In the Spotlight
By Conn Dury
My deep sleep is interrupted by my alarm, the distinctive whistling of the theme music from A Fistful of Dollars snaps me out of my dreams and gets me to roll over and check my phone. 4:00. Time to get up and go. As reluctant as I am to leave my warm bed for the cold woods, I just think of the possibility of that mule of a buck walking past my stand. What if today’s the day and I’m not there?
After getting layered up I make my way to the kitchen for an apple, typical breakfast during deer season. I’ll be back around lunchtime anyway. Then it’s out the door, grabbing my rifle last. Always keep her by the front door, the one item I never go in the woods without. After starting up the truck I have a couple minutes as the windshield unthaws, so I do one more gear check. 5 rounds ammo, check. Gloves, check. Balaclava and hat, check. Seat pad, check (makes all the difference sitting on a cold metal bench).
It’s not even a ten minute drive down the winding country roads to the private road on the land. While barely a half mile from the town road, it feels isolated and distant from society. Hard to believe it was all fields not 35 years ago, been that way since my great grandparents settled on this very land nearly a hundred years ago. I feel lucky to still go have and be able to hunt on a piece of it, especially one bordered by the state park on the backside. With no hunting allowed in there, there gotta be some big bucks hanging around!
4:45, one hour to shooting time. Parking the truck at the end of the road I gather up my gear, load up, and make my way to my stand. As tempting as it is to remove layers of clothing on the walk out, I resist. Even through longjohns, four layers, coveralls, and my fur trapper hat, the cold cuts through you like a buck knife as you sit perfectly still for hours on end. It’s not far anyway, probably a tenth of a mile in, just turn right at the brush pile. Once up the ladder I’m settled in and sit tight til shooting time. I check my phone, 4:58. I must be certain I’m shooting no earlier than a half hour before sunrise. Last thing I want is for the game warden to hear an early shot, go snooping around and write me some expensive tickets. He’ll probably find a few more things with me ticketable, they can be a little too strict if you ask me. At least I don’t have to worry about that when I use my crossbow. Since it makes no noise, I can just shoot when I can see. But I like to take full advantage of rifle season when it comes around 2 months out of the year. Something traditional about it I love. For years I carried an old Marlin 336 in .35 Remington, a beautiful old levergun my grandfather once owned. Used that beauty to harvest my first buck, a young spiker, years ago. For reasons I can’t understand, the .35 Remington is a relatively uncommon cartridge now, hell I’m still using handloads from the 90s! But it is a hard hitter and in my opinion the best brush gun for the thick woods of the northeast and the close quick shots it requires. However this year I wanted to try something different, so I took a Remington 700 in .308 Win. I don’t know the history of that Marlin, but I know for a fact the last time this Remington was used my grandfather took a deer not more than 3 miles from here as a crow flies. The scope was a big adjustment from the iron sights I became so accustomed to, but you sure can see a lot further with it.
Falling in and out of sleep I constantly check the time. I always lay the rifle across the shooting bar, just to be certain I don’t drop it when I nod off. Haven’t fallen out myself yet, despite never even taking the safety harness out of the box I bought the stand in. I mean who’s got time for that?
Finally the darkness is retreating and the dark shapes I’ve been staring at become clear. Now I can begin to see the feeder, the 50 gallon barrel full of corn elevated on a tripod stand, the stone wall with the break where a gate once stood, and the trees; laurel, oak, hemlock, and beech. Finally it becomes time to shoot so I move the rifle into position on the bar to have it ready, keeping my eye on the break in the wall. A deer trail runs right through it from the state park, funneling any deer traffic directly past me.
At this time the woods finally come alive. Morning doves and other birds sing their songs. Squirrels and chipmunks make their way to the feeder for a free meal. A flock of crows overhead makes their presence well known. In less than an hour the sun will peek over the horizon, the light slowly working its way down the trees, I welcome the warmth it provides. It is so peaceful out here, a much needed break from the stresses and rush of daily life. Clearing your mind and losing yourself in nature is a little vacation from the realities of the world. I often think of the early mountain men nearly two centuries ago; John Colter, Kit Carson, and Hugh Glass. Alone in the wilderness, surviving off God’s creation. I am proud to keep a thousands year old tradition alive by hunting.
The best times to hunt deer are in the early morning and late afternoon, but as anyone who almost hit a deer with their car because they didn’t cross at the deer crossing sign knows, they are unpredictable. They go wherever and whenever they want. My first two deer were harvested on hunts like I just described to you, but this year was one to remember as I technically wasn’t even hunting that day.
It had been raining heavily all morning as it was a relatively warm December, but it ceased in the early afternoon. With the next day being the final day of rifle season I decided to drive out to the land to check on my feeder, to increase my chances of a successful hunt. Throwing on my jacket and grabbing my rifle, away I went. When I got there I walked the same path out and directly to the elevated barrel of corn. Seeing it was all set I started back for my truck. But passing my stand I couldn’t resist the temptation and bounded up the ladder for a bird’s eye view. As I turned around to sit on the bench I caught movement beyond the wall. It was a few deer alright, no mistaking the white tails. The group of four does then proceeded toward me from the right, following the exact same path a few I sighted earlier in the season took. Being so early in November I let them go, as I planned to hold out for a buck, but being the very end of December I decided this was it. I slowly raised the rifle and got into position. It would have to be an offhand side shot. As the line trotted along I waited for them to move by a small opening in the trees, the only viable shooting lane I could find. I let out a “Woah!” and the line stopped. A tad later than I wanted, I had to lean over to get into view. No matter. I settled the crosshairs behind the shoulder and let the rifle speak.
I quickly chambered another round as I watched the deer run a short distance before dropping behind the east stone wall. Deer down! Now I could process what happened. I wasn’t on the stand for much more than a minute and I had a deer right over there waiting for me! There was no time to overthink it, if I had hesitated even a second before that shot the deer would have been away in thick woods and quickly out of sight. I didn’t give deer fever a chance to set in. But now it’s time to be patient. I always wait at least 15 minutes before retrieving my quarry, to avoid any chance of it running off the property if the bullet had not finished its job just yet. But I was confident in my shot, that it would finish its purpose as quickly as possible.
After what felt like an hour I slowly made my way in the direction I saw the doe run. Not more than 15 yards from where my bullet found its target lay my deer. Though calm on the outside I was bursting with excitement inside. I had planned on being back in half an hour, but here I was with a beautiful doe that would fill the freezer with roasts, loins, backstraps, and grounds for burger. The most clean and natural meat you can get, all for the cost of one round of .308, which in my case was from a 50 year old can of surplus ammo. In a moment I will begin the chore of carrying the deer to my truck, a back straining task, and take it home for dressing and processing. Now it is time for a quick prayer of thanks, for the plentiful game God provides us, and that he allowed me this opportunity to harvest one of His creatures. I am grateful for everything I harvest, and nothing is ever wasted.