Button Buck Down

After eight years of trying, a Virginia hunter harvests his first buck

The second week of Virginia’s 2013 muzzleloader season was windy and clear.  The mid-Atlantic was finally in winter’s cold grasp and the crisp November morning was struggling to reach 30 degrees.  Not exactly perfect deer hunting weather and I wasn’t very hopeful about ending my eight-year streak of not shooting a deer.  Too bad I hadn’t been hunting skunks, that’s what I was always getting.

Was it worth eight years of trying ? Yes!

Was it worth eight years of trying ? Yes!

I’ve killed and cooked pheasant, squirrel, grouse – even a Rocky Mountain bull elk, but I had never shot a whitetail.  My hunting partner, Jason, and I have tramped all over every piece of public land in Virginia.  Up and down icy mountain trails in pre-morning darkness until after many half-hours past sunset.  We’re on great terms with vast tracks of the Washington-Jefferson National Forest.  We even joined a hunt club on prime timber land five years ago but neither one of us had killed a deer.  My wife unfailingly supportive of my quests, lately had begun to demand, Kay Robertson-style, that I bring home a deer, or else.

Like most years,  Army Reserve duty prevented me from making opening day of muzzleloader season, but I took that first Friday after off from work and sat all day in my favorite stand.  All windy, low 20’s-freezing day.  I didn’t see one single specimen of America’s favorite big game animal.

Disappointed by the previous day’s failure, I climbed the ladder stand again on Saturday.  It was just as cold, and even windier. Things were looking glum.  I couldn’t appreciate the morning woods coming to life or even muster the false motivation of believing that a bad day hunting was better than good day at work.   A “bad day hunting” might be falling out of my tree stand.  I prayed for a successful hunt.

Midday approached and I began to fear I would not be able to teach my toddler son how to hunt deer when the time came.  What would I say when he sits next to me in the deer stand and whispers that he sees a deer and asks what to do, “Heck if I know son, I’ve never done this before?  You’re guess is as good as mine.”  The shame.  I fell deeper into despair.  The wind whipped constantly in a blue bird day frenzy.  A coyote had recently been killed on our hunting lease;  unable to hear or smell predators, there was no way a deer was just going to saunter past my deer stand at high noon.

I mulled over all the deer hunting strategies I read about in Field and Stream and Outdoor Life over the years, and thought of the pines directly behind  my stand.  The deer had to be bedded down there, hidden from predators and the cold wind in the thickets between the straight rows of farmed trees.  I would have to go kill one the hard way, if I was going to feed my family venison this year.  Of course, I could go warm up in the Subaru and take a nap… I drew down deeply into the substance that sustains all hunters and fishermen: the wellspring of optimism that a trophy lies at the end of just one last cast or over just one more ridge.

Quietly, I climbed down the ladder and after replacing the primer in my CVA Optima started down the trail that borders the pines.  After about 50 yards, I locked eyes with a big-bodied doe staring at me from just inside the trees.  Before I could shoulder my rifle, she and a few of her friends bolted.   But I took the herd as a good omen and entered the pines from the nearest firebreak.  Within 100 yards of that herd, I jumped a second group, then a third,  and behind that, another herd.  Jackpot!  These hedgerows were thick with deer!  When the next herd rose from behind a blowdown about thirty yards away, I hastily took a knee to buy time for a shot, quickly settled the crosshairs of the Leopold UltimateSlam and squeezed the trigger.  I sent the 295-grain Powerbelt on its way and saw my target flinch before smoke obscured the sight picture.

As the smoke cleared, I switched gears and mentally prepared to track the animal.  I visualized the last place I saw it and tried to capture every detail of the surrounding area.  I slowly approached the spot, not wanting to push a wounded animal.  Happily, ten feet from where I shot him, a deer lay stone dead.

From the field to freezer. Steaks, straps, brats, and breakfast sausage.

From  field to freezer.  Steaks, sausage, brats, and straps.

A beautiful button buck sporting the tan coat of a yearling lay on its side in a soft bed of pine needles.  My shot had double-lunged him right behind the shoulder and he died within seconds of my pulling the trigger.  I ran my hands over the stiff fur and was startled when his last breath hissed out of the bullet holes in the deer’s chest.  A wave of sadness rose up to match the pride I felt in taking the deer.   Nothing prepares you for the overwhelming sense of personal responsibility that comes along with taking an animal’s life.

In the end – every grazing animal, from the Commonwealth to the Caprivi Strip,  is doomed to be killed and eaten.  Within a few years, my buck would surely have been taken down by a pack of coyotes, or turned into hamburger by a speeding car.  But now,  in giving his life to feed my family,  he would live forever in my mind’s eye backlit by the afternoon sun.

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