both areas we looked for tracks in, we did a large circle of I’d say close to four or five miles and getting two or three miles away from the truck at times.
I appreciate my time in the woods with Hal and it was a privilege. He was a kind host and a great example. Of the many things I learned, the biggest thing I’ve changed since hunting with him is just doing my best to not worry about anything in the woods. Pay attention to the time some but don’t obsess over it. Have an idea about where you are in the area you are in, but you don’t have to know exactly where you are all the time, and don’t kill yourself trying to find a track or track a deer down. Be steady and deliberate in everything you do, and the deer and woods will eventually show themselves to you. Don’t worry about the buck much as whether or not you get a shot at him is the timing of what the buck is doing and how well you can see in the woods when you catch up to him. You must put the effort in no matter what and be persistent in everything you do hunting, and by staying in the woods all day your odds will go up.
Thank you, Hal.