Reflecting on a week spent up in the Bruce full of friends/family, food, the great outdoors, tales of glory (or lack there of) and the occasional deer of course.
Reflecting on a week spent up in the Bruce full of friends/family, food, the great outdoors, tales of glory (or lack there of) and the occasional deer of course.
I’ve expressed my fondness for various styles of guns in this forum on more than one occasion, and I’m usually for older, more proven models than new, fancy, cutting-edge models, but that’s not what this is about.
This is about a foible of human nature. This is about an affinity for ‘things’ and the very human practice of ascribing them emotional value that sometimes exceeds their worthiness. About infusing metal and wood and polymers and glass with memories, hopes, and aspirations. For some people the object is a talisman or a token, some bauble that becomes a representation of deeper meaning in their lives. Photos, trinkets, keepsakes, and antiques, they all fall under this umbrella.
For me this is perfectly distilled in two deer guns. One with a pedigree forged in years and primacy of place in a young boy’s hunting initiation, the other with no outwardly special graces but still imbued with deeply personal significance.
My father bought the old gun from a work acquaintance, back when those kinds of transactions between hunters were less meticulously controlled. I do not know (mostly because I never asked) if it was Dad’s intention that this gun was intended to be for one of his sons, but I can suspect that he had it at least in the back of his mind. It is a beautifully-crafted Remington Model 14, and it is at least 80 years old by now, and possibly even closer to a century has passed since it left Ilion, New York. Chambered in .30 Remington (a shell that isn’t even manufactured anymore) it is smooth to the shoulder, extremely ‘pointable’, and about as nice a brush gun as you could hope to have. I remember being put through my paces with it one Thanksgiving at the farm, just weeks before I would take up arms in my first deer hunt. I was taken through the proper loading, unloading, safety and aiming rituals of the gun. Convinced I was safe, Dad then took me into the hardwoods and had me shoot at a knot on a split piece of hardwood at fifty paces; I missed the knot, but I was in the neighbourhood and Dad said it was close enough to kill a deer if I was lucky enough to have the bead on a deer’s front shoulder. I just recall that the bullet split the wood as smoothly as any maul would have.
Next we stood perpendicular to the big hill behind the farm and dad affixed a cardboard target inside an old tire. He kicked the tire down the hill and I tried to hit the bouncing, wobbling target. This time I was more steady and poured a couple of shots into the kill zone. With that I was deemed ‘ready’. A few weeks later I swung the bead onto the form of a running deer and through the rear peep sight I calmly squeezed the trigger, knocking down a fawn. I don’t even recall feeling the gun’s recoil in that moment, but the sounds and smells and feelings of that morning are seared into my mind.
A couple of other deer have fallen to that gun in the intervening years, and I’ve done some missing with it too, but every time I took it to the range it told me that operator error, and not some malfunction in the weapon, was the real culprit in my poor shooting. It was always the first thing I reached for in November and the action has become so well worn that it almost falls open when released. The recoil does a large part of the work in pumping the gun after it is shot and the patina it has from my hands is unmistakable. It glows after a dose of oil and the stock and fore-end have a warm chestnut brown sheen that reminds me of bread toasted over a mid-day bonfire and a chill November breeze across my face.
That gun and I…we have history together.
But there’s another gun, and it lacks the heritage and character of the Model 14. It is non-descript and in many ways indistinguishable from the thousands of other cookie-cutter rifles on the market. It’s existence in my gun cabinet comes from a casual observation I made in 2012. My younger brother and I were discussing rifles, and platforms, and calibers when I mentioned that I was thinking about buying a .308WIN in a bolt action with a drop-out clip. It was not a burning desire, not an immediate need, and certainly nothing more than a passing thought at the time. I owned (in fact had won) a perfectly serviceable .243WIN in a raffle, but it had two strikes against it. First I was considering starting to moose hunt, and I thought .243 would be a bit light in caliber, and secondly, it was a top-load, top-eject model and it was fairly annoying to load and unload. So like I said, I mused about buying a .308.
The local gun shop was offering good prices on the Savage Axis in that caliber with a standard scope package and I was tempted on several occasions to splurge on it, but we had just bought a new home and there just wasn’t room in the budget for a rifle/scope combo. So in my mind it was just an idle daydream.
At the same time, my mother was dying. She had cancer that everyone was certain was going to be terminal at some time in the not-so-distant future, and we had all more or less made peace with that sobering and not particularly pleasant fact.
In early 2013, Mom’s health continued to decline to lower ebbs and repeated treatments were really only staving off what was clearly an inevitability. It was a stressful and truly shitty situation, most of all for Mom who had lost a lot of her energy and vibrancy in putting up the good fight for many years against the disease. She still made all the appearances and efforts she could, and one evening in early March, I arrived home to find Mom, Dad, and my younger brother over visiting my wife and (then) very young sons…the youngest wasn’t even a year old yet.
After some pleasantries, my brother disappeared out the front door for few minutes and came back in carrying a large box that on sight, I knew held a gun. He had been on a bit of a gun-buying spree at the time so I presumed that he was showing me his latest purchase, which was a Savage Axis with a scope in .308WIN. I was about to jibe him for buying ‘my gun’ when I was left speechless and a bit stunned when Mom just smiled at me and said two words.
I probably stood there with a goofy grin, and with nothing to say for a few seconds before I started laughing and saying “thank you” a dozen times. There weren’t any tears that I could recall, and it all unfolded that my brother had mentioned that I was thinking of a new gun, and that she had leapt at the opportunity to get it for me. I also distinctly remember mom saying something about probably not having many more opportunities to get me something to hunt with. It stung me to hear her open admission of her own mortality, but it also was just like her.
She adored that ‘her boys’ (by which she always meant my Dad, my brother, and I) hunted together and shared a passion for the outdoors, and whenever she could she tried to stress the importance of having us get together and go out into the fields and woods. That gift was just one more of those gestures. I thanked her and my brother and my dad some more and then we eventually just settled in for a nice visit.
She was gone from cancer not even 90 days after that gun took up residence in my house, and she never had the chance to see a picture of me standing next to a deer, cradling her gift. In fact, to date no one has because I haven’t harvested a deer in the three deer seasons since she gifted me that rifle. But now, in a way to honour her gift, and also as a way to get off the ‘zero’ that the .308WIN is carrying, I reach for it first on almost every hunt. It is light, with a synthetic stock of Mossy Oak camo. The Bushnell scope, and the new caps I put on it last year are primed and ready. The clip slides smoothly and snugly into place, and the trigger is crisp. It is nice-looking, nice shooting unit, and some day it is going to do its job and put venison in the freezer.
So even though it is the ‘new gun’ it’s just as saturated with emotion and expectation as the Model 14, which is the crafty, aged veteran of the deer woods, not only in my hands but from whatever hunts and experiences the previous owner(s) had taken it on.
It’s so hard to pick a favourite in this circumstance, so I guess I’ll do what I do every year.
I’m packing up both.
Standing on the damp front porch of the cabin, I took a deep breath of the November morning and the raw chill tightened my lungs into a sputtered cough. I thumbed three cartridges into the underside of my Model 14 and worked the back and forth to chamber a round. The action on the old pump rifle had seen at least four or five decades of work before it had found its way into my young hands, and the fore-end glided into position easily, almost of its own accord. Reaching under, I slid in a fourth shell for insurance.
I turned my head at the sound of another hunter opening the camp door, and saw my dad step out into what was just one more of an incalculable number of mornings he had spent chasing whitetails. This was my first deer hunt since 1997, and I was glad to get into the camp again after a four-season hiatus.
“You ready?” I asked.
He nodded perfunctorily and we started through the grass and up the trail. As we entered the tree line the hushed swish of our boots through frosty grass turned into a soft, rhythmic ‘crunch-crunch-crunch’ in leaves hardened by the overnight drop below freezing. We turned slightly north and headed towards an old beaver pond; the day before, just on the edge of my sight line through the hardwoods, the ghostly shape of a deer had bounded through that spot unexpectedly. At the time, my gun had been laying comfortably across my lap.
That morning we were hoping to see the same deer again. I was planning to be ready, while not really expecting anything to happen.
We spoke not a word as we trudged determinedly through the gloom of the dawning of another November day, and when we arrived at my allotted space, dad told me in a low whisper that he was going to move some fifty or sixty yards to the west of me and cover off the area to my right where, as a right-handed shooter, I would not be able to swing my gun through. He said we’d sit until 10am or so and then he’d get up and do a bit of a push through the surrounding area in the hopes of kicking a deer up.
I nodded, and with a little smirk, dad walked away to my right. His feet in the leaves sounded uncannily like a deer’s footfalls, and I could see him find his chosen spot. He had picked a flat rock under a broad maple as his stand, and he sat down, shifting his feet slightly. For a minute or so after he had taken his seat, I sat in the all-encompassing silence of the woods. Then, from my right, dad broke the silence with two soft calls from a grunt tube.
As if offended by the deer noises put forth by my father, the silence again took over in a heavy pall. Not a puff of wind blew, and no other animal dared profane the stillness with their sounds. I could very palpably hear my own breath in my ears beneath my blaze orange toque, and I peered intensely into the vertical lines of grey hardwood trunks, hoping against hope to catch the white flash of a deer’s throat patch or to spy the vertical grey line of my quarry’s backbone.
I heard it first though. Through the silence, directly in front of me, I could hear the steady ‘crunch, crunch…crunch, crunch, crunch’ of something walking in the leaves, and it was getting closer. Out of the rhythmic and hypnotic approach, there was a punctuated ‘crunch…thump, thump’ and then I knew that a deer had hopped over the low, moss-covered cedar rail fence to the north of my stand, a fence that had been there since the property was a homestead in the late 1800’s. No one in our deer camp was so spry as to make that leap so early in the morning and my heart thumped rapidly. In moments I could see the deer, head down, winnowing its way through the trees. It was on a direct line towards me and I softly slid the safety on my rifle to the ‘off’ position. It barely made an audible ‘click’ as I armed the weapon. Adrenalin had my right hand trembling ever so slightly.
As the deer passed behind a wide tree trunk, I shouldered the gun smoothly and began tracking the animal’s approach. All the while it ambled forward with its head down, while my eyes were riveted to its front shoulder. It would have to turn to my right or left at some point, otherwise it would surely step on my feet, and as if on cue, at twenty paces or so it turned broadside to my left, still walking slowly through the leaves. The front bead of my peep sight glowed bright against the grey of side of the animal and with the aiming point hovering over the deer’s heart I let my hand tighten into a squeeze on the trigger.
“POWWW!” went the rifle and I worked the pump action automatically in the echoing aftermath. To my shock the deer simply flinched, took two quick hops to my right, and stood stock still. It was broadside and looking right at me by then. For what felt like an eternity, but was in reality barely a fraction of a second, I could not believe that I had missed such a lay-up of a shot. The hunter’s primal instinct blared in my brain and I swung the bead back onto the front shoulder, while the deer coiled its internal spring to flee at the sight of such an obvious movement on my part. My front bead found the fur of a deer’s shoulder blade and I again touched off the trigger.
“POWWW!” once more just as the deer jumped. This time I did not even recall cycling the weapon, while the deer went limp in mid-air and landed on its side. Leaves flew as it kicked two or three times before stretching out stiffly. Once again all was still in the hardwood bottom that Tuesday morning. I had been sitting for less than fifteen minutes.
I let out a long, quivering sigh and put the gun back to ‘safe’. Bending down I picked up the two empty brass casings that glowed against leaves still white with frost, and feeling the casing’s heat I shoved them absent-mindedly into my coat pocket. I rolled my head from shoulder to shoulder and drew in a breath that was laced with spent powder. I was elated, embarrassed, bewildered, and frankly a little sad.
But then I always feel a little sad when I shoot a deer.
Our group is dispersed when we hunt deer, and I knew that more than one short-wave radio was going to be switching on at the sound of my gun barking that early into the morning. I flipped my radio on and softly announced that I had been responsible for the shooting and that I had a deer down. A few affirmatives crackled across the airwaves and I switched my unit off. Forty minutes later, dad ambled over to inspect my handiwork. He asked if it was a buck or a doe and I frankly couldn’t recall. I had not left my seat since the shooting action and since I had a tag covering either eventuality in my pocket I had not been really focused on the deer’s headgear. As the deer having antlers didn’t really stick out in memories just so recently forged, I told him it was a doe.
“No, it isn’t” was all he said as stood over the plump, supine form of the deer. I leaned my gun against a tree, walked over and saw the small, basket-rack seven pointer up close. Grabbing the one antler in my hand I picked up the deer’s head and noticed that the antlers were loose and the skull seemed disconnected from the rest of the deer. Sure enough, on closer inspection my second shot had hit the deer at the base of the skull, just below the right ear. Certainly not where I was aiming and the definition of a ‘lucky shot’ but given the multiple vectors of startled deer, swinging gun, bewildered hunter, and hastily fired bullet I was not one to complain.
All this embarrassment and panic could have been avoided had I not shot under the deer with the first round, a fact attested to by a gouged trough in the leaves and dirt at the site of my first attempt.
It was my first buck and just my second deer, and I have had many deer-hunting purists scoff and roll their eyes at this story, caricaturing me as some sort of ham-fisted, trembling mess of a deer hunter, incapable of hitting the broad side of a barn and completely ignorant of the workings of both deer and firearm. To those people I say a gentle profanity and hear them no more.
What transpired all those deer seasons ago was certainly not my finest moment behind the gun, and at best it was a comedy of errors that ended with some venison in the freezer and a tale to tell. Still it is not a story I share reluctantly, because every moment in the fields and forests has merit. For the record, the next deer I shot was perfectly dispatched with one efficient, humane shot through the base of the neck using the same gun, but I say that only to illustrate the randomness of the events related above and not as some macho form of self-aggrandizing atonement. I have missed plenty of deer before and I will miss my fair share of deer again, I can assure you.
The misses and the hits are probably a metaphor for life’s greater meaning, but that’s not what this story is really about. This is just about the thrills and emotions of a hunt that happened in the most unpredictable fashion, and the lifelong memory it spawned.
Which are, at the end of the day, the primary reasons that I hunt in the first place.
There is an expression in baseball circles that a key to success is being able to ‘slow down the game’. I won’t belabor the theory but it essentially points to techniques that bring a level of calm to a sometimes frantic sport.
In that respect, I see parallels between baseball and deer hunting, and since I am abjectly terrible at actually killing deer I had a lot of time to think about this over the past few weeks.
For the uneducated spectator, baseball can seem to be the height of tedium. My lovely wife cannot stomach more than an inning on television and past attempts to get her to live baseball games have proven a mistake. She is not alone, and a four-hour-plus day at the ballpark does not hold much appeal to all but the most fanatical of baseball fans. So it goes with some types of hunting, but I find it most crystallized in a deer hunt, particularly when ‘on stand’. I have had many people over the course of my still young lifetime ask me one pointed question over and over again.
“What do you do out there? You mean you just sit? That sounds boring.” And to make a not-so-popular admission, it sometimes is cripplingly monotonous.
Of course, being on stand does not necessarily define deer hunting, or the men and women that do it. In some regions a drive or push hunt is the norm, occasionally accompanied by the sweet music of hounds working a scent trail. In other places, spot and stalk is the modus operandi. Rattling, calling, and decoying play an increasing part as well. Still, I would argue that if an informal survey were conducted, nothing defines or still serves as the default approach to deer hunting more than being 25 feet up a tree, or crouched in a ground blind, or leaned up against a stump or rock waiting for a deer to pass by.
Those are long hours, and depending on where you are in the world, they are sometimes frosty, wearying shifts. I have on more than one occasion done all-day sits that lasted from dawn to dusk, and guys in camp just shook their heads at me. Non-hunters consider it insanity and to put a fine point on it, I don’t really like it either. But I have to do it. I do not move quietly through the woods, I do not have a preternatural ‘eye’ for deer and deer sign, and I do not have countless hours at my disposal to scout and pattern deer.
A hope, a comfortable cushion, and a likely spot are all that I really have in my arsenal.
I’ve seen many enriching things, though, so all is not lost. I’ve seen late autumn sunrises and sunsets that provoke a deep visceral response and could move you to tears. I’ve walked out of a sit into the approaching nightfall while the big heavy flakes of a snowstorm fell fast on a driving wind, sparkling like stars in the beam of my headlamp. I’ve seen a small group of ruffed grouse parade past me at twenty steps, oblivious to the fact that on another day with another weapon in hand I may have turned a few of them into table fare. I had a pine marten climb the tree behind me and sit perched six feet over my head for a full ten minutes; he muttered and purred to himself the whole time while I slowly tried to get my camera out of my backpack for a snapshot. I’ve heard hundreds and hundreds of mallards chattering and trading over my head before settling into a shallow lake a short distance away, their wings whistling in a way that was harmony and cacophony all at once. Songbirds have mistaken my rifle barrel for a twig and perched there for a time. A chickadee landed on my forearm once and a vole climbed across my boot top another time. I once watched a tree sway in a fierce wind and topple with a crash so exhilarating and violent that I felt the ground move from a hundred feet away while my hands trembled from the shock of it. I’ve been privy to these moments and plenty more.
Infrequently, I see a deer.
There has been research conducted that found that people would rather experience an electrical shock than be left for long hours with only their thoughts. I do not understand that rationale one bit.
On a deer stand I’ve considered whether proposing to my girlfriend was a good idea. I thought about if I wanted to have a family. I’ve considered what kind of dad I’d be and more recently what kind of dad I am. I have had epiphanies about world affairs that I’ve long since forgotten, I’ve solved complex problems at my job, and I’ve thought a lot about the place hunting has both historically and in the modern sense. I’ve written and rewritten dozens of posts for this site in my mind, and I’ve been inspired by the wilderness to write contributions to other sites. I’ve listened to voices in my head that echo the deer hunters that came before me, and I’ve remembered and forgotten more than clumsy clichés on a laptop can do justice. I’ve napped with an autumn sun on my face and I’ve shivered through sleety afternoons where a warm fire and a deep whiskey were vastly preferable alternatives.
Perhaps if I had paid more attention, I’d have shot more, but it did not seem pertinent then and I don’t really care at this point either. The game has always been slowed down for me when it comes to our deer hunts, so I guess, at least in the baseball definition, I’ve been successful to a degree.
Which is good because it feels like success to me.