By Brian Fortenbaugh, Assistant Editor
CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, BZZZZZZ! That was not a pretty sound at 5 a.m. with the prerut kicking into high gear in Pennsylvania. I was counting on the ATV, which I'd loaded with my gear the night before, to get me reasonably close to my treestand in short order so I would be hunting early.
But the battery was dead. Knowing the battery was old and did not hold a charge for long, I could easily have avoided the problem by charging the battery the night before. Instead, I had stayed up late, shooting the breeze with my dad, thinking I would be able to sleep in 30 minutes longer, because I could negotiate the roads quickly and drive fairly close to my stand with the ATV. With any other vehicle, I would have to park roughly 1 mile from the treestand. It would simply take me a lot longer to get there.
With time and the cover of darkness quickly fading, I grabbed my bow and backpack off the ATV, threw them into my Toyota pickup, and hightailed it up the mountain. A series of logging roads runs through the property I had permission to hunt on Tuscarora Mountain in Huntingdon County. As I drove as quickly up the mountain, tree limbs and brush screeched along the side of the truck. Oh well, it was old, so a few more scratches weren't going to hurt it.
Unable to go farther without wedging the vehicle between trees on either side of the old road, I hopped out, grabbed my gear, and scurried down the road. This was where the ATV would have really saved me some time, because it was have slipped right between those trees. The sky was turning from black to gray, and I remember thinking, "Man, I don't remember it ever taking this long to get to a stand." So much for avoiding a good sweat.
About 300 yards from my stand, the beam from my headlamp flashed across a bare spot in the middle of the trail. The odor hovering around the scrape told me it was definitely fresh. Short on time, but not wanting to pass up a great opportunity, I quickly poured a little Special Golden Estrus scent from Wildlife Research Center in the middle of the scrape and dripped a little on the trail as I continued on to the treestand.
I HATE BEING RUSHED when hunting. I like to stick to a method and a plan, and when I have to hurry like this I feel out of sync and a lot less confident. Sweating, breathing heavily, and already able to see my sight pins, I climbed into my treestand, fastened my safety harness, attached my release aid to my wrist, and hung my backpack on a limb next to me.
For this hunt I used a Mathews SQ2 set at 65 pounds, Easton Carbon Evolution arrows, and Muzzy broadheads. I wore a mix of Mossy Oak's Break-Up and Forest Floor camouflage treated with Scent Killer from Wildlife Research Center. I carried Steiner's 8x22 Predator binoculars, and Nikon's 8x20 Laser 400 Rangefinder.
I would like to thank Dr. Mark Minium and Dr. Jim Kearns for providing a wonderful place for me to pursue whitetails. I would also like to thank my pop, Rick Fortenbaugh, who got me started in this wonderful sport and over the years has grown accustomed to cutting his own hunting time short to help me drag yet another deer out of the woods.
That's when I remembered the video camera I had just bought to capture the day's events. While pulling the camera from my backpack, I heard the familiar sounds of a buck chasing a doe on a bench 100 yards below me. The camera would have to wait for another day.
In the early morning light I could just make out the shapes of the two deer. Body posture and loud grunting confirmed my suspicions. Now all I needed was a little help from the doe. The buck, eager to catch the eye of his companion, followed her wherever she went. Unfortunately her travels never brought him within 50 yards of my tree, and it might not have mattered anyway, because all I could see was a forked antler. Pennsylvania had just enacted a 3-points-or-better antler restriction. Still, the morning was definitely improving after a dismal start.
The area I was hunting was thick with saplings and greenbrier, a favorite place for bucks to chase does when they wanted a little privacy. And I had taken bucks - and missed some bucks - from this same fixed-position stand in the past. The only downside to hunting here was limited visibility. In one direction I could see 300 yards - that was the only direction from which I had never seen deer approach - and only 20 yards in every other direction. This was the first time anyone had hunted from the stand this year, so my shooting lanes from the previous year no longer existed. I could only hope that a buck would stop within range in one of the few remaining clear spots.
TWO HOURS HAD PASSED since that predawn courting activity, and the only thing keeping me from falling asleep was an obnoxious chipmunk that was not happy with the 200-pound blob sitting above him and constantly made a fuss about it. Unable to stand his high-pitched chirping any longer, I hurled a film canister at him, scaring him off and bringing some peace. Chalk one up for Kodak!
Rarely do I sit in a treestand because I like to be ready at all times, but now my back and legs couldn't take it anymore. Before sitting down, I scanned the woods to my left, and then carefully out front. Nothing there.
Just to be sure, I looked out over the 300-yard lane to my right, even though I had never seen a deer there, and to my surprise, instantly spotted a buck. He was working the scrape I had freshened on my way in. Even without binoculars, I could clearly see the tall, wide forks of his left antler. All I needed see was at least one brow tine on that side - and a little luck.
On opening day of this same season I had used Primos' Lil' Can to pull an adult doe within 15 yards, where I arrowed her cleanly. I had never used Primos' Original Can before, but I had one in my shirt pocket, so I pulled it out and turned it over to produce an estrus doe bleat.
The buck looked in my direction. Now I could make out brow tines. Definitely, he was a legal buck. When I turned the call over a second time, he disappeared into the woods, heading downhill, apparently away from me. That's when I felt a slight breeze on the back of my neck.
Hearing the buck walking in the dry leaves below me, I didn't need long to put two an
d two together and conclude that he was circling to judge whether the "doe" he had smelled at his scrape, and heard in my direction, was the real McCoy.
Then the sounds of leaves crunching and twigs snapping under the buck's steady footsteps stopped, and I found myself surrounded by silence. Silence so loud I could actually hear the thoughts in my head. Several minutes passed without a sound. I stood motionless, release aid clipped to my string loop, eyes scanning the thick timber in front of me. I was convinced the buck was still there. Somewhere. I had heard nothing to indicate he had departed.
That's when I heard a series of grunts so close they made the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stand on end. They had come from my left and slightly downhill.
My eyes shifted in that direction. There, protruding several inches beyond the end of a hemlock branch, was the black and white nose of the buck. His breath was clearly visible as he exhaled in the cold mountain air. His current location explained why I had been unable to hear his approach. Downhill from my treestand is a row of hemlock trees, roughly 30 yards long. A well-defined trail runs through the middle of these trees, and he must have closed the distance on this trail, where the dirt and soft needles silenced his footsteps.
How he got there is irrelevant. What mattered was that he was now 30 yards in front of me, shielded by a hemlock branch. Earlier in the morning I had taken time to range the few existing shooting lanes with my rangefinder. If he continued in the direction he was facing I would have two opportunities to shoot - one at 22 yards, the other at 17.
With his vision blocked by the hemlock branch, I took advantage of the opportunity to draw my bow. As I held my 20-yard pin on the opening in front of him, the buck slowly moved forward, and when he entered the first shooting lane, I released. To my horror, my arrow grazed an unseen vine and sailed over the buck's back. Surprisingly, the arrow sailed some 50 yards beyond the buck before its flight ended.
The buck, unsure of what had happened, turned and trotted away only a short distance before stopping to look around. I quickly grabbed the Original Can and turned it over, producing a soft bleat. Lady Luck must have been sitting somewhere nearby, because the buck turned and started back in my direction. Not wanting a repeat of the first shot, I let him pass through the first shooting lane.
When he entered the second lane I mouth-bleated. The instant he stopped, I released, and in a flash the 100-grain Muzzy broadhead zipped through the "pocket" behind his shoulder.
His fate imminent, the buck made a mad dash up the hill, passing 10 yards to the right of me. He traveled another 20 yards where he stopped on the other side of the logging road I had walked in on that morning. There he spun 180 degrees and crashed to the ground in the middle of the dirt road.
Even though the buck lay still in plain view, experience told me to stay in the treestand, which I did, savoring what had just transpired. I gathered my gear and radioed my dad, who was hunting on the other side of the property. Twenty minutes passed and I couldn't take it anymore. I lowered my bow and backpack and climbed down from the stand. As I approached the buck I could see the top of his head and the base of his antlers were bright orange from rubbing saplings in the area. It actually looked like a bad dye job.
While he was only a 6-point, he is my best Pennsylvania buck to date. The inside spread was 17 inches, and we estimated the live weight at around 170 pounds.
My dad soon joined me and helped me take pictures of the buck. Then we worked as a team to drag my buck down to the Toyota. As we pulled, my dad, who rarely passes up an opportunity to give his oldest son a hard time, said, "Boy, an ATV sure would come in handy right about now."
Okay, I got the message. But I will tell you this. That mile walk that had seemed so long that morning was a whole lot shorter with a 170-pound buck in tow.