Note: This New Year's toast to the whitetail has me recalling a most memorable New Year's Eve, now 25 years in the rear-view mirror. A slightly shorter version also ran in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star today.
The spray of red dots in the snow faded to a flat gray color as the last hints of daylight swiftly transitioned to cold darkness. My heart pounded in my chest as I approached the mature buck whose own heart I had just stilled. I knelt in the snow, touched an antler and his warm back and, with a hunter’s curious mix of remorse and elation, gave thanks our destinies had intersected.
Hearing the soft crunch of the crusted-over snow beneath my feet during a recent late afternoon hunt sent me time traveling, summoning still vivid memories of a late December hunt 25 years ago.
It was New Year’s Eve, to be precise. I then lived in Chester, Virginia, and worked at Fort Lee. Hunting opportunities were limited and usually involved making a one-hour drive west to Fort Pickett, near Blackstone. Hunting there, especially in early in season or on weekends, required commitment. Access was “first-come, first-served.” Hunters began lining up sometimes as early as 4 a.m. to try to get into a “good spot.” My preferred spots were the post’s trophy management areas. Area A hunting was restricted to elevated stands since the woods were in close proximity to military buildings. Area B, my favorite, let you go mobile. Does were legal all season long in these areas, but you were restricted to taking only mature, antlered bucks. I didn’t mind because those rules provided ample opportunity to keep the freezer filled with meat from antlerless deer.
A hefty dumping of snow came at the end of December. The combination of cold weather and the fact that this New Year’s Eve fell on a Friday had me wondering if many hunters might opt to stay home, sipping leftover Christmas eggnog. I relished the thought of hunting in snow, probably because it brought back fond boyhood memories of hunting in the mountain valleys of Vermont.
Happily, only a handful of people had checked in to hunt. I had the entire area to myself. I parked my Jeep along a gravel road and slipped into the woods, following an old logging road that meandered down to some low grounds along a creek bottom. We had just come off a full moon and the lunar light reflecting on the snow offered superb vision as I quietly pushed along. I found a place to sit and marveled at the stillness. A snowy carpet makes the woods exceptionally quiet.
Daybreak came and went. The temperature always dips, but as the sun begins poking through the tree limbs, birds resume their hunt for food and squirrels pop out of nests and climb down trees looking for stashes of acorns. It’s always a glorious time. Everything seemed to be moving except deer. I surmised they had frolicked long in the moonlight, bedding down well before sunrise.
As the sun climbed in the sky and temperatures rose above freezing, snow began melting in earnest. Water noisily dripped from bare tree limbs. Clumps of snow slid off evergreen boughs. By early afternoon, one small stand of Virginia pines was devoid of snow and almost completely dry in a clearing. The sun warmed my face. I ate lunch and then kicked back for a nap, using my small pack as a pillow.
That 3 a.m. wake up and drive to Pickett makes for a long day. When weather permits, a nap in the woods is always welcome. I was out quickly, apparently sleeping, as the saying goes, "Like the dead."At least from the perspective of some experts in the matter. After an hour of snoozing in the pine straw, I woke to a soft “whup, whup, whup” sound overheard. Focusing my eyes, I looked up and was startled and amused to see several vultures circling just over the treetops. “Hah,” I laughed as I sat up, clueing them in that I wasn’t quite prime for their dinner table. “Go find some other roadkill,” I smirked at the carrion kings.
With deer movement so slow, I seriously considered calling it a day. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve. But, I decided to hang in there. Late afternoon temperatures dropped rapidly with the setting sun. By sunset it was back below freezing. I decided to slowly hunt my way back to my Jeep, estimating a 20-minute walk.
The snow, soft and quiet at midday, became crusted as it quickly refroze. My walking had a rhythmic “crunch, crunch, crunch” cadence to it.
I climbed up out of the creek bottom and found the logging trail. The road and my vehicle were just across this small plateau of hardwoods. Pausing for a moment, I instantly became aware of other “crunch, crunch” sounds about 80 yards to my right. My first thought was another hunter was nearby, but then I remembered I had been the only person to check into this hunting area. I dropped to a knee, facing that direction.
Thank goodness for reflected light off the snow. Even with 10 minutes of legal shooting time remaining, without it I would have never been able to make out any details of that buck. He clearly climbed the same hill as I and we were now rendezvousing in the oaks.
Back then, I shot a Remington 1100 semiautomatic shotgun loaded with copper-plated 00 buck shot. I
struggled to remain motionless as the deer advanced right-to-left and angled closer. Once he was as close as I figured he was going to get, about 40 yards, I squeezed the trigger. Flame erupted from the muzzle in the dusky twilight. The blast was deafening in the snowy solitude of the woods. The deer immediately sprinted ahead.
“C’mon, go down,” I muttered, increasingly certain I missed. Seconds later, though I saw the buck make an incredible, high-speed U-turn. He must’ve spotted my Jeep. He was now hurtling down the logging road directly toward me. Still on one knee, I remounted the shotgun and fired point-blank at his neck and chest, a second before he would trample me. The potent pellets connected, driving him a couple feet to the right. He stumbled, crashed into an oak and died within seconds.
It seemed to take forever for my adrenaline to subside. I rose to my feet and gathered my wits. I paced off the distance from where I knelt to where the buckshot hit and the deer diverted course. Eight yards! Later inspection revealed nine buckshot pellets penetrated the buck’s neck in a two-inch group.
I sat in the snow for several minutes, reflecting on this animal, this day and this gift. Finally, with a New Year coming in a few hours, I brought him from the woods. He had high, thick 7-point antlers. There have been more and bigger deer since, but few as memorable. Today, he holds a place of honor on the wall of my office.
So, here’s a New Year’s toast to the majestic, wild, white-tailed deer; to the passions it inspires in hunters, the food it returns to our tables, and the spirit of the outdoors it represents.