Last weekend was our rifle season opener and the cool weather and rut had the bucks showing themselves everywhere. For three weeks before this I had been bow hunting and had several close encounters with nice bucks but no shots. I came close twice with a nice ten-point buck on the Sunday before. That morning at 15 yards I was a little casual about my seated, slow-and-quiet draw technique. After sitting still for 90 minutes in the cold my tight muscles rebelled and I was actually unable to pull the bow all the way back. First time it’s ever happened to me. Under practice conditions I could probably pull 10 to 15 pounds more than my bow’s draw weight…but not this time. Later that afternoon the same buck surprised me from behind. While carefully looking over my left shoulder I slowly turned in my seat, the tip of my arrow just oh-so-barely scratched the bark on a tree and the big guy bolted. I didn’t see him again while hunting during that last week of the bow season even though I hunted hard.
So on the next Saturday morning at “oh-dark-thirty” we all filed out of the cabin with our rifles to head to our stands and take up our watch. I climbed to my stand and readied my equipment as quietly as I could. I was able to see ghostly shapes out in the marsh grass now, just minutes before legal shooting time. Since the dark sky was spitting a bit, my optics struggled to give me a clear view at this distance. By ten minutes past legal light I was pretty sure the larger hulk next to the medium hulk was a shooter buck. I watched over the next ten minutes as he followed her slowly for about 50 yards across the marsh.
Given another ten minutes of improvement to the light, I confirmed that this was one of the bucks I had placed high on my shopping list. At this time of the morning I could expect the buck and doe to head off into the taller grass or into heavy brush to bed down for the day…or to do the nasty deed! A shooting decision would have to be made soon. Now I could clearly see that the doe was unconcerned but the buck was looking in my direction. Even at nearly 500 yards a buck can smell man and a light wind was at my back. Through the 40 power setting on my Swarovski scope, he seemed to be looking right into my eyes in a disconcerting manner. “He knows I’m here!”
Just then the big doe stepped out into one of the shooting lanes I had cut with my tractor mower a couple months ago. She turned north and took two slow steps down the lane. The buck was still tucked into the grass but with a dark, brushy background behind him. He was a little tough to make out perfectly but I had to act. If he took a couple more steps into the lane he would then turn north to follow his sweetheart. Then I would be faced with turning down a walking-away butt shot.
Meanwhile I had been checking the range…again and again. The repetition was done partly because they were moving. But it was also because it is so difficult in the tall marsh grass to be sure the rangefinder’s target is really the deer and not the grass beyond the deer. Adjust the Nightforce scope one more time…454 yards. The doe has stopped. The buck is broadside and stationary.
Since the range was only 454 yards I aimed for the shoulder and not the larger kill-zone centered on a spot just behind the shoulder. I wanted to anchor him rather than risk having a dead-on-his-feet, double-lunged deer run fifty to one hundred yards further into the tall grass. Two years ago I double-lunged a buck at 525 yards and it took much time to find him…only 70 yards away. The scent deposited in the area by me and my son kept other deer out of that area for a couple weeks.
Now…at my shot the doe stood still. But the buck disappeared as the 176 grain, 7mm Cauterucio bullet penetrated both shoulders, knocking him off his feet. After a couple of minutes the doe moved slowly off down the lane. I marked the spot mentally and relaxed in my stand high above the marsh. I knew my fresh groceries would still be there when I went to collect them but I would wait about two hours. My son, Andy, and his friends were also hunting and I didn’t want disturb the area and reduce their chances during the two best hours of the entire gun season.
Later, to approach my marked spot I keyed off of the intersection of the shooting lane and the narrow horizontal band of short, dark brush that terminated at the lane. There he was…but not the bigger 10-point that I had expected. Only slightly smaller, this 10-point buck was new to the neighborhood and I hadn’t seen him before. That happens during the rut. These larger, breeding bucks travel great distances in search of romance and adventure. But his adventure was now over.
Sunday we all walked out under bright, twinkling stars and I knew hunting would be good again this morning. This is my favorite gun season weather. There was a clear sky, little wind and frosty-white marsh grass that would contrast with the brown coat of a deer even better than usual in the faint pre-dawn light. In the still air I tried to be quiet climbing my 24 foot ladder but the frigid wooden joints of the ladder still creaked slightly under my deliberate steps.
Wisconsin deer hunting rules have a “group hunt” provision. This allows one hunter to fill the buck tag of another nearby hunter in his “group” so I was good to go again this morning if I saw an especially nice buck. Shortly after getting my equipment set up I glassed a deer only 111 yards out from me. Fifteen minutes later I could see well enough to call it a buck…not sure how big. He slowly moved behind a big pine. Then I turned in my seat to concentrate on the same area where I saw yesterday’s buck.
Andy’s friend, Tim, had shot at and hit a nice buck late the day before. We had waited a while and then tracked it for a half-hour. At that point, based on the sign, I felt we were pushing it too much and it would be better to wait until tomorrow to try again. We would all hunt for the first few hours of the next day and then resume our search. I had seen the buck run as it was hit and thought it was probably the big one I was hoping for. Now on Sunday, thinking he was already dead, the morning’s hunt was more relaxing as I cared little whether I shot just any other buck on the second day.
Now it was light enough to see further out into the marsh…and that sure looked like a buck out there. He was standing in tall grass, just shoulders and head showing, and a thin, wispy ribbon of fog was rising just above him. The ribbon was about 100 yards wide and it was the only fog on an otherwise clear morning. Again, as yesterday, I could just make it out to be a buck, not sure of its size. But minutes later, as the fog rose into the still air, I could see its antlers more clearly…a ten-point! And then I noticed the large white throat patch that marked the bigger ten-point I had seen again just last Thursday.
On that evening I had gone out not with my bow but with my spotting scope to scout…2 days before the gun season opened. This same buck had then first appeared 400 yards out and worked its way boldly across the open marsh. He finally passed only 73 yards from me and continued on to a probable assignation with some flirtatious doe in the woods behind my stand. I thought this was the one who made a fool of me twice the previous Sunday on my bow stand! I’ll teach him not to make a fool of me…a third time! Only my wonderful wife is allowed to do that.
He was now moving laterally and I ranged him a few times. All of my optics were frosty this morning and I worked to keep them reasonably clear. I would prefer to wait for better light for my shot but he seemed to be less comfortable as the light level improved. He was in taller grass than yesterday’s buck. Now he was facing me head-on. What a beautiful deer! Moments like this are a big part of what I like about long range hunting.
My Leica Locator-Plus rangefinder is the best made and I needed this quality in the challenging conditions. I couldn’t get a sure hit on just the head and top of the shoulders. For stability I have my rangefinder mounted on a tripod ballhead attached to a short metal pod placed on the surface of my shooting platform. Today I needed this stability for such a challenging ranging target. I placed the small yellow circle on the buck’s head and shoulders and pressed the range button. When I then did the same to the grass on either side of him I got the same reading. This meant I was actually ranging the grass behind him and not his body. I deducted a little from the reading and settled on 504 yards.
He turned and seemed to almost lean as though he would walk. He had worked his way left to the brushy edge of the marsh. It was now or never. Exactly six-point-five MOA and no wind. Squeeze and follow through. Now an explosive noise pierces the silence and then only a vision of tall grass remains in the scope as I recover the sight picture. Stillness and satisfaction follow.