It’s hard to believe that prior to 1975 regulated deer hunting did not exist in Connecticut. Landowners, designated persons under a closed system using crop protection permits and poachers were the only people hunting deer in the state. There were not many deer to hunt at that time. Some notorious poachers were connected to the black market, where they illicitly sold their venison in big cities such as Boston and New York. These practices went on not only in the Constitution State but throughout the region and probably anywhere white-tailed deer were found throughout the country. Poaching is still present, but is not as serious as it was during the past.
By Bob Sampson
For Deer & Deer Hunting
Land use and habitat changes during the 1960s through the 1980s created a perfect environment that deer rapidly filled, and being a life-long hunter, I literally watched Connecticut hunting opportunities evolve. But over the years my most productive private land permits were lost to development and ownership changes, reducing my personal hunting opportunities to 185 acres of hunting-club land a short drive from home.
Whatever the reason, possibly bad timing, I developed a case of “deer blindness” during the 2012 season. This is a term my buddy and I use when we are unable to tag or, in this case, even see an animal. During the afternoon of my first bowhunt in October, a single spike buck wandered past my stand 10 yards out of range — then the blindness set in.
One day late in December, without so much as a chickadee or squirrel for company, I walked the entire club property as a scouting mission out of sheer frustration. The idea was to simply spook a deer or locate fresh sign, then devise a plan of action. Bad idea, all it did was sweat up my hunting clothes, soak and muddy my boots and inflict enough briar scratches to make me look like I’d lost a sword fight, without seeing a sign of life. I’ve seldom experienced such barren woodlands.
The day before the season ended, a letter arrived from the National Marine Fisheries Service that contained a thank you note and what it called a “Good Luck Buck,” a one dollar bill for completing a survey. Hoping that it might actually bring some good fortune, I folded and tucked the bill into my wallet, where it would be safe. In a pile of desk litter was a brand new Buck knife that I’d won in a raffle. It too was enlisted as a “good luck double whammy,” for that final muzzleloader hunt on Dec. 31, 2012, New Year’s Eve day.
Earlier in the fall, while pheasant and bowhunting, I’d located a half-dozen tree rubs that appeared to be from a mature buck. However, the tracks associated with those rubs were small and didn’t appear to belong to the deer making impressive rubs on 3- to 4-inch diameter saplings. I began a campaign to tag that buck that eventually devolved into an effort to simply harvest a deer, any deer. Giving up wasn’t an option, especially after a foot of fresh snow fell the night before that last day of the regular deer season. When I approached my hunting area at about 9 a.m., the snowfall was subsiding. Since deer often move immediately after a winter storm, I figured the timing was perfect.
TRACKS IN THE SNOW
The state road leading to the locked gate had not been plowed. A hundred yards or so before the driveway, three sets of deer tracks came from land across the road from ours where the deer had walked right down the middle of the tar road. I followed the tracks in the car and couldn’t believe it when they turned into the driveway toward the clubhouse, like they were members going to a meeting. I parked the Jeep a safe distance off the main road and got out.
Excited about finally seeing fresh deer tracks and knowing those deer were close, I pulled my Thompson/ Center Encore from its case, loaded it and began the stalk. The tracks continued up the center of the quarter-mile-long dirt road. At the end, the story in the snow indicated I had interrupted the deers’ breakfast of low-hanging cedar branches 50 feet from the front door of the clubhouse.
The tracks leading up to the trees were those of walking deer — on the opposite side it was clear they were loping, so I had obviously spooked them. They were closer than I’d realized. Slowing to the pace of a now excited snail, I resumed the stalk slightly to the side of the exit tracks. There was no wind to contend with, making it essential to spot the deer before they spotted me, a difficult task because they were already on high alert.
A hundred feet down an old tote road on the far side of the building, they had turned down a steep bank into a boggy swamp that feeds into a stream that bisects the property. This stream was dammed by the original club members in 1917 to create a private fishing pond that has been in use ever since, making the entire property a wildlife magnet.
With fresh fallen snow clinging to low brush and branches, it would be difficult to spot an elephant let alone a deer. If I bungled onto them without being heard or seen, the shot would probably be close. As a personal ethical matter, I do not take shots at running deer with any weapon at any range, and if possible, try to lean against a tree for support to reduce the odds of wounding an animal.
There were no large trees for cover in the swamp. The plan was to move slowly through the more open area while peering into the dense brush to one side and hope that the Good Luck Buck in my wallet and the virgin knife were working their magic.
The swamp was frozen and would have been safe to walk on if not for the many small springs that feed in from below, eroding the ice and creating wet booby traps. Without so much as a warning crack, the ice underneath me broke like a trapdoor. The crash was well-punctuated by a volley of involuntary expletives as I plunged knee deep into the icy water. At least I was standing and not sitting on the sandy stream bottom.
A few squishy, cold steps later, three white flags waved good riddance as they crested the ridge 100 yards ahead and beyond the stone wall marking our property line. Wet, cold and angry, I figured my deer season was over and the distinct scent of “eau de skunk” was in the air. Standing on a hummock at the edge of the swamp, I turned to survey the area in order to decide whether to keep hunting until my toes froze off or drive home and take a hot shower.
LAST CHANCE BUCK
It was then that I caught movement that materialized into a big-bodied deer with visible antlers. He was walking perpendicular to the four sets of tracks about 100 yards away, and I took two quick steps to steady the gun on a nearby tree. The buck detected my movement as I found him in the scope, stopped, glanced in my direction and then disappeared as a blast of smoke left the muzzle of my rifle.
The deer made three or four bounds in the opposite direction before disappearing from sight, but did not reappear on either side or the higher ground beyond. My heart sank when I reached into my pocket for a reload but found only lint. Caught up in the excitement of the moment back on the main road, I’d grabbed a heavy coat that I hadn’t worn before, so it didn’t have the reloads that would normally have been present.
Forensics indicated a lethal hit where the buck had been standing, tiny pink chunks of lung material with a heavy blood trail on both sides of the bounding tracks. The buck had headed toward my Jeep, so I decided to follow for a short distance to gather more information before retrieving a reload and other gear.
About 40 yards closer to the tote road, I spotted an out of place brown form under a blowdown at the end of that blood trail. From where I stood it was obvious the deer was dead, based on the positioning of its legs and neck and tremendous blood loss.
Getting my prize to the car was easy and completed in less than an hour. As the owner of a classic “bad back” that most active sextogenerians possess, I could neither lift or pull the heavy, bulky, awkward animal into the back of the Jeep. I called Pete Minta, my original deer hunting mentor and partner of 40 years, who lives nearby. He had been out hunt- ing that morning and was there to help within a half-hour.
The buck was a large-bodied, small -hoofed, 6-pointer, with a 20-inch plus outside spread. After hanging in the barn to cure and age the venison for about 10 days, the “good luck buck” weighed 189 pounds dressed.
I had “Little Foot,” my best-ever Connecticut buck, mounted by taxidermist Joe Petruzello, and it now gives me the same never ending but fatal sideways glance from his place of honor over the mantle.
— Bob Sampson is an avid whitetail hunter from Connecticut.
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