We’ve all been there, that moment when you wonder did that all just really happen or was it a dream? For me it was the day I shot my first buck.
My dad had been taking me hunting since I was 12. Bow hunting mostly. In the early days we hunted off the ground on a tract of land owned by Consumer’s Power that they made available to the public. We’d look for runs and make our ground blinds out of fallen branches. We’d sit as long as my young self could, in the hopes of catching some passing deer. We didn’t see a lot in those early days partly, I’m sure, due to our lack of skill and partly due to the fact that this area didn’t hold a ton of animals. As the years went on we gradually became more successful. We moved off the ground and into our first tree stands. We religiously explored and came to learn the terrain intimately; we read books and articles and my patience lengthened a little each time out. We were finally able to put some venison in the freezer. Small doe mostly. It was good.
But then the opportunity came. My dad’s younger brother, and probably the coolest uncle a boy could know (man do I have stories), moved to a 140-acre farm in the middle of the state and it was LOADED with deer. Big ones. And he invited my dad and me to come hunt on the holiest of holy hunting days, November 15 – the opening of Michigan’s firearm season. I couldn’t sleep for weeks with anticipation.
Dad and I headed up on the 14th and spent the night on some couches by the woodstove waiting for the approaching morning. Again, sleep was hard to come by. Finally, the hour arrived and my uncle came to wake those of us who actually slept (dad). I was young and broke and didn’t even have a rifle, so my uncle (who is meticulous about his firearms) handed me his Remington Woodmaster .308 semi-auto to use for the hunt. It was beautiful, and I felt a reverent awe as I held it in my hands. I was familiar with firearms, but he carefully showed me how the magazine worked, assured me that the scope was dead-on and had me shoulder the unloaded gun to get a feel. It felt like magic mixed with cotton candy and baseball cards and it smelled like gun oil – a smell that to this day makes me weak in the knees.
We quickly dressed and headed out to our respective blinds. I was given the prime location - a small rise on the edge of the bean field. My dad was posted at a cut that ran between two wetland areas and my uncle would be watching an area of woods that bordered some corn fields. The morning was crisp and very cold - the hard frost crunching under my boots as I made my way out to my spot. I sat in the dark shivering, partly from the cold but more so from the anticipation.
Ever so slowly, almost at an imperceptible pace, the blackness turned to grey and I could begin to make out shapes. Deer started moving past. Running. It was still too dark to shoot but I had already made out two bucks that had passed by at less than 40 yards. It all felt like an incredible dream that I didn't want to wake from.
As the morning began to dawn and the sun began its slow ascent, I sat. Rigidly waiting. Cold. With every nerve tingling and every sense on high alert. And then, there! Out of the corner of my eye far to my left a group of seven deer were making their way out of the morning fog in my direction. It was clear that three of the seven were bucks and big ones – especially to a boy that had never shot one. I pulled the rifle up and followed the group as they worked into range trying to slow my racing heart while my breath frosted the scope lens. They were coming. I moved my face away from the scope to get a better look and picked out the biggest of the three bucks while I let the scope clear. I moved my cheek back down the rifle, found my deer in the glass, put the crosshairs right behind his shoulder, clicked off the safety and slowly squeezed the trigger. It happened so quickly and so slowly at the same time.
Fire and smoke poured out the end of the barrel and then I watched as the buck quietly fell as the rest of the group moved quickly on. The smell of spent gunpowder hung heavy in the cold air. My breathing was rapid now and I kept frosting the scope as I tried to keep an eye on my buck. I began shaking, finally realizing the true cold and the weight of the moment. The spent cartridge hadn’t fully ejected and was wedged in the rifle, my frozen hands unable to work the slide and load the next round. If this deer got back up I didn’t have another shot. He didn’t.
Heart pounding, ears ringing and body shaking, all I could do was wait. So I did. After what seemed like hours, but was likely only 10 or 15 minutes, I gathered myself and walked out to the fallen deer. My first buck. My heart was still pounding and the crunching of my footsteps on the frosty ground was the only interruption to the silence that had once again fallen upon the morning. With some trepidation I approached the animal – experiencing the mixture of raw sadness bordering on guilt and pure jubilation that I’m sure every hunter experiences in the moment. I laid my shaky hands on his still-warm body and silently paid my respects.
I could not wait to share my excitement with my dad and uncle but this was well before cell phones or texting were an option and we didn’t even have walkie-talkies. Worse yet, it was still prime hunting time – barely a half hour into first shooting light. I didn’t want to screw up my dad’s hunt, but I really couldn’t wait any longer. I slowly made my way over to the cut I knew he was hunting. He saw me coming, waved and was waiting with a smile – the excitement on my face clearly evident. He wasn’t mad, in fact, he was really excited (a feeling I now understand as a father myself). Together we walked over to my deer, a tall seven with two tines broken off earlier in the season and he congratulated me with a handshake turned hug. My uncle must have recognized the shot because he soon appeared over the hill and helped us finish dressing the deer. Beaming with the pride that his land, his gun, and his blind had delivered for his nephew.
Soon we were inside, eating a hot pancake-and-bacon breakfast in celebration– the morning hunting still in its prime but my family wanting to enjoy the moment together. Just then I spied a huge buck making its way up the cut that my dad was sitting and would have been hunting if it wasn’t for me. I pointed excitedly and my dad just chuckled while my uncle raced for the door, forgetting his boots but grabbing his .270 on his way out to the field. We never did get that giant but none of us will ever forget him. And I will never forget that day: the smell of the gun oil, the crunch of my boots on the ground, the deer magically appearing out of the fog, the frosting of my scope from hot breath and the time with my dad and uncle in celebration.
My uncle no longer lives on that farm, but that .308, well I saved up and bought it from him and then passed it on to my oldest son to harvest his first buck. And we all still spend hunting seasons together sharing our stories around campfires – my dad, my uncle, my cousin Jake, my two boys and I- it all comes around, and moments like these remain still dreamlike, even as life hurries by.