“Joey, average means you’re the best of the worst and the worst of the best,” my deceased and sorely missed father always told me. “That means, Son, that either way you’re associated with the worst.” For some 46 years, no less, that average designation or “tag” held true with regard to my overall luck as a hunter. Late in life, however, I came across a magical threesome of small mountains in Tioga County, my current home, where Lady Luck would smile generously on me, and I went from being an average hunter to an extraordinarily fortunate hunter.
Game populations in Pennsylvania seem for the most part to be ever increasing, and it’s my humble opinion that there’s more game now than ever before. Also, I’ve noticed in Tioga County that the bucks are sporting much bigger racks. Turkeys are literally everywhere, and one day early last fall I quit counting at 61 birds in three separate flocks on my magic mountains. I almost always carry an old Jim Smith box call with me, and just for the fun of hearing myself talk turkey I began a short series of clucks followed by a yelp or two. One huge gobbler, which later flushed, answered my yelp with a deep throaty gobble. Strange, I thought, for early autumn, and for not having broken up a flock. Later, a flock of mixed birds chattered relentlessly as I worked a kee-kee run call, followed by a few putts. I couldn’t believe these turkeys were talking so much that early in the fall.
So, the magic of these particular mountains unfolded in spectacular fashion once fall turkey season rolled around. I was able to take a nice bearded bird, and saw, without exaggeration, more than 150 birds in four flocks that autumn, and on three small mountains no less. And Mr. Mediocrity had the first of the “big three” early in the hunting season, which was a small miracle of sorts. A miracle because turkeys have that furtive, make-a-fool-of-hunters way about them that turns my knees to rubber and makes my heart beat like a tom-tom of an over-zealous Lakota Sioux.
That season, I purchased a bear license, and planned on going bear hunting for the first time since 1963. I killed one that year and vowed to never again drag one from the woods, even though I had a strong hunting buddy to help me that year. It weighed more than 400 pounds and was akin to dragging a giant balloon filled with water. We traveled less than a mile to my truck with that bear and it took us seven hours. The only way to prevent such torture again is to not shoot one. The way to avoid being tempted to shoot is to not hunt them. It was nice once, but fun after the kill? Absolutely not.
I had a treestand in an area where I knew a bear frequently traveled and scrounged for grubs in the rotten deadfalls. I decided to hunt from that, giving myself low odds of seeing a bear. That spring, my son Justin had filmed a giant of some 400 pounds running the field across the road, and I wondered if it was still around.
Just about 11 a.m. I plucked my .45-70 Marlin lever from its resting place next to me and decided to head for home for some grub. I was about to unload and tie the rifle to the lowering twine when I caught movement. It was a bear pawing, snorting and taking its good old time moving through. It had no idea some goofball in orange was in a tree not 40 yards away. I got ready for the magic moment that was certain to come. The memories of that 1963 bear filled my head with second thoughts, though. What to do?
The bear got within 25 yards or so of my stand, and I placed the front bead neatly into the rear buckhorn sight, right at the base of its think, ebony neck. The bear looked right up at me for whatever reason, but to this day, I don’t think it identified me as a human. Bears are quite nearsighted, and certainly it couldn’t have scented me.
Remembering I had several sugar cookies in a pocket, I set down the Marlin, reached into my pocket and removed one. All the while the bear pawed the forest duff 25 yards away. Waiting until it got even closer I yelled, “Hey big buddy, want a sugar cookie?” The bear jerked its head around then up to locate the noise coming from the dummy in the treestand. When it did I tossed a cookie and then lay back against the tree so it couldn’t see me. The bear sniffed the cookie curiously, snorted several times and then ate it. I tossed all four to Mr. Bruin, ultimately, and he devoured the other three without ever sniffing them. I let the bear walk off into the heavy brush. It wasn’t that I couldn’t kill the bear because of a softness I’m infamous for; it was the fact I just couldn’t see what it would prove by doing so. Nor did I relish the thought of what would be involved after the shot.
The magic of the mountains held true. I killed my fall gobbler and could have killed a rather large bear, but choosing the alternative made me feel pretty good. I would spend that night in peaceful slumber without aching muscles. So, I’m not as dumb as I look – not quite, anyway.
Buck season that fall (before the concurrent deer seasons) was nothing short of marvelous. Before daylight on opening day I got myself nestled in a small depression on one side of one of my miracle mountains. I waited in a place I call the point, because it’s a natural funnel – a spot where the deer always travel in order to use every inch of cover once the guns start booming. At 10:30 I spotted nine deer shuffling just behind me. There were two smaller bucks in the bunch, but none I wanted to shoot. By 11:30 I’d seen 26 deer, including six bucks. Mr. Mediocrity was, however, waiting for a big buck. I’d never killed a whitetail I’d really want to get mounted, although once I got a buck with a 16-inch spread with five points on one side and three on the other. As it turned out, though, I settled for an average buck later in the season, as Mr. Big never did materialize. Still, the magic of my little miracle mountains continued, as I now had two of the three game animals that made the “triple trophy” of Pennsylvania.
Antlerless season rolled around, but because of heart problems I felt I should call it a season. That was until I looked out at the tantalizing gray hardwoods with their remnant leaves of buttery gold clinging tenaciously to the dormant branches. I heard a single shot, followed by two more. That did it. Down to the basement I ran for my hunting garb, missing the last three steps and landing on a bag of kitty litter, where I paused to regain my consciousness. A bit dazed, I dressed in less than five minutes and was on the nearest of the magical mountains in 25, about 600 yards from my front door. I sat on a downed tree for about an hour before the noses and ears of six deer – a beautiful 6-point and five does – poked out of a wild grape and multiflora rose tangle. I dared not shoot a deer there, I though, after having thought about dragging it out, with my heart condition. I let them pass unscathed and they went along without ever seeing or scenting me.
After two more hours I decided to go to the house for a cup of tea. I’d seen about 18 deer from that deadfall stand, and actually just sat there to enjoy the scenery and the thrill of being close to deer and nature, knowing I wouldn’t kill one that far from the house. I just needed the solitude and peace.
After I left the woods I took a shortcut through a sloping field that makes up a portion of the mountain’s north side. I was carrying a rifle I’d had for decades – a Ruger .30-06. A rifle my son refers to as “One-Shot-Thirty-Aught.” Halfway through the field I jumped the six deer I had seen earlier. They bolted from the high goldenrod and milkweed and headed straight for my front yard. I had this crazy idea about hollering to my wife of 28 years, “Honey, open the doggone front door and let one of them in, I got ‘em comin’ to the house for Pete’s saked!” They paused in my front yard for a moment, and I couldn’t help but laugh, then they bolted down the hollow. I jogged along through the field, parallel to the hollow, and stopped as they turned, quartering away from me. It would be a simple drag to the barn from here, I thought, so I dropped to one knee, found the last doe in the scope, allowed for the distance, which I determined to be slightly more than 200 yards, and touched the trigger. The big doe dropped in mid stride, and as it turned out, the shot was more than 230 yards, my longest ever in Pennsylvania.
Field-dressing complete, I drove the deer over to my neighbor, Gene Bush, for help with the skinning. Gene and his sister had two deer hanging when I got there, so each of us had our sacred venison for the winter, and my magic mountains had once again produced. The predator inside my old body was more than satisfied.
As I summoned these memories during the winter, I thought that either the Game Commission is doing its job better than ever or God is working overtime on enhancing our game populations. As I dozed off, I felt confident it was a “well-concerted” effort. My heart was glad; secure with the fact that hunting will be around long after I’m gone. I was grateful for all that transpired over the seasons to retain a certain unique warmth throughout the cold, late winter months. Enough so that I feel sure I’ll buy my hunting license next year, Lord willing. Lying there looking out my bedroom window at a sky so clear I could see entire galaxies, I thought about Genesis, in the Bible. There’s something written there saying man shall have dominion over the animals. And long, long ago, a wise and wonderful grandfather taught me that translated, that verse means a stewardship over the animals – the wildlife of this country. That means we take special care to manage wildlife numbers. I know, for certain, I’ve done my small part in nearly half century of hunting. And, from the looks of things in the sylvan wildlife sanctuaries of Pennsylvania, I’ve had plenty of help from fellow hunters and the Game Commission. That stewardship then is working according to God’s plan – just like Grandpap prayed it would. When I do leave this fine earth I shall leave with a smile, knowing everything’s going to be okay. Even without old Mr. Mediocrity.