In the past 3 seasons I’ve spent chasing Whitetail Deer, I’ve lost count of how many times things have gone all wrong. Being new to the pursuit as an adult-onset hunter I couldn’t help but learn some lessons the hard way, through painful and direct experience. Some days naturally, were harder than others. You’ve all experienced them in some capacity- days where the mistake train picks you up before sunrise and doesn’t let you off until well after sunset. Whether caused by lack of sleep, poor planning, naivety, or too many beers the night before, these mistakes drain your confidence and drastically reduce your chances of achieving whatever goal(s) you had set for the day. Up until this year’s gun season I had no clue what it was like for everything to feel right, and just how special a moment can be when the stars do align. This precise alignment led to my first gun hunt alongside my brother, my first hunt on historic and treasured family land, my first shot taken at a deer, my first successful harvest, my first successful track, etc., you get the point. Big thanks are owed to the people who made this hunt possible.
To gain proper perspective on this hunt it is helpful to discuss first things first, meaning we have to go back to the long days and harsh rays of summer. The COVID outbreak was relatively young and there was a great deal of uncertainty about both the virus and how we as a whole should respond to it. Despite the looming threat plans were made to hunt in Ohio for the gun season. Being a resident of the state and having acquired some knowledge of public land here, I was tasked with organizing the hunt. However, after I spent a good bit of time twiddling my thumbs and doing other things equally as productive my brother did what he always does when I need it most, he helped me. He reached out to our uncle, who owns a dozen or so acres of mostly forested land with a creek running right through the middle of the property. He agreed we could hunt his land, stay at his cabin on the shores of Lake Erie, and make nearly any improvements we wanted to before the hunt. Needless to say, we owe him a great debt of gratitude for making this hunt possible, and downright enjoyable.
Having gotten the go-ahead I immediately purchased some cellular trail cameras and some attractants so we could determine the approximate quantity and quality of deer using the land we would eventually hunt. My brother purchased two (2 person) ladder stands that we would erect after performing some on the ground scouting. It had been many years since he and I, along with our younger sister, had roamed our uncle’s land in awe of the natural wonders it held. In more ways than one, we cut our teeth in the outdoors on that property- fishing, camping, hiking, birdwatching, and anything else that would keep us outside and engaged. With limited time and resources pooled, we decided this was enough equipment to get us started hunting on the property in the first year of access.
September came, and with it came the opportunity to install the stands and the trail cameras. Assembling the stands was the first task, made easier using a flat concrete surface upon which to build rather than undulating natural ground that has the tendency to quickly hide very small yet very essential building materials when dropped. Once the stands were assembled we set about scouting the property for optimum stand locations and desired setup trees. After careful consideration of shooting angles, tree height, thickness, and cover, location in relation to bedding cover, and setup requirements we chose two mature maple trees upon which to mount the stands. The first stand was set up in the creek bottom, or natural floodplain of the creek, on the opposite bank from my uncle’s house and barn. Turkey scratchings and droppings, along with a fair smattering of fresh deer tracks indicated game species frequented this location even if in passing. While somewhat less obvious of a stand location from a game sign perspective, the second stand was set up on a ridge behind my uncle’s house with an excellent view of nearly the entire huntable portion of the property.
This was the first time either of us had dealt with ladder stands having been up to that point strictly mobile hang-and-hunt users on public land. We came to find one truth rather quickly. Regardless of how well supported the ladder is once positioned against the chosen tree, the first ascent can threaten the cleanliness of any climber’s undergarments. My brother volunteered to scale the ladder first to secure the stand at the seat level, and I am forever grateful he did. He performed this vital task on both stands, and above each stand fastened a “lifeline”. This handy rig is a safety rope that clips directly to your full body harness with a sliding prussic knot tied into it that can be slid up or down as you move on the ladder. Once the stands were mounted it was quick work to set up the trail cameras and mineral blocks nearby to capture deer activity in the vicinity. Finally, we constructed a bridge over the creek capable of supporting my uncle’s off-road vehicle. This would serve all of us well as my uncle could now harvest firewood from a previously inaccessible portion of his property, and we could haul harvested deer with less effort back to the barn where processing would occur.
October and November passed quickly with no remarkable deer showing up on trail cameras. Even during the classically defined “main phases” of the rut the biggest deer appearing on camera was a young 8 pointer with no considerable body mass, and he showed up a grand total of one time. There was a resident herd consisting of a mature doe and her yearling doe fawns consistently visiting the creek bottom area during shooting light. With this in mind, and having never successfully shot a deer, I was fully prepared and excited to take a doe for the freezer.
Finally, the time came to begin the trip in earnest, and we arrived at my uncle’s house for a family dinner he graciously offered to host. My cousin opted out of coming due to weather and life constraints, so just my brother and I would be hunting. After a good bit of overdue catching up on family affairs, the conversation shifted to activities for the week. There were a number of projects my uncle wished to complete while we were there, and since the forecast for opening day was miserable (high of 39 degrees with driving rain and wind gusting at 25 miles per hour), we decided to tackle work before play. This strategy guaranteed our host’s needs would be met regardless of what happened during the remainder of the trip, afforded us the most concentrated hunting time possible, and kept our gear warm and dry for when it was needed. Having accomplished the desired tasks, we came back to my uncle’s house for another shared meal this time prepared by my brother. Knowing the next day’s forecast was optimal for deer movement we retired to the beach cabin to complete final gear prep and get some needed rest.
The morning of December 1st began according to plan, which is remarkable considering my penchant for sleeping through alarms. Black Rifle Coffee was made, camo and blaze orange clothing was donned, and gear was assembled to load in the truck. After opening the front door we quickly realized rain the day before had transitioned to snow overnight, which left the landscape blanketed in 8 to 10 inches of fresh white powder. This would make our approach to the stand stealthier, blood trails stand out exceptionally well, and any drag of harvested deer a much less laborious affair (my brother had brought an ice fishing sled large enough to hold multiple animals). The 5-mile drive to our uncle’s house proved quite treacherous as neither snowplows, nor salt trucks had been dispatched to smaller county roads, and wide-open farm fields allowed snow to drift continuously. Once at the house, we still had to make the seemingly mile-long journey up the winding, snowed-over gravel driveway.
With the truck parked, and gear unloaded we made the quietest entry to the stand possible. Snow crunched softly underfoot as even more tiny crystal sculptures continued drifting gracefully down from the sky. The creek gurgled softly as we crossed the bridge, and soon the stand we had so painstakingly positioned and installed several months prior edged into focus. I ascended the stand first this time and set about clearing off the seats, footrest, and shooting rail. Having completed this task I signaled my brother to join me, and tied off the top end of our lift rope to the stand. He tied his unloaded rifle, a magazine-fed bolt action Ruger American Rifle chambered in 350 Legend paired with a Vortex scope, into the lift rope and rested it against the base of the tree before beginning to climb. After reaching the platform he raised the gun slowly up to the stand. We opted to do a buddy hunt sharing one gun as his rifle had been sighted in, and matched with optimum performing rounds. My brother reasoned that I should have the first shot since he had already harvested 3 deer this season, and I had yet to take a shot. Willing to accept this suggestion I ensured the safety was engaged, loaded a round into the chamber, and rested the rifle at the ready position on my knee.
The inky darkness of pre-dawn quickly receded and in its place, the quiet grayness of first light filled the forest. Shooting light came not long after with songbirds and squirrels cheerfully acknowledging through song and chatter that they had survived another night. Fifteen minutes later a wildlife drama I had up to this point only read about unfolded before our eyes. A yearling doe walked into view 25 yards away stage left and quickly squatted to relieve herself. After doing so she kept walking from our left to right maintaining the same distance from our stand as she made her way towards the CRP field just beyond the timber. Her mother, a beautiful mature doe, soon followed on the same trail apparently having read the agenda for the day and agreed with the plan. This happened rather quickly, and as I hadn’t had one deer let alone two close enough for a shot in 3 years of hunting, I was slow getting the rifle in position to shoot. As I’m lifting the rifle as slowly and quietly as possible a young, but obviously charged up 4 point buck follows the does in on the same trail. Mouth open and sniffing intensely, he kept his head to the ground and did not slow in his pursuit of the females. Through a combination of luck and preparation, we had managed to be hunting over a young doe in estrous during a second wave of the rut. Finally, I rested the gun horizontally on the shooting rail, flipped the snow-topped scope caps up, disengaged the safety, and tried desperately to find the young buck that had just materialized in front of us. I was mentally excited to harvest this buck, but fate wouldn’t have it this way as he continued on his path only offering a brief shot opportunity which I wasn’t physically prepared to take.
With the first group of deer out of sight, I lowered the rifle and tried desperately to slow my heart rate and breathing. My brother helped tremendously by talking through my thought process in that intense moment, and how to prepare for any other opportunities we may get.
Five minutes later he spotted a buck 100 yards away working in our direction. Initially, we both thought it was the same 4 point who walked past just minutes prior, and I brought the rifle up more quickly and confidently this time. While readying the gun to shoot I heard my brother whisper intensely “big f$@#ing buck”. I couldn’t help but look up from the rifle to see what he was talking about, and instantly I was breathing like an offensive tackle during sprints. An absolute stud 8 point was making his way toward our stand and he was clearly motivated like the young buck to breed the doe in heat. He came all the way to the trail the other deer had traveled and turned in the direction of the estrous doe’s liquid scent post. I had the crosshairs on him for several yards but he wasn’t stopping, and tree limbs kept filling the scope in front of him. Worried I may not get a shot on this magnificent buck I looked ahead on his path and picked a spot to stop him that would offer a clear shot opportunity. Just as he cleared the last obstacle before this spot I whispered to my brother to stop him. When the noise my brother made reached the deer he froze and looked up, and as he did so I centered the crosshairs behind his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. However, buck fever had gotten the better of me, and in my excitement, I had jumped the shot so that the bullet hit high and back of my initial aim. It still appeared to be a good shot as the buck ran off with tail down out of sight. Having thought I filled my only tag, I re-engaged the safety on the rifle, loaded another round, and passed it to my brother who had two tags to fill.
The plan was now to wait at least an hour on the stand for the deer I shot to expire, during which time we would hopefully see more deer my brother could harvest. Half an hour later as the pounding heartbeat in my head and labored breathing had begun to subside we saw another yearling doe coming our way. She came within shooting range quickly and kept going about her business much like the does earlier in the morning. Whether this was the same yearling we saw previously or her sister, one thing quickly became clear- she was looking for some male company. She didn’t have to wait long either as a solid 6 point cruised briskly on her scent trail in our direction. My brother readied the rifle and waited for the opportune moment to release a round downrange. This buck, just like his predecessors, was intent on breeding and thus had no interest in slowing even for a second. Two sounds then filled my ears in rapid succession: the same stopping sound I heard issued just minutes before followed by the rapport of the rifle as it discharged its payload. We knew this was a good shot as the buck stumbled out of sight with his flag lowered in defeat. Now another hour was added to the waiting clock, and my brother had to decide whether or not he wanted to take a doe if given the chance.
Uneventfully the waiting hour passed with no other deer seen or heard. Satisfied with the amount of meat on one deer, and unsure of the processing work ahead, my brother decided against taking a doe. Although we didn’t know it at the moment, since we hadn’t tracked and recovered our deer yet, this would be the end of our time hunting on this trip. Months of preparation and effort ultimately led to 3 hours of time on the stand, with roughly 2 of those hours considered hunting in some capacity. I had never experienced such resounding success in so short a time window, and I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of what we had accomplished until much later.
Feeling confident we knew where the smaller deer lay dead, we set out to find the blood trail of my deer. Even with the solid white backdrop we walked past the trailhead and floundered about for some time before redoubling back to where I thought I shot the buck. Pinprick sized blood droplets finally stood out after closer examination, and we determined the direction of his exit. Blood outflow increased as we walked, but eventually we reached the property boundary and realized the deer had crossed into the neighbor’s land. After marking the path with my hat we reversed course and contacted the neighbor for permission to retrieve my deer while beginning the track on my brother’s.
The neighbor graciously offered permission over the phone within minutes, and the red carpet put down by the six-point was easy to find. He lay dead 25 yards across the property boundary, on the same neighbor’s land, in a tangle of honeysuckle and multiflora rose. It was quite evident he was in the throes of the rut as his tarsal glands appeared nearly black and his scent could put chest hairs on your nose hairs. My brother completed his electronic game check via Ohio’s HuntFishOH mobile app, and we discussed field dressing strategy. For the sake of education, since I had never field dressed a deer, and to provide a clearer cleaning area, we decided to drag both deer back across the creek to flat open land. Once my brother’s deer was safely on terra firma across the bridge we went back into the creek bottom to retrieve my deer.
Picking the trail up where my hat lay on the snow, it didn’t take long to find my buck. A surge of emotions hit me as I knelt beside him in the snow, running my hands along the bristling tawny expanse of his back until they naturally settled on his immense antlers. The gravity of the moment kept me anchored at his side for some time, reflecting inwardly and outwardly with my brother on the circumstances that led us here. Once I collected myself I completed my electronic game check just as my brother had, we loaded him into the sled and hauled him at full body weight back across the creek. He certainly made us earn his bounty, as he too chose a deathbed made of gnarly shrubs and suckers. With both deer successfully collected we took a brief photo to capture the majesty of the animals harvested, and the magic of the hunt shared. My deer would end up heading to a processor as I wanted professionals to preserve the cape for taxidermy purposes. The six-point buck would be butchered by my brother and me in a ritual performed by our ancestors for thousands of years, albeit maybe without the help of a John Deere tractor and gambrel.
The true breadth and depth of what this hunt meant to me as a hunter, and as a person, is still something I’m wrestling to fully comprehend. It meant the early mornings, late nights, long sits, and boot leather burned finally yielded something tangible I could enjoy with my friends and family. It meant sharing yet more pivotal “first” moments with my lifelong best friend, mentor, and brother. It meant reconnecting with family members I had lost touch with and recognizing the value of just reaching out. It meant the culmination of 3 years of learning from frequent and prodigious mistakes. It meant unbridled pride and joy in my young daughter as she was told her daddy finally “catched” a deer. My final takeaways from the hunt: take first things first, never stop learning, love your family with all that you’ve got, and appreciate every step in the journey.