At the shot, the buck wheels off the path and into the woods, gallops in a frantic 20-yard circle, and collapses right about where I hit it, 50 yards away. It’s the most obliging deer I’ve ever taken. I’m feeling satisfied. It’s the opening day of Michigan’s firearms season, and I’ve got meat for my host, whose freezer needs filling. More important, I’m now in the running.
An hour or so later, with my deer loaded in the back of the truck, we pull into Pat & Gary’s Party Store, a sprawling general store just east of U.S. 75, near the very tip of the Lower Peninsula’s mitten. Two strangers meet us in the parking lot and drag my buck to a boy who slips a rope around its neck and hooks it to a backhoe’s shovel. The deer is lifted 10 feet up to a wooden scaffold where another boy, straddling the top beam, ties off the load with a deft slipknot. Someone hands me a ticket with the number assigned to my deer, and a certificate good for a free pizza. It’s official: I have entered a deer in the Indian River Buck Pole.
I don’t feel like pizza, so I saunter inside Pat & Gary’s to see what’s going on. In the small northern Michigan town of Indian River (population 2,000), the store probably comes in second only to the supermarket in terms of everyday importance. Today, Pat & Gary’s is the undisputed epicenter, as it hosts the town’s annual opening-day celebration.
Owner Gary Lang, a silver-haired man pushing 70 who doesn’t look like he gets outside much, is checking inventory on a clipboard. Gary’s wife, Pat, pops in. “There you are,” she says to him. She’s sorting out the contest prizes to be awarded to lucky hunters later tonight. “One of the distributors donated a cooler on wheels that looks like a beer can, and I have no idea how to put a value on it. Come take a look, wouldya?” Hunters weave through the aisles of the store, buying everything from schnapps to cover scents, hot dogs to deer drags. And this is a lull, relatively speaking. Most hunters got their last-minute supplies yesterday and will stay in the woods until hunting hours are over before coming here for the festivities.
A few bucks do trickle in, though, as I visit with Gary and Pat. At one point, I see a nice 9-pointer in the back of a truck and head outside for a look. “I’d been out all morning and finally got tired of sitting,” says John Studer, who took the buck on public land. “So I got up, kept the wind in my face, and went for a stroll.” He spotted the buck bedded down and shot it at 75 yards with a .308. “He never even got up.” He pauses. “This buck was sparring with an even bigger one just four or five days ago in the same area. I’ve got the pictures on my trail camera.” Later, Studer will show me the bigger deer—a 197-pound 8-pointer that will go on to win the contest.
The Poling Place
Buck poles are probably as old as deer seasons, which would date them back to the 1860s in Michigan. As late as the 1960s in some states, whole families—hunters or not—would dress up in their Sunday best and drive to the general store to admire the opening-day deer, hear the gossip, and renew ties with neighbors. These days, buck poles are disappearing as quickly as honest outdoor writers. The same internet that was going to bring us together has done the opposite; now you can check in a deer and show it to all of your digitized friends without having to speak to any of them. Yet here in Indian River, and in other small towns in northern Michigan, buck poles are still alive and kicking. Contestants come from all over, including downstate areas and neighboring states with milder winters, fewer coyotes, more deer, and bigger racks. Yet they still drive six or eight hours, from Chicago or Cleveland, to hunt up here.
Pat & Gary’s is widely considered the biggest, the richest, and one of the oldest buck poles in the state. Calling the place a party store is more than a misnomer. They offer full-service departments for firearms, bows, and fishing. They sell 14 kinds of live bait. They have suspenders in eight patterns. The ammo wall has every rifle caliber you’ve ever heard of and a bunch you haven’t, including the 7.7×58 Japanese, which was adopted by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1939 to replace the 6.5×50 Japanese from 1897, which, naturally, they also carry.
The store is open seven days a week, from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., depending on customer traffic. By far their busiest day of the year is the day before the rifle opener, which is when I arrived. “You swear much?” Gary asked me then, looking a little frantic as he hustled from one pressing need to the next. “Oh, you know, occasionally, why?” I replied. “Because we call this @$%#&-!$@&*# day,” he whispered.
Gary is 69, three years older than Pat. They could easily retire. But Gary likes to stay busy. He started work this morning at 5:30 a.m. “Putting this thing on is a lot of work,” he tells me after I bring in my buck. He’s been running the buck pole ever since he bought the store, 24 years ago. “I figure we break even on it. But it’s good for the town, you know? Besides, what the hell else am I going to do? They’ll come in one day and find me paws up on the floor.”
Pat, who has been listening in while sorting more prizes, is less than sympathetic. “I’m having you stuffed,” she announces. “And don’t look for me at the funeral. I’ll be at the casino.” She flashes a mischievous grin. “Love my gambling,” she says. Yesterday she told me, “They call us the Bickersons. He’s the biggest b.s.-er you’ve ever met. But it works. I still get a twinkle in my eye when I see him at a distance.” She lets this sit for a moment before realizing her mistake. “Don’t tell him that because he’ll use it against me.”
Gary Lang’s employees like to joke about how every year in the days leading up to opening day, Gary vows that this will be the last buck pole. He runs himself ragged—securing donations; coordinating the contractors who set up the wooden scaffolds, erect the rented tents, and haul in the portable toilets; and organizing the volunteers who weigh each deer and register and photograph each buck and hunter. “Then 48 hours later,” one female employee tells me, “he says, ‘You know, that was a lot of fun. I bet next year will be even better.’”
Between the Bucks
The bucks start arriving in earnest a little after sundown. “Well, about 4:45 in the afternoon, he came walking into a clearing with his head down,” says a hunter named Roger Dombrowski, standing next to his 141-pound 9-pointer. He kneels and holds its antlers for the contest’s photographer. “Waited till he was broadside and dropped him. One shot, 7mm mag.” He looks away. “I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me.” Dombrowski has to go move his truck. The line to check in deer is growing.
By 7 p.m. there are more than 50 bucks hanging from five wooden scaffolds, and police are directing traffic. A crowd of 400 or so has gathered, looking over the deer, pointing out the bigger racks. By one scaffold, a 6-year-old girl is curious about the deer but unsure about the protocol. “It’s O.K.,” her grandmother tells her. “You can touch them.” The girl caresses a buck’s stomach. “It’s furry,” she says. “But it’s dripping blood.” I watch, wondering what’s going through her mind, how a child brought up on Disney deer responds when face-to-face with reality. I don’t have to wait long. “This is so cool!” she whispers to herself. She jumps straight up and down in place four times, her rubber boots slapping the pavement, her excitement almost more than she can bear. Her grandmother tells me that the girl’s dad must have hunted until dark. She expects him soon.
“It always gets busy around this time,” says Gary, stepping outside for a rare break. “If you’re off in camp someplace and hunt till dark, it can take a while to get here.” You have to have your buck on the premises by 8 p.m., or at least have your truck in line. Prizes range from hunting rifles—first place is a Kimber Montana .325 with a Leupold VX-3 scope—to $25 gift certificates for local restaurants like the Thirsty Sturgeon. If you enter a buck, you win something. The only thing that counts is weight. “Are you kidding? It’d take forever to score each buck,” Gary says when I ask. “I’ve got enough headaches.”
Janice Reynolds, 74, checks in a 131-pound 5-pointer. She’s a redhead in a red flannel shirt and had been hunting her family’s farm. “I went into the blind about 5:30 this morning. Just after daylight, he came out of the woods into a field about 100 feet away. Easy shot. My age don’t bother me. I’ve been hunting since 1978. One year I got a certificate for the largest buck shot by a woman in northern Michigan. Dressed out at 206 pounds.”
The 8 p.m. deadline passes, but at 8:30 there are trucks that made it into the line still waiting to unload. Dale Pugh, who has been volunteering at the event for decades, weighs deer on an industrial scale that looks like an old wooden fence gate that has fallen flat. He announces the weight and number of points over the P.A. system. His wife, Debbie, records the hunter’s name and information, then verifies that he or she has signed up for the contest, which is free. One of the Pughs’ nine granddaughters, Keegan Shovan, snaps each hunter’s picture. A grandson, Tyler Goral, drives the backhoe. Even now, he’s lifting another buck with a rope to a boy perched 10 feet up a stepladder. The boy ties off the rope and repositions the ladder for the next deer. A group of young men meet each truck to drag its deer to the scales. At the fringes of the group is Wyatt Shovan, 12, all of 90 pounds. He’s wearing Muck boots of a size that predict a growth spurt that will cost his parents a lot more in groceries and new clothes. “You working the event?” I ask. “Oh, I wish,” he replies. I’m sure he’d grow 6 inches tonight if he could figure out how. Ten minutes later, I see him leaning into a 130-pound 6-pointer all by himself and dragging it slightly uphill 30 yards to the backhoe. “Don’t sell yourself short, bud,” I say. “You’re getting it done.” He blushes and looks away, thrilled.
The count is down slightly this year. There are about 60 deer so far and only 20 minutes to go. The contest averages between 85 and 125 bucks. Both hunters and spectators have their theories—the Tuesday opener; the unseasonably warm day, with highs in the mid 50s; the fact that last night was ideal for rutting deer, with temperatures in the 30s and a huge full moon, closer to earth than any since 1948, closer than any other will be until 2034. It doesn’t matter. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about something else entirely. Nearly half the town is here now.
Thomas Swerc, whose 197-pound 8-pointer will go on to win, says his hunt was pretty straightforward. “I was hunting public land. A doe and a yearling came through. They were in back of me for about 15 minutes, but close, you know, and I didn’t want to get busted. Finally, I looked back slowly over my right shoulder. That’s when I saw this guy, but a tree blocked my shot. I had to shoot left-handed, over my right shoulder. Dropped him with a neck shot at 40 yards. Thirty-ought-six.” It’s a heavy deer, 13 pounds over last year’s winner, 19 pounds over the previous year’s.
As I walk between the bucks, I overhear two women talking. “My daughter-in-law shot a coyote the other day at 300 yards,” one says to her friend. “She’s a good shot.” I’m impressed. I ask whether her daughter-in-law was hunting predators specifically or saw the dog while scouting for deer. “Oh, no,” the woman says. “She saw it from her kitchen.”
A buck being pulled across the lot by two men draws a lot of admiring looks. It’s a big 8-pointer with no brow tines that will go 178 pounds. “It’s Jim Russell’s,” says one of the men. “But his legs don’t work so good. He’s sitting in the truck.” I go looking and find him. “Yeah, first one I ever shot without brow tines. I was hunting in a pop-up on some friends’ land. I can’t walk so good, stents in my legs. And they’ve gotten infected. So my boy has to help me, which he did.” The blind was tucked into some hardwoods at the edge of a field. The buck was chasing four does and paused for a moment at 60 yards. “I put my crosshairs on him and dropped him with my .270. Old gun, a Remington 700. Old gun for an old man,” he jokes. He was the local elementary school principal for 12 years and taught 18 more, mostly science and math.
“I’m 82,” he continues. “Probably taught most of the people here when they were kids.” Dale Pugh, the scale master, comes over to the truck to offer his congratulations. Russell seems to be a revered elder in Indian River. “That boy there, I had him in school, too,” Russell says after Pugh leaves. “I’ve shot a lot of deers in my life. I got a 9-pointer a good while back that went 21 inches on the inside.” His buck will place third and win him another .270, a Ruger American with a Redfield 3–9x40mm scope.
There is a prize for the smallest buck, and my 99-pound 4-pointer is a serious contender. I have mixed feelings about this. To be in the running for the smallest anything is kind of pathetic. But if you’re going to swim in those waters, you want to win. The buck has been hanging for hours, and as the Detroit Free Press will report that night, “as of 6:30 p.m. the smallest [buck] was a four-pointer that weighed 99 pounds.” I’d been hunting with Jeff Shade, who’s a little over 70 and heads the store’s fishing department. There were six of us at Shade’s camp, three of whom were named Jeff, including his son. They were all firefighters or cops. “You know why God created firefighters?” the younger Shade asked. “So cops would have heroes to look up to.” The cops tell their version of the same joke. In the end, my buck will finish 64th out of 69. On the one hand, this is somehow worse than taking last. In the race to the bottom, I didn’t even place. On the other, I’m happy just to have put some venison in Shade’s larder—and that the paper didn’t use my name.
It’s 8:45, the contest is over, and an announcer is calling out the names of hunters and their prizes. The youngest boy and girl each win a Ruger 10/22. The prize I just miss getting for the smallest buck is 10 bags of the hunter’s choice of bait (except apples, for some reason), which would have been tough getting back on the plane anyway. There’s even a prize for the ugliest rack, selected by popular vote. It wins a $100 credit from Vieau’s Tree Service. Pat whispers to me that in 30 minutes all the deer will be gone, the parking lot empty. “I can’t wait,” she says. “Then I can finally sit down and put my feet up.”
I look around for Gary now that his work is done for the day and he’ll have a minute to talk. Normally, this is the time that the guy responsible for putting on an event like this gets to bask in a moment of recognition from the community. “Oh, gosh, no,” Pat tells me. “That’s not his style. He just sort of disappears.” Modesty. Another tradition that is no longer fashionable but lives on in upstate Michigan.
Before I leave the following day, I catch up with Gary to thank him. “Glad you could come,” he says. There’s a pause. “Next year will be even better.”