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South Williamsport, PA
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The Roving Sportsman… Lesson Learned

I begin with a confession. Yes, I did recently pen an article in which I discussed choices of rifles and calibers when it comes to deer hunting. And, yes, I sang the praises of a .260 caliber rifle and the 120-grain ballistic tip bullet it uses. The truth remains that I have, over the years,

I begin with a confession. Yes, I did recently pen an article in which I discussed choices of rifles and calibers when it comes to deer hunting. And, yes, I sang the praises of a .260 caliber rifle and the 120-grain ballistic tip bullet it uses. The truth remains that I have, over the years, successfully taken a number of bucks and does using this combination. But, that was about to change.

The episode begins as I lay out my equipment for a day’s hunt at the end of the first week of Pennsylvania’s antlered deer season this year. It is Thursday evening as I pack a lunch and a few snacks in preparation for an all-day hunt. I select my layers of hunting clothing for tomorrow and inspect my trusty .260 and seven of the 120-grain ballistic tip bullets to go with it. Satisfied that I am prepared for the hunt, I turn in for some shuteye before the early departure the next morning.

Friday’s below freezing temperatures found me easing my way in the pre-dawn darkness to a place I had not yet hunted this season. I was headed to a remote location on State Game Lands, where I had done a good deal of pre-season scouting. Since the deer had become somewhat nocturnal in their eating once the regular firearms season had gotten underway, I wanted to spend the day deep in the forest. My destination was a ridge-top that was predominantly oak trees with numerous areas of heavy mountain laurel. The mountain laurel had shown to be prime bedding areas overlooking the hillside below, and the various species of oaks had been dropping a heavy crop of acorns, many of which still remained on the ground.
Light was beginning to brighten the edge of the eastern skyline as I arrived on the top of the ridge and quickly went to the base of a fallen oak tree where I had planned to spend the day. The spot provided me a good vantage point overlooking a draw that ran from my left to right and several areas of thick laurel that the deer would likely use for bedding. As I scanned the ground, I could see that quite a few acorns from the nearby red oaks were still available for the squirrels and deer.

It was almost 7:30 when the first deer appeared, as a doe and her two yearlings eased out of a patch of laurel 120 yards to my right. They were relaxed as they gobbled up acorns and slowly walked my way. Over the next half-hour, they were joined by a spike buck, then a 4-pointer and then another doe with two yearlings. As I watched them intently, the last two looked back toward the laurel, “a good sign,” I thought, hoping more deer would step out.

Moments later, I caught the flash of antler inside the patch of laurel. The buck was very cautious and appeared to be reluctant to leave the cover and join the other deer. His movements were slow and deliberate, and at one point, as he eased through a small opening, he revealed himself to be a nice 8-pointer. Seconds later, a second buck appeared — he had a much heavier and wider rack, and as he slowly passed through the same opening, I could identify him as a really nice 11-pointer! The two stayed close together, protecting each other as they picked up the occasional acorn — still reluctant to leave the safety of their cover.

It was 8:15 when the two turned and began slowly, but deliberately, walking back deeper into the laurel. As they passed through an opening, the second buck, the 11-pointer- made the mistake of stopping, providing what I thought was a clear broadside shot. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and then centered the crosshairs of the scope just behind his shoulder and gently squeezed the trigger.

All of the deer scattered, and the two bucks disappeared through the thick cover. My hands began to shake a bit as I realized this was perhaps the nicest buck I had ever seen in our Pennsylvania woods! When I reached the 140-yard distance to where he had stood, my heart began to sink. I found no sign that my bullet had hit its mark! I followed the two bucks behind the path of their upturned leaves, but still found no sign of a hit.

Over the next several hours, I walked the nearby woods looking for any sign but found none. I remained in the area for the rest of the day, hoping to hear crows or ravens or even coyotes signaling that they had found the buck. I headed home after dark, resigned to the reality that somehow, somewhere, a tree branch or an unseen branch of the laurel had deflected my bullet.

I had learned the hard way that the high-velocity of the 120-grain bullet could all-too-easily be deflected by an undetected branch — and it cost me the chance at the buck-of-a-lifetime. I might use the .260 in an open field setting but will never again trust it in a woods setting. Next time, I’ll carry my .300 Weatherby Magnum and use a 180-grain bullet! I wondered if I would ever see that buck again — probably not.

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