I have hunted most species of American big game, from the enormous, phlegmatic moose to the little javelina and the swift, slender antelope, and I’m convinced that the smartest animal of them all is the whitetail deer.
– Jack O’Connor (1902-78), dean of American gun writers
Nebraska whitetail hunt
Rifle hunting for whitetail deer was once a fiery passion of mine, but as with many of our youthful infatuations that obsession was left behind somewhere along the unexpected twists and turns of life’s journey.
The Medicine Creek Buck, the Keya Paha Buck, the Hill Country “Double on Deer at Dawn” – those rifle hunts are now overworked memories from a distant past that feature a young man I barely recognize these days. He loved hunting deer with centerfire rifle, I do remember that. And on winter days when I take a certain .30-06 rifle out of a far back corner of the gun safe to wipe it with an oily cloth, work its bolt, and shoulder it for a phantom shot at a deer running through my imagination, those memories awaken my dormant fascination with rifle hunting.
But fantasy hunts bring only a few moments of pleasure. Going on a November hunt for whitetail deer on the eastern edge of Nebraska’s Sandhills region truly rekindled my excitement and enjoyment of rifle hunting this year, in large part because the trip reconnected me with three generations of a farming and ranching family for which the tradition of hunting is as much a part of life each autumn as the hard work of harvesting corn and beans and rounding up cows and calves from rangeland pastures.
The drive west was long, providing time for reflecting on past hunts and hunting companions of the past who are now gone. I always have this feeling that they are still with us on hunting trips. I hope that is true, and I hope when my time comes my spirit will join theirs and hover as benevolent ghosts over the hunting trips of the next few generations of family and friends who remember us on their days afield.
Hunting camp was a plush cabin compared to the much more Spartan accommodations of past deer hunts, but the excitement and fun and banter were just as rough-and-tumble as always. So was the snoring. We are better cooks now, but since hunger at the end of a cold day in the wild is the greatest sauce for any dish, I’m not sure improved cuisine is much important to a starving crew of deer hunters.
We drink better beers, too. That is important.
Although it was difficult to force my travel weary body out of a warm bed at five o’clock the first day in camp, the aches and pains were washed away by standing under the grandeur of the starry dome of a Nebraska sky on a windy, freezing morning before the sun had begun to tint the eastern horizon. The rugged beauty of the shortgrass prairies on the high plains has always held a special place in my heart, and on this trip a two-inch garnish of powdery snow made the landscape appear even more stark and striking.
After what seemed to be an endless drive along a two-track through a rolling section of pasture (“just follow the tail lights; he knows where he’s going”) and the stealthy parking of pickups in a low swale behind the screen of a tree-lined ridge, there was the usual impromptu huddle at the tailgate. Rifles were taken out of cases and carefully loaded, equipment checked, licenses and tags confirmed, plans for the first hunt of the day issued, scarves and hats pulled tight, and “good luck” whispers shared before we separated and trudged at first light toward our respective stake-out spots.
An hour later, after watching a nice six-point buck prance through a stand of cedar trees and graze his way toward me until we were less than 30 yards apart (I had a “doe only” permit), we arose from our places of concealment to walk the coulees and patches of brush and cedars where we expected deer to be laying up, sheltered from the cold southwest wind. Although I do not regard it as the greatest moment of the hunt – not even one of the top ten – I was excited to make a good shot at a doe that went running from cover. Amazing! I can still do this!
Then came the chore of field dressing the deer sprawled in the snow on a slope swept by an icy wind. I took off coat and gloves so they would not get bloody. Gusts of wind drew tears from my eyes that froze on my face and in my beard. It was cold. But an old man can still do this, too, and also lift the dressed carcass into the box of the pickup. No, thank you, we old timers don’t need your help! We just need a couple tries.
Without going into details, the first morning’s hunt revealed that one hunter’s rifle was not functioning reliably. The problem was quickly solved: since I had tagged my deer, she could use my rifle for the rest of the weekend. Comes a time in a hunter’s life when he gets more enjoyment from helping a tyro hunter shoot a whitetail than he would get from shooting that deer himself. So I was glad to volunteer for the role of “driver” who would attempt to push deer out of cover for “posters” to shoot.
Besides, I could now enjoy hiking miles of that beautiful shortgrass prairie without lugging an eight-pound gun on my shoulder, and I could fill my hunting coat pockets with bags of trail mix and a water bottle rather than boxes of rifle cartridges.
By the end of the final day the five of us had accounted for three deer hanging in the farm’s machine shed, two does and a buck. Not bad for a year when deer populations are still low in this part of the country. There would have been a fourth deer hanging had there been better shooting by one hunter, which I am sure we will remind him several times in the coming years. And there would have been a fifth if a younger hunter’s rifle had not had that malfunction at the critical moment on the first morning.
This rifle problem was a point that needed serious discussion.
“What should I do about that old gun?”
“”You know, for what it would cost to have a gunsmith make some replacement parts and rebuild it, you could buy a new deer rifle.”
“I should buy a new one?”
“Yes, and I think the perfect rifle for you would be a bolt-action in 7mm-08.”
“7mm-08? What is a 7mm-08?”
“What is a 7mm-08? Ah. Sit thee doon and open a bottle of ale. We have things to talk about. Much to talk about.”
More stories about hunting adventures and hunting rifles are published in my collection of essays, Crazy Old Coot, and my novel, Hunting Birds. Both are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.