Adventures of a Deer Bum

A lone trek to a trophy Buck factory reveals amazing local grace, shot-up Phone books, and a hardscrabble land where wall-hangers skulk and prowl.

Photographs by Michael Cogliantry

At the moment I am parked outside a strip-mall laundromat at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night in Jackson, Ohio, a working-class town of 10,000. Most of the locals are in bed by this hour. Not me. Four days into my hunt, I'm as hyper as Paris Hilton on an unescorted visit to a boys' prep school. By the green glow of my Streamlight headlamp, I am shuffling through six adjoining topo quads spread out over the dashboard, scarfing down an 18-hour-old sausage biscuit and a 20-ounce Pabst (discovered while Dumpster diving in my own backseat), and madly scanning the radio for a weather fix.

Inside the establishment, my Scent-Lok is tumbling around in a dryer hot enough to cook pizza, and my other hunting duds are swishing through a final rinse of Sport-Wash. By forgoing a real dinner, I can do a total scent overhaul and still make it back to my motel for five hours of rack time. At 4:30 a.m., my nervous system will go off automatically, sending me afield again for a chance at an Ohio bighead.

Meanwhile, I'm poring over the dog-eared topos, pressing them for the secrets only they can impart. After hours of agony, I have whittled the Miss Stand Site contestants down to two finalists for tomorrow morning: a shapely little ridge finger near Blue Hollow on the Pedro Quad and a perky bench along the stream in Pokepatch Hollow on the Gallia Quad. My whole world depends on the wind, and I'm endlessly scanning the radio for a weather report. But the night airwaves here have been seized by Bible study insurgents.

I note a faint odor of decay in the car and wonder if an unfinished sandwich from the recent past is out for revenge. A Jackson Township police cruiser rolls past, slowing to eyeball me. As always, any distraction from my quest fills me with indignation. Yes, I am sitting in a parked car at night wearing long underwear with a green light on my forehead. You got a problem with that? Evidently I look too whacked to be a real criminal, and the cruiser rolls on.

Searching for the source of the stench, I am drawn to my feet. I take off my shoes and socks and resist the impulse to scream aloud. I have a case of athlete's foot that would look at home in a leper colony. But there's no time to deal with that now. My immediate task is to figure out where I can put an arrow into a giant whitetail tomorrow in the Wayne National Forest.

Big Deer...
I discovered the Wayne last year, when I was looking for a place to bowhunt trophy bucks without having to pay a guide, an outfitter, or a lease fee. A review process including examination of QDMA maps of record-book deer and deer densities, state website inventories of public lands and hunting pressure, and the brain of every hunting buddy I could find soon had me leaning here: huge acreage, low pressure, and challenging terrain.

There be monsters here. Ohio is archery-only for most of November, so mature bucks enjoy high survival rates. On opening day of the 2005 season, Mike Rex killed a deer in nearby Athens County with antlers so big that he thought at first that he was looking at two bucks standing right behind each other (see box at right). For the number Nazis: Think 6x5 main frame and 13-inch brow tines.

...Big Land
A convergence of conditions natural and man-made make this part of southeastern Ohio a heaven for bowhunters with big dreams and little wallets. Most of the wooded country in Ohio is leased up by guys with more money than you, especially in the northwestern Corn Belt. The standout exception is the southeastern quadrant, Ohio's hardscrabble Appalachian counties.

The glaciers that smoothed the rough edges of the land and dropped their load of rich topsoil during the last ice age never made it here. Geologically, it's part of the Unglaciated Allegheny Plateau, an elevated arc of shale, sandstone, and thin soils extending around southeastern Ohio into stern Pennsylvania and the West Virginia panhandle. If you were a pioneer looking for prime farmland, you would probably have sifted the dirt through your fingers, said, "I didn't come all this way for this," and kept going. Deer, however, have always liked the rugged forests-oak, ash, hickory, and beech-just fine. The double bonus is that the three Wayne National Forest districts contain more than 237,000 acres of land-a lifetime's worth of country where a guy with a little grit can hunt until he either succeeds, has to go back to work and family, or loses his mind.

A bunch of guys from states near and far are already making the annual pilgrimage to this part of the Buckeye State. In the motel, I ran into Ricky Quaue, who comes up from Mississippi with friends to hunt. "I can drive up, go on a weeklong hunt, and have a chance of getting a monster for $500," he said. "Best so far this year is a 15-inch spread, but a boy from Hattiesburg killed a whopper." James Smith, from Tennessee, has been coming for years with five first cousins. "Big deer, nice folks, what's not to like?"

The hitch is that it's big-woods hunting. You know those neat little diagrams of imaginary hunting grounds in magazines (this one included) that show ambush points along fencelines, brush funnels, and power-line crossings? Forget 'em. This is subtler terrain. You will have to take your game to the next level to play here. The deer are more difficult, too, harder to pattern, seminomadic, and extremely wary. Spook one and he'll be gone for good before you ever lay eyes on him. And this year features a special wrinkle: a bumper crop of mast exceeding any in local memory, acorns and nuts two layers thick even in town parking lots. A deer can feed all day and scarcely have to turn its head. No matter. I am possessed of an attribute that surpasses all others: deranged perseverance.

First Day, First Bucks
By 5:22 the first morning, my car is parked at a trailhead, and I am climbing through the darkness along Blue Hollow to a ridgeline at 900 feet that broadens into a mini-plateau, ridge fingers running northwest to southeast. Acorns and nuts crunch under my boots at every step. I have picked my stand site too well and can hear deer running as I near the faint saddle in the ridge. I'm pleased at having my topo instincts verified and kicking myself for not trusting them enough to have set up farther off. The invisible bolting deer don't snort-a good sign-then bail off the ridge and out of earshot almost immediately. It's so steep that it's hard to say if they went 100 yards and stopped or are headed for the next county.

A climbable tree is silhouetted against the false dawn 50 yards downwind. I stalk it at glacial speed, set out some estrous scent, and settle in 25 feet up. As morning replants the last of the darkness into the ground, faint trails appear crisscrossing the leaves. All bear evidence of recent use, but none is a main route. Maybe there is no main route.

Just past 8 a.m., a 6-pointer with no brow tines pops over the notch from the opposite side, walking fast and purposefully. He passes 50 yards off, ignoring my scent wicks, grunt tube, even the bleat can. I wait five minutes and rattle lightly for 30 seconds-just casual sparring. Twenty minutes later the buck climbs back up, accompanied by a smaller 6, this one limping slightly. The two of them work the wicks' scent stream and pass 30 yards below my stand. I draw, but only for practice, and am pleased that they don't pick up the movement. They seem less pressured than deer around home. But I didn't come all this way for a 11⁄2-year-old 6.

At noon, having seen only a couple of does feeding slowly along the hillside 70 yards below me, I descend and hike farther up the path, both to scout and to stop by the office of Dean State Forest (a pocket park surrounded by Wayne N.F. lands), seeking local intelligence. Here I run into Tim Boggs and two other equipment operators for the state Forestry Division. Boggs says he saw my car parked this morning, and I tell him about the 6-pointers.

"There are some pigs here all right. But they're tough deer. I rifle hunted three days a week in season for six years before I took my first buck as a kid." He and the other workers were all born within 400 yards of one another, not far from here. I'm expecting resentment at an out-of-stater horning in on hallowed local ground, but soon he's drawing on my topos, showing me the places he mowed recently, which often attract deer. Then he taps a spot where a creek he would prefer I not name runs through a deep hollow.

"They pull a couple of 150-class bucks out of there most years," he says. He writes down the name of a cousin who works just up the road for Wayne N.F. (who took a nice 10-pointer a few weeks earlier on public land). He even gives me the name of a retired farmer with land adjoining the secret creek and recommends I ask nicely for permission to hunt there, or at least to access the creek across his land. As if this isn't enough, he gives me a lift back to my car. I'm from the East, and anytime a stranger is this accommodating, I'm expecting to be assaulted, robbed, or carjacked. But he shakes my hand, wishes me well, and drives off. I stand there, wondering what the hell is wrong with the guy.

The cascade of inexplicable goodwill continues. Twenty minutes later, at the Wayne N.F. headquarters, Boggs' cousin shows me a picture of his buck, points out a few productive spots he has hunted over the years, and marks individual pear and persimmon trees on my maps that are worth scouting. An hour later, I'm buying meatball subs for the retired farmer, Coleman, and his friend, Pete, at a cafe in Oak Hill. Again, these are seriously ill men: friendly, content with their lives, and thoroughly decent.

Both are in their 80s and eat lunch together more days than not. When Pete excuses himself for a moment, Coleman confides, "Pete's wife died a couple years ago, and if I don't get him outta the house, he just sits there. I tell him, "Pete, you're getting grouchy.'" When Coleman makes a trip to the men's room, it's Pete's turn. "Coleman's more like my brother than anything else. He's 87, but he won't tell you that. I worry about him. His brother died last year, and now his nephew owns half the farm." I ask what the nephew is like. "He's a butthead," says Pete.

Coleman returns. Soon they're finishing each other's sentences while telling me the one from 40 years ago when they were bringing a 60-inch moose home from Canada strapped onto the body of a '51 Cadillac. "Broke down with a vapor lock right in downtown Columbus," Coleman says. "Remember that, Pete? Jeez, we drew a crowd that day."

Coleman, naturally, gives permissintelligence. Here I run into Tim Boggs and two other equipment operators for the state Forestry Division. Boggs says he saw my car parked this morning, and I tell him about the 6-pointers.

"There are some pigs here all right. But they're tough deer. I rifle hunted three days a week in season for six years before I took my first buck as a kid." He and the other workers were all born within 400 yards of one another, not far from here. I'm expecting resentment at an out-of-stater horning in on hallowed local ground, but soon he's drawing on my topos, showing me the places he mowed recently, which often attract deer. Then he taps a spot where a creek he would prefer I not name runs through a deep hollow.

"They pull a couple of 150-class bucks out of there most years," he says. He writes down the name of a cousin who works just up the road for Wayne N.F. (who took a nice 10-pointer a few weeks earlier on public land). He even gives me the name of a retired farmer with land adjoining the secret creek and recommends I ask nicely for permission to hunt there, or at least to access the creek across his land. As if this isn't enough, he gives me a lift back to my car. I'm from the East, and anytime a stranger is this accommodating, I'm expecting to be assaulted, robbed, or carjacked. But he shakes my hand, wishes me well, and drives off. I stand there, wondering what the hell is wrong with the guy.

The cascade of inexplicable goodwill continues. Twenty minutes later, at the Wayne N.F. headquarters, Boggs' cousin shows me a picture of his buck, points out a few productive spots he has hunted over the years, and marks individual pear and persimmon trees on my maps that are worth scouting. An hour later, I'm buying meatball subs for the retired farmer, Coleman, and his friend, Pete, at a cafe in Oak Hill. Again, these are seriously ill men: friendly, content with their lives, and thoroughly decent.

Both are in their 80s and eat lunch together more days than not. When Pete excuses himself for a moment, Coleman confides, "Pete's wife died a couple years ago, and if I don't get him outta the house, he just sits there. I tell him, "Pete, you're getting grouchy.'" When Coleman makes a trip to the men's room, it's Pete's turn. "Coleman's more like my brother than anything else. He's 87, but he won't tell you that. I worry about him. His brother died last year, and now his nephew owns half the farm." I ask what the nephew is like. "He's a butthead," says Pete.

Coleman returns. Soon they're finishing each other's sentences while telling me the one from 40 years ago when they were bringing a 60-inch moose home from Canada strapped onto the body of a '51 Cadillac. "Broke down with a vapor lock right in downtown Columbus," Coleman says. "Remember that, Pete? Jeez, we drew a crowd that day."

Coleman, naturally, gives permission.