February 02, 2024
It was Oct. 6, 1991, and after five long days of waiting, I eagerly grabbed my Darton compound and slid into my blotchy camo hunting suit. The first blaze maple leaves took flight in our front yard, and even more excitement filled the autumn air as I paused with my dad to freeze the moment with a click from the polaroid my mother held.
It was my 12th birthday, and one of the firsts that come as a milestone in a boy’s journey to manhood. This wasn’t my first trip to the place we called “The Woods,” however. I’d been there a few times before, tagging along to help dad scout or dump out some bait. But as I hopped into the mud brown S10 and watched my dad drive the short trek to the square 40 acres he had hunted all through the 80s, this time was different. This was my first hunt.
Some decent bucks had been pulled from there over the years, and to my young eyes they were monsters and came with stories full of mystery. Now, after years of anxiously staring out our front window for my father’s return and bolting to the door to see if he’d gotten anything, I would get my chance.
I could release my own arrow and tell my own tale to uncles and cousins instead of just listening with wonder. My first hunt, and the whole first season for that matter, didn’t end with a hero’s story. That came the next year, in that same 40’s brushy corner just across the old wire fence where I piled up a fat, December button buck. Over the decades to follow, memories made in that place piled up like leaves on the forest floor, and although my hunting would take me to many other parcels and states, something always called me back to where I started.
On Nov. 15, 2022, it called once again. But in the predawn black as I swung my legs down from my brown Silverado and planted my feet on that old dirt, something felt different. I uncased the same Remington 20 gauge pump that had barked dozens of opening days in that timber, and I slipped around the rusty gate to go down the worn lane like I had hundreds of times before. But something stopped me.
Reluctantly walking back, I looked again, hoping it had somehow disappeared. My headlamp reflected off something that didn’t belong with the old familiar markers of that place. There it was, however, spelled out as clear as could be in black and white: “SOLD.” The reality smacked hard, but I couldn’t avoid it any longer. This was my last hunt in The Woods.
Daylight snuck in as it usually does that morning, almost unnoticed. As I watched light permeate the forest one last time, the first few shots of opening day pierced the crisp, November air. It was good to be here, I thought, and I attempted to memorize the calm aliveness of that place. My senses seemed heightened, maybe due to the awareness of the day’s mortality, but still seemed inadequate to record the vastness of it. All I could do was sit and be fully present, taking in as much as possible. If my last moments in these woods yielded only the chickadee chirps and the sound of fox squirrel chatter, that would be enough. Old hunts flooded my mind one after another. Some good days in The Woods played out once again, and I quickly saw a boy become a man, and another man grow old among the oaks, beech and prickly ash. Having a deer to show would be quite an end to this story, but snapping back from my daydreaming, I worried: Had my early intrusion ruined my last hunt?
Just before 8:00 a.m., I got my answer. To my right, emerging from the prickly ash by the cow pond food plot came a lone deer. It walked with purpose and a familiar swagger. Raising the scope revealed just what its walk had given away. Forky buck, but not a shooter, I thought. I continued to watch, but as he angled away several more tines appeared; he had four clearly visible on his left antler. His blocky physique revealed he was definitely not a 1 1/2-year-old as I had initially assumed. And suddenly I realized this may be my last chance at a buck on the property.
My heart began to pound, and those old hunts still lingering in my mind seemed to welcome him. With some thick brush between us, and the buck slipping away, I found a hole in the brush and let out a grunt. The buck snapped to attention, and just as quickly the 20 barked. His mule-kick signaled the slug had ripped through his ribcage, and I watched in anticipation as he bolted parallel to me for several bounds and then stood alert — unaware and trying to gather what had just happened.
A younger, more impulsive me would have fired again, but The Woods was a good school through the years and taught me when to be patient. After a few seconds there was a staggering flop to the ground, a few kicks, and then calm silence. I couldn’t really ask for more, but at 8:40 that morning I began hearing crunching to the east toward shredded rubs I’d found earlier in the fall.
Scanning the understory, I caught a flicker of movement. A large, fully mature doe walked alone and straight toward me. I’ve seen this textbook rut scene unfold many times through the years, so I immediately looked beyond her to where she then turned her gaze. We both waited, but not long. White tines suddenly materialized through the maze of branches, bobbing through the open timber. He looked like a tall 8-point, and as I strained through the glass for a better look, something on the ground stole his attention and he froze motionless behind a clump maple.
What has him so preoccupied for so long, I wondered, until it dawned on me: the dead buck. With his investigation finished, the buck continued into the open. It was right then I knew this was it, the last buck in the crosshairs had arrived. Clicking the safety off, and just as he side-stepped some thin silver maples at 50 yards, my shotgun blast cracked through the calm of opening morning a final time.
Bounding toward the thick prickly ash by the pond, he stopped and stood. Once again, behind trees I couldn’t tell of my hit, or even take a follow-up shot if needed. Staring alert for what seemed too long, I watched and waited for the slug to finish its work. Finally, the buck succumbed and joined the first among the rusty hues of dead autumn leaves. I looked at my watch. It was 8:45 a.m., and it was over. My dad made the short drive from home, through the lane and all the way back to the pond where the field met the woods. He met me with a bit of surprise, as my hasty texts hadn’t revealed it was actually two bucks down, not just the first.
This was probably one of the best hunts anyone ever had in The Woods, and the second buck was one of the nicest, too. Bases crammed with tree shavings and a long, hooked brow tine made the 9-point a sure match for the shredded trees in the southeast corner. Dad agreed.
Gut jobs aren’t something I normally memorialize, but as snow drifted down through the gray-barked landscape surrounding us, the little, often-overlooked parts of the story all mattered now. A few pictures, a few heaves up and over the tailgate, and a prayer of thanksgiving, all turned to memories as the towering oaks solemnly watched our procession out of The Woods. Through the worn lane, and toward the gravel road.
Sometimes life doesn’t allow us to realize when they happen, and ultimately it’s only through the lens of time that we see them for what they were. But “lasts” happen, and sometimes we are blessed to know when they do. As we shut and locked the rusty gate for the final time, I felt a mix of emotions swell up, and happiness was one of them. I was happy I had known this was the last hunt.