Straight Talk From the Deer Guides: A Pennsylvania Pro Talks Big-Woods Bucks, Bad Gear, and Blown Chances
Steve Sherk reveals how he gets the drop on tough public-land big-woods bucks—and shares a few opinions, pet peeves, and words of wisdom
Steve Sherk offers one of the most unique guided deer hunts in the country. The Pennsylvania guide hunts the Keystone State’s Allegheny Mountains, and virtually all of his hunts are on public land. Sure, you can enjoy the same hunt on your own, without paying Sherk a dollar. But there’s no way you’re going to know the terrain, the deer habitat, or individual bucks like Sherk does. “I was born here and have been hunting these mountains since I was a boy,” he says. “I kind of fell into guiding by accident. I was writing some outdoor articles for a local newspaper about hunting deer, grouse, and turkeys here, and people started contacting me and asking if I’d take them. When I realized there was an interest, I kind of dipped my toe in, and when it started to build, I threw myself into it. These days I spend at least 300 days a year in the mountains—scouting, shed hunting, running trail cameras, and picking out stand sites. I rarely hunt any more, because it gives me the most pleasure to get my clients on the bucks I’ve been following throughout the year.”
While he recognizes that PA is not among the top destinations for whitetail nuts seeking a guided hunt, Sherk argues that the experience of chasing a mature, big-woods buck is a particular thrill. “We’ve got some really big deer now, and they lead tough lives,” he says. “You kill one of these mountain bucks, and you’ve got a true trophy.” Here’s what Sherk had to say on a variety of deer hunting topics.
Best Advice On Booking a Guided Hunt
“I think it’s important to match what you’re after to what the guide is best at offering. If you need to see a bunch of deer every sit and take your pick of bucks 2½ years old or older, I am probably not the right guy for you. Go to the Midwest if that’s the hunt you’re going to enjoy, because I don’t have that. Actually, while I haven’t given up completely, I don’t market very hard to hunters in the Midwest or South, simply because those guys are used to seeing lots of deer. Look, if conditions are good you might see 3 to 5 bucks in a single sit here, and one might be 150 inches—that’s about as good as you can do anywhere. But it doesn’t happen often, and you might have to endure a couple hunts where you don’t see much.
If that’s not your cup of tea, no problem. On the other hand, if you’re pumped about the challenge of taking great big-woods buck, I’ll probably be a good fit. And that’s the key—a good fit. Talk to any potential guide and make sure what they offer is is the sort of experience you’re after.
On What It Takes to Kill a Big-Woods Buck
Covering miles and miles and spending hours and hours scouting is the biggest key to killing a giant buck in the Alleghenies. But I have that part taken care of for you when you arrive. So to me the best hunters are the ones who are ready for the physical and mental challenge of hunting the big woods.
You don’t have to be some endurance athlete, but you should be ready to walk. ATV’s are not allowed in much of the area I hunt, so I won’t be driving you to a stand or blind. Most of the time, I’m going to give you the coordinates to a spot I’ve scouted, but you walk in there and hunt it. I may walk you into a spot and get you set up and then leave, but the key is, we’re walking, and sometimes it’s going to be a half-mile hike up a mountain. And of course you need to be able to grind out as many hours in a stand as possible.
But this type of hunting can be challenging mentally too. There may be long hours, or a day or two, between deer. Some guys get discouraged by that in a hurry. The ones who succeed are the ones who view every hour they go without seeing a deer as being one step closer to the moment when that big one appears. You just have to have a different mindset.
What Most Hunters Don’t Get About Big Bucks
I think weather, especially temperature, is the biggest factor influencing buck behavior, even during the rut. Most guys seem to think Hey, the rut is on, they’re going to move no matter what, but I disagree. Sure, if you’re in an area with a ton of deer, a big buck might smell a doe in heat and make the short move it takes to reach her. But here warm temps just crush daytime activity; a buck may have to travel miles, much of it over rugged country, to even get a whiff of an estrous doe, and if it’s warm he’s just not going to do it. He’s going to lay up and wait for that first cold front, and then watch out. Those are the days when every buck in the woods is out cruising hard. If you’re not paying attention to temps and weather fronts, you’re going to drastically reduce your hunting success.”
Also, I think most hunters don’t really appreciate the huge effect that low deer densities have on buck behavior in the big woods. Even if the buck sign is great in a given area, the buck that made it may only swing through there once every few days, and the only way to kill him is to grind it out and be there waiting for him. I had a guy a couple years back that I’d put in a great stand for two days. He’d seen almost nothing and was ready to hang it up and go home. I don’t typically beg or plead, but I said to this guy, “You have nothing to lose at this point. There’s a great buck in there, but it usually takes him three days to make a circuit of his home range. Trust me and go back to that same stand for one more day.” He finally agreed, and with 30 minutes left of legal time on that last day of his hunt, that buck came through, and he made a great shot and put his tag on a monster Allegheny buck.”
Biggest Deer Hunting Pet Peeves
I don’t have many, but it bugs me when hunters come unprepared in terms of gear. I told one guy he’d need a pair of rubber boots because one of the stands I was taking him to would require crossing a creek. Well, we’re walking in and get to the creek, and he tells me he can only cross where the water is 4 inches deep or less because his boots leaked at any depth greater than that. It cost us time finding a place where he could cross. I mean, if someone tells you to bring rubber boots, do they really need to specify that they don’t leak?
Hunting here requires being able to adapt to a lot of conditions and, since most of my clients drive to me, there’s really no excuse for not having the right gear and clothing. Everyone laughs at the guy who has eight suitcases crammed in the back of his truck, but guess what? That’s the guy who probably has everything he needs.”
Another example is when folks don’t come prepared for cold weather. This is when our deer move, and I tell everyone that. I had a group in here during November, and after some mild temps, the next morning was going to be 25 degrees. One guy said, “That’s too cold for me. I’m not sure I’ll go out.” I couldn’t believe it. For one thing, 25 is just not that cold, and for two, what is he expecting? This is Pennsylvania in November. So I’m all excited because we’re finally getting the temps we need for my hunters to score, and I’ve got a guy who doesn’t want to go out.
My last little pet peeve is when hunters come but don’t really want to hunt. No one enjoys deer camp more than I do, but that’s after the sun goes down. I’ve had a couple guys who really want to do nothing more than hang around camp—all day. I mean, if that’s how you want to spend your day, fine with me. But I kinda shake my head and think What are you paying me for?
Worst Case of Buck Fever
I don’t sit with my hunters much, but I was on this one bowhunt. It was a perfect morning and this gorgeous, 130-inch 10-point came walking into our setup. Well, I watched the hunter draw and point in the general direction of an opening 10 feet left of where the deer was standing. I was thinking He has just picked a spot and is waiting for the buck to walk into it, but before I knew it the arrow was on its way and dead-centered a tree in that opening, almost 5 yards from where the buck was standing
I don’t know, I suppose some guides would have been mad, as it takes a lot of work to make an encounter like that happen, but I just laughed. And I guess if I hadn’t seen the whole thing, he could have come to camp and either not told anyone or made the miss sound less dramatic than it was.
But there I was, and he turned to me and said “I just got so excited I completely lost it!” And he was right; he had the fever so bad he he not only couldn’t pick a spot on the vitals, he couldn’t even move the sight pin onto the deer’s body! I just chuckled because, hey, that’s what big deer can do to us. That kind of excitement is the exact reason we deer hunt—although hopefully we can learn to control it and channel it a bit better.”
Worst Excuse For a Miss
I had a rifle hunter whiff on a really big buck that was well within range a while back. After he told us the story, I said, “Well let’s get your gun on the bench and shoot it a couple times—see if the scope got bumped or something happened.” So we got the rifle on the bench, and he fired a couple shots, and it was absolutely dead on. I looked at the guy and chuckled. and said “Well I guess it wasn’t the gun’s fault.” And he just shook his head and said, “No, you don’t get it. I set up my rifle so it’s zeroed in for off-hand. When you shoot it off a bench and it’s on, that really just proves that something is really wrong!”
I started to ask him how you zero a gun to be on off-hand, but then I just let it go. I mean how do you even make sense of that. Plus, if you can’t accept that you just air-balled one, I guess nothing I can say is going to make a difference.”
On Gar-Holing Clients
I have only gar-holed (intentionally putting a hunter in a bad spot) one guy, but I don’t feel bad about it one bit. This client came in with a great group of guys on a bowhunt. We were in camp at the end of a long day, and hours later, after dinner and a few beers, this guy finally admits that he’d hit a buck and admits to thinking, Why did I even shoot that deer, it wasn’t that big. So, obviously, I perked right up and started asking him about the hunt and I asked if he’d even looked for blood. He said no he had not. Then he switched his story and thought he probably missed. Well, he’d described which trail the buck was on and that was 10 yards from the stand and he was shooting a Ravin crossbow, so I didn’t believe for a second he’d missed.
So by now hours and hours had passed and, to make matters worse, it had started raining pretty hard. I told the hunter I was going to look for that buck in the morning, and if I found it he was going to tag it. He reluctantly but finally agreed. I went out in the morning and, of course, I never found the deer. I know in my gut he at least hit it, and just didn’t want to put his tag on it.
It was a pretty tough spot for me. If he’d been alone, I’d have just asked him to leave camp. But he’d come with this nice group of guys, and they’d arrived in only a couple vehicles, so kicking him out was asking other guys to go too. Anyway, I ended up just putting him in stands where he wasn’t going to see many deer, and almost certainly not a nice buck. I let him stay for the duration, but I wasn’t going to let him do any more damage than he’d already done.
Describe Your Perfect Client
The ideal clients are the ones that come with a history of hunting the big woods. These people tend to be hard-hunting, tough-minded individuals. Grinders, if you narrow it down to one word. I also love clients who share my same passion for hunting whitetails. Someone who truly lives for it. Between guiding and hunting in general, I’ve learned that when it comes to hunting mature bucks, 95 percent of it is a mental game. The right amount of passion and a strong mindset is the recipe to success when it comes to successful big-woods whitetail hunting.