“If you consider an unsuccessful hunt to be a waste of time, then the true meaning of the chase eludes you all together.” -Fred Bear
As bowhunters we all want an epic story, rich in history with that specific, elusive whitetail deer. It’s the deer that you “know” and have “passed” numerous times, you’ve found his sheds, and know where he beds. The intimate details of his daily and even seasonal routines are documented in a library of trail camera photos. You tell your buddies, “this deer is too young to shoot. In a couple years he’ll blow into a giant!” He’ll be big enough to make the most seasoned hunter’s heart pound.
That’s cool and all and sure sometimes it plays out like that, but let's be honest, it's pretty rare and nearly unheard of in New England. I have killed numerous pope and young bucks in Connecticut, and there was only one deer that I truly had history with. The rest of the deer I may have caught on camera or run into him a time or two, but they were nothing close to textbook multi-season hunts. Typically, I found sign of a big deer, made a plan, and I hunted until I harvested him.
In today's industry you hear everyone naming deer and creating a “hit list” for the deer that they want to kill. I do not. The only names deer get are, “the 8” or “the 10.” I called the one and only deer with true history, “The Big 6”. The story of The Big 6 began two years ago, or so I thought. It was only after I killed him that I returned to my trail camera archives and realized the history began four years ago in a thick swamp, on the ground, with my bow.
Anyone that knows me knows that I was Running and Gunning, or #RunNGun before it was cool, and before I even knew what a hashtag was! I love hunting out of a tree, but what really gets my blood boiling is hunting on the ground with a bow. I was drawn to it from a young age. Many times, I would spot deer on the next hardwood ridge and remove my boots in pursuit. The majority of the hunt was spent trying to backtrack to find those boots after a stalk.
One cold, rainy day was developing into a routine sit and stalk. I was in the zone with a set of Stepps on my back and bow in hand. The only difference, my boots stayed on my feet this time! I was hunting through a thick swamp that I’d frequented since childhood. I employed my usual method of sneaking through thick cover, stopping every 50 yards, and calling. I have a call with me on every hunt. It’s one of the most underutilized techniques, because people don't understand how vocal deer really are. I perched on a dead fall for cover and started my calling sequence with a doe bleat, followed by a few short tending grunts and an imitation foot scrape. After 20 minutes, I was bored of the same surrounding trees and boisterous squirrels. I began to move again when I saw the “white flag” of a deer tail bounding away, only I read it as more of a “screw you” than an “I surrender.” I immediately stopped and grunted at the deer. Most guys would have thrown in the towel thinking he was a goner. I knew it was so thick that the deer couldn't have seen me as a human threat, so after a few short grunts I snort wheezed a few times. He turned and worked his way behind me, attempting to get down wind. I caught a glimpse of a tall 6 point rack on a two or three year old deer. If I had a shot he would have died then and there! The light faded and as deer typically do, the 6 pt turned and evanesced.
Fast forward two years and a camera pull shows what I consider a big, mature seven point with thick bases and a tall rack. This 7 was visible on every camera on four different properties totalling 300 acres. He was mature, and I was hunting in his core area. I had been hunting here for 16 years, and I had it figured out. What I didn't realize was this old boy had me figured out first! The 2016 season went by without a single sighting of the 7-pt, unless you count hundreds of trail cam pictures. He was smart, and seemed to show up wherever I wasn’t. He was winning and I wasn't happy. I wanted to kill him, I wanted his skull and his meat!!
The 2017 season began in January when I got pictures of the 7-pt as he shed his rack. A few does filled the freezer, and I accepted the hunt for this deer was over until September. I knew his home range would shrink as he aged. One wrong move could push him away to a new home. This is the most difficult part about hunting deer on small, New England properties. By late summer I prepped a few bait sites in the normal spots, and I took inventory of what deer were in the area. The acorns were scarce, so my confidence was building. But, there wasn’t a single mature deer on camera the entire summer. Neither the food plot nor the bait sites attracted my elusive 7-pt. In my mind he was gone, dead or moved on to greener pastures.
Opening week of bow season was for filling the freezer. I filmed hunts for family and friends on multiple properties including the food plot. A week of the early season goes, and I’ve fulfilled my “family guide service;” it was time to help myself. I can't tell you how many times I have looked at aerial maps of the same properties over the years to see if there was anything I was missing. I never really focused on deer bedding areas because I was convinced that deer bed anywhere. There are no agriculture fields near us, except the occasional hay field. It’s all open hardwoods, swamps, ridges and power lines. This season would be different, I was going to focus on bedding areas. I had the idea that mature deer would bed in the thickest, nastiest cover available. I was wrong. I began looking at the property on the hunt stand map and thinking like a deer. Instead of patterning the deer, I patterend myself. I looked at how I accessed the property, where I parked, what stands I chose in particular winds. Then, I thought about where I would bed if I was a deer so that I could see and smell in 360 degrees.
It all clicked. I had a plan. I noticed one stand that on the edge of a power line bordering a big, oak flat with the food plot to the west. I looked closer and noticed the middle of the property. A few blow downs would create an ideal bedding area. If he slept in the middle of the property he could see down the ridge toward the food plot, he could see every single one of my stands, and he could smell me no matter how I accessed the property. I waited until I had a windy day and crept into the stand on the edge of the powerline. I threw down some corn and a bag of crush apple powder on a rotten log. When establishing a new bait site, I always put down the strongest smelling powder I can get my hands on. This way, any deer in the area will smell it well before they stumble upon the corn. I waited two days for the perfect wind and accessed this stand in a completely new way.
It was September 22, 2017. I was in the shop processing orders and putting the final touches on the new camera arm I had just built. I checked the Weather Channel app at least a dozen times; we had a NW wind with gusts between 15 and 20 mph and it was warm!!!! I knew this was a good time to sneak in and hunt my newly baited stand. Many hold onto the misconception that throwing a bag of corn on the ground is a gimme to kill big deer. It is not! I knew the first time hunting this new bait site would be my best and potentially only chance at a mature deer, or at the 7 pt if he was still alive. Typically, when accessing this stand I would walk up the powerline which provided cover to the stand, but this time I did something different. I accessed the stand by walking up a stream. It had only a few inches of water in it, but had been carved out by previous storms with 10ft muddy walls on each side. Between the wind and the stream, I was invisible. The corn was gone and the camera had numerous pictures on it. After getting all my gear set up and my camera arm secured to a SteppLadder rung I was ready to roll. I threw the trail cam card in my camera and began flipping through the pictures, when BAM! there he was. The previous day he found the bait! My blood coursed hot and heavy as the excitement surged that had been creeping up on me all day. It's a predatory feeling deep in your gut; a sixth sense that a kill is approaching. The camera told the whole story. My 7-pt worthy opponent had grown six points this season with thick bases and a tall rack. He was traveling to the bait from the exact location I had overlooked for 16 years. And there he was, the day prior in daylight at 6pm. He did not come back to bait that morning, meaning I had a good chance that he would come tonight to a new and undisturbed stand.
The evening began with a doe and fawn coming to bait and hanging around for a few hours. I couldn't help but stare at the trail cam pics of this Big 6. Had I finally outsmarted him? Six P.M. rolled around and right on schedule the doe snaps her head up towards the northwest. It was him, he had just stood up from his bed, less than 100 yards from me and took his time walking right towards me. I double and triple checked my camera, my bow, and my surroundings. I was in the zone. CJ Box’s master falconer character, Nate Romanowski, calls it the state of “Yarak.” It refers to the mind of accipiters and hawks eager to hunt. Nothing around me mattered except the Rage on the tip of my arrow. He approached cautiously but in the sleepy lackadaisical mindset of an early season buck. The second he turned broadside I sent my arrow through his vitals. The thick foliage did not allow me to see or hear him crash.
I was now in a mix of emotions. The first time I laid my eyes on this deer in more than 4 years and now the hunt was over. I took a few minutes to soak in the moment and relive what had just happened before calling buddies and my old man.
While walking up to the Big 6 I did something I always do and took a few minutes to look him over before taking any pictures or diving into the social networks that tend to only take away from what truly matters. I was proud, but mostly I was thankful that this deer was able teach me a lesson that can only be learned in the woods. To me, it was almost as if he knew I had him figured out and he rewarded me with his life. Many deer that I've shot were deer that I hunted without really knowing them. The Big 6 was different; this kill was different. It taught me to think differently, and it made me become a better hunter. He taught me to always continue to search for ways to better myself, to sharpen my skills, to maintain awareness of the environment in regard to the specific animal I’m pursuing. It wasn't until I stepped back and started thinking like a deer that I finally figured out how this deer had been evading me for so many years.
The Big 6, who was in fact the same Big 6 from all those years ago, now proudly hangs on the wall in my office to remind me that no matter how impossible some things may seem there is always a way to succeed and there is always something to learn.