The Start of a Passion
When people ask a deer hunter about their first time harvesting a buck, typically the story goes something like “I was 12 years old sitting in the stand with dad and a buck stepped out and I shot him.” But the story of my first buck didn’t go that way. In fact, it took quite a few years of hunting and failing before I was finally able to put my yellow tag on a majestic PA whitetail buck, 13 years in fact. This is the story of my quest for my first buck.
Hunting for me, like most guys, started with my family. My father and grandfather were avid hunters throughout my young childhood. For 12 years I listened to stories of great bucks being taken off the mountain and the camaraderie surrounding deer camp. But to the 11-year-old me, it was all still a mystery. My father and grandfather belonged to a hunting camp of about 10 guys that hunted together for 20 plus years. Every year when they would be packing up to make the drive to camp, I would be sitting there begging to be taken along. And every year I heard “sorry buddy you will get to go when you’re older”. So, every year that anticipation built up until it was finally time.
Fall of 2006 rolled around and before I knew it I was finally sitting in a hunter safety course preparing for hunting season. I passed the exam with a 95% and I was ready to hit the woods. That first year was one of my most memorable, even though my dad and I didn’t see one single deer. We sat out there in the bitter cold for 3 days killing nothing but time, but I didn’t care one bit because I was finally in the woods for real with my role model. What I didn’t realize at the time was that would be the last year I would get to hunt with my dad due to his workload and time constraints from that, I cherished every minute.
The following years I was fortunate enough to hunt with my grandfather. I love that man, but boy was he a hard hunter. Unlike the year before with dad, I wasn’t allowed to eat my 3 or 4 Little Debbie’s or crinkle my bags of chips or sit down and take naps. No, this time we were hunting “for real”. We were serious hunters out there looking to bag a deer, not have a vacation in the woods. He taught me the game of ground hunting. We would pick a good tree with good visibility around us, kick the leaves out around making a circle around it, and stand there waiting. We stood there like that for the next 4 years without firing a shot, but that still didn’t matter because I was out there doing it. After hunting sunup to sun down, we would be walking back to the truck and me, being a young teenager, would start to feel like we failed. My grandfather would look at me and say “Josh this isn’t an easy game, but one day you will find success if you work hard enough. You can’t measure success by what you shoot, you measure success by the time and effort you spent doing it”. Those words still resonate with me to this day.
As time went on and I got older I found interest in other hobbies that started to conflict with my time in the woods. All through high school I played football, basketball, and baseball, sometimes for 2 or 3 teams in one season, and that cut severely into my hunting time. But every year I still found one day to head to camp to be with the guys and get at least one day in the woods. There were at least 2 occasions where my team was playing in the state final on Friday night. I got back to the high school, jumped in my car and headed to camp, not getting there until almost 12:30. I didn’t care how tired I would be when that 4 AM wake up call came on, I was just ready to hit the woods again.
When it came time to graduate from high school and head off to college, I still had yet to fire a shot in the PA deer woods. By then I had become quite the small game and waterfowl hunter, but I just couldn’t get that first deer under my belt. Well, fall of 2012 came and again I found myself on a football field instead of a tree stand. But after a long season, I finally found time to get in the woods on the first Saturday of PA rifle season. I’ll never forget that day.
My grandfather’s time in the woods had come to an end and I was hunting with my cousin, Doug. We had hunted together for a few years at this point and I was starting to understand more about the game of hunting whitetails. Once my football workouts for the day were done, I loaded my stuff and headed for camp but, what I didn’t know is that I had forgotten my rifle at home. When I got to camp, I realized the mistake I made but, fortunately for me, old grandpa had a sixth sense and decided to bring his trusty old Savage model 99 chambered in 300 savage and allowed me to use it.
We woke up on that first Saturday of rifle season and headed to our stands. All morning a thick fog plagued us hunters on the top of the mountain, so we moved down to stands lower on the mountain around noon. I wasn’t in my stand for more than 5 minutes before my first deer EVER seen while hunting came walking through. It was two large doe and a smaller yearling. And before I knew it, I had my first deer on the ground. That feeling was so surreal to finally accomplish what I had been working at for 6 years up to that point.
Now we will fast forward 7 years and I find myself a student of the whitetail game. I had made a great friend who persuaded me to join the archery hunters club. Being out of school and a little more established in life, I spent a lot of time honing my craft and learning everything I could from anyone I could. I was reading books and blogs and attending seminars all for one common goal, to tag a whitetail buck.
Fall of 2019 marked my 4th season hunting archery, but I never gave up rifle hunting. That archery season I spent just about 14 days in the woods and saw some amazing things I never had the chance to experience. During peak rut I had the opportunity to see some awesome breeding action that I had only seen on tv up to that point. A large 8 point came cruising through my set up trailing a hot doe, but just as he came into range, a spike and a small 3 point came running in which sent the big boy into a testosterone filled frenzy. He was snorting and raking the ground with his antlers and ended up running off the two small bucks, but also ran out of my life. I was left there in the tree, bow in hand, shaking at what I had just witnessed. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t fire a single arrow but I still had the best day in the woods in my whole life up to that point.
Time to Grab the Rifle
Archery season ended, and although I didn’t put a tag on anything, I didn’t care one bit. I had my best year in the whitetail woods by far, so my spirits were through the roof. A few weeks went by and finally the day came, rifle season. I packed the bags and headed to camp, once again carrying grandpas old savage 99.
Traditionally Pennsylvania started their rifle season on the Monday after thanksgiving, but this year the game commission had decided to move it up to the Saturday after thanksgiving, much to the dismay of the older hunting crowd. Due to my work schedule, I always found myself missing opening day, but not this year. For the first time in 4 years I was in the woods for the opener.
My brother and I woke up for our 4am breakfast with the camp, loaded the 4 wheelers and headed up to the top of the mountain. I got settled into my stand, a spot I hadn’t hunted in the 2 years prior, and anxiously awaited daylight. Around 6:30am a flock of turkeys flew down from their roost and about scared the daylights out of me. I jokingly sent a text to my brother about what had happened and we both got a good laugh. A few minutes later he texted me again saying “just saw your turkeys and man did they sound like deer”. I chuckled and not more than 2 seconds later, as I was putting my phone back into my pack, I heard footsteps coming my way. Figuring it was the turkeys working back around I was skeptical of it being deer. A moment later I saw a set of legs walking through the thick underbrush, and I knew it was on.
The Moment of Truth Finally Arrives
In Pennsylvania, the first week of rifle season is typically antlered deer only, so I was still skeptical and figured it was doe moving in, but decided to pick up my rifle anyway. I’m sure glad I did because a minute or two later, I see him pick his head up and I realize right away it’s a shooter buck. My heart started pounding as I anxiously awaited him to work through the thick underbrush he was feeding on, heading straight for me. I shouldered my gun and waited for him to enter a clear shooting lane. I waited, all the years of work and hunting culminating to this moment, he steps into the opening and looks straight at me and takes off. I was stunned. Due to the direction he was coming in, he was just about eye level with me higher up on the mountain. I couldn’t believe it, so I let out the best “meh” I could muster and he stopped just between 2 trees to see what the noise was. I couldn’t see his whole body, but I could see his front leg and traced it up to his vitals and pulled the trigger. BAM! He went crashing down the mountain and I desperately tried to watch through my shaking scope. “Did I hit him?? Did he go down??” A million things raced through my head. I sat the rifle down and picked up my binoculars, scanning the trees looking for where he may have ended up. Then, I see a flash of white and I realized, he’s down.
The moments following were some of the most emotional I have ever had as a hunter. I was shaking and just in disbelief of the events that had just transpired. I finally got to send one of the most anticipated text messages of my life to my brother and cousin, “WE GOT A BUCK DOWN BOYS!”. I waited a few minutes, which felt like hours, before I decided to pack up and get down from the stand to go look for him. I went to the spot of impact and found a ton of blood, so I was confident I hammered this buck. I tracked the trail about 40 yards down the mountain and then I spotted him, my first buck. I got down on one knee and just thanked the good lord above for blessing me with the chance to harvest this amazing animal.
I picked up the phone and the first person I called was my dad. He usually isn’t an early riser so I expected to be leaving him a message, but he answered and I said “Dad I finally did it”. He said he knew right away when he saw me calling, what I was calling for and jumped out of bed. I shared the story with him and it was time to call grandpa next. He answers the phone and before I can say anything he says “So how big is he?” and I told him how I used his savage 99 and we both laughed saying how if I want to bag a deer, that gun is apparently the only thing that works for me.
I hung up the phone and just sat there next to my trophy buck just in absolute awe of what I was seeing. 13 years in the making, and it didn’t disappoint one single bit. He was an old mountain buck that was once an 8 point that had broken one of his tines in a fight. Turns out, we saw that same buck the night before while a group of us were out spotlighting the local fields at the bottom of the mountain. He might not have been a record breaking deer, but he was a trophy to me nonetheless.
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