As the days start to shorten, and our thoughts turn to the upcoming fall hunting season, our minds turn to successful seasons past. Below is part 4 of my son Tony’s write-up of shooting his first buck on November 13, 2011.
When my alarm went off at 4:30 Sunday morning, I turned it off and laid in bed, deciding. “Do I roll over and sleep in,” I asked myself, “Or do I get up and give it one last go?” “Chi dorme non piglia pesci,” [KEE DORM-ay KNOWN PEEL-ya PAY-shee] I thought. It’s an old Italian expression that literally means, “He who sleeps, catches no fish.” It’s the Italian way of saying “The early bird catches the worm.” I’d like to say that I sprung out of bed, but after four straight days of hoofing it up and down hills and valleys, it was more of a crawl.
I ambled downstairs, wiping the sleep out of my eyes. Dad greeted me in the kitchen. “So what do you think?”
“I think I need to take the bear stand,” I said.
“Sounds good,” Dad said. “You walk in the usual way. I’ll walk in from the end of the road. I’ll give you a 15-minute head start. That way you’ll be settled in the stand before I push through those beeches.”
We followed the plan to the letter, not that it was that difficult. Even in the low light, I was able to follow my dad’s ubiquitous pink tape without much trouble. As designed by Dad, I came up behind the stand from the north side, the opposite way that we would expect a deer to come to the area, especially if my dad pushed it through the beech grove to the south of the stand. Of course, deer never come into your stand the way that you expect them to, but I was wearing rubber boots, which ostensibly don’t carry scent.
I climbed up in the stand, just as those two young bears had done. I brought up the rope that they had pulled down, and I tied it back into place. There hadn’t been a trail camera here since Dad brought his home a few days ago, so we weren’t sure whether those bears had been back. That made me a little nervous.
I was rushing to get to and into the stand to make sure that I was ready to go if Dad pushed a buck by me. In all my haste, I worked up a decent sweat. Once in the stand, I stripped down my upper body, and I hung all my damp clothes on the branches around me to air out.
It was still well before sunup, and I cooled down quickly. I redressed, and prepared to stand vigil for the next few hours.
Normally, in a situation like this, something happens right away or not at all. A couple hours after sunrise, my expectations lowered by the second. I expected to see my dad walking in to my stand within the next half hour, asking me the usual one-word query, “Anything?”
My mind started to wander. My nephew Ian had moved in with us two years prior, and although we had a great start, things weren’t going well at this point. Hunting was supposed to be my way of getting my mind off of all of the issues that my wife and I were having with Ian, but now it was all I could think about. I was running through all of our past confrontations and imaging future ones. As this played out in my head, I grew more and more angry. I was standing in the tree stand now, pretending to be focused on a deer or my dad heading towards me from the south, but I might as well have had my eyes closed. All I could see were the infuriating images playing over and over in my mind.
All of this was interrupted by a cacophony of hooves hitting the ground. For a moment, it sounded like a stampede of caribou. I quickly realized that it was just one animal. My first thought was that it must be a moose to make such a racket. As it came closer, I wasn’t so sure.
The first thing I saw were antlers. “Fork horn,” I thought as I saw four distinct points on its head. Its head was down, when it wasn’t looking back, and its tail was straight out, a sure sign that it was startled but it felt secure that its pursuer didn’t see it.
The scenario was playing out exactly as we had drawn it up in the playbook. I couldn’t believe it. That never happens.
I took off my safety, watched the deer run towards me, and I thought, “I don’t deserve this.” I was feeling guilty for all the angry thoughts I was having about my nephew.
I quickly changed my mind, raised my rifle, and thought, “Yes, I do.” There was just one problem, the deer was moving at more than a trot, and it was quartering towards me to boot. I’m unlikely to take a shot with one of those factors; with the two combined, it’s strictly a “hold your fire” situation for me. I kept my sights on the animal, hoping that it would stop. It didn’t. It ran right past my stand and stopped just a few yards behind the right side of it, from right where I had approached the stand.
It stopped still, completely obscured by all the conifer branches between us. Although I couldn’t see it, I was sure that it was looking back towards Dad to see whether he was on its tail. Instinctively, I grunted twice with my mouth, not having a store-bought grunt call with me. I can thank my friend Matt for teaching me that trick, which he used to shoot a spike horn. Dragging that deer out turned into quite the adventure. But that’s another story.
The buck immediately started to backtrack itself, but it had its head down in my tracks. I guess my rubber boots weren’t so scent-proof after all. It was 40 yards away; well within range of the 50 yards for which I had sighted in my .44 magnum Ruger. The only problem was that it was walking at a quick pace, and it was walking through lots of thin maple saplings.
I glanced ahead of it for an opening, leaned the stock of the .44 against the tree trunk to steady it, and promised myself that I’d squeeze off a round as soon as the deer stepped into that opening. I can’t remember all of the times that this technique didn’t work out. The deer usually stops before the opening and wanders off through the cover of thick brush, never presenting a shot.
Luckily, this time was different. The buck stepped into the opening and stopped, still with its nose in my tracks. As it was moving from my right to my left, I decided to wait until it moved its front left leg forward, fulling exposing its vitals before squeezing the trigger. It did, and I did.
Normally, even with a direct hit to the heart, a deer will run a few yards or make a couple of bounds. Again, this time was different. The deer fell over as though it were frozen solid and someone had pushed it.
I kept the safety off, and I kept aiming for its vitals. I thought, “If it moves a muscle or gets up, I’m going to shoot until it stops moving.” The last thing any hunter wants is an animal to suffer. “Quick and painless” is the mantra. To my surprise, it never flinched a muscle. It lay stone dead after just the one shot.
I radioed Dad. “You got a drag rope with you?” I actually had a drag rope with me. That’s an inside joke. My friend Matt has, on more than one occasion, including when he grunted in that spike horn, shot a deer and not had a drag rope or many other necessities with him (such as his license, a knife, and so on).
Dad radioed back, “I’m already running to you.” He had started running as soon as he had heard the shot.
“Take your time,” I said. “He’s dead in front of me. I can see him. It’s a fork horn.”
Dad came running up two minutes later. “Where is he?”
I pointed Dad to the deer while I remained in the stand. “I hate to tell you this, buddy,” he said. “It’s a six.”
From the tree stand, I had one bar on my cell phone. I called our wives to let them know that we’d be occupied for a while.
“I shot a buck,” I said to Debbie.
“Holy mackerel,” she replied. “I’ll bring some snacks by.”
After taking a few pictures from the stand, I climbed down. Dad shook my hand and gave me hug.
“Nice job,” he said.
“You did all the work,” I said. “All I did was grunt and pull the trigger.”
As I field dressed the deer, Dad asked me to recount the whole story. After that, he told me his side of the story. During that time, Debbie had dropped off a cooler with snacks and drinks at Dad’s truck.
After completing the field dressing, I made the half-mile hike back to Dad’s truck alone to drop off a bunch of our stuff and get some of Debbie’s snacks and drinks.
“I’ll wait here with the deer, and I’ll keep my rifle in case those two little bastards show up,” Dad said, referring to the young black bears that had attacked the camera and climbed the stand.
When I got back to the truck, I dropped the tailgate to make our lives easier getting the deer in the bed of the truck.
The drag out wasn’t bad. It was mostly downhill, and there weren’t many blowdowns. Dad kept trying to help me drag the deer, but I kept telling him to just carry our gear because he was dealing with a hernia. I didn’t want it to get worse. Besides, I was so excited about getting my first buck that dragging it didn’t feel like work.
When we got close to the truck, we waited until no cars were driving by to put the deer in the back. We didn’t want everyone to know about our great new hunting spot.
We went home to eat something and take the deer to a checking station. As I went outside to cut out the tenderloins, Dad’s neighbor Jean came up the driveway with a hearty “Congratulations!”
“What brings you by?” I asked.
“I saw you parked down the road earlier,” she said. “I figured that you had your tailgate down because you got a deer.”
Right then, I made a mental note to never leave the tailgate down on a pickup truck at any of our hunting spots.
She took a couple pictures of Dad and me with the deer.
“Look at that smile,” she said. “You can’t wipe that grin off your face.”
“What can I say,” I said. “It’s my first buck.”
To my surprise, she offered to hold the legs open so I could access the tenderloins. By this time, her husband Mike had come over to check out the deer as well. He wasn’t surprised that Jean was willing to hold the leg. “Jean is fascinated with dead wildlife,” he said. “Haven’t you seen the beaver pelt in our house?”
We didn’t have much time to chat. Being Sunday, the local sporting goods shop closed early, and we had to rush to get there in time to check in the deer.
He weighed in at 106 pounds; not bad for a 1.5-year old buck. We’ve always butchered our own deer, something I took great pride in, but it was getting to be late in the afternoon. I had an early meeting the next morning, and I was still two hours away from home. Luckily, we bumped into one of our favorite game wardens at the checking station, and he gave us the name of his favorite butcher.
When we arrived at the butcher’s, he asked, “Is he a beauty?” I was thinking, “He’s the most beautiful deer I’ve ever seen,” but before I could respond, he answered his own question, “They all are, aren’t they?” I agreed, but I was stunned that a guy who spends day after day butchering dozens of deer would still think that deer are beautiful. It was refreshing to talk to someone who respects the animals as much, if not more than we do.
Having finally tagged my first buck, I felt a huge weight lift off of my shoulders. I felt like a real hunter, not just some city slicker that runs around the woods on weekends. Of course, I had very little to do with my success. All the credit goes to the guide.