The Buck of the Woods

A buck doesn't have to have big antlers to be dominant. He just needs a big-buck attitude.

This whitetail, despite his size, was "the buck of the woods."

During the last minutes of shooting light, the buck cautiously approached the mock scrape. His eight-point rack, polished white, could not be ignored. He was no monster, but he was decent for this heavily hunted area of northern Wisconsin, and I eagerly waited for a shot opportunity. The buck hesitated, however, timidly refusing to come those last few yards into my shooting lane. Then the sound of another buck upset the tranquility of the woods, and everything became clear. At first I heard the more dominant buck's grunting. Then I saw him swaggering through the oaks toward my fake scrape.

This buck wasn't apprehensive in the least. The eight-pointer I'd been watching bailed out of there without further ado. And his nemesis stepped right into the scrape and urinated belligerently, rubbing his hocks together. He threw his head back and tended the licking branch, proudly displaying his crown. He was a meager six-pointer, but that didn't seem to matter. He was obviously playing the dominant role. I relaxed my grip on the bow and passed up the brazen 2½-year-old.

This was the first week of November, and things were getting interesting. Even though temperatures were relatively high for this time of year, rutting activity was underway.

Earlier in the day I'd glassed a 10-pointer breeding a doe on an adjacent ridge, 200 yards across a field. I didn't have permission to hunt that property. Restricted to an 80-acre cluster of oaks owned by a good friend, I was content to simply watch the drama unfold in the distance. Maybe later, similar action would take place on my buddy Dave's property.

In 2007, I had killed a beautifully symmetrical eight-pointer on Dave's property. This area seldom produces record-book bucks, and although I'm not ordinarily concerned with a buck's size, in 2008 I was hoping for a more mature specimen. And so, as the confident six-pointer stood over my phony scrape, I could only watch him and wish his antlers were bigger.

When I was a kid, there was an elderly gentleman in my neighborhood who was known as "Uncle Stan." He was a local legend amongst us Milwaukee boys. An avid bowhunter, he experienced consistent success on whitetails, which was unusual in those days.

Whenever a deer carcass hung in the old man's backyard apple tree, the word spread quickly. Then all of my buddies and my brother Fred and I would rush over to check it out. To us, Stan's trophies seemed gargantuan. Typically, they were solid eight or 10-pointers, and we were always impressed. Uncle Stan would emerge from his house when a decent crowd had gathered in his yard. He began every story the same way: "This was the buck of the woods!" he'd assert. Then he would regale us with minute details of the hunt. We would stand there in a huddle around him, awestruck.

Those stories sparked something inside of me, all those years ago, and I hoped that one day I too would bag "the buck of the woods." Since then, I've taken some sizeable deer.

And many were extremely aggressive, as evidenced by their behavior. But how could I be certain that any one of them was the dominant buck in the area. I always wondered.

Uncle Stan, on the other hand, never expressed doubt. Each and every deer he harvested was "the buck of the woods."

When the weather turned cold, I was happy to have a warm cabin waiting for me at the end of the day.

For the first few days of my 2008 Wisconsin hunt, the situation I encountered was disappointing. As depicted in the opening paragraph of this story, the nicer bucks were being bullied from the property by the small six-pointer. He was a scrapper, and he refused to surrender any portion of his 80-acre haven. This was a smart move. A better home territory could not have been designed. Several doe groups bedded in the woodlot, and they fed on acorns throughout the day, never leaving their sanctuary. If he could maintain his dominance, the six-pointer would have exclusive access to these does as they entered estrus.

The six-pointer's vigilance made him vulnerable. Because he traveled the oak ridges regularly, he never failed to notice my mock scrapes. After I had created a fake scrape, there were usually tracks and damp spots in it within 12 hours. Mindful of this fact, I placed my treestands accordingly.

One morning, when the temperature dropped and a light mist cocooned the oak lot, I witnessed a full-blown brawl. On a nearby ridge, two bucks squared off. One was an average seven-pointer, and the other was the dominant six-pointer I'd been watching. At about 55 yards away, those bucks treated me to a prizefight worth any exorbitant pay-per-view fee. For several minutes they battled without rest. Suddenly, their antlers seemed to get locked up. At last they parted, and the slightly larger seven-pointer retreated, leaving his conqueror to rule over his 80-acre domain. It was then that I made a surprising discovery. As the six-pointer slowly receded over the ridge and into the distance, he displayed only the right side of his headgear. The left antler had been snapped off at the base.

Now, this breakage of a main beam would have been perceived as a defect by most hunters. But all of a sudden, I realized that I desperately wanted this buck. He would not just be a consolation prize. He had proven himself worthy, and my esteem for him had grown immeasurably. I had come to know him, as much as a person can ever know a wild animal, and I believed that I understood him. He was definitely one tough customer.

I would concentrate my future efforts on bagging this particular buck -- now transformed into a mere three-pointer.

The next morning, I slept in till 9:00. After coffee and breakfast, I headed out to what I considered my most promising treestand. It had snowed during the night, and now the woods looked pristine. The sparkling blanket of snow was dotted with deer tracks, and I could tell that the fake scrape had been visited.

I returned to the cabin and enthusiastically geared up for the afternoon, confident that things would come together today. My focus was at an all-time high. I've never felt more eager and excited, regardless of a prospective buck's trophy quality.

Because background cover was minimal, I hung my stand fairly high and donned snow camo.

At 1 p.m., I settled into my stand. With absolutely no wind, every sound would be amplified, including the draw of my bow or any creaking from my frozen, snow-covered treestand.

Every 15 minutes or so I tipped my can call, grunted on my True Talker, and rattled.

Something was bound to happen. I just knew it.

At approximately 3:40, I noticed a flash of antlers to my right, at about 50 yards.

Immediately, I determined it was "the buck of the woods." He and his distinctive half-rack closed in on me quickly. Failing to spot me, he passed five yards from the base of my tree. I suppressed a sigh of relief, afraid the sound would alert him to my presence.

Instead, I attempted to hold my breath.

The buck approached the mock scrape and quartered-away sharply at 20 yards. He sniffed the scent wick. As I drew my bow, my pulse thumped uncontrollably. It took 10 seconds or so to settle the sight pin. Squeezing off the shot, I watched the arrow impact just behind the last rib. The buck exploded into a 15-yard dash, leapt over a log, and turned to look back at the scrape as if wondering what upstart had the temerity to blindside him. His expression betrayed total confusion as he tipped over in his tracks, kicking twice before stillness settled over him.

Hanging up my bow, I tried to calm my nerves. But it was hopeless. This buck had reduced me to a quivering mass of Jell-O. And only a week earlier I had dismissed him as an unworthy pretender.

After gutting the deer, I dragged him to the cabin and hung him from the meat pole.

Snow began falling lightly as darkness enveloped the woods. After entering the cabin, I got the woodburner roaring-hot. As I ate dinner, I remembered the details of my hunt with a deep sense of accomplishment.

The next morning, after registering and butchering my deer, I loaded my truck and headed to the town of Slinger for a brief visit with my brother Fred and his family. Fred normally hunts with me, but this year he was unable to make the trip due to his busy work schedule. After getting caught up on family news, we started to discuss my hunt.

When he asked to see my buck, I went to my truck and retrieved the antlers.

Unashamedly, I held up the fractured rack.

"Nice trophy," Fred said, with a faltering voice and a crooked smile.

"He was the buck of the woods," I stated simply. Then I told my brother the whole story.

A resident of Colorado Springs, Colorado, the author still enjoys making the annual trek to hunt Badger State bucks.

Author's Notes: On my Wisconsin whitetail hunt, I used a Hoyt Vectrix set at 65 lbs., Carbon Express Aramid KV arrows, and FUSE Kumasi broadheads. Columbia wool clothing and Rocky boots kept me comfortable on stand. I watched "the buck of the woods" through my Pentax 10x50 binoculars.

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