Come December’s gun season, Buddy Gouger sits in solitude in his deer stand atop an oak ridge, a scoped 12-gauge resting across his legs.
With dawn lighting the fog-drizzled woodlands, flocks of Canada geese lift off the neighbor’s marsh, raucously spurring each other into flight. As the flocks fall into larger formations, stragglers pump furiously to catch up, their honking chorus swamping subtler sounds in the woods below. The birds then bank west toward the scenic Delaware Water Gap 20 miles away. Had they turned northeast and caught a strong tailwind, they could have covered the 70-mile flight to New York City in little over an hour.
William “Buddy” Gouger III, 30, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher, had little interest in the honkers’ destination that day. He’s the third generation of Gougers to hunt deer on this 128-acre farm in northwestern New Jersey. If he gets his wish, he will one day hunt these Warren County lands with his own kids. He enjoys the camaraderie of his family’s deer camp, and the satisfaction of hunting whitetails in rural farmlands most folks overlook.
Such satisfaction isn’t novel to Gouger, of course. It was perhaps best expressed 75 years ago in A Sand County Almanac, the classic book by legendary forester Aldo Leopold, who wrote: “The sweetest hunts are stolen. To steal a hunt, either go far into the wilderness where no one has been, or else find some undiscovered place under everybody’s nose.”
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The Gougers, however, know the lands they hunt aren’t overlooked by everybody, at least not by realtors, investors and developers. They know some folks covet this property for reasons other than deer, turkeys or small-game hunting.
The Gougers have been guests on this property, formally known as Stoney Ridge Farms, since Buddy’s grandfather, Robert Gouger, and his brother Wes first hunted here in the 1950s with Dick Lonie, the farm’s second-generation landowner/farmer. Dick’s father, Ray, operated the place as a dairy farm, but the milking barn hasn’t held cows for years, and the Lonie family has long leased their fields to others to farm.
Dick Lonie hunted the land until his death in 2017. Even though no one called Lonie the “camp boss,” no one questioned his authority. Buddy Gouger’s father, William “Bud” Gouger II, 52, has since inherited that role. No one calls him the “camp boss,” either, even though he is. In fact, no one calls their group and their hunting shack a “deer camp,” even though it is. This deer camp is all about unspoken truths.
“We never think about the fact we’re hunting in New Jersey,” said Bud Gouger. “We just say we’re going to the cabin to hunt. We never even thought of it as our ‘deer camp’ until we talked to [American Hunter]. We’ve always been here at Dick’s invitation. That was just how he operated. He was a stickler. If you didn’t cut wood and show up for workdays, you didn’t hunt; at least not here. He’d tell you, ‘You do want to hunt here this year, right?’ He got softer over the years, but only as we took over the work and maintenance, and hauled firewood to his house for him and Lynn [Dick’s wife]. We still fill Lynn’s firewood bin. She lives in their home 3 miles from here.”
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The “cabin” is a 16-by-16-foot shack with its own unscripted history. Dick Lonie built the original structure, an 8-by-8-foot shack, in the mid-1950s because his mother didn’t want him and his friends in their farmhouse during hunting season. To ensure his mom’s peace, Dick built the shack out of sight over a hill in a wooded hollow, which can be tough to reach when the surrounding slopes turn muddy with December rains, snow or slush.
Dick prided himself on building and maintaining his camp with the materials at hand. When a Girl Scout camp “across the swamp” discarded some bunk beds in the 1960s, Dick and his friends salvaged a set and installed them in a corner of the shack where they remain today.
Bud Gouger started hunting there in 1977, but remembers helping his father and Dick’s other friends build an 8-by-8-foot addition onto the shack a couple of years before. The cabin remained an 8-by-16-foot structure for nearly 30 years before the Gougers helped double its size to its current dimensions in 2004. They also helped wire the cabin for generator-powered electricity in 2007, and still rely on the shack’s wood-burning stove for heat.
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Regulating that heat can generate its own friction-fueled energy at the Gougers’ deer camp. Bud Gouger constantly tries to control how much wood his adult children pack into the stove, and how widely they crack the cabin door to reduce the overheated room.
Even though Bud Gouger reigns as camp boss, he’s just “Dad” to his many kids who hunt there. His younger brother, Dave, 47, is a camp regular, and they form the camp’s “older generation.” Bud has 22 years’ seniority over three family members: his oldest son,
Buddy; his adopted son, Christopher Lee Beck; and stepson Christopher David Chamberlain. He’s also father to Ryan Gouger, 28; stepson Jake Chamberlain, 28; Garrett Gouger, 22; and Elizabeth Gouger, 14.
Somehow, all of those Gougers and extended family members coexist when bunking together the night before deer season inside the 16-by-16-foot shack, with its floorspace that also includes a kitchen and wood-burning stove. They make room by shoving the dinner table and its chairs into a corner then cover the floor in an organized puzzle of cots and sleeping pads, reserving the cot and sleeping bag nearest the entry door for their late-arriving guest.
Bud Gouger’s teenage daughter, Elizabeth, became the camp’s first female when showing up for the 2015 deer season at age 10. Bud Gouger shrugs when asked how the one-room shack accommodated her arrival.
“There were some adjustments, but she wanted to learn how to hunt and I was all for it,” he said. “She shows up on workdays and cuts wood with the rest of us. She likes the farm, and she likes to shoot deer.”
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When opening day of New Jersey’s 2019 deer season arrived Dec. 9, Bud Gouger confirmed where each hunter was heading as they stashed their cots, mats and sleeping bags. He estimates he’s killed more than 100 deer on this farm, and has hiked or hunted nearly every acre of it since that first deer hunt 40-some years before.
He and his family hunt mostly from five small huts and three ladder stands placed inside the woods and along field edges, but sometimes they simply carry a collapsible chair or stool to watch a site that holds potential.
Unlike opening days decades ago, the 2019 opener passed quietly, with only sporadic shots echoing from distant properties. The eight hunters collectively saw seven deer the first one-and-a-half days. By lunchtime on day two, some of the camp’s younger generation took turns lobbying Bud Gouger to organize a deer drive.
The conversations made clear that everyone in this deer camp had once shared the same home. Unlike friends who try to persuade and criticize by joking around or politely disagreeing, the Gougers argue and second-guess with rowdy abandon.
They don’t, however, get mad and break ranks. Nor do they vote. This is a family, not a democracy. Bud Gouger renders the verdicts. He reminds everyone that the “little swamp” and “big swamp” are the only two areas for making effective drives, but they remained too wet and sloppy from recent rains.
“I’ve hunted those places over 40 years, and today’s not a day you want to be down there,” he said. “Maybe tomorrow.”
With that, everyone settled on where they’d make their afternoon hunts and moved off. As Bud Gouger sat in a cramped wooden hut above an alfalfa field two hours later, he pointed out some houses atop the ridge behind him. Up until the 1980s, such sites were other farmers’ hilltop fields and some of New Jersey’s most fertile soils.
“There was only about one house you could see from here,” he said. “A lot of the land has been developed, and a lot of the hunters have disappeared. About 1984-85, the deer still moved around a lot because of hunting pressure. You’d get excited when the guns started going off opening day. You knew the deer would be coming through in big numbers. I also think the state has gotten the herd down since then and is keeping them managed.”
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Meanwhile, the weather across northwestern New Jersey had moderated since noon, and the sky lightened as the clouds thinned. No deer stepped into the field below, but Gouger felt confident. He figured the deer might start moving now that the winds had slackened, the skies cleared and other hunters went home.
As daylight faded, a gunshot boomed from the field above. Bud Gouger smiled. “I think that was Ryan. He’s sitting at the corner of the field. The deer probably came from below, somewhere past Elizabeth’s stand.” He pointed out a tiny patch of blaze orange 100 yards below. “That’s Elizabeth. She’s in a hut down there.”
Two minutes later Ryan Gouger texted his dad to say he’d shot an 8-point buck. About two minutes later, a second shotgun blast shook the woods. “That’s Elizabeth,” Gouger said. Soon after, his smartphone buzzed and he answered. “OK. Stay where you are. I’ll be right there.”
Gouger hurried down to his daughter’s stand, quizzed her about her shot and walked to where he figured the buck must have stood when she shot. The blood trail ended 100 yards later at a 6-pointer’s hooves. Elizabeth’s 20-gauge slug had center-punched the buck’s rib cage.
Bud Gouger congratulated his daughter on her shot, texted the others about her success, and started field-dressing the buck as his sons converged on foot and ATV. Within an hour of being shot, the two deer hung from the camp’s buck pole.
The camp’s ranks had thinned to six hunters by the time the Gougers finished their late-morning breakfast. A wet overnight snow blanketed the woods, but no one fired a shot during the next morning’s hunt. Once again the younger generation lobbied Bud Gouger for a deer drive. This time he agreed.
With that issue settled, they argued about which swamp to drive, and how best to drive it. Which direction should they push, and where should the standers deploy? Bud announced the plan, and each hunter carried out his assignment. After the drive proved fruitless, they convened for a spirited critique of the drive’s plan and execution, and then walked back to the cabin.
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Meanwhile, a heavy uncertainty lingered throughout the three-day hunt. The Gougers often wondered aloud if their family’s nearly 65-year run would endure beyond Lynn Lonie, Dick’s widow. “Once Lynn is gone, there are no guarantees,” Bud Gouger said. “We don’t know what interest her family has in the land. That decision is out of our hands.”
All that’s certain is that farmland in northwestern New Jersey is valuable and in demand. A farmland preservation organization in Warren County lists 784 farms covering a combined 72,250 acres, or 31 percent of the county’s total acres. But roughly 71 percent of the farms cover less than 50 acres, which indicates they’re growing increasingly smaller and subdivided.
For Buddy Gouger, however, deer season’s importance only keeps expanding as his own family grows. He thinks of his young boys whenever he and his siblings argue with his dad, and laughs minutes later while washing and drying the camp’s dishes before heading home.
“This is literally one of my favorite times of the year,” Buddy said as they lowered his siblings’ bucks into a waiting pickup’s bed. “I keep hoping somehow that I’ll get to share all this with my boys, just like my dad got to hunt with us, and my grandfather got to hunt with my dad and Uncle Dave.”