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.