By Cody Altizer
The morning of Wednesday, November 14th, was the type of day all deer hunters dream about. The weather conditions were perfect for mid-November. The wind chill was in the upper 20s, a hard frost glistened in my head lamp and a new moon kept the woods pitch black as I made the quarter mile walk to my stand.
I hadn’t seen any rutting activity to speak of prior to this morning, but historically; the 14th is one of the best days to see mature bucks on their feet on my property. To say I was excited would be an understatement. I had recently hung a Lone Wolf stand/sticks at the top of a ridge that mature bucks notoriously run back and forth during the chase phase looking for does. Virgin sits are always the most exciting, and I couldn’t wait to get in the stand.
To access this stand I had to walk up the steep ridge and I used an old logging road to access my stand. When I make my way to the stand in the morning I waste absolutely no time. I put my head down and get to my stand as quickly and quietly as possible. That being said, as I climbed the old logging to road to get to the top of the ridge and ultimately my stand, I stopped dead in my tracks half way through my ascent.
Every year I look forward to this first experience, and this year it didn’t let me down. The smell of an old, disgusting, rutting buck filled my nostrils. I say it all the time because it’s 100% true, but every year I smell more mature bucks than I actually see. It’s just a product of the type of terrain I hunt and how scent dips, swirls and carries in the mountains. However, I’d never smelled it as heavy as I did that morning. It was exuberating, heightened my senses, and made me even more anxious to get in the tree.
I just assumed I had passed a hot scrape on the way to the stand, because bucks like to make scrapes when traveling through the old logging roads during the rut, but I was still excited about the morning hunt. I’m pretty OCD about my hunting gear, but the upside of such a condition is that I’m always very organized and efficient in getting set up in the tree. So I was up in my Lone Wolf, strapped down to the tree, muzzleloader on the EZ hanger and ready to hunt no more than 5 minutes after I had encountered the musty smell.
I make it a point to get in to my stand at least an hour before first light. Not an hour before sunrise, and not an hour before first shooting light, but an hour before I would need my binoculars to make out a deer even if it were just 20 yards away.
As soon as I got settled I heard what I thought to be a squirrel climbing down for the morning. I didn’t even think twice that it was entirely too early for squirrels to get out of their bed, so I didn’t pay it any mind. Then I heard it again, and paid attention more closely this time. It sounded different. Then it intensified. That wasn’t a squirrel. That’s two bucks fighting!
My heart rate picked up immediately, but I was helpless. The bucks had to have been no more than 70 yards away, but there was nothing I could do to see them. The bucks continued their skirmish for about 5 minutes or so, grunting and snort wheezing the whole time. It was killing me! They had to be the same two bucks I smelled on the way in, but I had to sit there motionless and pray they hang around for daylight.
I sat in the most awkward position for some 45 minutes as I heard the two bucks verbally trying to figure out who was boss as they continued their way down the ridge that I had just climbed up. I thought about trying to find them in my binoculars, but I feared they might see me, and the morning was obviously still very young.
I did my best to pull the sun up over the mountain as I heard both bucks slowly walk out of my life, but there was still 25 minutes of painful darkness to sit through before first light.
Once the sun finally did peak up over the mountain and allowed me to see my surroundings, I was reminded of what I had hung a stand in this location for. A small network of trails weaved around deadfalls at the crest of the ridge, and if a buck hit one of those trails cruising for does, I’d have a chip shot.
It didn’t take long for the action to pick up though, because at 7:30 I heard a doe coming at full speed from behind me. Being November 14th, I went ahead and grabbed my muzzleloader to get ready for a shot should a mature buck be behind her. At first I didn’t see anything directly behind her, and she was at 40 yards and closing before I knew it. Finally, I saw him. The first good buck I had seen all year came lumbering up the ridge, gasping for breath leaving a vapor trail in his wake.
Since I had already grabbed my muzzleloader I couldn’t glass him in my binoculars to determine if he was a shooter. The doe was now at 15 yards from the base of my tree, facing my direction. I was too afraid to shoulder my muzzleloader and find the buck in my scope to further decide if he was a shooter because I was afraid the doe would pick me off. Before I knew it the buck was at 30 yards and walking behind a giant poplar tree. I flipped off both safetys on my muzzleloader and shouldered it when he was behind the tree. He finally stepped out from behind the tree at 23 yards. I leaned up against the tree and for the first time got a look at his rack.
“He’s a nice buck! At least an 8 pointer with good mass. How old is he? He looks thin in the hind quarter. I don’t want to shoot a 2 year old, especially one with good potential. Is it Maverick? Do I want to shoot Maverick with a gun? I don’t see a baby drop tine on the right main beam, but there are shavings at the base of his right antler. This is my first look at him, if I shoot him there will be ground shrinkage. Or will there? Focus!! This is a good buck.”
I reclaimed focus and put my crosshairs on his shoulder. At 23 yards, all it took was a simple trigger pull and he’d be dead in his tracks. I didn’t pull the trigger. I couldn’t convince myself that he was a buck I wanted to shoot.
Finally, the doe took off up the hill, and as he swung his neck and heavy rack to follow her I knew I had missed my chance. I tried to whistle and stop him, but he didn’t pay me any mind. He stopped at about 80 yards and I had a small window, but I let him walk again. I wasn’t going to lob a shot at him in desperation. Opportunity squandered.
The rest of the morning yielded a lot of great action, but no more shooter bucks came by my stand. Still, it was an outstanding morning. I spent most of it trying to figure out if I’d made the right decision. To be honest, I absolutely think I did make the right decision. Looking back, I’m not happy with the decision I’d made, because I had an opportunity to kill a great 3 year old buck at 23 yards, but I am at peace with it. There was simply too much indecision racing through my mind to give me enough confidence to pull the trigger.
Curious if the buck I had passed on was Maverick I decided to take a trail camera up to the logging road and make a mock scrape the next morning. A day and a half later, I got a daytime picture of the buck I passed on at the scrape, and after looking back through the photos I have of Maverick, there’s no doubt it was him.
Close, but no cigar. To the best of my knowledge Maverick is alive and well, but I’m anxious to check my cameras after this week of Virginia’s rifle reason to see if he made it.
I believe that everything happens for a reason, especially in the deer woods. Maybe I’ll put an arrow through him here in the next couple weeks? A bullet, maybe? Maybe he was shot and killed by a deserving hunter. Who knows. I’m going to find out though, because I’m hoping passing on Maverick was just the beginning of our relationship.
– Cody Altizer