NEWBURGH, Maine — With firearms deer hunting season in its final week, the perennial questions began running through my head.
Do I get up early and get into the woods at first shooting light? Do I walk or should I sit in my blind?
Should I rely on places where I have seen deer previously or instead venture into areas where I have spent little or no time this fall?
Or, the $65,000 question: Am I going hunting at all?
I always hope that I will be fortunate enough to see, and maybe even shoot, a deer. But even after only 13 years pursuing whitetails, I’m not naive enough to assume it’s going to happen.
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Deer hunting frustrations can be crippling. You put in significant time over hours, days and weeks — in warm temperatures, pouring rain, howling winds or blowing snow. When you see nothing, day after day, doubt and disappointment always creep in.
But in a matter of seconds, everything can change.
Tuesday’s plan was to be in the woods before legal shooting time and set up near a brook where I had seen some good-sized deer tracks in the fresh snow the previous Friday.
That plan didn’t pan out.
My wife Annia grudgingly supports my hunting pursuits, even though they often consume me — and take me away from such things as a well-intentioned, yet temporarily stalled, vinyl siding project. On Monday night, she mentioned that my sister-in-law, Leticia Mena, needed a ride to work at 7:45 the next morning.
I was (potentially) available and pondered the request, but didn’t act on it until my alarm went off at 5 a.m. I decided to give Leti a lift — and get a few more hours of sleep.
I arrived, geared up and executed the original plan. I stood streamside, watched and waited for about an hour.
My impatience got the best of me, so I made my way across the brook and up the ridge, staying somewhat downwind of a light northwest breeze. I cut a decent-sized, fresh set of tracks and followed them.
At the top of the ridge I came upon a stand of tall fir trees. I hung out there for about 20 minutes and marked the spot on my GPS for a possible future visit.
I then worked through a tangle of small trees until I approached a familiar trail. I walked deliberately, but not silently, through the sometimes crunchy snow. That’s why I was stunned when I looked up.
About 60 yards away, slightly up the next ridge, were two deer standing broadside. The antlers on one were clearly visible, but the other was partially obscured by a pine tree.
Amazingly, they had neither seen me nor caught my scent. But I knew time was not on my side.
It’s the moment every hunter waits for, but one that brings with it a surge of adrenaline and excitement that can lead to a rushed, jittery or sloppy shot.
For a split-second, I flashed back to 2016 when, only a few hundred yards from this spot, I had pulled off on a 30-yard shot and missed a buck. I shook the negative thought. I needed to focus and breathe. And quickly.
I raised my Savage .30-06, got the deer in the crosshairs and aimed behind the right, front shoulder. I exhaled, but honestly don’t remember pulling the trigger. The sound of the shot obliterated the silence.
The entire sequence couldn’t have last more than six or seven seconds.
The targeted deer leapt, then both bounded off along the ridge. I briefly heard the thud of hooves, followed by the loud crack of a tree branch. Then, nothing.
I thought my shot had been on target, but the 2016 miss had severely shaken my confidence. I walked straight to where the deer had been standing.
I found hoof prints, oak leaves churned up from under the snow and the first bright, red signs of a hit. I tracked it for only about 40 yards before the trail abruptly ended. A few moments of near panic ensued as I tried to figure out which way it had gone.
Even before I spotted it, I could smell the musky odor of a rutting buck. I looked down the bank and saw it. I said a quick prayer of thanks and prepared to get to work.
I knew it was a nice deer as I noted its nine antler points and thick, rugged body. But my relative inexperience did not allow me to appreciate its size.
There were other signs that it wasn’t a run-of-the-mill buck.
First, access during the field-dressing process seemed a bit more difficult than usual. And dragging the deer nearly half a mile, even with snow covering the ground on a clear trail, was exhausting.
Upon arriving, I had to get the deer into a Subaru Forester by myself. Thankfully, a borrowed plastic sled enabled me to lift and push it into the back.
I shared my news with the landowner via text message and called my buddies John Holyoke and Chris Lander. John, the BDN outdoors editor, agreed to meet me at Bob’s Kozy Korner in Orrington to tag the buck.
Once it was registered, we headed out to the scale. We slid the deer and sled onto the ground. John asked what my guess was, and I said probably 175 pounds. I was shocked to hear the store clerk call out “208.8, 208.9, 209.”
It is my biggest buck to date and might well be the largest deer I ever harvest. I just didn’t realize it until that moment. I also received an application for The Maine Sportsman’s “Biggest Bucks in Maine Club.”
I was blessed to have had another great hunting experience. This one concluded with plenty of venison in the freezer and lifelong memories.
I am thankful for the support and generosity of my friends, Len and Nancy, who provided me with access to such a beautiful place to hunt.
I appreciate the patience of my wife who, although she doesn’t fully understand why I love to hunt, nonetheless puts up with everything that does not get done as I pursue my obsession.
I am also grateful for the camaraderie with John, Chris and Bill Lander, who share my enthusiasm for hunting and are always there to lend support or a helping hand.
I admit that I have already started thinking about deer hunting strategies for 2019, but I realize this year’s buck will be a hard one to beat.
Pete Warner is the BDN’s digital sports editor.