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The sun was starting to set both literally and figuratively on the 2010 Maine season. It was the last Friday afternoon and after four snowless days, I was excited to finally find a nice buck track to follow.
He wasn’t the biggest buck I’d ever tracked but his toes were uneven and his stride was long and staggered. As he snaked his way through the thick plantation pines, he was clearly in no hurry. Regrettably, the same could not be said for me.
I found where he stopped to feed and I knew he’d be close. I looked down at my watch…2:30. For some unknown reason I decided against going into slow motion. Instead, I remained at a slow but steady pace, not taking the extra time to be as quiet as possible. 20 yards later I found his bed with walking tracks exiting. Again, like an idiot, I talked myself out of slowing down.
In my carelessness, a small branch slipped off my lead leg and slapped loudly against the cuff of my frozen wool pants. All I saw was a leg as he jumped from his bed 15 yards away.
I followed him until dark, knowing full well that I would never catch up to him again. I was thoroughly disappointed with myself for being impatient and blowing such a great opportunity. It was a text book example of when to go into the death creep and I should have shot the buck in his bed. Unfortunately for me, my creep was more like a march…resulting in a long agonizing walk back to the truck.
After leaving Maine empty handed and replaying the scenario thousands of times in my head, I knew it would be a long winter thinking about what might have been.
My last chance was Vermont’s late muzzleloader season but due to work constraints, it was the final Friday before I could make it into the woods. It had been very cold the entire week and this day was no different. It was 1-below when I capped my muzzleloader and headed up the steep mountainside. The snow was dry and powdery, making it difficult to determine whether a track was 2 days old or 2 minutes old. I decided to cover a lot of ground, using the day more like a scouting trip for future hunts.
The three-day-old snow showed there were still a few deer roaming high on the mountain ridge but the majority of activity was at the mid-mountain range. Regardless of where I went on the mountain, the woods seemed calm…the rut was all but over and the bucks appeared to be focused primarily on feeding.
At the end of the day, I had tracked three different bucks that were leaving horn prints in the 6” powder but once they mixed in with other deer, the conditions made it almost impossible to maintain the proper track. I was excited at the number of bucks I had located but the weather needed to warm up for me to have a chance.
Sunday morning was in the low 30’s with a wintery mix and high winds. Perfect tracking conditions. I was the first and only one on the old mountain road and I had all I could do to keep my truck out of the ditch. Relieved to arrive safely, I headed up the steep valley towards the set of ridges I had scouted two days before.
I had gone about a ¼ mile when I cut a buck track heading off the mountain. He had a wide stance and good stride but based on the amount of snow in the track I figured it was made overnight. The deer was heading in my direction so I decided to stay with him, hoping it would freshen up or he’d take me into some more deer. We traveled on an old logging road until it was blocked by a fresh blowdown littered with his tracks, old and new.
Since it was still early in the morning, I wanted to make sure this was a buck I wanted to follow. I focused my attention on the blowdown, searching for signs that would help gauge the size of his rack. I found where he reached between two snow covered boughs to grab some moss off a branch. I held my muzzleloader sideways and compared the marks in the snow with the length of the barrel. The tips of his antlers were roughly 18” apart…that was all I needed to be convinced.
I found his empty bed under a nearby pine tree, just barely glazed over with ice. After a quick circle, I located the newest tracks heading straight up the mountain. I had no doubt he was close and I quickly realized that I had the perfect opportunity to redeem the mistake I made in Maine.
I patiently followed his tracks higher and higher up the ridge, being extra careful to not make a noise. I switched into the death creep, waiting until the wind blew before taking a step. I had a good feeling the buck would be bedded on the next hardwood bench so I stayed low and slowly poked my head up over the edge.
20 yards to my right, I caught the movement of his leg. Then I saw an eye and one antler. The buck seemed to materialize out of thin air as he stepped from his bed. I quickly dropped to one knee, pulled the hammer back and waited for the perfect shot. He began to feed again, casually nipping some low lying beech whips and pawing at some ferns. It seemed like an eternity for him to move from behind the large tree blocking his vitals but when he did, my muzzleloader connected.
Shortly after the smoke cleared, I stood proudly over a great Vermont buck.
His thick antlers had 7 points with only one brow tine and the season’s rut clearly took a toll on his large frame as he ended up weighing only 145. Regardless of any statistics, he was a great buck…suddenly my mistake in Maine wasn’t so heartbreaking.