Bottomland Buck

The cold, waxing Wolf Moon peered from the low southern sky through the black upper limbs  of my struggling front-yard sugar maple — it long-ago struck  by lightning but still hanging on — spinning my thoughts a half-mile or so down the road to my daily walking path, bordered east by the Green River, known to  Eastern Algonquians in deep history as the  Picomeagan or “boring river.”

There, walking late mornings with my dogs, rain or shine, hot or cold, I’m always searching, detecting subtle  hints of the critters who share this riverside wetland, sometimes freezing silent and still to let me and my pets pass. Plus, when the time is right, I’m always looking for salubrious fiddleheads and occasional oyster mushrooms, healthy, wild sustenance to warm my simmering soul.

Although I once hunted deer and still love hunting pheasants over my gundogs, I am no threat to the whitetails who were born and live where I ramble. Down there, they are seldom far away. Signs of are everywhere: in the hayfields, through the Christmas-tree farm, up and down escarpment paths, and at riffle river-crossings. I have learned their patterns and do believe they know mine, not to mention the sound of my voice, my whistle and my black Tacoma pickup. The deer along the periphery of my daily walks have accepted me as a non-threatening intruder sharing a place, just passing through with a lame, robust gait. Even my dogs are no threat. They occasionally alert me to deer presence, most often Chubby, who’ll stop and face a scent or soft sound in an erect, attentive stance that points me in the right direction.

Always alert and examining the landscape, I can’t deny my once-exceptional eyesight has diminished. Now more than ever I rely on my dogs to sharpen my senses. It works. The dogs have no interest in chasing deer, treating them the same as thorses and cows, sheep and goats — as four-legged curiosities with whom they’d just as soon sniff, touch noses and befriend.

Over the past four weeks, I enjoyed my annual December vacation, time I once reserved for deer hunting, which no longer excites me. Frankly, it’s too much work, especially when fortunate enough to kill one. Though I love venison and it’s good for you, it just isn’t worth the drag, hoisting the carcass to the barn rafters by block and tackle, skinning and butchering chores. That’s a young man’s game. They can have it. I’m now more than content savoring occasional venison handouts that come to me by way of gifts from family and friends. It always tastes great, especially chops, seared in bacon fat and served with onions, peppers, garlic and mushrooms, the wilder the better. Even the cholesterol is good for you.

I do miss sitting on stand and blending into the habitat in a place where deer are likely to pass, and I also miss quietly departing those morning stands at 10:30 or so and picking my way along a slow, observant path, still-hunting along upland spines and dropping down through marshy depressions, always checking for daily feeding and breeding sign. Fact is, I still do a lot of that stuff without gun in  hand, and that includes during deer season, walking where deer lurk, even trophy bucks, the likes of which few hunters ever kill. This was such a month. Yes, as hunters searched the uplands for trophy bucks, I was entertained by a bottomland beauty, often in places too close to occupied dwellings for legal hunting. Smart buck. Why chase through the hinterlands for does when neighbors are reporting eight routinely feeding at dusk in the hayfields bordering their lawns? Plus, along the terrace rims on both sides of the river, there are many giant oak trees with acorns scattered across the forest floor. So why test the upland ridges echoing out shotgun roars? A fool’s errand.

All summer this big, handsome buck has lived in The Meadows where I reside, feeding through croplands and hayfields with a couple of subordinates until rutting season began. Then the tagalongs were on their own, taking precaution to stay out of the dominant buck’s way. In the week leading up to shotgun deer season, I had twice seen that big buck tending a doe off the side of the road during my pre-midnight drive home from work. Then, at 11:10 a.m. the day before shotgun season began, with a Sunday trip looming to transport my grandsons home to Vermont, there he was again, in broad daylight, looking me square in the eye from 20 yards away, his wide antler spread extending far out beyond his ears. I couldn’t count the points, but there were at least eight, and off he ran, halfway across the open field, stopping broadside 60 yards out to look back at me and the dogs, the three of us standing in awe. Then he disappeared across a driveway and down into a marsh, probably hot on the scent of does.

A tall, dark, distinctive deer, I saw him again just after 11 a.m. on the final day of shotgun season while walking with my dogs down into a secluded floodplain, snowstorm brewing. Head down, the big buck was drinking along the opposite bank of a bend in the river. My eyes aren’t what they used to be but I thought it was a deer, obscured through a thin patch of young trees, my dogs out ahead of me. Not certain I wasn’t seeing an optical illusion created by flood-strewn tree trucks tangled along the S-turn riverbank, I continued 20 yards down the hill to an broad opening that provided an unobstructed view. Sure enough, the big buck raised his head and faced me, clearly displaying his incredible antlers from some 80 yards away. Seemingly not alarmed, he proceeded to take three or four slow steps toward me before dropping his head to within a foot of the riverbank and pawing at the cobbles a couple of times, like a bullfight bull, before slowly turning left and taking three or four smooth steps, disappearing into the thick, brown, riverside knotweed, never a trace of a flag. What a sighting. For the second straight time, not so much as an alarmed white tail, just a graceful stroll into cover concealment.

Since that day, I have tracked that big buck’s movements. I know his wide track, where he’s bedding, where he prefers crossing the icy river, and when he seems to prefer passing through. A neighboring farmer reported to his son that he saw the buck in his backyard last week, describing it as a beauty, the kind you don’t often see, sporting “at least 10 points.” I’m sure others in the neighborhood have seen him. Maybe someone has a photo. Plus, I must admit a hunter appeared to be aware of him. I crossed the man’s boot prints in fresh blackpowder-season snow, likely trying to pick up the buck’s trail. If it hasn’t already happened, that buck will soon lose his antlers, making him off-limits to hunters. Though I’d love to find the sheds, I won’t kill myself looking.

“You ought to pile corn or apples along a fence to feed him,” offered a clever old friend. “That’s what some people do to get a buck to drop his antlers where they can find them.”

Hmmmm? First I’ve heard of that trick. I think I’ll pass. Is it legal?

Hopefully, the big neighborhood buck will be back next year, bigger, better and smarter. Maybe his face will gray. Honestly, I’m not sure I could kill that buck. I guess I’ve grown softhearted with age, have over the years developed great respect for old-sage bucks with trophy antlers.

Like they say, you can’t eat the horns, or even get soup stock out of them, no matter how long they simmer. Young bucks are better eating, anyway, but not nearly as fun to watch.

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