Once you reach a certain age, you realize the lessons you remember most are the ones you learned the hard way. This one was painful, but I was able to make good use of it just a little while later.
On a warm November morning, I walked a trail in Florida’s Ocala National Forest with a homemade climbing stand strapped to my back. The sun had not yet risen, but daylight was already plentiful. I eased along the sandy trail that marked the boundary between mature sand pines and much smaller trees of the same species, looking for a likely spot to hang my stand to hunt.
This was Ocala scrub, which can generally be described in one word: Thick. Low scrubby oaks, palmettos, and other brush formed a head-high blanket on the forest floor, especially on my left among the tall and limber mature pines.
As I stood still watching and listening during one of my pauses, I heard something in the thick woods to the left. It wasn’t much; just a stirring the brush. A raccoon, perhaps.
And then it grunted.
I was young and inexperienced, and my first thought was wild hogs. But this was not hog country, not in the least.
What to do? Grunt back, of course! So I burped.
Instantly, a whitetail buck materialized in the trail about 8 feet away, facing me. Antlers tall and proud. Legs spread and poised to charge. A magnificent creature, ready and willing to challenge the buck which had just grunted at him.
My brain utterly failed to compute that part, and in fact had pretty much turned itself off. I stood there holding my Ruger 44 magnum carbine at port arms, stunned, for about 5 minutes… or maybe a couple of seconds.
I stared. He stared. At the same instant, we each arrived at the same conclusion: I was holding a rifle and I wanted to shoot him. And although our thinkers apparently ran at about the same speed, his reaction time was much better.
The buck snorted, spun, and bounded away down the trail. His tall white tail was out of sight by the time I could shoulder my carbine.
Along about then, still in shock and drowning in adrenaline, I noticed there were still sounds nearby. I could heard deer moving through the brush as they paralleled the trail, going the same way the buck had gone.
Naturally, I too walked that way, trying to keep my gun at the ready and hoping that some buck or another would show itself. All I managed to see was a couple flashes of hair as the deer zipped across the trail ahead of me as I rounded a bend. And then they were gone.
Berating myself vehemently for failing to kill the buck which had hopped out and posed for me, I backtracked a ways, picked out a likely-looking pine tree, and hung my climber on it. After climbing up there I replayed the morning’s events over and over in my head. Somehow, I must have known there was something–and very likely a lot–that I was missing.
I sat and brooded until a realization finally came upon me: I had heard a buck grunt! Duh!
Once the buck had hopped out and began the staring contest, I had completely forgotten about the grunt. But now I replayed it in my head, and started experimenting to see if I could imitate the sound. I found that I could do so by swallowing some air and burping with my mouth closed.
I smiled wryly as I perched in the old climber. I had missed what was probably my only chance at a buck that season, but at least I had learned a lesson–and a buck had taught it to me.
About an hour later, I spotted a deer of some sort moving through the woods about 100 yards away. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I decided quickly to put my new knowledge to use, so I burp-grunted.
The deer stopped in its tracks, abruptly turned, and began coming my way.
It finally got close enough for me to see its antlers and its body at the same time; I aimed the little gun’s peep sight and fired. He began to run, zig-zagging towards me. I fired and missed, whipped the gun up and around the trunk of the tree I was hanging from, and hit him again as he sprinted by. He ran on, into the smaller pines across the trail.
I trembled and shuddered from my scalp to my toes.
It was an interesting tracking job that I’ll save for another time, but I found my buck about 30 minutes later. I felt like I had received an almost-instant reward for learning what the first buck had taught me so painfully.
And that, my friends, is why I will never forget the day a buck taught me to grunt.