How to Deer Hunt - My First Gun Season
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
After a roller-coaster first archery hunting season, I was excited to experience hunting with a rifle for the first time. Earlier in the season Sam and I had planned to hunt together for the Wisconsin gun opener while we were bow hunting in October. I had never used a rifle while hunting before and Sam was happy to help me learn. So we met several times prior to the opener to shoot at the range, and I picked up the ability to ethically shoot relatively quickly.
Sam had just found a deal on some straight wall cartridge rifles that were starting to gain popularity in the hunting world. Straight wall cartridges were attractive to us because we were born and raised in Ohio where necked rifle cartridges are still not legal to use for hunting. Another bonus in our minds was the effective range of straight wall cartridges we use is approximately 100 - 200 yards. This was nice from a “beyond the target” lethality of our shots. The rifle Sam had for me to use was a Ruger American chambered in 350 Legend. It has low recoil, and Ruger made a very accurate gun for under $500. By the second day at the range, I was shooting MOA groups at 100 yards and felt comfortable for the opener.
The land we were hunting was an invitation by a coworker to a large tract of a private lease that was a beautiful mix of hills, ridges, timber, agriculture, and CRP (conservation reserve program) that exceeded well over 200 acres. The landscape was stunning, and the wildlife did not disappoint. Leading up to the morning of the hunt, I had been in a tree stand only one time in my life and it was about one month prior to this opening hunt. I have a general fear of heights, but it seems to be distance-dependent. For example, if I am under 15 feet off the ground, the height does not really bother me. However, small steps and not a large room for error which is the nature of most stands, made me very wary. Luckily, I was put in a stand that was only 10 or 12 feet off the ground and the height off the ground was never a factor in my mind for the course of the hunt.
We went in about 45 minutes before shooting time and Sam and I were hunting opposing CRP openings that were adjacent to two large wooded ridges. There was a tractor path running the border of them and we used it to walk in until the last 20 yards. I tried to be as quiet as possible and not take too much time. It still took me a little bit to get settled even though it was a ladder stand 10 feet off the ground. As the sun began to break, just after shooting time, I heard something walking behind me. Audibly it had a gate bigger than small critters and sounded more like slow calculated human steps. The steps got closer but remained directly behind the tree before they stopped. I slowly turned my head to look back over my shoulder and there was a nice nine-point buck licking branches and checking a large scrape that I had walked over in the dark on the way to the stand. There was no way for me to turn and get a shot off, so I just watched carefully and in awe at the first deer encounter of the gun opener. I was excited, to say the least, but before I really had time to think about that buck, I turned back around and a doe and yearly walked out of the wood-ridge about 40 yards in front of me and started walking right toward me on the tractor trail.
My heart started to race. The doe kept walking right towards me and I was completely exposed sitting without the shooting rail and no cover at my front. I slowly began raising my rifle. She was walking cautiously and stopped directly in front of me at 10 yards and kept glaring at me and then back over her shoulder. She went back and forth in that manner for what seemed like minutes but was probably about 30 seconds or a minute. I got the feeling she knew I was sitting there, and that I was not “normal”, and she was trying to catch me moving which would confirm her suspicion. Despite her intentions, I never budged, and the only thing moving was the hot air billowing out of my mouth on the cold crisp morning. At the next turn of her head, I clicked my tang safety forward into the fire position and simultaneously raised my gun to the shooting position. I found the shoulder crease in my scope and slowly squeezed the trigger. It was around 07:00 am on the morning of my first deer gun hunt and I saw a nice buck and shot my first deer. She ran off across the field into the wooded ridge about 80 yards in front of my location and laid down. I felt good and really thought it was a slam dunk of a shot and my first deer was lying just out of sight. Now I wanted to get a buck and live that exhilarating experience all over again.
As the morning progressed, I saw a total of 16 deer, and 5 of those were shooting sized bucks. The biggest of the 5 came out mid-morning almost strutting across this sloped CRP field in front of me at about 80 yards. Unfortunately, I misunderstood the request of the person who invited us to hunt. He instructed us to only shoot 8 point deer or bigger. However, he meant just harvest mature deer. I took him literally and out of respect for his rules, I frantically texted him from the stand as I watched this massive creature stroll out in front of me. I could only count 6 points with my naked eye, and in the heat of the moment was too inexperienced to grab my binoculars and get a closer look. My heart was racing, and I kept checking my phone. I had literally minutes of opportunity to shoot this buck if I had understood it was a green light shot. The antlers on this deer were twice as wide as his ears and they looked thicker than the deer I saw two hours prior at 10 yards. He was clearly an old dominant animal, which was evident when he stopped halfway up the field to mark his territory. He had another big buck with him with long tall antlers but not as many points. But despite my patience and minutes of opportunity, I watched the bucks walk into the woods across the field and out of sight as my phone rest silently in my hand. In my mind, it was the absolute right thing to do as a first-time guest on an invited hunt. The lease owner later said he appreciated the gesture, but I should have taken the shot.
After seeing more does out further than 100 yards the morning hunt ended around 10:00 am. We reconvened and learned that the other two guys had both shot 2 deer and were already field dressing them before they brought the 4-wheeler over to check on Sam and me. Sam had an early opportunity but ended up not shooting anything, and not seeing anywhere close to the number of deer that I witnessed. I explained to the group I had shot a doe and I was pretty sure she was up about 75 yards ahead just inside the wood line. We followed a blood trail right to where I saw her go into the woods, but to our surprise, she was very much alive and jumped up and went down the side of the wood-ridge towards the alfalfa field below. The mindset quickly changed as we now had a deer to put down that was probably going to die if left alone, but with such proximity, we decided to pursue a finishing shot. After a hillside worth of stalks, bumps, squats, and shots, we finally caught up and finished what I had started.
After we field dressed the deer and got it back to the truck we sat at the truck and had a bite to eat. I had a chance to think about what could have gone wrong and realized that I had never turned my scope magnification down when I made the shot. So, I shot that deer at 10 yards while the scope was on 7x magnification. The spot I hit went through one lung and the diaphragm and exited through the intestines. The angle of the deer was slightly quartering to me and on 7x in the heat of my first shot I failed to compensate. Another tough lesson and not so straight forward adventure into a new mode of hunting. All I could do was learn from my mistakes and get back in the stand for an evening hunt.
We got back into position about two hours before dark and I was extremely hopeful the evening would yield anything close to the number of deer I had witnessed in range during the morning. I had already turned my scope down to 2x magnification and was thinking about the shot angle in preparation for the next opportunity. Luckily, I was able to instantly practice my new knowledge. Ten yards in front of me I heard a noise and out walked the same 9-point buck I saw the first thing that morning. He walked 10 feet and stopped in the same exact spot as the doe I had shot, but this time he was slightly quartered away from me. He froze and glared up at me just as the doe had done. The buck tried several times to catch me moving but again I froze. With basically the same sequence as before, I waited for the buck to turn his head and check the field opposite of me. I then raised my gun, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. The buck instantly mule kicked his hind legs and sprinted into the woods. He made it 15 yards and then went to the ground. After field dressing the buck, I found that I had shot right through the top of his heart.
I felt so extremely fortunate to have observed the amount of wildlife I did that day but also amazed that I harvested two great deer with basically the exact same shot. It felt so rewarding to apply all the lessons I had learned, and I was smiling from ear to ear. It was such an incredible day and like nothing I had ever experienced. With every adventure, I learn something new, and I look forward to continuing to learn the nuances of the outdoors for the rest of my life.
What were some of your first hunting memories? Comment below!