“Did you get your deer?” It’s the redneck salutation of choice come mid-November. I was asked that question at least 25 times the first week of fall firearms deer season which began Nov. 10. After I wrote here last week that I had yet to see a deer to shoot, only about a half-dozen people asked in the days since.
The answer is “yes, I did finally find a deer.” As I said in this column last Saturday, I intended to go out that morning for my fifth day of hunting in an effort to secure some fresh venison for coming weeks and months.
A hunting buddy and I arrived at the farm — my family’s hunting property — about 20 minutes before shooting light Saturday morning. After assuring our rifles were loaded and necessary gear was stowed in pockets and hunting packs, we headed our separate ways across the property. I was hunting from a hillside overlooking my son’s deer stand and a natural intersection of several game trails. He would be hunting a quarter mile away near a travel area between feeding and bedding areas where I normally hunt opening weekend.
The morning was really “deer-y” feeling. It felt like a traditional deer season morning. The air was crisp and cold, but the wind was calm and the animals were active. We spotted several rabbits and squirrels on the drive to the farm. Once I was in place in my seat where I was gonna hunt, the woods soon filled with the sounds of barking squirrels, chirping small birds, cawing crows and even the occasional noise of bawling cattle on neighboring farms. As the sun peeked up over the ridge in the first hour the animal noises and activity increased.
“This is a good thing,” I told myself. Opening weekend of firearms season, the Saturday and Sunday before, the wind had blown blustery and unending for two days straight. I spotted two deer walking fast through some thick brush early on opening morning, but they were too far away for a good shot so I let them pass without even raising the rifle. Otherwise I had sat for two days and only seen a couple squirrels and heard a lot of blowing wind.
I returned to the woods Monday afternoon for another go at it. This time I hunted from my son’s stand and sat from 2:30 p.m. until dusk without seeing an animal. The wind had been gusting early in the afternoon, but began to settle about an hour before the sun disappeared over the nearest ridge.
Come Thursday afternoon I was back for a fourth try. This time the weather seemed to be cooperating fully. You couldn’t have asked for a better afternoon to be in the woods. It was a cool autumn day but very comfortable. The sun was shining clear and there wasn’t a hint of a breeze. You could hear squirrels and small birds scurrying from 50 yards away. I sat there listening intently, just knowing that at any moment I’d hear the familiar “shoo, shoo, shoo, shoo” of a deer walking unalarmed through the dry leaf clutter as it headed my way. But nothing … except, that is, the birds and squirrels.
Sundown came and I still hadn’t heard or seen a single deer. Another afternoon was wasted, and my available hunting days for the season were now down to less than I could count on one hand. I made my way back to the truck and contemplated writing the season off this year.
“I hate deer hunting,” I told my wife that night. “You always say that when you’ve been hunting and haven’t killed one,” she replied. “No, really, there’s nothing I like about deer hunting. I don’t like sitting for hours on end. I don’t like being cold. I don’t like spending all the gas and wasting all the time for nothing.
“Deer hunting isn’t like squirrel hunting … which you know I love,” I continued. “With squirrels at least you can walk and move around … and stay warm. And when you shoot one, you can immediately begin the hunt and stalk all over again and repeat it several times in a hunt. With deer you just wait and wait, and if you do see one after you’re half frozen from waiting, you shoot it and you’re done. Then you have to field dress it, which is nasty, and then process it.” Truth is, now that my son has moved on to college I usually take my deer to the processor to be butchered … so that part of the argument didn’t carry much weight when I said it.
“So why do you do it,” she asked. “Because I write and talk about deer hunting as part of my living, and if you go too many years without killing a deer than you’re not going to be very credible talking about it, are you,” I answered back. “Besides, it’s great tasting lean meat that we use, and it’s the largest animal you can hunt in Missouri. It’d take a lot of squirrels to fill the same freezer space as one deer.” As my mouth finished my argument about why I hate deer hunting, my hands were busy repacking my small hunting pack and making sure my clothes and gear were all laid out and ready for Saturday morning’s trip back to the farm.
“And another thing,” I added. “Everyone wants to know if I killed a deer. And when I tell them ‘no’, which is bad enough, it never fails that they have a brother, dad, crazy cousin or a 10-year-old niece who killed a 12-point buck opening morning. Or worse yet, they saw a half-dozen deer on their way home from work last night, and a big buck standing beside the road on their way to work this morning. (That last part was meant for her, who had called me that morning to let me know she had just seen a 12-point buck standing in the ditchline along the road as she was driving to work.) Talk about kicking a guy when he’s down.”
Saturday morning came and I jumped up when the alarm on my phone went off at 4 a.m. By 4:45 a.m. I was out the door and in the truck. I stopped by the house of my hunting buddy for the day and he was already sitting in his driveway waiting on me. We talked of kids, sporting events and past hunts as I drove the familiar road to the farm for the fourth time in seven days. As I said earlier, when we arrived you could just feel deer season in the air. My senses told me this was the day I’d finally see a deer, but my mind reminded me I’d thought that four other days in the past week.
After a little more than two hours of sitting and watching, I finally spotted what I’d been waiting for. A large doe was slowly making her way across a hillside parallel to where I was sitting. I took a good luck in front of and behind her to see if she was traveling with a fawn or yearling. There was no little one in sight (I know hunters who will shoot a doe accompanied by a yearling, or shoot the yearling and leave the doe to reproduce … but I’ve always preferred to pass on a doe traveling with a young one). Next I looked further back in the direction from which she came to see if she was being trailed by a buck. Again a negative. It appeared she was a mature doe traveling alone.
As she passed behind a downed tree I slipped off my gloves, cocked the hammer back on my rifle and eased it to my shoulder. I put the crosshairs of the scope on a small clearing between two standing trees a few feet ahead of her, and when she walked into the clearing I made the shot. Just like that my season had gone from one of disappointment and aggravation to one of harvesting a nice animal and, ultimately, a quantity of healthy meat for the skillet in coming months.
I later called my wife to tell her that the stars had aligned and all was now right with the world once again. I had killed a deer and would soon be headed home. Sure, it didn’t have antlers to hang on the wall, but I’ve yet to become a “horn hunter” as some consider themselves. I judge my deer by how close they are to the truck, cabin or nearest 4-wheeler path when they fall. I’ve killed a few nice bucks over the years, but only because that’s what I saw first. I’ll always harvest the first nice-sized deer I see … antlers or not … ‘cause, after all, there’s no good way to cook and eat antlers.
In the days since Saturday morning I’ve been asked repeatedly “Well, did you get one yet?” I’ve been able to say nonchalantly, “Yeah, I got one early Saturday morning. I usually get one every year, you know! Most times it’s opening weekend, but this time it just took me a little longer.” Truth is, I was honestly thinking it was never going to happen … and a couple times during that first week of season I questioned in my mind if I’d ever see another deer to shoot in my lifetime.
In the past 15 years of deer hunting since I returned to the hobby with my then-young son, I’ve only had two seasons that I didn’t kill a deer. But it only takes one dry season to make a hunter start second-guessing everything he or she has ever known about hunting. I know several people who didn’t have success this season … to whom I say ‘don’t give up, it wasn’t your fault, you’ll get one next year!”
And besides, it’s still rabbit and squirrel season.
Doug Smith lives in an old house, drives an old truck, tinkers with old tractors, is married to a young woman, hunts and fishes often, and can be found on any given day wearing his Buffalo plaid flannel jacket and matching Elmer Fudd hat (… and his Harry Morris hunting knife carries 13 filed notches indicating he’s only had two dry years out of the past 15 rifle seasons.)