Rays of sunlight sprout over wooded horizons as a predator stalks silently—unbelievably—over dry November leaves. The bobcat seems to enjoy its prowl on this crisp morning, the first real cold snap after a merciless summer. Its pure mastery of stealth impresses another predator who watches, undetected, from a man-made perch in a colossal white oak. Today the cat's dappled coat is only envied, not coveted, because after two years of obsessive study the man believes the giant buck he calls "The King" to be near. A camo facemask hides his smile as a steady, brisk breeze licks his face. Everything is perfect.
The bobcat is forgotten as background noises sharpen into distinct, heavy crunches. A lifetime of listening tells him it's not the random hop hop hop of a squirrel or the sustained rustle of an armadillo. So sure is the hunter that he rotates his body to the direction of the sound and slides the fore-end of his rifle on the treestand's crossbar as quietly as wool on water. Seconds later he spies the flickering light of legs moving through foliage. His pupils dilate and his heart quickens. Time slows as antlers materialize—the same ones that occupy his trail-cam photos and his dreams. He doesn't need the Nikon dangling from his neck to know it's him. The King has come. A squirrel stops mid-scamper to stare, and a crow ceases its incessant calling as the massive, perfectly figured whitetail buck strides into the freshly fallen crop of acorns that lure him to this dangerous funnel.
Yet 80 yards out, something causes the buck to pause, and he stands with his glorious crown of antlers illuminated by the sun. Steam exits his nostrils and rises in vapory wisps. He stares directly at the hunter for a tribulating minute. The hunter doesn't dare make eye contact, and tries to will his body calm—all the while worrying the buck will sense his quivering muscles that threaten to overcome him. In the heavy brush the buck's vitals remain covered. There is no shot.
The buck tests the wind, but the wind betrays him. Finally the buck lowers his head and continues feeding. The hunter's heart leaps. But then a random tangent of acorns steers the buck steadily away from him and possibly out of his life forever.
In desperation the hunter raises a grunt tube and gives a nervous snort. As if prodded by lightning the buck bolts 20 yards ahead and turns broadside, looking for the fool who's dared entered his kingdom. The move has left his chest exposed and heaving in the sunlight. The hunter presses his face against the smooth stock of his rifle, finds the buck in the scope and slides the Remington's safety forward. He concentrates on one ruffled brown hair deep in the pocket of the noble animal's shoulder, and as the crosshair dances on it, he asks for help in guiding his bullet. He breathes in, and holds it, and that's the last thing he remembers.
Crack goes the rifle on opening day.
If you expect to wade into the timber and come out with a trophy, you'd better understand the language of your quarry. Elk make a variety of vocalizations—some music to a hunter's ears, others, not so much.
It's the sound bulls make to attract cows and express dominance to the herd. Blow a bugle call to locate a bull then use it to keep tabs on one that answers you while sneaking closer.
Cows use this and other socially positive, high-pitched sounds like squeals and chirps to keep track of herd members. Learn to make them with a diaphragm mouth call to cover your mistakes during movement to contact. When you pop a stick underfoot, mew softly, as if to tell the herd, "Everything's okay over here, folks—just us elk moving about."
A herd bull does this to cows straying from his harem in an attempt to keep them close. If you hear this you're close enough to determine if in fact a satellite is challenging the herd boss for dominance, and thus size up your opportunity to bag either bull.
Barks, Bleats & Whines
Cows warn the herd of danger with barks. They signal their calves with soft whines. And calves signal their mothers with distressed bleats. If you hear any of these vocalizations chances are the jig is up.
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Like the fossilized skeletons of its ancestors displayed in the Smithsonian, a 12-foot alligator can be scary even when it's dead—something that Shooting Illustrated's Adam Heggenstaller learned in person during a gator hunt in Florida. Read More »
Could 2011 be the year of the work truck? If so, the Ram Tradesman is ready to clock in. Equipped with a juiced-up HEMI® engine.... Read More »
The year that Sumner, Mo., erected a statue of "Maxie" to commemorate being the "Wild Goose Capital of the World."
Maxie sports a 65-foot wingspan while resting on a cinderblock building in a community park.
The number of cackling subspecies.
The cackling goose, a smaller-bodied goose prominent in Canada and Alaska, is a tundra-breeder with considerably more black plumage than the Canada. At one time, the cackling goose was considered the smallest subspecies of the Canada, but is now recognized as a separate species.