November 26 marked the beginning of the fifth rifle deer season since my hunting-savvy father passed away, which added to the emotional impact of my daughter’s decision to wear grandpa’s fluorescent orange hunting hat.
The sentimental selection helped mute some of the potential distractions of the day — the increasingly steady rain didn’t seem as wet or as cold as it normally would. The lack of deer sightings early in the day weren’t as discouraging as typical, either.
We saw a small doe early in the morning, walking along a field edge toward us, but then nothing for a few hours. At 10 a.m., the increasing rain and lack of other hunters in the area increased the odds that the deer were likely bedded down in the thickest parts of the nearby wood patch until the weather broke.
Dad was a huge advocate of stationary hunting — of picking one spot overlooking a heavily traveled deer path and letting other hunters do the moving that would eventually push a deer toward us. At times, he was the one who would make the drive to push deer my way.
However, he taught my brother and me that there are certain circumstances that required a change in strategy. This was one of those moments.
I walked through a small patch of woods next to a small lake, following some impressive tracks planted in the mud of some well-worn deer paths. I’d walk a few steps and then stop and survey the surroundings. Dad always emphasized the importance of stopping here and there — to make the deer nervous that you spotted them and forcing them to make a move.
Sure enough, about 10 yards into the woods, a deer jumped up and ran off just ahead, white tail up high to warn others that danger was lurking in the woods. It was too thick to see if it was a buck or a doe, and it seemed silly to keep crashing through the brush and pushing deer ahead of me that I’d likely never get a shot at, so I changed direction and worked my way to a trail that circled the lake.
As I surveyed the trail ahead, a crash came from the right and a massive buck jumped into the path. It had to be at least an eight- or a 10-pointer. He and a doe then bounded up the trail and around the curve ahead.
It all happened too quickly for me to react or to take a safe shot. That was another of dad’s rules of the hunt: take only a shot you are confident in. There is nothing worse than wounding a deer to suffer a long and painful death.
I debated whether to continue up the trail or not. Obviously, Mr. Massive Buck would be long gone, but something told me to go ahead anyway. It was some sort of a gut reaction, and dad had encouraged us to follow our intuition when hunting.
About 15 yards around the lake, I saw something move ahead and stopped to investigate. Mr. Massive Buck turned off the lakeside trail and went into another heavily used deer path near a thicket. Suddenly, another buck came out of the same thicket and started walking toward me slowly. He wasn’t as large, his rack not as developed, but it was obvious that he was legal. Three tines were easily distinguishable on each side.
I shouldered the .308 and scanned the surroundings to make sure any shot I took would be a safe one, yet another echo from both my dad and the golden rules of gun safety. Make sure your target and whatever is beyond offers a safe shot.
The six-pointer continued to walk cautiously toward me and then angled away and paused — offering the perfect broadside shot. I prayed that my shot would be safe and immediately effective. I squeezed the trigger and the six-pointer dropped where he once stood.
My daughter, who decided she didn’t want to bring a gun on this hunt but came along for the experience, texted me to ask if I got one. I told her I did, and she came running. This was the first deer I shot while she was along, and there are few things more satisfying than sharing a successful hunt with your family. I’ll never forget my son’s first deer, and I’ll never forget this hunt.
At least six of dad’s favorite hunting lessons led to success that morning: Changing strategy based on the elements; following the signs, such as heavily used deer paths with lots of fresh tracks; not underestimating the importance of strategic stops during a drive; following your intuition; taking only a shot you are confident will be effective and safe; and sharing the success — and lessons — with the next generation.
The only part of dad on the hunt may have been his orange hat, but he was still definitely there — through the example he set while I was younger and the lessons I hope to pass along to his grandchildren.
I’d also like to believe that he was somehow involved with Mr. Massive Buck’s efforts to push the six-pointer my way — one last opportunity to drive a deer toward me like he did so well when he was alive.
Email John Zaktansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.