New Year's Eve Bucks - When Late Season Deer Made My Year - Especially One Twilight Encounter
The temperature took a noticeable dip as the afternoon sun sank low, its light and warmth fading to the west on this New Year’s Eve. Trees that had been noisily raining melting ice and snow on me all afternoon grew silent as the mercury slid lower into thermometer. College football games were on television. Cold beer waited in the refrigerator. A lit fireplace would quickly remove the damp chill settling in my toes and nose. It was the early 1990s in Virginia's Piedmont.
I slowly swiveled my head and scanned one last time the adjacent fingers of land funneling into a thicket-choked, marshy creek bottom at the U.S. Army's Fort Pickett and quietly muttered, “Guess I’m ready to call it a season.”
It had been a good season. The freezer was stuffed with venison, courtesy of a couple fat does taken early, but it was shaping up to be one of those years when the opportunity never arose to take a quality shot at a quality buck. Oh, he was still around, though. I saw his tracks in that morning’s fresh snow. He’d crossed the creek, then followed it before browsing an area near the point where the creek bottom widened, Any of a number of tiny, tangled thickets would offer sanctuary and warmth once the sun came up.
Snow helped color in the picture on this buck I’d been hunting for a month. Our first fleeting encounter came when I busted him out of his post-rut, midday bed in one of those tiny marsh islands as I blundered along, checking muddy tracks and daydreaming around 10:30 one morning.
This final morning, I decided not to sneak ahead and risk him seeing me, which would have probably guaranteed a poor percentage jump shot at his rump. Instead, I hunted from the ground, nestling a hot seat cushion against a beech tree on a finger of land that gave me a commanding view of my surroundings. Numerous shots in the 50-yard and closer range were possible.
Centerfire rifles were prohibited where I was hunting. Buckshot was the standard load back then. Rifled barrel slug guns were just beginning to find their way into hunters’ hands. Before getting up to leave, I double-checked the safety on my Remington 1100 12-gauge shotgun, loaded with 00 buck.
Yes, I was bailing out a little early. Usually, I remain on the stand for those final 30 minutes of legal shooting, but that little voice in my head kept arguing that it was time to leave. Still hunting slowly back to my Jeep would take about 30 minutes, perfectly timing the onset of complete darkness with my rendezvous with the vehicle.
Crunch, Crunch, Crunch
The overnight snow was a big reason I decided to hunt all day on that New Year’s Eve. There’s nothing like being in the late season woods, just after or during a snowfall. That snow, which afforded silent footfalls while infiltrating the area at daybreak, transformed and the afternoon melt and rapid refreeze created a crusty layer that brought a crunch to every step.
I moved into the bottom and walked slowly, pausing every few steps. The woods were utterly still. One final climb along a logging trail remained before I reached the plateau where I’d left the Jeep. Dusk settles quickly. I approached the top of the trail with 10 minutes of legal shooting time left in my deer season.
As I walked this final stretch, I began hearing what seemed to be a curious echo to the crunch, crunch, crunch of my boots on snow. I stopped and listened. Crunch, crunch, crunch.
The steps drew closer. I dropped to one knee to lower my profile and faced the sounds in the crusty snow. The dark horizontal outline of a deer walking slowly, almost parallel to my path, appeared through the trees. A tall set of antlers led the way.
Shouldering the Remington, I waited until the buck was within 50 yards and completely broadside. Letting out a breath, I fired. The muzzle flashed in the dim light. The deer bolted forward at the shot, sprinting full tilt in the exact direction of the Jeep, another 150 yards ahead.
"Fall, damn it," I implored. The buck kept running. I must’ve missed. What happened next was fate. All I can guess now is the deer saw the Jeep because, upon nearing the road, he suddenly reversed back left and began hurtling down the same logging trail on which I was standing.
The charging buck would run over me in seconds. Instinct kicked in. My hunter autopilot quickly directed the shotgun's rise and calculated squeezing of the trigger. The deer rocked to its right at the blast, doing a sideways roll, getting up and running headlong into a small tree, before falling a final time, kicking twice and expiring.
My heart raced as the adrenaline rush subsided. I rose and paced off to where the first wide spatter of blood appeared in the snow. Eight yards! Later inspection would reveal nine buckshot holes within a 2.5-inch circle in the neck. The whole episode from the time of the first shot barely took 15 seconds. The first shot was a clean miss, likely high.
Moving to the deer, I knelt and grasped his antlers. He was a tall, heavy-racked seven-pointer, later aged at 4.5 years old. A nice Fort Pickett buck. He almost made it to 5.5 years old. I simultaneously apologized to the deer and thanked it, while standing in the now total dark, the only light coming from an early moon reflecting off the snow. “Happy New Year!” I said, congratulating myself.
Moments like those can define not only a deer season, but a deer hunting lifetime. Thank the stars twinkling above I hadn’t stayed home to watch football.
Another New Year's Eve Encounter
Nearly a decade later, on another New Year’s Eve - 1999 actually - I again ventured out for a day of hunting. This time, though, commitments called for an earlier arrival time back at the homestead. I bailed out early and drove to a hunting location much closer to home so that the transition from hunting to socializing would be faster.
A nearly 20-inch wide six-pointer disrupted the early start on the evening plans. The deer was clearly transitioning from some point A to point B when a Remington Copper Solid slug from my Marlin 512 halted the journey. Another New Year’s Eve winner. I called this deer the Y2K Buck.
These late season deer, when few hunters remain in the woods are special. The deer you hunt in early late December and early January is a different critter than the deer you hunt in early November. Mature bucks are worn out from competing and chasing during the rut. Many have dropped considerable body weight and are in lousy shape to face a hard winter, especially if the fall hard mast crop was poor.
The older bucks you see with swollen necks and fiery eyes running rut-crazed after does at 11 a.m. on Nov. 17 have likely returned to their nocturnal behaviors a month later. That’s not to say stand-based and still hunters won’t sometimes catch one feeding or tagging along toward the end of a herd of deer moving through an area.
There is no doubt I lucked into that New Year’s Eve buck in the snow. If I hadn’t left my stand a little early, it's likely our hilltop rendezvous never would have happened. Moments like that can have you believing some things must be destined. The key point was that I was still in the woods, still in the game late in the season.
For dedicated deer hunters, ringing in the New Year doesn't get much better.