It was the closing day of one of the deer seasons in Lee County, Ill. The hopes and anticipation of the months preceding this annual ritual were fading fast. Regardless of all our setup work and of all the images on the trail cams, this year’s hunt was nothing to talk about. A relentless wind and very few whitetail sightings had dampened the spirits of our crew, yet absolutely no one wanted to throw in the towel until the sun set on that day. None of us wanted to be the first to call it quits.
There is an unwritten code on this northern Illinois farm that goes back generations. We respect God, country, faith, family—and this hunt. Most of the guys in our group have hunted together for decades, and we know and trust each other in the woods and in life. Although some of us may only meet up once or twice a year, we are a tight-knit group who appreciates the privileges and the responsibilities of this tradition. It all began before any of us were even a thought. My dad, older brothers and a few close friends started hunting deer back in the ’50s, long before the sport was trendy. I still remember toddling along at my dad’s side with a stick in hand—my imaginary shotgun. It’s a big deal for a kid to shoot his first deer, and it’s a bigger deal if or when you are fortunate enough to shoot something worthy of hanging on the wall.
Nick Lauff is our camp cook. He has a heart as big as he is, and his delicious menu has us all dozing off in our treestands. Pete Doyle is a Viking! He has great instincts and skills, and Pete is always in the middle of the fun. It’s a pleasure to hear Pete retell an old story, which seems to get a little better with each passing year. Both Nick and Pete have shot their fair share of big bucks.
Now, over the past few years, our kids have joined in. Liam and Luke are Pete’s boys. Liam is already an accomplished hunter and a sharp shot. Luke is our newest addition. He always has a smile on his face, and is eager to learn and to shoot his first deer. My kids are all in as well. Although Mary is probably the best hunter in the group, she, too, anxiously awaits tagging her first deer. Then there’s Victor, named after his great-grandfather who came to this country from Belgium. Victor is a good shot, he hunts hard, and like all of us, Victor pursues that trophy buck.
Over the years our hunt has evolved into more sitting and less pushing, however, daylight was running out on that mid-November afternoon, and we all knew one final drive was in order before the season came to an end. Even my wife, Darci, donned blaze orange to lend a hand, weaving through the thorny multiflora rose bushes, those few whitetail sanctuaries among the many cornfields. At this point I was thinking more about a hot bowl of Nick’s homemade chili than I was about hunting. I heard whispers on the radio about a few does breaking out, and I was happy that we had at least seen deer.
Then, all of a sudden, the radio came to life with words like “he” and “huge” and “rack.” We always make sure safety is not forsaken in these adrenaline-filled moments. We communicate clearly. We plan. Three very cold days without firing a shot were quickly forgotten as I heard, “Victor, be ready. He’s heading your way.” The only thing better than shooting a monster buck is when your son or daughter shoots their first big buck. Sixty yards and one 12-gauge slug later, the Mossberg 500 barked and this hunt was over. The torch had been passed! My 19-year-old son, Victor, had shot a huge 12-point buck, and I can only imagine my dad, his grandpa, smiling down on us all.
Dad has been gone for 22 years, but I see him today in my kids. The years go by, and the people in the pictures may change, but the hunt is the same. I am so thankful for our family, the farm and our close friends. And I thank God for this hunt, which in a very special way ties it all together. I believe this sacred tradition is in good hands with this next generation.
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