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Steve Sherk, Sr.: Lessons on Still Hunting in the Big Woods

Steve Sherk, Sr., 68, has been hunting since age 12 and has hunted every deer season since. Sherk, Sr., is a devout Christian who begins every hunt with a visit to his prayer spot, which overlooks a lot of the valley and ridge where he does most of his deer hunting. As he says, he doesn’t pray to kill a deer. Rather, he gives thanks and praise to God for the beautiful environment and for the creatures that live there.

Faith and a passion for hunting are two things Sherk, Sr., has passed on to his son Steve, Jr., who operates a guide service for hunters in Pennsylvania’s Big Woods. Unlike many hunters today, Sherk, Sr., is a dedicated still hunter, which is how he killed a beautiful 10-point last fall estimated to score in the mid-130s.

Ralph Scherder: You mentioned that you’ve done most of your hunting close to home.

Steve Sherk Sr.: I went to college at Slippery Rock, so I hunted a little bit down that way, but the woods are entirely different in that area. My dad and uncles used to go to Colorado elk hunting, and they’d beg me to go with them, but I always said, “There’s so much woods here that I’ll never get to see, and I don’t want to lose any of my hunting season riding all the way out there and miss any opportunities to explore more woods here.” I’ve just never had the drive to hunt anywhere else.

I’ve always had a passion for hunting. Years ago, I had a calendar that had deer photos in it, and there was one particular photo that I cut out and had hanging around for years. It was of a 10-point buck standing in the hemlocks, and it was called “Buck in the Blue.” I’ve always wanted to come upon a buck in that scenario. Every season, I’d wonder, will this be the year I kill my buck in the blue?

RS: Over the years you’ve been hunting, you’ve definitely seen a few changes in the caliber of bucks on our public lands nowadays.

Sherk: I give a lot of credit to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Back when they started the current deer management program, the antler restrictions in combination with deer herd reduction, I wrote a letter to the PGC warning them that they were going to lose hunters, etc. And we did lose a lot of hunters, but we also have a lot of bigger bucks now. You don’t see as many deer, and you do have to work harder, but it’s more rewarding. The hunting is tremendous.

Steve and I run about a hundred trail cameras. It’s phenomenal some of the bucks that are out there. Just recently, in fact, someone found a dead 180-inch buck. So I mean, those bucks are here. We’re truly blessed with public land hunting opportunities.

(Photo: A trail camera photo of the 10-point Sherk later killed in rifle season.)

RS: How has fewer hunters in the woods impacted the way you hunt?

Sherk: I’ve always been a still hunter. I like to find the higher ridges and watch my profile on the skyline. I walk just down from the top of the ridge so that my silhouette is blended against the hillside, and move slowly through the woods. I move from tree to tree. I pick a tree, walk to that spot, and then watch and wait for a while before moving to the next tree. I like to stop by a tree because it also provides a rifle rest.

Still hunting may not have been as effective back 20 years ago when the deer herd was four or five times bigger than it is now and there were a lot more hunters in the woods. Deer got pushed all over the place, so the advantage was to find a good stand to sit and sooner or later, one was going to come by.

RS: You’ve killed quite a few deer in the area where you killed this buck in 2020.

Sherk: Yes. I believe I started hunting this particular area in 1987 or ’88, and consistently started hunting it around 1993. First time I ever hunted there, I encountered a guy who was 82 years old, and he was hunting by himself. I asked what he would do if he got a deer. He said, “Well, I have to get one first.” So that’s what I’m striving to do. I want to stay in shape so that I’ll still be hunting there when I’m in my 80’s.

Back in 2016, Steve was with me one day and we were still hunting. He’d already killed a buck, but he always like to take one day during deer season to hunt with me, just to tag along. We saw a huge buck, a wall hanger, but I couldn’t get on it. We stood there for a bit, and there were actually 17 deer in this herd, which is pretty much unheard of, and four of them were bucks.

I kind of lost track of the big one, but then when I picked it out from the group, I had a nice shot at him. I got down to the deer and it ended up not being the big one. When I shot, the herd came right up by us and Steve said, “Look at that one!” Well, I didn’t see it because I was looking at the one I shot, which was still nice, but it wasn’t a wall hanger. I was happy to have Steve there to help me drag it out because I was probably close to two miles back in.

Another year, I shot an 11-point in that same area. It didn’t have much mass, but it was still a decent buck. I had to drag that one out myself. It’s rewarding knowing that, even at my age, I can still go back in where I love to hunt and can still get a deer out.

RS: What makes this area so good for deer?

Sherk: For one, I think because it’s so big and it doesn’t get heavily hunted. There’s a lot of oak hardwoods, and a lot of hemlock down in the valleys that deer use for cover. It’s part of the Allegheny National Forest. They don’t do any logging in there, so there’s not a lot of dense underbrush. The deer density there is probably less than other areas in the ANF, but it fits my style of hunting. I’ve tried to still hunt in some of the thicker areas but it’s hard to be quiet and harder to move through. So in this area, I can move along without thinking I’m going to spook deer or push them into other hunters.

RS: Can you talk more about still hunting? What’s your typical plan of attack?

Sherk: First, I think it takes a number of years to really learn an area. Since 1993, I’ve done 90% of my buck hunting in this one place. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of experiences, and all of them kind of get filed away in the memory bank. I know where I’m likely to see deer, and I know what parts of the terrain I can move through more quickly than others.

It helps to really be familiar with the area you’re still hunting. Know where the food sources are and where the deer are likely to be bedded, and then you can plan your route based on that.

Also, still hunting requires a different set of skills than stand hunting. I could never be a good archery hunter because I probably couldn’t sit still long enough. That’s just my temperament. I always have to be doing something, you know? So still hunting really fits me well.

Like I said, I try to stay near the very top of the ridge and move at a slow pace, maybe 10-20 feet at a time, from tree to tree. But remember one thing. With each step you take, your perception of the landscape changes. Each step provides a different viewpoint for you as well as the deer. You may be behind a little knoll that you didn't realize was in front of you. You take a step, and now, all of a sudden, you see right over the knoll and there could be a deer there. So with each step, you have to be prepared to shoot.

A good rule of thumb is to think that anything that looks like a deer is a deer. I carry binoculars and I use them to look at 50 logs in a day. But I’ve also not looked at things that looked suspicious, and then they got up and ran away.

Another thing I’ve learned is to remember to look back. If you’re going slow, deer that are kicked out, or even if they’re just traveling, can come up behind you. I had that happen on first day of rifle this past year, at three o’clock in the afternoon. Three eights came right up behind me. I was focused down on a bench and these deer came right up on the exact trail that I had just walked on. The two younger bucks walked right up to me, but the larger eight, a wall hanger, stayed back. When the smaller bucks saw me, the big one knew something was wrong. I tried to wheel around and get a shot, but it took off before I could.

But that’s just the nature of still hunting. You’ve always got to be looking, checking your backside as well as the woods in front of you.

One more thing is that I usually have a predestined route in mind that I’ll be hunting, and in this area where I love to hunt, I’ve followed the same route many times. I walked that route on Friday of the first week of rifle season with Steve and we saw eight deer on this very long point, two of which were bucks, and then I walked it again the next day and killed this buck.

RS: How do deer use this area differently from year to year?

Sherk: We had some snow this year, and even though it was pretty much melting off by that first Saturday, I noticed throughout the week that deer seemed to be more down in the hemlocks. Almost as if they were on the edges of the hemlock and hardwoods. That’s the route Steve and I took that Friday, and the route I walked again that first Saturday (December 5, 2020).

I was heading west, wind almost right in my face. I wanted to go over where Steve and I had seen a big buck the day before, so I turned east, which put the wind right up my back. But sometimes I sacrifice wind direction for the sake of staying on my route. I’ve seen and shot deer with the wind at my back in rifle season on numerous occasions. The wind in this country changes so much throughout the course of a day, all you can do is try your best to keep it in your favor.

Anyway, I had just turned to head east through the hemlocks and this buck kicked up. It was lying in the hemlocks and it took off, but instead of running straight away, it ran broadside. I didn’t have a rest. I just shouldered the gun and tried to get on it. Every time I got on an opening, the deer was already through it. So I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna pick two openings and just swing the gun with the deer. The deer came to the first opening and I shot, and the buck dropped. The shot killed it instantly.

The buck was a 10-point, and it was in the hemlocks. I finally got my “Buck in the Blue.”

I think that was around 11:15 in the morning, and it was a long drag out. I got it back to my truck around 4:30. I’m not as young or as strong as I used to be, but I did have a strong rope like what rope climbers use, and I was able to pull the buck up out of there a few feet at a time.


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