The Goiter Buck
Chasing whitetails is one of those things that stirs my soul, and there are few places that call to me more than my family farm when the leaves start to change. Typically by November I’ve logged many hours with a bow in my hand in pursuit of a mature buck, but this year was different. I drew a permit to catch a tundra peregrine and in doing so committed my fall to falconry over bowhunting. With deer season underway I feel the tug of hardwoods, tree stands and frosty mornings, though the bird requires the lion’s share of my focus,. Having a busy schedule meant there was only one weekend I could steal away for, the rifle season opener. I don’t typically enjoy rifle season as it represents the stillness of the woods being interrupted periodically by the crack of a rifle and a temporary halt to “normal” deer behavior, but because this was my only time to hunt I resolved myself to shake off the disdain and adorn the garb of the orange army.
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have a place to safely hunt, run trail cameras and observe bucks grow into maturity, all without the worry of other hunters’ encroachment. Last season a large framed, big bodied 10 point caught my eye and attention. He was very wary, showed up sparsely on camera and the only daylight pictures of him after he shed his velvet were taken when he had clearly been spooked. I looked back through old pictures and memories and quickly realized this buck was one I had a history with. He was around the year previous, an “up and comer” I guessed at 3 years old, but partway through the season I noticed something worrisome. He developed a very apparent large mass I called a goiter at the base of his neck, right in front of his legs. This bucked sparked many
conversations in the family from what could have caused the growth to would the meat be safe if someone harvested him. The life of a whitetail is fraught with peril and deer with impediments are weeded out quickly and often gruesomely. I decided it was unlikely he would survive the winter and that he may be a deer I’d shoot given the chance. Our path’s never crossed that year, he avoided any encounters with me and overcame whatever caused the mass as it was gone by that summer. I found a shed once belonging to him, not knowing at the time it would be a piece of the story yet to come.
The next year he made the big jump to a wide, tall, hit list buck and while I had tons of pictures of him, as well as a marked increase in large rubs and scrapes on the farm, I never saw him. That is until the last day of bow season. I saw him cross the driveway up to the house at the farm with 4 or 5 other
bucks. “That’s him!” I said after a quick glance with the binos, out the window of the house. I had my bow with me and contemplated throwing on my hunting clothes before rushing out the door to head him off in the woods but that thought quickly faded. I had this incredible deer, bigger than any I’ve had with any consistency on the farm who had made it through two seasons without me figuring out his puzzle, I didn’t want to end our chapter in such a manner. Plus, if he made it through the summer I’d get to chase him next year, and there was a good chance he’d be an even more impressive deer. I found one of his sheds that spring too, further proof that he was resilient and alive. Laying hands on his weighty, bony headgear brought a smile to my face. He made it through.
With my focus on the peregrine I skipped my usual trips north to handle duties that go along with hunting the farm; trimming lanes, scouting, running trail cameras, mineral licks and moving or hanging stands. Luckily my brother lives up there still and, in my absence, he was able to run the cameras at least. I had been anxiously waiting to see the cards he pulled before I got up there as they’d been capturing photos for months and I had no idea what could be on them. Dead batteries, incorrect dates, thick undergrowth and false captures made it difficult to piece together who and what were around but one thing was clear, the buck that had the “goiter” two years ago, who’s sweeping, symmetrical antlers had captured my desire was still alive. This year he put on some mass from years previous, both in bone and body. The goiter buck was now 5 by my estimation, a hulking bodied 9 point with that type of rack you see from darn near any distance and know right away that you’re looking at a good buck. The metaphorical starter pistol went off in a matter of hours, and I couldn’t stop flipping through the pictures while fighting sleep. He made it, and man am I lucky to get to chase a deer of this caliber.
I planned on hunting a stand on the west side of the farm, a slightly risky sit that required you got in early as you have to cross a few travel paths between bedding a food. The stand offered a great overview of the farm and the wind was perfect for the sit so the potential to spook deer getting in was worth it. The morning started off the exact way you don’t want a hunt to begin. The house is situated in the middle of the farm, the back door being 150 yards from my favorite stand and a few hundred more to the one I planned on hunting. I headed to the stand, later than I anticipated, after having stomach issues. Just as I’m about to enter the woods, a doe comes walking up to me in the yard. I do my best impression of a stump as she passed feet from me, eventually making her way off, costing me precious time. As she was walking around me I could hear the subtle rumble of a buck grunting in the woods very close by. I decide it’s too late to make it to my original choice and decide to go to the closest stand, the one I’ve had the fortune of killing a handful of other deer out of. Just as I get to the ladder of the stand I hear dozens of hooves crashing though the brush, accompanied by waiving white flags in the early morning grey and hear the haunting sound spooked deer make when they blow. Crap. They were right there and if I’d been here when I wanted to be none of this would have happened. I climb the stand, convinced I just ruined my best chance at filling my freezer for the season. An hour passed, and as the sun come up the woods came to life. Those of you who haven’t been in the woods as the sun crawls into the sky should experience it at least once. The stillness of the morning leads me to start thinking this hunt is going to be a bust, then a coyote makes its way into view. Coyotes fascinate me and as I watched this one carefully walk along, looking for a meal I realized there were deer coming out of the CRP to my left. A small buck walked into the woods before slipping out of view. The coyote eventually came close enough to smell where I walked in and decided to leave before I gave in to my trigger finger itch. Time passes strangely in the deer woods, and after what felt like a long stretch but in reality was just a few cycles of slowly scanning the area back and forth I caught movement. A doe was running at a good clip out in the hay field, 200 yards away. She went out of sight and I didn’t think much of it, but quickly realized what caused the commotion. A large buck was trailing along her path at a run, both deer passing well within bow range of the stand I planned to sit. I bleated in his direction, attempting to stop him before he left the shooting window I had, to no avail. After trying again louder he stopped, past where I could get a shot and now down wind. As soon as I brought the rifle up to get a closer look the buck bolted. I watched him for a few strides before he slipped over the rim of the hill. I picked him up again 150 yards further up the field. He had slowed down but was still cruising quickly and well beyond comfortable shooting range, shrouded by the CRP brush. It was him, I didn’t get a great look in the fervor of the moment but deer that size stand out. The morning progressed and he never made another appearance. Two younger bucks worked in to 15 yards tempting me to fill the tag and head home early, but I had seen the object of my desire. I had a few more sits left this trip and I was enjoying the chase too much. I left the stand that morning wondering if I’d ever see the Goiter Buck again, if I had just missed my one opportunity to win one over on the wary deer.
When it came time to head to the stand that evening, I gave my buddy Graham a call. “I saw the big one this morning,” I told him, giving him the details of the encounter. We talked about where I should head to have the best chance of seeing him again. The direction the buck followed the doe is one I’ve seen many mature bucks use to bed during the day, but they have to cross open ground to come back out and the wind was high that evening. The stand that overlooks this section of the farm has a history of being unproductive on windy days, a fact I remembered last year as me and Graham were setting up to hunt together. We made a game time decision to hunt a different stand, leading to me killing a great buck while Graham filmed the whole thing over my shoulder. Graham thought I should sit closest to where I last saw him and, while I didn’t disagree, I wasn’t confident he would come out offering a shot. After hanging up with him and waffling back and forth I decided it was my best bet, and if it didn’t work out I could jokingly blame Graham for giving bad advice.
I climbed in to the stand and took a survey of the ground it overlooked. The setup sits in a now dying tree situated along a fence line, near the northern border of the property. The neighbors to the north run cattle and don’t hunt, and the brush is thick. This is where the buck headed with his doe. The section between the neighbors and where I sat is normally cut and baled, a lower quality hay field split by two drainages filled with overgrown cedars and the odd hardwood. The longer of the two ditches paralleled the fence line I was in, about 40 yards away, and the other ran perpendicular between them, joining the fence and paralleling ditch like an elongated H. I killed my first deer just feet from here, sitting up against a fence post, before we had any stands on the farm. This year the field wasn’t cut, and the mixed grasses had grown up past my waist in most places. This was going to be a tough sit, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to see deer moving through the swaths of grass and there was a lot of ground to watch. The stand faced the uncut hay field, but because the stand is up on a hill I could see to the south as well and it was just as likely a deer could come from that direction too, just as they had that morning.
I settled in, reminding myself to keep my eyes moving but not to shift enough to draw the attention of any deer that managed to work in close before being spotted. As the sun approached the horizon I noticed a few does filtering out across from me. They were on the other side of the shorter ditch, slipping along barely visible in the waving grass. I could see them, which was a good sign, but they disappeared from view easily which meant I was going to have to stay focused in case a deer didn’t come out in such an obvious fashion. Another group of does came over the hill, spooking the first group. They both perked up, walking counter clockwise in a large circle opposite the other until they figured out what the false danger was, at which point they crossed through an opening in the fence and headed to the freshly cut corn field a quarter mile away, on the south east corner of the farm. A small buck appeared 15 minutes later, walking my way until he reached the drainage separating us. He then turned to the south, paralleled the ditch and crossed the fence. Two more younger bucks did the same thing shortly after. I watched them in the scope and realized there was a small gap in the brush along the ditch, offering a shot opportunity if a mature buck followed the same path. 10 minutes passed with no other deer making an appearance. I scanned back and forth, moving my head in steady sweeping motions, eyes darting here and there, stopping on anything out of place. The light was getting low now, making it harder to catch movement or the tell tale outline of a deer. I glanced back to where the younger bucks had appeared and just as I thought “this is exactly when I could see a mature buck coming out” my heart started pounding. A big bodied deer was standing at 200 yards facing me, obscured by brush, but very clearly a larger deer than anything I’d seen that evening. It started walking my way, and I smoothly brought the rifle up to my cheek just as it stepped out of view, behind the cedars lining the ditch. I brought the shooting gap up into my scope, and prepared to stop the buck where his subordinates had crossed. I’d have to get the timing just right, as he’d be through the gap in a matter of seconds. My heart pounded in my chest but I quickly calmed my nerves and prepared my mind for the task at hand. An eternity passed and the buck never stepped in to view. Did he catch my wind? No, the wind was steadily blowing off my right shoulder. Did he see me move? Surely not. Did he hear me? The last noise I made was 30 minutes ago, when I quietly broke or bent some of the small branches jutting up from the limb under my legs. Just as I’m wondering what happened I caught movement out of my non scope bearing eye. The frame of his antlers was unmistakable. “It’s him” I muttered, as my heart beat quickened once again. I saw his wide, heavy rack crest the lip of the hill, coming directly at me. He hadn’t followed the younger deer, he crossed the small ditch that previously separated us and was coming right at me. With every step more of his form came in to view, his greyed face, rut swelled neck, muscled chest, and sagged belly. He closed the distance quickly, and as he got closer a problem reared its ugly head. I hadn’t broken enough of the limbs blocking my shooting lane and the closer he got the more they interfered with the shot. My lack of preparation was coming back to bite me. He was 50 yards away and still walking right at me when he angled away and paused enough where I thought I could get a shot. I looked down the scope, but luckily cocked my head to look down the barrel. The path of the bullet was blocked by a limb twice as thick as my thumb. He started walking again, and I shifted slowly to my right, clearing the path for the bullet. 10 less yards separated us when he angled closer to broadside and paused again. Now or never. I put the crosshairs on his right shoulder, he was quartered to but at 40 yards I was more than confident that the monolithic copper round would find its mark. I slowly applied pressure to the trigger and felt the crack of the rifle recoil against my shoulder. The buck staggered, turning in place slightly and stood perfectly broadside. I could tell he was mortally wounded instantly, blood visibly pumping from the wound, however he was still on his feet. I chambered another round and the second shot found its mark as well. He didn’t appear to react to the second shot, but a second later he stumbled, fell over, and vanished in the tall grass.
Did that really just happen? I asked myself, he’s down right? He fell but I can’t see him. I pulled the binoculars from the harness hanging around my chest, scanning the area where I saw him falter, for confirmation this wasn’t all a dream. A single tine was all that was visible, but that’s all I needed. I gave the buck a short time, then walked over and put hands on the buck who’s mere presence on the farm added some level of richness to my life. Mixed emotions washed over me. The excitement of a difficult task completed was there sure, but inseparably tangled in was a sadness, the same as any time I take a life while hunting, but there was something different too. I enjoyed chasing this deer, enjoyed the cat and mouse game that goes along with hunting mature whitetail bucks. Not having him around felt like more than a loss of an individual. There will be other bucks that call the farm home, others that persist into maturity, but they will have a different story, different traits. The goiter buck was a survivor, and as I guided my knife, beginning the transformation of carcass into nourishment, I let the reality sink in deep. Life is precious, moments like this shouldn’t be taken lightly, and our existence here is brittle.