Swamp Donkey John Stallone’s 4 year quest to shoot mature NY whitetail
NY archery Whitetail hunting is high pressure and high competition for a small amount of public land this is the story of my 4 year quest to kill a mature NY whitetail I called Swamp Donkey….
Swamp Donkey a NY whitetail story
by John Stallone
Author of The Whitetail Hunter’s Blueprint
The Back Story:
I was born in NY and lived there till 1991 full time before I moved to Arizona. NY is where I was introduced to hunting, it’s where I learned to hunt, and Long Island is where I first learned to shoot a bow. As a kid I would spend my summers in NY and come visit for thanksgiving and rifle deer season Upstate almost every year. As I got older and archery became my main method of hunting I began working the small wood lots of eastern Long Island. Year after year I would return in October even after I had a family and children, and it has become our fall break family tradition.
It was a brisk, clear, October morning in 2012 I had gotten up several hours before day light to prepare myself for my first sit in a new stand set. I had been hunting in a 15 arce wood lot that was bordered on east and west sides by swamp, houses to the south and an old abandon junkyard to the north. The Junkyard had a 5 Arce field that the deer loved to feed in every evening. This was the jewel of this little honey hole. All the deer from the surrounding woods would congregate here in the evening allowing me to slip into my stand early in the morning undetected and they would return after day light back to the bedding on the edges and sometimes in the swamps. I had found a hub of converging trails just on the edge of the east swamp littered with buck sign. There were rubs as far as the eye can see down the trail and several scrapes within bow range of my tree. I had set my stand 20 ft up a big oak tree right at the crook of the V that formed where the two main branches shot out of the grand oak’s trunk. It was perfect…
At first light deer started to filter back into the wood lot mostly doe and fawn with a few small bucks. They continued to trickle in till about 8:30am when most of the deer activity seemed to stop. The birds and squirrels kept me occupied for the rest of the morning. Just about the time my stomach was trying to talk me into getting down I heard some movement in the leaves directly behind me. I stood up slowly and peered over my shoulder through the V of the oak and I could see the buck coming down the trail he was an 8 point with a kicker in the 125-130” range. I immediately thought to myself “shooter”. Bucks on long Island don’t typically get to live past 3 years of age there is a wide spread mantra in these parts “Brown is Down” so this buck was a trophy to be had.
The buck was working his rub line and slowly coming my way. He was already in bow range but coming in the only direction that I could not shoot to unless I unhooked my harness and stood up on the seat of the stand to shoot down through the V of the oak. It crossed my mind but I decided to not force it and wait till he came under my tree. He was 10 yards behind me at this point and I was frozen leaning on a limb with bow in hand slight tension on the string not even looking at him for fear he would make me and spook. He was licking a branch with head pointed in my direction when a squirrel decides to jump from the adjacent tree on to the limb that I was leaning against. He looked up and stood there looking through me for what seemed like an eternity. He then slowly turned and walked away back down the trail he came.
The Game begins:
I was beside myself, I wanted to scream, I drew back on that squirrel and almost let it fly when I reminded myself of the pact I had made several years prior not to shoot anything without a purpose. I sat in disgust for a few more hours. When I got down I immediately phoned my wife told her I had seen a big buck, a “Swamp Donkey” and asked her to change our plane tickets and extend our trip a couple of days. I knew I had to move my stand, that if I left it there every time he came by that tree he would look up. I began looking for another tree to hang my stand further up the trail leading from the swamp. I found two rub lines that came out of the swamp and down into this drainage and a tree that overlooked both. Plus it was in shooting range of the trail he walked down earlier that morning. I set the stand up high, about 25 feet to be exact in a beech tree, set so I did not need to stand to shoot. This tree would affectionately be called the killing tree over the next couple of years.. I felt good about this set. I spent the next few days sitting morning until night letting lesser bucks and doe slip by me. The last day I woke up to a Nor-Easter moving in which is the north easts version of a monsoon… Everyone told me I was crazy to go sit up in a tree with winds like that.. I didn’t care I had a mission. I sat from sun up to just about 30 mins before last light before I saw my first deer. It was a doe and she acted like she was being chased by a buck. Could it be? “This early in the season”, I thought to myself. Sure enough emerged the profile of an 8 point buck with a sticker on left side. “It’s him“, I grabbed my bow and began to will the deer to my stand with pointless pleading. It was getting dark and he was running her around in circles through the thick brush outside of bow range, I hit the doe bleat can. With about 3 mins left of light the doe started in my direction and pooped out 20 yards under my stand. I drew back, for what seem like an eternity and waited for him to clear the overhanging tree limbs. The wind was blowing me violently from side to side, I could hardly stay in the stand let alone hold the pin steady. He finally stepped out and I managed to muster up enough strength to hold it all together long enough to send the arrow right in his bread box… That was it! I had done it! I shot Swamp Donkey. I called my cousin to help me track and retrieve the buck. When he arrived we made quick work of the blood trail only to walk up on a buck that was not Swamp Donkey, I had shot a buck possibly a relative, younger brother maybe. I shot a 2.5 year old 115” 8 point with a sticker in the same place off the same tine as the big buck I was now calling Swamp Donkey. My disappointment was equally as evident as my happiness.
I returned home and immediately began pouring over topo maps and google earth. I spent countless hours talking to my cousin Mike who sat the same stand the remainder of the season. Two months had passed and the season was coming to a close I was starting to think that I had imagined Swamp Donkey that the buck I killed was the buck I saw and I just added inches in my head. Mike had not seen him or any big buck for that matter. I was devastated.
It was the last chance that Mike had left to hunt that season he slipped into the stand around 9am a few hours had passed and He was playing on his phone when he caught movement and turned to investigate. It was him, it was Swamp Donkey, he did exist and he was skirting along the swamp edge out of bow range. I immediately got a text “Swamp Donkey Lives”. I felt vindicated; I felt as if I had already shot him, someone else saw him alive and I wasn’t crazy.
Fast forward to next season I brought a camera with me and set it on the main trail, we don’t dare run cameras in NY because they always get stolen or vandalized even in bear boxes, but I had to get more intel. I spent the whole week spending morning till night in the stand. I had not seen hide nor hair of Swamp Donkey at this point so I decided to fill my tag the day before I had to leave on a 120” 3.5 yr old buck. I had shot this buck late in the evening and a little far back so I let him lay overnight. Late the next morning I went in to trail the buck I followed him out of my wood lot and across the road from the junk yard an into a piece of public wetland surround by private. I got permission from the lady who owned the land to track my buck and hunt there if I wanted. As I’m slinking through the woods quietly, looking down at the blood trail I get this crazy feeling like I was being watched so I looked up and there he was 40 yards ahead of me on the trail standing over my dead buck as if to say “gotcha again”… All I could do was laugh, no one was gonna believe me. He had grown into 145” buck was building character.
I was scratching my head! How was this deer using the area? After our standoff that morning I watched where he walked into the swamp. I followed him for a ways and starting gathering Intel. All the big rubs and his tracks told me this is where he lived and he just traveled across the street as part of his routine. It dawned on me right then in there how this deer using the area. Both times I had seen him and Mike had seen him were around 10am-12pm and After getting my buck back to the truck I decided to go pull the camera to fortify where my mind was going with this and after viewing the couple hundred pics the very last pic was a very degraded pic of Swamp Donkey in the middle of the night. He was making a loop!
Putting all together:
Like I mentioned earlier I don’t run cameras in NY so figuring out how he was using the landscape was much harder to do, it was based on a few sightings, and reading sign. It’s pretty hard to decipher what buck is making what rub and what scrape and leaving which track but I started to formulate a hypothesis based on my loop idea on how he was using the area.
In 2014 armed with my hypothesis I called “the loop” I decided to hang a new stand across from where my old stand was (the ridge stand) and after my encounter last year I had hung one off the swamp across the street ( the tree fort). The ridge stand was a morning spot when the wind was bad for the killing tree and the tree fort was for midday and evening hunting only. My plan was to sit the killing tree in the morning and the tree fort in the evening. I came up with this because after my encounter the previous year I had Mike sit the tree fort stand and we quickly learned that the deer were feeding in the oak flat adjacent the swamp in the mornings so you would blow them out when you entered the stand in the morning, thus making it better suited for the evening.
Two Bucks Two Days:
2014 was a crazy year for me and for our family trip, I had weddings and multiple family events to attend to, so my time to spend hunting was very limited in fact I only had 3 days to hunt. First morning of my hunt I slipped into the killing tree an hour before first light and anxiously waited for what the morning would bring. As usual at day break does and fawns trickled back in the woods followed by young bucks cruising the bedding areas. I got down at 11am because something told me I needed to get up in the tree fort stand before noon. I made the switch and about 1pm I caught movement behind me a buck working a scrape, “Swamp Donkey” I gasped. He was out of range and in a thick tangle of brush. I tried calling to him subtlety, without a response. I didn’t want to push it and have him pick me out of the tree so I changed my focus on trying to film him however my camera arm was not set up that I could get that angle so I quickly grabbed my rangefinder and phone and snapped a pic through it. He had gotten much much bigger and developed a matching kicker. He also had a bad limp and what looked like a scar on his left shoulder. It appeared he had been hit by a car, “the scar patch was too big to be an arrow wound” I thought to myself.
Let me digress for a moment, I know that those of you reading this are going to ask yourselves why would he have done this so let me explain in advance. I have an online TV show called Days in The Wild that I have been producing for the past 12 years I operate on a shoestring budget and an even stricter budget of time. I cannot afford to pass on opportunities to make an episode when presented. Back to my story, the next day went just about the same. I got in the tree fort stand by noon with the hopes of catching Swamp doing his thing midday. It was about 3pm when a buck emerged from swamp 70 yards from my stand and began walking the edge of the oak flat right to me. Now I had learned a trick from a guy many years ago that I kinda modified and made my own, that is to take a rake and fluff up the leaves 20-30 yards to your best shooting lane and shake the overhanging oaks to make as many acorns drop as possible. He told me raking the leaves makes it easier for them to get to and it makes it look like other deer were feeding there. I added my own little twist by spraying buck bombs acorn rage scent in the area as well and this seemed to work very well for me. Now this buck was walking right to my little trap and I couldn’t fight the urge so I decided to take him. He was quartering to me hard so I aimed between the neck and front shoulder he reacted and dropped a bit and I caught the spine dropping him on the spot. After getting him out I decided tomorrow was my last hunt I was going to hold out till dark for Swamp. And I did just that, only at dark a different mature buck stepped out and I decided to shoot him ever mindful of my contractual responsibilities to produce 12 shows a year. Swamp had made it another year.
2015 was an amazing year for me I had drawn more tags than I ever had in the past one of which was a coveted Ibex tag in the Florida (Flo-reeda) mountains in New Mexico. Consequently this hunt fell during my normal scheduled trip to NY. Moreover the other tags I drew did not afford me the time to go back to NY. So I had to place my hopes of scoring Swamping Donkey on the shoulders of Mike. Mike started a new job and had virtually no time to hunt although we kept in contact watching the moon and weather and picking and choosing the best times to take a day off and other than a fleeting glimpse of him in Nov. our meek efforts proved futile. My season went on to being a stellar season filling 12 of my 15 tags but in the back of my mind he was still out there giving me the proverbial finger.
Following such a stellar 2015 I had high hopes for 2016. I started off first of the year shooting a big desert mule deer in my home state followed by a 30” Barbary sheep in New Mexico in February. My son was born in March 2 days before my 40th birthday everything seemed to be going my way…Then 40 hit. It seemed like nothing was going right for me, losing business left and right, just one mishap after another, no time in the off season to practice or scout, and I was getting terribly out of shape. My first few hunts in the early season did not end up as I had planned and I was starting to feel a little bit down on myself. I needed a win. I knew that NY has always been good to me for providing success but I had taken the consolation prize home too many years in a row and I wanted to come home the old busier. Not knowing if Swamp was still alive at this point I didn’t know what to expect. I arrived to NY late in the evening and I had planned to hunt the following afternoon after checking stands and buying my license etc. but something told me to stay out of the tree fort stand and save it for the next day when I could slip in there late morning. I did not hunt the killing tree that morning as I had done in the past but instead I waited till 11am to slip into the tree fort. It had rained the night before and still was drizzling a bit that morning and I knew that meant the bucks would be out freshening up their scrapes mid-day. Walking into the stand I notice a giant rub that looked like an elk had made. The sapling was completely broke over and ripped to pieces. Logic told me “big buck” my heart told me “Swamp lives” filled with anticipation I climbed up into the stand but not before I squirted a little young buck scent into the two scrapes bellow my tree. The wind was blowing hard and steady and was in my face, I felt like something good was going to happen. Before long it was 1:30pm and something told me to check my backside I stood up slowly and peered around the tree and there he was working his way right to me. I knew he was coming to the big scrape, I got the camera set on him and he stopped dead in his tracks and I began to curse the camera under my breath. I thought maybe the sun had reflected off the lens and he had seen it. He stood there motionless for a lifetime flicked his tail and began to limp toward the scrape stopping every few yards to scan his environment. I quickly ranged everything in his path even though I had memorized every inch of my shooting lanes.. It was going to happen I could see it playing out, barring any stupid moves on my part or some act of God “it was coming together” I thought to myself. No sooner did the thought leave my mind he stopped in a place that I could not draw. “Don’t force it john” I told myself “let him go to the scrape”. He began to limp toward the scrape again and as soon as he cleared the lane I drew back, settled the pin and waited for him to pause naturally. He took a couple of steps than hesitated and I squeezed off the release and watched my arrow hit its mark. I knew what I had done. My knees went weak and I almost fell out of the stand. “ I just killed Swamp Donkey” I murmured to myself as if to make sure I wasn’t dreaming and then again louder “ I just killed Swamp Donkey” I could see the blood covered arrow glistening in the sun, so packed my stuff up quickly and got down to investigate the shot site. I walked up to where I shot “dead deer” I thought. Blood trail began immediately at the arrow and continued on straight toward the swamp. I took out my camera and documented the track. Fifty yards later just inside the trail I had followed him into in 2013 there he lay. I walked up to him, knelt beside him for a moment, put my hand on his back and began to feel almost sorry the game had ended. After making the calls, taking my pictures and the excitement settled I began to wonder where the next swamp donkey was and when the new game of chess would begin….
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