The life of a lineman’s wife can be...chaotic. Checking the weather, tracking storms, and obsessing over power outage maps are commonplace. I swear storms pick the most inopportune times to take my husband away for days- sometimes even weeks. I scramble around doing the job of two parents, just trying to do the best I can. It’s survival mode most times.
This time the storm that called my lineman away coincided with a Covid quarantine. I was out of quarantine but still deep into riding it out with three of our four kids. Days ticked by like years. I was more than ready to grab my bow and take refuge in my tree stand by the time my husband returned home that Sunday.
I had been seeing consistent doe activity on the private land I hunt, but nothing within bow range of my stand so far. After a bit of convincing, I purchased my muzzleloader license. It was, after all, opening muzzleloader weekend.
Despite my desire to harvest my first deer with a bow, I headed out, Buckwacka and quick reloads in hand.
After a quiet, slow walk in, I settle into the familiar ladder stand. Stress and tension dissipating, replaced with the sights and sounds of the woods. Leaves fall in swirls and spirals. Squirrels doing acrobatics- stretching and reaching for the hard-to-get “good stuff." Birds finish up their daily rounds through the half-bare branches. I can finally breathe again.
The unseasonably warm October day was beginning to cool. Double-checking sunset on my phone, I start to regret not wearing more than a thin long-sleeve camo shirt and orange vest. I pull out my bleat can, holding it in my hand for a moment, considering what to do. I’m always on the fence about whether it’s better to use calls or be completely still and silent. The jury is still out on that one, but I have got nothing to lose. Holding my thumb over the hole in the center of the can, I give it a flip. Ten seconds or so pass, and I flip it again. Thirty more seconds pass. I turn the can over one last time before returning it to the side pocket of my pants. Hopeful.
I’m surrounded by squirrels collecting goods for the impending winter with greed. They scurry and scratch, scaling the trees and shaking limbs. They drown out the other sounds of the forest. But, beyond the busy squirrels, hidden in a thicket of evergreen whips, a young buck has heard the bleats.
I might have heard him coming across the damp brown leaves sooner, if not for the squirrel raucous. At first, I mistake the rustle of his hooves for yet another fat grey squirrel. Not until I hear the telltale snap of a twig does he catch my attention. Instantly every sense is on high alert. A shot of adrenaline. I shift my eyes as far to the right as they’ll go, which is not far enough. In slow motion, I turn just in time to see him cautiously emerge from the pine thicket into the overgrown logging cut at my back.
He takes another step into an opening in the cut. That is when I see his antlers. A buck! His antlers are small, but he has a decent-sized body. He is a deer I would be happy to call my first. Blood pumps fast and loud through my body as adrenaline takes over. I struggle to quiet the shake in my hands. Whether it’s the adrenaline or the fact that I have had my thumb on the hammer for the past hour because I am so afraid I’ll forget to cock it, I am not sure, but I struggle with the hammer. It takes both hands to pull it back. I fumble with the gun, still trying to steady my breathing and the shake in my hands. Meanwhile, the buck steps out of the opening and into the beech brush that is taking over a skid road about 40 yards to the back right of my stand. All I can see of him now is one gray ear, flicking forward and back, and his upright lobster claw 4-points. I scan the whips trying to locate the rest of his body, wondering if I could shoot through them, but ultimately deciding against it. Instead, I wait.
If all my hours of bow hunting have taught me anything, it is patience. Quietly I shift my body and the muzzle of the gun in the vicinity from which I hope he will appear. After what feels like an eternity, I can no longer see his lobster claw antlers or his ear, and I can no longer hear the rustle of his hooves on the wet ground. Still, I wait.
Sunset. I begin to wonder if somehow, he has snuck back into the safety of the pine thicket- as irrational as that is, considering that I have been watching the beeches like a hawk. My excitement begins to drain.
The sun sinks slowly. I remember the small green can in my left side pocket and make a decision. Knowing that I might completely blow my chances of a Halloween buck if it was the wrong one. But if I’m right, I might get him out of the beech scrub and into my crosshairs.
I reach into my side pocket with my left hand. Hoping the sound will be loud enough to get his attention but quiet enough that he won’t peg me. From inside my pocket, I cover the hole. I say a little prayer and give it a flip.
A rustle in the beeches. There he is! Curious, not spooked, and heading right where I want him to. The sight of him reignites my adrenaline. A black nose rimmed with white sniffs the air. The buck's brown legs are so well camouflaged against the yellow-tan leaves and scrub brush that they almost aren’t even visible. His head drops towards the ground, momentarily distracted as he picks his way out of the scrub. I adjust the intensity of the scope until it’s just right for a close shot. My left hand rests securely on the seatback of the stand, supporting the barrel of the muzzleloader. I find his brown body in my crosshairs.
Not yet. Branches still block a clean shot.
Time stands still. My heartbeat becomes audible. It pounds at a deafening volume in my ears as the buck emerges from the overgrowth and enters the sparse pine grove to the right of my stand. He stops behind the first large pine.
The rest of the world fades. It is only me and that buck out there in those pines. Securing the butt of the muzzleloader against my right shoulder, I pray to God for a quick clean kill. In disbelief that this is actually happening.
The buck takes one step out from behind the pine, then another, and then freezes. He is alert now, his ears pricked in my direction, his body quartered to me, my crosshair is securely on his left shoulder; it is now or never.
One second, two, three. I exhale and squeeze the trigger.
The boom echoes off the hillside beyond him. Smoke and the sulphury smell of gunpowder fill the air. Through the gun smoke, I see his brown and white body pitching and hurdling through the pines.
He leaps through the air one last time before he falls.
All the hours I have spent preparing for this moment- haven’t prepared me. I can’t believe what just happened. If I thought I was shaking before, I’m full-body trembling now. The buck lays motionless as I open the break and pull the hot, spent primer. Clumsily I empty the reload powder and bullet down the muzzle. Glancing back and forth between the business at hand and the downed buck. I pull out the ramrod with my right hand, pack the gun, quickly replace the ramrod, and set a new primer. I don’t think I have taken a breath.
Reloaded and ready, I finally take a deep breath and look over again.
He still hasn’t moved.
Does that mean....did I just get my first deer?! I clench my fingers tightly, and fist pump the air, letting out a whisper scream through my clenched jaw.
Back at the cozy house, down the little camp road, my husband and kids are pulling a lasagna out of the oven. Somehow, they haven’t heard the shot, so it is a complete surprise when my facetime call comes through. “I got one; I can see him- he’s down!” I think I said- still only half believing the words that are coming out of my mouth. I can picture the excited scramble of kids and dogs as they rush to get dressed and find me.
In the woods, everything still feels like slow motion. My mini-celebration ends, and I take a few more deep breaths until I am steady enough to climb down safely. I pull the primer and lower the gun down first, then with shaky knees, I follow. They aren’t kidding when they say everything looks different when you get back on the ground. From my shortened point of view, the motionless buck is no longer visible. I replace the primer, just in case, and start up the shooting lane where I know I will find him.
Twenty-five yards from the stand, I still don’t have eyes on him, and even though I saw him fall, a flicker of doubt still crosses my mind.
Thirty yards, Thirty-five-there I see him! Ten yards away, his tawny brown back lies still and quiet on the cold earth. My breath catches in my throat, and my heart picks up at a freight train's pace again. I approach him cautiously, giving his haunches a gentle nudge with the muzzle of the gun. His body rocks gently with my nudge.
Buck down! I rest the gun against a stump, overwhelmed by a mix of emotions: excitement, accomplishment, pride, disbelief.
But more than anything, I feel a profoundly, deep sense of gratitude for this animal, this moment, and for the great God that blessed me with both. I reach out, and stroke his warm body, the first human to ever touch it, and tears swell in my eyes. A moment of quiet solitude. A moment that will stay with me forever.
In the distance, I hear my kids crashing through the logs and leaves to find us, me, and my buck and a smile breaks across my face. Their excitement is evident as I wave them over, and I am so proud to share this moment with them. They hold my buck’s little lobster claw antlers, and they touch his warm coat in wonder. This is a moment they won’t soon forget. Forever etched into their childhood. They will come back to these woods someday, if only in their memories. Then, when someone asks them how they got into hunting, maybe this is the moment they will think of.
My husband wraps me in a big, congratulatory bear hug. He beams with pride; he has been my best teacher and biggest cheerleader throughout my journey to become a hunter. He offers to field dress my buck, and I let him- this time!
Dusk turns the woods dark around us as he works by the light of our headlamps.
When he has finished, the six of us tromp through the dark woods together. I drag first, but soon we each grab a crab claw, and my buck slides across the damp earth without much trouble. After that, it is an easy 150-yard downhill drag to the dirt road.
That evening, I emerge from the woods with much more than deer in the pickup bed and a notch in my belt. I will feel this hunt forever. I am changed. Changed in a way that is difficult to put into words. I understand intimately the sacrifice that has been made. I will taste it with each bite of venison we enjoy.
Here's to the first of (hopefully) many successful hunts to come!