Pennsylvania Public Mountain Buck
Updated: Nov 8, 2022
A story from Nick Pagni:
This was my first year joining my group of friends for an out-of-state deer camp and let me tell you, it was one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever had. The camaraderie of deer camp with your buddies, the excitement of the deer woods in late October, and the fulfillment of a plan coming together resulting in a harvest all made this trip unforgettable.
For me, this adventure started in early September with a one-day scouting trip to check out two different state forest areas. I spent much of the weeks leading up to that scouting trip digitally scouting these areas looking for terrain that would funnel cruising bucks within bow range. This task seemed relatively daunting looking at multiple pieces of ground that had thousands of acres of contiguous forest with varying terrain types. I’ll admit, my success was not derived from much of the scouting that took place on my scouting trip. With that being said, it did get me in the ballpark.
DAY ONE of this hunt was October 27. My plan was to get to camp around lunchtime, drop off some gear, then head to my number one spot that I had scouted. I was really excited to get into this piece where I had two trail cameras hung. I was optimistic that there would be some very valuable Intel on one or both of these cameras, and that I would be in the tree that evening over some hot sign. Boy, was I wrong.
Camera number one only showed me that I was in the right spot if I was interested in doing some hiking. There were some deer hitting my mock scrape in the beginning, but only does. Almost every day in October, there were hikers on this camera. I wasn’t worried though, that is just a part of learning new ground.
I had another camera hung on a deer trail intersection in a very distinct saddle about 1.5 miles from the road. In my mind this would be my number one spot. Well, that camera was disappointing as well, as was the vast amounts of leaves covering my beautiful mock scrape that I had made back in September. The camera showed some deer activity and one black bear. The time elapsed between some of the triggers was almost a week! This was not the ‘HOT’ intel I was looking for.
Feeling the weight of the task ahead of me, along with the weight of my pack, #XOP stand and sticks, I decided to shed some of that weight and do some scouting rather than getting a tree.
I pulled up my map and found a wide creek-bottom drainage that feeds into the main creek on this state forest land. I was very curious to see whether these deer are using this drainage for travel again hoping to find that one train feature that funnels these deer from one ridge to another, one bedding area to another. The creek bottom drainage did show some buck sign, but nothing that was worth the 2-mile hike from the parking area.
Eventually, with about 30 minutes of shooting light left, I found a large oak tree and set up on the ground, more so just to rest before a long hike back. While sitting against that oak I pulled up my #HuntStand app on my phone and found a couple more areas to check out.
After the long hike back to the car, I will admit, camp was calling my name. Most would agree, one staple of deer camp is cooking dinner, having a few beers, and catching up on that day’s action. As much as I wanted to get back to camp to enjoy that time with my friends, I was still feeling behind on my pursuit of a legal Pennsylvania buck.
I decided to do a little bit of driving to scout some road access and start to formulate a plan for the morning sit. After driving by a few parking areas and trail heads and dropping a couple pins on my map, I found a road that would lead me back to the hardball and back to camp. As I passed the western-most boundary of the state forest, I couldn’t help but notice the large cut ag field on the north side of the road. As my headlights swung through the field, all I saw were eyes. By the dozens. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Was this where all the deer in the state forest were right now? Immediately, the wheels started turning. How can I hunt these deer?
By the time I got back to camp that night, everyone had already finished dinner and was winding down. I shared with them my report of the first evening hunt and my after-hours scouting.
The digital scouting continued. Looking at the state forest, which bordered this large ag field, I found what I believed to be a funnel created by multiple drainages coming together, feeding the main creek. I decided this would be my focus for the morning because it fit a lot of my criteria for a bowhunting location.
On the morning of DAY TWO, October 28th, I found myself wandering in a hiking trail which led to that very funnel. This trail made my life so much easier. I mapped the first walk in which in total was about 1-mile from the trail head. At about 0.8 miles the trail takes a sharp turn from north to southeast across the wooden bridge over the creek. I was now standing directly under the pin I had dropped the night before where all the drainages came together. I was pleasantly surprised by the heavy deer trails crossing where the drainages became shallow. I picked one trail that went up the ridge to the northwest in the direction of the ag fields. This trail made the most sense to me for a deer leaving bedding in the east and wanting to go feed in the destination fields to the west. As I began to follow this trail northwest up the ridge, I noticed more and more buck sign. First, a series of rubs, then, a decent size scrape. I felt like I was on the right track.
With daylight approaching I began to still-hunt the rest of the way to the spot I wanted to hang my treestand. The rest of that walk and morning was very quiet with the exception of my #XOP treestand falling 15-feet to the ground as I tried to hang it.
The tree I settled on was a medium sized oak next to a decent size hemlock. I was able to hang just above a large hemlock branch whose smaller branches provided good cover for me in the tree. The remainder of that tree gave me a great back-drop for any deer looking up at me from ground level. Also, having considered the future wind forecast for the next few days, the spot was perfect. The Southeast wind would blow my scent from the timber out into the big ag field. This allowed me to hunt this stand relatively undetected in the evenings, expecting the deer to come from the east and southeast.
Even despite all the sign and the undeniable funnel I was hunting, I still questioned this whole plan. I am not familiar with hunting big woods like this, nor hunting an area that has hiking trails through it. Do these hiking trails bother the deer? Are these deer even bedding in this block of timber? There’s lots of private land timber on the west side of the road that the deer could be using. I did find one large rub within 15 yards of my tree stand on a Hemlock about the size of my thigh which was encouraging but still I questioned myself.
Mornings in the spot we’re likely going to be slow. But I decided to put my time in anyway as I did not want to walk further east into the bedding and potentially mess up my prime ambush location. I also noticed a soft edge about 40 yards east of my tree stand created by a stand of younger leaf bearing trees. I figured this would create a nice boundary for these deer encouraging them to come by within bow range.
With all the fresh leaves on the ground it was challenging to find fresh deer trails which meant I needed to rely on my knowledge of terrain and changes in vegetation types.
Morning number two came to a close with zero deer sighted but was still productive. I made multiple mock scrapes with doe estrus from #BlackWidowDeerLures. My hope was at the very least to get a buck to stop in front of me naturally. Also, I knew I needed to avoid leaving ground scent on the main deer trail I walked in originally. I felt like this was ‘THE’ trail that I could kill a buck on. I found that I could walk the large drainage to the south of my location. It provided great cover and concealment for my entry and exit. On the way out that first morning I mapped my new route which I would use the next three sits.
Around 11:00 that morning our good buddy, Nick, texted our group chat that he connected on a legal buck! Needless to say, this had our group encouraged that maybe we could do this! When I made the drive back to camp that afternoon, I was excited to catch up with Nick and the rest of the guys. After sharing the stories of the morning, the deer report, and a celebratory beer, we all parted ways back to our respective hunting spots.
My anticipation was high for my new location. The walk in was very easy, this time with very little gear on my back. The drainage access was prime, and I felt like I got in completely clean. By the time I got settled in my stand it was about 3 PM which I felt was perfect for that spot as I did not expect much mid-day or early-evening movement due to being so close to the destination food source. I made use of my downtime in the tree, considering my options for the next few days. I had this evening, another full day Saturday, then we had Sunday off due to no hunting Sundays in Pennsylvania. Initially, there was some grumbling about losing a valuable day in the stand on Sunday, but I feel it actually benefited all of us much more knowing we would have that day to reset and make new plans if needed.
As I sat and waited for evening to arrive that Friday, October 28, I laid out my strategy for the coming days. If I had no luck before Sunday, I would get aggressive and try to get closer to the bedding area in the east ridge. I figured I could backtrack the hot trail to find a good spot to hang.
Around 6 PM with about an hour of shooting light left a doe and fawn came in the funnel trail just as I had planned. Pennsylvania uses a limited the harvest program which sells out quickly before the season. No one in our group had doe permits but that’s not what I was here for anyway.
As I filmed the doe and her baby work their way through my little corner of timber, I found myself getting lost in their movements. I was just taken aback by the presence of these deer in a spot that I had only just found the day before. In the midst of my daydream, I glanced back to the southeast where the heavy trail funnels toward my location. I saw a buck standing there staring at the doe and he clearly had that look in his eye. I tried to shift my camera and grab my bow to prepare for shot, but I no sooner got my hand on my bow than he ran almost full sprint towards the doe, passing all of my shooting lanes.
The buck came to a stop standing in the opposite side of my mock scrape leaving no shot. I wasn’t worried though. He was so focused on the doe and in my mind there was no way that deer was not getting one of my arrows that evening. I had many shooting lanes between his location and the direction of the doe. It was just a matter of time.
The buck was a nice size 8 pointer, definitely legal, and definitely a shooter in my eyes for this trip. During my scramble to get in position for a shot the big mature doe, who had already caught some of my wind, and who was now on full alert was signaling my presence to the woods around us. The buck still did not care at all. Eventually the doe had enough and bound it off to the north into some thick cover. Now would be my chance. The book should go north and should present me with a 30-yard, quartering away shot. A shot that I have practiced for months at home in the yard and even executed successfully on a big deal back in Ohio.
That’s not what he had in mind though. The buck made a hard left turn to the west and walked almost directly to my tree. He ended up passing me at 10 yards and I could not draw due to my Fourth Arrow camera arm (nothing against the arm, it was poor placement on my part). I could not believe it. How did I let this deer get by me? Could this be my only opportunity at a legal buck? I began questioning everything. Was it just a fluke that these deer came through the way they did? It had to be. There was no way I was going to get another shot at legal buck.
As the night faded into dark, a lone spike with 2-inch tines came through and presented many shot opportunities, but unfortunately, he was not a legal buck. I was able to watch the 8-point feed out in the ag field until dark and it was clear that he was not spooked at all. This did leave me with a little bit of hope that I might run into him again before the end of my trip.
So now I knew or at least hoped that deer were using this area to access the field. I executed my exit plan and the drainage and made it back to camp to share with everyone my failure.
This is what is great about camp with your buddies. While I looked at this scenario as a failure, they saw it as a very positive step towards harvesting a legal buck. After a good dinner a few more beers, I was ready for some rest and again motivated to get out there in the morning. This time I planned to go much earlier because as many of you know, Saturdays can be busy on public lands.
One of my biggest stresses in hunting public ground is the other pressure that comes with it. There are not many things worse in hunting public land than having a plan get destroyed by multiple trucks parked at your trailhead. Honestly, just thought of that makes me anxious and often gets me out of bed much earlier than normal.
DAY THREE and another morning sit came and went, no competition waited for me at the trailhead but also no deer showed themselves that morning. I was again wondering if I was in the right spot. I even had thoughts of pulling my stand and making that push into the bedding area earlier than I had planned. But my cooler head prevailed, and I decided I needed to stick with the plan. I have plenty of time and a good plan with a solid day to reset if needed on Sunday. Again, I made the trip back to camp for lunch, this time in no big hurry to get back to it was clearly an evening spot.
By 4 PM I was settled back in for the evening sit. It was warm. Unseasonably. This was not overly encouraging as previous days had been much cooler. Of course, many negative thoughts were going through my mind. The deer won’t want to move in this, also this is not the right spot, how come I am not seeing any deer movement at all in the mornings?
At about 5:30 PM I glassed three or four bald headed deer make their way into the ag field from private property to the north. While they were not on my side of the fence, it was still encouraging to see some deer up and moving even despite the weather. A closer look at where these deer went into the field revealed an actual food plot on the neighbors we should look like turnips.
Around 6 PM, I heard a deer coming in the dry leaves. After hours of squirrels and chipmunks rustling in the leaves the familiar cadence of deer footsteps was a very welcome sound. The little spike came through yet again well within bow range. I watched him work his way towards the food plot. He worked a licking branch on the edge of the timber, and then went to check those does in the field.
At this time it was becoming darker by the minute in the timber. I figured my hunt was pretty much over. All of the sounds in the woods had more or less ceased and I was close to packing it up. I decided to sit for a few minutes to rest my legs and my back, and let the woods around me turn completely black before I made my exit.
As soon as I sat down I heard again that distinct sound of approaching deer. Thank God I hadn’t taken my camera equipment down. Could this be my buck? If you’ve ever been hunting, you know that time of evening where you still have legal light but objects in the distance start to transform into the game that you’re after. In this case, I knew this was no illusion. I recognized the cadence in this trot. It was the trot of a buck bumping a doe, and he was coming quick.
I turned my camera on got directed in the direction of my shooting lanes, picked up by binoculars and glassed the approaching deer. I saw clearly enough that it was a legal 8-pointer and decided I was going to try to take him. I bleated with my mouth to stop him in the shooting lane at about 30 yards. My shot was slightly blocked by light branches. I could hear another deer in the thick cover to the east, moving quickly. Most of this buck’s attention was on that deer. He picked up a brisk walk, approaching my next shooting lane. This one I knew was clear. Again, I bleated to stop him. The second his feet came to a halt I was already at full draw, camera rolling, settled my pin and released my arrow. I watched the green lighted nock fly true, striking the deer and knocking him down on his chest. The deer plowed leaves for about 30 to 40 yards with the arrow still in him before the arrow came out as he approached the cover. I watched as the deer faded out of view into the darkness and then, silence.
I was beside myself. Did that really just happen? Did I really just make that shot? he seems like a good deer and it seems like a good shot, but there’s always that doubt. I called the guys let them know what happened and they rallied to come help. I called Corinne and told her the good news, or what I hoped was good news. They will all tell you; I was less than confident for some reason.
After slowly packing up all my gear I made my way to point of impact. A clear spray of crimson on the fresh fall leaves was very easy to follow. I followed it to my arrow and observed that I got way more penetration than I had even expected with blood all the way up to my fletching. From the spot of my arrow, I observed blood for another 10 or 12 yards with the naked eye, yet still I had doubts…
After calling my buddies again I let them know I’d be meeting them at the trailhead and we would pick up the track together. The rest is history. The deer was only another 30 yards from my arrow which had struck him in both lungs. He had died before I even put my bow down in the tree. I must give so much credit to this group of guys for making the hike way back in there with me and sharing this incredible moment.
After wrapping up the filming, photos, and cutting we begin fun drag back to the car. The two-wheel deer cart staged at the hiking trail made this a lot more manageable task. One mile is still one mile though and these guys really showed up for me.
To wrap up the story I wanted to talk about why this is so meaningful to me. In the past 10 years I’ve become obsessed with hunting public lands both in my home state of Ohio and abroad. I’ve learned a lot mostly by error. I’ve had many close calls, but have not connected on a public land buck, which made this so special to me. Going to deer camp and harvesting a good buck with my bow has always been a dream of mine and now I can say that I have accomplished that. I can honestly say that I would not change one thing about this experience other than the rest of the crew fill in their buck tags as well. I encourage anyone reading this to get out there and hunt with friends! There is nothing like it!
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