"Now look at this," grinned my father's friend, proffering a photo album. "That's from your dad's first year, hunting with us." As I settled back against the rustic Maine log-cabin wall, I marveled at the 30-year-old print. There stood five of this year's hunting party, younger then than I am now, smiling into the future.
"I remember this," I said, tapping the album with a forefinger. "I was seven. Dad didn't come home with a deer that year, but he did the next one."
"He had a lot to learn back then," replied my new hunting buddy, winking in my father's direction.
"Well, I still do," I sighed.
As a newbie, my challenge is to apply the theoretical knowledge I've gained working for the NRA to actual field conditions...something I've done with, shall we say, varying degrees of success.
I'd been very proud of the location I'd picked to set up in the mornings-a trail through the dense, immature forest that lay between a swampy thicket where deer might bed down and a stand of oaks. They'll have to pass through here, I thought, if they want those acorns. I found a likely-looking tree, sat with my back to it, and drew my knees up. I rested my gun, a Browning X-Bolt Micro Hunter chambered in 7mm-08 Rem., on my knee and kept it pointed in the general direction of the two clear shooting lanes I had.
I had made two errors, though, without knowing it: First, I had set up far too close; and second, I had made an assumption about deer and their movements.
You see, every other time I have seen deer in the wild, I've never heard them. They've always simply appeared, like ghosts, moving with eerily silent grace. So when I heard a racket coming from the thicket that terminated about 10 yards behind me, I figured that it simply had to be one of the other 10 hunters in our party. CRASH-THUMP, it went, CRASH-THUMP. I could have sworn that I heard the creaking of boot leather and the clicking of a rifle sling. I wonder which one of them it is, I mused, as I lowered the rifle down into my lap so my muzzle wouldn't be pointed directly at my fellow hunter when he appeared. Tilting the muzzle harmlessly towards the earth, I thought, I really wish he'd waited until later to come through here, whomever it is. He's going to scare all the deer off.
And then "he" appeared, right in front of me, 30 feet away. Not a person. A spike buck. Big-bodied and healthy-looking; not a trophy, to be sure, but legal. And staring right at me.
For the first time, I came to really believe in the power of camouflage. Although I was close enough to hit that spike with a paper airplane, as long as I held still, the buck didn't seem aware of my presence. Trying to force the surge of adrenaline down, I waited for it to lower its head before I began...slowly...to bring the rifle back up. He alerted, snorted, then dropped his head again, sniffing the leaf litter for acorns.
Slowly, infinitesimally, arms trembling with the effort, I brought the rifle to my knee, socking it into my shoulder. Some tiny motion caught his eye, though, and his head snapped back to attention. We stared into one another's eyes for a nerve-tautened eternity. Then he looked away.
I lowered my head to the rifle's stock. I can't use the scope, I realized. The buck is too close; I can't see anything but fur! I refocused down the length of the barrel, thinking, at this range, I know I can do this. One finger eased up to the safety...then clicked it off.
The Browning has a lovely safety. It's intuitive, easy to operate and very quiet. The problem was that I was not only dealing with an animal with ears like satellite dishes, I was dealing with an animal with ears like satellite dishes that was in study-hall-gossip range. The tiny, well-oiled click unleashed an explosion of wildly bucking haunches, flying hooves and white flag, held at full mast, disappearing faster into the brush than I'd thought possible...long before my forefinger ever found the trigger.
Disconsolate, I slumped against that tree for the rest of the morning. I never did see another legal buck on the rest of that trip, but I learned a valuable lesson: Bucks do make noise.