Any day spent in the timber is a good day. I love to quote my niece who once said, “You know you’ve had a good day when your boots are muddy.” Yesterday, I was out from dawn until dusk sitting with my back to a tree with my rifle by my side, wearing camouflage, and watching for deer. By the end of the day, my cheeks were ruddy from exposure, my body was stiff and sore and I had learned a valuable lesson.
I consider myself a novice deer hunter. I have taken some workshops, I have tagged along to watch others hunt, and I have hunted with experienced hunters mentoring me. I’ve made some classic mistakes. I’ve forgotten to take my gun off of “safe” causing me to miss a shot. I’ve pulled the trigger only to discover that I’d forgotten to chamber a round. I’ve also forgotten to reload after firing resulting in a missed opportunity at the second deer that came on the heels of the first. These were all rookie mistakes with no harm done. But yesterday, I made a mistake that I have no excuse for.
Allow me to begin my story with a disclaimer; I am a decent shot. Really, I am. I have witnesses. You must believe this or the rest of the story will be useless.
Earlier this fall, I bought a deer permit in the hopes that I would be able to hunt with my son-in-law, Shay. Shay has been my hunting mentor for the past 2 years and I have been so thankful for his patience with me. How many men would be willing to take their mother-in-law hunting?! Due to schedules, we were not sure if we would have a chance to hunt together this year, but a spur of the moment opportunity arose so I grabbed my gear and high-tailed it 2 hours north to Amy, my daughter, and Shay’s house so we could hunt the next day.
After staying up way too late socializing, we were up in the wee hours of the morning. We loaded our stuff in the truck and headed to Shay’s favorite hunting spot. Shay’s family has had permission to hunt this private land for many years, so he knew the area well. We pulled into the farm yard and parked before the sun was even thinking about coming up. It was a frosty morning and we could see our breath when we reluctantly rolled out of the truck.
Shay just wears his regular clothes under his orange vest and carries his rifle. I always wear my camouflage overalls, heavy coat, gloves, hat, and balaclava under my orange vest. In addition to my rifle, I carry a backpack full of things I consider necessary, such as a small first aid kit, granola bars, water, tissues, and lip balm. Wearing all those clothes and carrying all that stuff leaves me feeling heavily burdened. Every year I try to do without some of the “junk”, but I always end up toting the same stuff along.
On our trek to the timber, we climbed over farm gates, marched across a corn field, rolled under barbed wire, and hiked into the timber. When we reached our spot, we noticed that two new tree stands had sprung up this year, but no one was in them at that time. As we were well into deer season, I wondered how many deer had already been harvested from this spot already. Reportedly, this area was also hit hard with Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) this year, so we weren’t sure how many deer we would see, but we were ready.
Shay, Amy, and I settled ourselves back to back around a gnarly old tree. Amy is not a hunter, but she is a great spotter, so she took the middle position. We were deep in timber in a steep draw and mostly facing east as the sun rose. I love being in the woods at sunrise and listening to the world come alive. As the sun begins to rise, the trees are silhouetted black against the lightening sky. Birds start singing. Squirrels begin to scamper. Each change is so gentle. I feel that it is a glimpse at eternity to realize that it all happens every day whether I am here or not.
We sat quietly awaiting our prey, our eyes constantly scanning the woods. Each leaf that dropped drew our attention. We listened intently to hear the familiar rhythmic rustle of leaves from a deer cautiously walking through the woods. We sat for hours until I could no longer stay still because I was shivering so hard. I was the weenie that finally broke and said, “Let’s go in for awhile”. We drove back to town, had some breakfast, and warmed up for awhile. By about noon, we headed back to the woods.
The area is heavily hunted, so we were relieved to see that the tree stands were still empty and sat down around the base of “our” tree and settled in to watch and listen. It wasn’t long before two young deer, one doe and one button buck, headed down the hill across from us to the east and headed in our direction. Amy spotted them first and quietly alerted Shay and I. We very slowly lifted our rifles from our laps and released the safety.
I don’t know if the deer heard us or scented us, but the pair sensed something amiss and began to move more quickly through the woods. Their path took them around Shay’s side of our position. Shay is a gentleman and always allows me to take the first shot, so I waited until the little buck was quite close. I raised my gun, sighted him in, and followed him in the scope. I was unable to shoot because he was moving quickly and trees kept blocking my shot. I swung my bore hard to the right and had to drop my muzzle and forfeit the shot to Shay, who was on the opposite side of the tree from me, because otherwise, I would be shooting over Amy’s head. Shay raised his gun and dropped the little buck with one clean shot.
In the seconds following Shay’s shot, I took aim at the little doe. This is where I ask you to believe that I am, indeed, a decent shot. I was about 50 feet from the deer; she presented herself broadside to me as she stopped and looked for her companion. I sighted her in just behind her shoulder. It was going to be a perfect shot…an EASY shot. I squeezed the trigger and was incredulous to find that my shot had hit her in her haunch. She ran a few paces and stopped again to assess her situation. Now, the doe was about 30 feet directly in front of me. I fired two more shots that each MISSED entirely. This was ridiculous. I looked at Shay and asked him to put her down for me. He fired one shot and it was done.
This whole scenario left me with bad feelings. I felt horrified that I had failed that doe. I strive to be an ethical hunter and make clean shots for a quick kill. I don’t want an animal to suffer unnecessarily at my hands. I also felt dejected about my ability. How could I have screwed up those easy shots so badly? I replayed the shots in my mind. I knew I had the deer firmly in my scope and I knew I hadn’t stumbled or pulled the shots off. What had happened? I examined my rifle for an explanation…and I found one. The set of screws that hold my scope onto my rifle were so loose as to allow the scope to wobble. While I was relieved to find an answer to my poor shots, I was disgusted with myself. It is every hunter’s obligation to ensure that their equipment is properly functional. How could I have been so irresponsible as to not check my weapon once I was in the field?
Although, I still consider this hunt a success. I enjoyed my time afield with the kids and in the end I did get some meat for the freezer. But, I believe the most important memory of this hunt is the lesson that I learned and will carry forward. From now on, I will strive to be more responsible with my weapon. This is my pledge: I will keep my weapon clean and well maintained; I will have my weapon properly sighted in before hunting season begins; I will double check my weapon when in the field, and I will ALWAYS strive to be an ethical and safe hunter.