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 with Rob Miskosky

Whitetail Woes!

“What do you think?” I asked Al, motioning toward the “Cutblock Trail” we had been following. The trail, or at least this portion of it, had proven itself in the past. I had killed a big buck in this same spot last season and was now set to put Al on it.
“Awful lot of sign,” he replied.

I could tell he liked the spot. With a series of remarkable, fresh scrapes and a proven past there was no reason not to like it. Only the snow made it different from last season. And it was starting to come down quite hard, filling in the scrapes that only minutes ago were as obvious as black on white.

Al settled in and after wishing him luck I headed off. My plan was to explore the other end of the Cutblock Trail where I hadn’t been before.

The author’s buck taken on the “Cutblock Trail” in 2005.
This is what I love about hunting white-tailed deer. Much like a trapper, the white-tailed deer hunter is constantly on the lookout for clues. Searching for that one sign that just feels right and then choosing the perfect vantagepoint in hopes that your instincts were correct. More often than not ‘Ol Mossy Horns wins the battle, but on that rare occasion when everything goes right, the satisfaction is unexplainable.

The trail I was following led down from a huge cutblock, through Al’s location, across a cutline and then meandered through a mixed forest setting that bordered what I like to call rabbit bush. Bush thick with stunted trees clinging to life in frozen muskeg. Earlier, from the other side of the rabbit bush, I had discovered a few deer trails that wound through its stunted trees leading toward the cutblock. I was now on the opposite side. My intention was to find a good scrape where the trail emerged from the rabbit bush—the bush that would provide perfect cover for a big whitetail.

In short order I found what I was looking for. In a small grove of large spruce trees, protected from the snow was a huge scrape half the size of a kitchen table. The low, over-hanging branches of the spruce trees were also battered and beaten. Small parts of spruce boughs were scattered around the area and the ground had been scraped hard. There was no doubt in my mind that the deer that had made the damage here was worth the effort to get a look at.

With little or no vantagepoint a safe distance from the scrape, and because the scrape was situated in what could almost be considered a tunnel, I positioned myself as best as I could, as far away as I could, while still being able to maintain a view of the tree tunnel. I was 15 metres away. Not to my liking, but it was the best opportunity I had. If the deer came from my right, the distance wouldn’t matter. If he came from the dark side of the tree tunnel, my left, I’d still have a good opportunity but I’d have to be careful he didn’t catch any movement.

I quickly gathered several spruce boughs and stuck them upright into the snow around my chosen location. They were tall enough to cover the better part of my body but not too tall to shoot over. It was the best I could manage. With little more than two hours remaining in legal light I settled in for the wait.

A doe came in first from behind me. I didn’t notice her until she was standing a mere 10-feet away. She was curious and stared me down for a while. Not moving a muscle I watched her finally give in to her curiosity and she passed me by without concern. Things were looking good; my makeshift blind had worked on the doe.

Whitetails seem to prefer their scrapes be under the boughs of a coniferous tree.
The air was beginning to cool as the sun made its last valiant attempt to stay above the horizon. Time was winding down fast as it always does in Alberta’s cold north country. We were in WMU 511, north of the small hamlet of Smith. Six of us had made the journey from Athabasca so we could hunt on Sunday. The archaic “No Sunday Hunting” rule still plagues many of us, but we were working with what we were given.

I pushed myself up to my knees trying to get the circulation flowing back into my legs. They were cramping from crouching low in my makeshift blind and I was getting uncomfortable. Suddenly, noise to my left brought me to attention. I was now on full alert but crouching in an awkward position.

If there is one thing that I’ve learned over the years it’s that Murphy is never on the side of the hunter. Murphy, by my estimation, has to be an animal-rights activist. And Murphy was out in full force this night.

Thinking I had to get back down under better cover, and quickly, I suddenly heard the raking of antlers against spruce boughs. And then the buck emerged half into the tree tunnel. I raised my rifle to my shoulder as slowly as I could and placed my eye to the scope. I could make out the buck all right, but I couldn’t see what he was sporting. His antlers were blending in with the darkness of the spruce trees in the tunnel. I suddenly realized that the failing light was extremely bad in the tunnel. Try as I might, I just couldn’t make out what the buck had for antlers, and I was only a mere 15 metres away. My eyes strained hard through my scope as the buck worked over the spruce boughs and scraped the ground hard. A flicker of white appeared farther back. It was then that I realized this was no ordinary deer. His tail had flickered what appeared to be a full eight feet behind his head. “Shoot!” my mind raced, shoot! But still I held, waiting for a look at the big buck’s headset. And then my arms began to shake. The weight of the gun was beginning to take its toll. Slowly I lowered my gun, thinking I’d wait for him to emerge into better light. And then we locked eyes.

Imagine if you will, what could be the biggest buck you’ve ever laid eyes on standing just 45 feet away. A buck you could have already taken with ease. Now imagine that same buck staring you straight in the eye while your gun is at half-mast. This was the predicament I suddenly found myself in.
We were in a standoff. The big buck wasn’t sure what to make of me and I still couldn’t tell what he had on his head for gear. Even if I suddenly could, it was going to be a good old-fashioned showdown. Who was going to draw first? The deer, or me?

I’m not sure how long we were locked in on each other for, but my arms were screaming. I knew I’d have to react quickly if I was going to take this deer. But I still wasn’t sure, even though every instinct in my body was telling me this was the deer I’d been waiting for my whole life. Knowing the predicament I was in wasn’t favourable, I slowly began to raise my gun against screaming arms to my shoulder. At that point my buck decided he’d had enough and he bolted straight out through the tunnel and into the open. He stopped for a quick second to look back at me and it was then that I realized I’d let a true trophy pass me by. With a snort, I watched a massive 180 class buck disappear out of sight.

I’ve spent a few sleepless nights over that deer and I’m sure there will be other nights where he haunts my dreams as well. Seldom are whitetail deer hunters presented with an opportunity such as I was. Later that week I settled on a 140ish 4X4. A nice heavy, dark-antlered buck but far from the behemoth who had Murphy on his side that cold night in WMU 511.

Still bothered by my failure, I’ve got my gear packed and I’m now off to Saskatchewan for opening day of the Non-resident Canadian season. I hope to redeem myself and come back with a true trophy. I only hope Murphy isn’t packing his gear as well. ■

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