First Buck

The lessons we learn from the experience that made us true deer hunters.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Humility
I thought hunting that day was going to be about food.

I'd resigned my teaching job and plunged into full-time writing for part-time pay. So, stalking down that coulee in eastern Montana with a new Field & Stream writer named Norm Strung was going to be a way for me to secure cheap winter meat.

Norm sent me first through the sagebrush and bull pine, hoping, no doubt, to follow behind and see that I did things right.

Within 20 minutes the forkhorn was standing across the draw, looking at me. I glanced at Norm. He nodded. I must have hesitated, confounded by the mule deer's continued presence in the face of my intentions. Then Norm was at my shoulder. "Aim low, just behind the front shoulder," he whispered. I couldn't believe the deer was still there when the crosshairs danced onto its body.

The skin was warm in my hand when I pulled up on the deer's stomach and pushed down with the point of my knife, as Norm instructed me to do. I followed his directions with a forced detachment from the buck that had been looking at me, focusing instead on anatomy, trying to be clinical, objective, competent. I was surprised at how quickly I had the deer field-dressed and in the back of the truck.

And I was surprised at how quiet it was as we stood there on the plains and brushed a fly away from the buck's opaque eye. Then, Norm put his finger in the deer's blood and marked my forehead.

Deer hunting has never been easy since that moment. It has never been about food alone, or antlers, or buckskin. For over 30 years now, shooting a deer has always been difficult and humbling and ceremonial.
-Sam Curtis

Control
Bucks come easier today than when I was a kid. With my hunting largely confined to the woodlots and farmfields around my southeastern Pennsylvania home, I was fortunate to find a track, much less the deer that made it.

Then came that snowy December afternoon in 1964 when I climbed a hillside to watch the weedfield below until closing time. I'd been nestled against the ridge-top hickory for only 15 minutes when two deer hightailed it across the field's edge a couple hundred yards away. My iron-sighted .32 Remington was of no use at that distance, and I couldn't tell if they were bucks or does. Rising to one knee, I glued my eyes on the rhododendron-choked ridge.

Suddenly they were there, running full tilt amid churning snow. As the lead deer swerved to jump a log, I caught a fleeting glimpse of antler. Seconds later he abruptly stopped.

I somehow couldn't recall squeezing the trigger. But evidently I did, for the buck dropped precisely where he'd stood. I knelt in stunned silence for a time, then shuffled the 20 yards to the deer.

Back home my wife somehow tired at the repeated telling of my story, so I headed off to regale a few friends with a play-by-play of the deer it took me 10 years to bag.

As I lay in bed that evening, it slowly came to me that something was missing from my story. Only then did I realize I'd not shouldered the rifle when the deer appeared. Instead, I'd fired from the hip, striking the deer squarely in the neck.

Since that day I have come a long way in controlling buck fever and been rewarded with some hard-earned wall-hangers. But none remain as vivid or meaningful as that cloudy, snowy afternoon nearly four decades back when I dragged a little 3-point "fever buck" from the woods.
-Tom Fegely

Timing
Every morning, i'd glimpse them, hear them, sense them. Gray ghosts that melted into the predawn gloom as I walked to my tree stand. And every morning, I could barely contain my excitement. With so many deer around, I figured it was only a matter of time before a buck ambled within slug-range of my little 20-gauge.

Yet the days steadily ticked by with no success. I tried taking difrent routes to my stand. I skipped school and stayed on stand for hours on end. I spent a week's allowance on "surefire" doe scents. All to no avail.

Before long, I was down to the final day of the season. I decided to stick with my stand location, an old, overgrown meadow sandwiched between acres of cut corn and a brier-choked bottom. Only this time, I would get there first.

I set my alarm so early that the dogs didn't even stir when I slipped out of the house. And for once, the ghosts were nowhere to be seen, not that I could have seen them in the ink-black night. It was all I could do to stay awake as I settled into my stand, but gradually I became aware that I was not alone. A snapped twig. A white throat patch floating across an opening. The swish of legs against broom grass.

By the time daylight finally arrived, I was surrounded by deer. Doe. Doe. Doe. Buck! At the shot, it wheeled around and collapsed behind my shaking stand. As I began to dress it out, I also butchered a nursery rhyme, one that's stayed with me 25 years later: "Early to bed and early to rise is what helps Jack put his tag on the prize"-especially when you have a hot morning stand.
-Lawrence Pyne

Instinct
We all know the expression "when the smoke clears." They're just words to most of us, but I shot my first deer during a blackpowder hunt when I was 19 years old, and I stood over its body literally after the smoke had cleared, the octagonal barrel of the Hawken still warm in my hand. Would I find some crystallization of meaning in the echo of my shot, like clarity of sight as mist rises from a river?

I sat down on a log near the buck, a deep-woods creature that had lived out its life in the cedar swamps of northern Michigan, and then after a time I knelt down and passed my hand across its flanks, saying over and over, "It's all right, it's all right." Perhaps I was talking to myself as much as to the deer.

At the time I was a student of philosophy, in particular Jean-Paul Sartre's concept of existentialism-the belief that an individual comes into the world unhindered by the baggage of religion or predestination, untethered even from human heredity, and is therefore free to become what he chooses to be. Well, I had chosen to become a hunter-at least that is what I had thought before I had hunted. But when my hand pressed into the hollow hairs, warm underneath and winter thick, I felt the essential folly of a philosophy that does not acknowledge the thread of blood that connects modern humans to their forebears. Hunting is not so much a choice as the atavistic response of a man lost in nature, and if I gleaned anything from that moment it was that human beings cannot escape their heritage, and that anyone who hunts in the grip of instinct has traveled very near to those who drew pictographs on cave walls.

If these reflections seem detached from emotion, that is because the deer was not quite real to me, and the gravity of what I had done had not sunk in. The smoke may have cleared, but a surreal haze had yet to lift. When it did, I was overwhelmed by confused emotions-wonder, regret, a sense of accomplishment, a welling of tears that I fought back with a deep breath. Then I drew my knife, not so different from the stone implements used by ancient hunters, and counted on history rather than philosophy to guide my hand.
-Keith McCafferty

Reality
I figured it would be like it is on the videos. sitting in a tree stand at the edge of the woods, looking out over the field in front of me, I could see the footage rolling: A good buck prances into the wide open, stops to sniff the air once or twice, and then jogs within comfortable shooting range where he stops broadside and waits cooperatively while I take aim.

The thick stand of cedars at my back didn't concern me much. I just watched the open field and waited for the scene in my head to unfold in front of me. Until I heard the footsteps.

I looked over my shoulder, into the cedars behind me, and it all went down at fast-forward speed. Between cedar boughs, I saw an antler with three fighting tines. I saw a front shoulder moving in the crosshairs. I shot. The scene lasted a few seconds and featured only glimpses. (I didn't realized until afterward that I'd shot left-handed.) Here's what I learned: It might be like it is on the videos for some folks, on certain private ranches and other select areas. But where I hunt-and I'd venture to guess where most of us hunt-whitetail bucks shun the center of the stage, and their appearances are usually brief.

Now, more often than not, if I want to see a buck prancing in an open field, I watch a video. If I want to kill one, I hunt the thick stuff.
-Dave Hurteau

Perseverance
I was already obsessed, but as green as an August acorn. In the better part of a month's bowhunting, I'd seen one deer-200 yards away. On the last day before general firearms season, I climbed into my stand. At least I'd go down swinging.

Around 4 p.m., a spike buck stood up from its bed not 40 yards away and started toward me. I shrugged off my disbelief long enough to stand-bug-eyed, legs shaking-and draw. The arrow clattered off my rest. He stiffened up and walked, taking my heart with him. Ten minutes later a doe appeared and began walking funny figure eights in the clearing. A big-bodied 5-pointer stepped out and began to shadow her. Each waltzing orbit around the clearing brought them closer. Finally, they lingered broadside 15 yards away and I shot. The buck walked calmly on for about 20 seconds, then slowly toppled over.

Descending back to earth, I put a hand to his flank and stroked it. In the blink of an eye, I'd crossed some threshold; I'd become a hunter. And I'd learned in my bones something that transcends mere patience: the hunter's relentlessness. Never, ever give up. Never. Because everything can change in the blink of an eye.
-Bill Heavey

Faith
My first season was spent at my father's side, and every moment was a lesson. As we eased through the woods, he taught me how to walk quietly. As we sat on stand, he told me how to spot deer. In the car to and from our hunting land he would endlessly repeat his hunting advice. I could repeat the lessons in my sleep.

Although I listened eagerly and hunted hard, we didn't see one buck. The next year was virtually the same, except my father often left me alone. If I fidgeted on stand, he wasn't there to scold me. Considering it felt as though I had been hunting for an eternity without success, it was hard to keep focused. I became discouraged and doubted myself, my father, and hunting. I was ready to quit.

It was the last morning of scene in my head to unfold in front of me. Until I heard the footsteps.

I looked over my shoulder, into the cedars behind me, and it all went down at fast-forward speed. Between cedar boughs, I saw an antler with three fighting tines. I saw a front shoulder moving in the crosshairs. I shot. The scene lasted a few seconds and featured only glimpses. (I didn't realized until afterward that I'd shot left-handed.) Here's what I learned: It might be like it is on the videos for some folks, on certain private ranches and other select areas. But where I hunt-and I'd venture to guess where most of us hunt-whitetail bucks shun the center of the stage, and their appearances are usually brief.

Now, more often than not, if I want to see a buck prancing in an open field, I watch a video. If I want to kill one, I hunt the thick stuff.
-Dave Hurteau

Perseverance
I was already obsessed, but as green as an August acorn. In the better part of a month's bowhunting, I'd seen one deer-200 yards away. On the last day before general firearms season, I climbed into my stand. At least I'd go down swinging.

Around 4 p.m., a spike buck stood up from its bed not 40 yards away and started toward me. I shrugged off my disbelief long enough to stand-bug-eyed, legs shaking-and draw. The arrow clattered off my rest. He stiffened up and walked, taking my heart with him. Ten minutes later a doe appeared and began walking funny figure eights in the clearing. A big-bodied 5-pointer stepped out and began to shadow her. Each waltzing orbit around the clearing brought them closer. Finally, they lingered broadside 15 yards away and I shot. The buck walked calmly on for about 20 seconds, then slowly toppled over.

Descending back to earth, I put a hand to his flank and stroked it. In the blink of an eye, I'd crossed some threshold; I'd become a hunter. And I'd learned in my bones something that transcends mere patience: the hunter's relentlessness. Never, ever give up. Never. Because everything can change in the blink of an eye.
-Bill Heavey

Faith
My first season was spent at my father's side, and every moment was a lesson. As we eased through the woods, he taught me how to walk quietly. As we sat on stand, he told me how to spot deer. In the car to and from our hunting land he would endlessly repeat his hunting advice. I could repeat the lessons in my sleep.

Although I listened eagerly and hunted hard, we didn't see one buck. The next year was virtually the same, except my father often left me alone. If I fidgeted on stand, he wasn't there to scold me. Considering it felt as though I had been hunting for an eternity without success, it was hard to keep focused. I became discouraged and doubted myself, my father, and hunting. I was ready to quit.

It was the last morning of