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Monday, April 2, 2018

A day in the sun

This trip has been a long time coming.  My world has been full of stress, big stress, life altering changes are happening and there’s no escape from the pressure.  The lake has always been my escape in the past and I hope it can be so again. It is the one place where solitude and adventure can drown all of your worries.  

Monday we lost another guy at work, the latest in a long line.  Our market is getting hammered and people are losing their livelihoods.  I looked around Monday afternoon and told everyone I was taking the rest of the week off.  I needed to be someplace other than work for a few days.  My morale and my outlook needed an adjustment, and I knew exactly where I would go to make it happen.  

It rained almost non-stop for the next three days.  There was no way to fish.  I was locked inside, sitting at a computer, brooding.  The weather forecast for Friday looked good so I prepped everything to be read for when the weather broke.  At 11 AM Friday morning I hooked the boat to the truck, grabbed a mug of coffee and a bag of Redman, then pointed the truck toward Pickwick Lake.

I was intent on having a good time.  I’d have a two hour drive to the lake, 6 hours of fishing, and a return trip that night.  I was a man on a mission.  I was going fishing and no stress would find me.  

After an uneventful drive I was finally sitting in the boat prepping sonars and camera gear when I saw the familiar green truck pulling down the launch.  My buddy Gary is a park ranger here and it looked like he was coming down to say hello.  I began walking toward the truck, about to let loose a good natured insult when the drivers door opened and I saw that it wasn’t Gary.  It was a pair of game wardens.  They’d come to ‘inspect’ me.  

This was a seasoned officer training a rookie and they’d been out stopping people all day.  I was merely the latest in a long string of inspections.  I handed my lifetime license to the rookie and thought that would be it.  It wasn’t.  They told me I needed to have a throwable life jacket for a boat my size and said that was an infraction.  So much for the “no stress” day.  Next he said my registration was expired, much to my surprise it was.  

They were cool about the whole thing.  He said he’d skip the citation for the throwable life jacket since I fish alone, and he wrote me up for the much lower cost "registration" issue.  I cracked some jokes with the wardens while they did the paperwork then got underway.  The rookie looked very uncomfortable with the whole thing so at the end I shook his hand and told him not to feel bad about what he’s doing, it was my fault and he’s doing a job that needs to be done.  It’s 100% my fault, not his.  Rules are rules.  Then I got in the boat, put it all behind me, and eased out of the marina to find some adventure. 

As soon as I left the marina I was greeted by a familiar Pickwick site, a barge.  These run day and night.  You’ll notice some very large spotlights mounted up near the wheelhouse.  If you’re heading toward them at night, in a manner they see as problematic they will hit you with one of those lights.  It’s only happened to me once, and I simply could not see.  I had absolutely no choice but to turn the boat another direction.  I still think they did it just to mess with me, but at night it’s difficult to tell how far away a barge is.  It’s probably the most dangerous thing out there because it’s so deceptive. Several times I’ve had a barge just a few hundred yards from me but thought I was looking at house lights on the hillside miles down the river.  The lights are so spread out, and so high and small that they look like everything BUT a barge at night.  Regardless, here’s one in the day time.  

I made a slow run to Panther Cove.  I say slow because the north wind had the main lake chopped up badly.  It was a bone jarring ride, and when I arrived I found the cove completely full of boats.  I didn’t even throw a line.  I wasn’t here to hang out in traffic, I was here to find some peace, and hopefully some fish.  

Despite the clear skies, on my run to the next spot I had to zip my rain jacket all the way up to my chin and tighten down the hood.  It was crazy how much water was spraying in my face as I made the journey to the next spot.  Even if I’d had windshield wipers on my sunglasses they could not have kept up.  Without the rain jacket I’d have been soaking wet and freezing cold.  After a few minutes of  getting splashed and pounded I pulled off the main river and into a cove that always produces in the Spring.  It was still windy in this cove, but with my Terrova Spot Lock feature I’d have no trouble at all.  I’d just hit a button and let the trolling motor do the work while I fished.

I deployed the trolling motor, hit the spot lock button and began to cast around a rocky point.  I quickly noticed I was being blown onto the bank.  “Hmm, I must have hit a button and de-activated the spot lock.”

I moved the boat a few yards out and hit it again.  Two casts later, same thing.  The wind was blowing me into the bank.  I turned the motor toward deep water and hit the “high power” button to zoom me away from the shore but the motor suddenly quit.  Nothing.  Dead.  “Wha?!”  It was quickly obvious that one or more of my deep cycle trolling motor batteries was dying or I had a loose connection somewhere.  I had virtually no power.

“Ugh! First I get a ticket at the ramp, now on a windy spring day I have no trolling motor!?!”  I was starting to get mad when I realized that I could still make this work.  I needed to keep my attitude right.  Sure it was windy and I had no trolling motor, and I got a ticket the minute I got here; but it was still a nice day to be on the lake.  Surely I could make something happen.  Heck, people caught fish all the time before trolling motors were invented.  

With a positive attitude I sat behind the wheel jumped on plane and motored to the next cove.  This is a cove where I’ve had a lot of luck over the past few years.  I idled down the bank to where I usually see beds and BAM!  Beds galore.  

The wind was everywhere.  Despite the fact that it was a north wind, every east-west cove on the lake was swirling and choppy.  There was nowhere to hide.  I got the boat about where I wanted it, then broke out my “old school” Spot Lock: a 20 lb fluke anchor.  I can’t tell you the last time I anchored up to fish, but I was sure glad I had that trick in the bag.  It looked like I’d be able to leap-frog my way down this bank, moving from anchor point to anchor point. 

I looked around the cove and reveled in my good fortune.  It was a windy day, and at times cold, but when the sun was out it glistened off every emerald green wave that rippled across the lake.  The hills were turning from Winter to Spring.  In the fall and winter my fishing is usually done in a world of gray skies and brown earth.  Today I had blue skies and areas of green popping out from the brown woods. Trees and flowers were blooming, grass was growing.    There wasn’t much wildlife to be seen or heard due to the wind, but nature was clearly coming back from her long winter slumber.  The sun was warm on my face when the wind wasn’t blowing, and the ground around me was soaking up that same heat.

I had my lucky “Lizard of Oz” tied on a Carolina rig and was slowly and patiently probing the depths around me.  There was a small, gravelly secondary point to my right that dropped off quickly into 7 to 9 feet of water.  In most places the drop off was a ledge, dang near straight down as you can see on some of the sonar pictures.  

I got a few encouraging bumps in the first 10 minutes which helped increase my confidence.  I really didn’t want to be pulling up the anchor and moving very often, and with this small bit of feedback from the fish I was willing to sit here with the patience of a Heron.  I figured if I was anchored on a good spot in the Spring, tossing a lizard into beds then I’d eventually score.  I had nowhere to go, and could sit here for a long time.

After a few bump-and-go incidents in the same spot I finally got a fish to commit.  On perhaps the fourth time I drug the Lizard of Oz through the bed I got a solid bump and I set the hook.  I could tell right away I had one on, though it felt like I’d probably caught a small male.  “No big deal” I thought.  “At least I’m on the board.”

The fish didn’t come on strong.  One moment I was just watching my line lazily slice through the glistening emerald chop that surrounded my boat under a warm early spring sun.  The next moment I was shocked from that idyllic scene and dragged into aquatic combat. I thought it was a fairly small bass until it came up and smashed the surface of the lake. That creature absolutely flailed through the air and crashed down with a spray you normally only see on a Disney log ride.  I couldn’t believe my luck.  This has gone from a routine catch, to a very nice and highly aggressive bass!

My previous calm and patient demeanor was suddenly nowhere to be found.  At this point I was a mumbling mess.  “Oh!  Dude, DUDE!  Oh man, oh jeez, man, dude.”  There was no coherent thought expressed at any point during my rambling.  I guess it was just an un-regulated expression of my pure excitement.  My “fun throttle” was stuck wide open and my brain didn’t feel the need to slow it down for the sake of grammar.  So I just paced back and forth mumbling incoherently but paying keen attention to the important stuff like maintaining tension on the line and monitoring my drag.

As that long green monster darted past me I could see an almost iridescent spot on his aft half.  It really stood out as a different color than the rest of the fish.  As it moved through the light it  changed almost like the hologram you see on a credit card.

I grabbed the net, extended the handle and put it in the water for the catch.  The next time this fish swam by I’d net him, land him, and snap a pic.  That was the plan.  But the fish had a vote too, and it saw things quite differently.  He was moving down the length of the boat and I was easing into position when he did it.  That fish pulled some aquatic black magic (perhaps I should say ‘green’ magic since he’s a bass) and my rod tip instantly slammed into the net, becoming hopelessly entangled.   

I was stunned.  How does a man shove the rod tip into the net when trying to land a fish?  I could see if maybe two people were involved, but I controlled both pieces!  I tried four or five times to free it but no dice.  In one swoop the fish had taken both my rod AND my net out of the battle.  This fish was good, crazy good.  I’d never seen a move quite like it.  Now that he had my rod, reel, and drag totally sidelined, all he had to do was defeat the tensile strength of my line.  I was sweating it.  My ambush was beginning to have the feel of defeat.

After a few failed attempts to free the rod I reached for my knife.  My rod and reel lay helplessly on the floor of the boat and I held the rim of the net in my left hand.  As my right hand slid down to my pocket my mind was racing.  “Do I really want to cut my net?  Heck, what if I accidentally cut my line?!?”  The fish was still on and he’d  occasionally rocket out from under the boat to mock me.

“No way I’m using the knife.  I’ll have to hand line him.”  I had the net in one hand and started to pull in the last few feet of line by hand.  I knew he was on the end of it, and that he’d try to kill me if he got the chance.  The first time I tried to lip him he blasted past me.  “Dang!  Where’s the line?  Is it going to break?  Don’t let pressure build up on the line!”  

I had this weird dance going on where I had to keep track of the fish, but also had to keep the net under control and make sure the rod didn’t twist so tight that it severed the line. The last time I had something green come up top and mess up this much gear it was a 10 foot gator.  Today this 20 inch bass was wreaking almost as much havoc.

After several more failed attempts at lipping him, I decided to pick him up like I see on the bass tournament shows.  I eased my hand under his belly and lifted him in like a football.  Piece of cake!  Despite it’s valiant attempts at escape, the Beast was in my boat, in my hands, and in my phone.  

The ice had literally and figuratively been broken.  Winter was officially over, and I’d caught the first bass of the year.  Despite all the recent trouble and stress, the lake had come through for me again.  It delivered 6 hours of adventure and fun.

I checked a few more spots and drove around the lake but I caught just a few small fish for the effort.  Soon the sun was setting and I decided to head for the truck.  

I stopped in one last spot on the way to the truck.  It gets cold back in these hollows, and despite the sunshine from earlier in the day, darkness was closing in.  It was a dusky, dark, quiet place surrounded by high forested hills.  The cold was reminding me that nature was in control.  If you weren’t prepared, she could kill you.  My hands were starting to burn from the cold and I could see my breath on the air.  Many time’s I’ll camp in this very spot.  I bring my firewood and camping gear on the boat with me, then simply nudge the boat ashore, start a fire, and sleep by the waters edge.

Tonight as I looked around the cove, I saw my breath hanging in the air and I was rubbing my hands to keep warm.  My trolling motor was dead and even in the shelter of this cove the wind was still pushing me around.  It was a good day, but it was time to head home for the comfort of a warm soft bed and an opportunity to fix my gear.  The first official day of my fishing season was over.  I drove home smiling, the stress was gone.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A storm is raging

It's 11:30 PM and I just turned the TV off.  The house is quiet and I hear only the lonesome sound of a train crawling by.  I can't see the train but I know it's there.  It's a mile away; past manicured lawns on quiet suburban streets.  Past blooming Dogwood trees signaling the beginning of Spring.  Past an entire city of sleeping human beings.  That big steel beast is coming in from the west just ahead of cold front that's bringing large volumes of rain.  

The beast will continue it's eastward journey, exiting the suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee and powering into the rolling hills, forests and farmlands of north Mississippi.  Hundreds of tons of train will roll along on cold steel rails, taking that freight through small towns like La Grange and Grand Junction, TN.  It's lonely horn won't wake anyone at the hour of it's arrival.  It will snake through the swampy bottoms of Big Hill Pond, making owls and raccoons aware of it's presence as those big diesel engines rumble through the swamp.  It'll roll into Corinth, Mississippi sometime around 3:00 AM.  Then it will continue through the dark of night into the  hills of East Mississippi where it will cross the TomBigbee Waterway, perhaps crossing over a barge that's moving a different load of freight down to the coast.  Just a few more miles and that big train will cruise over a long, low, wooden trestle bridge that spans the southern reaches of Bear Creek on Pickwick Lake.  

That train is carrying more than freight tonight my friends. It's carrying my mind eastward to Bear Creek.  A creek 12 miles long, a mile wide, and loaded with large and smallmouth bass.  Tonight under that dark, cloudy sky, the train crosses a body of water loaded with hundreds of thousands of pre-spawn bass.  Like the train, the bass too are traveling a well defined and scheduled route at the moment.  Theirs leads from deep winter haunts, to warmer, shallow flats where they will spawn.  Some of them will take a journey that includes a trip to my boat, and into my memories.

As I drift off to sleep tonight with a raging storm outside, my dreams will ride that train to Pickwick, and I'll be setting the hook in my sleep all night. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Another first

The weather has been uncharacteristically cold for our region recently.  Lows have been in the teens every night and daytime highs don’t exceed the freezing mark.  People and buildings in this region are not built for such weather.  It’s been a tough few weeks of winter lately.

Today though we had a break in the weather.  The daytime high jumped up to 41 degrees and we had clear skies with very little wind.  That was a nice change because today we’d be taking another new hunter on his first trip.  

My sons friend Sean would be joining us this afternoon.  He’s a super nice, super smart kid who plans to study mechanical engineering next year when he starts college.  He has a good bit of experience shooting pistols, but has never hunted. 

I took him through the usual process of ensuring he was familiar and competent with the rifle we’d be using.  We discussed deer behavior and anatomy, along with where to place a shot depending on the position of the deer.  

This would be an overnight trip, which would give us more opportunity to score.  I hadn’t hunted this farm in a while so I had no clue what the deer had been up to. I thought we might need the extra day to find success.

We had a short walk from the truck to an elevated two-man box stand.  The stand was situated in a corner that allowed us to look at a field that ran 150 yards to the west, and another that ran 250 yards to the south.  Both fields were planted in a mix of greens and were surrounded by thick bedding areas and rolling hills covered in mature hardwoods.  The area is as pretty as it is productive.

As we approached the fields I scanned to the west and found that field to be empty.  The stand was another 80 yards ahead and the field to the south was blocked by a low hill about 15 feet high.  We eased up the back of the hill and before we crested it I scanned through the grass with my bino’s.  A deer was already on the field.  It looked like a big old doe, but it was early, and it was by itself which made me skeptical.  

With Sean on my left I watched that deer feed as though it hadn’t a care in the world.  It was facing away from me so I couldn’t get a great view of it’s head.  Before I tried to stalk us into a position for a shot I wanted to make sure this wasn’t a button buck.  The timing and behavior screamed “young buck” and I had to be sure.  About a minute later the deer turned just enough to the left that I could see a long spike sticking up off his head.  It was indeed a young buck who had decided to raid the food pantry early.  

I let Sean look at the deer through the bino’s, then we walked to the stand, happy to run the buck out of the field.  I’d rather have him gone than have him hold us hostage until something worth shooting actually showed up and found us out of position.  

We climbed a wooden staircase to the box stand stashed our gear inside, then climbed in.  The stand is furnished with two padded office chairs and has narrow firing windows on all sides.  It’s made of black plastic, so even on a cold day, if its sunny the box will absorb heat and stay artificially warm until the sun gets low.

When we got in the box it was so warm we took off our jackets and hunted in tee shirts.  I had Sean practice getting the gun out the window in a quiet and stealthy fashion.  I gave him yardage markers based on prominent trees around the field, and generally helped him settle in to the hunt.  

He was in the chair on the left, which allowed him to shoot South.  I was in the chair on the right, which gave me a view to the West.  Between the two of us we could easily monitor everything.  However, if a deer came out on the West field, we’d have to switch chairs so he could shoot.  It was tight quarters and switching chairs would take some deft maneuvering but could be done.  With the plans set, we began to scan.  

We didn’t have to wait long before a small spike buck emerged on the West field.  It was obviously not a shooter, but I thought it would be a good exercise to have him get the scope on a real live deer, pick out where he would shoot it, and generally become comfortable behind the rifle with a deer in front of him.  This deer was 100 yards away, calmly feeding in a green field two hours before sunset.  It seemed to be shaping up to be an active hunt.  

The kid was a natural in the blind.  He paid attention to the details, moved slowly and positioned everything quietly.  If the hunt got busted it clearly wouldn’t be from him spooking a deer.   Sean looked at me to say something, then turned back to face the West field.  He immediately said “There’s another deer.”

I got the bino’s up and sure enough, a big bodied deer had entered the field about 100 yards away.  It was a buck, a much bigger buck than we’d seen so far.  I wasn’t huge, but it looked like it might have eight points, which is the minimum for this farm.  After a few more moments of study I could see it had nice brow tines, which made it an eight point.  “Kill that deer” I said as flatly and unemotionally as I could.  

“Really?”  Came the response..

“Yeah, he’s a good deer, kill him.”

He silently went through the motions again, got the gun in the window, put gun to shoulder, cheek weld, and then something new…shaking.  Five minutes ago he was fine looking at a spike through the scope, but once the kill order came down he was an absolute shaking mess.  What is it that causes this?  Why is a man perfectly calm looking at the deer when he’s not going to kill it, but the second that changes, he gets flooded with adrenaline?

I could sympathize with him, I’ve been there.  No matter how hard he tries to control it, he can’t.  It is a violent, uncontrollable shaking. In a perfectly warm box-stand his body was shivering like a hypothermia victim.  He was shaking so much that I could feel the box-stand vibrating. 

The buck stood broadside at 110 yards.  A whitetail buck, standing in a green field next to a hardwood forest at sunset is a majestic sight.  This buck stood there like he owned the world.  Head up, perfectly calm, in command.  110 yards away a young predator was shaking like a jackhammer running on adrenaline.  It was like we existed in two different universes.  How could two beings occupy the same space, with one placid, the other running like a rocket, and the first not be aware of the second?  Such is the nature of the hunt; one hides their presence and intentions until the moment is right.  Sean was trying to hide his but the longer he shook the less likely it was.

Still the buck stood, broadside at 110 yards.  He’d occasionally drop his head to the ground to eat, but he’d always come back to his statuesque pose with antlers held high and massive body standing like a sentinel.  

The gun was in the window but we had a problem, and a big one at that. The setting sun was now low enough that it was blinding the scope.  All Sean could see was a white glare when he peered through the lens.  From inside the shade of the blind you could see the deer perfectly, but to get a shot with the rifle you had to put the gun in the window, and then you were blinded.  This was a conundrum.  We had to take a shot before that deer ran off, but you couldn’t see through the scope to take a shot at all.  

Looking over his shoulder I could see a ton of glare coming off the rifle barrel.  I thought that if I covered the barrel it might cut down enough glare to see.  I had Sean pull the gun back in, and I put my fingerless gloves over the barrel.  I ran the barrel into the glove where my hand would go, and then out the pinky slot.  With both gloves now covering the barrel in a non-reflective cloth we gave it another look.  

Nope. The scope was still full of glare.  Ugh!  This was nuts.  You just don’t see a decent buck walk onto a field with two hours of light left, and then just hang out.  He was going to leave any second.  We couldn’t make the sun set any faster, so we desperately needed a plan to play the had we’d been dealt.  All I could think about was adding a sun-shade to that scope the minute I got home.  That gave me an idea. 

I took my ball cap off and put the bill out the shooting window just in front of the scope.  Maybe, just maybe I could find a position that would block enough light that Sean could find the target and release a shot.

He was sitting in a chair with the rifle out the window.  I was standing behind him, reaching over him and the rifle, and sticking my ball cap out the window just enough to block the light but not touch the scope.  From my position I could no longer see the deer, and I was leaning on one foot, which required that I support myself with the same hand that was holding the hat.  I put my right index finger up against the wall above the window, and the rest of my fingers held the hat in position.  There was a good deal of weight pressing on that one finger, and I couldn’t wait until this was over.

He said he had a good sight picture!  Yes, finally!  Standing over him, leaning with one finger on the wall in front of him I waited for the safety to be disengaged.  “Click”.  Yes!  The shot was almost here, and with it I’d get relief from this uncomfortable position.  I heard him breathe in deep “hhhffffff”, then he let half of it out, I could picture the deer standing there 110 yards away.  I watched from above him as Sean shook violently.  Suddenly the rest of the breath got let out in a sudden whoosh.  No shot came.  He was obviously trying to regroup, to gather himself and calm his nerves before releasing a bullet.  

“OK, it happens.  Surely the next time he’ll shoot.”  My finger was burning and my back was starting to ache from the awkward position.  Another deep breath, another image flashed through my mind of our target that was just a few yards away on the other side of this black plastic wall.  The exhale came next, then the shuttering vibration of a stand that held a very anxious hunter.  Again he passed; he blew out the last of his breath and tried to regroup, no shot came.

The deer was sill there, but now that we had a plan to deal with the sunlight, we had a hunter so excited that he couldn’t steady the gun.  I had to laugh a little bit because if he were to hand me the rifle to me the deer would be dead in literally two seconds.  One second to mount the gun, and one second to shoot.  To a seasoned hunter it’s just that easy, I don’t get nervous around deer any more.  

At one point I had to rest my hand.  I pulled the hat back in and gave him a short, calm pep talk on the fundamentals.  I whispered “It’s no different than at the range.  Focus on your sight picture, breathing, and trigger pull.  If you do those things well, everything else will fall in place.”  Looking me directly in the eyes, he nodded in acknowledgment and we both went back to our previous positions.  He on the gun, and me on the hat.  

The deer was still there.  Unbelievable.  This just does not happen.  The only thing this deer could do to further hasten his demise would be to climb the ladder, knock on the door, and beg us to kill him.  

This time I used TWO fingers to support myself while on “hat duty”.  Again I watched from above  as he drew a deep breath, let it halfway out, and failed to fire.  I could tell he was trying his best but his body was shaking really hard.  Sometimes no matter how hard you command it to be still, your body just has other ideas.  I bet we went through the motions another five times.  Five more false alarms that ended with no shot against a ticking clock.  That buck would not stay forever.  He’d get tired of being there, a predator might spook him off, or something as fickle as the wind could change and carry our scent to him.  Time is not your friend in situations like this.

Finally Sean told me he was ready.  He was getting calm enough that he thought he could get a shot off, but now the deer had moved!  A buck that had stood broadside for near an eternity, now decided to face us head on, taking away our preferred shot.  Oh the humanity!!!

I took a seat and just marveled at our situation.  It was both great and absurd at the same time.  We had the worlds calmest whitetail buck 110 yards away, perfectly still and broadside for several minutes, but couldn’t see him through the scope due to the setting sun.  Now that we had a solution for the sunset, he turned and took away our shot.  I had to laugh.

Soon he turned broadside gain.  Sean and I went through our “routine” maneuvers to get set up.  On perhaps our fifteenth run through our shooting cycle it all paid off.  I had the hat held perfectly to shade the scope, in came a deep breath, he let it halfway out, the shaking was noticeably less, and then BOOM!  The .30-06 shattered the calm, peaceful vibe in this little valley and relieved me of my duty to balance on two fingers while holding a hat out a window.

As soon as I knew the shot was away and my moving wouldn’t interfere with it, I dropped down to look out the window.  I was not prepared for what I saw.  The floor of the box stand was lined with a decade of debris; leaves, dirt, dust, wasp nests…all kinds of stuff.  When that rifle barked, it shocked up a cloud of dust like I couldn’t believe.  I was actually swatting with both hands trying to clear the view a little. It looked like I was viewing the world through a brown lens from all the dirt in the air.  

What I saw made me happy though.  That buck took off running with his tail tucked, and his body hunched up a little bit.  He ran a large semi-circle, away from us and to the left, taking him through the field and then back into the woods.  That deer was hit solid.  I smiled broadly and told Sean we’d wait a few minutes, then start tracking him.  

The first thing I had him do was cycle the bolt and make the gun safe.  We were happy and wanted to talk 100 mph about how that hunt went down, but safety was paramount.  The gun would be secured before we even shook hands.

He pulled the gun in, made it safe, then I shook his very shaky hand.  I handed him the empty ..30-06 shell and told him it was his to keep.  It’s the brass casing the from the very first shot he ever took at an animal. It’s a small keepsake of an adventure he’ll never forget and 
I imagine he’ll keep that in a desk drawer somewhere until he is an old man. 

In the interim we sat in the blind and discussed everything that had just happened.  It was a crazy set of events for anyone, let alone for someone on their first ever hunt.  It was beyond my wildest hopes that he’d get a shot on a buck his first time out.  As it is, this is one he is going to have mounted to put on his wall.  

A few minutes later we got down from the stand and hiked over to the scene of the crime.  We found the spot where the buck was shot, then began looking for blood.   I looked around on the ground for a moment and then scanned the woodline.  I expected he’d be dead just a few yards in, and was hopeful I could see him from the spot where he was shot.  Sure enough, about 70 yards down the field I saw a white belly a few yards into the woods.  I told Sean to keep the gun at the ready in case it jumped up, and made certain he had the scope dialed down to it’s lowest power.  If he still had it on 9X and a wounded deer jumped up 20 yards away he’d have a mighty hard time finding it in the scope to get a follow up shot. We then made our way to him with a quick pace.  I had Sean approach the deer and poke it in the eye with the barrel just to make sure it was dead, and it was.

I shook his hand again then we looked the beast over.  There was a .30 caliber hole directly behind the shoulder, exactly halfway down from the backbone, with a matching one on the far side.

“Is that a good shot?” he asked.

“No, that’s a perfect shot.”

From there it was just phone calls and pictures as modern technology allowed us to share his success and happiness with friends and family far away.  

The temps dropped well below freezing after dark.  We stopped in town for a hot dinner then started the hour-and-a-half drive home.  As soon as we hit the highway the boys fell victim to a full belly and a day full of adventure; and they fell fast asleep.  I drove through the cold, dark, windy night satisfied with the days events and wondered if they were dreaming of the hunt.  I know I would be.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The first time

When you have kids, you get to know their friends.  Some of these kids have been coming to the house for so many years that they’re almost like family.  Along the way, they all saw my son going hunting with me.  My son asked if they’d like to go sometime and a few of them said yes.  So this year my goal has been to take as many of those kids as I can.

The plan is to take them to the rifle range first to get them familiar, safe, and competent with the rifle.  I’m not taking someone to the woods without seeing they can actually hit the target reliably at expected distances.  To do otherwise would be setting them up for failure, and would would be grossly unfair to the animal.

With that as the plan, we got started.  The first man up was his friend John, a senior in high school.  He’s a smart kid, super nice, and a great sense of humor.  He has no shooting or hunting experience at all.  

I provided some familiarization training at the house to avoid having to do it over the sound of gunfire and potential pressure at the range.  It was a quiet place where no miscommunication was possible.  He listened intently and followed all instructions.

At the range he was the perfect student.  He did everything he was told to do, was conscious of being safe, and shot perfectly.  He had never fired a gun prior to that point.  With a target 100 yards distant, I instructed him on sight picture, breathing and trigger control.  “Once you’ve established a good sight picture, breathe in deep, let it halfway out, then during that respiratory pause…ease that trigger back until the gun goes off.”  He was shooting a .30-06 with a bipod off a shooting bench, and every shot he took was great.  He printed an inch and a half group right where I’d zeroed the gun.  After a little more familiarization fire, we called it a day and went home.  

The day after Christmas we went to the woods.  There were two other kids hunting that afternoon, but John and I were hunting together in a two man stand.  This allowed me to show him the ropes from start to finish.  Sitting in a two-man ladder stand I could help spot deer, provide advice on the hunt, and insure he learned how to do the whole thing safely.

We spooked three deer on the way in, then got set up in a two-man ladder stand on a wooded hillside overlooking a pair of roughly rectangular fields that were connected by a low creek crossing.  The creek provided a thin veil of trees that separated them, but allowed some limited visibility into the second field on the far side.

It was 122 yards to the gap between the fields, and 252 yards to the far side of the second field.  The gun was zeroed in a manner that allowed all of that distance to be shot without making any adjustments.  I didn’t anticipate we’d be shooting anything longer than 150 yards.

After a short hike, we climbed a 15 foot ladder, then settled in for the wait.
He had never been in the woods before so it was neat to hear his reactions to things.  After the woods “settled down” following our arrival, groups of small birds began to sing and stir all around us.  Noises would drift through the timber to us, leaving us discussing their potential sources.  Some are easy to pick out, a distant train, a squirrel in the woods, the usual stuff.  I’d tell a few stories in hushed whispers just to pass the time and maybe pass a little knowledge.  

I could barely hear some turkey clucking way back in the woods to the left of the first field.  I didn’t mention it because it was faint and infrequent.  Soon enough though I heard some loud, intermittent clucking from a bird in the woods to the right of the second field.  

“Turkey.” I whispered.

“Really?”  Came the answer.

I can see how he may have thought I was kidding.  It’s not a normal sound, just a single, loud cluck.  It’s hard to imagine it would be a bird, let alone a turkey.  I told him that most people don’t know that turkey can fly.  He said he didn’t know that either.  I told him I can remember the exact moment when I learned it.  I was stalking quietly through the woods when I spooked a few of them.  They took off with the loudest raucous you could imagine.  I know I went home and asked someone “Did you know that turkeys can fly?!?”

A few minutes later there was a terrible racket from the woods to the right of the second field.  It kind of sounded like a Bigfoot ripping all the branches off a tree.

“They just flew to their roost” I whispered.  A turkey is a big bird with a wide wing span, and when they fly to roost in a tree the hit all kinds of things.  A group of turkey taking to the roost can be heard a long ways away.

Not ten minutes later I saw some black dots entering the first field from the left.  110 yards away, three turkey were sneaking on to the field.  This was the first group I’d heard earlier.  They were quiet, cautious, and slow.  

“Turkey” I announced again.


I pointed them out on the left side of the field and handed him my bino’s.  He watched them intently for maybe five minutes; remarking on how spindly their legs looked, differences in their demeanor, and that they were quite ugly.  First day in the woods and he’s already learning stuff!  I was happy to have the entertainment for him.  The last thing I wanted was a long, cold, boring sit in the woods as his intro to hunting.

As it turned out, it was a perfect afternoon to be in the woods.  The temperature was in the low 40’s and there was no wind.  We’d been sitting in the stand for around an hour and a half and weren’t even very cold.

Just then I saw a deer through the trees on the second field.  There was no way to weave a shot through there, but I could see them and we still had plenty of light left.  

“Deer!” I whispered.

John craned his neck slowly trying to get a visual. 

“Second field, just to the right of the gap.”

“I don’t see them.”

I can’t blame him.  The untrained eye would have a difficult time picking them out amongst the clutter, but they were clear as day to a hunter.  I’d have to walk him onto their position.

“Do you see the skinny tree 15 yards in front of us?”


“Go up that tree until you see a big branch from the tree behind it crossing at a 90 degree angle.  The deer are in the bottom right corner of that intersection, on the second field.”

“OK, I see it.”

Those two branches formed a very crude but effective reference point to get him dialed in.

The deer were moving to the left, on a path that would have them well screened by the trees until they got to the gap between the fields.  We had plenty of light left and I was confident we’d get a shot.

I told him to get the deer in the scope, make sure it was adjusted to the right power, and that he had a clear shot to the gap between the fields, as I expected thats where we’d take them.

He had to slouch down and lean toward me to get the deer in the scope.

“Wow, there’s three of them.” I announced.  

“It doesn’t look like I’ll have a shot” he said.  “Three are lined up with each other and I don’t want to hit two.” 

He had been learning from our earlier conversations, and was now applying it in the field, on his own.  He knew to be aware of what was beyond his target, and he identified a situation he didn’t like.  A very astute observation for his first hunt, and a very disciplined call on his part. 

“Great call.  Just keep the scope on them, I think they’ll spread out by the time they hit that gap.”

He had been calm all day, but now that he was on the gun, in the field, and had deer in the scope things were changing.  He had to lean my way to get them in the scope and though I was squished as far left as I could go, he was still pushing into my right side a bit.  I could feel him breathing heavy as he watched through the scope.  His heart was clearly racing.  

The deer took a few minutes to clear the last large cedar tree and come into plain view.  They had indeed spread out.  I was looking through my bino’s and he through the scope.  We talked about which doe looked the biggest and decided he would shoot the doe furthest on the left; which happened to be the first in the line.

“Should I shoot now?” Came the rushed inquiry.  

“If you have a clear target, take the shot.”

The safety clicked off, heavy breathing continued for just one or two more breaths, then there was a long, deliberate inhale, a relaxed exhale that stopped at the halfway point, and “BOOOOOM!”  The .30-06 barked from the wooded hillside.

I watched through the binoculars as the doe dropped flat as a pancake on the spot where it stood.  Perhaps half a second after the shot, the rest of the deer ran.  I was shocked at how many deer came out of that corner.  I thought there were only three to begin with, but there may have been eight that ran out.  In singles and pairs they’d fly across that gap, darting and bounding as whitetail do.

“Where did she go?!”  He asked.  

“She’s flat as a pancake right where you shot her.”

After the shot he rode the recoil, and when the gun came down all he saw was deer running everywhere in that gap.  Logic made him assume that the last deer in the group must be the one he shot.  He figured it was wounded and it couldn’t keep up with the others.  In fact he had dropped it on the spot.  It was a great outcome.

I looked at John and asked “How do you feel?”

The response made me laugh.

“Man, that was way less recoil than at the range.”

His face bore the type of huge smile that only adventure and adrenaline can deliver.  We sat there for a minute talking about the hunt.  He said that on the drive out to the farm, he sat in the truck quietly questioning whether he’d be able to pull the trigger when the time came.  

“In the moment though, there was no hesitation, I just did it.”

He felt good that the deer died a quick and humane death.  I was happy for him, and proud of his efforts and his outlook. 

There were other deer killed that afternoon, and John got introduced to tracking, gutting, and a number of other things that just go along with the hunt. It was a great day, and I’m happy to say that the number of American hunters just grew by one more!

Friday we are taking the next kid.  Same plan, and hopefully the same result.