A Buck To Remember
A blood trail with a happy ending isn’t always the buck we remember, sometimes it's the one that got away and taught us important lessons.
I once read that to kill a really good buck you first needed to find one. So, when I moved to middle Georgia near the massive Cedar Creek WMA in 1990, I realized that I had a chance to find one—well, at least a better chance than winning the lottery.
Growing up hunting and fishing in north Florida had given me the basic skills to deer hunt, but I had not been very successful. My first three years of deer hunting nearly convinced me that antlered bucks should be grouped in a category with unicorns—neither apparently existed. But in that fourth year, it seemed that something in the universe shifted, and I started seeing bucks everywhere. The limit in Florida in the 1980s was three antlered deer per season, and I limited out that year. After that, I killed one or two bucks every year, but they were all small—spikes or 4-pointers. Putting venison in the freezer was good, but soon I wanted to move on from young, small deer to mature, large bucks. I finally did get an old 8-point that my dad and brothers claimed was deaf and half-blind. It was hard to argue—he did have gray hair and bifocals, but he was a trophy to me, not in antler size, but in age, experience and wariness. I had finally matched wits with and conquered a big deer. He was so old his antlers were in decline and that helped fuel my desire for a trophy deer with a large rack.
So I was really excited to get a job in an area of the country that truly had exceptional whitetail hunting. I moved my family to Eatonton and wasted no time in getting a map of the Oconee National Forest and Cedar Creek WMA to begin studying and planning. I noticed that there were many smaller 160- to 1,000-acre blocks of the national forest that were not included in the WMA. After making some calls to the National Forest Service office, I learned that these blocks were open to public hunting during hunting seasons but were not in the WMA and a stamp was not required to hunt them. There were literally thousands of acres free to hunt within 10 miles of my house. I understand that this has all changed now—these blocks have been added to Cedar Creek WMA, but back then it was like finding a 5-lb. gold nugget in my backyard. It was hard to believe.
But how do you find an exceptional buck in thousands of acres of God’s creation? I soon learned how—with lots of miles and sweat. I didn’t find any sign the first year of what I thought was a BIG buck, but I knew that I didn’t want to give up. So, the second year I continued hunting the different blocks and looking for signs of the BIG one. It was difficult. My job kept getting in the way.
The third year I finally got around to exploring a block of the WMA that bordered Little River. It was during the middle of summer—not exactly the best time for doing lots of walking. To access the area, the Forest Service had covered the 3/4-mile clay road leading into the block with 2-inch granite rock, like what is used on railroad beds. I noticed that it was very noisy driving in and out. There was a large parking area at the end of the road near a small feeder creek that fed into the river. The river was the WMA boundary, and there was no access from that direction. There was a mile of large hardwoods along the river that tapered away to young planted pines. I saw several old scrapes from the previous year along through the hardwoods. The pines were a jungle thick with briars and vines. Extremely thick. An enraged rhino couldn’t have put a dent in it. Just what a mature buck would want for a refuge. I could hardly wait for hunting season to arrive.
Not knowing if or how many other hunters were hunting the area, I drove into the parking area around noon of opening day after hunting another area that morning. I was shocked. An old school bus converted into a camper and two other campers were parked there. Obviously a group was there to hunt for more than one day. This tempered my optimism a bit, but I knew they probably wouldn’t stay the entire season. I returned the following week and, sure enough, they were gone.
Early the next morning, I drove in over the crunching rocks, parked and set out to still hunt along the river. It was about one-half of a mile to the river from the parking area and as I walked along in the pre-dawn, I could feel acorns in the path under my boots, a good sign, I thought. I sat near the river and watched and listened as the world around me came to life. After a bit I stood and began to slip, a few steps at a time, along the river. In a couple of places I found beaten out trails that led to and crossed the river onto private property. Everywhere I looked the leaves were disturbed by deer nosing around for acorns. I found a scrape, then another and another. There was obviously a scrape line along the river. But the thing that grabbed my attention totally was a cedar tree. Eight inches in diameter at my waist and thoroughly gouged as high as my chest, it was the largest rub I had ever seen. This was the place I had been searching for.
I didn’t see a deer that first day, nor the second, or third. I hunted the white oaks dropping acorns—nothing. I hunted the trails leading across the river, fresh with deer tracks—nothing. I hunted scrapes—nothing. I hunted the edges of the planted pine bedding area— nothing. I hunted morning—nothing. I hunted evening—nothing. I was being badly whipped.
I was leaving after a morning hunt toward the end of the season, rocks crunching under my tires, when I felt as if I had been slapped up side of my head. I suddenly knew the problem. Why hadn’t I figured it out before? I stopped where the rocks ended at the paved road, parked and began to search for a different route to the river through the woods. I hoped to find an overgrown road, or a firebreak, or some path I could follow without driving down the road. I knew it would be a long walk, over a mile, but it would be quiet. There would be no crunching rocks to announce my coming. And I found it! Paralleling the rocky Forest Service road was an old skid trail where years before timber had been pulled to a deck and loaded to be hauled to the mill. It led almost to the river and, unlike the road, could be walked quietly. It was perfect. I had my plan.
My next chance to go hunting was during the last week of the season. That job problem of mine had been rearing its ugly head, and I was running out of time. I got up well before daylight and drove to the Forest Service road and parked at the entrance. The radio said the temperature was 17 degrees that morning. I was freezing before I was out of sight of the truck. Someone had counted more degrees than were actually present. I hurried down the trail in the dark, not wanting to be late. When I reached the hardwoods along the river, I climbed a poplar tree, straight and tall, with spreading limbs. Most of its leaves had fallen, giving me good visibility. I climbed about 15 feet from the ground and settled on a frozen limb. With my rifle ready, I waited, watching the white, frozen, world below. As the light began to infiltrate the forest, the river steaming behind me, I could barely hear a squirrel barking way up the river. Surely it was my buck coming along his scrape line. My plan was working. The buck did not hear anyone come in on the rock road, and he hadn’t bedded in the pine jungle. He thought he was alone. At least that is what I was hoping.
Did I mention that it was COLD? As my behind sat on that frozen limb, it began to throb and I was having to slightly shift my position so I could bear the pain. Meanwhile another squirrel began to bark, this time louder and closer. I was getting excited. I was getting tortured. Scanning the forest leaf by leaf in the direction of the squirrel I shivered, throbbed and shook (OK, I’ll admit that some of the shaking might not have been caused by the cold). I was in so much agony and so cold after an hour of hearing the barking of squirrels get closer and closer that my mind began to deceive me. I began to see news headlines in my head like: “Deer Hunter Freezes To Death on Middle Georgia WMA.” I began to wonder how many hunters had ever frozen to death in Georgia. I couldn’t feel my feet. I could feel my hands, and they were killing me. Finally, I couldn’t take it. I was hurting too bad. I scanned the forest one last time, put my head through my rifle sling and began to climb down.
The buck bolted and ran about two jumps before stopping in a clump of bushes. I got a glimpse of him on the second jump. He was maybe 50 feet from the tree I was in before he bolted. I had been unable to see him because he had walked up behind a large tree. All I can tell you about his rack is that I don’t know any hunter who wouldn’t have had him mounted. It was a long walk out of the woods that morning, but I began to warm up a little. The pain in my behind began to subside as walking loosened my muscles. My brain began to thaw. I began to think that maybe I wouldn’t be having headlines written about my demise after all. I wanted to hunt the buck again before deer season was over, but that job of mine overrode that idea.
I’ve thought about this buck ever since, and I initially wished I could relive the experience and hold out on that limb long enough to bag him. But now I am not so sure. The education he gave me is far more valuable than the deer itself would have been. Besides, had I shot him, he would not have been able to keep growing in my memory like he has for the past 30-plus years. He still gets bigger every time I retell the story.
I moved before the next season to a new job closer to family. I have killed a few really nice bucks since moving on, but my thoughts always return to the buck that taught me to think outside the box. Maybe one day I will be as smart as he was.
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