I have to confess, I crave deer season all year long. The first cold-snap in mid-October elicits dreams of broadside 10-pointers. When that very first leaf begins to yellow, I start to feel happy and hopeful in the same way a toddler gets excited for Christmas at the first holiday commercial. Now that I think about it, it all happens about the same time of the year. Unlike Christmas break from school though, my window for deer season is limited; sometimes extremely limited. But, when all the stars align and my aim is true, I make successful use of my time afield to enjoy the spoils in the warm embrace of camp while the rest of the crew continues to trudge through the brush. Recent years, however, have added a new star to align; one that isn’t quite in the same orbit; my younger brother, Hunter.
Hunter’s first foray into the woods was during the warm summer months of his tenth year. Camping and squirrel hunting were the pretext, but I really just wanted to see how he moved in the woods, how he sat and how he took in his surroundings. Within the hour I had all the information I needed. The squirrels were safe and I had a lot of work to do.
We worked on as many basics as the weekend would allow. Rocks thud and crunch loudly underfoot, especially when skidded under a gangly adolescent. Spotting needs to be slow and subtle instead of instantly jerking one’s head in the direction of a noise. Conversation needs to be limited and quiet. And possibly, most importantly, it is hard to take in surroundings staring at the dirt.
The first deer season was clearly intimidating for my brother. He was quiet in camp, reserved and respectful. He picked at new foods and whispered questions and comments to me while the other guys swapped stories both true and embellished. However, once we entered the woods, all his reservations seemed to vanish. Every question was asked at full volume, every movement was sharp and erratic. Obviously, all previously taught lessons were instantly forgotten.
Warm weather, high winds and an excited youth attached to my hip left few opportunities to fill my tag. The only excitement that year involved stumbling through a thicket and emerging just in time to watch our quarry wave its’ little white flat at us. I felt like a failure on several levels; didn’t harvest a deer, didn’t get Hunter a good look at a deer. While I felt defeated, Hunter beamed with elation, already anxious for the next year.
Hunter’s second year of deer season started similarly to the way his first year ended. It was warm and windy and difficult. But, he had remembered some of his training. He sat quieter. He walked (somewhat) assuredly. He whispered his questions. Regardless of these personal improvements however, his beginner’s luck had yet to kick in. To make matters worse, the weather turned against us. It started to rain. A strong front blew in with cold air right behind it. I tried to talk up the advantages of this sudden change. I kept trying to convince Hunter that tomorrow morning would be our best one yet to harvest a deer.
I have discovered that kids are open to trying new things. They are adaptable and resilient in ways adults just can’t swing. They also whine like tornado sirens when they are uncomfortable. And boy, the sirens were wailing that next crisp Monday morning.
Hunter had to be pried out of bed. He was just “exhausted” from days of walking through the woods. He shivered from the 40 degree shit in the temperature. His butt was cold. He didn’t want to sit in his scouted position. He couldn’t sit still. His toes and fingers were going to fall off. He was freezing and I lost my cool. Another unsuccessful season.
Thankfully, my brother forgave my inpatients and still wanted more. I promised him we would change tactics, try to make things a little easier and hopefully get him a successful deer season.
The next year I bought him a small blind just for him. He was nervous to sit on his own but I assured him I would be just over the next ridge. I reminded him to sit quietly, check his shooting lanes at dawn and to call me if he needed anything. I wished him luck and ventured over the hill. Relieved and confident, I settled into a good position and waited.
Hours passed with little disturbance except for some active squirrels and a trio of turkeys. Occasionally, I’d catch the muffled sound of Hunter’s boots catching the plastic bucket seat he was using. He didn’t call me, but I figured it was best to maybe check up on him. He deflated when he saw my orange vest approaching. But suddenly, just as quickly, he brightened. He had seen a deer.
It passed broadside about 30 yards from his blind. I don’t know what size it was, but to Hunter is was a behemoth. He lined up his shot and squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. No bang. No jump. He wasn’t frantic. He was dumbfounded. He stared at his rifle completely devoid of what to do as his trophy wandered off unscathed. I asked him if it was a misfire. Half laughing, half crying, he croaked, “I FORGOT TO TAKE THE DANG SAFETY OFF!”
I’d be lying if I said the incident went unnoticed at camp. Hunter shared his story of woe over dinner, already embellishing the size of the one that got away. We laughed and each fellow hunter took turns razzing the newbie but then quickly following up the jabs with similar stories of their own. Whether my brother knew it or not, he was completely another rite of passage, another tradition.
Neither Hunter nor I dropped a deer that year, but this time it didn’t feel like a failure. We packed up on Monday and Hunter was even more excited than when we had arrived on Friday. And as we headed toward the highway to go home, he was already making plans for deer camp next year.
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