Originally Published November 2008 from my old blog.
“You think a guy like that comes this close to getting caught and sticks his head out? My guess is you'll never hear from him again” – Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects.
And so it was this last week in North Carolina - a week so promising with a hard rut interrupted by winds and rain. The buck posted up on the perimeter of a cut cornfield, eying a gangly spike that had been trotting all over the field. Through the binoculars he possessed the features and habits of a mature animal. Unlike his young counterpart trying to sniff up a doe, he didn’t come barging into the middle of the field, rather sneaking to the edge to survey his surroundings. There was no clear definition between his neck and shoulders. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see his antlers in the predawn of this Wednesday - across the two hundred-plus yards to where he stood.
I theory, I could have ground-checked him; it’s not like I was hunting a high-dollar plantation that would fine me bags of gold bouillon for popping an undersized buck. I was hunting with friends on a family farm where the ridicule for such an offense is worse than opening a wallet. So, I held off the trigger.
The buck slowly ventured into the field to confront the spike as I strained for a glimpse of horn, begging for more light. At this point, a parade of trophy deer could have been dancing across the field like in that Big Buck arcade game, but I’d never known – I was glued on this boy, and man, he seemed like a shooter.
As I pulled down the binoculars to clear the fog off the lenses from my warm, heavy breathing in the forty degree chill of morning, I noticed the deer moving back towards the tree line. I retrained the glasses on him and saw what I’d already known in my heart – he was a keeper. Strangely tall, out past the ears, and with visible mass, he’d go at least eight points. And I really have wanted a nice NC State buck for the wall.
I settled down on the crosshairs, shifting in the ladder stand to get a solid rest. By the time I relocated the buck, his antlers were being swallowed by the dark of the pines, walking away until only the bright white borders of his tail remained, until they too were snuffed out.
I camped out on that stand for the better part of the week hoping for another chance, but I’ve been in this game too long. Big Southern deer only give you a chance or two. In the words of Mr. Kint:
“And like that, poof! He's gone.”
For the third time in three hunts, I’d encountered a large North Carolina buck, only to come away empty-handed. Poor shooting cost me in the past. Four years ago it was a nice eight. He’d walked in, got spooked, and then spun back around for a head-on shot. Rushed and free-handed, I hit him low, and after six hours of tracking weak spoor through Satan’s own square mile of thorns and cut-down, I grudgingly conceded the loss. Last year, I sailed a shot over the back of a large buck on the same field I saw this latest buck. The stand was dubbed, “The Sniper Stand” for the distance to the tree line where deer emerged. Again hurried, I fired a poorly rested shot as a heavy fog parted just long enough for an opportunity. So, after these last two experiences and the subsequent camp house humiliation, I was determined not to screw up again.
Of course, I did later in the hunt, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Located roughly 45 minutes west of Wilmington off 421, this land in Sampson County is God’s Country. In the heart of the Bible Belt, it’s yessir, no ma’am, food is hot and plentiful and greasy, the faithful work hard even when there’s little work to be done, and Sundays are off-limits to deer hunting. Once primarily a dog running area, still-hunting and the associated management practices have taken root, although coursing still runs through the locals’ veins.
My fellow hunters in camp fared well. David and Darin both took fine eight points. Don and Travis took a pair of does apiece. Everyone was excited by the buck activity as the rut was clearly on. But, the weatherman’s forecast really stuck it to us. By Thursday night, the skies went overcast and windy and spitting rain. As much as I’d liked another crack at that buck, I’d long since grown jealous of standing by as others loaded fat, corn-fed venison in their coolers. And with the weather deteriorating, next slick-head I’m taking a shot at.
Here’s where I screwed up. Thursday afternoon, from that same stand I’d seen the big buck, a deer entered the field, feeding in said overcast, windy, and wet weather. By 4:45 the light had almost vanished in the inclement conditions. The deer fed amongst the cut corn stalks as I waited to see if the bruiser would re-appear, searching for any sign of antler with the binos. The light continued to fade until the deer began working its way back to cover. At over two hundred yards away, I carefully squeezed off my .300 Win Mag and the report of the shot broke the soggy still of the evening.
Happy I’d finally got a doe for the cooler, disappointed when I walked up and saw two spikes poking from her, er, his head. Yes, sir, I get the irony. I’d held off on an near-obvious shooter in low light to avoid taking a deer I wasn’t supposed to, yet happily pulled the trigger in low light on what I thought was a doe only to discover I’d taken a deer I wasn’t supposed to. Actually, it was a scruffy five point.
Adding injury to insult, while relaying the story to Don in frantic frustration and not paying attention to anything but excuses, I backed my Dodge into an irrigation ditch slick with slippery field muck, which in Chevy Country opened the floodgates of embarrassment.
All turned out well though. Yes, I stood and shamefully watched Uncle Dennis yank out my Ram with his Chevy and took the abuse like a man, save for the crying. I withstood the obligatory lectures and teasing from campmates about the importance of deer management and shooting Bambi. Better though, I escaped with some venison and an invitation to return any time, which will always be more important than antlers.