Anyone that knows me quickly learns that I am an absolute fanatic for hunting mature, big woods whitetails. However, in the past few years, as my guiding business has grown, my time is lessening when it comes to pursuing my passion on a personal level.
This past deer season was the first time in over a decade I went into the Pennsylvania gun season with my PA buck tag still in my pocket. At the most, I likely had had five full days of hunting for myself, starting Tuesday of the opening week of rifle. I had a client booked for the first three days of the season which would keep me tied up until the fourth day. At about 11:20 am on opening day, my client bagged a beautiful 9-point which in return would give me two extra days of gun hunting.
I went into the second day of gun season with one deer on my mind, a buck I called the “Wide- 7.” It had been a goal of mine to take a mature, mountain buck with over a 20” inside spread. To some, this might not be much of a goal, but I had yet to tag a buck that was 20-inches wide.
I really started to get interested in that particular buck when I got trail camera pictures of him in early September, with a fully grown set of antlers. His wide beams and long-curled brows really added some amazing character.
The Wide-7 was mainly living in a medium sized, 12-acre clear-cut. I never had a daytime trail cam picture of the buck past September 12. This buck refused to leave the cover during daytime hours most of the fall. He was in a bedding thicket that I had learned and observed multiple mature bucks using over the years. Usually the biggest buck in that general area will bed in that piece of cover. However, what I had learned over the years is that once winter arrives, the bucks that lived in it would shift to a wintering point about a half-mile away. The primary bedding area has no thermal cover, plus it’s on a north slope, so bucks shift immediately once we finally get a good winter storm.
When I started coming up with a gameplan to hunt the “Wide-7”, the first thing I did was check the upcoming weather forecasts. A major cold front was forecasted to arrive late-afternoon, the second day of gun season. The forecast showed both snow and high winds. Even though I had no recent intel or trail cam pictures of the buck on that wintering point, my plan was to hunt that point 3-4 days in a row, expecting the Wide-7 to show up there. During the post-rut, I see opposite effects for buck movement during cold fronts. This is a time of year when they are recovering from the rut and spend most of the day on their bellies. Cold, winter-weather will force them to bed for even longer periods of time.
I’ve learned in the past when it comes to dominant buck bedding, you can follow the historic trends of bucks in those areas and find the most recent bucks living in those areas doing the same things, especially when it comes to bedding.
On my first hunt for him, I got out to the secondary bedding point well before sunrise. The point faces southeast and we had strong west winds which led me to believe he would bed on the east side of the point to get out of the cold wind. Daylight arrived and only two does showed up. Even though the winds were howling, temps were still in the 50’s and there was no precipitation. I’ve learned over many seasons of trial and error that you have to be one step ahead of mature bucks. And sometimes they will also shift their patterns ahead of a weather front and move to better cover before the storm arrives. I sat there until noon, the buck didn’t show, but that didn’t change my plan of attack. I would be there before daybreak the following day.
The mind games of hunting mature bucks can be exhausting. What he did yesterday isn’t always likely what he will do today or tomorrow. The biggest mistake I’ve made over the years hunting big bucks is not staying ahead of them and thinking ahead. I still believed that buck was going to show up on that point. It was just a matter of time.
I arrived to the parking area around 6 am, with just a half-hour hike to my waypoint which was right where I could observe multiple wintering buck beds. I gathered my gear and picked up my rifle and immediately noticed the magazine to my gun was missing. I searched my entire vehicle for over a half hour without finding it. I knew it was in there, but ran out of time to find it. Amongst a great deal of frustration knowing I was now limited to one shot, I would also not be able to get to that bedding area before sunrise. On my way out the ridge, the heavy, snowy winds were howling and the fierce windchill was stinging my face. That really led me to believe that a good buck had to be laying on the leeward side of that point. I was just hoping it would be the Wide-7.
I snuck to the bedding area quietly, using the fresh blanket of snow to help reduce my noise walking in. I carefully peaked over the hillside and caught a small buck feeding just below the buck bedding. I watched the buck feed for about 15 minutes then he disappeared. I then grabbed my phone and turned on my mapping and hunting app to see just how close I was to all the buck beds I had previously marked from post-season scouting. All of the beds on that side of the point were 15-80 yards from me. I glassed the bedding area without any luck and I decided I would slowly walk out to the point of the ridge and check some other buck beds I knew of. I didn’t take three steps towards the point when the Wide-7 jumped up just 15 yards below me. He was laying in the first bed I had on my waypoints just 15 yards away. The way the topography laid, I was not able to visibly see that buck bed from where I was standing first thing that morning. As the buck started bounding off, I pulled up and took a shot and the buck dropped to the ground. In somewhat of a celebration, I realized I needed to dig into my pockets to reload since I was limited to one shot. As soon as I grabbed another bullet, the buck got up and ran down over the hill and out of sight. I was heartbroken. Had I not lost my magazine, I would have easily been able to put another bullet in him.
When the buck ran down over the hill, I was able to tell where I hit him. Unfortunately, it was his back-right hind quarter. The only sign of confidence was that I could tell his back leg was completely unusable. I knew this wasn’t the kind of shot where you give the buck all day and he expires in his first bed, unless I hit the femoral artery. So I gave the buck close to an hour and started tracking him. The blood was very heavy for about 500 yards, then, it really started to get thin. I was lucky to find a small drop every 30 yards. Even worse, there was only high elevation snow. Once the buck got down off the ridge, I had no snow to track him.
I followed the buck for about 800 yards and then the blood trail started to pick back up. The buck slowed down to a walk and started jay-hooking. This is a sign that he was going to lay down and that’s exactly what he did. However, I ended up bumping him out of his first bed, without even seeing him. At that moment, I knew I needed help. I was spending too much time with my eyes down on the ground looking for blood and needed at least another set of eyes so that I could focus on getting a finishing shot opportunity. I was fortunate that my two cousins Gary and Mike were available that day. We came up with a plan for them to follow the blood trail while I would stay 30-50 yards ahead watching for the buck. Even better, I found my magazine when I got back to the vehicle. Not even joking, it was under my 110-pound german shepherd who refuses to let me leave the house without him.
It was very easy to pick back up the blood trail where I had last gave up on it, but it quickly went back to searching for pins and needles for quite some time. The buck got in some swampy, flooded ground and blood was not visible. I started to look around the perimeter of the swamp and miraculously I found a drop of blood on dry ground. So at that point we got back to the original game plan and I stayed ahead looking for another shot at the Wide-7. We followed blood for about 75 yards and I spotted the buck getting up out of his bed in some cattails. I fired three different shots at him as he started running away from me again. The buck then got out of sight and I took off on a dead sprint for about 100 yards. The buck was losing his will to live and by the grace of God I caught up to him with one last round in my gun. For once, the buck gave me a standing shot at about 100 yards and I dropped him in his tracks.
This wasn’t my biggest buck but out of all the mature bucks I have taken, but I was most proud of the strategy I put in place to kill this one. I had no recent intel of the buck using that bedding point, yet based on historic experiences with other bucks, I used that knowledge to hunt him. So many times we go by recent trail cam photos or sightings and it leads us a step or two behind killing our target deer. The feeling of predicting a mature buck’s location without prior knowledge of him doing so is something that is rarely done. Most times we make a guess and rarely are we right. But when you get it right, and you nail down an old mountain buck, it’s one of the greatest accomplishments a whitetail hunter can ever achieve.
Author: Steve Sherk, owner of Sherk's Guide Service and Exodus Blackhat Team Member