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The Story of "Crunch"

Updated: Jun 18, 2022

Part I: Purple Heart

In 2019, I decided to hunt the big woods of Maine for the first time ever. Through hard work, sacrifice, and support of my family, I finally had the opportunity invest more time into my passion, hunting big bucks on public land. But, how does a hunter, never having hunted in Maine, even begin? You keep it simple. If you have a good understanding of deer behavior and can understand terrain features on a map, you utilize both and began plotting areas on a map (digital or physical). So that’s what I did. I searched for terrain features on large public land areas that had a potential for not only being deer habitat, but more specifically, big buck habitat.

On a beautiful snow-covered November day, I drove to Maine and began scouting these spots I had targeted. By two o’clock in the afternoon, I had checked out two of the three locations on the checklist. Though these areas held deer (even signs of a couple nice bucks), I decided that due to the terrain and age of the tracks, I would focus on scouting and cataloging as much information I could about that general area for future hunts. So, I finished the day by doing a recon on the third and final location.

Upon arrival to the third location, I began getting my gear together and while doing so, I recalled looking around and thinking with cautious excitement, “This has got to hold big bucks”. In addition to 3-4 inches of snow, the area had everything I look for without even seeing a track. It comprised of a good size bog, plenty of softwood, and two large high ground areas comprised of both beech and oak. Oak trees were a bonus that day for me as it seems I’m always in just beech and softwood. Truth be known, my favorite terrain feature to hunt though are the fringes of swamps/bogs. In fact, I won’t touch a spot without some sort of swamp or bog. In addition, this area also had no logging roads, so that meant I didn’t have to worry about road hunters. If you wanted to hunt it right, you better be willing to stretch your legs a bit and put in work. After getting my gear together, I loaded my 7600 Carbine (.30-06) and began to lay down tracks towards a spruce knob. The plan was to make large loops towards the top, work the fringes of the softwood/hardwood, and end the day down by the bog if I had enough daylight. The goal for that day was simple…find out whether or not bucks were frequenting the area. If not, move on.

After a couple hours of laying down tracks and reaching the top, the only tracks in the snow were my own. It was now 2:30 in the afternoon, so I began moving out towards the direction of my pickup. As I began making my way down the mountain, I finally cut a buck and doe track crosscutting the wind. The track was nothing to write home about, but it was a buck track, it was fresh, he was preoccupied with a doe, and they were heading towards my truck. I remember thinking, “well, it might bring me into some other deer and it’s the only game in town”. Given the size of the buck track not being huge and the day coming to an end, I decided to put some pressure on this buck and began moving out on him at a brisk pace.

As I got to the bottom, I noticed that I was getting close to these deer. Their tracks were getting hot. I could see they stopped just before crossing the brook, meandered around looking for a crossing, crossed the brook, and took a couple bounds. After about 25 yards, they slowed to a moderate gait and then began walking again in what appeared to be a direct azimuth (straight line). Shortly after, they finally brought me into other deer, to include a fresh big buck track heading towards the bog…perfect!

It was now late in the day (about 3:30pm) and I was about 3 miles from my truck. I decided I would leave the smaller track and follow the big buck to investigate further. I continued on his track to the top of the next finger (spur) in hopes he would bring me into a scrape line or some signpost rubs. I figured I stay on this guy until it was time to head back to the truck. I grabbed my grunt tube and started putting out some grunts while in hot pursuit of this big buck. In addition to light grunts, I recalled a strategy from the “The Deer Tracker”, the late R.G. Bernier that he used when hunting bare ground. When you walk, don’t walk like a human, walk like a deer (in odd steps). In other words, break up the rhythm of your steps. The buck brought me through some absolutely beautiful areas and I remembered saying to myself, “Maybe not today you son of b*tch, but I’ll run into ya later”.

After a few more grunts, I reached the top of the finger. I then concealed myself the best I could in the shadowy fringe of some softwood before I checked my GPS. I needed to see what I had for distance back to the truck as I was losing daylight. I don’t keep a sling on my rifle while hunting, so I leaned my 7600 against the trunk of an 8-10” hemlock, grabbed my GPS out of the right front pocket of my wool coat, and powered it on. As I began to scroll the screen for the location of my truck with my right hand, I suddenly caught movement about 75 yards off to my left! All I remember seeing was a huge body with a good set of horns moving out at descent pace (not jumping though). The grunts had to have pissed this big boy off. At that moment, I had to make a split second choice as I had only a short window of opportunity: (A) make a discrete attempt to lower my GPS unit and slowly grab my carbine while simultaneously trying to conceal my movement behind this hemlock or (B) drop that GPS like it was a hot pan, grab that carbine, and start going to work on that buck. I chose to start putting lead down range at this fleeing buck with a violent sense of urgency!

As I dropped my GPS, that big buck threw the brakes on as if he was about to get into a rear-end collision, performed a 180-degree turn in the blink of an eye, and began layin’ straight out for the edge of the finger to escape into the softwood below. While throwing everything I had at him, I remember seeing one round hit the ground as snow and dirt flew up from behind his rear feet. And then…after what seemed like a flash…he vanished. Once the dust settled, I remember shaking my head and muttering, “Son of b%tch!”, as I knew there was no way in hell I hit him. Believe it or not, I was more irritated with the GPS situation. Given my profession, my training, and experience with guns, I should have known to never keep my gun hand preoccupied with anything but a gun, especially when on a track. Lesson learned.

While reloading my magazine (and gaining my composure), I decided to give my father (WMBT Bill Willey) a call. I knew what he was going to ask and I didn’t like the answer I was going to give him. "Did ya hit’em?” (Him) “I don’t think so…probably not” (Me).

After speaking with him, I finally walked up towards where I shot and saw his jump tracks. It looked like that big buck escaped unscathed as I couldn’t find blood or hair. After following his tracks for about 25 more yards, I saw a drop of blood. I remember thinking to myself, “No friggin’ way”.

I followed the track further and saw a couple more drops of blood every 50 yards, but nothing significant at all. My gut instinct was saying, “you blew this one, he’s gone”. After tracking him for about 300 yards, the drops of blood vanished. He got mixed up in some other deer and went about his business while never once laying down. In fact, just to let me know just how tough he was and how piss poor my shooting was that day…he began feeding. I couldn’t believe it! This guy is having a snack after receiving a Purple Heart in a recent shootout! I returned to the same hemlock from where I shot, picked up the brass casings, and put them on each dead limb. I logged it on my GPS as a waypoint named “Purple Heart”.

Though I was absolutely frustrated, I recall leaning against a big hemlock with hat in hand (left hand this time) and thinking, “Bad news…that was a corka buck that I didn’t hit well. Good news…that was a corka buck that I didn’t hit well at all”. Though I was confident this buck would live to see another day, it didn’t soften the blow that had been delivered to me just one hour prior. Now, I had to make the walk of shame back to the truck and return another day.

Part II: Reunion in the Oaks

Days later, I returned to the scene of the crime in attempt to connect with that wounded buck. Near the top of the mountain, I found his track. His left side track was lightly blood stained and was only visible about once every 100 yds. His stride was normal and he was going about his day “business as usual”. Snow started melting quickly and there was no snow in the forecast for at least a week. I was forced to still hunt for the remainder of the Maine rifle season. Though I located some impressive signpost rubs, got into some smaller bucks, and expanded my knowledge of the area, I had no luck. Maine rifle season had come and gone.

Maine muzzleloader season brought some good snow, but it quickly turned to ice covered snow conditions after periods of rain and below freezing temperatures hit the northeast. It was frustrating to say the least as the conditions weren’t conducive to tracking, still hunting, or sitting. Walking was incredibly loud and it was way too cold for me to sit. Plus…I just despise sitting. Then, on the late afternoon of December 12th, just a couple days before the end of Maine smokepole season, I located a new spot on the other side of the bog where several deer were congregating and feeding on acorns. I knew that if I was going to run into deer with only days left, this area was probably my best chance.

The next morning, December 13th, I returned to that same area where I located all the new deer sign the previous day. It was absolutely freezing cold. I seldomly wear my old blaze orange wool knit cap (of which I acquired from Dad), but I was absolutely wearing it that morning. In Ranger School, the Ranger Instructors (RIs) referred to cold weather gear as “Snivel Gear”, and Snivel Gear had different levels depending on how much was worn. I was definitely wearing at least a Snivel Gear Level III that day as the hairs in my nostrils were frozen and my eyes were watering after being only out of my truck for 10 minutes. The snow was that aggravating icy/snow condition where you would step on top and just barely break through the crust. To be honest, my goal was to just get to that feeding area and sit tight on the fringe of the softwood/hardwood as long as I could bare the cold. After crunching through the snow to where I could look out into the open hardwood from the softwood edge, I leaned against a big beech tree and concealed myself behind some winter beech. There, I began throwing out some grunts. The one good weather factor I had in my favor was the lack of wind, so my grunts were not muffled. I prefer windy conditions while tracking to conceal my movements, but not if I’m forced to sit for any duration of time. After about five to ten minutes, I suddenly heard “Crunch, Crunch, Crunch”.

After looking around, I recalled thinking, “Out here freezin’ my tits off only to have another hunter crunch up on me…great!”. Then, the crunching steps continued, became louder, and sounded unlike the steps of a human. Whatever was walking, it now had my undivided attention. Suddenly, I saw a deer out in the distant open hardwood. I couldn’t believe how loud the steps were in comparison to how far away it was walking. At first, I couldn’t see any horns as the deer was about 150 yards away and my eyes were watering like crazy due to the cold. Then, after a couple more steps, a nice racked buck stepped out from behind a big oak. Instantly, my adrenaline began warming me as my focus became hypervigilant. He was quartering towards my position as he continued to slowly walk. At about 125 yards, the wind picked up and began to swirl. The buck then stopped and had an alert stance. I remember thinking, “Of course, no wind until now”. After walking another 10-20 steps towards my position, he stopped, bounded back twice, and began walking away (quartering away). I quickly and carefully threw out a light grunt which stopped him immediately. I then shouldered my muzzleloader, leaned heavily into the beech, cocked the hammer, looked through my Williams Peep Sight, and attempted to put that fiberoptic front sight in the boiler room. At approximately 100+ yards, my fiberoptic front sight completely covered his midsection. I took aim slightly higher with the thought process being I’d rather hit the boiler room, spine him, or completely miss then aim low and take a chance of a gut shot. After he came to a stop, I pulled the trigger and sent that .50 caliber 240 grain Hornady HP his way. I anxiously peered through the thick blackpowder smoke to find that I had spined him. The buck was down and dragging his lower half with his front feet. It was the next best result given the circumstances. I quickly reloaded, ran through the open hardwood to his position, and finished him off.

Though he looked worn out from the rut, he was a beautiful late season buck and I couldn’t have been happier at that moment. Due to the conditions and what had transpired that day, I dubbed him “Crunch”. Of course, the thought of “is this him” went through my head so I gave him a quick once over to see if he had been wounded (specifically the legs) and it appeared he was not. After all, what are the chances of the same hunter, shooting at the same buck, with two different guns, about a month apart from each other, and finally killing that same buck? Not…likely.

Once I got “Crunch” back to the Ole Shop, I began processing him with my father. As we began skinning him down, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, on his lower left leg, we discovered signs of superficial bullet trauma to his lower left leg. The round that impacted the ground by his left rear legs in mid-November must have ricocheted and he must have received a superficial shrapnel wound. It was him! Needless to say, we enjoyed another cold beverage after that discovery. I couldn’t help but imagine how big “Crunch” would have been on November 16th, almost 30 days prior, before losing 20-25% of his body weight. Regardless…extremely grateful to harvest such a beautiful animal.

Brad Willey / WMBT Team Member

“Never Quit”

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