I STARTED THIS DEER SEASON with the usual optimism, wondering if Milo Hanson and I could save on expenses by traveling the sport-show circuit together after I bagged my record buck. I did take a doe early on, which was encouraging. I mean, add 100 pounds and 220 inches of antlers and you’ve got yourself a retirement plan. But after a while I wondered if I weren’t just another gullible steer on the ramp to the slaughterhouse. Hey, must be some big fun going on in there or we wouldn’t all be bunched up so tight to get in, right?
I kept at it. By mid-October, I had year-and-a-half-old bucks running under my stand regularly. But at that time of year a young buck is about as horny and clueless as an eighth-grade boy, and I wasn’t after the seed stock. Especially not when, at first light from 30 feet up a tulip poplar one November morning, I spotted something brown ghosting through the briers with antlers well outside its ears. The sight was so fleeting and the buck’s silence in that crackly brush so unnerving that two minutes later I was no longer sure I’d actually seen it.
On another morning in trees so thick I ran out of shooting lanes as soon as I started climbing, I threw together a ground blind upwind of a trail that led into a deep, narrow slit of a stream valley. I had stolen my mom’s new outdoor watercolor seat–a lightweight three-legged folder–for this purpose. (Mom is not even 80 yet and quite spry, so I knew she’d manage.) After a while, I threw out some doe bleats. Usually my bleats have the slightly hysterical edge of a sheep being molested in a dark parking garage, but this time I immediately heard something crunching my way. I saw 4 points on one side as he closed in, and I clipped onto my bowstring. Then my rangefinder bumped against the bow and the crunching stopped. It was a standoff, an agony of waiting. I shut my eyes and focused on the inside of my eyelids, on the red-and-black formlessness there that reminds you the utility bills are due. I made myself breathe in through the nose for four counts, hold for four, exhale for four. I remembered–I have no idea why–being punished at summer camp 40 years ago for mouthing off to a counselor. I’d been made to stand outside the bunkhouse after lights-out with a brick in both outstretched arms while the mosquitoes formed a buffet line along me.
Then the buck took another crunching step my way. Shifting ever so slightly to draw, I felt the stool going over backward. I went along for the ride. That afternoon I brusquely returned it to the woman who’d brought me into the world. Thanks for nothing, Mom.
Next, having drawn an archery tag for Kansas, I invited myself to hunt the property of Richard Stucky, a farmer I’d pheasant hunted with once. I knew he’d be too polite to refuse. To my surprise I felt no qualms as he and his son, Steve, busted their humps to put me on the biggest buck I’d ever hunted. He was an 8-pointer headed toward 10, with tines that kept going long after you’d gotten the message, much like the poorer sort of revival speaker. With a rifle, I could have killed that sucker three times over four days. I thought I had him the first morning, 12 feet up in a creekbottom hedge apple, when I heard that telltale steady crunch. Trembling, I drew as the sound grew louder. One step more and…the luckiest possum on earth waddled into view. An hour later, the buck showed along the far edge of the bottom, just out of range and shielded by brush. I grunted. He stopped, looked my way, and bedded down. He stared in my direction for 20 minutes before standing, relieving himself, and walking on.
That afternoon, Richard and Steve staged an elaborate push based on where they guessed the deer would be bedded. Steve approached on horseback to lessen the spook factor; Richard flanked him at a slow walk. Half an hour later the buck passed within 45 yards of where they’d posted me, walking but not scared, once again screened.
On the fourth day, I saw a bobcat and heard a chorus of squirrels barking at it like PTA moms who have just discovered a registered sex offender in the neighborhood. Then, at last light, I heard two deer walking. The final smudge of sunset sky was turning gray and purple at the edges. Five minutes later they came out into the open. It was past legal light, but through my binoculars I could make out the buck with a doe, both standing broadside at 30 yards, relaxed and feeding. Those long, curving tines glowed radioactively in the amplified light.
I’d done my best and come up short. He’d beaten me fair and square. When that happens, all you can do is take one last look through the glasses and grope for the words to salute your quarry. “You son of a bitch,” I said.