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Rattlin’ Buck

October 23, 2012

One o‘clock on Saturday, the second, and middle, weekend of deer season. And the three of us were out doing our mid-day scouting. We hadn’t filled a single tag, and since it only gets tougher as the season progresses, we were out looking for buck sign.

They’d just taught me how to rattle, a technique proven to attract a dominant buck in full rut. I’d learned how to smack two antlers together to imitate the sound of two bucks sparring. One or two hard hits, then a few more gentle antler rubs. I’d been cautioned not to over do it; the big bucks can tell if the sounds of battle real…less is more, they’d said. And they told me Gander Mountain sells fake antlers that are pretty good, but ’we’ prefer using the real thing…sheds that Jimbo found last spring on one of his walks in the woods.

And we did find sign. Unmistakable sign. Fifteen scrapes. Fifteen scrapes that had not been here this morning. The three of us counted ‘em twice. Unbelievable! Some were bigger than others, but on average, they were about two feet across. And considering their size and the sheer number of them, this had to be a dominant buck. The dominant buck.

Like kids on Christmas morning looking at a shiny new Schwinn under the tree, we were pumped. Each of us dreamed about getting him in our sites…and in that realm, we imagined that he had at least ten or twelve points…and tipped the scales over 200 pounds. Might even take the top prize in the local ‘Big Buck’ contest.

With this kind of sign, the last thing we wanted to do was make a lot of noise…so we spoke only when necessary, and then in barely audible whispers. We used hand gestures whenever we could, keeping our movements close to our bodies to minimize possible disruption. And then there was the issue of our scent…so much to think about. Especially with the older bucks. They’d been around a while; it was tough to outwit them. But I was getting a crash course.

So we tip-toed, Elmer Fudd style, back to the house to plan our strategy for the evening hunt.

Once there, we quickly made our plans, gathered our gear and headed back into the woods. And thoughts of that buck racing around in our heads preempted our naps. No need to wait in the house when we knew we had a dominant buck around, we reasoned.

We’d negotiated hunter placement, and I had the privilege of sitting closest to the scrape line….on the ground. Just a few feet from it, in fact. Excitement coursed through me…I had that kid at Christmas feeling again.

Bucks, once they make a scrape, refresh it by peeing in it a couple of times each day. They’re checking to see if a doe has done the same…a sure sign that she’s interested. It’s the Whitetail version of romance. Personally, I like ours better, but then, I‘m not a doe, so that‘s to be expected.

So I quietly ventured up the hill to my coveted hot spot  Hunting from the ground was new to me…I’d always been in a stand. But popping a portable stand in a nearby tree might have made enough noise and scare off our prey. And that was exactly what we wanted to avoid.

Big bucks can get pretty persnickety about where they hang out during the rut. According to my husband, Jim, they don’t get big by being dumb. So we had to be at the top of our game. I might be a rookie, but our buck certainly wasn’t.

And, like any male of any species, high testosterone levels affect brain function. The one and only reason for a buck in the rut to exist is procreation. Plain and simple. Biology. Survival of the species.

They’re not keen on competition…in fact, they’ll chase off any buck they perceive as a threat, which pretty much means any other buck…even the little ones. They can intimidate the younger, less experienced bucks, but not the bigger ones… The biggest bucks have something to prove. And they have the battle scars to show for it; flesh wounds, healed scars, broken antler tips, torn ears and who knows what else.

Sometimes, during a battle, they lock antlers, literally, and if they can’t disengage their headgear, both bucks die that way…with their antlers hopelessly locked. Makes me wonder what they were thinking by the end…when both animals were totally exhausted. Had they settled their differences? Declared a tie? Made friends? Who knows.

The big ones take their mission so seriously when they’re in the rut they even forget to eat…or choose not to. That’s the testosterone effect again. And as a result, they’re pretty run-down and beat up by the time winter comes. So, it’s survival of the fittest,…many of the big bucks won’t make it through the winter. But they’ve done their job. Come spring, their young will be born and the species will survive. Mission accomplished. A job well done. Rest in peace, guys.

I quietly placed my seat, a five gallon bucket, in the little depression on the ground between three Jack pines. We’d chosen that particular spot for the cover it offered. I could see through the pine boughs, but I was pretty well hidden. I couldn’t be sky lighted, even by the most wily of bucks. And my orange camo helped to break up my outline.

And I’d used my husband’s secret weapon…a drop or two of the ever-popular doe estrus, aka doe urine, was on my boots. It wasn’t just any doe urine…it was from a doe in heat. A major deer attractant. The Whitetail equivalent of perfume.  But ours smells better. In my opinion.

When I sniffed the Whitetail scent, just out of curiosity, I nearly lost my cookies. It was foul! I found it hard to believe that anyone, two legged or four, could possibly be attracted to it. Yuck! But it worked for bucks, so who was I to argue?

With their highly evolved sense of smell, you’d think they’d be attracted by something that smelled better. Obviously, we have a very different idea about what smells good and what doesn’t.

After letting the woods settle down a bit, I tried out my rattling skills. Just a little…then wait…and rattle a little more, not as loud as the first time. Wait.

I was sitting, still as a statue, moving only my eyes, when suddenly, I got that eerie feeling that I was being watched. And sure enough, when I looked to my right, there he was. Facing me…about 25 yards off. Staring me down. I didn’t dare move a muscle, much less bring my gun up. I doubt that he saw me. He would have bolted if that‘d happened…more likely, he thought something was slightly different and was trying to figure out what it was.

My mind was racing…what to do? Should I try get a shot off? Quickly bring the .270 up and shoot? With him facing me square on, I wouldn’t have a very good shot…. I might be able to shoot him in the brisket, but that was iffy. It might work, but it’d ruin a whole lot of meat in the process. Including the tenderloins…the best meat on him. And a head shot was out of the question…it would surely ruin that beautiful rack. Should I take a chance? If I missed, he’d abandon his territory and go nocturnal…none of us would get a chance at him. Except maybe the neighbors…he’d probably set up housekeeping over there and steer clear of us.

And that just wouldn’t do. I decided to wait him out. If I was meant to get a shot at him, I would…and don’t think for a minute that I wasn’t praying for that opportunity.

I knew better than to make eye contact with this beast. That’d send him running for the hills for sure. So I sat. And sat. For what seemed like hours. Focused on his front hooves, I could see him sniffing the air. His head was lowered; he trying to figure out what was different. Like in those old ‘Highlight’ magazines for kids, you know the ones…the ones where you had to figure out what was different between two pictures.

What would he do next, I wondered.

Sitting in my makeshift ground blind seemed like such a good idea this afternoon; it presented an exciting opportunity. But now I was feeling kind of vulnerable, and I was seriously beginning to rethink my position. Assessing the risks. Too late.

My heart raced…my pulse pounded in my ears. I was drenched in sweat and my vision was blurred. Was he preparing to charge? Gore me? I knew that the big bucks did that in the rut…attacked people; gored them to death. I wondered if that would that be my fate. Testosterone overload, I thought, a very dangerous condition, to be sure.

I had no illusions about being able to shoot from the hip with any degree of accuracy…what with him only 25 yards off or so. I knew he could cover the distance between us in a fraction of a second. Much faster than I could shoot. The most I could hope for was to change the direction of his charge…maybe by shooting straight up.

My only escape was up, so naturally, I began to wonder how fast I could climb. If I could climb at all. I began sizing up my options…cautiously looking for a branch low enough to hop up on, in case my legs didn’t grow roots, yet high enough to get me out of antler range. It didn’t look good. Maybe with the right motivation…if at all.

This afternoon, when we were out here scouting, I didn’t actually think I’d be the one to see him. I just figured I’d be sitting here until dark, unable to concentrate on anything except how cold I was. And then later, at supper, with no story of my own to tell, I’d listen politely to my brother and husband regale the family with their hunting stories. That was the plan…until he showed up. Now they’d hang on my every word, no matter how this went down.

I thought Jim and Greg were much more likely to see him…they had the experience; they knew how to spot deer in the brush. I was just developing that skill. Those men had decades of hunting experience; I was a novice, putting in my time and paying my dues. It would happen for me…eventually. But I had no expectations of it happening today.

But it did. He was right there…next to that fallen tree. His eyes still boring holes into me. His head still down, and that worried me a little. If he started pawing the ground, I’d be in real trouble. Maybe I should start climbing that spindly little tree right now, just to be safe. Or maybe I should fire a shot straight up toward the sky. Maybe the bark of the gun would scare him off and he’d forget all about killing me.

A girl can hope.

Finally, he decided something just wasn’t right…and he made a ninety degree turn to his left and, with two majestic leaps, was gone.

What an experience! Without firing a shot, I’d had an encounter with a huge buck…a ten-pointer…I’d had the time, and was close enough to actually count his points. What a rush!

I had no regrets…for me, it’s about the journey, not the outcome.

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