A Trophy Day in the Deer Woods
As I scribbled this in a notebook, the field-dressed carcass of a freshly-killed whitetail buck rested about 25 feet below me, the steam rising into the frosty morning air as its body cooled on that chilliest day yet of Virginia’s early muzzleloader season.
I had planned on spending the entire day in the woods, knowing that mature male deer were beginning to rut in earnest and might be seen at any time. Besides a backpack laden with food and drink, I even brought a book and some reading glasses.
Some hunters would never let a book distract them from continually surveying the area around them. For many, though, a book helps pass the time while enjoying the outdoors. It’s sort of like looking in the rear-view mirror when driving. You read a few paragraphs, glance around.
Tom McGuane’s book “The Longest Silence,” a tome written in 1999 about his life seeking salmonids around the world with a fly rod, had long been on my reading list. I figured a chilly, full day in the treestand was a good way to make a dent in the book.
After I had tagged the deer and finished field dressing chores, I slipped my feet into the climbing stand’s stirrups and edged back toward the treetops. Nestled in my lofty perch, I could feel sweat rivulets run down my back as I carefully unzipped the pack and removed the book.
One thing you learn as a passionate deer hunter is you can never count on success. Most of us, however, are eternally optimistic – certain the buck of a lifetime is going to appear. He rarely, if ever does. And, really, all each “buck of a lifetime” does, is reset personal benchmarks for what constitutes a “trophy deer.”
Another thing I’ve learned is that, sometimes, until you pull the trigger you never really know just how “good” a buck may be. It’s a choice that eventually challenges any serious hunter. When the woods are thick early in the season, there are many times we don’t see the entire deer, maybe just the body and portions of an antler. If a quality shot materializes, it’s often a quick decision to shoot – or not.
Full Moon Mojo
The morning began momentously. It’s tough when the rut kicks in during a full moon. Deer play all night and relax more during the day.
I made a drag rag from a piece of an old towel and fishing line. Upon leaving my truck, I doused the cloth with estrus doe urine. I forgot to wear latex gloves. The aroma on my fingers bade warning not to rub eyes, pick nose or handle any sandwiches or candy bars without some type barrier between fingers and food until I could clean up.
No flashlight was needed moving through the woods. If I could see this well, a deer must be seeing like an owl.
I trailed the drag rag to the point where I’d hang my stand. It was still 20 minutes until legal shooting time. Taking a knee, I quietly began attaching my climbing stand to a white oak.
Suddenly, the unmistakable sound of a deer bounding toward me through the crunchy, fallen leaves caught my attention.
“On no, not yet!” I muttered.
I could see the big buck standing on the small promontory just 25 yards away, visible enough to easily shoot but safe since he arrived well before the appointed hour. He’d come in on a string, as they say, following the scent trail.
Talk about feeling helpless. I tried to remain motionless, but soon wondered what was the point. I couldn't crouch for 30 minutes. Maybe I could stay low and gently spook him without him knowing, perhaps, just what I was. I rustled a stick and the buck wheeled toward the creek bottom.
Forty minutes later, at 6:30 a.m. and safely up the tree, I picked up my True Talker grunt tube and began mimicking the tending grunts of a rutting buck. Within minutes, I heard rhythmic crunching of leaves on the opposite side of the creek. The bottom was choked with holly and laurel. I could hear an unseen buck whipping the laurel with his antlers. Maybe it was the same big buck.
Movement caught my eye – a patch of white here, an antler piece there. I sought a better look through muzzleloader’s scope. For a split second, I caught a swept forward main beam with tall antler tines. Mature buck.
A tiny opening offered a shot at the deer’s vitals, just behind the front shoulder “Probably him,” I thought as I touched the trigger. Smoke belched from the muzzle and settled in a surreal, defined, thin layer just off the treestand. After waiting 45 minutes, I ventured down to locate my deer. Finding him in a clump of laurel, my first reaction was, “Doggone it. I thought he was bigger.” It wasn’t the same buck.
Sex Education – Deer Woods Style
Writers like to read the work of other writers, especially that of good writers. McGuane related how fishing for many no longer seems to be for fun, relaxation, or the basic renewal that comes from enjoying the outdoors. Oddly, bouncing this perspective against my initial thoughts about the dead buck below me prompted me to recall the previous day when I took my 5-year-old granddaughter McKayla into the woods to share hunting secrets.
The trip was part hunting education, part sex education. Not birds and the bees stuff, but certain dynamics of love, as practiced by whitetails.
Of course, sex among whitetails has nothing to do with love. It’s about perpetuation of the species by pairing the most adaptable. How that sorts out in the wild varies among species and locales.
McKayla followed quietly me into the woods. I grabbed a stick and began scraping away leaves until nothing but the earthy scent of exposed soil remained. I think most people who love the outdoors also love that intoxicating smell of the raw earth below the leaves.
I snapped a small branch down toward the scrape. Setting my jaw, it was time for full disclosure. I looked McKayla in the eyes and explained, “Now the deer pees in the scrape.”
She cocked her head and gave me a “No way” kind of look, simultaneously looking to her grandmother to confirm whether or not Grandpa was telling a tall one.
Fortunately, I had bottle of the elixir, Whitetail Research’s Special Golden Estrus.
“Here, take a little sniff,” I offered. She did.
“Eeeeeouuu,” she whispered, crinkling her nose. “Why do deer do this?”
I explained that deer have unique ways of attracting a mate, and making sure fawns are born each spring is most important.
If McKayla had been older, I probably would have added that a deer couldn’t advertise on a dating site for a girlfriend. A scrape is sort of the same as a personals ad. It says, “Single, white (tailed) buck; fleet of foot; well-proportioned shiny antlers; social cud chewer; seeks, petite, yet athletic doe for late autumn love.”
Yes, it is a memorable experience teaching a kindergartner about the subtleties of building a mock scrape.
Returning to reality in my tree stand, I flipped a page in the book and glanced down at the deer. I’m guessing this deer is 3.5 years old, a mature whitetail. His neck was swollen, and he was actively participating in the pre-rut. A 7-pointer, his antlers were high, but not very wide.
It was cold and the venison wouldn’t spoil. With the limit of two deer a day, I could still fill another tag but, really, I hoped another deer wouldn’t show. All I wanted to do was read in my stand.
A Little Introspection
McGuane’s words also prompted introspection and a modicum of disgust at my own disappointment with myself for not taking a deer with bigger antlers.
I no longer get quite the heart palpitating rush that used to come with simply taking a doe or a spikehorn. Over time, I got caught up in the quest for antlers that measure up to the “trophy” standard. And, over more time, I’ve come to realize I don’t like it when the quest for a “trophy” diminishes the gravity and solemnity of the moment I’ve just experienced.
On Veteran’s Day that year, a mature but novice fellow hunter took an average 7-point buck. His elation was profuse and that he couldn’t wait to bring the deer home and share the details of the hunt with his son. I knew I had to try to return to that point.
Every deer, or every fish, we see and possibly take is a gift. Yet, it is so easy to get caught up in the competition for the biggest or the most that we can under-appreciate the greater significance of taking part in a ritual of life that has the been part of the human experience since prehistoric times.
Fall may signal an end to summer, but for hunters it signals a renewal.
Note: A version of this article appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Links to an electronic version are unavailable.