This is a story of two old friends that still manage to do things the “old fashioned way” and have some success. It is appropriate that this story takes place on Veterans Day. My best friend Paul is a veteran of the Vietnam War, a great person, hunter, and the best shot I ever saw. I could elaborate on all of those things, but I choose to focus on a couple of them.
One of the many terrible effects of his service in Vietnam was the loss of sight in his left eye. That is worse for him than most because Paul is left handed, and that means that his left eye is his master eye, which is of supreme importance as a shooter. Hence, he had to learn to shoot right-handed, and with that, he is still one of the best two shooters I know.
Paul and I met on a rainy Saturday morning in mid-October 1961, while we were pheasant hunting at the farm across the street from my house. After a brief introduction, I invited him to hop into my 1949 Dodge semi-automatic transmission to hunt another spot. We spent countless days together hunting and fishing over the next 56 years. As many as we have shared, it still isn’t enough to satisfy me.
The next December I was with Paul when he missed a big buck, but later on a snow-covered mountain in New Hampshire with temperatures about -15 F, he would get his first deer.
The next November, I was with him on that same mountain when he got his first buck.
That same day I missed the first deer I ever shot at. We agree that our first misses were “buck fever.” In our excitement, we had put the front sight on the deer but never lined up the rear sight. That means that every missed shot, his seven shots at that one deer and my three shots at my deer, went harmlessly over the deer’s back. That would never happen again to either of us.
To show you what kind of person he is, there was another day of deer hunting that shows his heart. It was the last day of the 1963 six-day deer season in Massachusetts, and we were hunting on the east side of the Berkshire Mountains.
I tracked and shot my first my first deer, a four-point buck. Seconds after I fired, I heard a shot and knew that it would not be good. Fifty yards away, two men were standing over my buck, and they were not going to let me have it even though I showed them where I had hit it. I was chagrined to say the least. I swore that I would never again hunt in a place where that was a possibility.
At about the same time, Paul shot a deer that had obviously been wounded earlier in the lower leg. It certainly could have survived such a wound, but Paul put it down on the spot with a perfect shot. Several minutes later, two men showed up and told Paul that they were the ones that had shot it earlier. They made a less than good shot, but Paul gave them kudos for sticking with it to try to make the best for all concerned, including the deer. He saw the disappointment in their eyes, and he could tell that this deer meant real food to them. Without hesitation, Paul told them to tag it and take it home. A tale of contrasting humans if I ever saw it in a single day.
There is a dying method of hunting that Paul and I have employed all of our lives. The technical term is “still hunting,” which is, in my mind, a misnomer because you are not standing still, you are moving. Sometimes you move very slowly, and at times, you might actually run. I prefer to call this type of hunting “tracking.” It is all about reading sign, like track, droppings, rubs, and the like. I readily admit that today’s method of hunting, which came about with the invention of portable tree stands, is far more successful than tracking. That said, there is nowhere near the satisfaction that there is when you hunt like my Native American great-great-grandmother Euphemia from New Brunswick and her husband, Andrew Smith from NH, did in the Canadian Maritime Provinces and Maine about 180 years ago. My father always said that I got all of my genes from those two.
The season before last, at the ripe old age of 69, Paul found himself in the northern reaches of NH, literally a stone’s throw from Canada. In 1960s, he was given the nickname “Tote Road’ because of his success still hunting the old logging roads. Well here he was “pussy footing” down another tote road more than 55 years later. Again success. Paul shot the biggest deer of his life, a 217-pound monster. It was the seventh largest muzzleloader buck shot in the state that year.
All this brings me to this past Thursday, the second day of deer season. I had put in countless hours scouting over the previous four months, and I had success finding a bachelor group of bucks. That’s a group of bucks that hangs together until the rut kicks in, at which time all bets are off, and these former friends become mortal enemies. I even got trail camera videos of smaller bucks rubbing larger bucks with their antlers–a sign of submission.
When the group broke up, it was increasingly difficult to keep track of them as they sought out new territories. I set out to find at least one to justify my many hours in the woods. That morning, I went to an old haunt high up on the mountain where, in years past, the bucks would hang out free of human interference. It was a long hike for these almost 73 year-old legs, but I knew I could do it.
I made my way to a spot where a gully runs downhill to the south, and a sharp, rock-strewn ridge runs east to west. I sat down on one of those kitchen table-sized granite boulders, as much to rest as to observe. I checked my GPS and it indicated it was 7:04 AM. My lucky number. I saw that as a sign to stay on the rock longer than I had planned, and after a little bit less than an hour, I heard, thanks to my new hearing aids, a slight sound to my right.
I saw the back of a good-sized deer heading down the mountain. My first thought was that it was a buck, simply because of its size. When it got below me, it was obvious that it was a very large (and no doubt old) doe. She was making tracks. She definitely had some place that she wanted to be, and she was getting there at a pace just short of a trot. Then it dawned on me that she was probably in estrus, and a buck might be in hot pursuit. I was right.
A minute behind her was a smaller deer. At first, I thought that it might be her skipper from this spring, but as it got to an opening in the sunlight, I saw a tiny antler. It was obvious that she was a big doe, and it was just as obvious that he was a small buck.
Then they were gone. I gave a little prayer of gratitude to the God of hunting and waited for the adrenaline rush to subside. After about 10 minutes, I decided to resume my tracking. I went to check out the area below me to read the sign and evaluate the level of activity. Once down there, I heard a slight sound above me. I turned and looked up to see a head and antlers coming at me at about the same pace that the other two were doing.
I had only a second to take my rifle off of my shoulder. As I did, the buck cut to my right, just a few feet below the rock that I had been sitting on. He stopped behind a large hardwood tree, I think because he detected my movement. He had his head just out to the right of the tree.
I was not going to take a neck shot because neck shots are too risky so I waited for his next move, and when he did, I pulled the trigger. It was a shot that Paul would be proud of–right through the heart. For the second time in minutes, I thanked the God of hunting with blessing me once more with a gift from the heavens.
There’s an old hunter saying that “When they are down, the work begins.” It is very true. With the help of my son, Tony and my brother-in-law Dana, it took longer to field dress the deer than it did to get it down the mountain. Tony wisely dragged up my ice-fishing sled, and we used it to drag (more like “sled”) the deer down the steep slopes. That sled made the haul so much easier as the oak leaves were slick and the acorns were like ball bearings.
My first phone call was to Paul. He had actually called me on a whim, just as I got in the house.
He said, “Congratulations. We may be old, but we can still get it done.”