Shadowing a Big Buck Hunter
By Brian Connor
Rick Labbe is the most unassuming, kindest hardcore deer slayer you will ever meet. At 5’8” he doesn’t have the imposing frame of a lumberjack—which is a job he did plenty of before building a successful construction company—but what he lacks in build he more than compensates for in lean, efficient, boundless energy, and an incredible intuition for navigating the woods—not unlike a whitetail deer. And although he has hunted and killed virtually every animal in North America, with the walls of his camp looking like a 19th Century taxonomist’s studio at an elite university, tracking whitetails on snow in his native northern Maine seems to be his abiding passion.
I was assigned to film Rick Labbe for Big Woods Bucks as he hunted the third week of rifle season in northern Maine. The first morning of the hunt, Rick downed a bowl of Applejacks cereal and a cup of tea, and we set out from his camp in Rockwood for the hills in Jackman that he has hunted his whole life, where he not only knows every rock and tree and brook, but seemed to know each buck that roamed this vast tract of wilderness intersected by logging roads.
Rick kept his head out the open window of his custom antler-livery 2006 Toyota Tundra, with 350,000 miles on it, staring down at the tracks on the side of the road yet somehow steering us perfectly along as we careened down the logging roads at 30 miles per hour, my knuckles as white as the freshly fallen snow we’d received the night before. Expertly triple-tasking the driving, the search for tracks, and conversing with me for film B-roll, Rick steered the truck up and down a section he knew held a good buck.
We stopped and got out to look at a few decent buck tracks, but they were filled in with a dusting of snow, maybe two or three hours old, so the search continued. Rick started to explain that we may need to search for hours for a fresh enough track, but before he finished his sentence he slammed on the brakes, the Toyota skidding to a halt at an intersection with another logging road. “That’s what we’re looking for,” Rick said, his eyes wide as he leaped out of the truck.
The track was “smoking fresh,” and belonged to a big buck—a 225-pounder by Rick’s estimation—one that Rick had tracked two years ago and shot at and missed last year (a rare miss judging from the photo of Rick next to a massive wall of 52 trophy buck mounts hanging in his camp, which is only a fraction of his lifetime take). I helped him kick snow across the tracks in the road to hide our prize, and then we launched into the woods.
Speed and Silence
I and I think many hunters tend to think of speed and silence on the track or in the woods as two diametrically opposed settings, such that one would need to sacrifice speed for quiet, or quiet for speed, as one made their way through the woods. Rick does not need to make any such compromises, and the result is phenomenal. He flew through the woods speedily and quietly, his slim, efficient frame gliding through dense, low spruce bogs and hilltop Christmas trees as he followed a track that at times, I couldn’t find if you gave me two hours and a team of wildlife biologists. I know I was doing a bit of crashing through the woods as my 6’2” 225-pound frame tried to keep up. A lean whitetail, I am not.
Rick kept ahead, obliging me when I would ask him to stop and explain this sign or that for the camera, but clearly single-minded in purpose and eager to kill that buck. The smell of buck musk hung in the air, and Rick repeatedly told me we were only minutes behind it. At one point we left a spruce bog and came out into some hardwoods. Rick signaled me to slow down and pointed to a big maple tree, where the buck had paused to eat some old man’s beard that was growing on the bark.
As I turned on the camera and asked him to repeat what he had told me for the sake of capturing this teachable moment on film, a big doe leapt away at 15 yards. In a split-second Rick had swung his Remington 7600 on the deer, determined it wasn’t our buck, and got out his grunt tube. The feeling that this big buck was in the immediate vicinity hung in the air, as Rick tried to call him in back toward this doe group.
As we stood there in tense silence, completely still, a young doe walked up to his at 6 or 7 yards and stared at us curiously, trying to figure out what we were, and gently stamping its feet, before running off into the hardwoods.
We continued on the track, Rick effortlessly weaving his way through the woods as the buck took us up an old “twitch trail”—clearings in these woods where loggers had been at work years before—where we pounded through dense, waist-high mountain ash. As we approached a clearing toward the top of the mountain, Rick swung his 7600 up in a heartbeat as I fumbled with my Canon XA-11, desperately trying to capture the kill-shot on film. But all he’d seen was a tail, as the buck leapt into some softwoods, did a J-hook to briefly check us out, then walked back down the mountain at a good pace. We were still hot on the track, and there were fresh moose tracks near where we’d jumped the deer, so Rick was fairly certain the deer didn’t know what we were.
After we crossed our tracks going up, we followed the buck into dense spruce. I confess that my big frame and relative lack of fleet-footedness may have cost us this next opportunity, because after emerging from that snappy, twig-filled spruce into some hardwoods, we came across the buck’s smoking fresh bed, at the edge of a big patch of mid-size maples, which would have given Rick a perfect running shot on the jump. Rick generously offered that it may have been that the buck winded us.
We followed the buck for five or six more hours. It was cruising, showing no signs of needing sleep or feed as it crossed three more logging roads, and even Route 201, the main two-lane blacktop artery into Canada, checking on doe groups. The snow began to melt and fog rolled over the hills in the afternoon, drenching my clothing and my camera, which began to give me error codes that I couldn’t shake it out of. At nearly ten miles, my body began to give me error codes too, mainly in my left hip, and I started to fall behind. My mellow, Adirondack still-hunt style was a walk in the park compared to Rick’s tracking. He sped on in single-minded determination.
There were times following Rick where I felt like I was following a sixteen-year-old, the way he showed no signs of fatigue and even seemed to speed up as the day went on. At 58 years old, he has the fitness of someone not just half his age, but a quarter his age, and a champion athlete on top of that. After clawing my way up another mountain, following Rick’s tracks now, desperate for an ice pack and some ibuprofen, I finally found him sitting on the track on the side of the mountain. It was 2 o’clock he said, and we’d come 10 or 12 miles. It would be another two miles back to the truck, so we’d call it a day here.
As I sat in Rick’s camp that night nursing a beer and my sore hip, I reflected on one of the most physically challenging, exciting, and profound educational experiences I’ve had in my life. Like these 200-pound super bucks they track here in the big woods of northern Maine, Rick is a rare breed, a potent mixture of athleticism, intuition, and hard-earned experience.
But above all what I found most inspiring, and what is likely his strongest asset, is his determination. Just before he had sped off that afternoon, we had stopped briefly. He told me this is when most guys would quit, which I told him I certainly agreed with. But not Rick, quitting just isn’t in his blood. And although Rick wouldn’t be able to get back on that track the next morning due to a business obligation that would keep him out of town until later that week, his succinct tracking philosophy that he imparted to me that afternoon rang in my head.
“Never let the bastards win,” he had told me, before speeding off down the track out of sight into the woods.
Brian Connor lives in Brooklyn, New York. He hunts deer a lot in the Adirondacks.
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