Cory Dukehart | Mossy Oak ProStaff
You don’t truly realize what you take for granted until you watch someone else experience what’s routine to you for the first time. Having spent at least some portion of every November for as long as I can remember at a deer camp, there was a lot I had been taking for granted when it came to opening day of rifle season. It will always be one of my favorite weeks of the year. But bringing in a new member into our party, it was a refreshing reminder of the excitement a fresh pair of eyes can bring to a group of seasoned veterans.
“I’m going to head down to Slippery Rock,” declared “Dirty” Don Evans while we discussed our plans for opening day in West Virginia. “I gotta give it at least one more year.”
“I’m going to visit Bear Rock at least once or twice this week, but I’ll be taking Reed to Andrew’s Stand on opening morning,” his son, Dusty replied.
Andrew Reed, or Reed as we all call him, was the new guy. A 30-year-old friend of ours, he had just decided to take up hunting. Having passed his Hunter’s Safety course earlier that year, this was his first trip into the woods.
I glanced over at Reed to see if he was following the conversation between the Evans duo.
“I get it,” he said. “Mr. Don walked passed a rock and slipped on it one day and declared that Slippery Rock, and Dusty saw a bear when visiting Bear Rock.”
Apparently, I was underestimating Reed’s degree from Clemson University. He might just make it as a deer hunter after all! Ironically, the stand that Dusty referred as “Andrew’s Stand” was not in reference to the fact he was taking Andrew Reed there at all. Years ago, another young man named Andrew had hunted that location and we have been calling it that ever since. To my knowledge, this was the first time an actual Andrew had been in Andrew’s Stand in five years or better. Deer hunters are funny like that. A simple experience at a new location can mark its name to the local hunters and it forever becomes known as just that to the folks that frequent the area.
Unlike the other guys, my choice for a hunting spot was not as simple. I didn’t have much luck the year before and I wanted to find a new place, a spot that I could put my stamp on that prompts a goofy name universally known to the small group of men I hunt with. After exploring an area I was only slightly familiar with from satellite images and topo maps, I found a nice saddle between two rock walls, which to me, looked like a perfect funnel for deer activity.
I climbed up the back side of the rock formation and found a spot that I am certain that God built specifically for a deer hunter to sit. It was a large boulder that went out to a point. On the end of that point, the rock dipped down creating a perfect bench. The boulder had a hemlock growing on it producing a canopy directly over where I planned to sit. In front of the boulder were broken logs and branches that were arranged in a fashion to ideally accept a piece of camouflaged burlap to finish off the blind. After finishing the design of my ground blind on what I now call Hemlock Rock, I sat for a few minutes and easily imagined deer slipping through the hardwoods that littered the floor below me.
When opening morning rolled around, we had about 2-3 inches of snow on the ground with temperatures in the upper 20s. What more could a hunter ask for? We all set out to our own spots and I waved Dusty and Reed off with a “good luck” as I left them at Andrew’s Stand and headed back to Hemlock Rock. I made it to the rock at 6:25 a.m. I didn’t have long to wait. Not 20 minutes later, I spotted a doe slipping through the trees below me just as I had imagined a few days before. When she gave me a clear shot at just 60 yards, I sent the bullet and watched her run off up and over the saddle. After a quick track job, I located the doe and packed her out of the field. Hemlock Rock had paid off.
We all regrouped that evening and discussed the events of the day. Dusty and Reed hunted Andrew’s Stand all day and never saw a deer. Honestly, part of me was pleased with this. While I know that makes me sound like a horrible hunting partner, it’s not because I wished to be the only successful hunter in my group. I enjoy all of the triumphs my hunting camp experiences. However, part of me wanted Reed to struggle a bit. I mean that in the nicest way possible. Hunting is about the struggle, or at least some part of it should be. I wanted nothing more than for Reed to be successful during our week of deer hunting. But, I also wanted him to experience the lows, as well. Without the lows, there are no highs.
He spent an entire day in a stand on a cold West Virginia mountain seeing nothing but birds and squirrels. While it doesn’t sound hard in terms of physical effort, it is in fact hard in terms of mental fortitude. Staying focused throughout the day, looking for movement, and being committed to putting in the time to make it happen, can be a test of willpower, especially if conditions are uncomfortable. In the grand scheme of hunts, an East Coast whitetail hunt is not a hard one. Animals are plentiful and most places are easily accessible, but for a new hunter with nothing to compare it to, it’s the hardest hunt they have ever had. It’s easy to say “enough is enough” and call it quits when sheer boredom sets in. I wanted more for Reed. I wanted him to persevere because that’s what hunting is about.
The next morning we decided that Reed would go with me and I’d take him to Hemlock Rock. We made the hike back to the blind and I put him in the shooter’s seat. We arrived at about the same time as I had the day before. As light began to break through the trees Reed started slapping me on the leg to get my attention.
“Do you see one?” I asked.
He pointed in the general direction, but she was still and I couldn't spot her from my position. Then she blew at us and made a startled movement in the same spot mine had passed the day before. We watched her as she calmed down a bit and started easing her way up the saddle. Directly in front of us, she got behind a clump of oak trees and like a ghost, she disappeared. He stayed ready with the borrowed .30/30 lever-action Marlin still on the shooting stick waiting for her to reappear on the other side of those oaks.
Reed was using a smorgasbord of gear from all of us. He had coveralls from his father-in-law, clothes and boots from Dusty and the .30/30 from my Dad. As a new hunter, I’d imagine the two most challenging aspects of participating are the startup costs for all the new gear and access to land to hunt. With hunting numbers dwindling, it’s important that we all take a beginner under our wing as often as possible and help them out as much as we can. Reed’s the type of guy worth doing that for, too. He is a quick learner, a responsible man, and a positive addition to our group and the hunting community as a whole. I don’t mind helping out folks like Andrew Reed.
After ten minutes had passed, the deer never reappeared but as quick as she had vanished, four more had shown up coming down off of the opposing wall to our saddle. It was three does being chased by one buck. The buck worked his way back towards us and stood broadside in a small opening.
“I got a shot,” Reed exclaimed in a whisper.
In the back of my mind, I thought it was a bit far. Not too far for the gun, but further than I would have liked for him on his first deer. I wanted something a little bit easier, but out here, beggars can’t be choosers. He had practiced at this distance and had done well.
“If you have the shot and feel comfortable with it, it’s your call,” I replied.
Having been in his position before, it’s easy for things to move faster than you are prepared for. Remembering to watch where the deer runs and to take note of where it was standing when you shot at it are very important to recovering your harvest. However, it can easily get very confusing in the heat of the moment, especially for a new hunter. I wanted to make sure I was doing that for him, even though I was about as fired up as he was. I watched how the deer reacted when the shot went off. He bucked awkwardly and then bolted to our right. I watched him as best as I could through the trees and then saw another heading back to the left. At this point, there were deer running all over and it was a bit chaotic.
I patted Reed on the back and said, “Good shot, I think you got him.”
I explained we needed to wait a bit for the deer to expire and that the next 20 minutes would be the hardest. Waiting to go check your track is some serious mental anguish. Everything gets replayed through your mind and you ridicule your every move.
“Are the shakes kicking in yet?” I asked.
“Yes, the shakes are very real,” he replied.
I decided that since we were hunting as a pair, the best bet would be for me to climb down first and go investigate the area. I wanted Reed to stay put and point me in the right direction of where the deer was. It’s funny how the woods and terrain you had been staring at for two days look completely different when you change your perspective. I walked to the area with Reed pointing and waving me to the right spot and then waved him down to come with me. There was no blood and my concern level was rising. However, I did my best to not let on to this. I didn’t want to get Reed’s hopes up too high, or too low. I was trying to stay very “matter of a fact” about everything. I knew the deer looked hit from the shot, but the lack of blood from a .30 caliber bullet and now without a complete snow track to follow was concerning.
We followed what snow tracks we had and when those disappeared, I followed the tracks through the leaves. I wasn’t certain we were on the track of the buck that was shot. It just as easily could have been one of the does that wanted out of that area just as badly. The track circled back around to the left and picked up in some snow again.
When we reached the snow I pointed out to Reed, “Blood, and good blood!”
The deer was spraying at this point with blood on both, sides of the track. And then I put my foot in my mouth.
“We are going to get this deer, he’s bleeding badly,” I said.
I could see Reed’s eyes light up and I immediately wanted to kick myself. I honestly thought we were going to get the deer, but I also have seen crazy things happen and have had blood trails dry up completely. The ups and downs of a blood trail can be an emotional roller coaster and I didn’t want to send his ride in either direction. But, it all came to an end moments later when we looked out in front of us and there lay his buck, a gnarly-looking three point that was a fighter for sure. He was wide and certainly at some time wore more than just his three points he had left. This was a buck with character and now a buck with a story. It’s the type of stories that make a deer hunter into a deer hunter.
First deer stories are never forgotten, even the minor details cling to you through the years. And while I know this will be a deer hunting story that Reed will never forget, I wonder if he realizes that it will also be one that I never forget. Being a part of it reminded me not to take these experiences for granted. It brought back memories and feelings of a November 21 years earlier when I was a 12-year-old boy shooting my first buck with the same borrowed .30/30 Marlin. And it excited me for the future. My son will be with us at deer camp soon enough. I imagine Reed and I will have just the rifle suggestion for him when that time comes.