The Making of a Deer Hunter
Bob McNally 10.21.13
It happened one October morning with my two sons on our deer lease, opening day of rifle season. It was the first day my youngest son, Matt, age 12, would be alone in a stand with a rifle for whitetails. While young in years, Matt was long in experience. He’d shot his first deer at age 7, and by 12 he had collected many whitetails. But all those animals had been under my direct tutelage. That October morning in Middle Georgia, he would be on his own with a high-powered rifle, high in a tree stand.
He’d bowhunted alone earlier that autumn, which was outstanding training for the coming rifle season, but Matt hadn’t taken a bow shot though many opportunities had been available. On more than one occasion, as he related his morning bowhunt to me and his older brother Eric, we asked why he hadn’t taken a tempting shot -– one, in fact, at a nice 8-point buck from a mere 12 yards.
“Because I didn’t feel confident with the shot,” he replied. “The deer was nervous, and I couldn’t move well to shoot. I want a perfect chance, so I won’t make a mistake on an animal.”
Right then I knew Matt was ready for rifle hunting alone in his stand (the same one he’d bowhunted from and helped set-up early in September).
So, well before daylight that October morning, Eric, age 15, Matt, and I headed toward our stands. Eric’s spot was a 1/2-mile the opposite direction from mine. Matt’s place was a 400-yard walk beyond my spot, though on the same hardwood ridge. Matt and I walked together in the pre-dawn gloom, not speaking, moving quietly and with the kind of enthusiastic gait common on opening day. Finally we paused at my stand base, and I softly wished Matt good luck and patted him on the shoulder. I wanted to offer last-minute safety tips, and fatherly cautions, but I held my tongue, treating him more like an experienced hunting equal than my young son.
Off he went along the woods trail, pack on his back, rifle slung over his shoulder, his flashlight leading the way along the trail we’d marked with bright reflective tape.
I watched him disappear into the timber, then when his flashlight faded from view I climbed to my stand and settled into the darkness.
It was a cool, calm dawn, perfect for deer, and I saw several does and a couple small bucks. All were legal game, but the rut was just beginning and the season was long, whitetails abundant. Both boys had the “green light” to tag a doe, though I knew Eric, the elder (and with even more game under his belt), would hold off for a few weeks at least. I encouraged Matt to shoot a doe without young in tow, or a buck with at least 6-points. We’d decided to hunt until 10 a.m., and I insisted Matt stay in his stand until that time, even if he shot. I’d easily hear Matt if he fired, then I’d walk to his stand at 10 a.m.
At 9:30 the morning cool was waning. I started gathering gear, anticipating the hunt was about over. Then I heard a nearby rifle crack, which I knew came from Matt.
A rush of adrenaline surged through me, and I pumped my fist hard and fast, grinning from the joy I knew we’d all experience soon. I collected my equipment, and as I climbed down from the stand I had a sudden surge of fatherly concern. I knew Matt had taken a deer, but there was a gnawing doubt because, after all, he was only 12. Could he have dropped the rifle? Could there have been an accident?
“No, no. Impossible,” I reasoned, and quickly brushed aside a thought too horrible to consider.
Yet I walked the ridge top fast, the trail snaking along its crest. Half-way to Matt’s stand I caught movement on the trail far ahead, and I threw up my binoculars. It was young Matt, crouched, walking slowly, carefully, picking his steps in the timber. Then he stopped, knelt down, looked at the ground, picked up a leaf to inspect it, then stood and carefully continued moving.
“He’s tracking a deer!” I thought, suddenly realizing what he was doing.
At first I was angry that he’d left his stand as I’d instructed him not to do. But my watch read 10:10 a.m., and I put myself in his shoes. I would have tracked the deer, too. Plus I was late, and Matt was anxious.
I wanted to rush up to him, grab him and hug him, shake his hand and pat his back. But I laid back, watching him through my binoculars as he matured. He hunted like an adult, and I wanted him to follow-through with the tracking chores. He’d been on plenty of deer trails and knew what to do. I tagged along far behind him for 10 minutes, watching through binoculars as he carefully looked for tracks and deer sign. Then I saw his head snap up, and he trotted over to a brushy thicket, his deer lying just a few yards away.
At that moment I knew Matt had become a deer hunter. A tracker. A sportsman. A self-reliant young adult in the out-of-doors. I never felt more proud as a parent.
When I got to him and his 110-pound doe, he was all smiles, and told me about his hunt, the shot, and how the animal ran like a lightning bolt, even though he was sure his .243 bullet had hit directly behind the deer’s shoulder. Indeed, it was a perfect shot.
“Dad, I’m sorry I left my stand, but I waited until 10 o’clock, and I had to find that deer,” he said softly, eyes downcast.
I put my arm around him and told him how proud I was, and how he’d done everything just right.