In my early teenage years, I’d already realized that I was hopelessly hooked on outdoor sports. I studied all the Outdoor Life and Sports Afield magazines I could find, hoping to get some helpful hints on how to catch big fish, find a nice buck, or somehow hit a grouse darting through the beech brush.
As I recall, the “science” of deer hunting was just developing. There wasn’t much talk yet of the study of scrapes, rubs, licking branches, scents, or phases of the rut. So I welcomed locally available advice, carefully listening to the success stories and planning strategies of friends and relatives, especially before deer season.
Like most kids, I was bubbling over with anticipation for the first day of the season. I would have my clothes, boots, knife and rifle ready days in advance. Then I would test the patience of my dad, or anyone who would listen, with questions about the Monday morning to come. Where would we hunt? Would we divide the day between two favorite spots, or stick it out all day in one location? Should we look for deer in the beech, or maybe they would be feeding on acorns? Which valley would be the best bet, or should we climb to the top of the ridge? My endless questions were obviously geared toward somehow maximizing my chance of seeing a shootable deer.
I thought that Dad, having decades of hunting experience would have some heady words of advice after thinking over our options. He simply said, “You’ve just got to be in the right place at the right time.” It seemed to me that this wasn’t an especially helpful answer to my questions.
Quizzing my uncle, “Nub” Dailey, who also spent a lifetime hunting and working in the woods, didn’t help much either. He told me to find a place that looked good to me, stay still and “If you’re supposed to get something, you will.”
Surely, there must be more to this hunting business than these guys were describing. I continued to read the magazines and talk to successful hunters. A few years passed and I shot some deer and started to form some ideas as to what looked like a good spot and which areas might provide some success in the future. I began to pay attention to some of the concepts being more commonly discussed among hunters. Terms such as pre-season scouting, behavior patterns, bedding and feeding areas, attractant scents, deer vocalizations and more became part of a common vocabulary between hunters I knew.
About this time, I discovered that a co-worker and I shared the same interests in hunting and we often discussed our previous adventures and strategies for the upcoming season. A few weeks before opening day, my friend couldn’t resist telling me about a very nice 10 point buck he had spotted and was watching regularly.
Because of the rather secluded location of the buck’s preferred feeding area, it seemed an ideal opportunity to figure out the travel patterns of this deer, without interference from other hunters. Tracing deer trails backwards from the feeding spots, we found large rubs on trees, a few big scrapes along the trail, and lots of extra large tracks in the soft ground.
It appeared that the buck spent a lot of daylight hours holed up in a thorn brush thicket on a hillside. A plan was soon hatched to bag this deer on the first morning, before anyone else might even be in the woods. My friend would climb the ridge above the thicket before before first light; he would find a good spot to sit and quietly wait for the big buck to appear below him, within easy shooting range. His scoped rifle was sighted in and all his gear checked and rechecked. All the study and preparation should surely pay off when that buck showed up.
A phone call from my dejected sounding friend that night provided an interesting story that I’ve never forgotten. It seems he got into position as planned, loaded his gun at first light, and was anxiously scanning the brush below him.
A nearby shot startled him and he soon heard someone yelling on the hillside below. He carefully made his way toward the sounds and found himself staring at a classic hunter’s scene. In front of him lay the big buck, with a nervous 13-year-old boy standing over him. The kid was clutching an old single shot shotgun and had killed the deer with a slug from about 20 yards as soon as the boy had stopped his uphill climb.
This episode of course created a large mix of emotions for my friend. He had to be happy for the kid, but how did his plan for the first hour of the hunt go so wrong? After he told the story, I couldn’t think of anything helpful to offer, but I heard myself say “The kid was just in the right place at the right time; I guess he was supposed to get that deer.”
(Roger Sager, an Era outdoors columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)