How to Kill a Deer

If you don’t care a lick about what a deer has on its head, you definitely don’t want to hunt in areas with big-buck sign.

Pelayo was up ahead, hunched over next to a little live oak that grew along the creek branch. He was staring at the ground and nodding. Then he started walking in a little circle, still focusing downward. “Probably checking out another scrape,” I thought to myself while picking up my pace. For whatever reason, deer in Southeast Louisiana’s piney woods love to scrape under the overhanging branches of low-slung live oaks. They also adore the little green acorns that often litter such areas and provide what little mast exists in many pine plantations. Almost invariably the leaves will be chewed off the low hanging branches and a few broken off, as if thrashed by antlers.

Pelayo was kneeling when I got to him.

“Anybody been back here?” he snorted while pointing to his left. “Didn’t Artie say he and Eddie and Chris and all of them had been scouting and planting and putting up stands over on the north side of the property?”

“Thought so,” I said while noticing a huge fresh scrape (And yes, right under the thrashed and nibbled oak limb, and yes with some fresh tracks in the middle that looked like a bull elk’s) but also the tracks of a 4-wheeler a few feet away. “Thought he said this area was all for us? ‘Virgin territory,’ Artie called it.”

“Don’t look too virgin to me,” Pelayo said while pointing at the obvious ATV trail. “And check this out.”

He led me over to muddy area also churned with huge deer tracks but also showing a fresh boot print.

“Artie swears by his cut-off hip-boots, right? And Eddie’s been wearing his new LaCrosse boots, right? Well, these tracks ain’t from either of those. And whoever it is also spotted this scrape and trail — and seems interested.”

Indeed, whatever boots made the tracks had those little knobs on the soles. No such boots in our group.

“And just our luck,” Pelayo said. “Artie, as you well know, is having major problems over on this side of his uncle’s property. He says the lease next door — those fanatical trophy-hunting guys — were claiming some of his uncle’s land, which kinda juts out into theirs. Said something about getting some surveyors out here to settle the matter, but Artie doesn’t know if they came out or how it turned out. He said it really burns them up because they claim we’re killing all the young bucks they’re trying to nurture into trophies.”

“Yeah, I remember that — BOY, do I remember,” I nodded. “Maybe we should get outta this area for now. Go back to the camp and make sure … .”

“Hear THAT!” Pelayo cocked his head and nodded.

If our duck-hunters’ ears could pick up the faint rumble of a 4-wheeler engine, it had to be close. And from the volume, it was quickly getting closer.

“Maybe Eddie’s out cruising in his new toy,” I said. “He’s acting like a little kid with his birthday bike with that thing.”

“More like Evil Kneevil,” laughed Pelayo. “Popping those wheelies last night around the fire sure livened things up. And don’t worry, I got his firewood ramp jump with my cell-phone video — bet the insurance guys would love to see it when Eddie files that claim for a defective ATV.

“But THIS ain’t Eddie!” Pelayo suddenly hissed and pointed. “Eddie’s bike is green.”

Ah, a red one was rumbling along the creekbed toward us. So we ducked into a patch of switchcane.

“THAT’S the guy!” Pelayo hissed as the ATV rumbled past at about 80 yards. “That’s HIM! Same fruity floppy hat.”

I nodded. How could I possibly forget. We’d all met, late during the previous season. Nothing like a deer in a pickup-bed to draw a crowd in a rural convenience store parking lot. Two deer work even better. And both Artie and Eddie had their late-season trophy bucks prominently displayed, with the tailgate down amidst a flurry of whooping, back-slapping and guzzling.

A shiny silver Hummer pulled up to the store and parked a few spaces away. Eddie, made festive by both his morning kill and the celebratory après-hunt beverages, waved at the disembarking Hummer occupants, pointed into the truck bed and started yelling: “Thirteen inches! Thirteen inches!” which puzzled me.

Then Eddie jerked a tape-measurer from behind his truck seat and waved it aloft, which REALLY puzzled me? So I looked askance at Pelayo. He leaned over and explained that 13 inches was the minimum “spread” for a shootable buck on the trophy-lease bordering Artie’s property. So now, as the two dapper, floppy-hatted gentlemen from the Hummer walked over, I was REALLY puzzled. Nothing even CLOSE to 13 inches resided in the bed of Artie’s truck.

“Thirteen inches!” Eddie kept whooping. “Check ’em out!”

And our neighbor-hunters finally closed the distance, leaned into the truck bed and peered. Remember Mikey Corleone right before he blows away McCluskey and Solazzo in the restaurant? Remember this face? His eyes dancing crazily, his jaw trembling? If so, you’ll spare me from trying to describe the faces of our neighbors when they saw our “trophies.”

“Thirteen inches!” Eddie kept yelling. “Look! And he stretched the tape along the tiny, skinny sprouts jutting from our trophies’ heads — along all four tiny sprouts one at a time.

And indeed, the COMBINED length of all FOUR “antlers” totaled just over 13 inches!

“SEE!” Eddie raved while waving the tape overhead in triumph. “Thirteen inches!”

Remember Sonny Corleone when he got the call from Connie that Carlo was slapping her around? Remember Sonny’s face when he ran and jumped in his car? Then remember when he got to Connie’s place? “Come here! Come here!” and proceeded to instruct Carlo on the finer points of chivalry?

If so, you’ll spare me from attempting to describe our lease-neighbors new faces — and what seemed like Eddie’s certain fate, right down to the garbage can lid smashed atop his noggin’.

But our hunting-neighbors eschewed all histrionics. Instead they gave us a look about like Don Barzini gave Don Corleone while hugging him at the meeting of all the families: “We’re all grateful to Don Corleone for calling this meeting. We all know him as a man of his word.”

Our camo-clad neighbors nodded solemnly with poker faces and ambled calmly toward the store door.

“You guys keep RANCHING!” Eddie yelled just as they opened it. “And we’ll keep HUNTING!”

They stopped and stared.

Suddenly a mud-covered truck rumbled up. Arty ran up to its front tires, which towered almost to his hat, craned his head heavenward, cupped his hands around his mouth (to try and make himself heard) and yelled at the driver: “Jake! You dog-huntin’ son-of-a gun!”

The hounds that crammed the two cages in the truck-bed answered first with a wild barking/yelping racket. Finally Jake and his chum got in a word.

“Hey Artie, great to see ya! We just had a great hunt! Y’all come by tonight for the grilled backstrap! Ga-ron-teed to be tender. We got nuttin’ but tender deer this morning!”

“And y’all are still bringing ’em over for tomorrow’s hunt, huh?!” Artie yelled while pointing at the dogs. “Man, we’ll let ’em run all over our place. And finally flush out all the deer from the pine thickets! We’ll have a big crowd on hand, don’t worry! Those dogs will have deer running around all over the place!”

“Sounds like a BLAST!” Eddie added, with one eye on the deer-ranchers still poised at the store door and looking our way with a new facial expression. Remember Dirty Harry’s face when he pointed his .44 Magnum, scrunched his eyebrows and rasped: “Go ahead — make my day?”

Well, you know what I mean by now.

Now as one of the same deer “ranchers” slowed his ATV, in obvious preparation for scouting or setting up near all the obvious humongous buck sign, Pelayo and I slunk away through the switchcane and briars in the opposite direction. In fact, that scrape under the little live oak was the third we’d found in the area, all about the size of the hot tub in Doc Fontaine’s “camp.” A line of rubs also paralleled the course of the creek branch. The rubbed trees were all about as big around as a whiskey bottle.

So given the nature of deer sign, we wanted nothing to do with this area. Tresspassing or not, we’d let the neighboring trophy-rancher have it. Let him waste his time hunting a nocturnal animal.

I know, I know, that kinda sign really gets the predatory juices flowing. But a couple of decades into this crazy game called deer-hunting — and god knows how many fruitless hours hunting around massive buck sign — finally convinced us of something deer-study, after deer-telemetry study after deer-camera study, etc., etc. etc. has proven: Mature bucks in heavily hunted, heavily timbered or brushed areas are essentially nocturnal animals during the deer season, except for a couple of days during the rut.

A study by deer guru James Kroll using infrared cameras to record deer movement on trails and food plots jointly in Michigan and South Texas concluded that 70 to 90 percent of deer-foraging takes place in PITCH blackness.

Another study by Harry Jacobson of Mississippi State University used automatic timers to document feeding stations on a lightly hunted ranch in Mississippi. Of 14,502 photos taken, 11,036 were triggered after nightfall.

Case closed. That sounds pretty nocturnal to me.

The pine plantations in much of Southeast Louisiana provide a mature buck with absolutely everything he needs from food to shelter to romance. When the season starts, he’s got no reason to venture from such a sanctum during daylight. As if most of us need any more lessons on this issue.

So for those of us who enjoy hunting a couple of days, not just during the rut, but during every week of the season, waiting for some mossyhorns to finally make his grand entrance, it just doesn’t pay off. The wizards in the deer magazines stress how a mature buck is “almost a separate species.” He’s solitary, shuns the deer crowds. In fact, he’s a bully who habitually rumbles with and runs off the younger (tastier) bucks who dare intrude into his sanctum.

Well, given all of the above, it finally dawned on us that in order to sight deer (at least fairly consistently) and bring home the makings of dy-no-mite feasts for family and friends(which is to say, trophies that we can share; trophies that are actually appreciated by those around us), it was best to shun areas where a nocturnal bully of a buck runs off any deer who might actually venture around during a half-hour or so of dawn or dusk (rare enough as it is where we hunt).

Hence our getaway from this area where a massive buck had put out his unmistakable posted signs. “Thanks for the warning” I thought as we slunk away. Sounds crazy, I know. And in other areas — say, the Tensas-Concordia area, to say nothing of the Midwest corn country — we’d be crazy to adopt such a deer-hunting strategy. But in Southeast Louisiana’s thick, heavily hunted piney woods, it has surely helped us.

Pelayo and I returned to the camp, reported our sighting to Artie and then I went back out in the opposite direction to put up a ladder stand and two sacks of corn for Dad and a nearby climber for me.

The rubs around here were on pencil-thin wax myrtles and pine saplings. The tracks were numerous and small. I picked the border between a 5-year-old (Artie tells me) clear-cut and a gum and hardwood strip that paralleled the same creekbranch but a quarter-mile north of our morning scouting area.

In my experience, trails leading to (what appear like) bedding areas are more reliable. Trails to (what appear like) feeding areas tend to change during the season, as the food preferences change, as persimmons and white oak acorns run out, for instance, or as freezes kill preferred browse. Trails to or through bedding areas (hellishly thick stuff) tend to remain more constant, at least in our experience.

I’ve noticed this same travel pattern in most pine timberland. Wherever two landscapes meet, deer trails appear. Sure bottoms are pretty and allow great visibility, but they can be deceiving. Deer tracks — invariably big, sharp ones — usually crisscross a bottom.

But not all bottoms are created equal. On public timberland, these bottoms will usually attract more hunters than deer. After just a few days, the deer start visiting them only at night. Other bottoms have mainly gum or poplar trees. These produce no deer food, but make ideal climbing stand sites to face up away from the bottom to the better-used trails, which is how I set up.

By 8 a.m. the following Saturday, concentration was waning as I started fidgeting on my climbing stand. The wind had picked up, rustling leaves and swishing branches around. The intensity of the first two hour’s vigil had vanished. I was getting restless and antsy when I spotted movement.

The head came up, and I noticed — YES! Antlers! Small slender ones. A spike, perhaps a 4-point (not that it really mattered — a doe woulda sufficed with bells on!) The shakes promptly started.

He took another step, and his shoulder cleared the tree. I rested the rifle on a strategically sawed limb to steady the quivering crosshairs. Took a deep breath — that’s it. NO! His ears are up, and he’s looking this way. Now his tail is up!

Back down! Whooo. Probably just relieving himself.

I was a basketcase as he started angling toward me (my corn, actually). Then he suddenly stopped, lowered his head. Then he raised his nose and seemed to be sniffing the air!? His tail flicked!! What to do?!

The crosshairs were wobbling, and the deer was looking around. Keep cool, I thought. A deep breath now, and the crosshairs hovered near his shoulder. Steady now.

Then he took another step, and a tree again obscured his vitals. I was breathing in gasps. I steadied the gun just as he stepped toward a greenbriar thicket. His rib cage cleared a little pine, and his head went down to browse (or grab some corn). The crosshairs were wobbling crazily as my temples throbbed and heart pounded. Another deep breath.

The crosshairs finally steadied, His head came up again. The crosshairs steadied on his shoulder.

PE-TOAAW!! The recoil almost knocked me out of the tree. And the deer was still standing, looking around for the 18-wheeler that had apparently had the blowout, I suppose. I cranked in another round with hands trembling like castanets and my pulse pounding, and braced against the tree. Crosshairs steady now.

He’s starting to bolt! There he goes!

Five minutes later, I was still a basket case while humping it down the tree. I stumbled over with quivering knees. No blood, no hair and no nothing — except a shattered sapling. I was standing there still shaking when — BLAM! A shot! Sounds like from Dad’s stand!

Just as I got back to my climber, the cell phone buzzed. It was Dad — he had a gorgeous “trophy” buck down. Our whoops and high-fives lasted a full five minutes — and kicked in again when we got back to the camp.

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