A Deer Story That Can Now Be Told

This is a tale that took place decades ago. I’ve told it many times in conversation but never written it. Now, with camouflaged bowhunters occupying local tree stands, why not, for posterity, put it in black and white?

I’d estimate that it unfolded in the mid to late 1980s, when I was a young man in my 30s. I owned my late grandfather’s home in South Deerfield and hunted with townie friends like Timmy Dash, Big Stosh, Fast Eddie, Hopper White, and the Young Count. We’d start the fall in the October swamps, overgrown fields and orchards, wing-shooting pheasant, grouse, woodcock and an occasional duck behind my black Lab, Sara. Then we’d close it out on December hardwood ridges during the shotgun and blackpowder deer seasons.

Which of my hunting buddies accompanied me on that Sunday-morning deer-scouting mission in the deep woods of the Williamsburg quadrangle I honestly don’t recall. My best guess would be Big Stosh, an old baseball teammate and friend since grammar school. It doesn’t matter. This story about the unlikeliest of discoveries can stand on its own.

To tell the truth, I can’t even remember the name of the Hatfield bowhunter I’m writing about. All I can say is that he killed a monster whitetail buck, one of a size most commonly associated with the Northwoods. The trophy buck tipped the scale at a smidge under 240 pounds, with an incredible antler mass and spread. I know the hunter had a Polish surname, one beginning with M and ending in ski. I think his first name was Rich. But don’t hold me to it. It was long ago. He may by now be dead. But I’d wager that the impressive wall mount is still on display somewhere in the valley.

Back then, as sports editor of the Greenfield Recorder, I was in the early years of cranking out a weekly Thursday outdoors column titled “On the Trail.” Come archery deer season each November, I’d dig out my detailed, annotated list of western Massachusetts deer-checking-station phone numbers and call every last one of them weekly looking for good copy about remarkable hunts. I’d publish a weekly 200-pound club report. That is, hunters who had taken bucks weighing a minimum of 200 pounds. Occasionally, I’d lower my standards and dip into the 190s when checking-station personnel raved about the animal.

Though I’d often learn by word of mouth about local hunters’ success, even then I’d get confirmation from the men and women who weighed and recorded deer kills at state fish hatcheries and private gun shops. I was on a first-name basis with many station attendants stretching from Worcester to Pittsfield. When they provided successful hunters’ names and town of residence, I could, in the days before cell phones, easily find their home phone numbers in the telephone book – a convenience unknown to modern scribes. In fact, I’d take a wild guess that there are many 30-somethings today who have never once opened a telephone book looking for a number.

If my memory serves me well, this particular monster buck was recorded at the long-ago shuttered Pioneer Valley Sporting Center on Damon Road in Northampton. But again, that’s superfluous information by now, not by any stretch critical after all these years.

What I do vividly recall is that the man who owned the sports shop and entered the kill into the books, himself a veteran deer hunter, was in total awe. He remarked that bucks like that are rare indeed in this neck of the woods.

After I had obtained all the facts I could gather from the man named Bill something-or-other, I phoned the Hatfield hunter to get his story. Still on cloud nine, he was more than willing to share how his hunt played out, recounting every minute detail: from the scrape line the buck had pawed into the forest floor, to the placement of his stand and buck lure, to the animal’s cautious approach, to the entry-point of the mortal arrow. He was proud, more than willing to recreate the total experience of taking a buck for the ages.

However, if there’s one question no hunter likes to answer, it’s stand location. Bowhunters are particularly secretive, extremely protective of their favorite tree stands. They view such information as strictly confidential, reserved only for family and dearest friends, if that. Anyone interviewing a successful hunter must respect this confidentiality code. If you can get an accurate town of kill, you’re doing well. But pinpointing the site? Good luck.

Still, the question must be asked, and it was. After a brief, tell-tale pause, his furtive answer was Chestnut Mountain, a well-known deer-hunting ridge straddling the North Hatfield-West Whately line between Route 5 & 10 and Northampton’s Mountain Street Reservoir. Many a big buck has been taken from those woods overlooking the so-called “Plantation” and West Brook. And believe you me, many a cagey hunter has over the years used Chestnut Mountain as clever cover for an actual kill site. It seems every town has a place like that, one that provides a convenient cover for the question hunters don’t want asked.

I reported what the man told me, knowing there was a good chance it was not true. What choice did I have? I would have preferred a humorous and evasive answer. You know, something like “under the old apple tree” or “in the white oaks” or “through the heart and lungs,” or even a simple “no comment.” Instead, I got the polite runaround, and printed it.

Well, little did I know that more reliable data would soon appear in the form of an incredible stroke of good fortune. We’re talking about dumb luck, the improbability of which was greater than getting struck by lightning. Still, unlikely as it may seem, it happened. Like they say all the time in Chicopee: You can’t make it up.

Within two or three weeks of my big-buck column hitting the street, my friend and I decided to scout our favorite sections of the expansive woods known on topo maps as the Williamsburg quadrangle. Even then it wasn’t as heavily hunted as it once had been, because modern hunters were starting to drift away from big woods in favor of small suburban woodlots with high deer densities. Known to state wildlife biologists as “The Four Corners,” because Whately, Williamsburg, Ashfield, and Conway meet there, I preferred to hunt the ridges traversed by Henhawk Trail, an old Indian footpath and discontinued road leading from the Whately-Williamsburg line to Cricket Hill in Conway.

I had known those woods since I was a teen wandering the old roads with a high-school sweetheart on warm spring days. Back then I even happened upon a small Sixties artist commune hidden there, the members of which summered in twine-bound lean-tos off Henhawk Road. These same folks also had a small, winter cabin named “The Eagle’s Nest” atop Dry Hill. Last time I checked, the Nest was still sturdy and standing amid outcroppings of ledge on the hardwood ridge.

At the base of the double-rutted road leading to the cabin was a private bridge crossing a small spring brook. Cresting the wooden frame defining the crossing was a carved sign sporting a coiled rattlesnake preceding a warning that read “Avril Wood: Don’t Tread on Me.” Apparently, the commune’s name was Avril Wood and the members didn’t enjoy trespassers. Nonetheless, I met the loin-clothed campers a few times and spoke with them. They were harmless hippies – friendly, in fact, once they understood they were not threatened.

Anyway, on a high terrace over the top of the ridgetop Eagle’s Nest there was an old overgrown apple orchard that produced plentiful fruit one year and virtually none the next. When apples were plentiful, deer frequently fed there. Thus, it was important to assess the apple crop before hunting season began.

Our pre-shotgun-deer-season scouting plan was to four-wheel my Jeep Cherokee up Henhawk to a spot between High Ridge and Dry Hill. Parking there, we’d scout High Ridge to a backdoor descent to the old Boy Scout camp, then hike up to the old orchard on Dry Hill’s gentle north slope. Interpreting deer sign along that circuitous journey, we’d be able to assess their feeding and bedding habits.

Having finished the High Ridge leg of the mission, we crossed Henhawk, passed my Jeep, and were following a stonewall up Dry Hill when I stumbled on what felt like a vine or maybe a strand of old metal fence buried in fresh leaf litter. When I tried unsuccessfully to pull right through the snag, I backed off, freed my boot, and spotted a shiny cord of some sort.


With my curiosity piqued, I reached down to inspect the cord, which looked relatively new. When I pulled up on it, I could see it was attached to a small, rectangular plastic box attached about three inches up the base of a small tree to my right. I then followed it about three feet to the left, where it was anchored to another tree base, creating a tripwire.

I fiddled with the plastic box and was able to slide it off a frame secured to the tree. What I had discovered quite by chance was a hunter’s trail-timer, placed along a well-used deer run to track movement into the nearby orchard. A passing deer would hit the tripwire like I had and stop the timer inside to record the time of passing. It was an early version of the trail cameras deer hunters use today for the same purpose, although now, even better, motion sensors trigger photos of passing critters.

Upon closer inspection, I found the owner’s name written on the inner panel. Difficult as it may seem to believe, that trail-timer belonged to none other than the Hatfield hunter I had featured in the big-buck column. I was dumbstruck. How was that possible?

From peak to peak, Dry Hill and Chestnut Mountain are separated by less than three miles – in the neighborhood, so to speak, but more than far enough apart for a hunter trying to conceal a favorite haunt.

To this day, I still can’t believe I found that device by total accident in such a timely fashion. Talk about a needle in a haystack, a random discovery like that, in deep woods no less, should never happen. The probability of hitting a Powerball jackpot is better, likely much better

So now the story has finally been told in black and white. The statute of limitations long ago passed. That was no Chestnut Hill buck. It was a Dry Hill-High Ridge racker, and an extraordinary one at that.

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