Anyway, the other day I was talking with my old buddy Mark (and I do mean "old"), catching up on each other's holidays and how many deer he killed this season, all legally of course, (deer season ended last weekend), and he reminded me of a good story -- my first time deer hunting. So as we wait for yet another potential snow ... let me recount one of my favorite hunting stories.... Oh, and don't worry, Mark left a few deer alive for next season. ;)
(SIDENOTE FIRST: We've already had more snow this winter than we did for the last six winters combined. Christmas night alone, we had about 14". The third biggest snow on record here. Of course, this being Tidewater, we went four winters with no snow whatsoever. I'm not complaining. In fact, the snow might even be one of my next posts, as we had quite a blast playing in it. It was beautiful. But I digress.)
It was fall of my sophomore year of college at JMU. Mark and I were looking for a way to spend our long "Autumn Break" weekend. As it was October, and bow hunting season had just begun, Mark suggested we drive to his parents' place outside Williamsburg, and spend the weekend there. It sounded good to me. So after classes were over Thursday, we hopped into my trusty, dusty '74 AMC Gremlin, and headed south on I-81. We took the turn to I-64E, and drove the rest of the way to Norge. It was "God's Country," I was told....
|While I would argue that all of Virginia - and North Carolina, too - make up "God's Country", there's a section of the Commonwealth near Williamsburg where the Douglas family calls home, that goes by the same moniker.|
When I had pledged and joined the fraternity the year prior, Mark's older brother Scott was my "big brother". That's how I got to know the Douglas's. I had met all of his family my freshman year, but with each visit, they continued to impress me the more I got to know them. Never had I met such a testosterone-filled, outdoorsy, "manly men" family as this family.
Mark and Scott were just two of four sons in the Douglas family. David, the third, was a freshman at college now, and Todd, the youngest, was still in high school. All four boys, and their father, as well as all the extended family that lived in the area, hunted. Trophy deer heads were mounted all around the house, and there were enough guns and bows to arm the Virginia Militia. This family was like something out of the Old Wild West. The Douglas's were a modern day Earp family. And I truly believe had they just been born 120 years earlier, perhaps the Confederacy could have really won the "War of Northern Aggression."
Me? I was just a suburban kid that had been a boyscout for a while, so I knew how to shoot a pellet gun. And I had played Cowboys and Indians enough that I could shoot a bow and arrow straight. I could fish, yeah, but my hunting had never gone beyond the birds and squirrels in my own backyard growing up. And that was cheating....
|Speaking of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, these were my guns growing up... I LOVED this game. Back when companies didn't care if some small child swallowed metal marbles, they made cool games like this. And Jarts! Remember Jarts in the backyard?|
|When I really wanted to shoot something, I broke out this bad boy... The "Rattlin' Gattlin' Shooting Gallery".|
We got to the house and were warmly greeted by the only human with estrogen for miles around, their mother, Mrs. Douglas ("Sharon" is what we have always called her affectionately behind her back) - a soft spoken woman who loves her boys more than anything! A good fried chicken dinner awaited, and then we went out to visit friends in the area. But we didn't stay too late, because Friday was going to be a busy day.
We woke up Friday morning, and "Sharon" made us a wonderful ribsticking breakfast of homemade biscuits and sausage gravy. If that don't fill you up, nothin' will. It's also a meal you don't want to see made, if you care about cholesterol and fat. But it sure is delicious! It's amazing nobody in that family is fat, as good as her southern cooking is....
After breakfast, Mark and I went into the back yard with a couple of hunting bows and several arrows and started taking some practice shots into hay bales and deer targets. We practiced for a while, all the time Mark educating me about everything from the land (private property) we'd be hunting later in the day, to the flight and trajectory of an arrow with a real razor-sharp head, and not a suction cup.
|My bow growing up wasn't as effective on deer as Mark's....|
|Mark's equipment was a little more effective. And it shot farther, too.|
Finally I got comfortable enough shooting the bow to where if the deer got within spitting distance of me, I felt like I could shoot it. Actually I can spit pretty far, so if that deer was within 50 feet, he was as good as wet -- I mean dead.
"A hunter typically has to spend 11 hours in the field before he ever even sees a deer," Mark informed me when we were done and having lunch. "And then, he may not ever get close enough for you to get a clean shot off. And with a bow, obviously, the deer has to get even closer for you to get a shot."
"How could that be true?" I wondered. "I had seen enough hunting shows on television to know that they always get some monster buck with a Boone & Crockett score of 800 in less than an hour; and most of the shows were less than 30 minutes." I kidded.
|I grew up watching Curt Gowdy's "The American Sportsman" every Saturday on ABC. He caught monster fish and shot birds and deer within an hour every week. How difficult could it be?|
Still, he didn't give the kind of pep talk to get you excited about the possibility of bagging your first deer. But I was pumped up and ready, none-the-less. I couldn't wait to go. But we had to wait until at least mid afternoon before it would be a good time to go. The deer would begin moving as the sun got low.
As I had no hunting clothes, Mark suited me up in some camouflaged gear from head to toe (it's not like they didn't have enough camo to outfit the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division), and after the October sun had reached its zenith and started its decline, we prepared to hit the hunting trail.
The area we would be hunting was a break between some woods and a small pond. There was a tree stand directly over one of the paths the deer take to the water, and on the other side of the water, down a different path off to the side was a log. One of us would be in the stand, the other would sit still on the log. If deer came from either direction, at least one of us would have a clear shot. The rest of the Douglas boys and "Clarence" (Mr. Douglas in person, that is "Mr. Douglas, sir" in person), would be hunting some other property nearby.
As we parked one of the Douglas pickup trucks and got out at our site, Mark took out a small bottle and told me to lift my feet. He then proceeded to dab doe urine on my boots. It had a very (un)pleasant smell, to say the least... but to a buck, it was Chanel No. 5, he informed me. I would take his word for it. It would also help cover up my own ugly human scent.
|To a buck, this stuff smells as good...|
|... As this does to a man.|
Now I just had to wait... for 11 hours or more, according to Mark. Of course, the sun was going to set in just a couple, so I could only hope he was wrong.
When you are hunting it takes your body some time to adjust to the outdoors. To turn off your own sounds and thoughts of the human world and focus on all that is happening around you. Are there birds calling? Why? Or why are they being silent? What about squirrels? Are they acting normally or chattering and shaking their tails because they see you. Where is the wind coming from? Is the rustling you hear in the leaves just the wind, or is it something more? Is that a spider crawling down my neck while the mosquitoes are having a field day on my hands and face?
Just about at the time I was feeling like I had better settle down and get serious (maybe 20 minutes into the hunt, if that) I heard a pitter patter behind me. I slowly turned around and looked into the woods, and saw three does coming down the path, and through the thicket. I couldn't believe my luck. A few seconds later, they literally stopped directly under me. Any of them was maybe a 15 to 20 foot shot, if that. They paused and fed on some acorns around my tree. I looked over at Mark, and could see that he saw them too. He was as alert as a short-haired pointer on a quail. I readied the bow and notched an arrow quietly in the string, and waited.
After about five minutes of feeding around my tree, the does all stepped toward the pond and now began drinking. They were broadside to me, and now any of them was maybe a 30 to 40 foot shot. I looked over at Mark who was having a fit as quietly and still as he could. Then I heard another pitter patter behind me.
I looked back to the thicket and saw a nice sized six point buck standing still, sensing, smelling cautiously, ears twitching in every direction trying to pick up any unusual sounds, or scents with his wet black nose. I readied the bow slowly again, and waited. I glanced back at the does, who were still completely oblivious to us, and drinking and feeding on grasses as peacefully as possible. Beyond them Mark was now standing, signaling to me that I should shoot one of the does. He was pulling his hands apart and letting his fingers go, shooting an "air bow", hoping I would get the signal. I did. I just wanted that buck.
|Not quite trusting his eyes, the 6 point buck stayed behind the thick brush, never quite giving me a clean shot I felt good about. His three does, however, had no problems with the acorns, grass and water available around me.|
I moved slowly, behind the trunk of the tree, so that the buck couldn't see me and pointed to the woods behind me. I put my hands on my head, trying to signal to Mark,"antlers in the woods", while holding the notched arrow in the bow. Then I peeked around the tree again, and the buck was still there. Still standing, twitching his ears, waiting. He was only about 30 feet away from me, and he was broadside, but the thicket was such that I didn't trust trying to shoot an arrow through it, to hit the buck. I resolved I would wait for him to join his ladies, and then take him out.
Ten more minutes passed, and the buck never moved. The does drank and got their fill of grass, acorns and water, and then they just stood around. The buck never moved beyond the brush. It would have been a clear shot for a shotgun, but with an arrow... it just wasn't a clean shot. I may have been a novice, but I knew what limits an arrow had, and I wasn't willing to risk injuring the deer. I would either take a true "kill" shot, or none at all.
I don't know if there was a slight wind shift, or an unusual noise, or what, but suddenly he snorted and wagged and raised his white tail. The jig was up. He sensed us, even if he didn't see us. He stepped back a few more feet to the trees, and I knew he wouldn't be coming to have a drink. I looked over at the does, and while they were now more alert, they were still not in any big hurry to scamper away. In fact, even after the buck snorted, wagged his flashy white tail and stamped his foot, they just took their time casually walking from the pond to under me, pausing again, and then to the thicket. It took them another five minutes before they were back in the woods -- the whole time Mark was having a conniption from acting out his shooting motion toward me. His face was red, and he was mouthing "shoot them!" towards me.
|While the does never got THIS close, they might as well have been. I just didn't want to shoot Bambi's mother. Not when there was a nice young buck nearby, too.|
When the deer were finally gone, we waited another 30 minutes or so, to see if any other deer would come, but they didn't. Mark got up from his stand and came towards me. I got down from the tree, and we walked back to the truck. The moment we were back inside the truck he let me have it!
"WHY DIDN'T YOU SHOOT ANY OF THOSE DOES!" He yelled at me. "You know it's legal to shoot a doe with a bow, right???!!!"
"WELL WHY DIDN'T YOU TAKE A SHOT?"
Meekly I replied, "I was waiting for the six point to come out into the clearing where I had a clean shot at him. He was a nice deer."
"You had those does around you for half an hour, and you never even got one in your sights," he clarified for me, as if I didn't know what I had done.
"I was waiting for the buck."
"What about when he snorted and backed away?" He responded. "You still had more than enough time to take out one of the does."
"I know," I replied. "But at that point, I just wanted my first deer I killed to be a buck, not a doe."
"You're killing me!" He sighed, and shook his head in frustration, pounding the steering wheel as he cranked the ignition.
And the rest of the way back to the house was either deathly silence or more lambasting....
When we finally returned back to the house, we parked around back where the other Douglas boys were also all just gathering. None of them had seen anything. It was a slow afternoon. To which, Mark proceeded to tell them all our (my) adventure.
"WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?" They each began to chastise me. "You don't get chances like that every day! You've got to take the shot they give you. And you had PLENTY!"
I was now feeling about two inches tall. None of them wanted to hear my side about how I wanted my first deer to be a buck, not a doe. (Besides, it's not like I had seen any doe heads mounted around the house....)
Even Clarence sneered at me. And this is a man who doesn't say much.... Doesn't have to. He's the father of four boys who commands respect from each and every one of them, and everyone else. The proverbial Patriarch. One look from him could either let you know you had done well, or it would kill you. I was feeling killed at the moment. There was no mercy from any of the brothers, or Clarence. I sulked and slithered quietly to the house after cleaning up and putting away the equipment. I was now less than one inch tall.
I made it to the back door and walked in the house. I was counting on finding some solace there. Surely Sharon would comfort me. She would understand. She was a female. She was tender. She was a mother. She would understand my gentle-natured reason for not wanting to shoot the innocent, naive, oblivious does, in favor of the hardened, tested, larger buck. She would understand it, empathizing with another "woman" who got to live another day because of my mercy.... Surely, she would, right?
We went to the kitchen where Mrs. Douglas was preparing dinner, and the grief continued from all the boys still hounding me. I finally built up enough strength to defend myself again, knowing I had a potential comrade and sympathizer in the only female for miles around -- except for those does, of course....
"Mrs. Douglas," I said, putting on my best, pleading voice, "Surely you understand why I chose to leave the does alone. They were so close and so easy to shoot, it was just no challenge. I didn't want to shoot Bambi's mother. I wanted my first deer I shot to be a buck. And there was this nice six point that I kept waiting for..."
I never got to finish my sentence, as she jumped in.... to my defense? Hell no!
"WHAT? YOU DIDN'T SHOOT A DOE? DON'T YOU KNOW THEY HAVE THE MOST TENDER MEAT? THEY ARE THE ONES THAT TASTE BETTER! I LOVE DOE MEAT. And besides, they can end up taking over the land, if they are left unchecked! You've got to take them when you can!"
There would be no consoling anywhere to be found in that house that night. I quietly ate my dinner, and we went to bed early.... Tomorrow was another hunting day. Hopefully I would get a chance to redeem myself....
The next day, we went to the same location, but this time Mark took the tree stand. I had been relegated to the log. I walked over to the long fallen oak that was the log, and got comfortable. I notched an arrow, so that I was ready for anything, and I waited. If I thought the mosquitoes and bugs were bad the day the before, they were only worse down on ground level next to the bushes nearer the pond. "No-see-ums", gnats, ticks, mosquitoes, spiders, and some good old-fashioned Virginia, Indian Summer humidity made the day less pleasant than the previous one. But I settled down, got my mind into "hunting mode", and began to take in my surroundings....
It wasn't long before a couple of hummingbirds that had yet to migrate, flew by me, hovering over the long grasses and wildflowers that were between me and the pond. I watched them, always amazed at their flying abilities. So quick. Instant stop. Fight each other. Chirp like crazy. Hover. Go to a flower and feed. Fly backwards and regroup. Come back at 60 m.p.h., and do it all over again. I watched them both for several minutes until they finally tired and flew away. Then I sat and waited some more.
|watching a couple of hummingbirds feed and fight and show off their aerial displays is always entertaining....|
Then I heard leaves rustling along the path. I froze with an arrow notched, and slowly turned my head towards the sound. I waited, as the sound got closer. As I looked above the brushline toward the path, where a deer would come, I didn't see any antlers approaching. I didn't see any animal above the brushline. But the shuffling leaves sound got closer. Finally, I looked where the end of the log met the path, and saw a big old raccoon waddling.
He paused at the log, and turned his head to look at it. I froze. He didn't see me, and turned towards the log. The next thing I knew he was on top of the log walking back and forth just 10 feet away from me. He inspected every nook, hole and crevice on that log, looking for grubs, bugs, and who knows what. And then he stopped. He looked right at me, but either didn't care I was there, or didn't see me. He rested for awhile, cleaned himself up, turning completely away, and I watched him. He was obviously comfortable where he was, and in no hurry to move on. I sat and watched him for 20 minutes. Finally, he jumped off the log and went back into the woods.
|This would have been a tempting target, had I only known to shoot it.... "That's a $25 pelt". In 1982 dollars. That's probably like $50 today.|
Some time went by and I heard more rustling, and turned again. This time a red fox came out, nose to the ground, looking for mice, moles or other varmints. He came to the end of the log, sniffed around, walked towards me within just a few feet. He paused, looked up at me, didn't care or didn't see me -- just like the raccoon, and then walked on by to the other end of the log, where he paused again before disappearing again into the woods.
|This guy's pelt was beautiful, as he was getting his winter coat....|
Another hour passed, and we never saw the first deer. The time came, and I watched Mark climb down from the stand. It was time to go. We met at the pond, and I guess I had a new appreciation for his 11 hour theory. Still, I had enjoyed the day, and told Mark about the hummingbird duel, the raccoon and the fox.
"WHAT?" He screamed. "YOU DIDN'T SHOOT THE RACCOON OR THE FOX?"
I shrank in my urine-covered boots (doe urine, not mine). "Here we go again," I thought.
"DON'T YOU KNOW HOW MUCH YOU COULD GET FOR EACH OF THEIR PELTS?!"
I looked down. Now I wasn't sure whose urine was on the boots....
And I did not look forward to going back to the Douglas house, and seeing the Douglas boys... and Clarence... and Sharon.... And hearing it from them all over again. Never have I looked so forward to going back to school.
And the next year when we had our Autumn Break...? I drove again (my "new" '78 VW diesel Rabbit); but this time we went on a road trip to visit some other colleges. There was no hunting involved at all....
I think I'll just stick to saying,
"Until next time,
(I'll let Mark and the rest of the Douglas's "hunt on".)
EPILOGUE: Now, almost 30 years later, I must confess I still enjoy getting together with the Douglas clan -- even if it is much rarer. Clarence, Sharon, and all their sons and their families all still live within an hour's drive of the area. But they finally have more estrogen in the family. In addition to a bunch of daughters-in-law, there are granddaughters out the wazoo. Mark alone, has become the antithesis of what his family was. He is the only man in a family consisting of a beautiful wife and four lovely daughters.... And they all love to eat their venison, too -- especially doe meat.