To celebrate Father’s Day, all week long we’ll be publishing a series of stories all about dads—about their companionship in the outdoors, about them teaching or encouraging us to hunt and fish, and about how we wouldn’t be where we are, or who we are, without them. Fittingly, we’re calling this series “Thanks, Dad.” 

Do you have a great story to share about your dad? Submit it to our Father’s Day Contest for a chance to be featured in the F&S journal and win a prize package valued at $500.

As the only child of a serious outdoorsman, I spent most of my childhood following my father around in the woods. I killed my first deer the winter after my twelfth birthday—a little four-point buck with brow tines so tiny they looked more like pimples than points. After sharing a Snickers, Daddy coached me through field dressing, although his hands held the knife far more than mine. Before we headed to the truck, he used the blood on his hands to paint two thick stripes across my cheeks. 

That was the first of many deer I killed in the woods with Daddy. When I was older, jobs, bills, and a house full of small children conspired to keep me from hunting as often as I liked. My sons took my place following Daddy through the woods. Sometimes, I had the privilege of bringing up the rear. I was there when my older son Daniel connected with his first whitetail, a plump young doe. I watched perched on the tailgate, eating the ceremonial Snickers while Daddy and Daniel did the field dressing. 

Two hunters pose with a dead whitetail deer from a pickup truck
The author’s son Daniel (right) shot his first doe with his grandfather—the author’s father. Alice Jones Webb

I wasn’t present when my younger son, Silas, shot two back-to-back does. He and Daddy are both all smiles in the photo my mother sent—Silas, with two broad stripes on his cheeks. 

We were all devastated in 2017 when Daddy suffered a catastrophic heart attack on the last day of the Virginia deer season. He died in a hospital bed two days later. A sea of Mossy Oak and Realtree attended his funeral, as his family and hunting buddies were decked out in camo to pay their last respects. 

The first deer season without him was tough. Daddy left an empty spot in each of us that we discovered was best soothed in the woods. So, with Silas out of school for Christmas break and Daniel home on leave from the Army, we decided to hunt. 

The first morning, we parted ways at a fork in the road. I headed in one direction, and Daniel and Silas crept off in the other. I watched the boys’ headlamps bobbing away from me just like I had watched Daddy’s waggling through the dark more times than I could count. It was barely shooting light when I heard a single shot from what I recognized as the Remington 870 Wingmaster I had used to kill my first deer. Daddy had converted it to a slug gun several years before he passed. Silas had been carrying that gun when we parted ways. 

Thirty minutes later, Daniel came shuffling up the path towards my stand.

“Come help your son gut this deer,” he said. 

“He knows how to gut his own deer,” I answered. 

“Just come on.”

two hunters smile while standing at the side of a pickup truck
The author’s father graced his other grandson’s cheeks with stripes of deer blood after helping him tag his first whitetail. Alice Jones Webb

Silas had sent a sabot spiraling right through the boiler room of a scrawny spike, dropping him dead at 75 yards. Despite the deer’s unimpressive size, the shot itself was a crackerjack. After some arm punching, backslapping, and a brief Snickers toast, the boys pulled the little buck out of a tangle of briars and onto the path where field dressing would be easier. 

Silas whipped out a knife and, attempting to appear confident, chopped off the buck’s sex organs, just as Daddy had coached him. Then he straddled the buck, turned his blade upward, and started the pelvic cut. 

“Be careful,” I said.

“I know what I’m doing,” he snapped back at me. 

It looked like he did. His hands worked together seamlessly as he used the fingers of his free hand on either side of the blade tip, pulling the muscle up and away from the organs. He unzipped the buck like he’d been doing it his whole life. 

With the deer’s abdomen opened up for all the world to see, Silas started digging around inside the deer like he was searching for inspiration. 

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “This is usually where Pop Pop would curse at me and push me out of the way.”

The three of us exchanged embarrassed looks, suddenly realizing we were all utterly lost without Daddy. Daddy could gut a deer in two minutes flat. I know because I timed him once as he flew through the process with the precision of a skilled surgeon and the speed of a NASCAR pit-crew member.

My father had adamantly insisted we gut our own deer over the years. He was, after all, a very practical man. He was also impatient. There was always a pattern to our field dressing: Daddy would hand us a knife and tell us to “get to it.” We would open up the deer’s belly, and about the time the gutting got nasty, he elbowed each of us out of the way, muttering a few colorful words while informing us we were “doing it wrong” or “taking all day” or that he didn’t want us to “ruin the meat.” Which is why the three of us were standing in the frigid woods fighting off panic. 

“Would it help if I cussed at you,” I said.

“Maybe,” Silas answered.

It didn’t.

Over the next two hours, we took turns holding legs, digging around inside the spike’s chest cavity, or offering useless advice from the sidelines. When all was said and done, it took four knives and three hunters to sloppily field-dress one spike. By the end, we were all covered in blood, and I had somehow lost my prescription glasses. Yes, we were definitely “doing it wrong,” and we almost “took all day,” but we somehow managed to finish without “ruining the meat.”

The three of us have killed dozens of deer since the botched butchering of that spike in the woods. While we have yet to break Daddy’s two-minute record, we are definitely more competent. Even if we still feel lost without him.