For this avid Maryland whitetail hunter, the memories of spending time in the woods with his father and grandfather are unforgettable.
My earliest memory of whitetail hunting with my dad focuses on a small orange bag that he used to tie to the trigger guard of his 12-gauge slug gun. The little orange bag was about the size of a marble sack, and I distinctly remember the pungent smell of apples that spilled from that little pouch. In those days, that was Dad's best attempt at covering his human scent.
Three generations of whitetail hunters: The author (right) shares a proud moment with his grandfather, Leo "Pop" Ziegler, and his father, David Sr., on the day before Pop arrived in town. This 131-inch 9-pointer was taken on Oct. 15, 2007, during Maryland's early bow season. Dave's buck was aged at 5 1/2 and sported very heavy bases.
I also remember what it sounded like when Dad sent home the action on that old Stevens pump. It had a sleek and shiny foregrip, and the checkered plate felt as if it had been coated with a thin layer of shellac. Dad took his first whitetail with that old 12 gauge. When he brought the basket-racked trophy home, it was tied to the top of his late '70s hatchback. He promptly sat me on top of the buck and snapped a picture of me riding the deer like a pony.
I doubt that my dad knew what kind of gift he had given me that day, because the moment that snapshot was taken, a lifelong bond was formed between us. For nearly 25 years now, Dad and I have shared countless hours together doing everything that comes with being obsessed with hunting whitetails.
MEMORIES OF THAT FIRST BUCK
Dad was there when I harvested my first whitetail. I was 12. We spent several afternoons after school in a small woodlot that lay directly behind my parents' house. Less than 100 yards from our back door we found a large oak tree that had fallen victim to a late summer thunderstorm. Dad told me that this would be an ideal hiding spot for us. He knew that the woodlot was a natural funnel and that the deer trails winding through this tiny patch of timber served as highways for deer being driven off of heavily hunted neighboring properties.
On opening morning, Dad and I huddled tightly in our makeshift deer blind amongst the branches of that fallen oak tree. We had just settled in as a faint glow from the rising sun started to bring some definition to the woodlot's leafy floor. I recall how I was picking at the dead bark on the old oak tree when Dad tapped me on my shoulder.
"Do you see that deer?" He asked quietly.
I did not see it.
"I think it's a buck!" he said, and I could feel the excitement in his voice. But still, I could not see a deer.
"Right there," he said, pointing.
Then I finally saw him. He was only 15 yards in front of our blind, standing broadside. Almost shocked at what I was seeing, I asked, "Can I shoot him?"
"Yes," Dad said.
A few deep breaths and one shot from my Winchester pump-action 12 gauge, and I had taken my first whitetail. This was my personal initiation into the wonderful world of whitetail hunting. Since then, whitetail hunting has played an integral part not only in the relationship between me and my father, but also in the relationship between my dad and his father.
The author (right) is shown with his father and grandfather, along with the beautiful 10-pointer he harvested during Maryland's early muzzleloader season in October 1998. "This was Pop's first trip to Maryland to hunt with the guys," Dave said. It was also a reunion of sorts.
PASSING ON THE TRADITION
Growing up, I have very few memories of my grandfather. He always lived several hours away near the New Jersey shore. I doubt if I visited him more than a handful of times during my entire childhood. During those years, my dad spent as little time with my grandfather as I did. However, just as my dad taught me to hunt whitetails when I was growing up, his father had taught him how to hunt deer.
Deer hunting was something they had enjoyed doing together. And since my dad may not have realized the impact he had on my life by introducing me to deer hunting, his own father likely knew little of the impact he had on his son.
In 1998 an early muzzleloader season was slated for the third week of October in Maryland. Dad and I invited my grandfather over to Maryland to hunt with us. My grandfather was 72 at the time and living alone in Virginia. Dad and I were excited when Pop said he would make the six-hour drive and come hunt with us! Dad and I spent several days scouting our properties, hanging stands and looking for the perfect place for Pop to sit on opening day. We figured this would be a great opportunity to get him involved with hunting whitetails again.
On opening morning we arose extra early so that we'd have plenty of time to eat breakfast, load our muzzleloaders and, of course, tell a few deer stories. Dad and Pop planned to hunt on our hunting lease. I decided that I would hunt the woodlot directly behind my parents' house. This was the same woodlot where I had taken my first whitetail nearly 10 years earlier.
For several weeks I'd been watching a group of does that had been bedding right in the middle of the tiny woodlot. My stand was situated in a tulip poplar that stood within 15 yards of the old blind in the oak branches. I figured that if those does spent the morning in that strip of woods, so would I!
A MISSED OPPORTUNITY
The morning got off to a slow start. I jumped a couple of my live decoys while I was heading to my stand. At about 9:15, I was frustrated and I contemplating leaving the woods and heading to another stand location. Just then, I noticed a deer moving along the edge of the timber, angling directly toward me. Immediately, I knew it was a buck and that he was a shooter! He walked right down the middle of a wide-open fire trail without a care in the world.
This was definitely one of the finest bucks I'd ever seen in the woods with gun in hand. I was so nervous that I went to pieces. As the buck approached, I raised the barrel of my White Mountain carbine and tried to settle the cross hairs on his shoulder. At 10 yards, he stopped and looked directly at me. My heart pounded as I squeezed the trigger. It was alm
ost like I knew I was going to miss. And miss I did! The awesome 10-pointer wheeled around and ran back up the fire trail. While I stood there shaking, I watched him as he bounded effortlessly through the woods and out of sight at the far end of the woodlot.
I had never felt so utterly defeated. I sat in my stand in total disbelief that I had just missed the biggest buck of my hunting career at 10 yards. I climbed down from my stand, feeling frustrated and sorry for myself. I packed up my gear, ready to call it a day. While I was considering walking back to the house, I remembered how Dad had always told me to check and then double check, even if I was certain that I had missed a shot at a deer.
A SECOND CHANCE!
I walked to the sight where I had last seen the big 10-pointer. While crouching down, examining the leaves for sign, I heard the very familiar sound of a deer walking in the dry leaves. It seemed to be the sound of a deer that didn't care if anyone heard him coming. I saw the tips of a buck's antlers cresting a small knoll to my right, and I knew immediately that it was the same 10-pointer I had missed just five minutes prior. I spun to my right, dropped to one knee and secured the hammer on my muzzleloader -- all in one motion.
This time, it was going to be nearly impossible for me to miss. The buck stepped into the open. He was standing at less then 10 yards and he was perfectly broadside. I settled the cross hairs of my scope just behind his left shoulder and lightly squeezed the trigger. My shot hit its mark. The buck leaped into the air and took off on a charging run back toward my stand location. I knew I had made a perfect shot, and I watched my buck go down within 30 yards of the stand. This was the first time in my entire life that I had ever hunted with my dad and my grandfather, and soon I was standing over the biggest buck of my career.
That was a magical day for all three of us. None of us had ever taken a buck of this caliber. He was a main-frame 4x5 with a kicker on the left side. He had 11-inch G-2s and a 16-inch inside spread. This was truly a buck that my dad, my grandfather and I could all be proud of!
DOING IT AGAIN!
Nearly nine years have passed since that amazing hunt took place, and I've been fortunate to have taken several trophy-class bucks during that time -- including a 160-inch monster from Wisconsin, a 5 1/2-year-old Maryland buck that came in to a set of rattling antlers, and a 21-inch 8-point that I harvested in the vast salt marshes of Maryland's eastern shore. Those were all great bucks, but none can compare to the buck I harvested last season.
On Oct. 15, 2007, the day before Maryland's early muzzleloader season, my grandfather arrived for another much-anticipated three-day hunt. It was very hot that day, with the temperature reaching the mid-80s. I told Dad and Pop that I was heading out for the afternoon. They thought I was crazy. I'd been waiting the entire bow season for conditions to be just right. I knew the south winds and calm evening were perfect for my stand. On top of that, Pop had just gotten in town, and to me he was good luck!
At about 4:30 p.m. I was settled into my stand overlooking a massive bedding area that funneled into a large stand of pine trees before dumping out onto a cut cornfield. This was a perfect setup to ambush a mature buck. The deer feel safe in this bottom, because the bedding area is one of the sanctuary areas on our managed hunting property. The woods create a natural funnel. In addition, there are two manmade funnels as well. A small wine vineyard is positioned 50 yards above my stand and is encircled by an 8-foot-high deer fence. Below my stand is a horse pasture. I planned on using the natural "lay of the land" along with the manmade obstacles to my advantage.
AN UNFORGETTABLE BOWHUNT
At exactly 5:20 I heard a pine branch snap behind my stand. As I turned to my right, I could see the hulking shoulders of a giant buck as he eased through the low-hanging pine bows. I could tell instantly that this buck exceeded the minimum size limits for our property. With one motion, I grabbed my Mathews bow and turned to my left. As the buck walked into my shooting lane, I came to full draw. The buck was walking at a very slow pace. I grunted to try to stop him. With my pin settled on the front part of the brute's shoulder, I touched off my release. The arrow traveled the 18 yards in a flash and slammed home.
The buck burst into the air and ran straight down the hill to my left, crashing through pine branches the entire way. I heard him crash through a thicket and into the stream below, and then all fell silent. I had just arrowed the second-largest buck of my career. He was a massive 9-pointer that measured 131 gross P&Y inches.
So that brings me to the present. My story started nearly 30 years ago when Dad snapped a picture of me with his first buck. Or wait -- maybe it actually started 40 years ago when my grandfather introduced my Dad to whitetail hunting! Or maybe it even started 60 years ago when my grandfather picked up his first deer rifle. Whenever it happened, I thank the Lord that it did take place. For through this passionate obsession of hunting white-tailed deer, I have made a lifetime of memories with my father. As an added bonus, I've gotten to know my grandfather again. More importantly, my grandfather has gotten to rekindle memories like the ones my dad and I now share!