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Pennsylvania big shot

Herb Miller, the "best" deerslayer in the state, takes the long view

He stood in front of Red's Diner, staring north toward a pinpoint of light in the clear Lewistown, Pa. night. The light came from the clock on the town hall steeple, 5,890 feet away, and Herb Miller had a plan: early some morning he would take his rifle to Red's parking lot; a friend would be parked near town hall with a walkie-talkie to tell him when the hour was struck, really struck; and Miller would squeeze off a round. He would have to pay for the damages, but he knew it would be worth it. "I'm going to want it published everywhere," he said. "Herb Miller is a recognition hound, you know." And on this night that craving was giving him fits.

For Miller, a 34-year-old, 250-pound ironworker, it had been a rough week, rougher than usual. Pennsylvania's deer-hunting season was almost over, the roads were jammed with cars draped with bucks, and Miller, "the best deer killer in the state," or so he said, had yet to fire a shot. And so he reviewed his fantastic ambition. A deer would be more practical, but hitting the clock, 7' in diameter, at 5,890 feet, would be no problem; in 1968 Miller had killed a 90-pound doe at a distance of more than a mile, 345 feet more, to be exact. But first he had seen it, and now the seeing was very bad. There had been no snow, and at one or two thousand yards the deer, if there were any, seemed as one with the leaf-strewn, rocky terrain. Most of the deer appeared to be in the deep lower woods, not on the hillsides where Miller could get the long views his brand of hunting requires.

He hunts with custom-made rifles, pages of trajectory tables, 15 x 80 Vixen binoculars and a surplus range finder which cost the Army about $3,000. Miller also needs the help of a friend, usually Bill Price, a 29-year-old sheet-metal mechanic. Long-range hunting is a two-man job, one to shoot and one to spot. Miller says long-range twosomes make up less than 1% of all U.S. hunters, and that most of them are in Pennsylvania. Perhaps that is a good thing, if many of them are like Miller; the fabric of civilization is only so strong.

Miller's wife Leone complains that he sleeps with a rifle and she sleeps on the floor, but exaggerations are unnecessary to define her husband. Last winter, with the snow 18 inches deep, he hiked four or five miles into the woods and lived alone in a tent for a week, eating trout he caught through the ice, rabbits he shot and beans.

Most of the year Miller goes from one ironworking job to another, but from December through March he does nothing but hunt and fish. Recently when he took a magazine writer hunting he announced, "We get there tomorrow and if there's a deer on the mountain I'm going to tell everyone it's for a story, and if some other hunter doesn't like it, why, we'll get him first. It's a good thing there's laws, because I'd get myself a tank or a howitzer and I'd kill deer by the busloads." And after a lengthy stint with the binoculars he complained, "I'm gonna tell you, buddy, this is the most boresome job I know."

After two hours of viewing trees and rocks, shimmering through the powerful lenses, Miller was saying, "It feels like someone is pulling my eyeballs out of my head." He sat on the level ridge of a steep, forested hill in Pennsylvania's Centre County, looking across a deep valley to the ridges and the slopes of other steep hills, from half a mile to a mile and a half away. It was a prime location for long-range hunting. Miller's rifle was supported and steadied by small cloth bags stuffed with navy peas and it rested on a small table. In two hours he had glassed over more territory than he could have explored in two days of conventional hunting, but he had not seen a deer. Finally he sighted in the range finder on a two-foot-wide rock in Penn Creek, winding far below. Twelve hundred and fifty yards, the indicator read. Miller checked the trajectory tables; 126 clicks of elevation would be required on his Unertl scope, and he clicked them off. To be on target at 1,250 yards the bullet would have to be some 245 inches above eye level at the halfway point. Miller checked the wind direction, estimated its velocity, aimed two feet to the right and fired. Through the binoculars a tiny puff of dust could be seen in the middle of the rock, and he said, "Windage and elevation, those are the keys to long-range hunting. And the goal is yardage and a kill." Now all Miller needed was the kill.

Early next morning Miller and Price sat on a hillside 50 feet above Honey Creek in the town of Reedsville. Through the binoculars, they slowly tracked the line of a steep, snowless, rocky slope below a ridge about 400 feet above them. Then the scanning stopped. Miller and Price squinted into the rising sun at a point on the slope.

"It's a buck," Price finally whispered. "He's lying down."

They took turns looking through the binoculars. Once Miller said, "No, it's a doe...wait, no, I'm not sure."

Finally, after more than an hour of concentration, Miller said, "Damn it, it's a rock."

Price took the binoculars from him. "Yuh," he said, "it's a rock."

That evening Miller displayed his weapon collection, which includes 46 rifles, nine pistols, eight hunting knives, two stilettos, a blowgun and a battle-ax. Miller said that he shoots a blowgun better than anyone in the country, and that he spends about $3,000 a year on trap-shooting. "I'm one of the best there is," he said. "And I'm mighty fine with a battle-ax, a stiletto and a .357 and .44-magnum pistol, too. If it has to do with competition I'll do it. You can hit me with an ax, but the worst thing is to beat me. If we're having a contest I'll win; I don't care if it's biting toenails."

But now the buck season was over and Miller had hunted 14 straight days without getting his. Then, as the two-day doe season began, it finally started to snow. On the second day Miller and Price set up 400 feet above Penn Creek, at a place called Scenic View on the border of Mifflin and Centre Counties. At 2:10 that afternoon, between gusts of snow, they saw a doe at 1,040 yards. They did not see it again until the snow stopped half an hour later, when Miller shot twice and missed both times. He had misjudged the wind but, on the third shot, reckoning by the direction and speed of the blowing snow, he aimed four feet to the left of target. Bill Price, looking through the binoculars, saw the doe fall and lie still.

The rifle Miller used had weighed 9½ pounds, light for shooting at that distance. It was a custom-made Model 70 Winchester, and Miller said, "Lots of guys can kill deer at a thousand yards with a heavy gun. But I did it with a light one, and that's really tough."

That evening, in the parking lot of Red's Diner, Miller was looking to the north, to the clock, and saying, "That's it, the ultimate shot of my life. If I make it they'll still be talking about me in 500 years."