Updated on September 21, 2022
After moving to Austin, Texas in the summer of 2021, over 1,200 miles away from my hunting grounds in my home state of Wisconsin, I knew my window of opportunity to bag a buck would be limited. So instead of doing the usual and heading home for Thanksgiving in November, I went a weekend early for Opening Weekend of Gun Deer Season, which is truly the superior holiday.
I bought my plane tickets, marked my calendar, and started counting down the days until take off. Although I wouldn’t be able to help with stands, food plots, or cleaning up the cabin for the upcoming stay of 10 of our closest deer hunting buddies for Deer Camp, I did closely supervise by reviewing cam pictures, suggesting various foods to add to the grocery list, and of course, diligently reading the Deer Camp Newsletter our leader sent out. With all of the responsibilities, the time flew by and by the evening of November 16th, I was out of the city and headed to the North Woods.
Showing up to Deer Camp is kind of like showing up backstage at a Motley Crue concert. People are everywhere, vehicles and trailers are parked all over the place, drinks are flowing, food is going, and music blasting. However, instead of rockstars and bottle service, it’s a bunch of 50-year-old guys drinking Crown or Mountain Dew out of red solo cups and your biggest fan is your uncle who labeled you the ice hodgie since you’re the youngest.
For those of you who don’t know, being the ice hodgie means that you are the designated guy for refilling the ice bucket, meaning everytime someone shouts “ICE HODGIE” you should put your hands up to catch the bucket and get your boots on so you can run to the cooler for a refill. Luckily, there’s one other young gun in our group other than me, and since he’s a whole month younger that’s his job. Thank you Dane.
The rest of our group is made up of about eight people who are either family or friends who have been picked up through their years and look forward to getting some time away to head up North and reconnect over beers and buck tales once a year. There’s something special about the bond of Deer Camp, and although with busy lives it’s hard to keep up it’s the perfect weekend in between Summer and the holidays to see lifelong friends and hopefully fill some tags.
For those of us who made it through the first night relatively unscathed from our resident Hype Man Doug’s liquid encouragement the night before, we awoke to our alarms and started to get our base layers on, coolers packed, and head out to the freezing cold and dark. A quick pit stop to our high-tech, snowproof containers for the rest of our gear (aka the rubbermaids hidden in the bed of the truck), and we’re geared up and ready to rock.
The hum of generators and whispers of those that didn’t make it up asking to turn off the light through bleary eyes quickly faded away as the rest of us made our separate ways into the woods, my dad and I heading to the opposite side of the property in the golf cart. This is another piece of high-tech equipment, a certified greenway golf cart modded out with off-road tires, camo wrap, and a bed.
After sneaking along the side of the corn field, we parked the rig, loaded up our rifles, and crept through the silent darkness headed to our box stand. In about 15 minutes of stalking, stopping, and listening to the cold wind, we were in the stand with the windows open and heater on, waiting for first light.
Of course, after such a long journey and with a warm heater running, there’s room for a quick snooze while you wait for first light. I closed my eyes just for a split second and opened them to a lightened sky and a crisp new layer of morning ice on the leaves. That ice is one of the best things a hunter can hope for. It makes every step of normally silent deer pronounced, and helps to make their dark coat and light antlers pop between the trees.
Deer were moving, and shots were firing around the property and surrounding acres. It wasn’t long before my sleepy, foggy brain was wide awake as I scanned the area for movement. By the time noon had rolled around, we had seen a parade of does, scrappier bucks, squirrels, and birds. Also, plenty of branches, dead leaves, and stumps that were definitely deer until I stared at them for three minutes without movement.
We had a quick fuel up on Smuckers Uncrustables, chips, and candy while we watched our breath disappear as the sun started to dissipate the morning chill. It was getting pretty cozy, and almost seemed like it was time for an afternoon nap, until of course there was flash of fur in the distant oaks.
My dad and I could both see the outline of an absolute beast through the sticks, brush, and branches. As he worked on making out the rack with binos, I worked on attempting to silently get the barrel of my gun out the window to use my scope to do the same. Which, may sound like an easy enough feat, but when you’re shaking with excitement in a dead silent woods where a pin dropping would make an echo, it is not.
Almost as if we were filming a well produced show, all these moving pieces began to line up perfectly. The buck came in, turning broadside with a slight quarter right in my shooting lane. I had gotten my rifle up and aimed, and calmed down my breath enough to stop from fogging up my scope. My dad had eyes on him and scanning the area for any sign of a kerfuffle to the plan, and ready to start marking if he ran.
“Should I shoot?”
“Are you ready?”
“YES, SHOOT HIM!!”
My shot rang through the woods. He hunched and ran out of sight, and immediately my stomach dropped. As an ethical hunter who works hard to have a perfect shot and a quick dispatch every time, that’s not exactly what you see. Though, deer are hardy and adrenaline is a hell of a drug, they can make it pretty far with severely fatal shots. I’ve heard stories of deer running 60 or more yards after losing vital organs.
We waited about a 45 minutes or more until we couldn’t take it anymore and made our way out of the stand. Descending quietly and maneuvering over to the spot I marked from my shot, we were met with even worse sign. Just a spot of hair and very little droplets of blood. Which means either a belly shot, or hopefully a slight scrape that a tough buck would hardly notice.
I was devastated, embarrassed, a roller coaster of emotion. I could not believe I had wasted not only mine but everyone at camp’s time, money, their chances of possibly bringing down this buck instead of me blowing it by injuring it. I felt like an awful steward of the land by wounding a beautiful deer. However, we knew if it was wounded, we should at least slowly move along the blood trail and see what we can find, and only stop if we started to push it. Especially since a small part of me still really felt like I had a great shot, even if it was just Hubris.
When I say there were a couple droplets of blood, I’m talking like pin points on tiny little blades of grass that disappeared within a couple steps. My dad and I found the closest drop we could to where we last saw him, made the line from the shot, and started doing circles to try to piece together a trail. Of course there was just absolutely nothing.
All those initial feelings from before started hitting me yet again. I really thought I had messed this one up, and the mind movie I had of my shot was just incredibly misremembered. Then, my dad had an idea. The deer trail the buck was on went across a big cut-through that connected two agriculture fields. On the other side of the cut-through, the deer trail continued into another section of the property. The idea was to go look around that side of the trail and see if we could find any sign.
Off we went, search back on, slight sniffles of my pride stifled. I realized this was the move, I didn’t care if I had to crawl on my hands and knees around on the ground for the rest of the weekend, I was going to track down this thing if he was down or injured somewhere. Luckily, those little pin point droplets of blood reappeared on this second section of the deer trail.