This year's deer season was make-or-break for me. In past years, I had been unwilling or unable to put in the time to become proficient with a rifle. There was always something else to do like fishing for bass or hunting upland game throughout late summer and early fall. My small amount of free time after work did not justify the effort of sighting in a rifle and running a few dozen rounds through it in preparation for opening day. Rather, that activity was reserved for the Thursday before opener in seasons past. I am ashamed to admit these facts, and acknowledge them as the primary stumbling block to fully enjoying deer hunting.
Further, my introduction to rifles at the tender age of 23 consisted of - embarrassingly enough - a crescent moon-shaped gash on my forehead after my first squeeze of the trigger. In Pavlovian fashion, every subsequent shot taken with any rifle, from the diminutive .223 to the 30.06, had me flinching. The recoil and noise had me wincing each time I prepared to fire, sometimes doing so when I forgot to chamber a round and pulled the trigger with no result.
To top it all off, when the seasons did come, I found myself shooting at running deer which I could not keep up with. My skills did not match those of the the other people in my party. Due to no fault of their own, I simply did not take to this pursuit that had controlled their calendar year since they turned fifteen. When I did harvest a respectable eight-pointer - being assured that I fired the shot that hit it, and not the other more experienced poster who fired along with me - I was still on the fence about the sport. It got to the point that last year, I didn't even put in for a tag.
I discussed my deer hunting experiences with a co-worker who invited me to hunt with him this fall. He was quite convincing in his argument that the style of hunting I engaged in previously was not for me, and that if I tried hunting with him, my mind would change about deer hunting. Still unsure, I mailed in my twenty dollar check and my application for any antlered deer in Unit 2G1. My application was successful and I told him that if I didn't at least enjoy the hunt, this would be it. In response, he stated he enjoyed several days of the previous year's hunt, without ever firing a shot.
With that in mind, I ran several boxes of ammunition through my rifle in preparation for the season, after I had the local gunsmith bore sight my gun. At least I would get some shooting in.
I woke up on opening day at 4:30 a.m., full of excitement. It was like opening day of bass fishing in Minnesota, or sunrise on pheasant opener on the farm near Watford City, N.D. I busied myself with checklists and the packing of equipment. My shots were down to a semi-consistent six-inch group at 100 yards in a final practice session the night before, and looking at the crinkled paper target laying on my passenger seat further fueled my optimism about this hunt.
I checked in at work, taught my class in blaze orange and headed to the local cafe to meet my hunting partners - a father-and-son duo I knew through another co-worker. My host, a law enforcement officer, was in charge of security for a high-profile trial, and would not be able to join us until the next day. Without our guide, the three of us talked as we drove to our hunting spot. I explained I really wasn't picky about the buck I hoped to take, but that I was very safety-conscious and just happy to be out hunting.
The afternoon of opener was quiet. We sat upon a ridge overlooking the riparian oak forest, which ran nearly to the top of the valley. Having antlerless tags, companions fired a few unsuccessful shots at a few does which strayed into our view; some casually walking into sight, while others streaked by, spooked by hunters on surrounding lands.
When deer activity was minimal, the skies kept us entertained. Two bald eagles patrolled the river, gliding high on the wind currents. The treetops buzzed with the shrieks of blue jays and the occasional flock of buntings or a solitary crow would zip by. The clouds to the west began to break as the afternoon wore on and the wind came to a stop. As the sun neared the horizon, a deer appeared on the edge of the sumac nearly 100 yards away. I was alerted to its presence by my fellow observers.
"It's a buck...I think," the younger companion stated.
I raised my binoculars and could clearly see two wispy white bones arching from the deer's head about even with his ears. In the tangle of the tree branches behind him, I couldn't see anything else.
"I'm going to pass on this one, he looks...small," I whispered. With a snort and a stamp the deer turned as if insulted by my comment. With his head turned, he sported an impressive rack - at least four-by-four - which towered over his ears and ran parallel and beyond his nose. I jerked the binocs up again and tried to follow the deer into the brush, letting the glasses fall back to my chest as my face contorted into a wince of self-disgust.
"I thought you said you weren't picky," the eldest hunter said with a smile and a nudge. On the walk back to the truck and on the drive home, I replayed the moment over and over, sometimes adding in alternate endings with a successful shot and kill on my part instead of the sting of inexperience. Consoled by a hot meal and the crackle of a fire, I prepared for the next day...in our outdoors.