By Douglas Rodriguez
The story of this trip actually starts in mid-November on a 5-day archery quota hunt (Greg talks about it in his post here). My good friend Kevin put together a group for a drawn public hunt at St. Marks NWR during both archery and rifle seasons. Although we had not been drawn the past three years, our group managed to get selected for both archery AND rifle quota hunts. Prior to that archery trip, Greg and I did our usual virtual scouting and then spent a day in the field narrowing down the selections to areas we thought would see the most four-legged traffic. Although we both came close to getting a deer on a couple of occasions, we eventually went home empty-handed.
This trip had a different ending though...
That archery trip did allow us to identify one particular well-traveled funnel about 150 yards wide between a dense palmetto hammock and a dry cypress swamp. Both Greg and I each saw numerous deer in this area, but they were either out-of-range or not legal. Combine that with the fact that there were no other hunters in this particular area, I knew exactly where I was going to set-up for the rifle quota hunt in mid-December.
I arrived to the nearby county park a day early to set up the pop-up camper as well as to get camp organized with the guys. I also wanted to set my climber stand in the spot that Greg and I previously identified. On these quota hunts at St. Mark NWR, I learned that hunters usually ‘claim’ their spots by setting their stands up and tying orange flagging tape to them and then marking their trails with toilet paper. I don’t really like the idea of throwing my stand up and marking a trail the day before I hunt a new area. It seems like a good way to limit activity by introducing unfamiliar objects and scents to the environment. Nevertheless, I did it but only half-heartedly. After I picked my perfect palm tree and climbed it to determine a good height for unencumbered views, I ended up using dried palm fronds and a few branches to camouflage my climber at the base of the tree. This inevitably defeats the purpose of putting up the stand so that latecomers can see that the area is ‘claimed’. I was confident in the back of my mind, though, that I wouldn’t need to worry about encroachers, especially since I make it a point to wake up extra early to be amongst the first in the woods on public land.
I was excited as I awoke that first morning of the rifle hunt. Primarily because of the hunt but also because the temperature was in the low 30s. Until recently, the coldest it has been in our part of the state has been in the 40s, so here I would be without my faithful mosquito companions. I layered on my clothing, hopped in my beat-up Pathfinder and grabbed a Mountain Dew, a danish, and some jerky from the nearest (and only) convenience store before I hit the refuge. After going through the check-in process with the refuge team, I made my way to my spot.
I was feeling pretty good once I made it to my tree stand. It was a crisp, cool morning. I was well-rested. I made it through the woods rather directly and relatively quietly. This was going to be a good morning.
Now it was time to go through the process of starting the climb up the tree. Pack attached to pull-rope attached to stand, check. Harness properly buckled, check. Safety rope attached to tree, check. After I lifted myself onto the stand at the base of palm tree, I attached my harness to the safety rope and locked the carabiner. At this time, I realized that I dropped a glove when I was situating myself. No problem I thought, my stand is low enough on the tree that I can just duck under the frame and reach down and pick up the glove. Mistake number one. After banging my head lamp on the aluminum bar when reaching down and then loudly contorting myself to maximize arm reach, I finally retrieved the glove. There went my stealthiness.
After that debacle, I just wanted to get to the top of the tree and let things settle down before dawn arrived. Now, whenever I am trekking in/out or climbing with my stand in cool weather, I always do so coatless since I tend to get overheated. This occasion was no different. I simply draped my coat over the frame of my stand and quietly climbed the palm tree. Once I got to the height which I determined the day prior, I was about to make the last micro-adjustments for the perfect set-up when I noticed my coat was gone. No sooner had I completed that thought when I heard my coat whooshing through the air and hit the dried leaves 20 feet below me. I can’t remember if I swore audibly, but I am certain I uttered a few curse words in my mind.
After returning to the ground and back, I finally got set in the tree with my packed strapped above me and my rifle loaded. I then sat back and got comfortable for the thirty minutes or so before shooting light, which on this morning was about 7 am if I recall correctly. The stream of headlights passing on the road right up until daylight kept me busy thinking that maybe these other hunters know some secret about arriving to their spot at or after first light. Either way, once daylight came around, I was up on my feet scanning the area.
In this area I had a 180 degree view that I needed to watch over. In cases like these, especially when I am rifle hunting, I like to set-up with my climber stand on the side of the tree opposite from my field of view. I’ll then either stand or sit on the frame of my stand so that I am facing the tree. This allows me to conceal my movements with the tree while I’m trying to pay attention to such a wide field of view. On this day I also had two other trees right next to me to help conceal my set-up.
All was normal for the first 45 minutes of the hunt. There was a very slight fog early on which lifted quickly. There was not the heavy squirrel activity that I experienced the previous month. I could hear a squirrel or two in the palmetto hammock as well as the occasional bird stirring in the trees, but that was it. By this time I had been sitting enough that a chill began to creep into my gloved hands. It was time for the heavier ski-gloves.
I quietly got my gloves from my pack and proceeded to put them on. I was busy struggling with the right glove, where the thumb of the inner lining was inverted which didn’t allow me to insert my thumb. I hate that. After trying several different strategies for the problem, I took a quick scan and that’s when I saw him. I’m pretty sure I cursed at this point as well since he was already halfway across my field of view.
He was moving right to left about a hundred yards away. He wasn’t feeding and he wasn’t stopping to smell the ground, grasses, or nearby branches as bucks usually do when searching for a doe in estrus. He was walking with a definite purpose, though, possibly headed to his bedding area. Or perhaps he was kicked up out of his previous bedding area by another hunter. I could only see the two high forks on each of his antlers from the side, even through my scope. The regulations here at St. Marks WMA only allow for a buck with at least three points on one side, each at least one inch long. I needed to see the brow tines to make sure at least one was present and long enough. He didn’t turn his head his entire route though and I wasn’t in the state of mind to think to mouth grunt to get him to stop and turn.
I followed him with my scope until he was behind thick cover with no chance for a shot even if I did confirm him a legal buck. At this point I thought to grab my bleat can to hopefully coax him back towards me. He was upwind of me the entire time. I knew the way he was moving, it would take a lot to get him to change his direction. I actually dragged a line on the way in saturated with doe estrus scent, which was now between us. I hoped the scent in combination with the bleat would make the buck curious enough to return.
While fumbling around trying to juggle my rifle and bleat can, he suddenly switched directions and began a trot directly towards me. No grunts, no snorts, no raised tail, nothing. I had not even bleated yet. While on his way I finally confirmed the presence of brow tines. He stopped 10 yards away, directly downwind from both me and the hanging wick that I used to create the scent line. While he had his head turned towards me trying to interpret the blast of scent I am sure he encountered, I had to remain perfectly still.
After what seemed like a while but in reality was only a few short seconds, he continued his trot, now away from me, until I finally mouth grunted when he was 40 yards away. He stopped again and looked back with his body quartering away from me by about 45 degrees. I steadily held the crosshairs midway up his torso aiming for his rear shoulder and squeezed the trigger. After patiently waiting for an hour in the tree, I easily tracked him the 75 yards to where he fell. It seemed fitting that his final resting place was in a small, quiet pine hammock covered with straw.