My recent decision to relocate my family to the Tar Heel state wasn’t taken lightly. You see, when you live your life around your passion for the outdoors there’s certain absolute necessities for my spirits good health.
I require plenty of room to breathe between neighbors and a vast abundance of fishing and hunting opportunity. I found myself in North Carolina many times over the years and every time I did its endless beauty and small-town southern charm always kept me coming back. We decided to find a home in the Piedmont region of the state.
When I rambled down roads riding shotgun in the real estate brokers car with my nose planted on the window I hardly heard a word he said, all I seen was endless miles of tree farms and farm fields. Around every corner I shot a glance down the furthest reach of a farm field looking for deer or turkey in the back forty. For my wife, her eyes glistened at the thought of living on one of Montgomery County’s jewels, Badin Lake, where she could while her day away on a watercraft or rafting a pontoon boat with neighbors. She loved it for the water sports and I for the local bait shops’ bleached out photos of folks showing off their deer and catfish to 50 pounds.
After we chose our building lot and started construction, I simply had little time for hunting or fishing. I would travel down from New York monthly to check on the construction progress and tried to ignore that I was seeing deer cross the roads when I drove into my neighborhood. The last straw at suppressing my urge to scout deer came when I walked the lot with the surveyor and I discovered an ancient old soul of an oak tree right on the spot for our front lawn that was adorned with a dilapidated wooden deer stand, rotted and moss covered wood hanging on to life from its very last rusty nail. This is the paradise I had been looking for all my life.
DISCOVERING MY BACKYARD
Following our moving in this late summer and a semi-retired life supporting enough time to meet fellow sportsman, I secured a small but private fifty-acre lot to hunt deer. I’ll mind you this was no small feat. Southerners love their hunting and although accommodating people by nature, they won’t give up nor share their best deer hunting and fishing spots. Honestly, I totally understand and feel comfortable to abide by the universal unspoken “code.”
Although the lot was small, to a wild whitetail deer there is no such boundary. Undaunted by the size of my hunting ground I went along with the task of driving surrounding roads and walking what I could to identify bedding, feeding and travel corridors. I placed camera traps in road crossings and on my lots interior deer trails to discover, and by pure luck, this forgotten tiny piece of land was actually a hub of activity.
To my surprise I found through trail cam video and stills that “my” deer herd was most likely a dozen or so deer with a good spread of adults and fawns and a nicely proportioned buck to doe ratio. I didn’t have an ideal fifty-fifty buck to doe ratio but at least five small bucks ranging in age from button bucks at four or five months to at least one six pointer I thought was about a two years.
Although I wouldn’t take any of these immature deer, the prospects were looking good for some mature bucks traveling through looking for does during the rut. Not to mention the natural food was all over with plenty of oaks of every variety, wild grape and sign of browsing deer. There were even scared trees and saplings about from bucks of old that for sure had to be from deer that were older than two years when made. The only disadvantage I could see was that wild and undeveloped area had no farm fields to hold deer. I didn’t mind the disadvantages, this scenario harkens back to my teen years when I first started out. It’s old school, and I love the challenge.
When I was a young 16-year-old hunter taught by the likes of celebrity writers for Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, I made volumes of mistakes in application but came to really appreciate the outdoors. The smell of wet oak leaves, the sounds of an owl awakening for an evening hunt and if I got lucky, a deer would materialize and was added to the buck pole.
TO HUNT IS A SOUTHERN TRADITION
By the time the first archery season opened in early September had scouted a likely trail crossing and the corn bait pile had a regular following of deer that I had been watching for over a month. It was a lot warmer than I expected not being conditioned for southern weather hunting patterns but I adapted.
I watched the young of the year grow and the bucks go from velvet to hard horn by the first week of September. I was enjoying logging a video and picture file of prospective bucks for the future. What was lacking though was a shooter, a mature deer that I would be proud to take.
Shortly into the routine I started seeing ground scrapes and indications that the bucks were starting the pre-rut phase. Regardless of the fact it was still early for the fire the rut brings on I had little opportunity to move within the area I hunt so I set up a climbing tree stand and routinely refreshed the bait pile and checked game camera pictures.
During a few sets I was starting to see a pattern in the deer movements and the times in which the herd was comfortable to get on their feet during the early evening hours. That said, I was not seeing much early morning activity until one day when I left the stand to head home for the afternoon a little later than usual and got caught coming down from the tree stand by a bunch of doe and fawns. They were about one hundred yards deeper into the plot and in a gully that for my likes was to close to the private property. I logged that in the mental database but honestly had no intention of pushing that limit.
I pulled the camera cards after the evening hunt and to my surprise I finally got a video of a nice, big bodied deer sporting a beautiful typical eight point rack. I knew the second I seen him he was the deer I’d focus on. He had a swayed back, a huge belly and a body size much bigger than the deer I had in the hundreds of photos from the camera traps. He had a long thick neck down to his brisket and in my opinion showed the signs of a mature deer. After talking and sharing photos with friends we agreed that the deer was mature and for my area would make any hunter proud and a fine venison stew.
I continued to hunt the remainder of the bow season from the same tree stand while the camera traps consistently showed the eight point was moving only at night, a sign that the rut was not in swing.
I was ok with that until it reached the next phase of the season, muzzle loader. A mature buck in the rut will range quite far, some say as much as ten square miles in pursuit of a doe from different groups that might be in heat. This would quite possibly put “my” buck in the sights of a hunter on the outskirts of the property I could hunt. I was under no illusion that it was my buck of course and I know he’s fair game to anyone who comes across him but after months of following him and days sitting on stand I felt a connection to this one deer.
It was challenging, the bait pile barely had an effect on the herd and they were traversing the property on the game trails often ignoring the corn pile. There is so much wild food and the weather was warm enough they didn’t appear to bend to the lure of the unnatural food. I also hated the idea that circumstance and insufficient hunting plot size could ruin my plan. However, and in retrospect I was in my element and truly hunting a wild deer under unpredictable and wild conditions.
I decided to scout the gully where deer seemed to be traveling in the morning hours. I seen less activity there from the stand and it was only a mere seventy yards away but I felt I needed to change things up and find a better opportunity. I was reluctant to even walk that portion because it would leave a bunch of human scent, something I try to avoid at all cost. To this point I rarely had deer make me out or spook from a drifting scent but when I started to make my way over to the grown over logging road I started finding deep, wide scrapes.
I barely traveled forty yards and the sign lit up like a Christmas tree. I found a few rubs, scrapes on two separate lines and the scrapes in the middle of the logging road were about three feet round. I decided to move my cameras and see what we had. To my surprise I was seeing bucks I never seen before, some five and seven point deer and “my” eight point. They were all at night except one photo the eight point was a mere fifty yards from my original stand at 5:30 in the morning and only minutes before I would come into the woods for a morning sit.
I decided to move my position and hunt the muzzleloader from a tradition natural blind. I put myself not forty yards from the logging road in the gully and smack in the middle of their game trails. I had smaller scrapes that I was seeing smaller buck use not twenty yards from my blind but I had literally no other place to put the blind. I had to chance it.
Three days playing this blind and I did not see much. The camera lit up at night showing multiple bucks and doe but little during the daylight. I would regularly see deer in the gully move to the logging road and on this fourth morning, in a light rain and heavy fog, I seen two small bucks spar over the bait pile. My prospects were looking much better but the weather made my decision to return that night questionable.
RAIN OR SHINE
Early that afternoon I had to make a decision to go or stay back. It was raining on and off all day and there was a chill to the air. The temps dropped about 10 degrees overnight and the rain and fog made it much cooler. I felt this would move the deer and at the time I made the decision it was raining so I opted to go in. My natural ground blind was nothing more than branches clipped and stacked on one side in a half moon pattern to shield me from deer coming into the logging road and offered no personal weather protection.
Honestly, it was cold, wet and the fog was cutting the light in this depression quite a bit. In my haste to get to the stand I forgot my rain jacket, the bucket cushion I was sitting on was wet and of course the rain pants were in the closet next to the jacket. In fact, sunset was more than an hour away but the light was dim. Thankfully I had a high-end pair of binoculars, which made it possible to clear up any confusion on what lay in front of me. I only had an hour and I was going to stick it out hell or high water.
Well the rain started, it was at first a very light drizzle and the slight breeze blew the water down from the trees on me like I was in the shower. It was starting to get foggy as well and I pulled out my cell phone looking at the time. I had about fifteen minutes left and hadn’t seen but a doe that snuck up behind me blowing like a fire alarm and scaring me half out of my wits about a half hour ago.
Figuring I’d stand and gather my things to leave I looked up and a deer is in the logging road facing my direction its head down. Instinctually I threw up the binoculars before the deer would rise up but almost simultaneously the deer raises his head as the binoculars hit my cheek. I screamed it in my head, it’s him and instantly I could feel every nerve in my body light up. The eight point I had been tracking for two months came in like a stealth fighter, quick and quiet, and I had to act or lose the opportunity.
I watched him chew for only a couple seconds but it felt like an hour. Like a lightning bolt, when he put his head down I dropped the binoculars on my chest and pulled up the rifle in almost one move. I leveled the scope and through the fog he appeared again. When the muzzleloader went off I almost didn’t feel it. I was covered by the white cloud of smoke, and the slight breeze blew it over me and I could almost taste the sulfur smell of the powder. I looked towards the road and when the sounds died he laid there in the middle of the logging road. I went to him, laid down a Legacy stone in memory of the hunt and commenced with the work.