Tracking In High Cotton

Posted on September 15, 2020



Without the hunting, the killing would have no drama, no special meaning or value. Without the hunting, the killing would merely be the extinction of an animal, which would hold no special interest or appeal. The hunting, then, does not justify the killing. Rather, it gives the killing a meaning and value. – Lee Nisbit


If ever there was a perfect hunting day, this was it. Five wet inches of snow had fallen overnight sticking to everything in sight. The wind was minimal at best with a holding temperature of 32 degrees.

We were the first vehicle down the unplowed logging road. If anything had crossed, especially a whitetail buck, the evidence would easily be seen. We did not go far before coming upon slots in the fresh ground cover. However, this set of prints belonging to a buck came out onto the road, meandered a bit and then led back into the woods on the same side he’d emerged from.

A closer examination revealed that this buck would be a couple of hundred pounds – give or take 15 pounds – and had been here less than an hour prior. Based upon his travel pattern he did not seem to have much of an agenda.



I decided that I was going to take up the chase and this guy was about to be served notice that he was now a marked animal.

I knew this country like the back of my hand. I knew this ridge, although I’d never entered from this side before. I was giddy with excitement as the unknown is always a better adventure than repetition. Today I was going see country through the eyes of this buck as he was now leading me, and hopefully, by days end I would be leading him out of his domain at the end of a drag rope.

As darkness was silently erased by dawn’s graying sky and a morning that was far brighter due to the clean white vestment covering everything, I began my chase. The words of John Dean Canton danced in my head:

“The pleasure of the sportsman in the chase is measured by the intelligence of the game and its capacity to elude pursuit and in the labor involved in the capture. It is a contest of sharp wits where satisfaction is mingled with admiration for the object overcome.”

The only fly in the ointment if you will, was the lack of visibility. With snow covering everything like cotton candy on a stick, and given the density of the forest, getting close to the buck was not only a hope, but necessity.

For the first couple of hours it was slow progress; the buck seemed in no hurry to get anywhere fast. In fact, it really didn’t seem that he was interested in leaving his little piece of the world. His imprints were simple to follow, and as of yet, he had not crossed another set of deer-tracks. My guess was he was within the bounds of his home turf, and very well could be within his bedroom, although I had found no beds.



If you’re a deer tracker, you live for these moments and hope for these days. No matter the outcome, it is always with great pleasure you pit your wits against that of no mean antagonist, a whitetail buck – the very same buck that you’ve dreamed about since the close of last deer season.

As quiet as the walking was, it was frustrating as snow avalanched down upon me each time I would come in contact with a branch, bough, or tree. I would have to check my rifle to ensure the white debris had not clogged my sights.

Yes, when I was a lad hunting in snow, a valuable lesson, one that I think about to this day, was imbued upon my young mind. At lunchtime, back at the Land Rover, I had set my rifle in the snow and leaned the muzzle against a shrub. Once my boyish appetite was satisfied, it was off for an afternoon of whitetail adventure. Grabbing my weapon, off I went to slowly creep along the rim overlooking a river bottom. It was not long into the search when I spotted a buck below. I had all the advantage when pulling the gun to my shoulder. As my cheek touched the stock and eye focused to the peep-site all I could see was black. What? “What in the world is happening,” I thought. Lowering the weapon, I realized that my site was plugged with snow. As quickly as I could, I blew the snow out of the orifice, but unfortunately, not quick enough. The buck was now out of sight and a distant memory, a memory that has served me well all the years going forward. It has never happened again.

Every step, every move must become methodical once you believe the distance has been closed between you and the buck. Remember the axiom, whichever is moving, the deer or the hunter is at the disadvantage, according to T.S. Van Dyke.



Finally, the buck’s trail broke out of the fir and into a large swath of real estate comprised nearly exclusively of raspberry whips. Now, just imagine what that must have looked like: the whips were head high, over five feet, with snow clinging to each one with visibility now down to less than 30-yards. But this made things simple. Rather than follow a track, I could now follow where the whips were devoid of snow.

Around and around his movements went, which left me wondering if this guy was on a shopping trip or just plain bored with life that he now walks in circles and figure eights?

Upon reaching a tree that was at least six inches in diameter, I paused, which you will quickly learn was a great decision on my part. I’d love to tell you that I knew exactly why I halted when I did, but I can’t. I just did.

As I stood next to the tree, shoulder resting against the smooth bark, something odd caught my attention. There was a sapling not 20-yards distant from where I stood that was waving back and forth. Initially I thought it must be the wind. But as I looked around, nothing else was moving and the air was dead calm. Then I heard it. Grunting. The buck was sparring with that tree and grunting as he was doing it.



Even at that close distance, I could not see any part of this deer. I waited, but not for long. The sapling stopped moving, the grunting ceased, and I wondered, did the buck leave? It wasn’t long before I had my answer.

Parting the whips as if Charlton Heston playing Moses, he was standing at the Red Sea with walls of whips suspended on either side of him, and now coming directly at me. I first saw his antlers, then a face, ears and finally a body. I didn’t have much of a shot at this point and given the fact that he was coming straight at me left little opportunity to get my rifle up.

And then he stopped. I dared not breathe. My heart had gone into double-time, banging like a drum in my throat. “I sure hope he doesn’t hear that,” I thought. What is he going to do? What is his next move going to be? Will he continue his course, and if so, how will I get my 760 shouldered? The suspense was building, and the result of this chess match was now all on his next move.

For reasons known only to him, the buck decided that he would turn to his left and walk in that direction. Once I knew his vision was blocked, I raised my rifle, clicked off the safe and readied myself for a shot.

I’m yet again reminded of what Van Dyke scribed in his book, The Still-Hunter, “Examine all the surroundings; see which is the best way to approach. But above all things, positively don’t hurry, for in still-hunting hurry is the parent of flurry. There is no occasion for haste.”



The buck, who was now walking from left to right of my position was again enveloped amidst the raspberry whips and out of sight. You are probably thinking right about now, why didn’t you shoot? Good question: As of yet I’ve had no clear shot provided. And yes, as this was all playing out, it was excruciatingly tough on fragile nerves to remain calm, cool and collected; but I did.

As I followed the beast’s travel by watching the whips, he turned left again, J-hooked and was now walking back in my direction just along the wood-line and the raspberry whips. When he stopped again it was at the most opportune location for me; straight in front of me standing broad side, not 20-yards away.

I could clearly see his antlers, main beams and points, his head and neck and the top of his back. Peering through my sights I placed the bead where I estimated his chest to be, took a deep breath, exhaled, and squeezed.

The shot was muffled as a result of the snow, but it was true to its mark. The buck was dead before he ever hit the ground, and without ever knowing what or who hit him.



In the words of Larry Kollor in his book, Shots at Whitetails, “This type of hunting demands the utmost in perseverance and patience.”

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer