Hunting stories almost always end with the writer describing the limit of birds in the bag, the size of the antlers on the buck hanging from the pole, the 20-inch smallmouth bass in the net, or the incredible shot that toppled a coyote at four hundred yards. Let me assure you, it ain’t always that way.
All too often we return to camp at day’s end with an empty bird vest, a recollection of the deer’s flagging white tail as it disappeared over the hill, the parted leader and splash of an escaping fish, or an agonizing memory of the easy shot that we somehow missed. A day of hunting or fishing does not have to end with game in our possession to be a rewarding time. Three hours of sitting in a tree stand and quietly observing the flora and fauna of a North Country hardwood forest can be a calming and energizing experience even on the days we do not see a deer. But those gameless days do not make for “riveting copy,” as a newspaper publisher admonished me in my days as a reporter and editor.
The bag limit of birds, the whitetail buck with trophy antlers, the record bass, the amazing rifle shot – those make for riveting copy. But in truth, the day of hunting or fishing that ends in phenomenal success is the exception, not the rule. Maybe that is why we record our stories of those remarkable days, buff and polish them like brightly glazed beer steins, and set them on the shelf where we can see them shine during our darker hours. Maybe that’s why we display those symbols of the hunt that ignite a flash of the joy from days gone by: the antlers hung on the cabin wall, the fish mounted in the den, the pheasant tailfeathers placed in the vase atop the gun safe, the rifle cartridge case suspended in an acrylic block paperweight on the coffee table.
As hunting seasons come to an end this winter, my enjoyable days afield outnumber the disaster days by a ratio of more than 20-1. But that does not mean I came home with game in possession that often. If I kept a hunting diary, I would probably find that the “game-taken” days and the “no-game-taken” days are about 50-50. There are few bird hunting days that I do not have a bird or two in the vest, but there are many deer hunting days when I did not shoot, or did not choose to shoot. If that sounds annoyingly noble, let me hasten to tell you that there have been days when I most certainly did shoot – without success.
There were several missed shoots at woodcock and pheasants this year. Those did not annoy me (much) because wing shooting is a perishable skill and I am at that time of life when it is perishing. More dismaying were two missed shots at deer, one with a muzzle-loader rifle and one with a lever-action rifle. The miss with the muzzle-loader was simply bad shot selection, standing on the edge of a tree stand and wrapped around a rough walnut trunk to attempt a shot at a yearling doe that was strolling through brushy cover. I deserved to miss, and I did.
The other botched shot is a scene I will replay in my memory daily for the next few months. A heavy-beamed, eight-point, big-bodied, thick-necked whitetail buck that had been making frequent appearances on my trailcams for two months. A bragging buck that had eluded me twice during the bow season and that I did not expect to see during the firearms seasons.
I did see him, but he saw me first.
Near the end of rifle season I still-hunted the steep-sided coulee on the south edge of the farm. Not sure why it is called “still-hunting.” Maybe because the intent is to find a deer lying “still” in the cover. I still-hunt a few times each season, moving cautiously along deer trails and as quietly as possible, walking a little and looking a lot, but I have only taken one deer this way, and to be honest I did not spot him and stalk him, he walked up to me.
This year’s attempt at still-hunting was as futile as those of years past. Write it off as a good fitness workout. I worked up a good sweat, not because of exertion but because I dressed in too many layers for an unseasonably warm December day.
About an hour before sunset I came to my tree stand at the west end of the coulee and decided to climb into it and watch the close of the day in the North Country. Our prevailing winds in fall and winter come from the northwest, but on this day a light breeze was blowing from south-southwest, carrying my locker-room scent back along the trail I had just hunted. No need to keep an eye on that trail, so I kept my half-hearted attention on a trail to the west and another to the north. So I didn’t see the buck until he appeared over my left shoulder, downwind, 30 yards away, in the open.
He was staring at me. My rifle was in my lap. And buck fever took hold of my mind and body.
I do not get buck fever before a shot at a deer. Ever. I don’t know why. Many’s the time a nice buck has paced his way slowly along a trail toward my stand while I stood, adjusted my stance, drew the bow, whistled him to a stop, and released the arrow. After the arrow strikes, that’s when I get buck fever. I get jelly-kneed and light-headed and a bit nauseous and I shake like an aspen leaf in a high wind. Twice I have had to wrap my arms around the tree trunk to keep from falling off the stand.
But that’s after the shot. Before the shot? Never. Except for this time.
Slowly, I tried to raise the rifle to my shoulder, and my hands were shaking so badly I could not align my eye with the scope. The eight-pointer cocked his head to get a better look at the trembling orange blob in the tree, and though his tail didn’t flag and his head didn’t drop he decided to amble away at a three-quarter angle from me. When he reappeared through a gap in the trees I tried to bring the crosshairs down behind his shoulder, and I pulled the trigger.
The buck didn’t run, jump, flag, or change course. He continued his slow trot down into the woods and stopped in heavy brush about 70 or 80 yards from me. He stood there a few minutes, then disappeared in that strange magical way that deer have of turning into shadows even as you watch them.
I waited 15 or 20 minutes, then climbed down and followed his route into the woods, just in case. About a hundred yards in I found a splotch of blood, about the size of my hand. I had felt stupidly miserable about missing the shot, but I now felt much, much worse about having made a poor shot that had wounded him. Putting on my headlamp I searched for a blood trail, but except for a few speckles on the snow every 20 or 30 yards, there was little sign that he was bleeding. By now it was pitch dark, and I walked back to the farmhouse, heartsick and disgusted with myself.
Next morning when there was enough light in the west-facing woods to see, I walked back to the site with Abbey, my French spaniel. We found the splotch of blood, and I told her “hunt dead.” Away we went from blood spot to blood spot, some that I could see but most that were obvious only to her nose. She picked up her pace, and a couple hundred yards ahead I saw her pawing at something brown and furry behind a blown-down elm tree. It was the carcass of a small doe.
“That’s not the buck I shot at,” I told Abbey. We went back up the bluff to the original blood splotch and I told her to start over. She obliged and took me back to the doe carcass. “Search for a different blood trail,” I ordered. “There isn’t any other blood trail,” she insisted.
A light came on in my head, and I had us back-track from the first blood spot into the neighbor’s woods. Abbey took me to the place where a spatter of blood showed the doe had been shot, probably the previous afternoon. It had then run across the top of the bluff onto my farm and died far down the hillside. I was irked that the hunter who shot her had not followed her up (there were no boot prints along her blood trail), but then I had not done the best tracking work the night before, either.
I hung my orange stocking cap in a prickly ash clump that overhung the hand-sized blood splotch near my tree stand. I climbed into the stand, oriented myself, and replayed the previous evening’s tragi-comedy in my head. There, to the west, was the place the buck had stood for a few minutes before disappearing, and it was 20 yards or more from my stocking cap that marked the blood splotch.
My shot had been a clean, poorly aimed, no-excuses miss. The bullet probably went over the buck’s shoulders, not even close enough to make him bolt.
Abbey and I walked home to eat breakfast. No game in possession, but I have never felt better about missing a shot.
We all miss easy shots. We all have our share of gameless days. If we didn’t, the “bag limit” or “trophy buck” days would not be as rewarding and memorable.
Late bow season has begun. Maybe I’ll see that eight-pointer again.
More stories about hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in collections of essays and novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page