I’ve written before about getting busted by a doe on a Thanksgiving hunt and watching as one of the best whitetail bucks I’d ever seen ran off at full tilt. Looking back through the archives, I realized that I’d never gotten around to telling the story of the morning after that hunt. Still unsuccessful, but just as fulfilling for a whole different set of reasons.
I’ve been hunting at our family ranch since the day we inked the deal. I went out the night our family signed paperwork with a Q-Beam spotlight and my .22 and managed to bag some possums and some ‘coons.
For many years, there wasn’t a manmade structure out there beyond a few hastily constructed blinds, and the back half of a panel truck that rolled off the assembly line sometime after WWII. Subsequently, my earliest memories of whitetail season include waking up at an absurd hour with my high school hunting buddy and making the drive out to the ranch.
That all changed when I left home for college. My parents were eyeballing retirement and wanted a small place where they could put their heads down over a long weekend. Obviously, I was ecstatic as it meant I could roll out of bed there and go hunt. And for many mornings, that’s exactly what I did.
The morning in question was one of those times when a life I vividly remember crosses paths with dreams I’d always had during those times. Specifically, I rolled over at an ungodly hour to my alarm going off, and then rolled back for a few extra minutes tucked in with my beautiful wife.
I remember waking up alone many mornings at the ranch thinking that one day, I’d be married to a beautiful woman who would understand my need to leave a warm bed to go spend some time in the woods. Here I was living an actual dream the morning after another successful Thanksgiving with my family.
Slowly and quietly, I padded around the room, gathering my gear. I gave my wife a final kiss before I headed out to the truck to retrieve my gun. I sat for a moment admiring my well worn Ruger M77 MK II in .243 Win. It has countless rounds down the barrel, but still manages to hold a tight enough group for my uses.
I had a brief flashback to my parents handing me the printed out piece of paper from the gun store showing my rifle on order with a small note that said, “To those that hunt, from those that eat.” Realizing that this morning was going to be filled with nostalgia, I loaded up with five rounds of those beautiful Barnes TSX bullets.
I made my way back through the house, patting the dog on the head when he awoke briefly. My dad was already out on the porch in the dark, huddled up next to the heater, drinking coffee, and reading the day’s news on his tablet. He’s never hunted a day in his life, but he’s spent many mornings getting up early, alone, and shivered in the darkness to do something that erases the stresses of the daily grind.
He gave me a knowing smile, wished me luck, and told me that I could just as easily hang out on the porch as there was a spike that kept coming up for water at the horse trough each morning.
I gave it a bit of consideration because I knew I’d actually sit and talk with my dad for a few hours and never take a 40 yard chip shot at a clueless yearling. But that big buck from the day before was calling me. The rut was in full swing, and I knew in my soul I’d see him again.
I politely declined and took off down the big hill off the porch for the short hike to the spot where I’d seen the buck the day before. I picked a spot a ways up that big hill where I could glass the valley below.
Sure enough, shortly after sunrise, I saw a big group of whitetail exactly where I’d seen them the day before. The does and yearlings could peek their heads out above the grass, and the slightly taller bucks could clear theirs spines and heads above the curtain of amber.
Glassing the group, I saw a few does, though none of them were big enough to make me want to flick the safety off on my well worn Ruger.
Continuing to glass, I saw two bucks and a spike. Both bucks were young, maybe two and a half or so as evidenced by their featherweight body composition, narrow six point antlers, and long snouts. Back when I was dreaming about being a married man, I probably would have popped one of them. But today, they were safe. And I was quickly rewarded for my discretion.
At some point, fueled by whatever the deer equivalent to testosterone is, one of them decided two things. First, he had a good shot of getting lucky with one of the does. Second, the other similarly-sized buck was the impediment to him reaching his first conclusion.
Naturally, speed, surprise, and violence of action were the order of the day. And at about that time, the other buck must have reached a very similar conclusion as they both started snorting, and pawing the ground.
I’ve heard a lot about bucks fighting each other. And I’ve seen some pictures and a video here and there. But you really can’t experience it that way. You have to sit there, digging your heels into the soft dirt, with your fingers on the cold side of “just right” while you watch two large animals crash into each other.
There are moments during the fight when both get locked up tight and, as much as they want to, they can’t relent. But they can’t give up ground either. So they stand, bodies tensed, with muscles quivering, their breath coming ragged and steaming from their nostrils while they wait for the other to finally relent.
At some point, one gets their wind, and twists the other off balance. They disconnect and stand facing each other. They both look over at the does as if to say, “Are you seeing this? I’m doing this for you.”
But at the same time, you can see a moment of clarity try to worm its way through their hormone addled brains as they wonder, “Is this really worth it?” To make sure, they lock up antlers again, albeit with a bit less vigor, and continue their violent dance. There is nothing quite like it.
And then, as quick as they started, they stopped. A much larger, and more mature buck had wandered down from the woods. It was the big one from the day before and he looked even better than I had remembered.
He was moving at a slow trot, following an older doe down the hill on the opposite side of the valley. They were still on my neighbor’s place, but I readied my gun thinking that the sounds of a fight, and a quick-moving doe in front of him might be enough to bring him to my side.
Already, my face felt flushed, I could feel my pulse quicken. He was moving along the fence line in the photo above tracking from left to right. There’s a little spot out of frame to the right where they always seem to jump over and I could see the doe making a beeline for it.
I moved my body around a bit to get oriented with that spot, and used the tree next to me for some support. I checked that I had a firm rest, and double checked the distance. I figured it at about 125 yards or so to the fence making this a very viable shot.
I watched as the doe entered my scope‘s field of view on the other side of the fence. She slowed a bit as she reached the spot that the deer regularly use to hop over.
I swung my rifle left and confirmed that the big buck was still following. He’d stopped to see what her next move was with a perfect broadside shot. Unfortunately, he wasn’t on my side, so I swung my rifle back over in time to see the doe jump over. My heart rate quickened even further.
He started to make his way to the same spot when he came to a full stop and looked back up the hill on my neighbor’s side. I followed his gaze to see a much younger doe. A regular Kate Upton in comparison to the Christie Brinkley that had just made her way over to my side.
He raised his nose to test the air and quickly chose to pursue youth over experience. I watched, crestfallen, as I saw the disappearing ass and antlers of my big buck for the second time in as many days.
I sighed and put my gun back on safe. I leaned back into the hill behind me, closed my eyes, and dug my fingers into the cold black dirt. I waited a few breaths, opened my eyes, and looked back up at a crystal clear blue sky.
My warrior bucks from earlier stared at me along with the objects of their affection. I sat back up and watched as they took off at a dead run. I packed my gear and checked my Timex. The digital display told me that if I hustled, I could get at least two cups of coffee worth of conversation in my with dad around the heater before our wives woke up.