I was tired and beginning to doubt my choice of hunting spots when I heard the crunch of heavy hoofprints coming through the frozen woods.
In the treestand, 15 feet up, I turned toward the sound. A deer entered my view from the left 30 yards away. Its head was down, quartering toward my perch in the oak tree. From that angle, I couldn’t see any antlers and assumed it was a doe. Then it raised its head and I saw that one had broken off near the crown, likely in a fight with another buck.
It was the first buck I had encountered in four full seasons spent freezing in ground blinds and tree stands. I wanted it.
In that imperfect rack I saw all that I had aspired to since taking hunter safety classes as a 32-year-old sitting among several dozen children at the Greenbush town office. His antlers reflected resilience and tenacity. They hinted at a new beginning. The deer was a modest size and would yield enough meat for me and my wife.
I was already picturing where to mount the skull when the deer made his way toward a lone apple tree near my stand. I shifted my Ruger .270 to bring his shoulder into my crosshairs.
The deer froze and looked directly at me. I froze and stared back. We locked in that standoff for what seemed like a day. It was probably 90 seconds. My breathing was shallow, my body rigid.
He resumed picking at the scraggly apple tree branches. I moved my rifle slowly to get a clear shot, but a branch blocked my view. When the buck moved into an opening, his angle made a lethal shot nearly impossible.
I shifted my rifle again to get around a large branch in my way. The deer sensed my movement and again stopped cold. He stared toward me. I stared back, wondering if we’d be stuck in this Marx Brothers mime routine for an eternity.
He broke from his paranoid trance, then scraped the ground with his hoof. His work apparently done, he ambled back toward the treeline.
He was finally broadside. This was my chance. Still, I was not confident that I could hit him while he was moving. I needed to stop him quickly. Thirty more feet, and he’d vanish in the trees.
My grunt tube was in my bag, out of reach.
“Hey!” I yelled, so loudly I startled myself.
The buck stopped. I took a breath, lined up my crosshairs behind his shoulder, and exhaled as I pressed the trigger.
Chaos erupted in my scope. The deer seemed to bend in half, then jumped and scampered out of sight.
Everything went silent. I couldn’t feel the recoil from my rifle. There was no ringing in my ears — just the stillness of the woods, the beating of my heart and the icy feeling of creeping terror that I had missed, or worse, wounded a buck.
I called my dad and younger brother, waking them both. I told them I had no idea if I’d hit the buck and needed help tracking. I walked over to where I thought the deer had been when I fired. I found some white hair and a piece of hide. I worried I’d only grazed his chest.
I couldn’t find blood and decided to wait before pushing into the woods. I walked back to the treestand, poured a cup of coffee from my thermos and began writing a self-flagellating piece in my head about failure and how nature teaches humility.
The boys arrived 30 minutes later. We split up and worked the woods in search of a bloodtrail. As we pored over the bloodless leaves, my feeling of defeat deepened.
I felt like a fraud in my expensive camo and my stupid rubber boots. What gave me the right to take a life? I had lusted for the death of an animal, and I had blown it. I considered the possibility that I may never get a deer and questioned whether I had in me another season of failure.
“I found blood,” my brother called. My heart quickened and my face flushed. I started running toward his voice. Seconds later he said those four magic words: “I found your deer.”
The buck had run 50 yards before he bled out. He stumbled shortly after that and collapsed among some pines, his right shoulder dislocated. The 150-grain bullet had neatly passed through his lungs, sparing precious meat and delicious organs. I kneeled to take his lone antler in my hand.
For some, each second that passes between shooting an animal and finding it is a dark and desperate journey. For me, that all evaporated when I saw my buck, dead on the ground. I had connected to millions of years of hunting history and come to understand the paradox of loving a wild animal but wanting to kill it. Mostly I felt a rush of joy and gratitude for the deer and the food it would provide.
“Wow,” was all I could say, over and over.
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