It was a Tuesday morning. Adam and I had skipped school today to go hunting. For us, this would be the year of the whitetail. We’d prepared all summer and fall. We scouted for sign, found prime locations for tree stands, built and hung the stands, and did everything else we could think of to increase our chances to kill a whitetail buck. We bought all of the gear that we had heard and read that a real hunter needs. Included in our outfits were buck urine, doe urine, rattling antlers, scent pads, some special clothing that would keep us warm, and more than enough “Scent-a-Way” spray. We washed our clothes in the special scent-free detergent, dried them with the scent free dryer sheets, and hung them outside in plastic bags with fir boughs. One thing was for sure – no deer was going to smell us.
We met at my house the night before to talk over strategy and prepare for the next morning. I remember my dad saying, “You guys aren’t gonna find any deer. I guarantee you’ll be back here at the house at eight o’clock, done hunting for the day”. I’m not sure if that was his motivational speech or if he truly doubted us, or if he was just jealous since he had to work that day. Either way, we both felt pretty serious about deer hunting at the time, and determined to stay out there as long as it took. My dad’s words were further motivation.
I can’t say that dad was totally wrong, either. Deer densities in northern Maine were so low that it really was difficult to believe that a couple of newbies could go out there and bag a buck. This was an area where old timers had hunted the woods for decades with little to no deer to show for it. The odds were certainly stacked against us.
The next morning we were off in the dark, walking up the old dirt road behind my house and headed for our deer stands half a mile away. Our stands were a few hundred yards apart, on the edge of some old potato fields that had long since been retired but were still mowed each year. We set up and waited for daylight. I could see a good piece of the narrow field my stand was in, and could have swore I saw deer, or things that looked just like deer, in those pre-light moments that seemed like hours. Finally the field got lighter and lighter, and each ‘deer’ turned out to be either a rock, bush, or some other mundane object that had taken the form of a whitetail buck before there was enough light to see.
About a half hour after dark, Adam and I met up. I can’t remember whether I walked over to his stand or he walked to mine. Regardless, we both felt that we weren’t being very productive just sitting there. The day was cloudy and calm, with a two day old snow on the ground. From Adam’s stand, one could see a vast expanse of field, the largest fields in the entire township, but there really wasn’t much to see. No deer, anyhow. The deer were in the forest, we thought, and we’d better try and find them in there.
We made our way back across the edge of the fields and into the woods. The old roads that served as trails through these woods were like arteries that cut through our hunting grounds and allowed us to make quick time through the forest. Today, though, we took our time. We were looking for deer tracks in the snow. After walking about halfway back to the house, I veered off the trail, looking for sign in the snow. Not long thereafter, I cut a track.
Though the snow wasn’t fresh, this track was. The quick freezing and thawing of the snow in this weather aged tracks quickly, and it was easy to tell that this track had likely been made early this morning. The track paralleled our hunting trail, but never crossed it. Clever, I thought. Maybe this was a big old buck who was too wise to cross a trail used by hunters. If I hadn’t left the trail, I never would have seen the sign.
I followed the deer tracks a ways further. Up until this point, I wasn’t sure that the tracks I was following were actually those of a buck. Sure, they looked big, but I hadn’t seen too many tracks in the woods – deer were scarce here – and couldn’t easily tell a buck from a doe track. Then I found it. A rub.
The buck had rubbed its antlers against a small sapling along its path, leaving fresh wood shavings atop the aging snow. It was then that excitement really hit me: I was on the track of a buck! I waited for Adam to catch up and showed him the rub. We looked down from our high vantage point on the buck’s trail. I could see my house below here, the driveway and the main road. I could see the spot in the driveway where the school bus picked my sister and I up each day to take us to school over an hour away. Not today, though. I was amazed that this buck could have been hanging around so close to my house, close enough to watch me each morning as I boarded the bus and took the long trip to school, reading Outdoor Life magazines and dreaming about being in the woods.
Returning to reality, Adam and I discussed the buck track. We had plenty of tracking snow and the trail looked pretty fresh to us. We would follow it. In fact, I think I even insisted that we follow the track until we found the buck, no matter what. So we followed.
The buck track led back into the woods, running up the side of the ridge toward its peak. In the last hundred or so yards below the peak, however, the buck did something strange. (I thought it was strange at the time, but have since learned it’s a tactic some deer use to shake followers off their trail) The trail started zig-zagging through the hardwood trees. Back and forth we went, intent on not losing the trail. We zig zagged up the hill and reached the top.
Along the top of the ridge the trail went, then headed down the other side. The moment I looked down the backside of the ridge I saw it. A huge buck standing still just 50 yards below me!
I wish I could remember my emotions more clearly at the time. I was certainly dominated by a feeling of excitement and anxiety, but none of the ‘buck fever’ that I’d heard so much about. Adam’s feeling was one of surprise. He had dropped his hat while walking on the trail behind me, bent down to pick it up, and looked up to see me aiming my gun at the deer.
I cocked back the hammer on the .30-30 Winchester and lined up the open sights. KA-POW! Missed. Why? I wasn’t sure, but the buck didn’t move. He had just gotten up from his bed and likely wasn’t ready to take off running just yet. I jacked another shell in, or thought it did. The next shot resulted in a ‘click’. No shell in the chamber. I fully cycled the action this time and made sure a shell was in the chamber, leveled the sights and gave it one last try.
I fired and the buck dropped. The feeling of elation that overcame me was something I’ll always remember. My first deer, a huge bodied buck with a nice rack, tracked down right behind my home. It was unbelievable. We celebrated.
I tagged the big brute and we tried to figure out how we were going to get it up over the hill and down to the house. Even with all of our preparation for hunting, we really hadn’t taken into account the fact that we might kill something! How would we dress it? Neither of us had gutted out a deer before. It seemed fairly simple from what I’d heard and read in the magazines. But we really didn’t know what we were doing, so we tugged and pulled and tried our best to get the buck up the ridge, guts and all. We couldn’t move the brute more than a few feet.
I called my grandfather, who was just down the road, for help. He and my uncle showed up soon and Adam, my uncle Mark and I dragged that deer up over the ridge, down the other side and to the truck where my grandfather was waiting, knife in hand to show us how to gut the deer.
I called my mom, who was the secretary at the elementary school in Eagle Lake. She was excited. She told the principal, a fellow hunter who was excited despite the fact that we both were supposed to be in class. Our truancy was forgotten in the wake of our success. We felt like kings.
We went over to the tagging station in town to officially get the thing tagged. Killing a buck in this area was a big deal, and the latest big buck always became the talk of the town. We did the paperwork, showed off the deer and headed to Portage, since Eagle Lake no longer had a scale with which to weight my buck. Weight matters in northern Maine, where trophies are referred to in pounds of dressed weight, not antler scores.
He tipped the scales at 228 pounds, well over the 200-pound requirement to qualify for the “Biggest Bucks in Maine Club”. Back at the house, the next task was to get the thing hung up. After some brainstorming and different attempts, we ended up attaching a rope to the four wheeler on one end and the buck on the other. The rope was wrapped over top of a beam in the garage, and with a tug from the four wheeler, the buck was hanging in the air. I left it there, attached to the machine.
When my dad got home from work it was well after dark and he didn’t have a clue what had happened.
“Hey dad”, I said to him. “I think there’s something wrong with the four wheeler. It won’t move anywhere, no matter what we try. It’s in the garage. Check it out.”
Dad figured he’d take a look. When he opened the door and saw the buck hanging from the rafters, his face lit up.
My first buck was cause for quite the celebration. It was a memorable event, but just the beginning of many hunting adventures I’d be lucky enough to have in my future. I still can’t help but enjoy thinking back on it.