The “Almost Maybes”

It was Saturday, November 14th, 2020. During a year that seemed to have something strange happening around each corner, for PA, this particular weekend was no different. The next day, November 15th would be the first Sunday of hunting in Pennsylvania’s history, well for deer at least. But, this story isn’t about Sunday hunting, this story is about an “almost maybe.” 

As I settled in for an evening hunt, the sun was shining and the air was cool. That morning had shown that the rut activity was in full swing. A nice 8 point had come right into the food plot I was sitting over, chasing a doe. While the doe came well within perfect shooting range, 16 yards to be exact, the buck stood on the opposite side of the food plot watching until the doe took off running once again. But, this evening was much different. It was very quiet. Seemingly perfect. No wind and feed was readily available. Hoping for the hot doe to bring in another buck I hunkered in for the evening sit.

Fifteen minutes before dark, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. A small buck was working up the edge of the food plot, coming right into my shooting lanes. While glancing at the buck, I noticed that this buck was anything but legal. I watched as the buck fed at 15 yards. Bits of clover being chewed on and the core of my apple that I had just snacked on being eaten as well. As the buck worked his way from left to right, one more thing caught my eye. I wasn’t looking at a 4 point, I was glancing at my first legal buck of the season. Low and behold, the buck in front of me was a legal buck in Clearfield county, WMU 2E. The buck, still feeding, was now behind branches.

I drew my bow back and waited for the buck to enter the opening. For what seemed like hours, I held my bow back and the buck slowly entered my shooting lane. I eased on the trigger of my release and the buck took off. Stopping briefly at the edge of the food plot and then taking off again into the woods. I waited to hear the crashing of my first deer on my own piece of property. A small 14-acre parcel in Woodland, PA. I waited for about 15 minutes and climbed down. Looking for my arrow, I quickly found it. That’s when it hit me, I completely missed. Excitement hit me, as it always does, and I just missed him.

Proof of my miss, on top of the completely clean arrow, came 5 hours later when the buck made an appearance on my Covert trail camera. To this day, I cannot figure out how I missed it, knowing what I know now, it was very clear an almost maybe. I almost shot what may be my first buck on my own property. An almost maybe. 

I took the next three days off of hunting for the last week of archery. Knowing full well that I would be back out on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of that week with fellow staffer Dylan Dando. After my wife had to get tested for COVID-19, I delayed my hunting awaiting the results. So what should have been three full days of hunting, started off missing the first-morning hunt. I arrived at my parent’s house, near the small town of Clarksburg in Indiana county, Pennsylvania.

I was excited to be archery hunting one of my favorite stands. A stand that has no issue drawing in lots of deer, especially in the rut. One month prior, on October 17th, our Covert camera took one picture of a giant buck that my dad and I examined and “fangirled” over plenty of times between hunts. While looking at this picture time and time again, we could never fully figure out if this deer had 10 points, 11 points, or maybe even more.

My dad had harvested a great 10 points on the second day of the season and this buck showed up two weeks after that. So for dad, he was living his excitement through me. Living so far away and not making it home, dad and I converse back and forth and I look at the maps, he does all the footwork. In order to save time and eliminate scent, dad helped Dylan and me get started by hanging up a double set for us. Now all that was left to do was hunt.

I made it home on Wednesday morning around 10 am. The first thing I did was run into the kitchen and dig into the fridge. I was looking for one thing. One of my favorite parts of eating venison. The heart. My dad prepares it the same way my grandparents had prepared it. Cooking it, slicing it thin, and then placing it in a vinegar brine with sliced onions.

As dad and I snacked back and forth, we talked about the lack of deer movement on the cameras and what some other options might be. Having just seen prime rut activity 4 days earlier in my own county, I told myself that I had to stick it out in the setup that I was set on hunting. If that mystery giant buck was still around, he would be in that area. There is lots of covers, prime bedding, and good food all within a small area.

Our first hunt seemed too good to be true. No wind, calm and cool. As the evening faded into night, Dylan and I saw an extreme lack of deer. We saw none. Hoping that Thursday morning would be better, Dylan and I had our hopes set high. We were utilizing a decoy and decided on leaving it as a doe in hopes that a buck would be seeking. At 8:30 we heard some crashing and Dylan excitedly said, “Ones running in!” Quickly finding the deer, it was a 2.5-year-old 8 point. A high white rack glistened briefly as he stopped just shy of the decoy which, was also just shy of being in my shooting lane.

Where the deer came in and stopped, Dylan never had a good angle with the camera and never got a good look at the buck. But, he turned around and slowly walked away. The next two hunts would be extremely unproductive. Seeing only 2 more deer that ran quickly past. We decided that the final hunt of the season, Friday night, was something that we were deciding against. We ended up fishing at the Yellow Creek Trout Club instead. While it wasn’t hunting, it was still time well spent in the woods. Archery season came to a close, another buck that to me, was an “almost maybe.” 

As the Thanksgiving festivities came to a close just a few days after archery season had ended, the infamous Pennsylvania rifle season was now upon us. Saturday, November 28th, the opening day of rifle season. I sat in the same tree stand I was just in a week prior. As you can see, this is my favorite place to sit. The glory of this spot in rifle season is much different than in archery.

In archery, I am looking for the natural deer movement, however, that all changes on the opening day of rifle season. What goes from natural deer movement now depends on the movement of other people. I have sat in this stand for roughly five years in a row. The deer always get bumped across from a large chunk of public land usually a half-hour after daylight.

As I worked my way into the stand, I realized that this year would be much different. The hunters were already on the public land and much earlier than they had been the years leading up to this one. And, as the hunters moved in early, so did the deer. At 6:30, I could hear them sneaking their way through the woods. The morning came to a close for me around noon when I decided to head home and take a nap before deciding where I should go next. After all, it was a little shocking not seeing any deer on the first morning of the season.

I went to my basement and met with my dad to try and make a game plan for my evening hunt. I could hunt the stand I was in during my morning hunt or one of two other stands. One that overlooked the oak stand where I squirrel hunted growing up, or the stand that we called “The Tall Stand.” The latter of the two was always a good stand, it sits in the middle of two ravines and just ten years ago, I shot a really great 8 point that still hangs on my wall to this day.

That was the stand I decided on. The stand gets its name for the obvious reason, it’s a stand that sits extremely tall in the trees. It’s a ladder stand that we put an extra rung on adding an extra four feet in height. But, this is where I would sit for my evening hunt. Hoping to get a glimpse of the 8 point I had seen in archery or even a different 8 that my dad had seen in archery. As the beginning of my story proves, I hunt for the excitement, and any deer that passes is usually a deer that excites me.

At 4:30, I noticed a doe and two fawns working down one hillside and back up to my hillside. A short while later, two more fawns and another doe joined them. The fawns began running around and chasing each other while the doe fed and kept watch. Just over 60 yards away, I kept them in my sight as to not spook them and potentially ruin the last bit of my hunt. Doe season was in but I didn’t have a tag for the area I was in. I could see other hunters up the hill from me and was hoping they wouldn’t spook them as well.

But, as strange as it could be, I heard a rustling to my left and in came a lone doe. Stopping at about 50 yards in the creek bottom. The original six deer took off running up over the hill. The new deer just watched in awe seemingly wondering why the other deer were running away from her. As the noise settled down, the doe began to feed her way up the hill toward me, stopping at some acorns just 20 yards away. While I kept her in my sight, I continued scanning back and forth to see if any other deer were working their way in. I heard what sounded like a high-pitched grunt. Disregarding the sound, I kept scanning.

Upon hearing it again, I looked to see if the doe beside me was also alert to the sound. That’s when I realized that what I was hearing might actually be something I needed to see. The doe was peering into the pine thicket straight ahead of me. Now 100% certain that what I was hearing was a grunting buck, I noticed a rack working its way through the woods. As someone who gets extremely excited, I looked at the rack long enough to do two things.

The first thing was to note that the deer had four legal points on one side. The second thing was a brief comment to myself, “that’s a nice buck.” I never looked at the rack again. I pulled the gun up and slowly peered to see if I startled the doe. Her eyes were just as locked on him as his were on her. As I found the buck in my scope, I slowly slipped off the safety. I kept the crosshairs just behind the shoulder as I watched him get closer and closer.

As his vitals cleared all the brush, I steadied and… BOOM! The rifle cracked. The doe took off the hill behind me and the buck ran about 30 yards. Now directly in front of me at roughly 60 yards, he stopped. Worried about what may have happened with my shot, I pulled up, steadied the crosshairs behind the buck’s shoulder one more time, and… BOOM! The buck ran about 20 more yards and stopped again.

Confusion and worry set over me. I couldn’t imagine how I could miss two shots at this buck and even more so, how I was about to get a 3rd shot. BOOM! The rifle cracked one more time and the buck disappeared. Assuming that during that shot the buck dropped, I called my dad to help me do some tracking. As I climbed down and out of the tree stand, I began walking to where I had last seen the buck. Just as I had thought, the buck was there. When the last shot fired, he went down in his tracks and then slid into the small creek bottom below his feet.

As I first saw the full rack, I began to realize that the buck I shot, may very well be the mystery buck we got a picture of back in October. Not only was it the same buck, but it was also much larger than we expected. While we thought he may be a 10 or an 11, he was truly a 12. I couldn’t believe the size of this buck laying on the ground before me.

I went through my normal call log. Dad is always first, followed by a few other friends and family. Sharing the brief story before dad made it down to help with retrieval. We couldn’t believe it. The deer we had hoped we would see, was now laying there with us.

Dad and I shared a hug and slowly made our way out of the woods. Many pictures were taken and the story told countless times. The taxidermist was already waiting for me when I got there the next day. The excitement still sits with me to this day. That’s what hunting is all about. The excitement, the stories, the family, and the respect for nature. While I shot what very well could be the largest buck I ever harvest, I will be just as excited with an almost maybe 5 point during the next season…

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