The sun set before me behind Monte Sano, across the Trail of Tears corridor. A southwesterly wind brushed the left side of my face every now and then. I find myself ignoring sounds around me in those last magical ten minutes in the deer woods on colorful evenings such as that one. I tipped my cap up and rested my head agains the back of the tree and slid forward in my ground seat. My backside was falling asleep so I adjusted for comfort one last time before I sat up.
I’d seen three bucks move through the cedar thicket before me that morning. I had been one bench too high, sitting in a boulder pile with a great vantage point looking down on a bench I call “the green road”. It’s a mixed hardwood bench dividing several rocky, sloping benches above and below. That mountain is thick with saplings, sweet cedars, chittam wood, oak, ash, hickory, and persimmon. It had taken me four days to pinpoint their movement, and after several houdini’s, I felt like I had the perfect wind to have a good line of sight on a shooter buck.
Night fell and intermittent clouds slipped through overhead. A moon just a couple days from bursting with it’s full potential beamed through the woods from the east. I heard a couple down near my foot trail, so I waited as to not spook them. I hadn’t been busted since I’d been in that spot and didn’t plan on it any time soon. I listened to their cautious footsteps slip through the thicket. I peered through my binoculars to no avail playing a game with myself, to see if I could pick them out in the darkness. Footsteps faded quietly down the mountain.
It was just then that above and to my right the unmistakable traveling of animals were making their way to me. The moonlight was bright. Maybe it could be a buck. I cocked the hammer on my Model 94 and rested it on my lap. The forced breaking of sticks and crunching of leaves would pause all at once for a moment or two, then resume. I knew it had to be deer. A few of them for sure.
I was sitting on the breaking point from the green road above me to the cedar bench below. Call it a stair-step from one bench to the next. A limestone ledge made up of cracked boulders dividing the two. My heart began to flutter a little. I strained to my right to try to see. The only thing seeing were my ears, telling me that these deer were within 20 yards of me, headed for me. They cut down on my bench just before crossing my wind. It was a magnificent sight.
As the clouds, like marching columns of infantry, moved through the sky the moonlight would fade in and out. The woods would go from complete darkness to piercing displays of pale illumination. Finally I could see the lead deer. It was a big doe. She slipped through the shadows of the trees stretching toward the west on the forest floor. Her coat was shining, and once she even peered just right and the moonlight reflected off of here big eyes as two green dots bobbed along in front of three other deer. It was so cool to see natural light cause that reflection.
As they moved in front of me, I became quite content with the beauty of the scene before me and eased the hammer down on my rifle. It would have been foolish to attempt such a shot anyways. No sooner had the does walked in front of me they stopped at 15 yards. Another deer was slipping in on the bench above me. It was a slightly bigger body and moved above them, but did not follow. This is characteristic of a mountain buck, to stay one or more benches downwind of the does, shadowing them. At the time, I didn’t know what it was. Directly I saw the slightest flash of an antler in the light as he lifted his head from the ground. I knew he would wind me. He walked directly behind me at 15 yards and suddenly pounced backward. He grew cautious immediately and turned away towards the direction he came. He slipped, not in a panic, back down the green road.
I peered through my binoculars in the direction of the does. They were so close I could hear their grunts, licking, and the crunching of acorns. I figured they would pass through, but they made themselves at home in that thicket. They milled around for thirty minutes. The moonlight would come and go. I could see their dark figures moving so slowly, sniffing the earth in search of food. Not one of them strayed more than 30 yards from me.
Time began to slow. I relished in the moment. Here I am, a lone hunter. I chose a spot of land on a mountain with the hopes of seeing deer. Out of all the deer in that forest and every possible place they could travel and feed, four special does surrounded me. They did not spook, they were not afraid, and I had no nervous energy to alert them of my presence. I found myself in the darkness, sitting against a tree with my goal before me.
I didn’t care walking down empty handed. Thats the story of my hunting career. I select animals to harvest sparingly, only averaging one a year. I can’t pinpoint why I do it. So much time and effort, not to mention money.
No matter. That hunt was a success in more ways than one. To cheat wildlife at their own game. My woodsmanship came to fruition for once.
Call it reassurance that I sort of know what I’m doing. To get inside their circle.
I thank God for such magnificent and graceful creatures: the whitetail deer. I profoundly thank Him for blessing me with the health to be able to wake up out of bed and climb that cold mountain. And I thank Him for moments such as the encounter in the night.
That Norfolk Southern locomotive still bellowing in the lowlands.