I could hear the others in my hunting party coming up the hill as they followed the blood trail towards the open hay field where I was standing. Our hope was that they would either find the buck or push him onto the field where I was waiting. As the sound of the group coming through the woods grew ever closer to the field’s edge, my hopes of finding my brother-in-law J’s first buck started to fade. We had worked so hard to track down this buck, and we had come so far.
Then suddenly, there he was….
The weekend before Thanksgiving is always one of my favorite weekends of the whole year and has been for almost as long as I can remember. I have been going to deer camp with my Dad since before I was in grade school. I can remember sitting at the kitchen table with my grandma eating toast with homemade rhubarb jam and watching intently for the first hunters to make their way back in from the morning hunt. In the evening, I listened to my dad and grandpa tell stories about hunting seasons gone by and their trips to the upper peninsula of Michigan. I looked through old pictures as my dad told the stories of who shot this deer or how far they had to track that deer.
As I came of age. I was able to finally go hunting with my dad and I can still vividly remember the first deer I got with my bow. My dad and I were perched on a wood platform in the crotch of a tree and I nearly cut him with my broadhead as I swung my bow to shoot at the approaching deer. After I made the shot, he showed me how to look for blood and read the clues that the deer had left behind. While I might not have seen it then, the traditions of deer hunting and deer camp were being passed down to me.
As I started to grow and learn as a hunter, I watched as my dad’s hunting years began to wind down. It was never about coming home with a deer for him, but rather the comradery that came with the hunt. It was about spending time with his boy, his brother, and I think time with God. Though I can remember in the later years of his hunting where he would punch his tag just to show his boy he could still get the job done. As time passed, the decline in my dad’s body slowly took away his ability to hunt. After several major heart surgeries, two kidney transplants (one from his brother), and more days in the hospital than I care to remember, my best hunting partner would succumb to the effects of juvenile diabetes on the body. To say that going to deer camp without him would be difficult would be a great understatement. However, to let the traditions of deer camp go with him would have been a greater tragedy. Following my dad’s passing I took it upon myself to make sure those traditions would be passed on and never forgotten.
This year, I realized I had not been this nervous and excited to come to deer camp for a long time. My brother-in-law was coming back for his second year of deer hunting and he was bringing his father with him for his dad’s first deer hunt. As I unpacked the car the old familiar smell of those giant white pines filled my nostrils with their fresh and earthy aroma and brought back the memories of so many hunts gone by. As I looked around I knew there was work to be done before opening day. A bad storm from that summer had smashed the barn and our buck pole with it. We would have to put up a new buck pole if we were to be ready for a successful hunt.
Arriving right on time, I put my brother-in-law and his dad to work right away with the construction of the new buck pole. It was quite the operation but we were finally able to get that long and heavy 6×6 beam strapped between two trees. The buck pole was up, which is one of the defining characteristics of any notable deer camp. We also hung stands and sighted in our guns one last time before the day was out.
The deer camp experience can’t be complete without a trip over to the neighbors for a cold beverage to toast the year’s hunt and catch up with old friends. J and his dad were treated to the tour of not one but two other deer camps this night. The first was an old farm house just down the road, where it was standing room only in the kitchen as stories were told of bucks missed, deer tracked, and just a little BS. The second camp we would visit was slightly more rustic. It was an old barn that had been converted into the best deer camp this hunter has ever seen. The windows and patio door were all put in via chain saw artistry. There was an old wood stove in the corner to keep things warm and to use for cooking. A car battery gave power to the single light that lit the lower level. When the light began to grow dim, it was time to switch out batteries. A staircase would lead the way up through the floor of the second story where bunks could be found for sleeping. This was truly a camp, just a shack in the woods with everything any hunter could want.
With opening day now only hours away, it was time to try and get some sleep before the big hunt. As we went off to bed that night I could tell that both J and his dad had had a great time so far, but I couldn’t wait for them to experience the magic of opening day. We all departed from camp in the predawn darkness to our predetermined stand locations. As I settled into my stand that morning, I knew we were in for a cold sit as a stiff northwest wind kept any ideas of staying warm improbable.
By 10:30 I had only seen two small bucks which I elected to pass in hopes that they might make their way towards the others in our group. I kept thinking of the line in the song from The Thirty Point Buck “my fingers were so frozen I couldn’t pull the trigger,” as my own fingers and toes were already starting to feel the effects of that less-than-warm northwest wind. I told myself I was going to stick it out until at least 11:30 before I got down to warm up. Thankfully a few minutes past 11:00, a nice doe came to rest only yards from the bottom of my stand. I like those short tracking jobs!
Later that afternoon J’s dad would make a great shot on his first deer. After a few pictures and many congratulations I passed on the art of gutting a deer to J’s dad. I have to say he did quite a nice job for his first time. Finally we were able to put the camp buck pole to good use; unfortunately we didn’t have any bucks on it….yet. Little did we know that the following day would be an adventure full of ups and downs that we would not soon forget.
I was standing at the base of my stand just getting ready to climb up when I heard the crack of my brother-in-law’s rifle sound three times. I soon got a text letting me know he had hit a buck but was unsure if it had gone down or not. I made my way towards his stand to find him talking with the neighbor near the property line. His buck had crossed on to the neighbor’s land and we would need to track it. It was clear after 100 yards that his shot had not been fatal and we would need to be ready at any moment with a follow-up shot.
Following a few drops of blood here and there, we eventually came out to a picked corn field. This tracking job started to bring back a host of memories for me as this was not the first time we had a deer from our farm end up going into this field. I started to remember all the lessons my dad had taught me about tracking deer. What to look for, where the deer might go, putting your scope down the lowest setting, looking ahead to where the deer might be, and a host of other teachings he had shared with me.
We followed the blood trail to a thick row of planted pines on the far side of the field. I told J there was a good chance the deer might be bedded down in there and to be ready should he get up. I was going to be on the other side of pines while he followed the blood trail through the tangle of pines. He had only gone a few yards when we heard the buck get up. My heart rate skyrocketed as I readied myself for the shot I knew I was going to have to make. As the buck burst from the pines, I could tell he was wounded but still full of life and showing no signs of slowing down. I did my best to settle the cross hairs of my rifle on the deer as he ran full speed away from me. My rifle cracked as I let the first shot go, but the bullet didn’t seem to hit its mark. I cycled another round in and steadied myself before letting the rifle crack again. Still the buck kept going, crossing into another property and leaving no chance for another shot. I knew the property owner where the buck had gone, and we would have to seek permission from him to continue tracking the buck.
After a short conversation with the landowner explaining the situation, we were granted permission to track the buck once again. The buck had entered an island of woods in the middle of a large field. We pushed the buck out of the woodlot but were unable to get a shot off as he ran straight towards a nearby farm house. Knowing the direction the buck had gone, we took up the chase in our vehicle as the buck ran across another field and then into another wood lot. As we neared the area we had last seen the buck, I was beginning to think we would not be successful in our efforts. Suddenly the buck emerged from the woods on the road only 50 yards in front of us. I pressed the gas as I thought, “I’m going to end this right now with the car.” However, reason set in moments later as I thought my wife might not be so happy with my intended plan.
We watched as the buck made his way into yet another woodlot, but moving much slower than when I had seen him last. A bright red patch on his back end indicated that I had connected with at least one of previous shots as the buck was running away from us. We again gained permission from yet another land owner to track the buck onto the property he had entered. We were now over a mile from where my brother-in-law had first shot the buck. This had become a tracking job for the ages and we were increasingly confident that my brother-in-law would soon have his first buck on the ground for good.
With help from my cousin and J’s dad, we were ready for what we hoped was the final chapter of this tracking job. The three of them would follow the blood trail as I waited on a hay field up the hill from the buck’s position. If all went well they would find the buck expired in the woods below the field and if not, I was in position should he come my way.
As I heard the others grow ever closer to the field my hope started to fade. Where was this buck? Suddenly, he emerged from the cover of the woods and stopped nearly 150 yards from my position. I instinctively turned my scope power up as high as it would go as I came to a sitting position in an effort to get a steadier shot off. I centered the buck in my sights as he faced directly at me. My rifle again cracked but the buck stood motionless. I had missed. The buck didn’t move as I chambered another round and took a deep breath. I could hear my dad saying “just squeeze the trigger” as my rifle cracked for the last time.
Then the moment came… And when I looked up, the buck was on the ground for good this time.
A flood of emotion came over me as the rest of the group gathered around the buck. My efforts to pass on the traditions of deer camp had been fulfilled. Lessons my grandpa had passed to my dad were now being taught to the next generation of our hunting camp. It was a moment I will not soon forget.
As I packed up to leave camp for the year I couldn’t help but think how much my dad would have loved to be a part of it all, from putting up the buck pole, to telling stories at deer camp, and celebrating the hunt itself. Deer camp is more than a place where we go each fall to hunt. It’s a place where we reconnect with family and friends. It’s a place where traditions are passed from generation to generation. And it’s a place where fathers share time with their sons.