August 17, 2011
I’ll never forget that trip, not because I killed a big buck (I certainly did not), but because that was my first experience as a young man fraternizing with a bunch of old guys in a rickety old cabin for a weekend with “Uncle Jack” Hopping. Now, Uncle Jack wasn’t really my uncle. He married one of my mother’s best friends from high school and since my Dad had no desire to hunt, or as he would say, “leave a warm bed to freeze in the woods;” Uncle Jack agreed to take me and teach me to hunt deer. You see, I was never more happy as a little boy than when I was out in the woods or traipsing through some creek in Dothan catching shiners or shooting jay birds with my BB gun with my buddy Andrew Roney. My Grandmother caught on to this when I was a boy and subscribed to outdoors type magazines as well as Progressive Farmer. I couldn’t get enough of it. I read every issue, sought out hunting videos, rode my bike to the nearby Sporting Goods store, The Mad Outdoorsman – which was across Montgomery Highway and, thus, outside my prescribed boundaries as outlined by my mother (but I didn’t get caught often enough to keep me out of there). I would hang out there and test out all the new turkey calls, deer calls, rattle plastic antlers, ask all sorts of questions to the men working there. I just couldn’t satiate my interest in being an outdoorsman. So, my mother and grandmother finally got Uncle Jack to take me to his deer camp up in Sumter County, AL.
Uncle Jack lived up in Birmingham and I lived in Dothan, so my Mother drove me up to Montgomery where we met up with Uncle Jack. Mom dropped me off and I was off on my first big game hunting adventure. I don’t imagine I could possibly have been more excited! Well, I remember driving in his red S-10 Blazer 4x4 (which I thought was so cool!) along HWY 80 heading west out of Montgomery towards Sumter County. We talked the whole time, me asking questions and Uncle Jack doing his best to answer. I’ll never forget, through all the advice he had given me on that (seemingly) long ride; he said, “Now, Drew, here’s the biggest thing you need to remember – don’t shoot any baby deer.” Of course, I considered myself well-educated, having read all the authoritative publications on hunting deer. I had watched hundreds of videos that detailed everything from shot placement to blood tracking. I thought, come on man(!), I’m on my way to kill a big buck(!), I’m not about to waste this trip with you to kill some little baby! But it stuck with me. I didn’t want to let him down. I was so appreciative that he would take me hunting – oh, I had waited so long for this opportunity. I couldn’t screw this up!
We drove on and after maybe 2.5 hours, we pulled into camp. I guess it was probably around 2:00 – 3:00 in the afternoon and Uncle Jack gave me his Browning Automatic 7 mm Magnum topped with a Redfield 3-9 scope (I reckon I didn’t know anything about objective diameter by then or else I would have memorized that too, and I don’t remember that). I mean, this was a nice gun. I was so thrilled with it. So, Uncle Jack asked if I would like to go sit on a small green plot for the rest of the afternoon.
Of course I did! I remember my hunting boots were LaCrosse duck boots, they had a cold weather liner with Gore Tex outers in Mossy Oak camouflage. I was sure proud of them but I wasn’t taking any chances on my feet getting cold because I had read all about how that could be a problem. Well, I was prepared – I’d bought a package of charcoal heat activated foot warmers for my boots. So, Uncle Jack pulled up to the dirt trail and told me how to approach the stand and climb into it, reminding me to be careful and unload the rifle while climbing into the stand, I knew (from my reading) to be mindful of my scent trail as approached the stand – my mind was racing with all the information I had gathered in preparation of this event. I’m pretty sure I did everything right. I got up in the stand, took my boots off and inserted the charcoal foot warmers, got my boots back on and commenced with being motionless and completely silent.
It took about 30 minutes for those foot warmers to become completely activated and they damn near set my toes on fire. Here I had a bit of a conundrum as I didn’t want to make all the movement necessary to get my boots off but I felt like I had fresh embers on my toes – something had to give. The boots had to come off. After all this, I was sure I had ruined my chances but I wasn’t giving up. I stayed there, and though it was cold, it was beautiful. It was peaceful. There were squirrels in the tree tops and song birds all around. I had time to sit there and think about everything going on in my life. I don’t remember if I thought about what it was like being an awkward adolescent or maybe I was thinking about whatever pretty young girl I was interested in at the time. I do remember that I enjoyed it. I remember hearing an automatic weapon going off somewhere in the distance and thinking that couldn’t be a very ethical way to kill an animal. Maybe they were just target shooting. I stayed there until dusk and I heard Uncle Jack’s truck pulling up to the mouth of the trail so I climbed down and went to meet him. I was discouraged that I hadn’t seen a deer but he told me that’s just how it goes. That’s why they call it ‘hunting’ and not ‘killing.’
We went back to the camp house and all the other members had arrived. There were some other boys and one boy my age name Bryant -- for Coach Bryant. Me being the Alabama fan that I am, we were fast friends. I remember that night all the guys got together and were drinking beer, listening to music, and generally having a lot of fun. I remember Bryant and I snuck in and stole some beers that we drank and also had a great time. We knew we had to rise before dawn and I wasn’t going to let a good time get in the way of my deer hunting so I retired early and got in my bunk – I’ll never forget I could actually see outside through holes in that rickety trailer we were staying in, and I couldn’t have been any more comfortable – roughing it with the men-folks!
We woke up early the next morning, 0 dark thirty according to Uncle Jack – who had been a career Marine before going to work in the Steel Mills of Birmingham. He signed me up for “#7 plot.” It was a great big field planted with winter rye grass and I remember thinking, this is not like what I’ve read about deer hunting in Alabama. I thought it was all close quarters hunting in the woods and here I was looking across this great big expanse of grassy field. My dad had taught me how to fire a .22 rifle when I was three years old, so this was no deal breaker – I was just surprised at the long range I would be working with in the event that I was so fortunate to see a deer.
I guess I got in that stand somewhere around 5:30 or 6:00 and I sat there thinking whatever thoughts came to mind… enjoying the pretty day… shivering… and waiting. I guess it was around 8:00 when I heard something approaching from my right – the direction of the trail to the field. I didn’t have a window from the shooting house in this direction so I stuck my head out of the back door and saw a guy approaching me along with his girlfriend. He clearly hadn’t checked the sign in board and had no idea there would be someone in the stand. I knew better than to get into an argument with him --both of us being armed -- thank goodness. He apologized and went on about his business for the day.
At this point I was feeling pretty defeated. Everything I had read to this point led me to believe this guy had just ruined my hunt. I didn’t think I was going to see any deer after having this guy traipse up with his girlfriend. Also, I was getting pretty bored and I was thinking maybe I could go walk through the woods and come up on something (note, this is always a bad idea). Just when I was about to make my move and get out of the deer stand, something appeared across the field. Some brown speck -- could it be?
I brought the Redfield scope to my eye and dialed it up to 9 power. There she was -- a big old nanny doe. I was sure she was a good size doe and I wasn’t about to let her go. Back in those days, Alabama only had a two week season where does were legal to shoot – and it just so happened that this was during doe days. I was sure this was a 200 yard shot (probably really only about a hundred) but I had confidence in my rifle and my ability. I aimed a couple inches high and sent a round down range. I could see the deer’s front legs give and he took off to the other edge of the field adjacent to where she was originally standing. She probably ran 20 yards basically just pushing with her hind legs into the trees and I was scared I hadn’t hit her well enough. I lit out of the shooting house to where she originally came to the field and as I approached I realized that my shot had, indeed, been true. There was blood and bone such that there was no doubt. I walked into the trees following the trail of blood and walked up on her final resting spot. There she lay, a 40 pound yearling.
Just a baby. I couldn’t believe it.
What was Uncle Jack going to say?? I had broken the cardinal rule.
I sat down next to her and thought, what was I going to do? There was nothing that I could do to correct this, the deer was dead. I had taken her life and all that could be done was to do the right thing and make proper use of her carcass. You have to eat what you kill. That is what I knew to be right. So, at this point I decided I just had to make the best of it. I knew that I had read in cold weather deer meat would keep for some time – but how long? At this point in the morning, the sun had come out and it was probably not below freezing any more.
How warm is too warm?
I wasn’t taking any chances. I had read many stories about field dressing animals and this was my opportunity to show Uncle Jack I may have messed up in identifying the size of the animal, but I knew what to do with her once she was down.
I took out my knife and set to open her belly up. It was at this point that I noticed this wasn’t a her, it was a him. Oh no, I had killed a little baby buck deer! This is even much worse than killing a small doe. Well, still nothing I can do about it but make the best of it. I took my knife and opened up his belly to expose all the entrails and I stuck my bare hands in there to pull it all out.
Whoa!! That was nasty! I nearly lost my breakfast and I wasn’t about to stick my hands back up in there! Now I had a real problem on my hands. Uncle Jack wasn’t going to disturb me, he had told me to stay in the stand as long as I wanted through the morning. He would be waiting at a spot we had designated to meet. Well, that was a long walk and even though this deer was small, even 40 pounds was heavy for my 140 pound frame to tote out. And now I had guts hanging out of the belly that were going to get nasty if I were to drag him through the dirt. Man, what a mess!
There were no other options, I grabbed his hind legs and held them as high as I could over my back and I set to walking down that dirt trail back to the rally point. It was a long walk dragging that deer but I finally made it after several rest breaks. Uncle Jack was there and I could see his disappointment when he saw the deer I’d killed. He shook it off quickly, we went on back to the camphouse and cleaned the deer properly. It may have been a baby but, rest assured – I was told – this is the best deer meat you’ll ever taste! All the men had their fun with me, they bloodied my face up with deer blood and took my picture. I wish I still had that picture but I have no idea what happened to it.
I was forgiven and the weekend moved on. That afternoon we would have a deer drive. I’m not sure I’d ever heard of such. e were going to have one group of men walking and hollering & hooping it up in an effort to move deer that normally would just stay bedded down and hidden all during the day. Well, since I had just killed a deer that morning, I wound up in the drive team as opposed to being one of the stationed hunters set up at an ambush point. Basically it was pretty uneventful for me, just walking through the woods making a bunch of noise… until we heard a big boom!
Then a bunch of screaming?
What could that have been?
We all made our way back to the camphouse and it turned out that one of the other boys who was there with his Dad was set up at an ambush point with one of the dad’s friends. The friend had given the boy his 12 gauge shotgun and when a deer came by the boy took a shot at it but the boy didn’t know how to properly hold the butt of the shotgun tight into his shoulder. The recoil had forced the rear rifle sights on the barrel back into the boys face and it gashed his face wide open. This was bad. The father was very upset with his friend and I thought they were going to fight. The boy was crying and screaming bloody murder, and there was blood. Lots of blood.
It didn’t take long and they high tailed it to the hospital in Demopolis and the nearest hospital. At this point, I guess Uncle Jack just decided that he didn’t really care to stay around this camp any more, with all the commotion and he decided that he and I would drive down to Clarke County to hunt with some other friends of his that had a big place down on the Alabama River. So, we drove down there and stayed in a historic home. I can’t remember the history, but I do remember that Uncle Jack wanted his Browning back and he lent me his Springfield M1 30 – 06 with basic iron sights.
They put me in a converted port-a-potty that had been painted camouflage and had windows cut out to make for a shooting house. I thought this was a great idea when I first saw it and it was pretty good for its purpose. The problem is that the thin fiberglass is really loud if you bump into a wall or move around at all. I remember trying to sit still and not make the least movement but it didn’t matter. The deer weren’t moving that day, or at least they weren’t moving around the plot I was sitting on. This plot was small, perhaps a quarter acre planted in rye grass in the middle of a large pine thicket.
So, it was here that we closed out my first weekend of deer hunting. I sat in that converted port-a-potty until about 10:00 that morning, then got out and went to the rally point that Uncle Jack had established for us to meet back.
The hunt was over but it had been a blast! I had killed my first deer and even if it was a baby buck, I was bringing venison home!