|Panoramic view facing the ridge.|
For nearly twenty years I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a deer camp in southeast Ohio. We see each other a couple times a year, sometimes more sometimes less, but whenever we gather it’s like we never left. Deer camp creates a unique and special camaraderie. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to experience a hunting camp then this kinship is understood. It can’t be replicated in anything else I’ve experienced. Likewise, describing our somewhat tribal connection with deer camp to those outside the hunting circle is difficult to translate.
Our camp hunts public ground consisting of mountainous (by Ohio standards) big-woods, briar choked clear-cuts and winding river bottoms. The terrain varies widely across the different sections as does the hunting pressure. Through years of trial and error we’ve learned which spots produce and which ones are gar holes. Yet each season we explore new ground discovering potential spots to ambush a whitetail. Now, we hunt smarter using map technology to take the virtual first steps for us instead of trampling the hillsides like we used to do.
Preparation for this year’s deer camp began weeks in advance, scouring aerial and topographic maps on my onXmaps hunt and ScoutLook apps. These apps are a crucial piece of hunting gear, no different than the knife I keep in my pack, each used for a specific application. With potential new spots marked on my maps and previous stand locations saved I’m able to scout without alerting deer. With limited time to be in the woods I want to make the most of it hunting, not wandering aimlessly.
I arrived in camp on Sunday to find the first deer hanging from the gambrel. It was a nice sized doe, the very first for our buddy Marc who has joined us at camp for years. Initially he joined us for the food and fellowship, now he has a deeper connection to camp. It’s exciting having a new adult-onset hunter discover this pursuit as a truly honest way to put healthy, free-range meat on the table.
After trading stories and hearing about the hunts experienced over the weekend, we all decided which directions to go that afternoon. Alan and I were heading to a huge section known in camp as “The Secret Spot.” I had a ridge location already marked from my cyber scouting but it was meant to be accessed by canoe. Hiking back that far was one thing, getting a deer out would be altogether another. Looking at the topo maps I picked the next parallel ridge that was perpendicular to the main ridgeline. It was still a good hike to get to, hopefully meaning hunting pressure would be lower that far back.
Finally summiting the ridge, the terrain flattened and opened with oak and hickory trees dominating the high ground. Turkey sign and squirrels being squirrely meant that this likely travel corridor was also a buffet. Some decent deer sign combined with well worn trails and the afternoon getting late gave me confidence to stop pushing further and hang my stand. Within a few minutes I was pulling up my bow and nocking an arrow.
The sweat had evaporated and I settled in for the afternoon sit. A text from my sister buzzed my phone…
Finishing my response I could hear what sounded like chasing on the ridgeline above me. I hit send, slid the phone into my pocket, stood up and grabbed my bow. Staring into the woods to find the source of the action I could see brown fur dashing back and forth. Quickly that movement was accompanied by grunts of a rutting buck. With the doe playing hard to get, she followed the ridge toward me. In the blink of an eye she was passing through about 50 yards downhill of my stand.
The buck chose the higher ground. Keeping his eyes downhill on the doe, he followed the ridgeline but he wasn’t planning on stopping to browse on any acorns. I pleaded with him to stop, letting out a doe bleat, “mep.” Followed by a second, slightly louder “Mep.” Already anchored, holding at full draw, the third and final, practically yelling attempt, “MEP!!” halted the buck. His front legs skidded to a stop like a driver slamming their brakes before a yellow traffic light turning red. He should’ve run the light.
The green pin on my sight hovered behind his left shoulder, aligned with his opposite right leg my arrow was on it’s way. The world that had gone silent for a nanosecond erupted with the buck racing down the hillside and into the tangles of briars below. I could see him stop but then lost him through the foliage still clinging. In my mind I replayed the shot and believed the deer to be dead, but uncertainty creeps in when you don’t see them fall or hear them crash.
Hanging my bow up I reached for my phone to text my sister…
I remained on my feet watching the woods where I last saw the buck. Subtle movement caught my eye. A patch of white or perhaps an antler appeared to have moved. It was now motionless. I watched the spot, identifying the location by the bright orange leaves not yet blown from the branches. Seemingly the only leaves glowing from the afternoon sun. Still no movement from the patch. After enough time passed I quietly climbed down to inspect the trail.
Disturbed leaves exposed bare earth marking the point of impact. The trail quickly became easy to follow with the bright, bubbly sign that only lung shots can provide. The deer laid ahead, right where I saw his last movement and below the glow of orange.