Thursday, August 31, 2006

Mike's Trophy Buck

(This is a tribute to my friend Mike Phillips of Mercer County, Pa., who is gravely ill. To see a picture of Mike's buck and more on our hunting adventures, log on to my online hunting magazine at

Mike Phillips arched his back, looked skyward and then down at his watch. It was a little after 1 p.m.

He had gotten into his treestand before first light on this morning, Dec. 2, the second day of Pennsylvania's 2003 rifle season and did the dance once more. The big buck he had been chasing since early archery season slipped out the opposite side of the field he was hunting without presenting Mike with a shot. Just as he had time after time. Now Mr. Big had a companion. One of the female persuasion. And he wasn't letting the doe out of his sight.

Mike knew it was the buck he had been pursuing because he had to tilt his antlers as he went through the branches one side at a time "like a hippie with long hair does when he's bending down."

It was then the discouraged hunter decided he had had enough and climbed down to take a break at his house in rural Mercer County so he could re-hydrate and urinate a half-dozen times -- something that's not as convenient to do 25-feet high in a treestand -- before going out again for the evening watch.

On his way back to his truck, he decided to make a detour over to where he had last seen the buck before he slipped out of view. Mike thought at the time it probably wasn't the best idea to be on this side of the field because he might just spook him into the next county. He also came to the conclusion that if he had it to do all over again he would just set up and still hunt along here somewhere.

During the short ride along the winding road that led around the field to his nearby ranch home, he began to map out strategies in his head of his afternoon setup. Should he go back to where he last saw him or try one of the stands closer to his property?

Mike peeled off his outer garments to air out on the porch. Even though there was 3 to 4 inches of snow on the ground, the 30-ish temperatures felt like a heat wave for it being early December.

While fixing lunch in the kitchen, he saw a white flash outside his north window and instinctively thought "deer." He scrambled through his glider in his long underwear, reached for his 30-.06 and went to the only opening he had on his porch. Earlier in the fall, he nailed particle board to the porch railing as a wind break, which put him on the left side of the board and opposite his right shooting eye.

As he peered through the gap, he couldn't believe the scene that was out in front of him. There was Mr. Big! Standing in the middle of the field 168 yards away with the doe he was following earlier.

"It was like God had finally awakened my good fortune after all these years," Mike said.

Crack! Then another shot. He went over to where he expected his trophy to be piled up on the other side of the rise in the snow.

But he wasn't there. Mike was a little stunned. He collected his thoughts for a moment and plotted out his next move. It was now 2:30 p.m. Back to house he went. He must get help with the tracking. This was just too nice of a deer to get away.

He went down a list of friends to call, and all but Harvey begged off. Mike was a little disgusted that he couldn't rally a better-sized crew but was happy enough to have Harvey.

Harvey brought his two dogs with him to help with the search. But it was clear once the team got into the thicket across the country road from the field where the buck headed that the dogs were more of a hindrance than a help. The dogs became confused at all the tracks that went every which way along the narrow funnels and were more likely to jolt the antlered one into making a run for it.

Harvey told Mike to go on ahead and that he was going to put the dogs away and come back. Mike then meticulously crept along trying to stay on each speck of blood in the heavy cover. Once, he found a good bit of blood where the buck hunkered down for a spell.

After what seemed like countless hours but was really four, Mike came to a slight crest in the back of the underbrush and looked up only to see his buck peering down at him. He had been secretly watching the commotion of the hunters and dogs from his vantage point the whole time.

Once the staring match ended, the deer sprang to his feet for a last-ditch getaway, but Mike finished him with a clean neck shot.

And with it, Mike had finally sealed his 10-year quest to take a trophy buck, an 8-point with a 20-inch spread.