I stood quietly, waiting for enough light to see and already feeling like it wasn’t going to happen today. I wanted this to be the year that I finally get my first real buck, and with a late rut and a favorable weather pattern, this, the first day of rifle season, was as good an opportunity as I could have hoped for. But at first light I already found myself emotionally throwing in the towel. Maybe I was talking myself out of wanting it so much.
The first time I ever entered the woods with a rifle, after waiting all morning I watched a large buck walk towards me, a hundred yards out but in heavy brush. I lined up the sights on my Dad’s Model 94, but didn’t have a clear path. I waited for a better shot, but a better one never came. The deer either sensed my presence or smelled my fear, and turned and swiftly went back the way he came. Ever since that day I’ve been a little bit haunted by my decision. Should I have taken the shot when I had it? Would I feel better if I had taken the shot and missed? Will I ever look at a buck over a rifle barrel again? I would forget all about it for months at a time, but when deer season rolls around I’m haunted, just a little, all over again. And as the sky brightened I could talk myself out of it no more: I did want it.
From my position I had two areas to watch: A creek bed in a wooded area to my left, and a hillside off to the right where deer may come up from a ravine largely hidden from my view. Before dawn, I heard movement from the creek bed so that area was getting most of my attention. Two friends, Ken and Chris, were hunting with me, set up near an adjacent field. Chris had just taken a shot and we were texting back and forth when I looked up and saw a deer on my hillside. I raised my rifle to get a look through the scope and saw a nice rack, maybe eight points. But he had already passed the first perfect backstop unnoticed and was now too near the crest of the hill for a safe shot. My heart was pounding just having him in my scope.
He approached a lone pear tree at the horizon and I watched him, magnified 7X, as he stood on his hind legs and rattled the low branches with his antlers. He then got to work scraping the ground around the trunk. After a few minutes of buck stuff, he did exactly what I needed him to do. He slowly moved left, down the hill, giving me a good backstop. So, heart pounding, arms shaking from excitement, nerves and fatigue from watching him through the scope for several minutes, I pushed the safety forward and tried to breathe.
A hundred and forty yards, I would later pace off, is ninety yards farther than my Winchester Model 70 was sighted in for. I steadied the rifle, put the crosshairs on his heart, let out a breath I had been holding for an unknown span of time, and squeezed the trigger.
The round left my muzzle traveling at about 2,850 feet per second and reached him in a blink. It first took about a pea-sized nick out of the fleshy part of the back of his front leg, then passed about two inches below his chest and buried harmlessly into the soft earth. I cycled the bolt and heard the metallic ting of the spent round ejecting as the next round found the chamber. When I reacquired my target in the scope, he had run back up to his pear tree. He was looking back at where he was standing when I first shot at him, occasionally picking up his nicked leg and shaking it. He was putting weight on it, and I have no doubt he was perfectly capable of running away. If he had run to freedom, we both would have deserved that outcome.
Again he was too high up the hill for a safe shot, there was nothing I could do but wait. As I waited, I watched him through the scope and thought about him. Probably three and a half years old, most likely born not far from where he now stood. He has avoided hunters and motor vehicles and illness. And now his life hinged on which direction he would step next. Up the hill to freedom, or down.
He stepped down the hill three or four steps, and the second shot hit him in the ribs. A bit farther back than I would have liked, but good enough to hit a lung and put him down. My heart was racing still as I took the scope away from my eye and slung my rifle on my shoulder. The distance between us felt like a mile now. As I walked toward him, I felt a flood of emotions all at once. Grateful for the opportunity, and to live where I live, and for my friends who were now driving up the hill to meet me. While part of me is saddened at the taking of a beautiful animal, I am so thankful for this deer that will not only provide food for the table, but will also put to rest some internal doubt. I will honor and respect him the best way I know how, by remembering him at the meals he provides, and by being careful to continue to take the very best shots I can take whenever I’m hunting. They won’t always hit their mark, but I owe it to these animals to try my hardest.
Speaking of respect, two hundred miles south, my good friend Josh Williams was having a special day in the woods as well. Three weeks ago, Josh was hunting on a friend’s land during archery season when he encountered a spectacular beast of a buck, but he, too, decided not to take the shot. His respect for the animal and care to do the right thing was repaid when he returned for opening day of rifle season. He hunted the early morning with no luck, and was calling it a day when he saw the buck again. Less than an hour after I got mine, Josh brought down this beauty. My sincere congratulations to Josh on this well deserved buck. Read more about his outing here, and while you’re at it, sign up to follow Josh’s great blog.
The sun was just peeking over the mountains, flooding Rose River Farm with golden morning light when Team Orange and I passed by on our way to the Shenandoah National Park, so I stopped to take some photos there. Fall in Madison County, Virginia is special, and I was looking forward to immersing myself in it for a day.
But we had a lot of hiking ahead of us, up Cedar Run and down White Oak Canyon is almost a nine mile loop, so we didn’t linger too long. Winnie, taking advantage of the missing barrier that usually keeps them in the back of the car, indicates she’s ready to hit the trail by jumping in the back and up to the driver’s seat. And sitting backwards because she is odd.
When we arrived at the park, the lot was more full than I’ve ever seen it in the morning. There was a large group of hikers gathering at the trail head, so I flashed my annual park pass to the ranger and slipped ahead of the group. The lower elevation parts of the park are at peak fall foliage. In fact the most spectacular colors I’ve seen this year are along the road that leads to the park entrance near Syria. But on the trail you don’t spend much time at the lower elevations, climbing starts right away and continues for almost four miles.
Sometimes I’ll rig a fly rod and carry it with me, trying different pools along the way for the beautiful native brook trout that live here. But it’s a rugged trail at times, and managing both dogs and the fly rod seemed problematic, so I packed in a rod, assembling it once we arrived at my favorite spot. Here, isolated from the busy trail, we set up for a few hours of fishing, playing and relaxing. Winnie approves. (Note to self: Why do I always pack in drinking water for the dogs when I hike along fresh, clean water?)
I have a 3-Weight Scott fly rod that is perfect for this kind of fishing, but being a 2-piece rod it comes in a very long tube that’s hard to hike with. So I brought my 5-weight Hardy rod which packs more comfortably. I sat on a fallen tree, dogs by my side, putting the Hardy together and watching the pool. Brook trout were rising. I couldn’t see what they were eating, but I’m actually not much of a ‘match-the-hatch’ fisherman. My fly progression for brook trout goes like this: Parachute Adams > smaller Parachute Adams > Stimulator > Stimulator with a dropper > Wooly Bugger > End. But none of those worked, and the fish kept rising. I finally caught a natural with my hat, looks like a pale yellow stone fly (I have included a grey hair in the hat for scale). I had a few variations of a Yellow Sally in my fly box, tried them all. I got a few strikes but no hook sets. I wondered later if the softer set of the 3-weight rod would have made a difference on these fish, some of which were pretty small. Maybe even a subtle set with the 5-weight was just pulling the hook right out of their mouths.
But here’s the thing. I went through many, many fly changes, even going back to some I had already tried. I’d give the fish a rest while I changed flies or had a snack of futzed with the camera, then go back and cast some more. I watched a hundred rises, including a quite large brookie come out from beneath a boulder and roll on a surface fly in the same spot a dozen times. I got strikes, maybe ten or so (none from the big fella), but no hook ups. At one point I was changing flies and I looked up to find Finn swimming around in the pool. But moments later the trout were feeding again.
It occurred to me that I don’t think I have ever been as patient as I was at this pool. I had every reason to be frustrated and discouraged, but there was a tranquility surrounding me, and I honestly think it was the dogs. I loved having them there, and it’s fun to watch their different personalities at work. Finn mostly watches me. He wants to be near me but quickly got bored of the fishing and found a spot with a good vantage point to just lie down. Winnie, on the other hand, was fascinated. She followed the fly as I cast it, and then followed it on the water. When fish would rise she would perk her head up and focus on that spot. After a while she started whimpering every time the big one rolled on the surface. It seems she sensed there was a connection between what I was trying to do and what those rising fish were doing. She didn’t know what was gonna happen, but it was going to be fun!
But alas, nothing happened. I eventually put the rod away, with fish rising all around and swimming right up to the shallows, and decided to try to get some photos. I took probably forty pictures of these wild brook trout in their natural habitat, which is a pretty special experience. It’s okay that I wasn’t able to catch any, at least I captured a few.
I found a can of Virginia-brewed Full Nelson in the bottom of my backpack while I was looking for a second fly box. Since it is against the law to have alcohol in the park, to be in full compliance I disposed of the beer. But before I did, I let the cool waters of Cedar Run chill it to optimal disposal temperature.
After that most enjoyable few hours fishing and enjoying the company of my two best friends, it was time to hit the trail again. We could have gone back the way we came and shorten the hike by several miles, but I decided to push myself and continue up to do the originally planned loop. This morning my back, my right hip, left knee and both feet are questioning my judgment, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s a beautiful hike, though, and Team Orange had a blast. Here they spot a squirrel along the trail.
I was relieved to get to the top of White Oak falls and began our descent. Even though every step of the descent is a foot-pounding, bone-jarring reminder that I am old and I’m carrying too much weight around. This panorama shows the lower falls at White Oak. Trout don’t live in ugly places. (I encourage readers to click on the panoramas in this post for a better view.)
It was a very long day, and these great dogs deserve the sleep they fell into about a minute after getting in the car. I hope they aren’t nearly as sore as I am today.