By Leif HerrGesell
Opening morning in Ontario county was cool and spitting a light rain and the shooting started early, but the weather soon turned brightly sunny and clear. Some of the shots started as my daughter Emily and I were leaving the house to head up the hill out back. Those first shots were before legal light and always make me wonder why hunters feel the need to get on stand 30 - 60 minutes before legal shooting. It just encourages bad choices. Go to your stand in half-light, its safer and generally by the time you’re settled in its legal to take a deer.
There was a lot of shooting, the most I’ve heard in some years. This may be because Ontario County just legalized center fire rifle for deer hunting. Apparently there are more people who want to take long shots who weren’t as interested in hunting close up and personal with a shotgun. Myself I have never felt under-gunned with a 2 ¾" slug gun in the woods. Granted it’s not much use in a field of corn stubble where the deer are crossing 300 yds. Out, but I would prefer to locate a stand on the ground to intercept them entering or exiting a large field. Smooth tube sluggers aren’t sexy like a bolt rifle either, but are a good 100yd gun which covers most shooting in the woods and thickets of Western New York.
I don’t like calling tree stand or tripod shooting at ranges over a hundred yards hunting. That is shooting. When an animal cannot use any of its senses to detect a hunter who is hundreds of yards off and many feet in the air, then the hunter becomes a shooter. It’s like the difference between calling turkey and shooting doves. Shooting takes skill but it’s not hunting, its’ an aspect of hunting. It’s like saying that long drives are all you need to play golf. My astute golf buddies would say that was helpful but not going to win most rounds by itself.
The morning shooting started to subside around 8:15 and by 9am was just a few scattered, widely spaced shots. I like hearing a single shot followed by another single less than a minute later. You know it was a good solid first shot with a finisher. Close strings of three or more make me sick. You know the shooter is just flinging lead, which is both unsafe and almost always unsuccessful. I only remember killing a deer once on a third shot. He was a spike that had been a very big four but had mutilated his rack fighting. I was 27 at the time, and it was a warm afternoon and the deer were bedded so I began still hunting. I kicked him out of a pile of grapevines as I walked the edge of a farmland woodlot. He headed for the winter wheat field behind me and I ran to cut him off as he broke cover. I didn’t have enough lead on the first shot and hit behind him, he turned to my left and I tried a raking stern shot- missed. Then I drew down tight with the parkerized, Ithaca model 37 and held between his ears as he was headed straight away and approaching 75 yds of range. By the time I squeezed the third shot he had hit 100yds. The slug struck at point of aim behind his right ear and he disappeared. Huh? In an open wheat lot? Where did he go? I ran toward his last known location and after covering about 50 yards in around 8 seconds I saw him scrabbling around. The ground had broken away from me in a gradual grade that matched the arc of my slugs trajectory. Instead of hitting him in the back like I expected based on slug drop, the slug struck heavy bone in the skull and pitch poled him onto his rack. His brain was untouched but he couldn’t get his legs under him and I finished him with a shot through the shoulder. Third and fourth shot kill, carefully aimed and squeezed, backed up with tremendous good fortune. Never tried it again and the only other running shot I can remember after that was a fast hobbling doe hit by another hunter that I put down for him with my Jaeger flintlock. Walking and trotting shots have been successfully accomplished, but few hunters are skilled enough to drop a deer running through trees at ranges beyond 50 yards. To be honest, most of us are good for one well aimed shot in those circumstances and are acting on adrenaline after that.
The rest of my opening morning was pretty and uneventful. I picked my 14 year old daughter up at her camo bucket, ground stand and took her back to the house at 9:15. She had done very well and patiently stayed on stand and then quietly still hunted to another ground location 75 yards from her bucket, waited for an hour and was still hunting back to the bucket when I picked her up.
Emily and I grabbed a quick breakfast and then collected my son Andrew and his friend Jed. The boys will be taking their hunting test this summer. Andrew has always enjoyed accompanying me since he was seven. He’s tagged along on jaunts for partridge and deer in the Adirondacks at our family deer and canoe camp and he’s fallen asleep sitting in front of me deer hunting. It is a quality of time that can’t be had any other way. Camping and hiking are fun, but not as soulful as the quiet of the woods, on stand during deer season.
Andrew’s buddy has been bitten by the hunting bug, but no one in his home hunts so mom and dad asked me if he could tag along and watch and learn a little. I took the boys on a short still hunt circuit of the woods behind the house. I pointed out scrapes and rubs and explained to Jed what they meant and when and how they were made. He and Andrew remained in a tight single file behind me, both of them wearing blaze orange like my coat and hat. We spotted two does, but I really didn’t want to shoot one yet and my greatest hope was that they would walk in front of Em who was back on her bucket. We climbed the ridge to where I shot an unofficial 135 B&C buck last year and I showed Jed how to walk in dry leaves without spooking deer. Still hunting is my favorite thing to do and I have taken three doe from their beds with pistol, percussion half-stock and flintlock. Over the decades a dozen other deer have been tagged while still hunting, including the three-shot buck, two bow deer and some other flintlock kills. The remainder have been shot from ground stands and yes a half dozen were shot from a tree stand back when we used build widow-makers. Mine was only nine feet off of the ground.
Our hunt was cut short when we stopped to visit with a neighbor who is the father of one of the boy’s favorite teachers. Jed’s mom was picking him up at noon so we headed back in around 10:45. The temp was warming toward 50 degrees and the sun was still bright and cheerful. Shots were getting scarce but a few carried a long ways on the clear air. This was not my typical season opener, teaching two would-be hunters and escorting a first year deer hunter, but it was more rewarding than killing a monster buck. If I can create 3 next generation sportsmen and women who can be successful in a fair chase and who value the process over the result, then I will be able to hang up the spurs. That won’t happen for a few decades if I can help it and I still have much to share with them.
After a brief halt at the house for lunch and a 10 minute catnap, Emily and I headed back out knowing we would not hunt til days end because Andrew had a hockey game in the afternoon and I was an assistant coach to say nothing of a proud dad.
At 1:15 Em and I climbed the side trail for the third time and slipped passed her bucket stand, heading instead toward my giant oak ground stand. I wanted to give her a new view and spend a little dad and daughter time before the son’s game. We shuffled through the leaves, quietly trying to mimic the stop- rustle and go of a deer browsing. It’s not a ground eating pace, but I seldom spook deer using it if I take my time. We hadn’t gone more than 50 yards beyond her stand when we suddenly had deer on the side hill just above us on our left, on an intersecting course. We spotted them simultaneously and froze. Within seconds I picked out two does and a buck. I whispered " Deer! There’s a Buck!" to Emily and I darted a sideways glance not wanting to take my eyes off of him and I could see she hadn’t spotted him. Her eyes were darting- trying to find the antlers. The buck was broadside and both he and the does were aware of our presence, but hadn’t pegged us as danger just yet. I knew we had only seconds before they turned and high tailed back up the ridge above us. I threw the scoped 870 to my shoulder and found a sapling running right down the buck’s side. Intervening low limbs and his position kept me from counting points. I lined the cross hairs on his rib cage just behind the blocked shoulder for a lung shot. The report ripped the still woods and he was lost from sight as I rocked with the recoil. As I brought the gun down from my shoulder I could see he was down. I yelled to Em to follow me and I hit the safety and ran about 20 yards up the slope. The buck was trying to rise and I stopped and put a second slug in his neck behind his head. Over ground the shot was 65 yards and the first slug had broken his back. The second round exited his throat and ended him less than 20 seconds after the first shot. Ground shrinkage showed him to be a basket year and a half 6 point. Not a trophy but a respectable young buck. My only regret was that Emily couldn’t get the shot because of trees blocking her view of him.
As a youth I never had the opportunity to be physically next to my dad when he killed a deer. Emily and I have done this twice now and it has been very special both times. In the aftermath of a good hunt I have also felt how different my hunting is now that I am taking older children who will take their own deer in time. Their enthusiasm and wonder are worth more than all of the fancy guns and big racks you can muster.
Emily stood on stand while I gutted the deer out and a half hour later we sat together under my big oak soaking up the afternoon. We headed in early to make the hockey game at our local rink. Andrew scored the team’s first goal of the game, which they won and was also his first goal of the season.
A week later I took the boy out with me for an afternoon stand after his hockey game. The sky was sunny but the wind and snow were blowing hard. With the windchill the temp was somewhere in the chilly neighborhood of 15 degrees. We saw several does at a distance moving quickly through the hardwoods uphill from us as we headed to the bucket stand Emily had used earlier in the day. I explained to Andrew how deer like to move ahead of a pending storm and how and why still hunting can be fruitful on windy days. We were going to sit for the last hour however. Mr. "A" hasn’t been with me when I took a deer like his sister has. I am pretty sure he was dubious about the chances of getting to see a hunt successfully concluded. My priority this year was to shoot a deer with him and not be fussy about size. This was a learning chance- a cementing of interest on his part. He loves his youth bow and shooting his Red Rider or Crossman. Earlier in the fall I had let him take a target shot with my .50 cal, Half stock Hawken.
We were on the pail about 20 minutes when two does filtered into the trees and light brush 50 yards to my right- moving across my front. Andrew had just gotten down in a kneeling position between my knees. He’s on the shorter side for an 11 year old just as I was. I whispered to him to remain still and asked if he saw them. He nodded. I pulled up and put the Bushnell on the first deer, but it ghosted into the brush. I brought the Remington down. Deer number two moved along at a steady walk 25 yards behind its sibling and then paused before moving into the smoky colored brush. I settled the cross hairs on it shoulder and squeezed. The deer spun and went down. I stood and put the safety on and moved quickly toward it as Andrew hollered "Yeah!". I called for him to follow me and when we got to the deer I found I had hit a little high. It was a spine shot. I put a round from my .38 Colt Official Police Mk III into it as a finisher.
The wind was brutal and we gutted it quickly. The deer was small, but big in experience for both Andrew and I. The added blessing of it being small was that I asked Andrew to drag it 300 yds back to the house and he was all smiles as he took the rope and gave it everything he had. You’d have thought he had just been called up to the NHL! I have shot many deer over the last 34 years, but the three I have taken with my kids have been more special than the "Book" deer I got last year- by far. This little doe will also be a lesson in skinning and butchering.
These are the things that great days are made of- the priceless time we spend with our kids. Big bucks can’t buy that. ..
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