Photograph by Jim Golden, Illustration by Tavis Coburn.
Not every trip into the deer woods ends with a deer, but hunters always come home with a new story. Because stories are everywhere in the wild. Some are short, others are epic, but they're all special because they remind us of everything we love about deer and deer hunting. That's never more valuable to remember than now, when most deer seasons are over. With that in mind, we've devoted our second annual collection of great stories to deer. The writers were given titles named after various phases and moments of a deer hunt and asked to share their best story. Their accounts are grouped into chapters that represent the most elemental stages of a deer hunt—Anticipation, Pursuit, and Harvest. Individually, the stories are all enjoyable in their own way. But when you read them together, the narrative builds from tale to tale. Collectively, they tell one great deer story.
The Drive To Camp by Thomas McIntyre. Photo illustration by Nick Hall.
At the top of Mountain Pass, the glare in the rearview was like the afterglow of a device gone off in a long-overdue airburst above the coastal city. Then the interstate descended the Nevada side of the Clarks, leaving the Joshua trees behind; and the glare sank away, the highway flattening out and running straight as a ballasted railroad across the dry lake bed, the desert air growing slaty with the dusk progressing toward night. At last light, in the next lane, was another pickup with a camper top or a load in the back lashed under a tarp. A Jeep CJ crammed with gear, jerry cans on the rear and a rifle rack mounted inside, came up and slung past. As the headlights came on, the traffic buttons glowing like cats' eyes, the lights of Las Vegas mounted ahead.
It was like the Dust Bowl exodus in reverse, two generations later. The real Californians, the ones with roots going back before the war and the displaced sharecroppers' westward migrations, had their places to hunt in California. For the rest, in their tens of thousands, the way to the deer was a matter of returning the way they came, at least as far as Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. And everyone went through Las Vegas.
I was one of those Californians with multigenerational roots; but my people were not hunting people, and there was no ranch or mountain cabin. I heard the Colorado hunting stories, though, told by my father's friends, and I wanted to travel with them to hunt.
This, then, was my first journey on the mule deer highway. Although I didn't know it, I would follow it almost without interruption for 15 years.
By dawn we would be driving the trucks across the Utah-Colorado line. In Grand Junction, we'd take rooms, buy our licenses and supplies, sleep overnight, and the next morning be working our way upward through the axle-deep mud left in the shaded draws by early snows to churn out onto Skinner Ridge. Among the Gambel oaks and piñons and mountain mahogany was the campsite the older men had used throughout the '60s, and that was where we pitched the surplus pyramid tent for cooking and the wall tent for sleeping.
Into the wall tent we would bring the folding beds and sleeping bags. The tables, worn and whittled on, would be set up in the pyramid tent, and then the pots and pans, knives and forks, cups and plates, in the old U.S. mailbag, went in, along with the Coleman stove. Boxes of groceries followed, and it would already be time to start sorting through them for dinner: thick steaks, fried potatoes, salad with the inevitability of Italian dressing.
The lanterns would be lit and we would eat. After the meal there would be the washing, while for some there would be gin playing, and for others, vodka drinking, a Bloody Mary with tomato juice, or a red beer. On the table would be the radio with the AM and FM and shortwave bands. We would try to tune in the news or a game, then listen until the station faded away, before extinguishing the lanterns and going to sleep.
The stars would be out in the morning in abundant acuity; and the sun, coming up over where the ridge bluffed out, would find me still-hunting into the wind along a trail. On this trail, or another in a different side canyon running off the ridge, the memory vague now, I would jump and kill my first mule deer buck, no more than a forkhorn, then hurry to find one of the older men to show me how to field dress a deer, and to help me drag it back up the trail to where we could lift it into a truck.
In the afternoon, with the tagged and dressed buck hanging in a tree by its rack and October light cascading through the yellow leaves onto the stained canvas, the music or the news report on the big radio would be interrupted by the Buckskin Network, relaying emergency messages to the hunters scattered across the ridges and mountains. Phone home, the messages said, and you felt for the ones whose names were read, not just for what might be waiting on the other end of the line, but for having to come off the hunt, to leave the real buckskin network of hunters.
All that lay ahead, though, as did the older men growing into old ones, and their trips on the highway concluding. Then I would have to find other places to hunt my deer, and others to hunt them with. Now it was about driving through Vegas, registering under the incandescence of downtown at the Golden Nugget—where they held a contest for the biggest buck—before eating the prime-rib special and topping off the tanks.
The city lights would be behind us as we drove away from Las Vegas. And the headlights of the trucks would assemble with us in the sable night as we were bound for what we desired, what we could not seem to locate in California.
The Fight by Scott Bestul. Photograph by Adam Voorhes.
It was the first week of November—the heart of the seeking-and-chasing phase, magic time. So I stood up, bow in hand, as soon as I heard the mincing steps of a deer. The sleek head of a doe emerged, her forehead and eyelashes dusted by snowflakes. She shook her coat clean and looked down her backtrail as I heard heavier, shuffling steps—and spotted the chocolate antlers right under my stand.
The doe was still staring behind me, and when I followed her gaze, I saw three more bucks walking into bow range—a forkhorn, a small 6-point, and a tall-tined 10 with a white rack and a sorrel face. The chocolate-horned buck instantly laid his ears back, bristled, and stiff-legged it toward the 10.
Most fights—man, dog, or deer—start with some preliminary bluster. Not this one. The chocolate-horn lowered his head and crashed into the antlers of his rival so hard it sounded like a 2x4 cracked against a telephone pole. The impact drove the white-racked buck back, his hooves scrabbling over the snow-dusted oak leaves. With a groan, he dug his hind feet in and pushed back.
For nearly 10 minutes, just 20 yards from me, the bucks mashed antlers, pushing with a force that would roll a small car. Twice they stood in a seeming stalemate, their flanks exposed and heaving—and it occurred to me that I could slip an arrow into one of them. But each time, the bodies quickly shifted, and the opportunity vanished. Almost relieved, I let the show unfold.
Physics won the day. Although the white-racked 10 seemed stronger, each time he'd shove, the chocolate-horn deer would slide his back legs slightly more uphill until he had the advantage. Finally he drove hard downhill, twisted his head, and flipped the 10-pointer on its side. Once, twice, three times chocolate-horns plunged his tines into the exposed ribs. Miraculously, the white-rack popped to his feet, then whirled to flee. Chocolate stabbed him once more in the hams and chased him out of sight.
The woods fell silent. The doe, the reason for the fight, wriggled nervously into some brush. The two smaller bucks looked briefly at each other, and then followed her up the long, tangled hillside.
The Hog Barn by T. Edward Nickens. Illustration by Graham Samuels.
I turn off the hardtop and follow the headlights as they sweep across the soybeans, and there it is, low and ghostly white against the big timber. The hog barn. It's dark as sin this morning. No sign of a truck. Scott must still be on the way.
The big doors screech in the old tracks, so loud I flinch. I've opened these doors a million times, but I still half expect some crazy owl or rabid opossum to come flying out. My headlamp beam lights up a hodgepodge of gear inside, then flashes on the laminated pin-in map. Peering close I start the obsessing—plotting the approach to the stand, drawing imaginary whorls of wind through the woods, recalculating the deer's likely movements from the oak ridge to the swamp thicket.
An outside light jabs the dark interior, little stilettos knifing through holes in the walls. Must be Scott. He knows where I am. We're meeting at the hog barn.
It's been this way for years, every time we hunt. For us, every day in the woods begins and ends at the hog barn. It's where we plan the hunt about to take place and dissect the hunt that's over. It's where we change clothes, skin the deer, chew the fat, commiserate, celebrate. Every hunt begins and ends with a shibboleth, anchored in this most prosaic of structures.
Meet you at the hog barn.
Leave the chain saw in the hog barn.
Are the keys in the hog barn?
See you back at the hog barn. Good hunting.
This morning is no different. Scott and I talk in hushed voices, pull on knee boots, grab backpacks, mute cellphones, agree on how long to stay in our treestands. Then it's into the woods. No reason to run a light. We both know the way. Scott disappears into the dark like vapor. We can plot and plan all we like, but whatever happens over the next few hours is the great mystery of deer hunting. Except for this: We'll hear about it at the hog barn.
The Emergence by Dave Hurteau. Photograph by Adam Levey, diorama design by Geahk Burchill.
I'd seen only his dark form shrink away down the long length of a ryefield at dusk and then bank west onto a grassy lane that divided a knob, with hardwoods on one side and a mess of saplings and ragweed on the other.
I knew exactly where to kill him.
The next day at noon I hung a stand on the wooded edge in the fork of a silver maple and waited. For hours, there was nothing. There was the deserted, grassy lane; and the byway of deer tracks running its length; and the faint trails cutting in perpendicularly along the knob, through the ragweed, between the saplings, every one raked bare and shredded.
It was early November, not quite 5 p.m. The northwest wind, which had been flipping red leaves silver-side up, settled. The fox squirrels stopped thumping in the litter. The jays quit their shrill piping. And there he was.
He didn't weave through the saplings or step onto the grassy lane. He was just there. Twelve soaring, clean points—180 inches, give or take. Fourteen yards away, facing me, front legs standing on the lane, rear ones in the weeds, whose edge I'd hit with a rangefinder.
Right then I felt as though I hadn't climbed into my stand but had levitated there and was still floating. More than that, I felt certain I was going to kill this giant. When I reached for my bow, the stand made the faintest creak. The buck lifted his head and stared beyond me. I froze, thinking that like many deer only vaguely alerted he'd soon flick his tail and keep coming. I'd let him walk by and arrow him quartering away.
But he just stood there and stared, for an honest five minutes…10 minutes…then he spun, as if on a heel, and slunk back into the ragweed and saplings. Fifty yards away and out of range, he circled over to the sunlit side of the knob, stepped broadside into a small clearing, and stood there for the longest time—muscled and giant and perfect—as if to show me what a whitetail buck could be, and exactly what I couldn't have.
The Walk In by Bill Heavey. Photograph by Peter Rad.
Nothing beats the feeling—your heart full of hope and anticipation, your senses already working overtime—of sneaking into the whitetail woods in the dark-dark. Electricity and flashlights have made us such strangers to darkness that it takes an act of will not to push that button and destroy the night. But the less light you use, the less you disturb the woods. The best is when there's just enough light from the moon and stars to follow a path. There are other advantages to operating in the dark. One is that reduced vision makes your ears work that much harder. The biggest, however, is that darkness forces you to do something that animals do constantly and that humans almost never do in daily life, which is to move as though you have all the time in the world.
As the Lone Biped of the Forest, your normal cadence—even if you're walking in slow motion and pausing every few steps—is the woods' equivalent of a fire truck's siren. I always take a walking stick, the better to sound like another deer browsing its way back to bed. Whenever I've been pinned down by does or listened to unalerted deer under my stand, they always seem to move in an odd number of steps. Now I do the same. I'll take five or seven steps (including stick-steps), pause a couple of beats, move one or three more, and do a longer pause. Sometimes, as I do this, it occurs to me that I may be hunting really effectively or, equally likely, have just become eligible for free mental-health counseling.
I've bumped countless deer on my way in and know too well the heart-sink of hearing hooves crashing madly away through dry leaves. But there have also been times when I snorted back, stamped my stick a few times, and was taken for another deer. It's not hard, and because so few humans ever try it, it's not necessary that your snort be pitch-perfect to fool most deer. I roll my tongue, purse my upper lip out, and exhale sharply. Mine is lacking in the musical note of a real deer's snort, but I'm pretty good on the air part.
When I finally arrive at my tree, it may be bright enough to see, but my first priority is still making the least possible amount of noise. I figure the deer that can see me have already done so. It's the nearby ones that may be shielded from view that I'm focused on. It's possible—if you're careful and your tree's circumference is less than your wingspan—to attach both platforms of a climber and secure a tote rope to your bow without moving your feet. I attach my climber at the maximum height I can pull myself up to from the ground, inchworm slowly to my desired height, screw in the bow holder so the bow's grip is just above waist-high, and try to become one with the bark and branches.