Hunting bonds between father and child can never be broken.
In life we are allotted just so many opportunities to create bonds that stand the test of time. Hunting with my daughter Xaura proved to be one such opportunity.
At the tender age of 10, Xaura and I started talking about her accompanying me through the woods in search of the ever-elusive Pennsylvania white-tailed buck.
By the time she turned 11, there was no holding her back. I was overjoyed at the opportunity to bond with my daughter through such a time-honored and nearly sacred activity. It was a no-brainer that she would get her mentored youth hunting license. After watching and learning from me, she wanted to take the next step and have the entire hunting experience. That $2.95 purchase was the best of my life.
Once she was “legal,” we began to work on a plan of attack for the upcoming deer seasons.
Over the course several months, we spent countless hours honing her shooting skills with a pellet gun. She practiced hitting tin cans and plastic bottles in the woodlot behind our house. At one point I recall her asking me to move all of the targets deeper into the woods so she could prove she was ready to take her first deer.
She also spent many hours shooting our TenPoint crossbow, consistently outperforming the standards I had set for her. It was obvious she was more than proficient enough to head afield with gun or bow.
While she was an excellent shot, I also wanted her to fully understand the importance of shot placement. We devised an exercise where we would look pictures of whitetails standing in various positions. Using a pencil, she would then show me exactly where she would aim.
We talked a great deal about angles, focusing on the vitals and entry and exit points of various shots. She was always spot on.
The next step of our plan involved setting up ground blinds and treestands. We had been visiting the woods regularly as I taught her to identify all the various types of deer sign. I was blown away by her drive to be successful.
As the archery opener approached, she had put in nearly 50 hours with me on excursions that covered all the things I typically do to prepare for a successful season. Even without a single season under her belt, she was already developing what I call “deer senses.”
She accompanied me nearly every time I went out with my bow. Watching her sit there, still and quiet for hours on end, I realized she was much better at this than I was at her age.
Then, after days of seeing only does at ranges beyond her comfort zone, an opportunity finally presented itself. I had absolutely no reservations about giving her the green light when a nice 4-pointer stopped in front of us at 20 yards.
When Xaura pulled the trigger, however, I was shocked to see the arrow fly well off the mark.
The deer barely flinched, one of the benefits of hunting with archery gear. I quickly cocked the bow and got another arrow in place. Xaura fired again with a similar result. Then, the buck simply walked away.
I could see the frustration in her eyes as they filled with tears. My first reaction was to try to reassure her that it was OK and that many first-time hunters have similar difficulties. But then I pictured all the work we had put in and I thought about the excellence of her shooting, and I realized there was more than buck fever at work here.
I gave the bow a thorough inspection and found that the scope had worked itself loose. Xaura was happy to know there was a reason for her misses, but archery season ended without additional opportunities for my youngster.
Next, we set our sights on the Pennsylvania rifle season. Opening morning was absolutely frigid. We had set up in a two-man stand for a few hours when Xaura’s older sister, Xabine, messaged us to say that she was cold and ready to go.
I told her she could head in if she wanted to, but the next message I got from Xabine was that she had taken a nice 8-pointer!
I noticed an almost hurt look on Xaura’s face. She couldn’t understand how she had put in so much time, while her sister had spent mere hours of hunting and had taken an 8-pointer.
I reassured her the best I could, saying patience is a hunter’s most important trait. Our patience was being tested, though, and our first day ended having seen a few does and a late-born fawn. We hunted each evening for the rest of the week, all without any significant sightings.
In the predawn hours of the first Saturday, I went to her room to wake Xaura. She looked me in the eyes and said, “Dad I’m tired. Is it OK if I just stay home today?”
I knew better than to try to talk her into facing more cold hours in a stand, so I told her it would be fine and that everyone needs a break now and then. In my heart, though, I was almost sick because I knew it was going to be a perfect day.
As light began to reveal the mountainside of the Centre County property we had been hunting on all season, I noticed movement behind me. I soon spotted a small buck standing in a clearing.
My heart sank, but I sent a text to Xaura’s mother, Sarah, and asked her to get our daughter up and moving.
As I waited for her to arrive, I watched and filmed the little buck pass our stand at 60 yards. It was the same buck she had missed during archery season. I watched it walk up the mountain, where it joined a few does and then disappeared.
It was only a few minutes later when Xaura hopped out of the car. She quietly approached the stand and joined me, and I told her about the buck. She was obviously upset with herself, but I encouraged her to relax and just enjoy the morning.
Not long after, I spotted the buck again in a nearby clearcut. My rangefinder told me the buck was at 256 yards as Xaura got into position for a shot.
It was a challenging landscape and wouldn’t have been a picnic even for me to pick out a clear shot. I was relieved when the buck began to close the distance: 200 yards, 150 and then 100 yards. Unfortunately, no shot presented itself.
As the deer disappeared behind a woodlot, I devised a plan. Xaura and I would leave the blind and attempt a spot-and-stalk. We scurried out of the blind while I quickly tried to tell her what we were about to do.
I carried the rifle as she patiently followed my every move. Within a few hundred yards, I stood up and spotted the buck at approximately 80 yards. I quickly got her into position in a nearby opening.
If it stayed on its course, the deer would pass by at a mere 20 yards. After handing Xaura the rifle, I stood and looked for the buck. To my surprise and dismay, it had changed course and was moving away.
This was her last chance at this deer, so I told Xaura to stand and attempt the shot. As she aimed the rifle, I noticed she was surprisingly steady. I heard the click of the safety and knew the shot would soon follow.
I saw the buck lurch upward at the roar of the rifle. Xaura had delivered the decisive shot that I had hoped for since she first started to show such promise at the range. The buck took a few steps and crashed to the ground.
“Did I get it, Dad?” Xaura asked in a quavering voice. When I told her what I saw, she began to jump for joy. “Oh my gosh, Dad, I can’t believe I finally did it. I got a buck!”
I got out my phone and took some candid pictures of her with her trophy, the same 4-pointer she had come so close to taking nearly a month earlier.
As I look back on this experience, I am marveled at Xaura’s ability to fight through such adversity. She could have easily gotten frustrated after nearly 90 hours in the field, and I am so proud of her accomplishment.
I still remember my first days, months and years afield, and I’m confident Xaura’s early hunting experiences have surpassed the times I was happy to enjoy as a kid. I know she’ll cherish these memories for a lifetime.
I suppose there are other ways to form life-long bonds with your children, but I can’t think of any better. The bond Xaura and I created is something no one can ever take away.
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