I never fully appreciated big game hunting until I shot my first white-tailed buck yesterday afternoon on the opening day of the 2016 rifle season here in Eastern Ontario. I took up big game hunting in earnest in 2011 under the tutelage of my good friend and hunting buddy Jason Quinn. Jay is an accomplished big game hunter with a lifetime of experience in the pursuit of white-tailed deer, moose and black bear. Under his guidance I shot my first white-tailed deer, a doe, in the 2012 rifle season. While killing my first deer was a thrill in its own right, the hunt I experienced yesterday was the culmination of all that is good in hunting: notably the challenges, camaraderie , effort, joys, sorrows and sportsmanship associated with hunting. The buck, my first, was hunted down and killed in a fair chase. I felled it using my Browning X-Bold Medallion bolt action rifle (left-hand) in 30-06 with a Winchester Super X 150 grain bullet. What this experience showed is I remain a novice deer hunter and with Jay as friend and mentor I am learning through trial and error.
I set out shortly after noon for the farm near Spencerville where Jay, his wife, myself and Omer (another in our circle of friends and hunting buddies) hunt deer. I started the day feeling a little under the weather (I had a monstrous headache and the runs), but determined to sit in my deer stand for the afternoon. I took a couple of Advil before setting out and arrived in good time. The forecast was for brisk and gusting winds, which left me a little dismayed, but when I arrived at the farm shortly after 1:00 pm the winds were light. I set out for my stand with rifle in hand, in the event I stumbled upon a deer during the walk to my stand. No deer were seen on the walk in and I was seated in the stand shortly before 2:00 pm. Last shot was at 5:11 pm. As I settled into my stand I thought about fortune and how fickle she is, particularly when it comes to hunting. I tried to remain optimistic, but deep down feared I would spend the week seated in my stand, waiting and watching in vain for a deer to wander into view. I noticed how barren and still it was in the wood. In seasons past I heard and saw Canada geese, ducks, crows, songbirds, squirrels and other woodland creatures going about their business as I sat watching and listening for deer. It was distressingly quiet, a bad omen, I fretted.
I felt better when I heard bluejays squawking in the distance and a few songbirds flitted by. Then as I scanned the brush to the right of the stand a sudden movement caught my eye. I peered intensely, my pulse quickening, anticipating a deer. As I looked closely, I saw wattling and realized it was a turkey, then turkeys. A group of six or so turkeys made their way through the brush, eventually wandering into view in front of my stand. There were Toms among them, tempting targets, but as it is no longer turkey season and I wanted a deer, I let them pass. I texted Jay, telling about the turkeys and he replied enthusiastically this must be a good omen. I thought so too. “Surely a deer will follow if turkeys are passing through,” I mused. As the afternoon wore on and I eagerly awaited the last half hour of shooting time the “witching hour” we call it, I heard flocks of Canada geese take to the air, moving to their night roosts. A shot rang out in the distance, “ah, someone got his deer,” I thought.
Then, with about 10 minutes of shooting time left, my turn came. Sound and movement caught my attention and I looked ahead, directly in front of my stand and there was a deer making its way away from me 40-50 yards away in the brush. I raised my rifle and when the deer quartered to the left I found its vital area in the crosshairs of my scope and squeezed the trigger. The deer ran several yards to the left of where I shot it and fell over. I watched carefully to see if it were down and proudly texted Jay with the message “deer down.” I waited several minutes, I really should have waited longer, before climbing down to retrieve my downed deer and then I learned just how challenging deer hunting is. Immediately, things took a dramatic turn. First, the bottom fell out of my backpack. I packed two flashlights along with my headlamp, the plan being to use one of the flashlights to illuminate my stand so I could find my way back in the dark. One of the flashlights was broken beyond repair when it fell to the ground. “Okay, fine,” I thought, “I’ll just go mark where the deer is down and come back to the stand.”
I walked up to what I expected was a freshly harvested deer, only to have it get up and run. I was completely unprepared for this eventuality and in confusion approaching panic, called Jay asking what I should do. Jay came through for me, taking on the role of the sergeant-major, barking orders and bolstering the confidence of his men as they pressed on to their objective. I tracked the wounded deer as darkness fell around me. The deer was mortally wounded, but had incredible stamina as he fought on till he drew his last breath. He could only run a short distance before falling over. He led me on a merry chase, doubling back in the direction where I shot him. I fired twice at him in the dark, using the glow of his eyes in the beam of my headlamp as a reference point, but missed. After several minutes and a couple of panicked calls to Jay, I caught up with the buck. I dispatched him with a second shot to the chest as he vomitted blood. I called Jay again, telling him I found and mercifully finished off the buck. I prodded the buck, I thought it an eight point at the time, with my rifle barrel and there was no response.
By then it was dark and I had no idea how to get back to my stand. It never occurred to me to bring reflective tape to blaze a trail. This was brought to my attention by Jay so I used what I had on hand in an effort to leave a trail to the downed deer. I left my headlamp in a tree over the carcass and used the flashlight on my cellphone to light the way as I tried to retrace my steps. I used pieces of tissue to mark a trail until I ran out. Happily, I found my way back to the stand and from there made my way to the farm house where I prevailed upon our host, Peter, to return with his tractor so we could retrieve the downed deer. Peter and I walked full circle in the dark and failed to find the trail I left. This left no option save for Jay to come out from Ottawa, an hour’s drive, with his dog Nos (a German Wirehaired Pointer) to track the downed deer in the dark for us. While Peter returned to his home, I drove my SUV as close as possible to my stand. Then I sat in my stand, per Jay’s instructions, making noise to deter coyotes from moving in on my kill. I sat in my stand belting out verses from an aria by Handel “O ruddier than the cherry; O sweeter than the berry,” and banged the stand with my flashlight while I waited for Jay and Nos.
Jay and Nos arrived in due course and I directed Jay to where I made the shot and where I saw the buck fall. Jay walked over and found a blood trail. He and Nos made their way in the dark and after considerable searching found the downed buck. Jay was duly impressed and informed me it was a nine point buck. Jay was careful to blaze a trail back to the stand and I joined him at the downed buck, so happy and relieved that it was not lost. We dragged it out of the boggy deadfall where it lay onto dry ground where, with Jay’s help, I dressed it. Then the fun began. We had to drag the carcass about 300 yards across downed trees, stumps and through a dense stand of cedar and pine. Jay is in his prime; whereas, I am well into middle age. We took turns dragging the carcass and dragged it together for the last bit back to where we parked our vehicles. It was a Herculean effort! With the buck tagged and on board my vehicle it was 11:00 pm. I told Jay I want him to take half the venison as without his support and effort I never would have retrieved the animal. It was the teamwork, camaraderie and sportsmanship that Jay and I share that resulted in this successful hunt and Jay earned his share of the spoils. As I write these words, the deer carcass is at the butcher and the head due at a taxidermist to be made into a European mount.
On the drive home I had time to think about the hunt and how it unfolded. The familiar feeling of triumph and sorrow came over me. I set out that afternoon with the goal of hunting down and killing a deer. I succeeded, but not in granting the animal the quick and humane death I intended. When Jay examined the carcass we found the bullet struck the animal behind the left shoulder, but six inches lower than where I thought I aimed my rifle. I was at the buck’s side as he drew his last breath after a vigourous pursuit following the first shot. The first deer I shot and the deer taken by Jay, Fran and our friend Omer, died on the spot once shot. This I found is not unlike the experience of cleanly killing a game bird or small game animal. There is a feeling of triumph and sorrow, but in comparison, I found the experience of tracking and killing the wounded deer a much more deeply emotional and humbling experience. Now I understand and fully appreciate what it means when you make the choice to kill a big game animal and that this is not a choice one makes lightly. I will continue to pursue the challenges and pleasures of big game hunting in seasons ahead, though better prepared with Jay acting as mentor and sergeant-major as needed.
Posted by Geoffrey