My hunting buddies gave me a hard time for passing up nice bucks early in the Pennsylvania season. But in the end, saving that tag paid off!
By Joseph Scibetta
Excitement swelled in me as my dad shared the good news: We'd been drawn for a late-season primitive-weapons deer hunt on the wildlife management area in Crawford County, Pennsylvania. Our applications had gone in at the last minute, but somehow we'd beaten the odds.
My dad and I were so happy that as my mom asked what the big deal was, we couldn't hide the joy on our faces. Unlike us, she'd never paid attention to the stories of all the deer -- especially big bucks -- seen on and near this piece of land.
The area my dad and I would be hunting is set aside for the propagation of waterfowl, mainly geese. As such, it consists of thousands of acres of mostly agricultural fields with some wood lots and swamps mixed in. What makes it such a great spot in which to hunt deer is that it's off limits to human intrusion all year, except for two days of deer hunting and some very limited winter goose hunting.
The deer have learned to make good use of this limited-entry area, which is surrounded by public land open to hunting. There's plenty of cover and feed for bucks to grow old and big on the hunted land, and when they feel a need to get away from pressure, they can always go to the waterfowl area.
At the time we received news of being drawn for the hunt, it was late October 2002, and my archery season already had been going pretty well. I'd seen a lot of deer and passed up at least a dozen bucks in easy bow range. A 9-pointer and an 8-pointer had really tempted me. I just enjoy seeing and getting close to deer; besides, November still lay ahead, and I hated the thought of having tagged out before the rut. And now that I had the news of my upcoming hunt on the management area, my goal went from shooting a "decent" buck to a Pope & Young-class deer, which had always been a dream.
A late-December primitive-weapons hunt on public land yielded this big deer. Taxidermy by Dan Miner; photo by Ron McCartney.
My early archery season ended without much excitement. The rut seemed to hit a little late, and I passed up a few more deer. Now I'd have to get through two weeks of rifle season at the beginning of December and wait for the 23rd, opening day of my draw-in bowhunt.
Each year, like thousands of other Pennsylvania residents, we head to our cabin in the north-central part of the state for opening day of rifle season. My goal this year was to shoot a doe first thing, then get out of the woods before I could be tempted by a buck! I told the other guys in camp I'd likely see a good buck on Monday and have to pass him up.
Monday morning I saw a few does but passed them all, waiting for a bigger one. In the afternoon, I went over to a ridge to sit, not expecting much. Well, within minutes an 8-pointer and a 4-pointer popped over the ridge below, chasing two does. I looked over the 8-pointer, which had a spread of about 15 inches, and couldn't believe I was passing him up. I took aim at a doe, fired . . . and missed. I'm sure I was still thinking about that buck!
I went down and looked for blood but found no indication I'd cut a hair on the doe. So I went back to the rock I'd been sitting on and resumed my watch. Just 10 minutes later a 10-pointer larger than the 8-pointer came running to within 10 yards of me, stopped, snorted and took off!
Of course, when I got back to camp and told my story, I was the butt of jokes. But I told them all, "Just wait until the end of the month."
To say I was ready for the Dec. 23 bowhunt would be an understatement. The week before, I was able to get out every day to shoot my bow. One day my dad took my mom for a drive on some of the roads through the management area. (You're allowed to drive on these roads, but you can't leave your vehicle.) On that drive, they saw three huge bucks. Now my mom knew why we were excited!
Prior to the special hunt, I drove down those same roads to look for trails going into and out of the woods. It was really the only way I could scout, because you can't go onto the land before your scheduled hunt. Fortunately, I found some heavily used trails near where my parents had spotted the three bucks, and it looked like a good starting point.
The hunt was to open on Monday, and all I could think about on Sunday was the chance of seeing a big buck from my stand. (Of course, shooting one would be good, too.) In hopes of putting every bit of luck on his side, my dad got a blessing from Father Denny that Sunday morning. (Father Denny is a whitetail fanatic like me; in fact, he has an impressive wall of bucks he's shot in Saskatchewan.)
Sleep was hard to come by that night, but at least that kept us from running late. My dad met me at 5 a.m., and we were at the check-in station at about 5:20.
The only weapons allowed on this hunt are bows and flintlock rifles. I had my bow, while my dad carried his flintlock. After we signed in, he dropped me off at the spot I'd picked out earlier, and he went elsewhere.
I had a climbing stand; all I had to do was find a tree for it. There was a dusting of snow, but it had melted on the muddied-up trails, making them easy to pick out in the dark.
I stayed close to a thicket, following a heavy trail to a swampy area that had a network of trails funneling around it. In the center was a straight tree. I climbed up to about 25 feet and waited for daybreak.
That hour in the dark seemed like an eternity. I could hear deer walking under me, and I could see their shadows, but that was it.
At daybreak, it didn't take long for me to get a look at a huge buck. He came down in front of me with three other bucks about 50 yards out. I knew he was special when I saw the impressive tines and the main beams approaching the tip of his nose. As the buck walked away, I was sure that was the last time I'd ever see him.
I looked at my watch: 7:15 a.m. Although I was disappointed the big buck hadn't come my way, it hadn't been a bad start to the day!
In about an hour I saw a lot of does and passed up three bucks. Two of them were 8-pointers; the other was a 7-pointer. I was seeing a lot of deer but couldn't get the sight of that monster out of my mind. I kept questioning my decision to pass him; it was getting cold, and the wind was blowing hard. I could be dragging out one of those deer instead of sitting here freezing, I told myself.
It was a little af
ter 8 when I spotted movement behind me. It turned out to be four does moving through the thicket. Behind them, all I could see was this massive rack twisting through the brush.
I was in awe of the sight. I didn't get too nervous, though, because it appeared the buck was going to pass by again without offering a shot. Then the does made a quick turn and headed up a trail 30 yards to my left. I was going to get my chance after all.
I watched the first two does come by and drew my bow on the third one as she hit an opening. When the buck stepped out, I grunted with my mouth, and he hesitated. As my 30-yard pin settled, I released the arrow. It seemed to be in slow motion as it flew toward the deer and hit him squarely in the chest.
Now I started shaking and talking out loud, imploring the buck to go down before he ran to another hunter. Fearing that might happen, I was down my tree as quickly as a fireman going down a pole.
I found my arrow covered with bright, bubbly blood, and that got me to shaking more. Fortunately, I found the deer lying only 75 yards away. The feeling that came over me is one I'll never forget. It was the end of December, but this deer was definitely worth the wait!
The rack's official gross score was 164 7/8. The net was 140 7/8, due to major deductions. Field-dressed, the deer weighed 195 pounds. I guess I'm the one who was blessed.
It might seem that deer in areas with so little hunting pressure have easy lives. However, my buck had a musket ball square in the vitals area just inside the hide. The wound had healed over, and I only noticed the lead as I was skinning the deer. Apparently, someone had gone home with a story of missing "the big one" the previous year.
Now two of my dreams have come true: a buck big enough to make the pages of the P&Y record book and North American WHITETAIL. What else could a hunter ask for?