It happened the way it so often does in a treestand. The deer didn’t show up. It was just there. I’d been scanning the woods for an hour or more, when, 60 yards off, I saw it calmly feeding on acorns. If it hadn’t flicked its tail or taken a few steps every so often, I’d probably have missed it entirely. The leaves were too thick for a clear view.

Then there were two more deer with it, one with antlers. He wasn’t big, an inside-the-ears 6-pointer, but he was bigger than the other two. Which, now that I got them in my binos, were also bucks. One of the smaller ones approached the 6-pointer. It dropped its head and sidled towards the youngster. Junior had the sense to back off.

The three of them seemed to be traveling together. Then I heard the click of antlers and realized the two smaller bucks were sparring. In all my time in the woods, I’d never actually seen this. It wasn’t at all like the hunting shows. This wasn’t heavyweight wrestling. There was no fight to the death or clash of titans. It was more like two kids in Pop Warner football taking shots at one another to see what it felt like, trying to understand what the bigger boys were doing when they did it for real.

One would shove the other, then they’d bang antlers a few times, mull it over, shove some more, and bang antlers again. It is so cool, I thought, that I’m finally getting to see this. I remember thinking that they didn’t seem truly hostile. The more I watched, the more it reminded me of being annoyed with your brother and elbowing him in ribs in the back seat when your parents weren’t looking. But it was the real deal, antler to antler. After a while they stopped, as if that were enough for the time being, and went back to feeding. But I had the feeling it wouldn’t be long before they tired of feeding and went back to fighting. I wondered if they’d still be tolerating one another in a week or 10 days.

One started up the path that went right past my stand. He got hinky just as he got close. He must have caught scent or movement, because his tail went up, he bolted 20 yards, and he began that awkward high-stepping, jerky-drum-major walk. His behavior alerted the other small buck. Neither blew, but they began drifting west across the hillside. The bigger buck stayed put for a while, then seemed to go in the same general direction. I was happy. I really didn’t want to shoot any of them, although the landowner letting me hunt had said he wanted any deer I saw killed because there were too many of them. I was half glad that I hadn’t had an ethical opportunity.

I sat there in the twilight, hardly a breath of air stirring. Then, just as I was about to come down, I saw the bigger buck by itself 40 yards or so below me. He had reversed course and was sneaking east toward the field corner on the far side of my stand. I wondered if that’s where he had wanted to go the whole time. He stood at the edge of the field for a moment, taking the temperature of the real estate in front of him. Then he walked out.

I climbed back down in my stand as quietly as I could and did the same. I hadn’t taken a shot. But it felt like I’d been shown a good omen. And things were just getting started.

Photo by Jeff Kubina