Hunting > Whitetails

Conflict at First Light

For hunters, some of the truest tests of character come after the shot is fired.

I just knew I would see deer this morning. Thanks to my preseason roaming and nearly a month of toting a crossbow, the stars were aligned.

The whitetails, almost as if they were urban commuters, were crossing a fencerow at a certain spot I'd been monitoring in a large fescue field not far from my house. It was Nov. 1, first day of Virginia's smokepole season, and the bucks were just beginning to chase the ladies.

My neck, too, seemed to be swelling as I backed my not-very-well-padded butt into that hedgerow about 50 yards from the crossing. Multiflora rose does not a pleasant bedfellow make, but I managed to assume a tolerable sitting position amongst the invasive, thorny bush and placed the muzzleloader across my outstretched legs. Visions of "venison artichoke," my all-time favorite dish, danced through what's left of my mind as the beginning of a superb fall morning etched the lumpy spine of the western slope of the Blue Ridge. Given the spotty performance of my memory these days, I took out the little digital camera and took a photo to immortalize the moment.

It was bucks-only on this first day in my home county, so I made no move to raise the rifle when I caught movement through small openings in the brush as half a dozen ladies began to move into the field. They meandered into full view, and one began peering my way. Obviously leery of this unfamiliar L-shaped lump in its dining room, it walked almost coquettishly toward me, but then stopped at maybe 30 yards, cocked its head and stamped a front hoof. I couldn't help smiling at this cool welcome, and it ran off a few yards.

The herd settled down and began feeding-away from me, of course. I relaxed and was trying to minimize the discomfort of a root when I caught movement beyond the does at the far side of the little field. Buck! It was at least a 6-point, likely an 8. It was nibbling on some head-high vegetation, but it was obvious its mind was elsewhere. The does skittered off, and the buck turned toward them, now broadside.

I raised the Knight Disc rifle as slowly as possible, its stainless-steel barrel seeming awfully bright in the still dim but growing light. I raised my left knee to support the gun, put the scope's crosshairs on a spot just behind the right front leg, and-perhaps a bit too quickly-fired.

I guess I'd forgotten-that memory problem again-how much smoke a muzzleloader releases. When it cleared, I scoped the scene carefully at 9-power but saw no sign of the animal. But the sight picture had seemed good, and I crawled out of my spot feeling good about the outcome.

The light was strong enough now to reveal blood, but I took my time negotiating the 80 or so yards to where the animal had stood. No buck was immediately visible, but after a few minutes I found his life's essence on some big sycamore leaves. The blood trail wasn't the richest I've ever followed, but still I felt confident of the outcome.

Naturally, the fleeing animal had found its way into some of the thickest, most inhospitable terrain on that 400-acre farm. Thorns clawed at my clothes and exposed skin, causing some of my own lifeblood to fall on the crunchy leaves. Only right, I thought to myself.

An hour later I was still at it with my head as low to the ground as my creaky old back would allow. In a couple of places the buck had doubled back on its own trail, and it took me some time to discover its new direction. Eventually I came to a small open area where the leaves and sparse grass in a 2-by-3 section were flattened and a small cluster of blood was proof the deer had lain there to rest.

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