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.