October 02, 2015
It was the day after Thanksgiving. My dad and I had driven from Pennsylvania to Bath County, Virginia, to rendezvous with my old hunting partner Kenn, who'd come up from North Carolina. There were still a couple of days left in the season for both deer and turkeys, and there's no place better to be in November than western Virginia's rugged Allegheny Mountains.
We rolled out of the tents before first light to find the valley locked in dense fog, and conditions didn't improve as we drove up the U.S. Forest Service road that dead-ended halfway up Tower Hill Mountain. The fog clung tightly to the ridge the entire way.
No matter. Kenn and I had been hunting this mountain for about eight years — starting when we both lived in northern Virginia and worked for the NRA. We hunted fall and spring, one end of the mountain to the other, so we knew it well, and my dad was never one to fret about a lack of visibility.
There were a few other hunters at the dead end, guys Kenn and I sorta knew because they camped there every buck season. They were sitting around a smoky morning fire, drinking coffee, not in a hurry to go anywhere. We exchanged some small talk, then Kenn, Dad and I went our separate ways.
My plan was to circle high on the ridge, go slow, try to call in an old gobbler or maybe a jake split up from his flock earlier in the season. To that end I carried my old, beat-up Winchester 1400 12 gauge, which I'd spray painted so many times to camouflage it that the gun was starting to look like a piece of abstract art. And because I hadn't burned my deer tag yet, I slung my Remington 700 Mountain Rifle in .280 Rem. over my shoulder as well. Under-gunned I was not.
I hoofed out a gated, grassy logging road for a ways, then angled up the ridge, hiking to the first bench down from the top. Then I started working my way along the bench, basically doubling back. It was surreal, still-hunting in what was essentially a small bubble surrounded by an impenetrable wall of white. Every 50 yards or so I'd sit at the base of a tree, cluck a few times on the gobbler side of my Lynch double-sided box call, wait and listen for maybe 20 minutes, then move on.
I stuck with it all day, and so did the fog. At one point I thought I heard a turkey answer me, but the only animals I saw were chickadees, nuthatches and squirrels. Then, late in the day, the fog gradually started to lift, and I found myself just downhill from a saddle in the ridge. A subtle deer trail marked with buck rubs curled around the north end of it. I immediately recognized the spot. I'd noticed it a couple times while chasing turkeys and always thought it looked like a perfect place to kill a buck. But for some reason I'd never gotten around to hunting it. No time like the present.
I settled in against a tree, and just for giggles I clucked on the box call, throwing in a couple raspy gobbler yelps for good measure. I waited about half an hour, set the shotgun aside and laid the rifle across my lap.
I was pointed uphill, about 40 yards below the deer trail where it made a turn to my right and then swung parallel to the ridge. Twenty minutes later I caught movement, and a spike materialized, crossing from the back side of the ridge. He hit the turn in the trail and stopped broadside for a moment. In those days, I killed any legal buck I had a tag for, and with only one more day left in the season there was no reason not to shoot him. But I didn't. I watched him wander off, pretty sure I'd just screwed up.
Legal hunting hours extended to a half-hour after sunset, and that time was fast approaching. I was getting ready to call it quits when I heard a deer get up. My dad still says that's not possible, that the deer had simply walked to within earshot. But I know what I heard. I had come in super quiet, the deer wouldn't have seen me because of the fog and the terrain, and the wind was in my favor. I think the deer had been bedded less than 50 yards from me the whole time.
Seconds later, there he was, a buck, moving in full sneak through some beech brush along the trail, heading for the saddle — in the opposite direction the little buck had taken. I couldn't see the dark antlers well due to the low light and the brush, but I knew right away it was no spike. As he glided along the trail I raised the .280 and fired. The buck reared up on his hind legs like a stallion in a Western. Heart shot. He crashed to the ground, and his thrashing death throes sent him tumbling down the steep ridge directly toward me — finally coming to rest against the sole of my left boot. He exhaled one last time, and then he was dead.
By the time I got him gutted and trussed up in my drag rope, it was pitch dark. I started down the mountain, big ol' shotgun in one hand, rifle across my back, the straps of both my daypack and drag harness digging into my shoulders. I headed straight downhill, gravity constantly driving the buck — particularly his rack — into the back of my legs. I don't know how many times I fell. It was a lot. After an hour or so, I hit the gated logging road, and I leaned into the harness to drag the buck the last couple hundred yards.
I left the deer outside the circle of lantern light coming from the little camp and trudged in, exhausted, catching good-natured hell from everyone as they ribbed me for being some lost greenhorn. But their tune changed when I showed them why I was so late.
Dad looked down at the deer and said, "You won't shoot many bigger than that one." The buck was an old, gray, gnarly-antlered 14-pointer — a ridge-running monarch. Dad was wrong in one sense, though. In the 20-some years since then I've shot a lot of bigger whitetail bucks. But never a better one.