The late autumn haze clung to the peaks of the higher mountains deep in the northeastern Adirondacks. As Tony Salerno scaled slowly up the steep slopes, he paused frequently both to scan the cover for deer and to rest from the effort it took. Making the hunt more difficult was the thick cover of young evergreens that blanketed the slopes near the top. But the buck sign -- the rubs, scrapes and broken saplings -- kept him going.
In many areas the young spruce grew so thick and the branches so intertwined that Tony had to crawl on his hands and knees to get through. During one of his rest stops, Tony spotted a notch in the steep ledge with an area of relative clearing around it. Thinking this would be a good place for deer to traverse, he decided to sit and watch the area for a while.
Within an hour and a half, Tony was encouraged to see several does and a yearling buck. Finally, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted movement of brown and the glimpse of antler tines above the thick spruce branches. Knowing he would have limited opportunity for a shot, Tony held his gun on a clearing. When the buck emerged in the small opening, he carefully squeezed off a shot.
The deer's disappearance was followed by a crashing sound through the dead branches. After drawing a deep breath and carefully heading toward the area, Tony was elated to find the buck dead near the base of a nearby ledge. It was a large-bodied buck with a heavy 10-point rack and long tines that made all the long hours and effort worthwhile.
The Adirondack Mountains, located in northern New York State, form a rugged area of 6 million acres. Approximately half of it is state land that is "forever wild;" no logging, road building or other development is permitted. The High Peaks region in the northeast part of the Adirondacks contains the highest elevations and is characterized by tall mountains, steep rocky slopes and many bogs or swampy areas in between.
Deer densities are much lower than elsewhere in the state, due to lower food supplies. However, there are some large bucks in these remote areas that rarely see hunting pressure, due to the distance and difficulty of the terrain. Any deer taken in this part of the state is a trophy well earned.
Despite the difficulties of deer hunting in the Adirondack High Peaks area, Tony and Pat Salerno accept the challenge because of the large deer they find there. The typical buck does not have as large a rack as you would find in agricultural areas with richer nutrition. But the lack of hunting pressure allows them to live to old ages and grow larger. Their maturity and wariness makes hunting them a special challenge.
The brothers' strategies start with hunting higher and farther from roads than the average Adirondack hunter. They know big bucks will seek out these areas to avoid hunters. Tony and Pat usually hunt as a two-man team, because few other people will make the effort and sacrifice to hunt the way they do.
Their strategies include heading out very early in the morning and frequently spending the night in the woods. This not only allows the brothers to hunt until the last possible moment but also gives them the chance to be deep in a buck's lair at first light. To be prepared for the frequent possibility of spending the night on a mountainside, Tony and Pat each carry a backpack or fanny pack containing a knife, lighter, foil blankets, food, water and a small stylus pen light.
Pat and Tony frequently still-hunt toward each other, depending on where the deer sign leads them. Thus, they may wind up deep in the mountains far from their vehicle or camp. It is not the kind of hunting for those who worry about getting lost, who are thinking about getting back to the comforts of camp or who are faint of heart.
Successfully hunting the Adirondack mountains starts with scouting. The brothers often scout during March and April, when there is usually still snow on the ground for tracking and possibly seeing deer or even finding sheds. The lack of foliage helps in finding sign, such as scrapes, rubs or broken saplings. The men often focus on an area where they saw evidence of a big buck the previous season but failed to connect.
From August through October, Tony and Pat get into the woods and set up trail cams on known runways or rubs from the previous season. They often rely on maps to locate steep mountain slopes with thick cover and small brooks, as experience has taught them this is the type of area mature bucks frequent.
Tony and Pat start their hunting trips early, traveling the rugged terrain in the pre-dawn darkness to get to bedding areas or higher elevations before big bucks reach their hideouts at first light. Once the hunters reach these areas they conceal themselves and sit on watch until about 9 a.m. before they start still-hunting. Early morning or late afternoon is usually the only time they are sitting; the rest of the time they are on the move still-hunting.
While on the move, they are continually looking for fresh sign. Once they find it, they slow down to a snail's pace and start looking for any movement such as the flicker of a tail or an ear, the distinct brown hair color of a deer or even a glimpse of antler tine. Since this is in typically thick cover such as young evergreens or blowdowns instead of open hardwoods, the brothers know they are not likely to see a whole deer standing broadside.
Tony says he and Pat always look for sign, such as rubs or scrapes, but that they usually do not rely on these much. Because the buck density in this part of the Adirondacks is low, it is more productive to cover greater territory. Over the years the brothers have found mature bucks prefer to be fairly high up on the sides of mountains, but not necessarily right at the top. Saddles, funnels and brooks where bucks can traverse the heavy cover are favorite hunting spots.
Pat and Tony often hunt toward each other, each hoping to push a buck to the other, but generally they will go where the tracks or buck sign take them. They carry radios in their fanny packs, but usually only rely on them to stay in contact or for safety issues. Most of the time the brothers "bark" to find each other, especially after shooting a buck.
Navigating your way deep in the Adirondacks is not something to take lightly. Even though Pat and Tony generally know the country well, they frequently observe the surrounding mountains to keep their bearings, use topographic maps to familiarize themselves with new areas and, of course, carry their compasses and believe in them.
Although they have spent many nights in the woods due to being far from their vehicle at dark, most of their overnight stays are actually planned. When hunting areas that are miles from the roads, they sometimes pack in a simple turkey blind as shelter, along with a sleeping bag. These are stored in a garbage can prior to the season. A cot also helps to keep you a little more comfortable and off the damp ground.
Tony and Pat have different spots where they stay so they can cover more area in the mornings. Tony has found that a Walkman or iPod helps him sleep, because the music tunes out the sounds of animals wandering around outside at night. Once Pat camped near a spot where he had set up a trail cam and later saw pictures of a big bear prowling around 50 yards from his shelter.
Hunting the higher elevations is an advantage, because you often have tracking snow early in the deer season. The brothers use it in determining the pace of a buck, its intentions to bed down or even where it came from. Pat once backtracked a smaller buck, and the trail led him to groups of does where a mature buck with a big rack was hanging out.
The brothers have learned to look for small changes in the pattern of movement to tell whether a buck is just wandering and feeding, traveling to a distant location or looking for a bedding spot. If a buck is looking to bed, a hunter must be especially alert, because the animal might be hidden on some slight rise nearby, watching its back trail.
Years of experience have placed the Salernos among the premier trackers in the Adirondacks. Tony says there are several key signs that a buck is getting ready to bed down. When a track indicates a buck is wandering about or changing his pattern of movement, he is probably seeking a good vantage point for watching and escaping danger. Look for signs that the deer is feeding more frequently or even turning around and watching behind him. Look ahead for ledges or areas of thicker evergreen cover where the animal could have bedded.
You can waste a lot of time chasing deer you will never catch. For that reason, being able to discern how old a track is and identifying subtle differences in patterns can help you gauge how fast you need to move to overtake a particular buck. The Salernos have learned that the track of a buck traveling in a straight line with big strides is usually moving to another mountain.
Snow condition offers obvious clues to how fresh a track is. Look for icing in the prints, as well as their sharpness. Generally, the more defined the print is, the fresher it is. In deep snow it is often difficult to determine which way a deer is going. Look for a fluffy bit of snow deposited on top of the crust or snow pack. The fluffy snow is always in the front of the track, telling you the direction the deer is heading.
One item you will usually find hanging around Tony or Pat's neck while hunting is a grunt call. They have used them many times to stop or even call bucks into shooting range. On a recent hunt, Tony carefully worked a grunt call for about 20 minutes to bring a buck from 150 yards in to 50, at which point the hunter made the shot. In recent years the brothers have been using bleat calls with similar success.
Once a buck is down, the fun is over and the work begins. Due to the Salernos' preference of hunting far from roads in steep, thick terrain, a successful hunt can mean many hours -- sometimes days -- of hard work to get their trophy out of the woods.
Pat and Tony always carry rope in their packs. They fasten one end to the buck's antlers and tie the other to a four-foot length of sapling. Grabbing each end of the stick, the pair begin the long drag. Sometimes they must leave the deer in the woods overnight, hoisting it up on a young tree and barricading the lower trunk to protect it from coyotes and other animals.
Obviously, this type of hunting is not for everyone. But Pat and Tony Salerno relish the challenge of hunting mature whitetails on their own terrain. Yes, it requires effort, skill and sacrifice -- but the heavy-bodied Adirondack bucks they have taken over the years make them believe it is all worth it.