After an up-and-down push through very hilly country in western Rutland County, I found the terrain had changed into some flat, wide open, hard woods. Before venturing ahead, I slipped a diaphragm call into my mouth and cut loose with a series of yelps. This was on a clear, cold morning, late October, during the fall Vermont turkey season maybe a decade ago.
The terrain dropped off, just a bit, to a place where the cover grew thick and dark. I moved along the edge of the thicket, calling out again, then stopped to listen for any answer from a nearby flock. I stood in silence and eyed a very good deer run, the ground pounded down for years beyond any estimation I might make.
The deer run entered the thick cover to my right and, as I drew near, I decided to follow the run. Before long, I found it to be so thick that I had to unshoulder my .12-gauge shotgun and low-crawl into the place. Then, the trail meandered to a series of small openings.
It was my kind of place.
A buck or several bucks had passed through this thick cover, rubbing a series of trees every 10 feet or so. I counted no fewer than eight rubs. (Rubs, also called “hookings” here in Vermont, are trees, usually saplings, where a buck has scraped his antlers, up and down, to remove a little or, sometimes, a great deal of bark. There are probably two purposes behind rubs, but I could be mistaken. The first is to strengthen the buck’s neck; the other is to mark the tree with his pre-orbital gland, putting other deer on notice that this particular buck has passed through here.)
But that wasn’t what got my heart a-pumping. Rather, it was a series of a half-dozen, fresh scrapes in the ground. (A scrape, also made by a buck, is where the male, using his front legs, scrapes the leaf cover behind him and then urinates into the bare earth.) Scrapes are made to send a message to any passing doe that, yes, Virginia, you have a potential lover in the neighborhood.
Rubs, in my opinion, merely tell you a buck has passed this way. He may or may not ever return to that place. Scrapes, on the other hand, are a clear message to any doe about to come into estrous, or in estrous, that a breeding buck is around. It’s a pretty good bet that, at some point, the buck that made the scrape will return.
Anyway, the place where I found myself that fall day was a hell of a walk from the truck and, while this was state land, and I could hang a tree stand there, it was simply too far for the task. After a bit of scouting the area, I found a big, old pine that, with some effort, I could climb.
The opening day of the buck season came, and I hunted my two favorite areas over the first week. No luck. Then, early one morning, I remembered what I saw during the turkey season. I rose a bit earlier and took the 25-minute ride to the place, then set out in full daylight, for I knew I could not find the aforesaid thicket in hours of darkness. I reached the place, but decided not to enter the thicket along that deer run. That approach would easily give me away, for the awful stench of humans can linger on a deer run for hours. (This, I learned, the hard way having had bucks, as well as does, approach my tree stand, then suddenly stop and vanish after picking up the scent my boots and clothing left on the terrain.)
I found that old pine tree, climbed up into it and settled in at a height of only about 12 feet. The wind direction was right in my face and I could see four different deer runs in front of me, intersecting here and there, as well as the buck rubs and scrapes.
I was in thick cover, and thick cover is where I almost always hunt for this reason: After the first shots of rifle season start going off, bucks and does will often seek and take refuge in some of the thickest cover they can find. It isn’t rocket science, if you think of it. If you were being hunted, would you find a place in open hardwoods or head off to the thickest cover you could find?
There were few rifle shots that morning, being early in the second week and a weekday to boot. Few hunters would be in the woods. I was just about to reach over into my backpack for a badly needed drink of water when I caught movement, off to my right. A doe appeared from the thicket and came into view, walking calmly and slowly. She stepped into the little clearing and then began to move off. I was, of course, now watching where she had first emerged to see if a buck might be following. This is the scenario that a smart hunter anticipates. Almost always, does travel in a doe family unit, with several generations of kin in the group. But if you see a doe alone in November or in early December, there is a very good chance that she is in estrous and is ready to be bred. You had better pay great attention for a buck could show up in seconds or minutes or even hours later. Moments later, I see another deer heading into the clearing, and it’s a buck. I am just about to bring the rifle up when, at 20 yards, I can clearly see two spikes emerging from its head.
The spike horn ban forbids me from taking a shot, and I slowly bring the rifle back down. Both deer have now vanished into the thick cover, and I am back to normal breathing. But not five minutes later, I see brown movement once more, and this deer has its nose maybe 8 inches from the forest floor, following the scent of the hot doe.
The buck drops with the crack of the 30-30, kicks several times and then is still. I climb down and look over the four-point buck, dead in the leaves. I worked for this young buck, scouted for him and shot him. It was a long, lonely drag back to the truck, a drag of much more than an hour. I was in the thick of things, and it paid off. My buck season was over.
Contact Dennis Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.