Rain was starting to wick through my wool jacket and dampen my long underwear. A giant low-pressure system was stalled over western Montana and the weather was wet! Constant drizzle during the past several days had kept deer activity high. In fact, the more it rained the more deer I saw. With all the movement, I knew it was just a matter of time before a brute of a buck would slip up and show himself.
The tickling of tines snapped me to attention. I had been relaxing after completing my second rattling sequence of the evening, when two bucks started sparring 40 yards out, the thick cover hiding their exact location. Soon their stiff legged movements caught my eye as they walked parallel, the two opponents sizing each other up. Several minutes ticked by as they circled each other and then locked antlers, twisted heads and pushed each other back and forth. After tiring of sparring, they took a break. Noticing they were peering into the dark tangle of trees behind them, I spotted another buck coming to investigate. This buck, sized like the other two, was nothing I wanted to shoot, but fun to watch nonetheless.
It was early pre-rut and the buck activity was picking up. Bucks were starting to establish a pecking order and respond well to rattling. With three bucks sparring in front of me, I hung up my antlers and picked up my bow in anticipation of a larger buck showing up.
Two prior successful seasons of hunting mule deer had prevented me from seriously hunting the whitetail rut. Craving a change, I decided to focus my attention on whitetails for the 2006 season. In November of 2005, determined to start scouting as early as possible, I pared down several promising areas. With the rut over and sign very visible, I decided to nose around and see what survived the rifle season. The first genuine venture into my chosen area was on a crisp early December day.
Easing along an opening, looking at huge rubs, trails, and scrapes, I bumped blindly into a gorgeous buck a mere 30 yards away. One glimpse was all it took for me to focus my energy into unraveling the mysteries of the whitetails that called this thick western forest home.
A few weeks later, after a snow-melting warm snap, I explored the area looking for more rubs and scrapes from the recent breeding season. Finding rubbed trees thick as a man's thigh with tine marks cut deep, I speculated a large mature buck had used them over several seasons. Connecting the series of multi-year rubs following natural terrain features, I knew it was crucial to hunt near this sign next fall.
Early January found me cruising the dark timber again looking for bedding areas, subtle sign, dropped antlers and treestand locations. With more clues gathered, and the pieces put together, a predictable pattern was obvious. Rolling terrain, thickets of dense brush and dark timber kept visibility to mere feet: not ideal for glassing, and excessively thick for still-hunting. Treestands would be my higher odds option to hunt these woods.
The first week of November in 2006 started out wet. As I settled into my stand one late afternoon, the musty yet refreshing smell of the damp forest energized me. Knowing the rut was a few weeks away, I was hoping to catch bucks touring their home range, establishing scrapes, and scent checking does: classic pre-rut behavior.
Ten minutes into the evening, soft footfalls directly behind my tree erased any doubts about my stand site selection. Moments later a chocolate-antlered 130-class four point dogged a doe into view and lingered at the 30-yard mark. Easily within range, I was tempted with the shot but held out. Thoughts of the sheds picked up and sign uncovered last winter made the decision an easy one.
The next morning I hiked to a stand tucked deeply in some dark fir being used as a midday bedding area. An hour into the drizzly day, I started a light rattling sequence. Half an hour later, a twig snapped behind me. Slowly standing and turning to see what was approaching, adrenaline filled my veins and my excitement level peaked. With the footfalls sounding even closer, I was convinced something large was cautiously approaching.
Several cow elk slipped into view and began feeding around my stand. Moving past at a relaxed pace, a calf licked a treestep while others ate moss hanging from small Douglas fir limbs. Their unexpected appearance, as well as several does and fawns, turned a slow morning into a memorable one.
Later the same day, the rain continued its steady barrage as I headed to a third stand. This one, like the others, was carefully selected based on intensive scouting. The previous year revealed abundant rubs and several well used trails snaking their way through a small shallow draw. The draw started in a dense regenerated logging cut and wound its way out of sight into heavy timber. A 150-inch set of fresh sheds found nearby also narrowed my focus on this natural funnel. It was on the edge of this draw, overlooking the old logging cut where I placed a stand and rattled in the three bucks.
As darkness crept nearer, the smaller bucks sparred sporadically as they moved down the draw to my right. When the rattling would subside every few minutes, I would softly use a doe bleat, hoping a larger buck would come investigate. After all, the young bucks were worked up about something.
With 20 minutes of daylight remaining, I reminded myself to stay vigilant. Swiveling my head in the opposite direction of the smaller bucks, I instantly picked up movement 35 yards out. Even through the thick screen of trees, the massive beams and long tines were apparent. A quick glance is all it took to determine the oncoming buck was one definitely worth tagging.
As he cruised toward the other bucks, I estimated his route would bring him in tight. Easing to my feet with bow in hand, I mentally picked a location where his vision would be blocked, allowing me to draw. Taking a deep breath without focusing on anything but my anchor point and a small spot on his dark gray hide, the buck emerged at 15 yards. As soon as the pin settled, I quietly mouthed a half-hearted grunt and touched the trigger.
I heard my arrow smash into his ribs and watched him whirl as a gray and white flash. He sprinted about 50 yards and slowed to a trot. A few yards further he staggered, stopped, spun in a circle and flopped to the ground. The months of scouting, preparation, and anticipation culminated into 30 seconds of an intense, frantic climax. The shakes started when I glassed his white belly through the trees and the realization sank in that I had just killed a great buck.
Just how big he was, I wasn't quite sure. With everything unraveling so quickly, I didn't have time to size him up with a critical eye. In the past, under similar circumstances, I have approached fallen bucks only to realize they were smaller than their first appearance. With this buck, I was expecting the same. Either way, I was ready to go lay my hands on him.
As I approached the collapsed buck, the mass on his beams intensified. After pulling his rack out of the grass, I was stunned. The mass is his most impressive feature. Without any frame of reference to compare to, I made a lowball guess of mid 160's Pope & Young. Not sure how to describe him, that is the number I used when I spoke to my hunting partner on the phone later in the evening.
With boundless energy the next day, my wife and I backpacked him out in two trips. That evening, while winding down, I stretched a tape over his frame: he totaled 180 gross as a typical. With two inches of side-to-side differences, and a six-inch non-typical point, he nets 172 P&Y. Aged by the local biologist, he had reached the apex of his life at 7 1/2 years old.
Regardless of the numbers, I am as proud of this buck as any I've ever taken. He is the pay-off of intensive scouting, well thought-out stand locations, and plain old hard work. When a plan is formulated and carried through with a positive outcome, there is nothing more satisfying.