My teenage son Matt is my main hunting buddy, and although this was our fourth year deer hunting, neither of us had yet harvested a whitetail. As we walked in the dark to our tree stands, the familiar smell of damp fallen leaves and the canopy of brilliant stars overhead reminded me of the many things I love about hunting in Minnesota. We had rifle and bow hunted many hundreds of hours in the past, and each time out, had made our share of mistakes. Our stands were over a mile into this public land today. My son took the fork in the trail to his stand and I kept walking the additional quarter mile to mine. We had scouted and tacked our trails two weeks earlier, and though I lost my tack trail after leaving Matt, I could read the skyline and found my tree.
This was one of those magic mornings when everything went right, everything fell into place and I knew in my gut something was going to happen. We got up on time, remembered all our gear, didn't lose our trail in this big woods, and got to our stands and settled without a hitch or a sound. I climbed the eighteen feet up my tree, fixed my safety belt and quietly arranged my gear. As legal shooting time neared, I loaded my Model 7-.308 and rested it in my lap. I heard the muffled metallic clink of my son loading his gun in the distance. The dead still silence of the woods was broken only by the sound of my heartbeat against my jacket...each beat sounding like a whitetail approaching in the distance. Each shadow now seemed to become a whitetail head, or body, and branches looked like antlers as the dark of the woods became gray with the approaching dawn. The nuthatches we called "peeps" skittered up and down trees, while squirrels and chipmunks did their staccato dance on the forest floor below me. Slivers of sunlight peeked through the barren tree branches and the dew in the freezing air became a crystalline wonderland.
Then I heard it. It was the sound of an approaching deer. I could see two does off in the distance, but I didn't have a doe tag so my heart sank. They passed over the hill in Matt's direction, and I hoped he would get a shot since he was legal to shoot a doe. An hour went by, and then another hour. It was 10:30am now. Again I heard the sound of approaching deer. Like a stone statue, I slowly turned to see what was coming, and spied two gleaming 12 inch antlers. My heartbeat quickened. This is it! Years of waiting for a decent shot were culminating in this moment. The buck was browsing parallel to my stand in the brush about 60 yards away. I silently clicked off my safety and slowly shouldered my gun. There he was, in the crosshairs, but there was too much brush in the way as he kept on moving. I mentally controlled my breathing while my excitement was screaming inside me. Suddenly the buck stopped and I had a perfect shot through the crotch of a tree. Right behind the shoulder blade. Squeeze, squeeze...BLAM! My ears began ringing from the sudden explosion and I immediately broke into a sweat and began to shake from head to foot. The deer ran 50 yards, stopped, and then walked over a hill in the distance so I couldn't see him anymore. Blast it all! Did I miss him? I thought I was right on. I overcame the urge to leave my stand to track the buck, because I knew I needed to wait at least half an hour or he might bolt and run, never to be found. So, there I sat, with my heart pounding and my knees wobbling. Thankfully, I got buck fever after the shot and not before. After 25 minutes I heard the BANG of my sons gun in the distance. I prayed that he got his deer, since I wasn't sure if I got mine. Shortly after his shot, I saw Matt's blaze orange figure come bobbing over the ridge and I could almost see steam rising from him in his excitement. He raced to my tree, asking if I got a deer, and telling me that he got a doe. I pointed to the spot where I shot the deer, and Matt went to that spot. I almost flew down from my tree stand to go track the deer, but Matt had already followed the blood trail to where my buck had dropped just over the hill where I had lost sight of it.
What followed was one of those comical scenes you look back upon and just laugh out loud. Neither of us had ever watched anyone field dress a deer and had certainly never done it ourselves. We stood there looking helplessly at each other, and then looking at the deer, then back at each other again. With a gulp, I pulled on my field dressing gloves, feeling like a first year medical student about to perform a first autopsy, and fully expecting to get physically ill, pass out, or both. I flipped the forkhorn on his back, feeling quite apprehensive about that initial step of removing the buck's manhood. While Matt read the directions from a small field guide, I gingerly began the step-by-step process of dressing my deer. The various innards I encountered were not mentioned in the booklet but I did the best I could. After years of handling my kid's dirty diapers and spit-up, field dressing was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Trying to wield the beastie into position was a comedy in itself and I took a hoof in the chin more than once. It took over an hour, but the job got done.
Next, we went to Matt's deer and while he got started, I returned to camp and brought back the deer cart. We put both animals on the cart, over 300 pounds, and half killed ourselves getting the load out of the woods. It was dusk when we finally got our quarries hung from a tree limb back at camp, and received congratulatory back slaps from our hunting group. As luck may have it, dusk and a cheap throw-away camera were the culprits for all our photos being underexposed, so we do not have one picture of our first deer.
Two weeks later, our City newspaper interviewed us for a feature story entitled "Like Mother, Like Son, about our "mother-son" hunting team and our success in the field. We explained that the actual taking of a deer might seem like success in the field, but the real success was just being in the woods, perfecting the sport, being ethical and spending time with family and friends.