A Season of Dreams
By Robert Gratson
Who would have thought, on October 2nd, that the 2003 deer season would be so memorable? Not me!
I had scouted my area of the Pennsylvania woods pretty hard and felt confident that I was in for an exciting day. As the skies lit up, I saw three does. Soon they walked off at a fast pace, but they weren't spooked. I saw movement to my left -- three branch-antlered bucks. The second one would have caused the most experienced of hunters' hearts to flutter. He was immense. These bucks had nothing on their minds but getting into cover before the sun got above the treeline.
During the next two weeks, I passed on a lot of younger bucks in the 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-year range, though most were legal to shoot under the new antler restrictions for this area of the 2C WMU.
Around Oct. 14, I began seeing great sign. I knew that a special three- or four-day period of buck activity was about to begin. This activity, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, is due to a very short period that I refer to as the "beginning." It is when some of the does come into a brief estrous cycle for a 24-hour period, causing mature bucks to leave their sanctuaries in search of love. This period occurs every year between Oct. 15 and 20. Then it's quickly gone until the rut begins a few weeks later.
On Oct. 18, 2003, the magical moment arrived. When I got to my stand, it was just light enough to shoot. But I was confronted with a huge problem.
I had just clipped on my bow rope and was getting ready to climb up my ladder stand when the woods lit up with an all-too-familiar noise. It was two bucks doing battle just up on the flat above me about 50 yards distant. The sound was like two guys swinging bats at a brush pile. I was getting ready to climb when the noise stopped and I could hear hooves coming fast. And then I saw the source of the noise, and I realized that my rope was still clipped to the bow. Fortunately, the deer was so interested in what had just transpired that he was paying no mind to what was in front of him. He was watching back up the hill where the fight took place. I assumed he had just gotten his butt kicked by a bigger buck. I would soon find out that I was right
I managed to get my bow ready to go. The buck came to just 7 yards and the only thing saving me was a huge oak tree between us. There was no way I could pass on this deer. He was very high and wide with great mass. I wasn't counting points. There was no need. I came to full draw, stepped out from behind the tree and was getting ready to release when I took a split second to look toward the area where the fight happened. Well, I could not believe my eyes! There was a giant buck, wide well beyond his ears, in the range of 23 inches.
I wondered if I should hold out and let the closer buck go in hopes of the bigger buck presenting an opportunity. I decided that they were both trophies and maybe another family member would get the chance to take the bigger one.
I lowered my pin on the buck at 7 yards and released. The buck fell in his tracks. The deer ended up being a great 9-pointer with a 17-inch spread and great mass, 6 1/2-inch bases and very high tines. He was a trophy by any standards.
I still had two doe tags for the 2C WMU, but decided to hold out until gun season. I love that time in the woods, too.
I partnered with my grandfather in hopes of getting a crack at the monster. At 78 years old, he was attempting archery hunting for the first time. I'd bought him a new crossbow and got him his disabled hunter permit quickly, thanks to WCO Charlie May.
Two days after my harvest, I was in an old apple orchard sitting alongside Pap. The skies lit up and immediately I told him to look to his left. There was a deer coming. I could not believe it. It was the giant from two days earlier. I was slowly realizing that this might just be a dream season for all of us. The huge buck approached to within 25 yards and stopped to eat. Pap raised the bow and squeezed the trigger. The arrow sailed right under his chest! The buck was gone, and to my amazement, Pap was laughing and saying a few choice words.
It was a very enjoyable yet sad moment, but one that we will enjoy talking about for years. This was his first miss and our first archery hunt together. He is the one who taught me everything I know when it comes to deer hunting and ethics. I was honored to have the opportunity to try to teach him about archery. The huge buck never showed again, but Pap was hell-bent on staying in that orchard all season.
After my buck harvest in Pa., I decided to purchase a West Virginia hunting license. Only being 20 minutes from the state line and all the time in the world due to a job loss, I could not go wrong.
After purchasing my license I took some back roads and started ground-pounding for places to hunt. After a week of searching and only getting permission to hunt one less-than-great whitetail place, I decided to try out their public land. I ended up at Coopers Rock. I was amazed at the size of the park. It is more than 12,000 acres in size. I knew that the only course of action to take if I were to have any chance of taking a deer here was to learn as much about the place as possible by buying topo maps and aerial photos. After locating a few promising spots on the maps, I decided to take a ride over to the ranger station and chat with them. After a couple days of coffee and talking, I was turned onto two of the areas that I located.
It was now Nov. 5 and I was running out of time. The next day I decided to leave the bow at home and do some serious scouting. On the 7th, I sat on stand in one of the locations for the first time. At daybreak, I saw movement and in came three does and a spike. West Virginia has no antler restrictions, but as the buck approached to within 25 yards I could not get a shot because of a big rock pile and grapevine thicket between us. Except for a nice bear sow and a few turkeys, that was all I saw that day.