The four-point buck was standing right below Heather’s ladder stand at the edge of the woods. About 11 feet away, as evidenced by the trail camera photo. A clueless yearling fork horn, just loafing along. Couldn’t possibly miss this shot. Unless the scope on the muzzle-loader rifle was inexplicably set on nine-power magnification.
And the magnification ring on Heather’s scope was unfortunately turned up to nine power. All she could see was a patch of deer hide. Was that patch of hair right behind the shoulder where she wanted the bullet to strike? Was the patch a part of his neck? His paunch? His rump?
Impossible to tell. She lowered the rifle to adjust the power setting, and in a flash the buck was gone. “My heart was pounding so loudly it probably scared him away,” she said.
Yes, I know all about that.
Heather is my surrogate niece, the daughter of friends whom we have known almost 50 years, and she is passionate about deer hunting. For me, hunting and shooting a deer is exciting and rewarding, but there comes a time in life when it is far more exciting and rewarding to help a younger hunter take a deer. I’m learning the trade of “hunting coach.”
That is how Heather came to be perched atop a ladder stand in the pre-dawn of a chilly North Country morning. I did my best to set her over a well-used deer trail, but I failed to provide an important piece of advice in my coaching duties. Hunting deer from a tree stand in a deciduous woodland with brushy understory, a scope should be set on the lowest possible magnification. A long shot in this section of woods would be 50 yards. A close shot would be… well, about 11 feet. Heather was well aware of that, but I did not tell her, “Check your scope.”
She had missed her chance to take a deer, maybe her only chance this season, and she was inconsolable. Her only opportunity to shoot a buck in the past four years, and the #$%^ scope was set on nine power. “How could that even happen?” she asked in frustration.
“Gremlins,” I assured her. “The same gremlins that put a box of 28 gauge shotshells in my ammo box when I drove 40 miles to hunt pheasants with a 20 gauge gun. You have to double check every single thing because of the damned gremlins.”
“Like checking to make sure the scope is on three-power, not nine-power?”
We were walking back to the house for second breakfast “I should have started hunting a long time ago, years ago,” she said. “Then I would know what I’m doing.”
“You’re doing just fine.”
“I’m not doing just fine. I had the scope set on nine!”
I halted. “I’ve been hunting for more than 60 years, and I have acquired this bit of wisdom: Making good hunting decisions is based on experience, and almost all experience is based on bad decisions.”
“Now, let me give you an ‘experience’ tip. Keep both eyes open when you shoot with a scope. When you raise the rifle to your shoulder,” I demonstrated, “if the stock fits you correctly your eye will automatically align with the scope, and you will see a ‘ghost image’ through the scope. Squinch your left eye, but don’t completely shut it. That will help with your depth perception and with staying on a moving target like a deer. No guarantee, but keeping both eyes open, you might have been able to shoot that deer even with your scope on nine-power.”
“How did you learn that?”
“I learned it by closing my left eye and waving the rifle around like a conductor’s baton while I tried to spot a deer in an over-powered scope. One of those bad experiences from 30 or 40 years ago.”
So, the four-point nine-power buck escaped his fate Monday morning. And late Monday afternoon I shot the “One More River” buck and ruined Heather’s evening hunt. (See One more river to cross)
But Tuesday morning she was back atop the same ladder stand on the edge of the woods, and I was nodding off in a ground blind on the opposite side of the hayfield. Her shot jerked me awake, and I saw the plume of gray-white smoke rising from behind the prickly ash thicket that concealed her tree. I waited several minutes until I saw the flash of color that meant she was reversing her stocking cap from its camo to its orange side.
Heather was giddy. “A bigger buck!” she said.
We walked into the woods. The deer had dropped in his tracks, she said, kicked a few times, and it was over. A perfectly aimed 30-yard shot through branches and brush.
“Guessing you had the scope turned down to three-power,” I said.
A seven-pointer. I pulled the buck around so that his head was uphill. “I’ll field dress him” I said.
“Nope. You’re going to show me how to do it.”
I was a little hesitant, but it turned out to be a good experience. No mistakes, no bad decisions.
Heather’s a very fast learner in this hunting business.