The Last Day of Rifle Season

The author on opening day

I almost wasn’t going to go.

I had already spent over 300 dollars for a hotel room for the first few days of deer rifle season, during which the weather frankly sucked.  The first day was rain and wind. The second day was snow and wind. I saw nothing. The third day dawned to four inches of snow on the ground and single digit wind chills. I drove home a bit disappointed, but satisfied that I had at least had some alone time in the woods during my Thanksgiving vacation. I even tried again that first Saturday, but fog and the promise of more cold rain turned me back home before I ever got there.

I worked all the next week, while the local guys to whom I had given permission, reported that they had taken an eight-point and various does for their freezers. At least they had been successful. I was just discouraged.

So when the prospect of the last Saturday of the season loomed, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic. It got worse when I realized that I was on-call that weekend for parent questions. The combination of hunting and on-call rarely works out well for me. But one of the local guys texted and asked if I was coming up. The weather forecast was good, and he assured me that the deer should be moving as hunters would be out for the last day.

I didn’t want to pay for another hotel night, so I decided it would be another one of my “no pressure” trips. I’d have my gear packed by the door, see how the calls went overnight, and make a decision in the morning.

I woke up before six without an alarm and got on the road by seven. It was already starting to get light, but it was a “no pressure” day, so I was just going to do what I could do. I arrived in good time, switched boots, shouldered my pack, loaded my Marlin 336, and was walking into the woods before ten.

My 19th century technology “assault weapon” with redneck cheek riser, drying out after the hunt.

There was some fresh snow, and lots of different tracks. I enjoy noting those tangible marks of the passage of creatures I cannot see. That, along with the game camera, remind that that there is life happening all around me in that forest, whether I am there to see it or not.

The road “less traveled”.

I decided that I would change things up and just slowly wander and “stalk hunt” or “pussy foot” as my father used to call it. That turned out to be a good choice, as later in the day I found out that the zipper on my blind had frozen closed, and would not have opened for love or money anyway.

I was barely out an hour when I got  a “call”. I answered the worried parent’s questions as quietly as I could, but having to have a phone conversation when I was trying to be stealthy was rather counter-productive. But – I was doing what I could do.

I had stopped on a rise that overlooked a good bit of snow-covered ground. It would have been a great spot to pull out my three-legged stool and have a rest and a scan, but I had just given away my location with that call. I decided to move on.

A nice overview I’ll have to remember for next year.

About 30 minutes later I was “pussyfooting” down the dirt gas access road, when I heard the creature break cover to my left. It must’ve been bedded down under one of the pine trees. I froze and listened. It wasn’t a squirrel because the snow crunching was too loud. The noise stopped for a couple seconds and then resumed. The crunching and brush snapping proceeded in front of me to my left, angling as if it might cross the road. 

I brought my hammer to full cock (It’s a lever gun and the trigger won’t pull on half-cock, so I use that as an additional safety feature), while I continued to scan with the safety on, waiting for visual confirmation. Finally I saw its brown back on one of the bounds through the brush. Definitely a deer.

I started to shoulder the gun, popping the safety button, and then indexing my trigger finger along the receiver, preparing. Last minute checks were streaming through my mind – I’ve got the buck tag, I’ve got the doe tag, the background is clear of the gas well, I can shoot almost as soon as it steps out…

The deer popped up onto the dirt road not 40 yards in front of me and paused briefly – broadside and looking around. In that second or so my brain registered “ANTLERS!”, and then “four point – sh*t”. I started to relax my mount, popping the safety back on, when the buck saw me and bounded across the road and up the hill on the other side. He paused halfway up, turning to get another look at me. If he were legal, I’d have had a second shot opportunity. Then away he went up toward the ridge top.

I blew out my breath and let the adrenaline drain away. Tears of reaction started coming to my eyes, even though I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat. Moments like that are why I hunt. My blood was pumping, my brain was racing, and all the while my soul was saying “Thank You” to God, the Universe, my ancestors whose property this was, and life in general for that exciting intersection with nature. It’s not all about “the kill”. It’s about the one-on-one mutual encounter. Yes, I would have loved some meat for my freezer, but that was FUN!

It also illustrates what my luck is like. This was the last day of rifle season. It was a day when both bucks and does were legal (as long as you had the right tags). I had the right day and the right tags to be able to shoot either antlered OR antlerless deer. But what appeared in front of me? A deer which was neither fish nor fowl. 

I think this was the culprit.

A legal antlered deer in this state must have three points on one side. This was a “Y-buck”, and thus it fell into the “Neither” category. ARGH. Mother Nature had her laugh at me yet again. It just reminds me that try as I might, I’m not really the one in charge here. I am a bit of a control freak and thus the “uncertainty” of hunting tweaks me like that all the time. But it’s also teaching me very useful lessons. Live in the moments you are given. Be thankful for opportunities  – even if they don’t turn out the way you want. Real life doesn’t work like the hunting videos you see on Youtube.

I had seen this particular Y-buck on camera, so I recognized the rack as soon as I saw it, and knew I couldn’t shoot. That’s another notch in the “good” category for having a camera and scouting ahead of time. So even that was a learning experience. It made the five hour round trip drive, the carrying the nine pound rifle and thirteen pound pack, and the six hours of walking with that load worth the work.

That little Y-guy was the only deer I saw the entire rest of the day. But he gave me my thrill, and my story to tell, and for me that’s really all that matters. It was a great way to end the season. I’m so glad that I decided to go. Now, where’s the Naproxen?