This story is for anyone who closed the season empty handed. You are not alone, but it is said that good things come to those who wait.
In 1998 I applied for an antlerless deer permit at home in upstate NY and for a moose permit in Maine. I did not receive either but was confident in my ability to take a buck. Even though I saw 14 does opening day, I had no shots at antlered deer and did not fill a tag of any kind all year. In 1999 I applied for both tags again, and again failed to draw either. I also failed to draw permits for moose in New Brunswick. I hunted for bear in Maine for a week without success (see the story “Learning to Hunt – Bear”).
At home I hunted with the same result thanks to an out of town hunter who stumbled onto and took the 8 point buck I had scouted and patterned (on the day that I was down and out with the flu!). I should have been out there!
Growing somewhat desperate I bought a muzzleloader to extend my season but failed to see a deer of any kind the entire week of the late season. In the year 2000 I expanded my hunting opportunities to increase my chances of success. I tried for bear a second time in Maine. The first morning a small bear DID come to the bait, but I let him go. I didn’t want to shoot a bear that was smaller than I was! But I thought it must be a sign that my luck was improving. I was wrong!
I sat the remainder of two days seeing nothing but a glimpse of the same bear on day two. I left Maine and flew thousands of miles to Alaska at the invitation of a friend to hunt bear, moose, and caribou. Alaska! It’s the big game capital of North America. Surely even I would be able to fill a tag there! We hunted hard for 10 days without seeing a single legal game animal. It was a wonderful trip and we saw cow and calf moose everyday. Bald eagles, beaver, osprey and otters were plentiful and wolf close enough to hear. The backcountry was a wonderful experience, but not a single game animal which was legal to harvest appeared!
Despite this I knew (or at least HOPED!) my luck was changing. God was beginning to reward my persistence. I had at least SEEN game in both Maine and Alaska! Then I received notice that I had drawn an antlerless deer tag in NY. NY's northern zone has an early muzzle-loading season. I drove to the far end of the state to hunt with my brother in law in the early season. At last in the afternoon of the opening day, a large doe stepped out 75 yards away. I took careful aim as the doe stepped out of the pines onto the open logging road. She turned broadside and at last stepped clear of an intervening branches. I held my breath and carefully squeezed the trigger. I had at least FIRED at game!
The doe kicked at her belly and stepped out of sight off the road. I reloaded my 50-caliber inline rifle in record time, just in case she should jump up from where she surely had collapsed. Returning my ramrod to place I stared at a second doe (probably the large doe's adult fawn) who followed the first. I rested my sights on her as she stopped and sniffed the ground close to where the first doe had been standing. I thought to myself "She’s sniffing blood." A second adult fawn stepped into view. I admit that I was tempted to fire another shot in case the first doe had run off barely wounded, but I was so sure of my first shot that I let the two nearly grown fawns follow their mother before I walked down to retrieve my long awaited venison. I couldn't believe it. There was NO blood. Beyond where the doe had stood there was something on the ground that the second deer had sniffed at, but it wasn't blood. It was a pile of neatly shaved hair. My bullet had come as close as possible to hitting her while still being a miss.
I had cut hair off my deer without wounding it! My brother in-law and I tracked those three deer over bare ground for several hundred yards and swung circles around the area beyond where we were able to track over the next few hours. Other than a few more hairs, tracks were all that we found. I could scarcely believe it. My only explanation was that I had been on a hill about 20 feet higher than the doe. Somehow my shot had angled low and passed just under her brisket. One thing made me feel better. I had come closer to filling my tag than I had in either of the past two years. Even though I knew that I had made the right choice holding my fire on the second and third deer, oh how I wanted to fill a tag after so much disappointment. I had one more morning to hunt in the early season. I used it to help my brother in law retrieve a small buck. It was his first deer with his muzzleloader.
I drove home and awaited the opening of rifle season. With an antlerless deer tag in my pocket I vowed to take the first deer I saw opening day and prayed for a chance to do so. Monday dawned cold and bright. I was late getting in the woods because I waited for friends to arrive to hunt with. One buddy showed up at dawn and we decided not to wait any longer. With anticipation high we went into the woods about 7AM. An hour later I saw the flag of a lone whitetail dancing through the brush ahead of me, but I had no clear shot. I waited, longer. Oh how I hate waiting! 30 minutes later I heard motion in the undergrowth and cautiously stalked forward. I knew the area well. I knew that a frequently used trail lay just out of sight. I crept forward making much more noise than I hoped too. The noise stopped. I stopped. The noise ahead of me resumed. I stepped. It stopped. It resumed. I stepped.
I decided that it must be a squirrel foraging for acorns; no deer would be dumb enough to let something making as much noise as I was get close to it. Yet when I came in view, a young doe threw up her head. We could see each other plainly despite a heavy screen of leafless brush and saplings between us. A second deer was feeding away with its head down screened by even thicker foliage. I knew that the doe was about to bolt and threw the rifle to my shoulder and snapped a shot. She bolted. Now thoroughly flustered I fired again. Circling the area repeatedly looking for any sign of blood or dead deer I found where one bullet had struck a tree trunk about 4 feet from the ground, clearly higher than the deer had been. My shots had been hurried and likely all high of the mark. I should not have hurried the shot. Could anyone have so many missed chances? I had to be the worst hunter that ever lived!
My friend gave up for the day in mid-morning. But I refused to quit. There was no chance of bagging game from inside the house. If I wanted to succeed I had to keep trying! An hour later I glimpsed two deer (probably the same pair) running at full speed. I marked their direction of travel and hurried to place where I would be able to see them cross the far end of a long straight logging road. I arrived at the near end of the logging road out of breath and peered down the 400 yard lane. The two deer were nowhere to be seen, BUT a spike buck was just stepping out traveling toward me in an unconcerned manner!
Holding low on his chest to make up for my mysteriously high shooting rifle and taking my time to steady the rifle, I held my breath and squeezed the trigger. The result was amazing. The deer was literally knocked off his feet by the bullet's impact. He lay on his back with all four legs in the air while I chambered a new round and approached him. He slowly tipped away from me thus completing the full rollover. I put a bullet into his brain to end the struggle of the mortally wounded animal and gave thanks as I laid my hand on him.
At last, God had given me a filled tag. I spent the next week dressing out the venison and re-sighting my rifle. I still had my long awaited antlerless tag to fill.
The following Saturday I resolved to sit at the same spot that I had fired from for as long as it tool. Either the sun would go down or I would fill my antlerless tag. I was going to be patient! I prepared myself for an all day stay in the woods. Reaching my 'stand' right at legal shooting light, I put my hat on, made sure that I had a round in the chamber and sat down. I had no sooner settled myself in my seat when I began to hear a deer approach.
Within minutes a little doe trolloped down the embankment into the roadbed about 50 yards from where I had taken my buck. The way that she looked back up the bank, it was likely that there were other deer behind her. But there were none in sight and I had been patient enough already. I rested my elbows on my knees, took careful, steady, unhurried aim and dropped her in her tracks at 145 yards.
After years of hunting all season without success, I was back at my door with my second tag filled just 20 minutes after walking out of it. I had never had so quick a hunt as that morning.
So, I guess good things really do come to those who wait!
Last year – ten years after I first booked my hunt to Alaska, I bagged my bull moose.
Now...about those elusive bear....