The year was 1997, and I was working part-time as a baseball coach at my alma mater, Lincoln High School in Tallahassee. I had the privilege back then of working with so many talented and all-around great kids and was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to get to know some of these outstanding young men and their parents. Some of these relationships developed into lasting friendships.
One such friendship was cultivated with Mark Hill. Mark was the star of the team that year. He was a 17-year-old, left-handed pitcher who also played first base and outfield. And besides being the ace pitcher, he had one of the best bats on the team and good speed on the bases. Mark was a coach's dream. Not only was he a super athlete, he was also a great kid. He was very personable, yet humble.
Besides playing baseball, Mark enjoyed bird hunting. But Mark had never been deer hunting before and had expressed a strong interest in going. I thought that taking him on his first deer hunt would be a great way to reward him for all his hard work and great attitude.
I had unlimited access to hunt some private land near the small community of Sumatra, off State Road 65 on the Liberty-Franklin county line. Thomas Drew Branch Sr., who is now deceased, owned around 1,500 acres of prime deer hunting land that borders the Apalachicola National Forest. It was this very property that provided me the opportunity of harvesting most of the deer I had taken growing up. Mark and I arrived at the property around 2 p.m. that mid-December day, after making the hour or so drive from Tallahassee. When we got there, we met Drew Branch (grandson of Mr. Branch) and his friend Wade Wright, who also planned to hunt that afternoon.
Mark and I got to my favorite deer stand at 4 p.m. It was a tower-type stand on the south edge of a field, where you could survey nearly the entire 10-acre field.
The section of the field closest to us was planted in oats, wheat and rye. The back half of the food plot was planted in field corn. Native vegetation wrapped around this grand food plot, providing great habitat for all the wildlife that called this place home. The dense cover consisted of mature long-leaf pines, and scattered among them were various oaks and other hardwoods. Underneath were titi, gallberry and wax myrtle trees with palmettos and pine straw blanketing the flat terrain. All in all, it made for a great place to hunt and offered the perfect opportunity for a kid to take his first deer.
We only had to wait 40 minutes before six deer made their way into the field. Two bucks and four does grazed, unaware of our presence. Between the bucks, there was a legal spike and a larger three-point. After we observed the deer for roughly 20 minutes, they began to show signs that they had finished eating and were starting to make their way out of the field.
At this point, I whispered to Mark that he could take the larger buck whenever he was ready. He used my Ruger .270-caliber rifle because he didn't yet own a high-powered rifle. It was a fine gun but, this day, it was about to do something spectacular.
Mark, a southpaw shooter, held my gun, looking through the scope at his target. I whispered, coaching him about where to aim and telling him to relax and take his time. I warned him not to pull the trigger until he had calmed down and the crosshairs had steadied on the deer. When Mark had conquered his "buck fever," I instructed him to pull back on the trigger slow and steady, and allow the gun's firing to surprise him. Mark took aim, fired, and the three-point buck dropped to the ground where he had stood.
As the other deer scattered and ran into the woods, I congratulated Mark on his accomplishment. The smile and look on his face said it all. It made me feel really good to be able to introduce such a good kid to the great sport of deer hunting and to play such an instrumental role in this young man taking his first deer.
This is where the story gets interesting. After we climbed down and were admiring Mark's deer, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look, and there, in the tall sage grass on the edge of the field, was a deer rolling around on its back, just like a dog does after you give it a bath. Mark and I both looked at each other in bewilderment as we started walking toward it.
By the time we got there, it had stopped moving and lay silent before us. It was the smaller buck, the spike. After closer examination, we noticed a bullet wound to its chest. As we both scratched our heads wondering what had happened, it hit me. Mark had shot two deer – two bucks, at that – with just one bullet.
We concluded that after the bullet had entered the first deer, it must have hit a bone and deflected, making a sharp turn to the right, exiting that deer and then striking the smaller buck.
After hearing the shot, Drew and Wade came into the field and walked over to where we had the two deer piled up. They, too, had looks of amazement on their faces.
"I don't understand," Drew said. "I only heard one shot. What happened?" And just as I was starting to explain, they put two and two together. "Man, talk about beginner's luck," Wade said.
So there it was. Not only did this kid shoot his first deer, but also his second, all in one afternoon, with just one shot.