September 22, 2010
Known far and wide as one of North America's top writers on hunting big game in Africa, this prolific hunter has long had a soft spot for gnarly whitetails.
"This is the box blind I was sitting in when I shot my big Georgia buck. Throughout the morning, I saw deer on three sides and probably had some behind me as well."
I was sitting in a raised box blind, intently watching a long cut line in a pine plantation. There was an odd bush on the left-hand side, and I knew it was just a bit over 200 yards, because, with omniscient astuteness, I had measured the distance with my rangefinder.
While I was watching with unflagging concentration, a set of antlers appeared over that bush, just exactly as I had expected. And, of course, they belonged to the great whitetail I was hoping to see!
OK, that's mostly horse puckey. I was in a Georgia pine plantation. I knew that bush was 200 yards away because it was one of the few things I could range and remember down that long lane between identical pine trunks. The range wasn't important, because my rifle could reach to the end of the lane without holdover.
The reason I knew the range is because I have an extremely short attention span. As soon as it got light I got bored, and one of the things I do when I'm bored is use a rangefinder to check everything in sight. It was about 9 o'clock, and the deer surprised me. I'd been looking down another lane to my right -- and the antlers were there when I looked back.
The antlers sticking up over that branch were pretty darned good. As for them belonging to the specific buck I was looking for, well, that was distilled horse puckey. A buck this size might have been seen a week earlier not too far away, but this wasn't the buck I was looking for or even hoping for. This one was a whole lot better, and if I had wasted any time thinking, I would never know exactly how good he was.
MY FAVORITE HUNT?
Editor and friend Duncan Dobie didn't ask about my best whitetail. Just as well. I have never taken a "net" B&C whitetail, and, like most whitetail hunters, probably never will.
My best buck actually comes pretty close, but that wasn't my fault. I was in South Texas, watching a long sendero, when I saw a buck thrashing a mesquite about 10 miles -- in reality at least 500 yards -- away. I had sense enough to leave the stand and stalk along the brush line until I cut the distance in half. The buck was still there, but he was fixing to leave. I crawled into a prickly mesquite, got a rest, and shot him. The closer I got the bigger he got, a most unusual sensation.
Duncan also didn't ask about my first whitetail. He was a real dandy, taken behind dogs in North Carolina back in 1975, when I was a brand-new Marine lieutenant. Nice buck for the time and place, but it was some years before I appreciated him properly. Fortunately, Duncan didn't ask about my worst buck, either. I'd probably have come up with one that got serious ground shrinkage.
In truth, Duncan asked about my favorite whitetail. My best Kansas buck was tempting. I did a very smart thing in leaving the river bottom and hunting a system of corrugated breaks. I also made a great long shot when he popped up. But I didn't even suspect he was there, so it was kind of a lucky deal. I've also taken good bucks in Saskatchewan -- but I hate cold weather. After days in freezing cold, that poor deer was my ticket to getting out of the stand!
So I keep coming back to a fine buck that stepped out of the Georgia pines last December. Human nature being what it is, this was one of my most recent and thus most familiar whitetails. I think he's my also my favorite, but time may tell. For sure he's my favorite right now!
THE POWER LINE
I met Zack Aultman of Georgia on an antelope hunt in New Mexico. Later that year, a bit by coincidence, I hunted with my old friend Kenny Jarrett, he of "Beanfield Rifle" gun-making legend. We hunted a few days at Jarrett's place in South Carolina and then drove down to Zack's place in Worth County, Georgia. The Aultman Forest is a private pine forest north of Albany. It's laced with strategically placed food plots in the woods, and it's cut by a massive power line right of way, along which food plots are also planted.
The clubhouse is wall-to-wall deer heads, and when you walk in, you immediately think you must be in a lodge in Alberta or Saskatchewan -- but the deer are all local deer.
Some belong to Zack and his wife, some belong to father-son team Harris and Shane Calhoun, including Shane's monster 195 4/8 inch non-typical, which was profiled in Duncan Dobie's book Georgia's Greatest Whitetails in 1986 when Shane was a youngster.
The rest belong to some of the other characters who have haunted Aultman Forest past and present. Collectively, when you walk into the house, you know you're in serious trophy whitetail country.
IN THE GEORGIA PINES . . .
I shot a buck that first time I hunted there. It wasn't the buck I was looking for. In fact, it might well qualify as my "worst whitetail," because it was definitely the biggest mistake I ever made. Despite that little problem, I fell in love with the place. Even on a brutally cold day, southern Georgia isn't Saskatchewan -- and the buck of a lifetime could step out any moment. Add in Southern cookin' in a fun deer camp, and it doesn't get much better.
Except there's more. Zack Aultman has one of the worst rifle addictions I've ever seen.
He keeps a constantly shifting rack of super-accurate rifles, and he may well change guns between the morning and afternoon hunts. He can do this because right by the house he has a range with targets and steel deer silhouettes out to 450 yards. So in the midday hours, we'll play with rifles and dial in our scopes for long-range shooting.
At his place, that capability can be important because of "The Power Line." Two hundred yards across, it stretches to both horizons. Studded by tower stands every quarter mile, it's a place where you will see deer morning and evening. You might see the right deer, or not. When you see him you might be able to reach him, or not.
Here's the secret: I'm primarily a Western hunter, used to open country. I lack confidence in close cover. The Power Line is Western hunting in the middle of the Georgia pines, the exact kind of situation Kenny Jarrett designed his Beanfield Rifle to cope with.
INTO THE WOODS
Sure, there's more. That first time I hunted the Aultman Forest, I was on a stand in the pines, watching a long cut line. A good-looking buck crossed --
but he was gone before I got the rifle up. The rut was on, so maybe he'd come buck. A short time later he did, and I pasted him with a .300 Jarrett as he scooted across. Except it wasn't the same deer. It was a beautiful young buck that should have been left to grow and breed. It was a horrible mistake.
I came back a couple more times, but I didn't shoot another buck until 2008. I could have, several times. But I never saw the right buck -- and I was a bit gun-shy. I was doing penance for that youngster, definitely being overly careful. Also, I pretty much stayed on The Power Line. Even if a buck was just passing through, I had 200 yards of open ground to be sure of him.
In 2008, I shot a buck on the very first morning. I was in Zack's Super Stand on The Power Line, more like a Forest Service tower than a deer stand. The buck came out exactly opposite and I watched him for a while. He wasn't a big buck, but he was clearly older, a nice 8-pointer. So I shot him, and figured I was done for the week. I spent the next several outings sitting with my wife, Donna, watching and judging deer, again on The Power Line. We saw a bunch of young bucks, and then, just at dark a few nights later, a buck that was a bit bigger and a bit older stepped out. My wife shot him perfectly.
The next morning, our last, Zack insisted I should go to a stand. He checked the wind and then he asked, "You want The Power Line, or the woods?"
I claim no sixth sense, but, uncharacteristically, I said, "Let's try the woods."
SO, WHAT HAPPENED?
Just at dawn a young buck and a couple of does crossed the long lane in front of me. Just to keep me on my toes, an hour later a bigger buck, I think a nice 8-pointer, came down another lane over my right shoulder. And then there were two does and their fawns off to my left. So I was trying to watch three directions at once without spinning my head like Linda Blair in need of an exorcist, and that's why those antlers suddenly appeared.
Most of the time I would have studied the head, neck and body shape to be certain of age.
That's the best way to do things, and for sure I didn't want to make a mistake. This time I felt there was no need. I was looking at the right side of the rack, and a young buck just couldn't have that much mass and character. I took a half-second to make sure the left antler was at least present. How well it matched I didn't know. Nor did I notice a couple of cool "kicker" points, or the fact that the main beams wrapped around and almost touched in front.
The binoculars went down almost as quickly as they went up, and I reached for my Serengeti Rifles .264. It seemed to take forever to get the rifle into position quietly, and then I willed the buck to take just one step. He took it, opening a small window on his shoulder.
NO SHRINKAGE HERE!
It was easy to get the deer to do my bidding, much more difficult to get my hands to quit shaking! Then the trigger broke, and as I worked the bolt, the deer was running down the lane and then into the woods in the same direction from which he had come. And now I really started shaking.
I managed to unload the rifle and climb down, and then I waited a little while, trying to get myself under control. Okay. Let's go see. Did I hit him at all? How big was he really?
How sure was I?
There were multiple trails off to the left, all with fresh tracks. I picked the wrong one and got really spooked when I couldn't find any blood. I came back out to the cut line, tried again, and found the first crimson splash. Then I found another, then more, and then there was the buck, perfectly hit and down maybe 40 yards from where he'd received the bullet. I could just see his rear end, and for a moment I was afraid to step forward and look at the antlers.
Well, I couldn't very well put him back, so I took a breath and stepped forward. Oh my, no ground shrinkage here! This one I'd called correctly -- a beautiful buck, fully mature, my best Southern whitetail by a whole bunch -- and for sure, my favorite whitetail!