The Horse Buck
by Logan Rackliff
As many of us are, I am an extremely busy person and 2017 was no exception. I worked every second I could, trying my best to run two businesses, while building a house and on top of that, the lord has also blessed my wife and I with our first child on the way. I am very thankful and humbled for God providing these opportunities and gifts. I did not make it to the Big Woods at all in October or early November to do any kind of bird hunting or big buck scouting like I normally would do. That’ was okay though, I needed to take care of things at home and I was grateful for every day I did get to spend in the Big Woods this year.
While I was home running around it was killing me not getting up in the woods. I asked everyone that I knew who had been up there, what was going on. Hunting season was going by and I was at home biding my time and checking the weather report probably six times a day. I was waiting for that thing that gets all us trackers fired up..….SNOW! Finally, that day came. After leaving the house at 3 it was now about 7am, 18 degrees and wind blowing as hard or harder than I’d had ever hunted in before. It must have been blowing 30 to 35mph gusting and close to 50. Where should I go to find a big buck so early and in this wind? I had been thinking about that buck I missed last year, where I'd caught him looking back at me but couldn't get a bullet through the whips, all year and all morning. I could still see him clear as day in my mind and I wanted to go back after him. The where was now decided but the how was a little tougher. After I picked that buck up last year, I chased him in a huge loop all day and left his track basically in the same area on top of the small mountain peak that I had picked him up on. That told me this is where that big boy is probably living and bedding down. Now I’ve refined the area a little but how am I going to find his track? It’s only November 10th, it’s the first snow and it’s blowing close to 50mph out. Other than being warm, that’s about as good a recipe as you can have for slim to no deer movement especially the big old bucks. The one thing that gave me a glimmer of hope was that it had been so warm all fall, and by getting this serious shot of artic air accompanied by some weather, it might make those big old bucks get up and do some pre-rut rounds. Having said that, I fully believed there was basically zero chance of picking up a track from the road and a very slim chance of it in the woods. I knew I was going to have to go out and make it happen. I had to find where the deer were bedded down and jump them up in hopes one was a big buck. I knew that if I could some how find one of these big bucks and get him on his feet I had as good a chance as you can ask for to kill him, with lots of wind and a couple inches of fresh snow.
I parked my truck and started getting ready, my stuff was everywhere all over the truck and I had nothing ready. I still hadn’t gone through most of my gear from the year before. It must have taken me close to 30 or 40 minutes to get my gear together and the way I wanted it, while trying to eat some more breakfast and hydrate. I hadn’t been in any even remotely cold weather that fall and when I left my truck it said it was 14 degrees and the wind was blowing hard as ever. I struck off for the mountain peak I’d left that big buck on last year. Instead of heading straight for the side where I’d picked him up and where I had seen the most sign in the past I decided to go around the backside of the peak and hunt my way over to that area. This would put me on the lee side of the mountain and in what I thought might be a great place for a deer to be bedded down in. This backside/lee side had many thicker softwood areas with humps and knobs and my plan was to work through these and try to kick something up and hope for the best. It was about a two-mile hike to the back side of the mountain where I started climbing. I had put too many clothes on and was already sweating going up the steepest part. I got up high and there really was not much wind for how hard it was blowing. I had never really hunted this chunk of woods before and was excited about it. I proceeded to zig zag my way from the top of the ridge down through humps and lower spots that looked “deery” and then back to the top again. I did this at a good pace and probably covered another two miles or so. I had covered many pretty spots, but I hadn’t seen even one track of any living creature since I left the truck!
At this point I decided to try on the front side of the ridge where I had seen the most sign in the past and I had jumped the 2 big bucks the year before. The second I hit the top of that hill I got a face full of wind and I went from being hot to almost too cold in a matter of minutes. I had to put my facemask on just to breathe as I wasn’t used to the cold air yet. This side of the ridge is very steep softwood with little edges and humps with open hardwoods down below it. As I worked my way through every soft wood edge and hump I was starting to feel a little crazy being out there in the howling wind without seeing any sign of life, but I did not get discouraged. The woods were pretty, and it felt so good having the rush of the cold crisp air run through me. There was nowhere else that I’d rather be. Once I ran out of the softwoods and not having seen a track, I decided to drop down over the steep ridge into the hardwoods and angle my way down through them to get into the lower thicker country hoping some deer might be laying down there. I had also never hunted it before and wanted to check it out. Now, this piece of hardwoods I was angling through was where I would normally head straight for hoping to find sign and during the rut would have a decent chance of picking up a track there that was made in the night. I figured that with the wind blowing the way it was the odds were pretty slim of picking up a track there, so I hadn’t started there, but I still had hopes as I crossed through it. As I was coming down through these hardwoods I came to an old woods road that doesn’t really look like a road any more but if you were walking up the mountain that’s the way you’d go because it’s naturally the flattest and easiest. It was one of the places you always hope to pick up a track. As I stopped on the edge of the old road and was looking around, I saw something that looked like some kind of a track in the snow up ahead. The snow had blown everything in so much they weren’t clear but as I followed what was left of the tracks with my eyes, there was no doubt in my mind what had made them.
I got up to the tracks for closer examination, they were so blown in and distorted because of the wind and fluffy snow that it was tough to get much from them. I could see it was a good size track with a wide stance and pretty good stride. What I noticed the most was how much the tracks were turned out, that gave me a feeling down deep I can't explain. For some reason though I kept telling myself that this had to be a three-and-a-half-year-old buck out romping around, I was having a tough time believing that big mature buck made that track, at that place, in those conditions and at that time. Don’t doubt yourself or the facts laid out in front of you. Down deep I knew it had to be one of the big bucks that I jumped last year and if not, he was a good buck regardless and I was going after him!
I followed his tracks up the ridge where he had pretty much chased that old road, as he was doing a little zig zagging. It wasn’t long before I could see where he had fed, looking for next year’s fern buds under the leaves. With the thrown up leaves I could see he had done this while it was snowing before daylight. He was coming from the low ground heading up the ridge and feeding. As we worked our way up, there were two long finger ridges running out for the top of the mountain with green growth on top of them. It was a perfect place for a big buck to lay and watch his back tracks. The whole time I felt like I was being watched, so I kept a good eye out up high. I didn’t really care all that much though because I just wanted to get on this buck’s fresh tracks. The wind was also screaming so hard on that side of the mountain that it seemed very unlikely he’d be there, so I mostly tried to focus on the track. Over the next 400 yards he fed two more times in the same manor, now I’m getting really excited knowing he’s bedded down on top of this ridge or just on the other side somewhere. In places his track was barley visible and soon I lost it completely, so I did a small circle and couldn’t find it. Next circle was much bigger circle where I found some pock marks in the snow and followed them to where eventually I could see they were deer tracks again. Over the next 30 minutes I lost his track a couple more times doing small and large circles to pick him back up as fast as I could. At this point, the ridge was fairly open and we were up high in the wind and his tracks were mostly just tiny marks in the snow.
As I approach the top of the ridge where two peaks connect in a low spot (one of those natural paths over a mountain), I started to slow down significantly. Even though I was excited to get this buck up moving in these nice woods with the wind blowing, I knew I had a good chance at getting a look at him jumping out of his bed. Had it been earlier in the day or if I was super keen on shooting a buck in his bed I would have gone into ultra-death creep mode. Where it was close to noontime, with lots of wind and nice woods around me I wanted to make sure that I caught up to this buck above all else, because I knew if I got him up I’d get some good looks at him. I was worried that with eight or nine hour old tracks and spooky winds, that this might be the first of many beds and he still might be a long ways away. I slowed down to borderline death creep staying slow keeping my eyes peeled. The top of the ridge was mostly covered with softwoods with a few hardwoods mixed in and fairly thick. Just as I started to hit the peak of the ridge, I saw the tracks took a swing to the right and ran along the ridgetop towards a super thick chunk of softwoods. From what it looked like to me, the tracks were heading into the thicket. As I stopped and followed the tracks with my eyes the best I could, I was thinking the situation over and something didn’t seem quite right. A big buck heading into a thicket like that on a flat spot without being able to look at his back track seemed weird. I thought maybe he might have looped out onto a finger ridge to the right and had already seen me, or he just went through that piece of woods and was somewhere else ahead of me. For him to be laid down in there didn’t seem right, but I thought with this wind maybe he’s a little out of sorts.
I was slowly moving ahead one step at a time stopping with every step, trying to process all this and figure out where he might be. I was now walking the ridge top and had only made it maybe 40 yards across and the thicket was probably 50 yards straight ahead of me. Then I had a thought that maybe he made a big swing left and is bedded down just on the other side of the ridge out of the wind, where I was hoping to jump one earlier. The top of the ridge wasn’t very wide, the flat top was maybe 30 yards wide and I’m on the edge of the windy side. As I’m thinking this, I take my first step out past a little fir so that I can get a better look more to the left and maybe down over the ridge a little. I’m looking low and slow on my first pass scanning when suddenly there he is about 15 yards away underneath a little fir tree surrounded by a couple others. I saw a head and neck for maybe half a second before he snapped into action and pulled his head up where I got a flash side look at his rack and body. I’d say we saw each other at exactly the same time, it was an amazing split second in time. Then even more amazingly, he was instantly gone silently except for that soft thud. He slipped out the back of the small firs with one huge bound over the edge of the ridge out his escape route and I couldn’t see anything. I ran ahead angling towards the direction I thought he was headed towards, trying to find a place I could get a look at him. In about 3 seconds and maybe 20 yards there was a sliver of an opening where I could see down over the other side of the ridge between two big softwoods trees. Just as I looked down through I saw him just about the time he was mid jump. He was angling away from me and on the next jump while he was in the air at just about the top of his jump I touched off a shot. I had the bead right at the base of his tail and he was about 40 or 50 yards away. If I hadn’t read Hal’s books so many times I probably would have never taken the shot. I saw him land hard and his back end gave out for just a second before losing him again. I knew I’d hit him. I ran 30 yards or so to the edge of the thicket where I could see pretty good now down over the other side where it was kind of a bowl/ flat area with open hardwoods and some whips.
That amazing beast was still going a decent clip with a broken back, his back legs weren’t moving too well but his front end was. It was amazing how fast he was still covering ground, still half running and jumping he was getting to the edge of the bowl about 70 yards away. I fired once straight into a tree, fired again and missed clean and now he’s about to go over the next edge and get out of site again and even though I think I’ll probably get him regardless I want to take him down now, so he doesn’t suffer. I snap the 3rd shot and put one in his neck just before he got out of sight. At this shot he pulled up hard, hesitated and then kept moving forward but not too well. I took another step ahead again to see him better and put another one just above his shoulder. At that shot, the old boy stood up as straight as he could with his front legs, stretched out his neck and threw up his head looking up to the heavens and let out a great big grunt where he then finally dropped.
I immediately said a little prayer thanking God and asking him to not let this beast suffer. I was basically in shock of what came to fruition. It all happened so fast, that I was pumped but surprisingly composed at the same time. I was excited to get a close look at this buck as my blood and adrenaline were running as hard as ever. When I saw him get up out of his bed I remember him looking like a big animal, like horse at that angle. I threw a couple bullets in my clip and headed down the other side of the ridge to the edge of the small bowl where he laid. He was a large, fat, beautiful 9 pointer. He was so beautiful with the snow, huge ears and thick horns that had a real nice curl on them.
I got on a knee and thanked God for providing so much, the opportunity, the energy, and for this deer’s life that will help feed my family. He is a great faithful God. I then called my buddies on the radio and luckily got them. They had heard the shots and asked, “that wasn’t you shooting was it?” I told them where I was, to grab the sled, and where to meet me. I analyzed where I was and thought it best to go back over the mountain and down the other side to another finger road only about a mile away. As I took off to meet them I noticed my legs were starting to cramp pretty good in a couple places and by the time I got to the finger road I was walking straight legged. As I waited for them trying to stay warm and loose I walked easy and kept stretching. Once they got to me I asked if they had any water or Gatorade, but they said all they had was a couple celebration beers (which froze) and some soda. I told them about my legs and then started leading the way. We didn’t get 50 yards before both of my legs cramped up hard from my hamstrings all the way through my inner thighs to the top of my quads, I was literally done walking. I didn’t know what to do. I heard a trickling sound and maneuvered over to a spring. There I filled my Gatorade bottle up 3 times back to back and drank all of it in about 15 minutes while stretching. That seemed to do the trick and the Lord provided again. We made it to the buck, took some pictures, and got him in the sled and started dragging. I’m so thankful to have the best hunting crew in the world, there is nothing better. I dragged all I could but one of my buddies did probably 50% of the dragging while my other buddy and I did about 25% a piece. Going downhill there was as much steering from the back as there was pulling. Though we made it to finger road we still had 2 miles to go and many deep old washouts, and brooks to get through.
By the time we made it back to the truck it was 5:30 and pitch black. We were all very tired. I had shot the buck around 12:15. I was beyond exhausted at this point feeling light headed, sick, and excited all at the same time. The long physical week at work was catching up with me. I drank all the water I could as we drove out to weigh him up. When we got to the weigh station the place was packed with people eating dinner and lounging. As word spread we were weighing a decent deer soon there was 20 or 30 people watching the event. Everyone was making guesses and joking, having a good time. Many guessed around 200lbs a little over or a little under. One older woman said 226lbs and I was hoping she’d be right. Before he even got off the tailgate he was getting close to 200lbs and when he slid off tailgate everyone was shouting and making noise. I couldn’t see what the scale was reading from where I stood and there was just lots of noise being made when someone shouted 242 then 245 and final loud voice shouted 248lbs! It was a great fun time for everyone. I was so excited and overwhelmed with thankfulness for the deer, my friends, everyone there having a good time and for God and his glory. After all the handshakes and congratulations I bought my buddies and I dinner, but I could not bring myself to eat more than a few bites, as I felt so out of it from exhaustion. After more congratulations and talk about the day we made it back to camp and crashed. Driving back to the camp was all I could do, I hadn’t even got my camper set up yet and just crashed in my buddy’s camper I was so tired. I again said a prayer and thanked God for such an amazing day. I think he knew I was needed more at home that fall and gave me that gift so that I could be the husband and man he wanted me to be.