Years ago I hunted nothing but public land around Oxford MS and the University of Mississippi. To say that the area was “pressured” would be an understatement. Over the years I’ve had 4-wheelers, dogs, walkers, hikers, hunters, and even bullets come by me while hunting. As pressured as it was though...it was free.
Back when I was hunting this land the rule was that you couldn’t shoot a doe. There was one day per year scheduled as a “doe day” and as you might imagine...the doe somehow got wind of the schedule every year and they took that day off. So it was bucks only and there was tons of pressure.
I didn’t have much in the way of equipment back then either. I frequently hunted to the verge of hypothermia because I simply didn’t have the money to buy warmer gear. I hunted from the ground in makeshift blinds, I stalked, and used the occasional low tree branch to my advantage. I had a good rifle though, and my determination was top notch and with that combination a lot of good things can happen.
One morning I decided to hunt a field we called Praying Mantis due to the fact that we once saw a big mantis stuck in an ant hill getting devoured by thousands of fire ants. This was a long narrow field on top of a hill that had a power line trail cutting across it right where you entered the field. So you climb up a slight slope, and when you step onto the long narrow field you can look straight down the length of it to the other end, or you can look right and left to look down the power line trail.
That morning I had decided to set up on the power line trail and hope that a buck might come creeping across where I had found some sign. I was about 150 yards down the power line and if I looked back up the hill I could just see the edge of it...but couldn’t see onto it.
The power line trail was maybe 40 yards wide and while it was fairly clear in the middle, the edges where it transitions back to the woods were all choked up with thick vegetation. There was no way I could sit on the ground as the visibility would be very restricted.
Looking around for my next best option all I saw were tall limbless trees. Well...they were limbless until you got to about 15 feet up the trunk...then there were limbs...but they offered nothing in the way of limbs you might be able to climb with. I loved the spot and didn’t want to abandon it, but I had seemingly no options. As I stood there with a burning desire to hunt this spot it occurred to me that I might be able to bear-hug the tree and inch my way up the trunk until I could grab a limb at the 12 to 15 foot level. Once I did that I could wrestle my way up into a better spot.
I stood at the base of a likely tree with my hands on my hips and my head cocked like a dog working an algebra problem. I thought my plan could work, but the closer I got to executing it the more ridiculous it seemed. If you doubt me, just walk out back and bear hug a tree...feet off the ground...see if you can climb a few feet up the trunk. My best plan is to throw my arms and legs around this tree trunk, and then try to shimmy up it like a caterpillar. I had nothing else to do, and no better options so I tied a rope to my gun and the other end to my belt...and up I went. The first few feet of the climb were pretty awkward, the next few feet really hurt, the next few feet gave way to a glimmer of hope that this might actually work. Slowly and painfully I was closing in on the lowest branch of the tree. It was about 12 feet off the ground. Now that I was getting close I realized I had to figure out a way to get on the branch. Was I going to ease out onto it in a pull-up position? Would I try to get an elbow over it? I really wasn’t sure and the closer I got the more important the decision seemed. Through the fog of time I really can’t recall how I made the transition but I know that I did because for the next three hours I stood on that branch holding my rifle.
I stood atop a three inch wide branch with one foot in front of the other and my back pressed up against the tree trunk. I had another limb to my left at around elbow height that I used to steady myself so I wouldn’t fall out of the tree. All in all it was a stable, if uncomfortable, perch with a dynamite view of the area I wanted to hunt. From this vantage point I could see a long way down the power line trail in both directions. To my right the trail rose gradually, and then more steeply as it approached the bean field. To my left it just continued to fade away downhill.
This was perfect. I had a good chance of busting any buck that came creeping around this trail. Once I got settled in I realized just how nice a day it was. There were high blue skies, sunshine, and crisp cold air...just what the doctor ordered for a Saturday morning. If I didn’t fall to my death then this could become one hunt to remember.
Sadly a few hours went by with no activity at all. Around 11:00 AM I heard a car door slam, then another, then another. Ugh...public land. Not 5 minutes later I see three hunters up the hill on the field. I can hear that they are talking but I can’t make out the words. Two continue down the bean field and out of sight, but one starts walking straight down the power line trail toward me. Ugh...public land.
In short order he was right in front of me and I called out “Good morning.” He came to an abrupt and startled halt. He looked around for a moment trying to figure out where the voice had come from and I again called out “hey...” He looked up and stood there speechless for a few seconds with his head cocked like a dog trying to work an algebra problem. When he finally spoke he asked “How did you get up there?!?”
“I climbed.” Came my reply as if I do this sort of thing every day.
“Well, we’re about to do a drive...you ought to stay right there ‘cause you might get a shot in a few minutes.”
“OK...thanks.” I said. Then he moved on down the trail.
I didn’t see or hear anything for the next forty minutes, at which time I saw the hunter come by again.
“We’re going to head out, too bad we didn’t see nothing”.
“Yep” I replied. His friends had pulled a truck up onto the field and I watched him climb the hill to meet them. The truck doors slammed a few more times and they all drove away.
I stood in my tree pondering my next move. It had already been a slow morning, then these guys showed up and burned the area all around my stand by stomping through it, then they had actually driven onto the field and slammed their doors a bunch of times. This place was dead...I would be better off by going to down for lunch and trying someplace else this afternoon.
I unloaded my gun, put the scope cover on, and lowered it to the ground. I then bear hugged the tree, and reversed the shimmying process while trying to protect the more delicate parts of my body that were in danger of serving as a friction brake as I slowly slid down to the ground. If I did this wrong I might never have kids. It crossed my mind that bears make this look a LOT easier when they do it.
Finally back on the ground I dusted all of the loose bark off my clothes, quickly admired all of the scrapes on my arms, slung my rifle and started the climb to the field on top of the hill.
I was so hungry that my stomach was gnawing on my backbone. My lunch options were flowing through my mind as I stared at the ground in front of me and put one foot in front of the other. Pizza hut? Nice salad bar. All you can eat too. crunch. McDonalds? Agh...too fat. Wait...what was that “crunch”? I stopped in my tracks trying to determine if I had actually heard something. After about 10 seconds of listening I wrote it off and started marching again. Slowly the lip of the field was approaching. Once I got the edge of this narrow field all I had to do was turn left and it was all downhill to the truck...and to food.
Finally my head was coming onto the same level as the field and I could see further across it. Slowly I was marching and slowly it was all coming into view. Just about the time I was able to see the whole field I saw it. Right there...right...in front...of me. At high noon, in broad daylight, on public ground, on a field that had received all kinds of noise and pressure...was the biggest buck I had ever seen. He had his back to me and he was absolutely thrashing a sapling. I’ll never forget it...it was a “Y” shaped sapling and the widest part of the “Y” was getting wrecked every time he threw his head up. Those antlers were stripping bark from this poor sapling. This tree hadn’t even had much of a start on life...and the only thing that could save it was me.
Time began to move in slow motion. Right about the time I realized what was happening the buck had started to turn to look over his shoulder. It all happened fast but in my mind it was now a slow motion race. I could see his right eye more as he turned his head to the right. His nose was arcing through the air as those powerful neck muscles flexed. His ears, nose, and eyes were all racing to check over his shoulder.
I on the other hand was racing to unsling my rifle. I had it slung over my right shoulder for the march back to the truck. My left foot slid forward into a firing stance as my left hand raced across my body to find the sling. My right shoulder dipped, his right shoulder dipped. I needed the gun to come off my shoulder but gravity could not pull it fast enough. He started to shift his weight, my hand found the strap. Broadside...he sees me. My right hand finds the pistol grip and as I start to raise the gun to my shoulder his hind quarters explode and launch this beast into the safety of the woods just a few feet in front of him. My rifle only made it to the ready position...the butt never reached my shoulder...he was gone.
At this point my brain was still in action/confusion mode. I hadn’t yet had time to process that the deer might be gone...or my brain might have shifted into the fall-down-and-vomit mode. As I stood there on the edge of the field watching the hole in the woods next to the Y-shaped sapling where the deer had disappeared, the thought hit me...he has to go left. That deer wouldn’t go straight because there was a road at the bottom of the hill. He would probably go left and race across the power line trail...he’d have to cross 40 or 50 yards of bare ground! I ran a few more yards up the hill. I could now see the power line trail on the other side of the field. My gun was up but below my line of sight. This way I could watch with the naked eye until I saw him then lift the gun the last few inches, get him in the scope, and drop the hammer on the best public land trophy ever.
My pulse was hammering in my jugular veins...I mean it was throbbing so hard I thought my throat would explode...it was pounding so hard that it actually hurt. WHOA! THERE HE IS!!! Right on time that magnificent creature ran out into the clearing. Who knows what thoughts had formulated in his mind during this whole ordeal. I imagine he bounded a few yards into the woods, then stopped and looked back like whitetail usually do. During that pause he might have decided that he didn’t want to cross the road at the bottom of the hill. He might have even decided that crossing the power line was his ticket to freedom. Ultimately though it didn’t matter what he thought. This was my plan, this was my day...and he just ran into the most exposed place he could’ve possibly chosen.
When I saw him burst from cover I instinctively snapped the rifle up the last few inches, moving my barrel to track his movements and get the guns momentum heading the right way. This deer wasn’t bounding like they normally do when fleeing. This deer was burning a straight line like a jet powered Kentucky Derby winner. His hooves were pounding the ground and he was a streaking-blur of tan and white. Smoothly tracking him, my thumb flipped the safety forward and my brain was anticipating the sight of the crosshairs just ahead of the deer, I lowered my head until my cheek contacted the stock like I’ve done a million times before..and...WHAT!?! Where did it go? Everything went black. In the panicked confusion I thought my scope was broken or that I had momentarily gone blind. I remember thinking in that spit second that my pulse was beating so hard that I went blind...in reality it was far, far worse. As that monster southern whitetail was making the biggest mistake of his life I realized that I too was making mine...I had forgotten to remove my scope cover after climbing down from the tree.
Pound, pound, crash, POOF...he was gone. He crossed the opening and left me in his dust. He left me in confusion. He left me stunned, and heart-wrenched, and nauseous. I ran to the edge of the woods and desperately peered in...hoping and praying for a miracle I didn’t deserve. I had committed several unforgivable rookie mistakes, and this animal had made me pay dearly for them. If a deer can laugh...I bet he’s laughing to this day.
Why these lessons can’t be learned on a doe I’ll never know. I like to think that I’d learn the lesson if this happened when I was drawing down on a doe but maybe not. Maybe the bigger the opportunity that’s lost the deeper the lesson is ingrained. Maybe it’s the pain that forges the lesson. At this point I was in some serious pain. For the first time in the last few minutes since this started, the full weight of what happened hit me. I had been presented with the public-land-opportunity of a lifetime...and I had blown it. I alone was responsible for every bad thing that had happened. I had worked really hard to make this hunt work, but in the end I wasn’t disciplined enough to seal the deal. I had failed.
I wanted to lay down and puke my guts out. I felt physically ill. I had blown an opportunity of colossal proportions all because I wasn’t prepared. I had my rifle slung over my shoulder. I ignored the sounds I had heard. I was in the woods with a scope that was covered.
That buck taught me some lessons I’ll carry with me to my grave:
If you think you heard something...you did.
If you think you saw something...you did.
You are hunting from the moment you leave the truck until the moment you return.
My gun is ready until I unload it at the tailgate. I am always hunting.
That buck ran out of my life and into my dreams. The lessons learned would be driven home over the next few years by recurring nightmares of him getting away. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of that deer over the years, but I can tell you that a lot of venison has gone to my freezer because of the lessons he taught me. In the end I guess that’s what counts...that buck that got away made me a much better hunter.