By mid-morning of his first deer hunt, a first hunt of any kind, 16-year-old Henry Tassitano found himself lost, scared and alone. When he blundered into a creek somewhere deep in the forest he nervously pondered what to do. The only instruction he’d received before his father dropped him off in the pitch-black dawn and motored elsewhere was, “I’ll see you at dark.” He looked upstream, then downstream, and then he went with his gut. At dusk, after he’d found a road and their car, young Hank had some words for his father.
“I got a buck,” he said. Turns out, that creek led to more than just a way out of the woods; indeed the opposite. It led to an insatiable passion that has shaped an identity.
For the next few years, Hank hunted casually when he found time. But the more he learned about whitetails—arguably the most challenging game on the planet—the more he desired to hunt them. Soon deer hunting dominated his thoughts. His obsession became self-evident one day when he passed a newsstand. “I saw a magazine with a deer on the cover and I simply had to pick it up,” says Hank.
Now in his late 50s, Hank is still crazy about deer. Despite being anything but an introvert—he’s rarely short for words—he acknowledges that he might seem a little odd to his less fanatical friends; after all, this is a guy who wore rubber chest waders to his stand long before Scent-Lok was invented.
“I think all serious hunters are a little odd,” he says with a chuckle. But he also thinks the difference between deer hunters and great deer hunters is that great ones rarely cease thinking about it. “I can be turkey hunting, fishing or walking my dog in the park, but I’m always looking for deer sign.”
In 1974 he thought about something besides deer hunting long enough to get married, and in 1989 he and his wife, Joanne, moved to Richmond, Va., from New Jersey because they felt it a better place to raise two boys. It’s no coincidence that it’s also a better place for deer hunting. Lucky for him JoAnne understands her husband’s lifelong sabbatical that is deer season. “I think it takes a special person to marry a man like me,” admits Hank.
Once in Virginia he wasted no time establishing self-employment, via an advertising agency, mainly so he could work with outdoor-related markets and make his own hours. “When conditions look right, I’m gone,” he says. Evidently the conditions have frequently been right. For the majority of his life, this working family man has averaged 150 days per year hunting and scouting. He’s taken over 150 whitetails, mostly bucks, mostly on public land and mostly with a bow. He’s got 19 mounted heads—the largest is a 166-inch mountain giant. And don’t accuse Mr. Tassitano of being an elitist. He’s not embarrassed about his long history of shooting every deer that was legal and in range. He’s got more 4- and 6-points than he has rafter space above his cabin porch. But nowadays he prefers does for meat and trophy bucks for the wall. His idea of a trophy is any mature buck, and of these he’s fooled many. But some still get the best of him. “And that’s okay,” says Tassitano. “It keeps me coming back.”
Hank credits his success with his voracious penchant for scouting and his ability to follow his instincts—a sixth sense—to anticipate buck movement before determining his own. “Hunting a mature buck is like a chess match. You’ve got to study the board by spending as much time in the woods as possible. With experience you begin to feel what the deer are doing, and you make more right moves than bad. And if something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts and move.”
Hank doesn’t think the wind is the most important factor when hunting bucks—he knows it. “After you’ve done your scouting and have a general idea of where the bucks will likely be coming from, you must play the wind. If the wind is wrong, either figure out another approach, or don’t go. A mature buck might be gone if you do.”
There are guys like Hank scattered in towns across this country; guys who hunt with a passion rarely seen these days. They know who they are. You might even be one. But for Hank it all started that day alone in the woods, where a boy followed his instincts downstream to salvation. When he stopped for a moment to rest he saw a spike buck enter the creek bed unaware, and he raised his 12-gauge and fired. For a moment he hesitated to touch the still-warm body from which he had taken life, but an overwhelming sense of respect for the animal instructed him to what should be done. He arrived back home with a sense of self-taught pride and the core knowledge that he must go hunting again.
Forty years later, Henry “Hank” Tassitano is still following that proverbial creek, only he now knows exactly who he is and where he’s going: He’s a deer hunter, and he’s going hunting.