Anything that can go wrong in the deer woods usually does.
I had no hunting mentors when I was a kid. There were no hunters among my family or friends. I didn’t even know anyone who hunted. I gleaned what I could from outdoor magazines (there were three at the time) and books (there were darned few of those), but most of what I learned came through trial and error — lots of error.
Without the benefit of those older, wiser and more experienced to guide me, my path to enlightenment was much longer, more circuitous and fraught with pitfalls and pratfalls. Rather than going to the head of the class, I was resigned to a full regimen of remedial classes in hunting’s school of hard knocks. But I eventually graduated magna cum laude because I learned not only from my successes, but also from my failures.
THE EARLY YEARS
The early years were the toughest, but also the most fun. I started by simply looking for sign; then I looked for the deer that made it. As I got better at it, I eventually started to find some. But like a kitten with a mouse, I didn’t know what to do with them.
My efforts were usually rewarded with crashing brush and flashing white tails, followed soon after by a not-too-distant gunshot. It didn’t seem fair. I was doing all the work, and the guy over the next hill was reaping the rewards. I killed a lot of deer without ever pulling the trigger or having anything to show for my efforts.
Then the light went on. I stopped chasing deer to other hunters and let them chase deer to me. I graduated first grade the day I became a stump sitter.
The next lesson was patience. I went out on opening day the following year with a new plan: sit and wait for the deer to come. When, two hours into daylight that didn’t happen, I relapsed. Off I went, up the mountain. Just about the time I made the top, I heard all the shooting down below, where I’d been. Disgusted and frustrated, I started swiftly back down the mountain and stumbled straight into three deer on their way uphill.
They escaped in the confusion, but I made a note of the location. Opening day the next year, I was sitting there at 10 a.m. when a buck trotted into range. He ended up being one of several I took from that spot in succeeding years. I started feeling pretty good about myself. But deer hunting has a way of humbling us when we least expect it.
Sitting on a finger ridge in the West Virginia mountains one morning, I heard footsteps approaching from around the point. When the deer rounded the corner, if it was a deer, it would be close. I hoped I’d have enough time to look for antlers, aim and shoot before it spotted me and bolted. I did.
Antlers! Vitals! Boom! The shock of the .300 Win Mag from 20 yards literally toppled the buck. It tumbled down the mountainside nearly 100 yards before coming to rest on an old stump, belly up and clearly down for the count.
I closed the bolt on an empty chamber, slung my rifle and made my way carefully down the precipitous decline. All the while, the deer lay lifelessly on its back. I was within a few feet of the obviously expired buck when, in one swift motion, he rolled over, scrambled to his feet and took off like a dragster.
He’d taken two huge bounds before I could react, and accomplished another before I could unsling the rifle, bolt a round and bring the stock to my shoulder.
One more leap would put it safely over the ridge and out of sight, but I managed to squeeze off a shot before he made it, putting him down for good — again.
I take nothing for granted anymore, and I’m much more careful when approaching dead deer.
MURDER HE ROTE
Bowhunting has taught me many things, not the least of which is the importance of something called rote learning. Repeat something often enough and it becomes programmed into your memory. Then, in the heat of the moment, you can automatically repeat complicated tasks like drawing, picking a spot, breathing and releasing, all without thinking about it. I should have applied the same philosophy to gun hunting.
When you listen to the sound of squirrels rustling in the leaves for hours on end, you eventually tune it out — until it changes.
It was nearly noon in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains when the rustling I heard just out of sight suddenly sounded different. Surrounded by acres of cornflake-crisp leaves, I sat and listened until I could take it no longer. Then I slipped off my boots and, as quietly as I could, eased my way toward the noise, stepping only when the unknown source was loudest.
When I was close enough, I peeked over the ridge. There stood several deer, including a fine 8-pointer. He was in range, and I had but to level my side-hammer, double-trigger caplock muzzleloader, aim and fire for him to be mine.
Anxious to speed the process, I decided to trip the set trigger so my smokepole’s second, hair trigger would be ready to fire the instant my sights found their target.
Unfortunately, it was not the set trigger that my finger found. My gun went off prematurely, sending a .56-caliber round ball harmlessly over the buck’s back. Astoundingly, he didn’t seem much bothered, and after staring my way for a few seconds, resumed sucking acorns from the forest floor.
Seizing the second chance, I quickly set to work rearming my front-end loader while a half-dozen deer fed a mere 75 yards away. First, I put a new cap on the nipple. Then I eased the gun down along my side, set a waxed patch and round ball on the muzzle and started them. Next, I eased the ramrod out, drove my patched ball home and restored the rod to its proper place. So far, so good.
Now all I had to do was raise the gun and this fine buck would be mine.
Reaching my thumb for the hammer I noticed the cap had fallen off the nipple. Back into the possibles bag I went for another, which I re-set. Then I eased back the hammer, as quietly as I could. The metallic click drew no reaction from the deer. Phew!
I rested the replica rifle against the bole of a nearby oak, selected the proper trigger and squeezed off the shot. Pop! went the percussion cap, followed by nothing more than a sickening silence. “What the ...?”
That got the deer’s attention. Six heads went up and stared in my direction. They didn’t bolt, but they were no longer at ease either. Miraculously, I managed to get another cap on the nipple and get my gun up again.
“This time ...,” I whispered, pressing the trigger. Pop! Same result. And, worse, the jig was up. The deer flagged and disappeared over the bench.
If you have any detective skills at all, you’ve already figured out the problem. I hadn’t, and it took an embarrassingly long time to figure it out as I popped off cap after cap with no result.
Eventually I sat down and went over each step in my head: cap, patch, ball. Then it hit me: No powder!
Insult was added to injury later when I returned to camp. Everyone else had come back to camp for lunch and were outside and within hearing distance of my mishap. “It sounded like you were up there plinking squirrels with a .22,” they chided me.
Today, I practice anything that might trip me up. I keep practicing until I can do it without thinking.
ONE GOOD EYED DEER
By the time I did my first Saskatchewan muzzleloader hunt, I’d graduated to inlines — not that it would make much difference.
Knowing the potential of such a place, I was patient, passing up a nice buck on day one. By day three, I was beginning to rue my decision and wasted little time jumping into action when the big buck returned.
Leaving nothing to chance, I put the scoped inline across the padded shooting rails, took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. Boom! The gun roared and I was temporarily engulfed in a cloud of sulfurous smoke.
It cleared just in time to reveal the unfazed buck as it casually disappeared into the underbrush. Memories of the Virginia mountains came rushing back.
Fortunately, he was headed in the direction of another opening, and I’d have just enough time to reload before he got there. This time I did it right, including the shot, and the buck crashed off into the thick brush.
SO FAR, SO GOOD.
I was hastily headed down the ladder to my mortally wounded buck when I hesitated. “Not without my rifle, and my possibles bag,” I corrected myself. “Just in case.”
Once on solid ground, I reloaded carefully and correctly. And instead of slinging my gun, I held it at port, which turned out to be a good thing. The buck’s head was still up, so I wasted little time bringing up the gun for a follow-up shot (I really was learning). After my initial miss, I’d recovered nicely, and things were going well ... too well.
Muzzleloaders occasionally experience something called a hang fire, wherein there is a short but very obvious interval between trigger pull and discharge. In this case, the interval was just long enough for me to lower the muzzle, sending the bullet harmlessly into the ground midway between me and the buck. Surprisingly, the deer stayed put.
But a new urgency set in when I realized I had just one round left.
I reloaded, intent on administering the coup de grace from point-blank range. That’s when I noticed why the deer seemed unalarmed by my approach. His eye had been damaged, probably in a fight. He couldn’t see me, until he turned his head. When he did, the situation changed quickly.
The mortally wounded buck leapt to his feet and catapulted forward. Properly reloaded and with gun at the ready I fired instinctively, without thinking.
Later, as I lifted the buck’s antlers from the snow and admired them, I thought back on all that had contributed to this particular success. Patience, correcting mistakes, making the best of a bad situation and instinct had all been honed by years of trial and error.
Over those years, I’ve had many big buck encounters that ended in failure as a result of my mistakes or just plain bad luck. Some will haunt me to the end, but all have contributed to the encounters that ended successfully.
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This article was published in the August 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.