When I told my close friends, we were selling the farm, moving back to town to be closer to family and help with the family business, there were many questions. One of the most often asked questions was, “Where are you going to hunt?” I’d given that question a great deal of thought and decided on public land. I made that decision for many reasons. I had been hunting western big game: elk, black bear and pronghorn antelope, on public land for over a decade. Now, I was going to hunt the public fields, hills and hollers of my home, the Commonwealth of Kentucky for whitetail deer and turkey.
I wanted to get back to being the kind of hunter where my woodsmanship skills and abilities were tested. I wanted to get away from the new whitetail hunting culture where we build our hunting areas from the ground up. We cut timber. We landscape. We plant food plots. We hang multiple stands to hunt the best spots in any wind condition. We use mineral and bait to attract deer and inventory them on camera. We even put up blinds, so well-built that we don’t even have to sit out in the elements any more. I have no problem with our new whitetail culture. I have no problem with using every possible legal advantage to help win, in any endeavor. I understand it. I get it. I have done it. Yet, I wanted to get away from it. I wanted to see if I could still get it done with just the woodsmanship I learned as a boy.
Three years ago, I had pictures of a giant whitetail buck on camera on my farm.
I spent the entire season hunting him. I saw him once and only once in person. During that encounter, he was in bow range, but it didn’t work out. I was using every possible legal advantage. I’d never had an opportunity to harvest a buck of this caliber. Still today, when I think about him, my heart races.
The season went on and I continued to get pictures of him, but I never saw him again in person. Late in the season, after the rut I stopped getting pictures of him. Eventually, rather than eat my buck tag I made a clean kill on a good buck, but I was not happy. In fact, I was sad. It bothered me all winter.
One day, I realized what was bothering me. I was dishonoring the buck I’d killed. Hunters should always honor their quarry and be thankful for their harvest. I was not thankful. I was disappointed. Why? Because the buck I killed was not the giant I had on camera. I decided right then and there to take my cameras down. In the future, I would not inventory my bucks. I would kill the first buck that made me happy and I would honor him. I would cherish the hunt. I would never again let greed ruin a hunt.
Early the next spring, I scouted public land for deer and turkey with my good friend Ricky. On an isolated ridge, far away from the public parking lot on a local Wildlife Management Area (WMA) we found them. The ridge was almost a mile long, with spurs and draws branching off it like the arms of a great oak. It was perfect. We had our best turkey season in years on that ridge. Not only did both Ricky and I tag out on two big tom turkeys each, we took his father-in-law who harvested his first bird in almost a decade. So, it was with great anticipation that I stopped my little Toyota pickup in the gravel parking lot and prepared to do my first public land whitetail deer hunt in my entire life. My load going in was quite heavy. I had all my hunting gear, my bow and a Summit Viper climbing stand strapped to a pack frame. I shouldered my load and headed into the forest.
I intended to hunt the ridge we scouted earlier in the year. The hike would take more than an hour. My plan was to get to the ridge and then scout until I found signs that a buck was in the area. Then I would unload my gear, put on my warmer clothes and use my climbing stand to gain the advantage of elevation in the tree canopy. Pretty simple, really. It took twenty minutes to gain the summit of the first hill. After thrusting my way through knee high thick grasses and weed tangles I entered the forest proper. I took the old road that ran down the first ridge to the east. Down that ridge, into a saddle, back up to the ridge and then off it into a deep thick bottom I hiked. I was a few miles from the parking lot and less than one hundred yards down a steep hillside when I struck gold – a fresh scrape. I thought about hunting over the scrape, but there was nothing but small scrub trees, nothing that would hold me. What’s worse, the trees nearby were all covered in poison ivy. I had to continue down the hill. Almost to the bottom, I found another scrape, but once again there was no place to hang a stand. Further into the bottom I hiked. Then suddenly - one, two, three, four, five, oh my God, there were five deer trails that intersected in the thickly wooded bottom. I was not yet to my ridge, the ridge Ricky and I killed our turkeys on. But I could not pass up all this deer sign. It was time to climb.
I transitioned from my lightweight hiking clothes to my warmer sitting clothes, climbed the largest straight tree I could find and sat still. The time was 2:38pm and I needed some rest. The wind was strong and was the most hated wind of all hunters – swirling. It could not decide which direction it wanted to blow. There was nothing I could do about it, so I settled in and waited. Around 4pm the wind slowed and the temperature started to drop.
It was getting close to the time of year when bucks fight to establish dominance. So, I started to rattle and mimic a buck fight every time the wind died down enough that I thought the deer could hear me. Randomly, I also used a doe in estrous bleat call and a tending buck grunt call, as if a doe in heat had already been “locked up” by a resident buck. Nothing happened until 5:15pm, when for some strange reason I decided to look behind me. To my surprise, a great buck was behind me. I ranged him at 74yds uphill. Since I had climbed a tree in the bottom, he was almost at eye level with me. He could not see me, but he was not sure what to do. I believe he was looking for the bucks fighting and the doe in estrous. Since he could not see them, he decided leave. He did not run away, just walked away slowly. Not long after, another buck came walking right up the dry creek bed to me, but he was too young. Just before dark, something walked up to me, directly in front of me, up the hill in the thick cedars. Whatever it was, it was close, but it was too dark. Even if it was a buck, I could not see to shoot. I climbed down, secured my stand and walked out.
Yesterday’s success was such a wonderful revelation, public land is awesome. You simply adjust your expectations, use your talent, be savvy, be respectful of other hunters and most importantly – be willing to walk further into the forest than the average hunter - simple recipe.
The terrain around my stand went uphill in three directions and was flat in two directions. Uphill each way there was a deer trail. To the southwest there was a deer trail, which ended under my stand. To the northeast there was a dry creek bed with a deer trail paralleling it. And today directly under the tree I was climbing was a brand-new scrape that was not there the day before. I could not have been happier. I was back up the tree quickly and dressed even warmer, as the weather was finally turning cold.
I follow the same pattern as the day before. Rattling and mimicking a buck fight, interspersed with random doe estrus calls and tending buck grunts. About 4:30pm the thicket to my right exploded with movement and grunting. A buck was chasing a doe. She must have come into estrous. I could tell by his vocalizations that he was very much “in lust”. I could see legs and random ears through the thick brush with my binoculars. When the ruckus stopped, I used my estrous call and added a buck grunt. A young handsome 9-point buck came to the edge of the thicket 45yds away, but would not step out. He could not see the doe and buck that just made that sound of course, because it was me. He stood there alert, but would not move into the open. This told me that he was not the dominant buck in the area. If he were the dominant buck, he would walk right out. Eventually, he disappeared back into the thicket. I was having so much fun. Just about the time I calmed down, I heard off in the distance, what sounded like woodpeckers. I could not tell what it was. I sat perfectly still and listened intently. The sound was in the direction of the pond, that was at the end of the dry creek bed that began under my stand. I picked up my binoculars and carefully glassed the area. I saw a leg, then a rump, then antlers locked – a buck fight! It was a buck fight! I watched intently through my binoculars for about twenty minutes, until the bigger buck finally won and the younger buck ran off like he was scalded by boiling water.
Instantly, I used my estrous call and a buck grunt to mimic a doe in heat and a tending buck. Nothing happened for five minutes. The forest was very still. Then magically a buck appeared, not 50yds away. I thought he was a shooter, maybe. I was not sure. He continued up the dry creek bed right toward me. He looked at first like an 8 pointer. I started field judging him and thinking about taking him. His rack extended outside his ears. His belly was mostly flat, but tucked up at the end. His neck was swollen. His tarsal glands were a deep black. He was surely 3.5yrs old and had just reached maturity. I was reaching for my camera and putting my bow down when he turned his head. He was not an 8 pointer, but a very symmetrical 10 pointer. I put the camera away and grabbed my bow. I was still not sure I would shoot him. As he came closer, he stopped to rake trees and display his dominance for all to see. I reminded myself that I was hunting public land. I reminded myself not to pass up a mature buck. I reminded myself of how I felt last year. I was sure he would score higher than the Pope and Young minimum for an archery trophy. I decided that if he gave me an easy shot, I would take him.
He was only 12yds away when I sent an arrow through his chest. He ran uphill, angled toward the pond downhill and I heard him fall. He was dead in less than thirty seconds. I had just taken my first public land whitetail buck. I was so proud, so thankful. Woodsmanship, calling, knowledge of whitetail deer behavior, hunting skill, judging of antler size, playing the wind, knowing deer sign, reading terrain, being willing to hike deep, knowing when to draw and making a good shot were all required to harvest this buck. I thanked God.
I climbed down and followed the blood trail, even though I thought I knew where he fell. It is the due diligence of a bow hunter to follow the trail. It was an easy track. I took a knee and thanked God once more. I took a few quick daylight photos, put a chem-light in a branch above where he rested and moved out quickly back to the truck. It was dark when I arrived at my truck. I had some snacks and water. I texted my wife Aline and my good friend Ricky. I stripped down to minimum clothes. I secured my “kill kit” and a pack frame and prepared to hike back into my buck. I was about to leave, when to my surprise Ricky and his son Gibson, my God Son, arrived. They live close by and wanted to go with me all the way back to the buck to see him before I broke him down. I felt so blessed to have the company and share evening.
As we started the long walk back to the buck we came across the hunter who owned the only other truck still in the parking lot. He had been hunting here for a week and had not seen a single deer. I told him I had a 10 pointer on the ground. He asked where I was hunting. I simply said, “A little more than an hour’s hike to the northwest.” He was surprised I went so far and immediately offered to help drag out my buck. I thanked him for the offer, but responded that I would be carrying it out on my back. He didn’t understand at first, because here in the eastern part of the United States people field dress their deer and drag them out or load them on an ATV and drive them out. Where I was hunting and how I was hunting it was simply not possible to drag him out, even with three men it would take hours. It was also illegal to use an ATV on public land. So, the best plan, was to use the same system I use when I hunt out west in the Rocky Mountains. I would break the animal down, load it on a pack frame and carry it out on my back.
Ricky and I walked slowly and answered the questions of a very inquisitive and energetic Gibson. He was on his first mission to recover a deer. When we get close I said, “Gibson, can you please help me find my buck?” He said, “Uncle Michael you’re silly, he is right there.” Ricky and Gibson stayed a little while, but it was a long hike and it was significantly past his bedtime, so they left. It was all well and good, because I move faster without answering questions and talking anyway. In less than an hour I had the entire buck boned out, all the meat in meat bags and lashed to my pack frame. After I lashed the skull to the pack frame, I shouldered the load and walked out.
The hike out flew by. The load never seemed heavy. My sense of happiness and accomplishment were tremendous.
As I looked at my pack frame with my buck on it, laying in the bed of my truck, I thanked God for something else - public land.
There is no recipe, nor directions for this hunt like I normally include at the end of a hunt so you can do it yourself. Just a couple quick recommendations (1) if you are new and planning to do any DIY big game hunting out west, consider doing a hunt like this as a warm up, much can be learned by hiking deep, boning out your harvest and packing it out of a local WMA (2) our public lands are a national treasure that belong to all of us; if you want to keep it that way do some research about what threatens them; a good place to start is www.backcountryhunters.org