Hunting whitetail deer in remote high mountain backcountry has always been my pinnacle of hunting. Growing up, my Pepere’s (word used for grandfather in Quebec) basement always had a warm wood stove and walls covered in homemade deer and bird mounts. But it also had one picture that inspired my love for high mountain hunting. A deer high on a rocky ledge looking out over a mountainous landscape. I did not know it as a child but this deer symbolized many of the things that would become important to me; old mature animals that had learned to survive and the challenge of hunting these animals in wild mountainous landscapes. As I became an adult, I left my French Canadian roots and moved west to Idaho. It was a wonderful ten years of hunting some of the wildest places left. It was there that I learned that these wild places exist almost exclusively on public land. I have now lived in the mountainous regions of the Southeast for 10 years. Recently, I decided to take a stand for our public lands and currently serve as a Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Chairman for Georgia. Instead of telling you how important public lands are, I want to tell a story of a deer on the Chattahoochee National Forest; but it is stories like these that do not exist unless we conserve our public lands.
It was mid-November in 2018, the air was cold and the forest was dry. The leaves were so dry that you could hear even the most silent of animals hundreds of yards away. It was pre-rut so I took a position with my back to the rhododendron thicket looking out into a wide basin of white and red oaks. As the sun rose over the ridge behind me and the morning turned to day, I was startled by a running deer far away. All the way across the basin, easily three to four hundred yards away, a doe came running out of a thicket and angled her way to the top of the far ridge. After a few minutes, one of the largest mountain deer I had ever seen stepped out of the same thicket. He was not running but instead patiently trotting along the same trail the doe had followed. I could not make him out exactly but I could tell he had exceptionally long brow tines. He disappeared over the far ridge and a few minutes behind him an eight point buck came out and followed the same trail. The eight point is normally a deer I would hunt but I knew that this year, I was hunting that long tined buck. However, I knew deer densities are so low in this region and they can at times move far among groups of does and thus if I ever saw this deer again I would be very lucky.
I spent the next couple weeks traveling to hunt deer in other regions but also spent some time scouting the area I had seen this buck. I found a series of rubs and scrapes including a signpost rub in the thicket the deer had originally come out of. My hopes were high, I thought that this deer might just be spending much of his time in the area I was hunting. After a week of tracking deer on snow in Green Mountain National Forest, I returned to Georgia and headed up into the Mountains and to my surprise there was snow. It was raining as I walked up the mountain and as I approached the area with the signpost rub I was surprised to cut the track of a large buck. Having just returned from a week of tracking up north, I immediately got on the track. It was hard to tell the tracks age because the rain was melting the snow and I thought the deer was hours ahead of me. I tracked the deer for only a few hundred yards when I heard a noise. I looked up to see the buck standing broadside thirty yards ahead of me in his track. I raised my Marlin 450 and realized I had made one of the greatest mistakes of my hunting career, I had not taken off my scope cover. I quickly pulled the cover back and threw it to the ground but it was too late as the buck bounded off over the ridge. I ran after the buck hoping for some miracle but it was futile.
I made my way back to my house and collapsed in my office chair, I was a wreck; my wife had no idea how to deal with me. After calming down I focused and decided, I was going to find that buck and redeem myself. Redeem myself from one of the hardest seasons, a season where on three separate occasions I had extremely large bucks within fifty yards in front of me and something had gone wrong on each…a second too long judging antlers on a antler restriction hunt; a bullet in a tree of a deer I had tracked for 4 hours in the snow; and the worst of all, what would have been my biggest mountain buck to date if I had taken my scope cover off. It was a great year for getting in a position to kill big bucks but it was also a year full of mistakes. But now was time for redemption.
By the next day, the rain had almost completely washed away the snow but I was able to pick up the bucks track early before it had all melted. Apparently, our encounter the day before had affected him as much as it affected me, his track left the basin and headed up into the higher peaks in the region. I started to track the deer but I had an afternoon meeting I could not miss and I decided that the next day I was going to make a hail mary and head into the high country.
The next morning the plan was to hike up to the highest ridges and still-hunt all day. The snow was gone but I knew the trail the deer had travelled well, so I still-hunted my way up the mountain. By late morning, I was at the top and hunting my way along just off the west side of a ridge. I caught movement and to my complete surprise the Redemption Buck was 30 yards from me walking directly towards me but just down slope. A quick mouth grunt and he stood looking at me again, again thirty yards away. There was only one problem his vital zone was behind a large tree trunk and my only shot was towards the front of the vitals. The shot rang out on the high ridge, the deer mule kicked, and him and 2 does, I had not seen, ran off down the mountain.
I walked over to where the deer had stood and immediately saw blood, light and full of bubbles; the kind of blood you want to see when shooting for the lungs. I started to track the deer down the mountain. The entire way there was large amounts of blood, the type of blood that leads you to think that deer will be laying less than a hundred yards away. But the deer kept going, when he reached the bottom of the valley and was headed towards the next ridge, I was relieved. Surely the deer could not go up this mountain. But the tracks headed up the ridge and there was still a strong blood trail. When we had gone up eight hundred feet of elevation I was in shock, amazed that this deer could travel so far, in such rugged terrain, with such a serious wound. The deer spent no time on the ridge and headed down the other side, now his path was taking him towards the thicket where I had originally seen him. He made it to the bottom of that valley and then picked up the same trail I had followed him on two days earlier and the blood trail began to disappear. I followed him up the trail right past the spot he had bounded away from me days earlier. He went to the top of this ridge and slipped into a rhododendron hell going down the other side. I knew that rhododendron covered the entire backside of this mountain and that the rest of this tracking job was going to be slow. The buck had all but stopped bleeding now but as he headed down his third ridge of the day the downhill tracks turned up the leaves and made him easy to follow. About 5 yards above the valley bottom he turned and began to parallel the valley and his tracks disappeared. It was already about 3 PM and I had been tracking this deer for almost 4 hours. The next 200 yards would take me another hour. No tracks and only a speck of blood every 20 to 30 yards, making it almost impossible to follow. So many times I had to go on my gut and guess the most likely way the deer travelled or scour the ground on my hands and knees to find a speck of blood. At about 4 PM the deer’s trail took me to a small bluff and I could see where the deer had jumped down about ten feet. This jump caused his wound to start bleeding again as he entered a thick riparian flood plain. I had never been in this area and was surprised by the maze of deer trails. I followed the buck as he wandered back and forth through this thick maze of briars. But again the blood trail began to fade. It was almost 5 PM and I had been tracking the deer since midday. I found myself again on my hands and knees retracing areas I had already searched. I collapsed on the ground and gave up, the Redemption Buck was mortally wounded and I was never going to find him. I was sick, distraught, and not sure how to handle the situation. I rose to my feet to begin the long walk home and I heard the running water of the creek. I decided to take a quick walk over to the waters edge in the hopes that he might have gone to water. I stepped out into the creek and looked downstream. A hundred yard downstream, I could see the white belly of a large deer sticking up from the rapids. As I approached and took his antlers into my hands for the first time, I felt the adrenaline leave my body. I was excited to find him but sad for how long this deer had been wounded. He is the deer on the wall of my Pepere’s basement, finding a way to survive in these vast wild public lands.
As I reflect on the story of the Redemption Buck, I know it is a story full of mistakes I should have never made and lessons that I need to learn. It is also a story of perseverance, an animal that gave everything it had to survive and a tracking job that I should have given up on so many times. The Redemption Buck symbolizes the adventure we can find in wild places like the Chattahoochee National Forest. I am happy to know that places exist where I can take those pictures from my Pepere’s wall and experience them in real life. Finally, we need to fight for these public lands, none of this would be possible if our ancestors had not fought. It is our turn, be an advocate for public land and get out there and find your adventure.