A WALK IN THE BIG WOODS
PUTTING THE WILD BACK INTO AMERICA’S FAVORITE BIG-GAME ANIMAL
“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.