My Journey: Remembering My First Deer
I started hunting at 12 years old. In Pennsylvania, it's a huge tradition and sort of a coming of age thing for kids to go through hunter's safety courses and earn their first hunting license. Since then, things have sort of changed with a new mentored youth program, which I really like by the way. Anyway, my first year of hunting was a thrilling one. I had shot guns before, but nothing the capacity of taking down a big game animal. That whole season, I had the opportunity to practice on squirrels with an old 20 gauge shotgun that was passed down to my brother and I when we began hunting. All fall, I was able to harvest dozens of squirrels which was a wonderful experience in and of itself. The opportunity taught me some of what I needed to know and expect for the deer season ahead. I learned not only to shoot larger guns, but also how to clean, process, and respect the animals after they had been killed. It's never easy to take the life of an animal, even a squirrel, and it was something I had to of course learn as well.
Come deer season, my dad had set me up with a handed down 32 Winchester lever action with open sites. It was an incredible gun and to be honest I was scared to death of the thing. If you know anything about lever actions, most do not have a safety on them and the only "safety" mechanism is putting the hammer to half cock. I absolutely loved shooting that gun though and my dad spent a good bit of time with me at the range to make sure I was able to not only shoot the gun, but handle the gun safely. I couldn't tell you how many rounds I put through that old gun, but to this day, I am extremely disappointed I never put a deer down with it. Hopefully someday I will have the chance again.
Opening day of deer used to be a huge to do, especially when I was growing up. Friday morning, after Thanksgiving, we would load the truck up with all of our equipment and head for camp. The next three days were filled with scouting, hunting squirrel, siting in rifles, and eating about as much food as your stomach could handle. Where our cabin was, there were about a dozen or more other camps in the same stretch and we all gathered together to share stories and have a great time. Some years we would ride ATVs to pass the time, other times we'd fish. Regardless of what we did, memories were always made.
My first year hunting, the laws had changed a bit, especially for juniors (under 16) and seniors (over 65). The first day of deer was always dedicated to buck, but this particular year, the Saturday's were dedicated to youth and seniors being able to harvest does. Everyone else had to wait until after the two week buck season for a three day doe season. I remember opening day of rifle being quite an incredible experience, we loaded our backpacks with tons of snacks and several bottles of Pepsi and headed into the woods. We didn't see any bucks this particular day, but we were inundated with does left and right and my excitement was quickly building in anticipation for the doe opener that coming Saturday. I didn't know what to expect hunting whitetails but I did have some experience seeing them in the woods while squirrel hunting. Overall it was an incredible day and I got to learn how to carry a rifle in the woods, but also how to still hunt for whitetails. To this day, still hunting whitetails is still my favorite way to do it.
The first Saturday of youth doe season was incredible. One thing my dad prepared me for was long periods of staring at absolutely nothing. The biggest thing he emphasized was the fact that at any given moment, things could go from 0-60 really fast. It was early in the morning, probably close to 9:30 am and we were sitting on a long staring down the hill. I was about half falling asleep when we heard some loud crashing from behind just up the hill. My first opportunity. Standing about 40 yards away were 5 doe that were fairly spooked, something must have pushed them over the hill toward us. I remember laying on the ground with the gun up against the log I was sitting on getting ready to take the shot. My heart was beating about 10,000 miles per hour. I pulled the trigger about 5 times and absolutely nothing happened. In the excitement, I had forgotten that the hammer had to be pulled back in order to shoot. After my dad reached over and showed me what I had forgotten, I pulled the hammer back and let one loose. Unfortunately shooting with open sites is an incredible challenge. I clean missed the deer with two shots. I was extremely disappointed in myself but now realize just how much of a challenge I was dealing with shooting open sites at that age. We ended up seeing several more deer throughout the day, but nothing else presented the opportunity for a shot. Most of the time we'd sneak up on them only to have them wind us or crash off at the crack of a branch.
The next Saturday would prove to be on of the most exciting days of the season. I remember the weather being absolutely perfect. The temperatures were cool and crisp but the sun was out; the deer were on the move. Early in the morning we were moving across the ridge, slow and steady trying to get to our spot for the day. We were about 1/4 of the way to our spot when we heard crashing from the bottom of the hillside. Three does were heading our way in a full on sprint. Two of the three does bolted by us at about 35 yards before I could ever get my gun up. The third doe stopped just in front of us. My gun was up, the hammer pulled back and I let a bullet crack. I was dead sure I had hit my mark. 35 yards isn't a long shot and I was steady as a rock. when we walked over to the spot though my heart sank. Standing right where the vitals would have been was a tree bout 8 -10 inches in diameter. The tree completely absorbed the bullet and the deer lived to see another day. I was again completely heart broken. The shot was perfect, but I never saw the tree. We continued to see deer throughout the day and heard several shots. After lunch, we decided to head back toward the campground and hunting behind it. Our original spot was a couple miles in and shooting a deer after lunch meant dealing with a drag in the dark. He knew I probably wasn't ready for that.
It was early afternoon when we got to our final spot of the day. I still had the 32 Winchester in hand, but was excited to get another opportunity. Our final spot was on top of a 25-30 foot tall rock that had log sitting across it for seating. 45 minutes into the final sit and my dad spotted some dear heading toward us. He spent what felt like an eternity trying to point them out to me. I'm not sure exactly how long it took, but I finally found the deer. I was focused trying to find the deer between 100-150 yards out, when they were only about 40 yards away. Once I spotted them I pulled the 32 up onto the loan tree growing on the rock to steady myself. I was getting ready to pull the hammer back when my dad tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to see him handing me his .308. I remember vividly telling him that it was too much gun for how close the deer was. He laughed, took the 32 from me and gave me his .308. I took a few deep breaths as my dad explained in the calmest voice I'd ever heard, where to put the cross hairs of the scope. The deer was behind a tree and took two small steps out from behind it. To this day, I can hear my dad saying squeeze the trigger, just squeeze the trigger. A moment later I heard the loud boom from the rifle and saw the deer take off. I was once again heart broken. I didn't want to turn around and show my dad my disappointment, but when I did, the look on his face said something entirely different. Being my first deer, I didn't understand how to track the deer through the scope and therefor thought I had missed. When I turned around though the look of joy on my dads face completely eased my mind and I knew I had accomplished something incredible. Not only had I harvested my first deer, but it was a quick, clean kill. The deer ran about 15 yards and died behind another set of boulders. The feeling was incredible and I'll never forget that moment with my dad as long as I live.
His tradition was always to field dress our first deer for us. He used it as an opportunity to show us the ropes. My dad knew that this messy process could spoil the riches of shooting your first deer and instead used it as a teaching moment. He engaged us through the entire process but handled every step. After that, he made sure I worked for the meat. I had to drag my deer on my own up what felt like the steepest mountain in the world. It probably took me an hour or two longer than it should have, but it felt amazing.
Thank you for taking the time to read this one. It's a special moment for me and one I can't wait to pass on to my kids. What was your favorite activity growing up? Did you hunt? If so, share your story below in the comments!