"There I sat on the ground, feeling really damned exposed, not knowing what to expect. The guide put me in a spot that had been getting hit hard. I was sweating my ass off, jumpy as a tree frog, and the mosquitos were eating me alive."
We're around the campfire at Shastaland and my buddy Butch is sharing the well-trodden story from his first bear hunt in Canada. Most of us have heard it more than a few times before, but it's a good one nonetheless and tends to get even better with each new telling.
"It's deadly quiet other than the mosquitos that keep buzzing my face. I'm sitting there as still as possible, not even daring to breathe. And then I hear the faintest of crunches, barely a sound at all, and look up to see the biggest, blackest animal I ever laid eyes on. This bastard is like Old Ben from the Faulkner book. He starts flipping the logs covering the bait like they are tinker toys. I'm 60 yards away but it might as well be ten. I can smell his breath. He's right in my lap, and I'm shaking to pieces. My whole body – arms, legs, the whole damn thing. Like I'm having convulsions. My mouth is dry as sand and I have sweat in my eyes. I can hear my heart in my throat – BUMPITY, BUMPITY, BUMPITY! I pull up the .308 and try to steady the crosshairs behind the shoulder. The brute looks even bigger now, filling the entire scope. I crank it down to three, finally find my spot, then BLAM, let one fly, and the son-of-a-bitch starts hauling ass out of there. I find him in the scope again and send another round after him, BLAM! 'Take one for the road,' I yell, shaking my fist."
At this point we are all leaning forward, intent on the story but also starting to bust a gut, because we know the punchline. Eventually Butch gets up to check for blood and finds...well, nothing. Not a drop, not a hair. Nada. Zero. Zip. Zilch. A complete miss. Actually, two complete misses, if we are getting specific. And then he must endure the punishment that comes with the crime. Per camp rules, that site must be abandoned, and he is required to bait a new one all on his own; no more help from the guide if you blow a sit. The baiting involves climbing down into the "Beaver Pit" – essentially underground cold storage for animals that have been trapped for the purpose – and retrieving a beaver to hang in his new location. Clamoring into the dark, rank pit, nearly retching, he grabs hold of a tail from the pile, and pulls, managing to slide the skin off the slimy carcass. Right off. All of it. "Oh God," he thinks, holding back the bile and running out, beaver tail in hand, before finally tossing his breakfast in front of all the other guys.
Butch eventually fills his tag, but the story remains one of my favorites, especially when recounted after a few cocktails at deer camp. And the phrase, the idea really, of giving "one for the road," has become our shorthand for a whiff in the field. A miss. A blunder. A fuck up. And, despite ample practice before each season, and well over 30 years chasing critters, I have more than my fair share of faux pas on file.
In fact, around our camp the joke is that if you hear more than one shot, it’s probably Al. It has led to creative nicknames like "Mr. Two Shots," that my buddies find endlessly amusing. And I will admit that I do, on occasion, provide a warning shot, just to keep things sporting.
It's difficult to pinpoint when exactly the title was given, but it may have been on a hunt with my buddy Jeff. It was the second day of gun season and opener had come and gone without anyone in camp filling a tag. I talked Jeff into going on a recon mission with me to a spot I had scouted earlier that year, full of sign. We parked the truck, trekked up the hill, and slowly stalked our way through a younger growth clearcut that was tore up by rutting bucks. But it was too thick to set up in, so we kept following the ridgeline until it opened into more mature timber. Jeff settled in on the edge between the thick new growth and the hardwoods and I hiked a bit further and set up 70 or so yards off a fresh scrape line, butt-pad on the ground and back to a big tree. Old school style.
We had barely been sitting an hour when a dandy seven point walked right up the line, nose down and distracted, and then stopped broadside in a perfect clearing. I couldn't have drawn it up any better if I tried. It was almost too perfect, and a situation that should have been a slam dunk suddenly had me rattled.
I pulled up, found my spot, and slowly squeezed the trigger. Watching through the scope the buck just stood there, completely unphased. What the hell? He had to be hit. I'm practically in bow range! But I couldn't see any blood, so I racked the bolt, squeezed off "one for the road" and, this time, sent him scrambling.
Jeff, being close enough to hear both shots was soon over.
"Where is he?" he quizzed.
Well friend, let me tell you the story.
We found good blood, but Jeff kept staring back at the old oak I had been perched against. "You really missed from there?"
Yes, I missed from there. No, I don't have an explanation. Fuck off and keep tracking.
The blood trail led over a small ridge and there we found him, expired from the single shot that found its mark. Jeff held the legs while I managed the messy work by headlamp, and we finished the field dressing in the pitch dark.
Tying a rope to the antlers and slinging my rifle over my shoulder I started up the ridge to hike out. But Jeff was convinced we had to go in the exact opposite direction. A heated "best friend disagreement" ensued, each of us convinced of the other's sheer stupidity. And, in my defense, Jeff does tend to get more turned around in the woods than me; a point I not-so-gently reminded him of. So, there we sat in a stalemate. I lit a smoke while Jeff tried to reach our buddies with his spotty cell service. The call finally went through and they rolled out to where we had parked the truck and began honking the horn. We couldn't even hear it, so they methodically made their way up and down the two tracks blaring away until it finally registered, and we made off in the direction that neither of us had been right about.
Or maybe it was the year before. I was riding a hot streak (having filled both previous seasons' tags, hanging one of them on a nice nine point) when a tall ten sauntered out unto the ridge directly across from the public-land hidey-hole we called the "Sniper Stand." I couldn't believe my luck.
I was hunting with my recently purchased bargain-basement Remington 770 chambered in .243. It wasn’t the finest of firearms, but the grey synthetic stock was kind of cool, the factory scope was clear, and it shot decent groups.
I pulled up on the buck, that was now completely broadside at just shy of 200, settled the crosshairs and squeezed. He immediately fell in a pile, PLOP, and I lit a shaky celebration smoke while banging off a text to Jeff, just to rub it in. But before I could even hit send, the deer was back on his feet and slowly moving down the ridge again - in my direction. What the hell? I set down the phone, racked another round, and dropped him, again. BLOOP! This went on until I had expended all five rounds and my five remaining Marlboros. Not completely convinced he wasn't getting up again, I ejected the plastic magazine to reload, and it promptly disintegrated into four pieces all over the ground.
When Jeff finally arrived to help with the drag out, none-too-happy I might add, we made our way over to the deer, which turned out not to be a ten point, but a five by one, and had five matching holes, all through a paper-plate-sized area in the vitals. "How many times did you shoot this thing?" were the first words out of his mouth.
Five, Jeff. I shot him five times. Now shut up and hold what's left of my magazine so I can get him gutted.
Yes, I'll admit to getting a little worked up during hunting season. I sometimes get the yips, the twitches, staggers, jitters, and jerks. I've yet to fully master my nerves.
One opener I was in such a hurry to leave camp and get in the woods that I backed right over my gun case while my buddies watched in horror. I ended up shooting a deer with the contents of the case that morning, but it's a camp story that never seems to get old - to anyone except me. Another time Dad leased a prime spot we were going to bow hunt. I was so excited that I laid everything out the night before. Camo, boots, bow, release, arrows – all of it – right by the back door so it would be impossible to miss. Turns out it was possible, and I showed up and began unloading only to realize I had packed everything except my arrows. I went out to the stand anyway and helplessly watched deer frolic around in front of me all morning. Then there was that first time I hunted a release with my bow and promptly killed an adjacent pine tree at about the 30-foot-high mark while drawing back on a mature doe. It happens; at least to me.
I certainly earned the "Two Shot" title on my first bird hunt with my buddy Jon Osborn, AKA Ozzy. We had been pushing through a proven cover following Ozzy's Setter, Winston, and I had that electric it-could-happen-at-any-moment energy flowing. Winston promptly went on a stiff point, and my adrenaline spiked to a hundred in under a second. I was on the left, Jon on the right. As we cautiously crept forward a beautiful red-phase male flushed straight out in front of me and up. But not in the flutter of feather and fury of sound I expected. More like a hot air balloon quietly lifting off and slowly floating up, up, up, and away on a gentle breeze; the passengers giving a friendly wave as they drift past. I pulled up, sent the first barrel of seven and a halves, and immediately followed with a load of sixes "for the road." Ozzy air-mailed both barrels for good measure too, BLAM BLAM! BLAM BLAM! But we might as well have been throwing rice at a wedding party, and the lucky ole drummer rolled out of there like a bride in a getaway car. I will never forget the look on the dog's face. It landed somewhere between pity, shock, and utter contempt. I couldn't look him in the eye the rest of the day.
My most recent "one-for-the-road" moment came on a Montana mule deer hunt with my two boys. I got blanked on the same hunt the year before and was determined to change things up this go round. I was heading in more prepared, taking my training, scouting, shooting, and planning to ridiculous levels. The anticipation ran high as I made the 24-hour drive out to meet up with them. I had a better handle on the terrain this time, was in better shape, and had been shooting tight groups at various distances. I felt confident, bordering on cocky, and we all know where that gets you in hunting – pulling tail in the Beaver Pit, and not in the good kind of way.
My younger son, Blake, had filled his tag on a nice three point the week before so he was simply along to be an extra set of eyes and another strong back for the pack out. On the very first day we had a nice four come right into range, broadside, and I was already snapping pictures and eating tenderloin before I pulled the trigger and missed. Then, like a golfer who blows a two-footer or an NBA star that gongs a fast-break dunk, I was in my own head and things began to unravel.
When we spotted a giant four, that I probably could have hit with a rock, the next day, I didn't even click off my safety. My confidence was gone. It went on this way for a few days and before I knew it, we were down to the last, and in a hail-Mary situation.
Taking off early that morning, Kyle and I headed to one of his go-to locations while Blake stayed back and packed up. When we crested the first rise and started glassing, we spotted a shooter across the valley and on the other ridge. The rangefinder pinned him at just shy of 500. I knew my rifle was capable of the shot, so I dialed up the turret, laid the gun across my pack, and went prone. I remembered my breathing. Slowly in, slowly out. Gently squeeze.
"Miss, right," Kyle called, and I could see the puff of dirt from the errant round.
Shit, I must have pulled it. The deer never moved.
I racked another, settled in again, and slowly squeezed. "Miss, right," Kyle called for a second time.
"Your elevation is perfect you just need to come left."
I pulled up a third time, but somehow couldn't bring myself to put the crosshairs that far back on the deer, and squeezed once more.
"MISS! SAME SPOT," I could hear the frustration building in his voice.
Damn it all to hell!
This time the buck wasn't waiting around to find out what all the commotion was about, and we all moved on.
As a last-ditch effort we headed to a back draw neither of us had hunted before and found a couple smaller bucks scattered in among several doe. We had a hell of a time working into range without getting busted, but we managed it. The bigger of the two deer, my intended target, was moving in an out of the harem, pushing them in a rutted-up, king-of-the-hill kind of way. I kept following him in the scope but he never offered a clean opportunity. His counterpart, on the other hand, had sulked off alone and was providing a perfect broadside at just over a hundred yards. I swung the scope in his direction, settled on the front shoulder, took a breath in and slowly out while gently squeezing the trigger. He just stood there untouched. Deja Vu all over again, as they say.
I found myself in an exhaustion-fueled state of rage, frustration, and embarrassment, and completely out of appropriate cuss words. I had blown another opportunity, in the last hours on my last day.
But I racked the bolt, pulled up one last time, and released a "one-for-the-road" round, and before the sound even registered, I watched the buck drop.
Some folks like to say these moments "build character," that they're "learning experiences," and I guess that's true. I've certainly picked up a few things through my time in the outdoors – the good and the bad.
But the one thing I know for certain is that, despite our best efforts and best intentions, hunting and angling are fluid activities that rarely go according to script. Sometimes all we can do is keep trying and know that every now and then we'll need to take one for the road.