His third year in the blind with me, his AR sporting a new AAC 762-SDN6 on the muzzle, my (now former) coworker and friend, Dave (not his real name) slowly spun himself around on the bright orange bucket. On the side, upside down, was a cartoonish handyman named Homer extolling the virtues of a Home Depot pail. I had a different Homer in mind, the Greek one. I was in the third season of an odyssey with Dave . . .
I peered out the window into the rising sun at a pair of equally stunning cull bucks. I threw up a silent prayer for their early arrival, their lack of compulsion to move quickly and their relative proximity to the blind. Forty-five yards if they were ten feet from us. They were slowly sniffing out the last of the acorns (and apparently not the two sleepy humans only a stone’s throw from them). “I’m taking the one on the right”, was all I heard from Dave before I heard the cliick of the safety being rotated ninety degrees.
The next sound I anticipated: that distinctive explosion inside a metal trashcan noise. The sound that let me know that a 120 gr. SST was headed for the vital zone of a buck that my neighbors would thank me for killing. Instead, I heard a loud click, followed by a loud “shit” from Dave. The deer did too.
Without looking at his gun, I knew that he’d failed to insert the mag fully; the bolt hadn’t picked up a round when it closed. I knew because I’d watched him load his gun thirty minutes prior under the light of my iPhone’s flashlight. I’d made a mental note to talk to him about bombproof loading, slapping mags, Costa gripping, the works.
Dave looked over at me and said, “It didn’t go off.” Simple words from a complex man. I reached over and pulled the mag free. I coached him through the reasons for the failure, and how to get loaded again. By the time he had a hot firearm, we had a cold shooting lane. Both bucks decided that there was a patch of acorns elsewhere that needed their attention.
Dave’s complexity is in some ways, self-induced. He and his wife are both brilliant. Beyond brilliant. They started gardening many years back and the hobby quickly turned to a passion. The first time I went to Dave’s house five years ago, I admired the head high okra growing in his front yard. One thing led to another, and they found themselves the proud owners of a little piece of land outside of town where they could add protein to the mix.
Soon thereafter, Dave started bringing me fresh duck eggs along with the swiss chard and purple haze carrots. The first year I took him hunting, he brought me a choice lamb roast to thank me. Each time we visit, I inevitably go home with a fresh piece of home grown meat, a dozen eggs and some veggies.
Back in the blind, a sense of irritable tension settled in. Dave kept muttering to himself that he’d really messed up that opportunity. Because I was cold and grumpy, I didn’t offer anything in the way of encouragement to the contrary.
Roughly one hour later, the sun a bit higher in the sky. We spotted movement at the edge of a line of scrubby oaks on my side of the blind. I saw a flash of antlers. I knew deep in my soul that it was him. He was a ten-pointer I’d seen on two separate occasions that season. I don’t consider myself much of a trophy hunter, but I can’t deny that the sight of a huge, mature whitetail buck gets me rattled.
Dave was following two smaller bucks following a small yearling doe. Each time I’d get the crosshairs on him, he’d start moving through the brush again, ruining my opportunity for a clean shot. I tracked flashes of him through a thicket for the better part of two minutes, never getting the clean shot I wanted. I finally watched him bound through an opening in the trees and out of sight.
Dave does not have a stellar record of clean killing at the ranch. In each of the previous two years, I’ve spent a lot of time staring at the ground, looking for blood trails, or watching as a buck struggled valiantly before being put out of its misery with a stroke of the blade.
After two years, I would’ve written nearly everybody off and yanked any future invites. But I appreciate, at a very deep level, what Dave and his wife do. They only visit the grocery store for cleaning supplies and dry goods. The meat and vegetables on their table come from their backyard and the wild. I think that’s cool as all hell, and I want to support them in their endeavors.
That’s how we found ourselves halfway between the blind and the Ranger ATV that Nick rolled last year in the shade of a large oak. As we’d walked off from the blind in search of coffee and tacos, I’d spotted a nice six-point standing perfectly broadside on the hill between us and the house. We had the sun behind us and we were nicely hidden. I was certain we’d seen him before he saw us. I looked over to see Dave taking an unsteady kneeling position, reaching for the safety.
“No. Lay out prone. We’ve got time. He’s not going anywhere. Set up your shot,” I chided. I stood perfectly still as Dave got set up. This was a far(ish) shot at what I’d guessed to be 125 yards. This time, the shot did ring out. I watched as the buck took a mighty leap skyward, and then bounded off towards the house, favoring his front leg. Soon thereafter, a text from my mother popped up. “Wounded him. On the hill.”
“I think I missed”
“No. You hit him. And now we’ve got to track him.”, I said as I silently mouthed the word “Again.”
An hour later, having scoured a great deal of our property on foot and on the Ranger, we gave up the chase. There was little to no blood to track. The land in that part of the ranch is barren of cactus, cedar, or scrubby oaks. There’s no place for a deer’s body to hide. It’s very near a fence line, and my neighbors have people pay to hunt. I’m not climbing the fence unless there’s a clear blood track that crosses the fence line. I anticipate that we’ll see a three legged deer at some point. Or he died a miserable, slow death. Neither scenario fills me with joy.
A few hours later, I slammed the tailgate on Dave’s truck closed on something approximating a quarter of a chord of freshly cut oak. We agreed that he didn’t need to go home empty handed while deftly avoiding the fact that it was about time to go out for an evening hunt. I promised to call and watched as he mounted up and headed out.
Back inside the house, I loaded up my gear and stepped out into the sun. I loaded up the Ranger with a jacket, a field tripod, and some gloves. I drove down to a place on the road where I could get out and walk into a comfy spot against an oak tree. The ground has eroded from the root system forming arguably the closest thing to an La-Z-Boy recliner the wilderness has ever put together. It overlooks a nice little spot that allows me to see two hundred yards in every direction. I laid my gear down, cinched up my sling and set off walking.
I didn’t have a destination in mind – other than a pleasant walk through the woods. The kind that brings me so much peace and calm. Work has been, shall we say, interesting these last few months. I’m exhausted by the corporate grind. Like every year before it, I haven’t done a good job of being selfish with my hunting time.
Dave’s departure marked the fourth trip I’d taken someone on this season. As the sun warmed my neck, I realized that this was the first time I’d walked through the woods, gun in hand, by myself in a year. As I rounded the bend that leads to the spot where I got busted last year, I faced a problem. Namely, the lack of trees to provide some cover for my movement.
I decided to forge ahead. I walked boldly across a wide open field. Truthfully, I didn’t care if I got busted by a deer in the same spot. I was in it more for the walk than anything else.
As I made my way across amber fields of thigh high grass, I took a detour down to a little spot I like. The dry creekbed had water this year; thousands of years of erosion have formed a deep pool with a small waterfall. I imagine that some Native American stumbled upon this spot several hundred years before me and slaked his thirst. We share that, the two of us. My thirst is a bit more metaphorical of course, but we both found some relief there at the side of the not-so-dry creekbed.
I took four steps away when movement caught my eye.
Falling back on some other part of my primal soul that my Native American friend and I share, I froze in place. I watched as a small doe ran straight towards me, a nice little eight-point buck in tow. About forty yards off, she took a hard right, her hooves splashing through the running water, his only a few seconds behind.
I quickly dropped to my belly, thankful that the grass here was only mid-calf height. I flipped out the legs of my bipod. I quickly got my crosshairs on his broad chest, during the moments that he wasn’t actively pursuing his love interest.
The shot was no more than sixty yards. Without even realizing it, I flicked the safety off and rested the pad of my finger gently on the trigger shoe. I kept the crosshairs pinned to his chest while I slowly worked my breathing down to a rhythmic pace. On each exhale, I added a bit more pressure to the shoe of the trigger, silently daring myself to take the shot, while a part of me held back.
I shot a ten-point buck a decade ago that hangs on the wall in my parent’s house. He was far too nice a deer for a stupid kid to take. I’ve only ever taken one larger buck: the one that I shot two years ago on opening day. Since then, I just can’t justify shooting a buck that isn’t prefaced with the word “cull” unless it is bigger than those two deer.
This was a nice deer. I’m certain the meat would be a welcome addition to the freezer. But it felt wasteful.
Somewhere there’s a young man, old enough to handle a rifle capable of taking down a deer his size, begging his dad to take him to the blind. I imagine that he’s done his chores and he’s got A’s across the board. All he wants is time with his dad in the blind. That buck belongs to that young man. There are plenty of other deer that need killing. This nice little eight point, two years shy of his prime, just wasn’t that one.
The pressure eases on the shoe of the trigger, and the safety is back on. I watch through the scope as they head off the way they came. Her, still perturbed. Him, still quite interested. Me, happier. Calmer. Smiling.
I threw my rifle on my shoulder and set off again.
A few more steps and I was in the shade of a hundred oak trees. This is my wife’s favorite spot on the ranch. She likes to walk down here when the weather is right to throw a blanket on the ground so she has a comfortable place to read. We almost got married in this same spot. A wildfire the year before and a fierce argument over where our guests would relieve themselves put an end to that. Did you know they rent luxury port-a-john trailers?
With my wife on my mind, I headed up hill to a spot where I’d promised her to snag a picture. We dream of building a nice house out there on evenings, just the two of us and a bottle of wine. The only thing left to solve is the homesite. The finances, the jobs and the logistics are the easy part we’re sure.
The view from there is good; it lets you see down to the spot where I’d just flirted with death. There’s always a breeze here. I always take a moment to orient myself to the prevailing wind. There was a chill there that the sun at my back was keeping at bay. Before long, I was on the move. This time, headed for my second choice homesite. Naturally, more picture taking happened. Many furious text messages were exchanged as we debated the relative merits of dog run home construction.
This time, the sun was in my face; my fleece vest was suddenly unbearable. I made a mental note to find a thesaurus when I returned so I could find a better word that “damn hot.”
Lost in my thoughts, I saw a flash of fur. A red fox rounded the corner ahead of me, no doubt surprised that an office drone was stumbling through his stand of trees. It’s been years since I’ve seen a fox in person at the ranch, especially one as healthy and vibrant as this one. The rest of my walk was unremarkable, save for the occasional dove that flew overhead, a stark reminder that I hadn’t done any bird hunting this year.
Before I knew it, I was at the La-Z-Boy tree. I quickly got settled in as the sun started to make its way down behind me. No sooner had I donned my hat and a pair of gloves when my old friend came to visit.
We have two male Black Buck Antelope that inhabit the ranch. They’re elusive little goats. Fairly prolific in their breeding, we’ve grown the herd from three to six in an eighteen month span. But people who know more than me say that soon our two bucks will turn murderous. Better to eliminate one now vs. finding a carcass in the spring the experts say.
But me and this old antelope have a bit of a history. I’ve stalked him all over the ranch over the last two years. He only seems to present chip shots. Unless they’re pressured, they won’t jump a fence, so I know he’ll always be around. That’s created a “perfect is the enemy of good” type situation. He’s such a majestic guy that I can’t fathom hitting him at forty yards from the front porch, a shot he’s given me in the past.
I almost took him out earlier this season with a high angle shot that required a brisk run back to the house for my gun. By the time I’d set up, all I saw was his ass disappearing into the woods. Had I a gun in my hands, I think that would have been his last day on Earth. But alas he lives on. The picture above was taken while he meandered through my window of fire. Again, sort of a chip shot, and not really “worth it” in my mind. Besides, scope pictures are fun fodder for hunting stories.
The real excitement started as the sun slipped behind the hill at my back. A chill settled in as the wind died. I checked my watch, and confirmed that I had roughly thirty minutes of legal daylight left.
About that time, I heard a great deal of crashing behind me. Given that we have horses, and they occasionally get a wild hair that necessitates much running and kicking, I assumed they were the source of the noise. Out of an abundance of caution, I slowly craned my neck to the right, only to find myself twenty yards from the same doe I saw earlier, the same eight-point trailing close behind. They passed to my right, so close that I heard their footsteps as they passed through the dry leaves.
They made their way downhill, stopping at some corn I’d placed the day before. Suddenly, ideas of lovemaking were set aside in favor of a quick meal. Several other smaller bucks joined in the fun, none of them the big ten-point I’d seen that morning, and none of them cull bucks. They were all young four, six, and eight-points vying for the attention of one gal short on patience.
I sat there well past legal daylight hours. Past when my eyes could make out the shapes in front of me. Past the last of the warmth leaving the rocks beside me.
Content to let them go about their business. I had a sudden and overwhelming feeling of being an intruder in their world. I held off on rising from my spot and collecting my gear, for fear that I’d be seen as the unwelcome guest that I was. I imagine that they must have been quite displeased that a cubicle dweller so easily snuck into their midst while they were preoccupied with propagating their genes.
Inevitably, my hunger for dinner won out, and I stood to a chorus of snorts, and brilliant white tails retreating in the last of the fading light.