Tuesday, November 29, 2011

PA Deer Camp

This year's PA deer camp at Warrior's Mark Winery (Pete's Place) was highly memorable. We killed two bucks. Pete and Kelly fed me well and plied me with wonderful beverages. I had the best sandwich of my life (more on that later). I was serenaded by Pete and Kelly's beautiful children.

Pete and I had been talking about revising the deer plan for the Fie Woods and the Valley of Death since last year's inaugural deer camp. The lay of the land from my perspective is that you have a classic escape cover mature hemlock forest with blowdowns and blackberry brambles in the openings, with a steep ravine and meandering creek (sound familiar?), including thicket and marsh bramble in the bottom, surrounded by corn fields. This is a place to kill a big buck. But, as I gingerly tried to explain to Pete, you probably lesson your chances of doing that by charging headlong into the center of the escape and bedding cover first thing in the morning on opening day. A big buck may be killed, but it will be by the fat-assed hedgerow hunters surrounding the good stuff as the buck squirts out after being booted from his lair. Not optimal. A better plan, I argued, was to ease in, play the wind, and, since there are no elevated stands (a HUGE problem in terms of safety in that place), incrementally work down the contour, ambushing the deer coming in from feeding all night in the freshly cut corn fields (those that manage to survive the gauntlet awaiting them in the form of the orange-clad-woods-edge-pot-shots-over-the-big-field program).

Pete never really liked the plan. I think Pete, God bless him, would prefer a good view over a likely ambush. I noticed that Pete would go to great lengths to preserve a romantic notion that he was setting off into the pristine wilds to take on nature head to head, in the absence of all lesser men. In other words, seeing other hunters is a total buzz-kill for Pete. I can appreciate that. On the other hand, one can go lots of places within an hour of Pete and get really big woods, so the charade is lost on me. And, its opening day, a day to hunt wide-eyed and focused until sunset...views, what views? To me, this is a place where a handful of guys who have been doing the same thing for a long time continue to hunt, still fling a lot of lead over the field on running deer, and at least on opening day, few bother to get down into the good stuff. Though you may see other hunters, its a place to kill bucks. Pete has himself a honey hole to drool over. And, he has a "sense of place" and a history to contend with. So I get it, but am trying to contribute in some meager way in assisting in increasing "the take" a bit. Its fun and nutritious.

The area I was sure would produce early was downstream of the valley of death a ways. I hunted and scouted it thoroughly last year, making a lot of mental notes and memorizing the contours, game trails, blow-down openings, and so on. There is a point just above the "Duck bridge" where 5 heavily traveled game trails all converge in a bed of ferns. Twenty yards from this spot is a cluster of 3 big hemlocks in the shape of a triangle. There is a blow-down beside it. I made a blind there last year and I planned to get to it first thing this year, to hunt the escape routes early, as planned. The other hot spot was the blackberry bramble blow-down opening. I felt Pete should hunt that spot, as it had the most buck sign last year.

We hit the woods, as Pete reports, just before dawn. I asked about the flagging we agreed Pete would install prior to the hunt to insure a silent and confident entry in the darkness... Pete related to me that he gave the order but no privates executed it, so no flagging. This was problematic, as the timing depended upon the smooth, quiet entry. If our plan was to crash around in the crackling under-story of a mature coniferous forest, perhaps we should have stuck with the Pete plan, had crepes and champagnes at 3 am, and started walking shortly thereafter. At least we wouldn't feel rushed as we pushed deer out in to the next county. Undaunted, however, we soldiered on. At some point Pete leaned over to me and whispered "Plan B?" I responded that it was time to improvise, that we just needed to get in a 100 yards or so and then sit tight until it got lighter so we could stop making so much noise and pick a spot to sit/stand for the first 30 mins. We agreed on this, both of us doing a fine job of quelling feelings of a hunt gone bust. As luck would have it, we arrived in a blow-down clearing (the only one like this on this section of the ridge) totally overrun with blackberries. It was the one I hunted last year and wanted Pete to hunt. I recognized it immediately, having hunted over it for a few hours last year. I whispered excitedly to Pete... "This is the blackberry bramble blow-down. The main game trail is just below and down hill, where the buck sign was last year. This is a great spot," I said. "The other spot I was thinking of, Ambush Alley, is just 150 yards up stream, on this ridge, a little to the left. Do you want to split up and settle in?" I asked, anxious to let the woods settle and get my listening post up and going (I hunt predominately on audio mode, not visual). We agreed to split up, to hunt the top for a few hours, then work our way down to the stream below, and to Pete's hallowed valley of death (monster bucks DO live there, I am convinced).

I arrived at my spot, happy to have remembered things so well. I settled in. My phone buzzed as I rushed to my spot, so I retrieved it and saw two texts. Pete had seen another hunter and vacated the bramble blow-down. Damn! It was still dark enough that I needed to know where he was. I attempted to text back. No signal. We were out of communication, and had made no contingency plans. That was my error. I decided to focus on the hunt, and worry about reestablishing communication with Pete after the golden hour was over.

Fifteen minutes passed. There were turkeys clucking and putting and cutting. I saw a little motion in the distance, heard and sensed more motion, coming down one of the 5 trails towards me. Behind me , motion. I perked up, heard more. Gun up... doe. Cross hairs on her. Eased back to position of the first sounds, back up the ambush alley. Then, I was startled by a very close shot. Silence. No more turkeys. I cursed that jamoke. Probably poached a turkey. I later found out Pete had concluded his hunt by shooting a buck on the ambush alley. I stupidly sat tight for another two hours on that spot, while Pete gutted a deer, and then dragged it out. At 1000 I relocated. Down to the stream, as planned.

I saw deer running on the other side, saw antlers, but no shot. Too fast, too much brush. I ranged the area and saw that it was only 65 yards, so I stayed in that spot until 1145. While there, I noticed that young oaks lined the stream, and the deer had been digging for acorns. I then noticed a line of rubs on sapling hemlocks going up the ridge. I looked back at the water, and could see that the bottom lacked the dark green silt here, at this narrow spot. You could see little dimples in the bottom. A crossing! I got up and followed the buck rubs, then tracks, then located a switch back trail that joined the main trail back below the original blackberry bramble blow-down. There were fresh, maybe one or two day old rubs directly down hill from the bramble blow down. I decided to hunt here, given that it was noon, lunchtime, and perhaps Pete would circle back to the last point of contact to reestablish communication. I knew that one simply needs to set up with a favorable wind on a line of rubs like that and wait. Something will eventually happen.

I settled into my new blind, a nice fat tree with two crossed blow-downs in front for cover. I trimmed a little for shooting lanes, ranged a few landmarks, and listened. The shooting from the perimeter of the woods had slowed way down. I reached into my backpack for the sandwich that Pete had made. It was big and flattened a little, and appeared to be quality bread. I unwrapped the saran wrap a little and suddenly my deer sonar went berserk... I froze. Nothing. But now I was on alert. Finished unwrapping the sandwich and a beautiful little hunters sausage that reminded me of a lunch while hunting red-legged partridge in Spain. Sonar alert again... I paid more attention this time, scanning 360 degrees very thoroughly. Nothing. I returned to my sandwich, that Pete lovingly made, that I had been thinking about since 0930. I took a few bites... delicious meat and cheese and sun-dried tomato on rich thick bread. This was a high quality sandwhich, a true treat in the woods on a deer hunt. I looked down at my knees, at the lovely three-barreled wonder laying across my lap called a drilling, made by JP Sauer, that I had only blooded once, with Pete, on grouse, on the great Drowned Road covert near the "Thoroughfare Valley" along the Allagash in Maine. A fine sandwich and a fine gun. Deer hunting. Hard to beat.

I took another bite of my sandwich and noted that I was half way through it with a mix of pleasure and pain... chewed once or twice, and the deer sonar went off a third time. I froze, mouth full. I saw movement to my right. A deer... antlers - sort of. A half rack... 3 points. Dilemma... I promised Pete I'd shoot the first legal buck, since he mentioned that he was anxious to fill the freezer. But this was an ugly management buck, not what one travels all the way to a different state to hunt. And besides, I am eating my sandwich. He presented a broad side shot. I carefully set my sandwich down on my backpack. I peered through the scope, aware of the slight protrusion in my cheeks due to the sandwich I was waiting to chew and swallow. This is a chip-shot, I thought. Moved the scope and gun to the antlers to confirm three points. Good. Shall I attempt a buck with the drilling? He begins to quarter away. Yes, for the drilling and for Pete's freezer. BANG. Right barrel slug-- connects, but a little right on the quartering away shot. Hits left rear hip and angles nicely through vitals. He's hurt bad, but this is, as Pete calls it, the Jamoke-osphere... I need to anchor this deer. Breaking all of my own rules, I stand up and fire again. Grazing miss at 70 yards (poor shot selection with the second slug smooth bore). He's hobbling off toward the cornfields and a death in a firefight. I reach for a handful of 30-06 and note the exact position of my half sandwich... and off I go after the management buck. I catch up to him quickly, he is loudly stumbling forward, presents an 80 yard broadside. The drilling rifle barrel barks, and the deer is down. First ungulate blood on the drilling.

I quickly tag the deer, aware of an orange-clad perimeter zombie eyeing me only 100 yards away. After tagging, I grab the single antler and heave mightily, hauling the deer in a kind of sprint back to the blackberry bramble blow-down. I rush back to my blind only 30yards away, and savor the second half of my sandwich, and the sweet feeling of a buck on opening day, management buck or otherwise.


Dr. Dirt said...

All true, all true! My favorite:

"I peered through the scope, aware of the slight protrusion in my cheeks due to the sandwich I was waiting to chew and swallow."

Dr. Dirt said...

And yes, I had not flagged the route, hence our numerous encounters with the jamoke-osphere. My bad. Funny how I'd already forgotten that detail...

Jim Tantillo said...

probably the best pair of writeups this blog has seen in a long time.

good job boys!!

KGT (aka Cagey) said...

I neglected to fully describe the 2 mile deer drag... boy am I sore from THAT.

Next year, radios, tree stands, and a 4-wheeler.

It was awesome, Pete. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Boys, I read this with envy...

Next year in Warrior's Mark!