T-Minus-8 Bucks

The old adage that you have 8 seconds from when you see a big buck until he’s gone is seldom proven untrue.

“When a big, old buck shows up, you’ve got about 8 seconds to get on him and pull the trigger.”I first heard that theory amidst the smoky, chilly air around a deer camp fire pit. Simple as it sounds, it’s probably the most profound piece of advice any whitetail trophy hunter will ever hear. In fact it’s so simplistic, more hunters than born-again Saints fans have learned it the hard way, myself included.

On a narrow ridge that rises out of a tupelo gum/cypress swamp, I found signs that would swell any deer hunter’s neck. The peninsula looked like an escaped mental patient had been turned loose with one of those steel-bladed weed whackers.

This dude had the ridge torn up. Low branches were tattered, small cypresses were skinned and he serviced a dozen or more scrapes like a drunken sailor in a back alley. Even Rosie O’Donnell would know I was standing squarely in the province of the area’s dominant buck.

It was almost an accidental discovery. It was 12 noon, and I had gone to retrieve my climbing stand from underneath the brush pile I had hidden it in a week earlier. With water, white and live oak acorns plus a variety of other preferred deer food sources on the ground, the spot had promise but, so far, no results.

The reason I was picking up the stand was my hunting buddy, who had also hung a climber on a tree on the other end of the ridge, called and told me his had been stolen. Yeah, some low life yanked it right off the tree.

Makes you wonder what the world is coming to when even “sportsmen” steal from one another. When I was a kid my dad wouldn’t even lock the truck while we were squirrel hunting in the woods. He always said, “You don’t have to worry, a hunter would never steal from another hunter, and everybody else knows you’re out there somewhere and that you have a gun.”

Times sure have changed. Now you need the gun to protect yourself when you head home.

But back to lessons learned at my hotspot.

Instead of packing up and heading out, the signs told me even at midday, this is a place where something serious could happen. So I picked a spot along one of his well-worn trails, and ratcheted up the tree.

At 1:20, I saw and heard him coming down the trail. He was an 8-point, but one of the biggest-bodied deer I’d ever seen and absolutely the biggest swamp deer, 200 maybe 220 pounds.

He was hunting does and his nose was working the ground like a pointer in search of quail. He was only 40 yards away, but there were some small, leafless stick-ups between us, and he was moving from my right to left. I looked ahead, and 20 yards from the direction he was heading was a clearing in a small oak flat. That spot was where he would meet his demise — at least that was my plan, not his.

He came to a sudden stop, and a lump developed in my throat when I realized he picked up my scent where I had crossed the trail. I left the scent when returning to my stand site after double-checking whether my buddy’s stand was in fact, stolen or just misplaced.

But I got a reprieve — he calmed down and took a couple more steps toward the clearing. He stopped again, and was standing still, carefully surveying the area.

I had raised my rifle and centered the crosshairs between two narrow saplings on his brisket, not a shot I like to take but thought about it and decided to wait for the couple of steps it would take for the deer to make it into the clearing.

It never happened. My better judgment tells me wildlife shows no emotion, but I’ll never forget the look of terror I saw on that deer’s face when he picked up the scent of the trail where I had crossed for the second time on my way back to my stand.

There was no blowing, no foot stomping, and no prior warning. In a single motion, he wheeled around, and in one step was in a full gallop. Not a jump, not a trot, just a 0-to-high gear dash behind the cover of palmettos toward the deep cypress swamp.

I hunted that individual deer hard for the rest of the season right on through the late muzzleloader dates, but he hasn’t been seen since. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a vision of the crosshairs on his chest. I’d been had by a wise old buck, and it all happened in those talked about 8 seconds — a hard lesson to learn.

It was one, however, I would put to good use years later.

Now without a doubt, the 8 second rule isn’t 100-percent fool-proof. Sure, there have been plenty of older, wiser bucks that acted out of character and gave a hunter an easy shot, but there are more stories out there that tell a different tale.

David Moreland, head of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries’ Wildlife Division, agrees.

“The ability of mature bucks to avoid being an easy target is a combination of learned experience and natural instinct,” he said. “They become very familiar with and are very much in tune with their surroundings. Add in that with the exception of during the rut, they are very much nocturnal, and you can explain why so many hunters say, ‘We see all these big bucks in photographs from our trail cameras, but we never see them during hunting hours.’

“Hunters underestimate how many deer they are spooking and educating when they’re riding 4-wheelers around October through January but not during the other eight months. By the time a buck gets 4 years old, he’s learned to use all his senses to avoid humans.”

Sammy Romano, an archery equipment specialist at Chag’s Archery in Metairie, is a first-hand believer in the 8-second theory, and judging from shop talk, he’s far from alone. One of his favorite stories is testimony.

“One of my hunting club members spotted a big 9-point running does,” he said. “It stopped in range, but its vitals were protected by a tree trunk so he passed up a neck shot. His decision was based on the prospects of a doe nearby in an opening. Just a single step away from a clear shot at the vitals, he fully expected the buck to follow the doe. But the buck had other ideas. Instead he cut a corner to head off the doe and avoided the opening.

“Minutes later, he heard a shot when a hunter on neighboring property killed the deer. To add insult to injury, the buck ran back onto our property, where we found it.”

The 8-second dilemma doesn’t discriminate against bow hunters. Romano has been burned.

“I was hunting on a logging road next to a persimmon tree,” he said. “A 7-point walked up heading directly for the persimmon tree, and at 15 yards, I really didn’t have a shot I liked.”

Thinking the buck would stop to suck up a persimmon, he waited for a better shot.

“He didn’t even slow down,” Romano said. “A doe would have parked it under the tree, but this deer scooped up a persimmon on the fly and kept walking. The only shot I had ended up in a gum tree.”

Most hunters know the best time to bag a mature buck is during the rut. But even then, when they pretty much throw caution to the wind, the 8-second principle often still applies.

“If you look at the Louisiana Big Game Records, it’s easy to see the correlation between the dates the deer were killed and the historical rutting dates for the area in which they were killed,” Moreland said.

It’s during the rut when most close encounters of the trophy deer kind occur, and that’s when that little crack in the window of opportunity becomes crucial. So how do you avoid being victimized by the 8-second curse?

The Cliff’s Notes version is two words — focus and preparation. The TV hunting shows lead you to believe you have lots of time to admire your trophy before you shoot it. I don’t know what kind of deer those are but not the kind I hunt.

Here’s how I avoided a repeat performance of the curse. During the peak of the rut in a swamp located on Lake Pontchartrain’s north shore, I was hunting one evening in an area that showed some rutting activity. A doe and a yearling came to within 15 yards of me, froze in their tracks and began a stare down.

At the same time, I heard a noise coming from the same trail they had just used. Knowing it might be a trailing buck, I shouldered and pointed the rifle where I figured he would emerge. He popped into view at 60 yards and stopped. I sized up the rack, put the crosshairs on his shoulder and before he took another step, pulled the trigger immediately. He dropped in his tracks, and it all happened in 3, maybe 4, seconds from the time I saw him. He could have continued to follow the doe and yearling and offer a closer, better, maybe even a broadside shot, but then again…

He turned out to be a 175-pound (the heaviest deer killed on that lease up to that time), 6 year-old 8-point, a nice trophy to come from South Louisiana swampland habitat.

The moral is to be in tune to what’s going on around you as much as the buck is. And while you never want to take a shot that would more likely cripple the animal than kill it cleanly, be in a position to quickly identify your target, sight it in and squeeze the trigger in 8 seconds or less.

Otherwise, you could become a member of the “He who hesitates is lost” club.