Bucking Trends

By the time this column hits the street, the snow will be falling and I’ll probably be suspended in anxiety about throwing another pulley from the snowblower mounted to my John Deere tractor. Just Wednesday, my friend and I replaced the one I found on the ground after the last storm cleanup. With two more adjacent ones in the same assembly, what’s to stop the other idler from going, or even the bigger drive pulley? It’s going to bug me until I’m done with this latest storm.

Yeah, yeah, I know I shouldn’t get all worked up about it but, hey, I’m not 30 anymore. Far from it, in fact, and such worries just becomes more bothersome as I age. Seems like there’s always some vexing issue, be it the mower or snowblower, weed-whacker, hedge-trimmer or leaf blower, a frozen pipe, a leak in the heating-oil tank, filling the woodshed and woodstove, removing the ash into a stove-side bucket, roofing, painting, the dogs, running to Vermont in a snowstorm for the grandchildren. Years ago, I took  it all in stride, smiling and joking along the way, putting one foot in front of the other, picking away to put chores behind me in a timely fashion. Some call it putting your nose to the grindstone. Been there, done that. It just gets more difficult with the physical deterioration age brings. That cord of wood which once took half an hour to toss into the woodshed now takes an hour. The heavy chunks I used to flick in with my right hand and wrist now take two hands and a jolting surge of energy  traveling all the way from the tip of my toes to my fingertips, with a heavy dose of calf, thigh and shoulder power in between. I get the idea that if I live long enough, wood chores will be too much.  I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

I suppose similar dynamics affect a big buck like the one I’ve been watching in my neighborhood this year. Which is not to suggest that this regal animal is losing it. Uh-uh. He’s in his prime. A big, healthy, trophy buck with a beautiful, wide set of antlers, the nicest buck I’ve seen in my 20 years of residing and walking the fertile, terraced, Greenfield Meadows bottomland, framed on the east by the meandering Green River. Though I’ve seen others to rival him, he’s the best. Sort of from the we’re-all-in-this-thing-together perspective, I can’t imagine that some sort of melancholia has not set in for this proud beast these days. Exhausted from the doe-chasing rut or breeding season and needing protein to rebuild his strength, he has likely dropped those massive antlers by now and must battle bitter cold that requires additional calorie intake. Acorns are preferred feed in such cold if deer can break through the dense, icy snow to get them. If not, they must settle for browse, which can get them through lean times but not for the whole winter.

This extended deep freeze also complicates river crossings, which, in icy conditions can change a deer’s habits and reduce his range. I have not found a river-crossing in more than a week. Not one, even at the spot where that buck has been crossing regularly for weeks. Deer are wary of ice and search for shallow riffles to cross. These days, with most of the river frozen solid, even the riffles are inaccessible because of treacherous ice creeping out farther and farther on both sides of the riffles. Deer avoid ice because their hooves are not made for it and they can get splayed out a helplessly stranded and unable to regain their feet. Predators like coyotes and coywolves know this and actually work in unison to force a deer they’re chasing toward pathetic, icy kills. In recent days, I’ve crossed more canid than deer tracks in my travels, which tells me they’re on the prowl for vulnerable deer. Why not? There’s ice everywhere, including across wind-swept hayfields. One ill-placed bound on an open field these days can quickly place a deer helplessly and fatally on its belly, in a position well known to opportunistic canids, who move in for a lightning kill. I think you can probably find graphic photos of such deer-kills online from the Quabbin or Great Lakes and other bodies of water where wildlife photographers capture icy, crimson mortality in living color.

I have not crossed my big buck’s track this week, but I did check out a place where he was seen crossing the road by a neighboring farmer who knew the deer from a backyard sighting. He spotted him two weeks back near a winter-rye cover-crop where deer were feeding following the last snow before the deep freeze. Since then, he’s only seen the buck once, maybe two miles north, crossing the road in front of his SUV at night. How did he know it was the same deer? Because, simply stated, he doesn’t believe there is more than one buck like that in the neighborhood. All right. Fair enough. He’s been in The Meadows three times longer than I have.

Well, this week, taking the back-way home from Vermont through Bernardston, over the Pumping Station covered bridge, I cased out the neighborhood with houses I refer to as Sewell Dunton’s or Bob Dobias’, a likely spot for that buck-crossing which unfolded before my neighbor’s eyes. There, in that neighborhood a mile north of my home, a blind man could have seen the deeply carved deer run cutting across an open field behind a weathered barn leading into territory I have often hunted.

When I pointed out the run to my disbelieving wife, she said, “Deer made that path?”

“Definitely,” I responded, “and I’d bet the house that’s where our neighbor saw that big buck cross. Just making his rounds and staying apprised of the late-rut situation, always in search of one last doe to breed, probably a young one coming into season for the first time.”

I called my buddy Killer Wednesday to alert him about the run in an area he still religiously hunts with his stepson.

“You ought to get over there before the snow falls and take a look at that run,” I told him. “It may alter the way you hunt it.”

Killer did take a 6-pointer in late November about a mile uphill from the site, but he and his stepson went through that little wetland, apples here and there, and the sidehill several fruitless times during deer season. Despite lots of deer sign, they never saw so much as a flag in there.

Could it be that the deer leaving all that sign were a football field or two north of where they were hunting?

One never knows.

“I’m going to take a little ride out there right now to scope it out,” Killer said. “It ain’t far. Thanks for the information.”

My pleasure. That’s what friends are for.

A deer hunter never has enough eyes scanning the landscape, appreciates every little edge he can find to be successful. Then again, dumb luck can drop the deer of a lifetime into your lap as though delivered from heaven.

The trick is to get in the woods. I’ve never heard of a guy shooting one while reading with his feet up in front of a woodstove.

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