Another hunting tale

This was first posted in 2003

My son killed his first buck last season. Now if that isn’t a milestone in a young man’s life I don’t know what is. Sadly, there are too many young men who will never experience this milestone because of the changing values of this country. I was fortunate to grow up in a family that saw guns as tools, and hunting as both a pleasure and a necessity, and even though I am raising my family in the midst of suburban America, I still strive to impart to my boys the values of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. In my opinion, hunting is one of the best methods to do that. But that’s grist for an entirely different mill.

I’ll spare you all the burdensome details, but last fall I lost a valuable hunting lease in Baldwin county Georgia. It was about 1,000 acres of mixed farmland, hardwoods, and pine saplings that I shared with exactly zero other hunters for the vast sum of only $400. Fortunately I was able to secure one spot for myself with the hunting club that assumed the lease. But try as I might I couldn’t get more than a single spot. I was told that I could take my son, but only ONE firearm between the two us. It was a bitter pill to swallow to share property with five other hunters that for 10 plus years I’d had all to myself.

Josh and I missed opening weekend, but the second weekend found us on the stand in the predawn darkness. I picked out two side by side limbless trees that were close enough that I could whisper instructions to Josh, since I had decided that he would be the shooter this trip. We were in a good spot in the rear corner of the field, with a hardwood bottom to our backs and the perfect amount of cover between us and the edge of the field. This is about the point where Murphy made his appearance. I was so focused on helping Josh be quiet with his tree-climber stand that I fumbled and dropped a crucial wingnut in the weeds at the base of my tree. I had suffered the same loss of a critical wingnut years before, and I usually kept a spare taped to the stand. Now, standing there in the steadily lightening morning, I remembered using my spare wingnut on a home repair project during the summer. I had intended to replace it and had never gotten around to it. I cursed the ill luck and resigned to just stand quietly at the base of the tree.

Josh’s assembly of his stand, and his climb up the tree were about as quiet as a bull in a china shop! Clearly he had not practiced using his stand like I had instructed. My heart sank because I just knew that this would be a wasted hunt. The mosquitoes moved in for breakfast and my misery was complete.

Shortly after sunrise we watched three does work their way down along the far side of the field. Josh and I had already agreed that, even though it was a Doe Day weekend, we were there for horns! We enjoyed the view but we stuck to the plan. Seeing deer, any deer, always makes me feel good – even if I don’t shoot. I had begun to think that maybe Murphy would go ahead and leave us alone, but he made another appearance about this point.

I’ve been hunting deer for nearly thirty years, and one thing I’ve learned about the Whitetail buck is that he will usually show up when and where you least expect him. From the hardwood bottom to our left rear came a sound that makes a hunter’s ears perk up: the unmistakable noise made by a deer walking purposefully through dry leaves. In less time than it takes to tell about it, a nice six-point buck approached our stands. Josh, who had climbed to a height of only about ten feet above me, turned slowly and looked down at me with a look of absolute horror and frustration. At first I failed to understand why, but then it hit me. Josh is left-handed. His natural field of fire is to his right. The buck was coming from the one direction that would make it almost impossible for him to get a shot. Because of Josh’s height (in the tree), he couldn’t safely pass me the rifle. Because of how quickly the buck had appeared and how quickly he had closed the distance to us, there wasn’t time to make a move without making lots of unwelcome noise. I experienced the most incredible mix of frustration and thrill as I stood as still as a statue and watched the very shootable buck walk by at a distance of no more than ten feet! He never showed the first sign that he saw us, which is pretty remarkable since I was standing at ground level with my back up against a tree. That was the closest I have ever been to a deer “on the hoof”, and it was something I will never forget.

Later, as Josh and I trudged dejectedly to the house, we talked about all the things that we had done wrong. That afternoon, with a replacement wingnut and another one as a spare, we went back to our stands. This time we switched positions relative to one another. Josh sitting the right, and me to the left meant that he would cover the right and I would cover the left. The only route of an animal’s approach that we couldn’t adequately cover would be directly behind us. Of course, you know…that is exactly where the next buck came from: directly behind us.

The climb was much quieter than our morning climb since we had no setup noises to make, having left the stands at the base of the trees. Now we were positioned about 5 feet apart from one another, and about 15 feet high. Before us lay a mown hayfield, 200 yards wide and 800 yards long. The right side boundary of the field was formed by a tree line that ran the full length of the field, and at no point was wider than 20 yards. Its left boundary was a more substantial strip of woods that probably averaged 150 yards wide its full length. All the adjoining fields were backed by a low swampy bottom that stretched back to the Oconee River. And out of this bottom, straight behind us, came Josh’s buck.

Our prey was no trophy, but he was a buck of legal size sporting four points. I wouldn’t have shot this fellow, but then I have killed more deer than I can count [I feel compelled to write that this is not bragging. Many of mine were equally humble]. This would be Josh’s first kill, if he so desired. We had been back on our stands for about hour or so when the sound of the approaching animal came to our ear. Our visitor came up the incline out of the swamp, and entered the only bone fide thicket anywhere near our position. To my son’s extreme right, the tree line began. At this precise spot, the underbrush thickened to the degree that I would not advise a shot into it.

The buck first paused on the far side of the underbrush and began working a rub. All this time, Josh and I had stayed still as was possible given that hungry mosquitoes had passed the word to their sisters that the evening meal had arrived. We had mouthed a few things back and forth, but as the deer got closer we avoided all sounds and slowed down to the speed of minute hands. Even though he was barely 30 yards away, I communicated to Josh that he ought not to shoot through the brush. Better to wait and see if the buck moved into a different spot allowing a more clear shot.

The buck, oblivious to our presence, continued to work his rub for the next quarter of an hour it seemed. After a bit he began to move on up the tree line, in effect quartering away from us though increasingly thicker cover. Disappointment crept into Josh’s face but I whispered to him to hang on and see what happens. Something told me that the closer we got to sunset, the more likely our buck would leave the concealment of the tree line and venture out into the field. If he did that within a reasonable distance, “you’ll most definitely get a shot” I said.

You might wonder at the fact we were now speaking to one another with a deer still so close. But the truth is, our rambunctious young buck was fully committed to a new rub to the extent that he was making plenty of cover noise for us. Although he was now about 50 or 60 yards away, we couldn’t see a single bit of him. We could hear every sound he made however.

The minutes passed. Josh and I both relaxed some, but we stayed at the ready. I observed my son and was proud to note that he was practicing excellent movement discipline and noise discipline. He was showing the signs of being a deliberate and focused hunter, and to note that pleased me immensely.

As sunset was still three quarters of an hour away, we were more concerned that the buck would get too far away before he made his left turn out into the open. He had finished with the second rub and now was proceeding further away up the treeline. Josh is a good shot, but if the animal was 200 yards away across the field, the chances of an accurate shot with the 30-30 would be greatly reduced.

Suddenly the deer made an appearance on the edge of the field. He looked to be about 70 yards away. Josh tensed and watched the animal intently. The line of sight from the hunter to the prey was not yet clear of brush. He waited and watched patiently. I watched both deer and man.

After what seemed to be five minutes of browsing along the tree line our buck turned and stepped further into the field. The change in position brought a nearly clear view to Josh and without hesitation he slowly stood up to further improve his view. As he rose from his seat he slowly brought the rifle to his shoulder. In one very slow and deliberate move he put himself into the firing position he needed. Liking what he saw, he silently cocked the rifle and gently squeezed the trigger. The report was sharp and the impact was obvious. I witnessed a perfect shot behind the animal’s left shoulder. The buck winced and attempted to rush from the spot. A staggering leftward circle was never completed as the animal stumbled and fell within twenty yards.

We waited a couple minutes before starting down from our stands. I cannot give an adequate description of all that I felt and all that Josh felt during those next few minutes. Pride comes high on both our lists if we were to try and name all the emotions that possessed us. His pride at his first kill. My pride at seeing proof that the boy … was a boy no longer.