I am encouraged by the young men and women I have met recently who defy the trend of their peers and immerse themselves in the outdoors, and particularly those who communicate their passion for nature through art.
Isabelle Sweeney, 17, has been crafting, painting, drawing and sculpting since she was little. “It started as something I would do with my mum and siblings, and over time it became something I would do to escape and unwind,” she said. “Painting has always been one of my favorite ways to do this.”
But she has always loved being outdoors. “I feel at peace in nature,” she said. So when her friend, naturalisit Brian Balik, suggested painting a deer skull, it seemed like a great way to combine those interests. Balik gave her a doe skull he had found, they cleaned it up and she set out to turning it into art.
Deciding on black paint because she liked the contrast on the white skull, she sat down one evening, turned on some music and started painting. “I never have a plan when I start,” Isabelle said. “I love the natural symmetry of the bones, so I let them guide me. I let the shapes I see in the skull come out in the black paint.” She finished that first skull in one sitting. “I didn’t stop until it was done late that night.”
I loved that first doe skull when I saw it, and asked Isabelle if she would paint the 6-point buck skull I used for my blizzard time lapse video earlier this year. She was excited to work with the additional interesting features of the antler bases, and came up with an absolutely beautiful design.
“I relish being able to take something from nature, something that had died, something that would have been wasted, and giving it new life as art,” Isabelle said. “To make it beautiful in a new way.”
I am so proud to have this work of art hanging in my office as a reminder of the beauty of nature, and of those who embrace it and find creative ways to express themselves through it.
This fawn stopped by my Audubon At Home Wildlife Sanctuary sign and posed for a photo this morning so I thought it would be a good opportunity to share a little bit about that program.
Natural habitat for native flora and fauna is being steadily diminished by development in high population regions all across the country, and Northern Virginia is certainly no exception. Audubon at Home is a National Audubon Society program that promotes citizen participation in conserving and restoring local natural habitat to help offset the impact of development. Audubon’s Northern Virginia chapter certifies properties as Wildlife Sanctuaries, but it’s really the animals who decide. I am very lucky to live in a place that animals seem to love to begin with, and with some help from volunteer Audubon At Home Ambassadors, with just a few simple changes I have been able to transform my property into a certified haven for birds, butterflies and other beneficial wildlife. I added a small garden with native plants to attract and sustain butterflies, bees and other pollinators, constructed a couple brush piles that provide habitat for all kinds of critters, and transformed a spot of previously mowed lawn back into a natural meadow.
To find out how you can make your home, church, school or business an animal friendly, certified wildlife sanctuary, visit the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia.
Wildlife Capture, Restraint, Handling, and Transport: An Online Course from the Wildlife Center of Virginia
The Wildlife Center of Virginia is offering an opportunity to learn about wildlife capture, restraint, handling and transport through an online course. Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors may some day encounter wildlife in need of assistance. The two-hour course will include photos and video of appropriate capture and restraint techniques of species that are commonly seen in wildlife rehabilitation, and will provide valuable information for those wishing to become permitted wildlife rehabilitators, or those (like me) who simply want to be prepared to help an injured wild animal in need.
“The Wildlife Center always needs rescue and transport volunteers,” says Amanda Nicholson, the Center’s Director of Outreach. “This course will lay the foundation of capture and restraint basics to keep both rescuer and animal safe.”
CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE OR TO REGISTER. Please share this with your outdoor friends and facebook groups!
Date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Time: 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Eastern
Photos courtesy of The Wildlife Center of Virginia.
It was a fantastic day to get out and enjoy a sunny day romping in the woods with Team Orange. We all needed the exercise, and I figured maybe we’d get lucky and find an antler along the way. Exercise was the main goal, though, as I’ve become increasingly skeptical that I will ever find another antler. So we headed to a friend’s property and hit the trail.
We weren’t ten minutes into our hike when my “bird dogs” kicked up what I thought at first was a ruffed grouse along the trail. The thing made a huge racket and startled all of us. This happened a few more times, and when they kicked up one in tight cover and the bird had nowhere to go but straight at my face, I realized it was a woodcock. I was sure because I could very clearly see the distinctive beak as it nearly speared me in the forehead. Later we came across a scene where something had enjoyed a meal of a bird. There were a lot of these striped feathers in the debris field. I don’t know if these belong to a woodcock or not, but the only other birds I saw in those woods today were little songbirds and pileated woodpeckers. You can see a couple of the feathers at Winnie’s feet below.
Here’s a better look, but when the sun hit these the white parts were brilliant white…
We got through the woods and started following deer trails and bed areas in tall grass. Both my dogs walked over this little antler before it came into view, and I couldn’t even get them excited about it once I found it. But I was plenty excited! This is actually the first fresh shed I’ve ever found. My few previous finds have been at least a year old. So this little guy is special. I love picking up an antler, knowing I’m the first human to ever touch it.
So let me get you up to speed: My dogs are as worthless at finding antlers as they are at finding birds. It’s a good thing they are extraordinarily fine company. Finn did find this feather, which I think came from a wild turkey.
While it was a very windy day, the sun was warm and we were covering a lot of ground. So the dogs were psyched to take a swim break in the pond.
I happened upon another, larger antler, one that my dogs actually stepped on as they passed it. A really cool find.
You may have noticed from the turkey feather photo that I’ve been working on perfecting the technique of focusing the camera so the background is crystal clear, but the central object in the foreground has a nice, soft, blurred focus applied to it. It’s tricky to get right, but I’ve gotten very good at it.
So two nice antler finds, lots of exercise and fresh air, and we all had a great time.
The fitbit showed why I was draggin’ ass up the last few hills back to the truck. Total distance for the day was eight hilly miles.
And so it was a day filled with life’s simple pleasures. A place to run. An antler here and there. Good company. That burn in the legs, that signal from your body that it appreciates the effort you put in today. And a sunny day warm enough to roll down the windows, turn up the music, and just breathe it all in.
2014 was a good year, photographically. I took a landscape photography workshop and learned a lot, I had a few things published here and there, I experimented more than usual and I made an effort to really get to know my camera and its capabilities. I take a lot of photos, and my first cut tends to be about forty images, but nobody wants to view forty images. By the time I cut that down by about half, sometimes interesting patterns start to appear. This year, out of the final 24 shots, half of them feature water, including the one above, taken at Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. A tripod was used in six of the photos, by far the most yet. And this year features my first GoPro shot in my Best Of list. So, I hope you enjoy this glimpse at my year. I had a lot of fun living and photographing it.
The shot below was taken very near the last one, later that same morning.
I continue to try to experiment and improve with low light photography. I captured a lot of deer at dawn, this photo was taken through the windshield in my driveway.
I’ve been going to the Preakness for about twenty years, so it was a fun experience to have press credentials for this year’s event. It was hard to choose a favorite shot of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, but I keep going back to this one. Taken after the race, surrounded by throngs of fans and photographers, this horse just seemed to bask in the attention. My story and photographs about the Preakness just came out in the December/January issue of Virginia Sportsman magazine.
Monkey doesn’t like stones in the water. They all need to be removed, one at a time.
Regular readers of this blog know that Monarch butterflies were a very special part of my summer. I watched and photographed as this Monarch emerged from its chrysalis, only noticing later when I was editing the images that I had also captured a tiny spider whose web all of a sudden contained an unexpected guest.
I took hundreds of shots of seeds floating in the air for a blog post about noticing nature’s little things. Almost all of them were no good, but I only needed one!
We get a lot of different turtles around our property. I spent some time with this cool fellow.
Hiking near Calvert Cliffs, MD, my wife walked into an inchworm hanging from a branch above the path. Her delicate returning of the worm to safety on a nearby leaf became one of my favorites of the year.
Turkeys gather on the path ahead, C&O Canal Towpath, Maryland.
Photographing sporting events is pretty far outside my comfort zone, but I had a blast shooting this championship game for my friends, whose boys play on the victorious team.
I include this image because I was astonished by my camera’s low light capability. This is a hand held shot with a lot less light than it looks like here. Potomac River, looking from Virginia across to Maryland.
My favorite image from the landscape photography workshop in the Canaan Valley, WV area. I had a great time, made some new talented friends like Risha, and learned a lot from Martin, Randall and Todd.
Shortly after the landscape workshop I tried my new knowledge at Shenandoah National Park. This is the Upper Rose River in Madison County, VA.
I brought my good camera along on quite a few kayak floats this summer. On this day I hoped to get a good sunrise shot. That sunrise didn’t produce anything interesting, but after the sun came up, this scene unfolded in front of me.
This is the same Monarch pictured earlier eclosing from her chrysalis, drying her wings in the sun.
Sunset, Potomac River, Harpers Ferry, WV.
I visited Solomon’s Island, MD twice this year and thoroughly enjoyed this quaint, beautiful and fun town.
Team Orange at Rose River Farm on a beautiful summer day.
I was out early one morning hoping to photograph a big buck I had seen the previous morning while jogging on the C&O Towpath. I got stuck waiting for a train and spotted this scene, I had to get out and photograph it.
Early in the year this Sharp Shinned Hawk paused on our bird feeder while hunting our regular feeder visitors. Hawks gotta eat, too.
And finally, one of my very favorites of the year, a GoPro shot of Winnie in the front of the kayak as we float down the Potomac River near our house. This photo was published in an article I wrote about kayak fishing for Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine.
“There’s nothing like a nice piece of Hickory.”
Last year some friends gathered for an evening of food, drink and fun, with everyone bringing a dish made from wild game acquired over the course of the year. That night was such a success we’ve decided to make it an annual tradition! This year we gathered at my friend Jason’s house, and his smoker added a great new dimension to many of the dishes. Here’s a little tour of the feast!
This marinated venison backstrap was on the smoker for about three hours, cooked to perfection and so incredibly tender it was hard to believe. Fantastic. Don’t ask Jason for the marinade recipe, he won’t give it to you.
My friend Carolyn told me about this dish and I had to try it. Baked beans mixed with browned ground venison, peppers and onion, baked, then topped with crumbled bacon, drizzled with honey and put in the smoker for 45 minutes.
Full smoker! Marinated dove breasts, jalapeno poppers filled with shrimp and seasoned cream cheese, then wrapped in bacon, mushrooms stuffed with ground elk meat and cream cheese, and the tenderloin.
Cheese stuffed beer bread? YES PLEASE! Thank you Anna!
These are the finished smoked bacon wrapped cheesy shrimp jalapeno poppers. The cream cheese, I’m told, counters the heat in the peppers. Um, no.
Anna made this incredible mac and cheese. It was delicious and popular, and good to have a dish on the table that wasn’t meat colored.
I don’t really get tired of marinated bacon wrapped venison tenderloin morsels of awesomeness.
The finished mushrooms stuffed with elk meat, cream cheese, mushroom and seasonings.
I actually forgot to try this! Wild turkey breast stuffed with goat cheese and peppers.
Another view of the perfectly cooked venison tenderloin, marinated and then smoked with hickory. Like butter.
I took the smoked, marinated dove breasts, wrapped them in puff pastry and baked them for ten minutes or so.
Anna made this wonderful lemon meringue pie from scratch, in addition to the pie and the amazing beer bread.
It was a real treat to sample amazing donuts from Front Royal’s Naughty Girls Donut Shop. The story of the shop and the amazing young woman who started it is a great one, and I encourage you to read about it here.
And in addition to all of the above, we of course had a variety of excellent seasonal beers to enjoy.
It’s never too early to start planning for next year’s Game Night, either — I’m thinking venison meatball and cheese sliders will be on the menu!
Rifle season for deer in Virginia started last weekend. I saw a few, but didn’t take any shots with my new Browning .308 lever gun. That will come soon enough, but in the meantime, I wanted to share all the deer I have managed to shoot this year. Most from my driveway, some with a game cam, the rest with my Nikon that I’ve started keeping with me in the car this time of year. Due to the nature of the photos, I won’t bother captioning them because I don’t want to be redundant, to repeat myself, to say things over and over again. Enjoy and stay tuned…
I am drawn to the aesthetics of deer antlers. To me they are beautiful, organic shapes that please the eye. But the bizarre biological mechanics behind them are fascinating, growing anew each year covered in blood-rich velvet that feeds them nutrients. Then the bone dies, the velvet is shed and the antlers remain. Status, attraction, competition are all a part of the purpose and function of those extensions of the skull of a whitetail buck. And then, in late winter, testosterone levels drop and the antlers are cast off.
And when they fall, there they sit. In corn fields, hedgerows, creek beds and lawns, in dense woods, briar patches and snow drifts. There they sit until critters, attracted to the minerals within, gnaw them away. Or until they rot. Or until a person, wandering through the woods with their eyes to the ground, finds it and picks it up.
Searching for shed antlers is a fun way to get exercise. I have tried to train my dogs to seek them out, and they love running off leash for miles and miles, even if they aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for. But shed hunting can also be frustrating. The three of us have spent a lot of hours and miles and, until yesterday, had yet to find a single shed. But I’ll get back to that.
Wandering around the woods looking for food sources, buck rubs, trails, beds and other signs is a good way to learn about deer behavior. But logging a lot of miles with your eyes trained to the ground, you’d be surprised how many other little things you notice. First of all, anything bone colored gets your attention, no matter how small. During yesterday’s outing on a friend’s farm I spotted this jawbone from about ten yards away. My guess is raccoon, but I’m not positive.
Some friends identified these feathers as coming from a Yellow-shafted Flicker. This beautiful bird became dinner for a fox or other predator.
Winnie decided if she couldn’t find any antlers, she was going to commit to being the very best collector of burrs she could be. Here Finn admires her handiwork. He tried to help by pulling a few off her, but then he abandoned his efforts, mumbling something about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
After a few hours with no luck, this little four point skull caught my eye, half buried under some thorny briars. So I asked one of the more nimble members of Team Orange to fetch it for me. Winnie volunteered. Nothing special, the skull looks to be at least a year old and one side is discolored from being in the ground. But since it was starting to look like I might be walking out of the woods empty handed yet again, I brushed it off and took it with me.
A while later, we were following a deer trail parallel to a tree line. I looked down and saw two antler points sticking up through some grass. I studied it from where I was, about five feet away, careful not to let myself get too excited about what might end up being another of the million curved corn stalks or antler-shaped sticks that had already faked me out. But there it was, finally. I brought the dogs over in hopes that they would see or smell it and catch on that this is what we were looking for. They did not.
I picked it up, the first human hands to ever touch it. I examined it. Not fresh, probably from last year. Three points, one of the three chipped at the end, and a fourth brow tine that had broken off as well. It was neither large nor perfect, but it was beautiful. This year alone I had hiked probably twenty miles to get to this one antler shed. It was a huge relief. I wish I could say it was enough to just be outside even if I don’t find any, but it was starting to get to me that I couldn’t find at least one shed.
I tried to get the dogs excited about it, hoping that knowing what they’re looking for would help them find more. Winnie posed with this long enough for a quick photo, but then went on her way, adding to her burr collection.
So the final tally on the day: 1 skull, 1 shed, 5 miles, 5 hours, 90 burrs and 2 tired dogs.
Those burrs, by the way? Winnie’s coat is an absolute magnet for them. If I didn’t have some of this Showsheen, I would have had to resort to clippers to get them out. It’s an equine product and I always keep a little bit in a spray bottle with my grooming supplies. Spray it on and the burrs comb right out. Stubborn clumps need a bit more attention, but it really works great.
As for shed hunting, maybe I broke the ice with this one. Maybe I will get better with practice, learn where to look and how to see. Maybe Team Orange will catch on. But even if none of those things happen, the pursuit of antlers has gotten me out hiking, observing nature and exercising the dogs, in the midst of a brutal winter that is slow to relinquish its icy grip. And that is a very good thing.
Addendum: After I wrote this post, my friend Monica, whose great blog Shedding Suburbia should be added to your browser bookmarks, published this great post about a very special antler find and the lengths she had to go to just to get it home. I wanted to link it here for my readers. Enjoy!
From Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay to the hills of southwest Virginia, I logged a lot of miles in 2013, saw places I’ve never seen before and met many great people. I had my camera with me most of the time, and when I didn’t, my iPhone stepped in to capture the moment. Above is a shot of the sunrise over the Chesapeake aboard the Renegade. Below are the rest of my favorite shots of the year, starting with elk prints in Buchanan County, Virginia. Meeting the people involved in the elk reintroduction program in this part of the state was one of my highlights of the year.
An eerie fog blocked the normally outstanding vistas on Sugarloaf Mountain, but the resulting mood was equally beautiful. Team Orange helped by posing cooperatively, as they usually do.
One of several neat iPhone panoramas I took this year. This was at Rose River Farm, awash in golden morning sun. Team Orange, far left, enjoying a romp before a hike nearby.
Speaking of iPhones, this may be my favorite iPhone photo I’ve ever taken. Hiking with a friend on the Loudoun Heights trail near Harpers Ferry, WV, the light gave us scenes like this all morning.
We have a lot of deer around our property. But, common as they are, when they come close enough I can never resist getting the camera out and snapping a few photos. I liked the background in deep shadow here.
A fun action shot of Finn chasing a chukar during a training session with my friend Anna.
Petey is unlike any dog I’ve ever known, and is full of surprises. Here, when any of our other dogs would have run and barked and chased this young deer away, Petey decided to simply make friends.
Friend and fishing guide Gary Burwell at Rose River Farm with the mist hanging heavy in the air.
They do indeed. Old guys — and tractors — ruled at the antique tractor pull and show at Gladhill Tractor near Frederick, Maryland.
The Wildlife Center of Virginia‘s Ed Clark released this stunning eagle along the banks of the Rappahannock River in front of a crowd of volunteers and spectators. It was a day I will not soon forget. I am holding back a special photo from this day for which I hope to find a print venue for publication. But I love this and many other shots from the event.
A visit to our friends Mike and Carole Pivarnik of Tulip Hill Farm resulted in this heartwarming shot of two unlikely friends.
Another shot from my trip to southwest Virginia, here Josie watches intently as her human partner, Conservation Police Officer Wes Billings, drives.
It’s hard to grow tired of catching these hard fighting, colorful sunfish, even when you are targeting bigger and stronger smallmouth. You will never hear me complain about a day with no smallies, but with dozens of these enthusiastic little fish.
I spent a lot of time on the Potomac this year. On this occasion we were towing an extra kayak to a takeout ramp downstream. We made it just in time as a big storm was closing in. This is another iPhone photo.
This photo warms my hear because of how I felt when I took it. I love spending time with my dogs, but to hike in a beautiful park and fly fish for native brook trout in their company was a wonderful experience. I had to capture it with a rare if unconventional selfie.
Team Orange loves the snow, and we had a couple good ones in late 2013. Here Finn sports a snout full, a result of chasing snowballs as they disappear under the surface.
This is not our friend August’s first appearance in my Photos of the Year. Two years ago this pic made the cut. It’s fun to watch him grow up so fast, here he entertains a lady friend.
My special girl Winnie absolutely loves riding in the kayak. Here we are taking a break because she does not do much paddling. Propped against a rock in the middle of the Potomac River, I shot this iPhone panorama upstream (left) and down. The Native Watercraft Slayer pictured was a new addition this year, of course in Team Orange orange.
I’ll be honest, I wish this photo was more in focus. But I’m including it because, while technically flawed, it is likely to hold up as the best photo I will ever take of a baby wild turkey running full speed away from a pursuing moth.
Another technically flawed, blurry and grainy image, there’s still a lot to like about this hawk image. I took this through my windshield after chasing this bird off a deer carcass nearby.
The native brook trout is so beautiful, it’s just about as fun to see one as to catch one. On this day in the Shenandoah National Park, I saw plenty. But none would be fooled by my fly.
I hope you have enjoyed Dispatches from the Potomac this year, and had fun looking through my favorite images of 2013. You can view my favorite photos of 2012 here, and of 2011 here. And if you haven’t already signed up to receive a notification of new posts, I’d love it if you added your email in the ‘Follow this blog’ link on the top right of this page. Thanks again for stopping by from time to time. I hope your 2014 is filled with fun encounters with nature and lots of opportunities to take your own favorite photos of the year!
Some good friends gathered on the Saturday after Thanksgiving for what we hope will become a new annual tradition. Game Night is a feast, the sharing of wild game hunted throughout the year. It is a celebration of cooking, drinking, laughing and eating, and all of those to excess. Let me walk you through some of the delicious ways we gave thanks to the animals we hunt, and the friends who shared this special night.
Marinated, Bacon-Wrapped Venison Tenderloin Morsels of Awesomeness
I’ve been making these for a few years, they’re easy and very popular. Cut the tenderloin into good size chunks, marinate overnight, wrap each with a half slice of bacon and secure with a toothpick (soak the toothpicks for 10-15 minutes so they don’t completely burn up). Then grill. Keep an eye on these as the bacon will cause flare ups. Some charring is of course delicious, but you don’t want to leave these unattended.
Here’s what I use in my marinade: 1/4 cup Worcestershire, 1/4 cup soy sauce, a bottle of beer (try different varieties for fun, but I like using a dark, richly flavored beer), 1/4 cup maple syrup, 1 tsp black pepper, 1/2 tsp onion powder, 1/2 tsp garlic powder, 1/4 cup brown sugar (light or dark), 1 tsp of cayenne pepper.
Here are the completed venison morsels, which by the way came from this beautiful deer. Thanks to Anna for this and other great photographs from the night. Please check out Anna’s web site, AKG Inspiration.
Bacon-Wrapped Dove Appetizers
Across the board, everyone loved these incredibly delicious dove breasts that Chris and Anna brought. Regular readers might recall our dove hunt. What a fun day that was, and tasting these makes me want to get my full limit when we go back next year. Chris marinated these, wrapped each breast around slices of green bell pepper and onion and secured with toothpicks. Absolutely delicious. Anna also made an amazing pot of macaroni and cheese made with four cheeses: fontina, havarti, brie and sharp cheddar. (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)
Horseradish Encrusted Venison Tenderloin
My friend Jason loves to cook wild game almost as much as he loves to hunt it, and he is very talented at both. I’ll let him walk you through preparing these great main course: Coat the tenderloin with olive oil, salt and pepper. Then spread prepared horseradish over it evenly. Mix a sauce of about 2 cups balsamic vinegar and 4 tablespoons of sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Stir occasionally until it gets syrupy. Grill the tenderloins (preferably to about medium rare) and remove from grill. Top with crumbled goat cheese and broil on high in the oven for 3-4 minutes until cheese begins to brown. Slice, drizzle with balsamic reduction and serve! (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)
This, in my opinion, is absolutely perfect medium rare venison tenderloin. Great job by the grillmaster Jason.
Fresh Wild Turkey Breasts
And I do mean fresh! Jason shot this turkey on Thanksgiving morning. He used a liquid garlic butter rub and coated with Cajun seasoning. Then this was cooked in an oilless turkey fryer. This is the first time I’ve had wild turkey and it was great with quite a kick to it! (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)
Grilled Bacon-Wrapped Asparagus
Thanks again to Jason and Allie, Jason’s girlfriend and a long time dear friend of mine. I did not actually try these, but they looked and smelled great! (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)
At some point when everyone was occupied in the kitchen there was a knock at the door. This is what we saw waiting to be let in. Now, and only now, can we get this party started. Our friends Ken and Mary accompanied this bear, along with more treats. Which brings us to dessert…
In addition to this amazing thing I’ve never had before, our friends Brad and Jess also brought one. I love these things! It’s like pumpkin pie/cake and cheesecake all rolled up and sliced. Fantastic.
Bourbon Pecan Pie
Okay I love pecan pie. It’s one of my very favorite things, especially at this time of year. And in the heat of the moment last night, with the beer flowing, the hugs being distributed, the laughter and friendship warming us on a cold night, I might have been heard saying that the bourbon pecan pie Allie made from the recipe in my favorite magazine, Garden & Gun, is the best pecan pie I have ever tasted.
Now, a day later, with a clearer head, I do not hesitate to say it again. This is honestly the best pecan pie I have ever tasted.The recipe can be found at Garden & Gun here. Thank you Allie for this! (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)
I want to thank everyone for coming and making such amazing contributions to a meal I will not soon forget. As we go through the next year spending time in the woods or on the water, we’ll enjoy setting aside some venison, wild birds, maybe a fish or two, with plans on preparing for next year’s Game Night. Can we top the First Annual? Does a bear drink wine out of a bottle?
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.