A WALK IN THE BIG WOODS

PUTTING THE WILD BACK INTO AMER­ICA’S FA­VORITE BIG-GAME AN­I­MAL

Outdoor Life - - WILD AMERICA - BY AN­THONY LICATA

“AS A KID, I KNEW THERE WAS SOME­THING MAGICAL ABOUT HUNTING THE PUB­LIC WOODS.”

I was half­way up the ridge be­fore dawn re­vealed the hot track I had stum­bled upon. I was hunting a des­ig­nated wilder­ness area in New York’s Adiron­dacks, and while I didn’t have the snow that big-woods hun­ters dream about, days of heavy rain cre­ated unique con­di­tions that made tracks jump out of the sat­u­rated duff of the for­est floor. The trail was headed vaguely to­ward my des­ti­na­tion—up—so I fol­lowed it. It led me to a high sad­dle, where I no­ticed a freshly bro­ken branch ly­ing across the tracks, which caused me to take a closer look. A buck’s rack had caught on a piece of dead­fall, snapped it, and dropped it across the trail. Game on. The track took me over the sad­dle into a basin filled with beaver dams, a cedar swamp, and dark tim­ber rid­dled with fresh scrapes and rubs. It was some­place I’d never been nor had planned to go. Truth be told, I wasn’t even sure where I was or where I’d end up, but fol­low­ing this trail into the un­known was ex­actly where I wanted to be. It was the heart of the rut, and I could’ve been hunting pri­vate ground closer to home. That prop­erty is a mix of farm­land, wood­lots, and a mod­est food plot or two. We have a net­work of es­tab­lished stands, and I know ev­ery spot where my crew has killed a nice buck. I know it like the back of my hand, and I do love the place. But that’s not how I grew up hunting white­tails. I started on Penn­syl­va­nia’s ter­rific pub­lic-land sys­tem. As a kid, I knew there was some­thing magical about hunting the pub­lic woods. They were wild. Un­known. In­tim­i­dat­ing. When my fa­ther and I would find sign on a re­mote ridge or jump a deer out of the pines way back in, there was a sense of dis­cov­ery we’d get from fig­ur­ing out those forests. We were chas­ing white­tails on their turf, not the semi-do­mes­ti­cated farm­lands where I felt at home. And we killed deer, in­clud­ing a few good bucks. Through the sea­sons, those ad­ven­tures and ac­com­plish­ments that go with chas­ing white­tails in the big woods turned a boy into a hunter. That’s why I had come to the Adiron­dacks. I lost the track of the buck in a tan­gle of blow­downs but ex­pected to jump him from his bed with ev­ery step. I still-hunted around the basin, post­ing up a cou­ple of times against trees or on logs, watch­ing the rub line and travel cor­ri­dors. I grunted and bleated. I kept find­ing fresh sign and get­ting a clearer pic­ture, like a map slowly fill­ing in with de­tails of the core area of a big-woods buck. As the day wound down, I moved to a rocky bluff where I could get a longer view and waited. I stayed un­til the last minute of legal shoot­ing light. I felt a twinge of anx­i­ety as I shoul­dered my back­pack to hike down the ridge. It was go­ing to be a long walk out, in pitch-dark through rough, un­fa­mil­iar coun­try. I cinched the straps down tight, know­ing that the right amount of risk is a wel­come com­pan­ion on any good ad­ven­ture, and that some­where to the west I’d even­tu­ally cut an old log­ging road that would lead me back to my tent. Do I wish I’d spent the night pack­ing that buck off the moun­tain? You bet. But when I fi­nally made it to camp—wet, scratched, tired, and desperate for a drink and a bowl of chili—i re­al­ized that I’d found what I had been hunting for.

A rut­ting buck hits a lick­ing branch over a scrape in an Eastern for­est.

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