Sometimes small changes in hunting laws bring big benefits. My big buck one year was the result of a small law change that legalized deer driving by groups of no more than three hunters, as long as noise makers are not used.
The deer driving statute was so strict that it prohibited even two hunters from planning and implementing a hunt in which one hunter tried to move deer toward a second hunter. Many Mainers hunt together this way, but technically they were violating the law.
On Friday morning, November 3, I loaded my new Browning BAR Mark II semi-auto 30-06 Springfield rifle in my kitchen and walked out into a breaking dawn. I had purchased the rifle at Audette’s Hardware in Winthrop the day before the firearms season on deer opened, after my Remington Woodmaster failed to fire the day before when I tried to sight it in.
In a rush to take the new gun home and sight it in so it would be ready the next morning when the season opened, I was some old mad when I failed to pass the required FBI background check. Please be assured that I am not prohibited from owning firearms. But for some reason, even though my social security number was provided, the FBI “delayed” the approval of the sale of the gun to me, so I had to leave it at Audette’s.
Perhaps everyone was on coffee break when Audette’s called down there to FBI headquarters in New Jersey. Who knows? They don’t have to provide any reason for a delay in approval. The “instant check” can actually take three days – that’s the federal definition of “instant!”
I used my son’s rifle to start the season, all the while muttering about foolish laws that only harm law-abiding citizens. I was finally able to pick up my new rifle the following Tuesday, after the FBI decided it was ok for me to purchase a new gun. Thank you very much.
So I was toting the new Browning on this particular Friday morning, the end of the first week of the 2000 season, as I approached my stand. The ground blind selected for this morning’s hunt was a short walk from my house. Settling into my ground blind overlooking an active buck scrape, my mind was on previous successful hunts at this spot that produced deer for three generations of Smiths, my Dad Ezra, son Joshua, and me.
Hot coffee and fresh cranberry muffins provided an enjoyable experience, even though no deer joined me for breakfast. At 7:30 am, Dad hunted down through the woods hoping to move a deer toward me. No luck, at least not yet.
Time to try a different area. Now that it is legal, we can plan our hunt and work together with clear consciences. I won’t say we’d never done it before, but now we were legal!
Previous week’s hunt
A planned hut three days earlier almost resulted in a small buck for Dad. About 8 am, he dropped me off about a mile from my house and drove to an old tote road nearby. While he was walking into his stand near the edge of a small pond, I sat and enjoyed a beautiful view of the pond and surrounding hills. I gave him a half hour before starting my drive.
Sauntering in a zigzag pattern through thick spruce and cedar, it wasn’t until I got to the far side of this patch of woods that I jumped a deer in a small clearing. It was bedded under a downed pine tree, amidst thick raspberry bushes. I saw just the silhouette of the deer as it rose from its bed, and I noticed a decent rack of antlers. It stayed below the raspberries, not offering me a shot, until finally leaving the clearing and entering the woods. As it did so, I got off one decent shot, a clean miss. Later, I would be grateful for that miss.
The soft ground allowed me to note that the deer headed toward Dad, but I didn’t need to track him because about 2 minutes later I heard Dad shoot. Our plan had worked! I had jumped a deer and moved it to Dad. I raced along eager to see if we had a deer down. No such luck. Dad scored a clean miss, just like me. But I was pleased that I had missed when Dad told me the buck was small, not something I wanted to shoot the first week of the season – maybe later, but not yet. We both had any-deer permits but did not plan to use them until we were desperate near the end of the season.
Later, we got a chance at a much bigger buck. On that first Friday morning after Dad arrived at my stand, we worked out a plan. Dad moved to a stand at the edge of the bog, overlooking a deer trail, while I circled around him, trying to move something his way.
Crossing a meadow of wild grass, left when a beaver dam went out, I heard a couple of deer in an oak grove up ahead. This five-acre grove features tall acorn-producing oaks in a thicket of spruce and pine. I often jump deer here. But the situation offered no chance on this day for me to sneak quietly up to the deer. I hunkered down, hoping they’d appear in the meadow and give me a shot.
Gradually I crept closer and closer. Eventually, nearing the end of the meadow, I approached within 30 yards of one deer. It was just on the other side of some thick spruce trees, making quite a racket as it pawed up acorns. I strained to see even a small part of the deer, but no such luck. I could still hear the other deer too, further up in the oak stand. But I never saw either deer. Eventually, they wandered off.
I moved through the area, trying to push the deer back toward Dad, but couldn’t find them. I knew they hadn’t gone far so I returned to Dad’s stand and we discussed a plan, deciding I would swing behind the deer while Dad circled them to take a stand about a quarter mail away along a brook where we thought they would run if I jumped them. A bedding area was in between us and that’s where I expected to find the deer.
It was a good plan but things didn’t work out exactly according to our hopes – not unusual when hunting whitetail deer. Anyone who thinks two or three hunters can effectively drive deer with any degree of confidence and consistency is wrong. Nine out of 10 times, even the best plans fail. Our plan this day didn’t fail, it just didn’t work the way we anticipated.
We had just split up, Dad heading north up and over a ridge and down toward the brook, while I headed south to crest that same ridge and swing in behind the deer to move them toward Dad. I planned to stop on the ridge to give him time to get to his stand. Then I would move through the bedding area.
Surprise! As I crested the ridge, I heard a deer blow twice, somewhere between Dad and me. We had only split up about five minutes earlier and Dad wasn’t more than a couple hundred yards away. I didn’t know if the deer was blowing at me or at Dad.
Well, it turned out the deer had spotted Dad. That blowing deer brought me to attention and got the adrenalin going.
Here comes the deer
I stood still next to a tall pine, looking in the direction of the deer that blowed, and within seconds I saw a doe coming straight at me. I got the scope on her as she turned to her left about 40 yards in front of me. The woods are thick here and there were few shooting lanes or opportunities. I had to make a quick decision. I lowered the rifle and let her go. She moved off to my right.
Seconds later, on the same trail, a large rack appeared, also headed right at me. That’s what I saw first – a beautiful set of antlers moving in my direction.
Snapping the rifle up, the scope showed a huge buck. But things happened quickly and there was not time for buck fear to set in – fortunately. At the same spot where the doe turned, the buck stopped and glanced the other way. For some reason, he intended to go right, where the doe went left. In a split second, I decided this was my best opportunity, and fired just as the buck turned. He offered a good shoulder shot.
Bang! The new gun felt good. I glanced up, glanced left, glanced right. Where did he go? Then I saw him, on the ground, flopping around. I moved quickly and took a finishing shot. In a matter of seconds our deer drive – in reverse – had worked. Before me was the biggest deer I’d ever shot, with a gorgeous eight point rack. I hollered, “Dad! We got him!”
And we had. The planned hunt – the deer drive – had worked, not as planned, but it worked, nonetheless. Dad jumped the deer and pushed them back to me. I thanked him for his effort after he arrived a few minutes later.
Deer drives don’t always work the way you hope – in fact, they seldom do. The key ingredients to a successful two or three man drive are these: know your territory well and be familiar with the habits of the deer that live there. Once in a great while, you’ll succeed, as we did. It was nice to do it legally.
At Ballard’s Meats in Manchester, the buck weighed 214 pounds, my second “Biggest Bucks” patch in twenty years and one Dad and I never forgot.
This story was published in Down East Magazine and my book, A Lifetime of Hunting & Fishing, published by North Country Press.