The hoof prints in the snow were unlike any other deer tracks I’d ever seen. Wider than my cartridges with well-rounded toes, the tracks were plainly visible in a line straight up the middle of the snow- covered road. The huge buck that made them had casually passed through here just a few hours before dawn, and now the three men staring at his tracks were eager to engage in the hunt for him. It was Saturday morning in late fall. Four of us had booked a weeklong hunt with Cedar Ridge Outfitters in Jackman, Maine, to hunt big-woods whitetails, and this was our last day. Two members of our party, Dean Jackson and Bill Shaffer, were hunting on a distant mountain, while my son-in-law Jason Alderfer and I were with our guide, Rocky Achey, when we spotted the hoof prints I just mentioned.
The tracks veered to the lower side of the road and led us through a wet, brushy area and then into a sizable stand of cedars and firs. On the opposite side, the evergreens opened up to a brush- choked skid road left by loggers. The buck ambled down the road a short distance, then stopped momentarily to rub a sapling. Fresh bark shavings lay on the snow at the base of the tree, and printed on both sides were the unmistakable marks of his antler beams imprinted in the snow during his rubbing fury.
A short distance away we found his hours-old bed tucked neatly inside a dense stand of beech saplings. From there, the buck angled down through the woods toward another stand of cedars and firs where he joined some other deer. Even in the maze of deer tracks, his hoof prints stood out like no other. His rounded toes were no doubt worn down from years of roaming these secluded swamps, ridges, and mountaintops, under the weight of a massive frame that north woods bucks are so noted for. Jason and I both had visions of seeing this buck piled up just beyond our smoking guns, and the excitement intensified as we continued on the track.
With Rocky in the lead, we kept up the pace on the tracks that zigzagged hither and thither as they circled a large picturesque bog. When the tracks headed northwest, Rocky had it all figured out that the trail we were on would probably take us back to the road where we parked the truck, but we had to pursue our course to confirm it. Sure enough, they did. Apparently the buck had hunkered down in this area during the snowstorm the previous day, and the tracks we were following were his first wanderings afterward.
We wasted very little time taking up the original track and following our footprints back to the spot where the buck had joined the other deer. Circling the area, we cut the tracks we were looking for, where they led us to a fresh scrape. The discovery of the scrape brought a smile to Rocky’s face, and his optimistic expression was a thumbs-up signal for his two clients. As we huddled over the exposed soil, Rocky whispered, “He’s got females on his mind and that’ll give us an advantage.” Round toes certainly didn’t grow old by being stupid, so we’d need every possible advantage we could get. The disadvantage at this point was that there were three of us on his trail, which meant three times more chances of messing something up.
Not far from the scrape, Round Toes skirted the edge of the cedars and then crossed the brushy skid trail once again. As we rounded a bend in the trail, Rocky pointed to our left. Poking up out of the snow was the tip of a shed antler from a moose. This area was prime moose country, too, and we’d seen some nice bulls during the past six days. This particular shed came from a bull whose spread would measure fifty plus inches. Could finding it bring us hunters luck?
The tracks continued on through a dense stand of head-high firs and then cut back somewhat and angled down over a steep bank to a small beaver pond. We followed them along the water’s edge to a fallen tree that Round Toes had swept the snow off as he lunged over. At the inlet to the pond, his tracks cut to the left, crossed the stream and entered another dense stand of evergreens. Reading the sign, Rocky had a hunch that Round Toes had no intentions of bedding down. Rather than stay on the track, Rocky suggested we circle again. Sure enough, we cut the huge buck’s smoking hot tracks exiting the upper side and heading through a fir and hardwood mix that offered much better shooting opportunities. With our rifles ready and still on the move, we scanned the woods around us searching for anything that resembled a piece of a deer.
We were gaining on the buck. His tracks were as fresh as homemade bread. He was still walking, which was good news. With the utmost caution we continued on, all the while preparing ourselves for a flash of brown that meant Round Toes had spotted or heard us. At the upper side of the hardwood mix, Round toes veered to the left to stay below a steep incline in the woods. The trail leveled out and Round Toes purposely stayed parallel with the bottom of the slope. As we followed the sign, Rocky suddenly stopped and pointed directly in front of us to a spot where Round Toes had pawed the snow. As we stood there scanning the terrain, Rocky whispered, “There he is!”
I immediately saw the dark outline of an animal standing in the shadows of some evergreens nearly fifty paces away. My first reaction was: moose. Rocky stepped to the side for a better look while peering intently through his binoculars, while Jason and I had both rifles shouldered and ready to fire as soon as one of us could identify the animal. As I focused on the outline through the Leupold scope, the animal slowly turned its head to the side revealing the ear and antler of a whitetail. Rocky verified it too. “I’m going to shoot,” I whispered. My only shot was at his neck through a narrow opening between two trees in the offhand position. And I was shaking! I lost sight of the deer after the recoil from the Tikka 7mm-08, but Rocky and Jason saw a deer standing momentarily then run away. A sickish feeling engulfed me. I had no clue whether I’d hit or missed, and their sighting of a runaway deer didn’t help matters.
Walking up to the spot where Round Toes had made the pawing, we noticed he had made a sharp turn to the right, walked up the slope several yards and made two more pawings in the snow. From there he had turned back and headed for the shadows where the encounter took place. Rocky was in the lead when suddenly he shouted, “There he is! You got him!” Just ahead laid a large-framed eight-point buck dead in his tracks. The scene was instantly filled with high-fives and handshakes. What a grand moment.
As the celebration tapered off, we began examining the buck. Something was amiss. There was an unmistakable lack of maturity about this buck, and this buck had pointed toes. What had happened to the buck we were following with the unmistakable round toes? With a puzzled look, Rocky began backtracking and soon uncovered the mystery.
On top of the slope, just above the pawings that Round Toes had dug, Rocky found the fresh bed of another deer. When Round Toes had moved on down the trail, the other deer left its bed to follow him. That’s how the two deer met in the shadows. Since we hadn’t arrived at this piece of evidence, we assumed the buck I was shooting at was Round Toes. As it turned out, Round Toes was the runaway deer that Rocky and Jason saw after I shot.
Even though he was a young deer, the buck now lying at our feet was a trophy to behold. With eight points and a muscular frame, we would later learn at the check station in town that he would field-dress 191 pounds. After a photo session and a long, tortuous drag back to the vehicle, Rocky and Jason hustled back to hunt for Round Toes. After a couple hours of trailing, they came across the footprints of another hunter who was now on the same track. For Rocky and Jason, it was the end of the trail. As for Round Toes...we’ll never know.