I GOT A DEER! I GOT A DEER! I GOT A DEER!
I shouted the words into the cell phone this morning, struggling to share the news with Boyfriend as the bars kept disappearing from my screen. Redial. Signal lost. Redial again. Ring ring ring.
I GOT A DEER!
He got it that time.
I went out this morning like I do on all hunts - simultaneously fantasizing about the perfect hunt and bracing for the big goose-egg.
The latter is a good strategy for blacktail hunting in California, which has the lowest success rate of all wild game hunting in the state. But I actually had some reason to be optimistic today.
First of all, unlike last weekend's hunt with Phillip in the Mendocino National Forest, I was on private land. It was only 50 acres, but it was 50 acres that hasn't been hunted in who knows how long, and I had it all to myself.
Second of all, unlike last weekend when we did not see one single legal buck, I'd already seen several on this land. But let me back up for a second.
Boyfriend and I were actually supposed to be hunting wild boar here. Owners John and Peg Poswall were going out in the mornings and finding their landscaping all dug up. Peg knows Boyfriend through the food world, and she thought her hunter friend might be able to help alleviate their problem.
The only hitch was that they had never seen the pigs during the day, which we knew might be an insurmountable obstacle - you can't hunt pigs at night. But John mentioned that they had tons of deer that we were also welcome to hunt, so I picked up a deer tag Thursday morning.
When I arrived Friday afternoon ahead of Boyfriend, John took me on a tour of the property and I found tons of pig sign and deer sign. At the end of the ride, I even saw several legal bucks (forked-horn or better) skitter across their fence. Sweet!
Boyfriend and I spent the night and when we got up the next morning, I took him to a spot where I'd found a pretty good pig trail. We perched on some boulders and waited to see what would come, but nothing did. Then I looked up the hill and noticed deer munching on cypress trees on a walkway leading to a fountain. They were about 180 yards away.
I angled up the rock for a better shooting position and one of the bucks in the group turned broadside. My heart raced. My bipod shooting stick was too low. My position was awkward and unsteady. In the early-morning light, I couldn't see clearly what was behind the buck (I think it might've been a chicken coop, but there were lots of marble statues in the vicinity that had me just as worried). And on top of all that, it was 180 yards away - a little far for me. The buck moved behind a tree, and then the whole group trotted off and the opportunity was gone.
Boyfriend totally would've taken that shot - and made it - so I felt like a moron for holding back. But he was nice enough about it. "If it doesn't feel right, you shouldn't do it," he said.
We decided to take a quiet walk around the property so I could show him other promising spots I'd seen. As we walked along a creek at the bottom of a hill, we bumped four does on the open hillside above us. Then we went to a pond where pigs had been wreaking havoc. By this time, it was getting pretty late and we began talking in normal tones instead of a whisper. We figured we'd spend the rest of the morning mushroom hunting.
"You know what we haven't seen yet?" he asked.
And just then, something burst away from us on the other side of a bush.
"There's one," he said laughing. Then we realized it wasn't a rabbit; it was a buck. Forked-horn, and a nice size. He'd let us get ridiculously close to him.
The buck sprinted up the hill and then came to a stop. Broadside. Right in front of the house.
I looked back at Boyfriend, chagrined to have lost my second chance of the morning.
"Oh, even I wouldn't have taken that shot!" he said.
We called it quits not long after that. But it was really bugging me that I knew deer were there and I hadn't gotten a shot at them. When John and Peg made it clear I was welcome back anytime, I said, "Could I come back tomorrow?"
That was how I found myself walking down that trail again at 5:50 this morning in the near-blackness of the new moon - alone, because Boyfriend had work to do today. I hadn't gone 20 steps down the driveway when I bumped a deer - right where we'd spooked that forkie the day before. But I couldn't see what it was. Too dark.
I circled around to the place where we'd seen the first deer of the day on Saturday, and as I made my way to an oak tree I could back up to, I bumped another deer that I could hear, but not see.
Crap. Would this be the only time I'd see the deer here?
The answer was yes. I spent nearly two hours under that tree and watched all variety of geese and ducks and woodpeckers, and heard not one but two flocks of turkeys down the hill from me. But not a single four-legged critter came by. And with the wind swirling all over the place, it was no surprise - my scent had to be stinking up the whole area. The only excitement had been hearing rifle fire from somewhere nearby. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Damn, either you're not a good shot, or you're not hunting...
I decided to bail.
I walked back to the pond where we'd bumped the forkie to see if he'd make the same mistake twice, but he wasn't there.
It was 8:40 and I hadn't seen squat. But I decided to make one last swing - down to the creek, then back up to where I'd started - before calling it quits.
I walked down the trail toward the creek quietly, scanning the big, open hillside where we'd bumped the does the day before, wondering where they were now.
Then I saw antlers sticking up out of the dry grass. They were attached to a head that was pointed my way.
My heart leapt into my throat and the rest of my body went the other direction, sinking slowly toward the ground, right there in the middle of the trail. I set up my shooting sticks, raised the gun and took at better look at what I'd seen - a lone forked-horn buck bedded down, broadside to me, about 80 yards away. He was looking my direction, but the wind was in my face, so he couldn't smell me, and he clearly wasn't spooked.
My stick was positioned too low, so I slowly reached for each of the legs and extended them a bit. Looked through the scope again. Still a forked-horn - looked like the one we'd seen the day before. Shooting stick was still too low.
One more adjustment and it was perfect. And the buck still wasn't moving.
But boy, my gun was. My heart was thumping wildly.
Calm down, calm down, calm down, I told myself. I put the crosshairs on where I thought his vitals should be, but the grass obscured his body.
No need to take that shot, I told myself. He'd have to get up soon - his nice shady spot was starting to get sun.
Calm down, calm down, calm down.
I kept the scope on his vitals, but my eyes kept wandering to his antlers. A forkie may be no big deal in whitetail country, but this was a respectable deer. A legal target. My heart raced more.
Just look at his ribcage.
After five minutes, I finally calmed down enough that I felt I could take a shot.
If he'd just get up. He seemed to be in no hurry. He looked this way and that. No hurry.
My arms trembled from holding the gun steady for so long.
Finally, the buck heaved - rear end up first, then the front. He took a step, quartering slightly toward me. I put the crosshairs behind his elbow and the rest of what happened became a crystalline memory.
He staggered a few steps and dropped. Good!
He got back up. Problem?
Even without the scope I could see a bloody hole in his ribcage, glistening in the sunshine that had ended his nap. Good hit - definitely hit lungs.
He wobbled, and collapsed.
Yes! These are the shots I dream of. Not some botched shot that sends an animal into the woods to suffer until I find him, maybe dead, maybe alive. The shot that takes him down before he knows what happened. No suffering; just rapid death.
I watched the spot, then checked my watch. Boyfriend and I had gone over the what-if scenarios the night before. How long should I wait if I shoot a deer and it runs? How long if he just drops on the spot?
Ten minutes, just to be safe. It was 8:54:03.
I was trembling uncontrollably. I peeled off my gloves, jacket and hat and watched the spot to make sure he didn't get up. For a moment, I saw the grass twitch spasmodically where the deer had fallen. Not struggle; just the nerve reactions that follow death. I've never killed a deer before, but I know what that looks like.
I glanced at my watch. 8:57.
Oh my God, I got a deer!
"Thank you," I said out loud. For the deer's sacrifice. For the dumb luck that had allowed me to spot him, and to take the time to regain my composure, and to be presented with a perfect shot.
I looked at my watch every 30 seconds, and finally it was time. I marched up the slope and searched the knee-high star thistle. There. On the ground. Eyes open and tongue out. Dead.
He looked a little smaller than I'd thought from where I shot him, but I didn't care - he was a good looking deer.
I went back up to the house to get some things - like Boyfriend's truck, which I could take down the trail. I saw Peg and John at the house.
"We heard seven shots!" John said.
"Only one was mine," I said. "The last one."
They seemed relieved. "John was saying, 'She must not be a very good shot...' " Peg said.
I laughed, and told them I needed to get back to the deer to field dress it.
But first, I needed a picture. I'd brought my camera, a tripod and a remote control, so I could take a picture of myself:
The gutting was a pain. The biggest mammal I've ever dressed was a jack rabbit, so this was more challenging. I struggled through it and got almost everything out. That's when I noticed the very full bladder still attached. I felt around it, trying to figure out how to liberate it without emptying it all over the meat, with the animal lying on its side on a gentle slope. I was stumped.
Blood up to my elbows, I grabbed my cell phone and dialed Boyfriend. "How do I get the &^@#! bladder out?" I yelled. His answer was not helpful. I went back to the deer, and after several attempts, hoisted him up by his hind legs to get the bladder hanging, pinched off the tube leading into it, cut the tube and tossed the bladder a safe distance away.
And here's where I felt really blessed to be hunting where I was: I was able to drop the tailgate of the pickup, angle it toward the hillside, and drag the deer 20 yards to the bed of the pickup. Total luxury!
I went back to the house to get the remainder of my stuff and gave thanks to my hosts. Peg looked at me - bloody and stinking - with what looked like a mix of intrigue and horror. She was totally cool with the hunting, but for all I know, this was her closest encounter with freshly-killed meat.
"All right," I said. "I'd give you a hug, but I'm disgusting and smelly, so I'm just going to get out of here."
On the drive home, I began texting and calling my hunting friends to share the news. I'd tucked the deer well into the bed of the pickup so nothing would stick out, but honestly, I had the urge to parade him around and show everyone: I'd just gotten a deer. By myself! My first deer ever. A blacktail! I just wanted someone in a taller vehicle than mine to look into the bed of that truck and give me the nod of approval.
I was amused by my reaction. I've not really cared that I hadn't gotten a deer in my previous three years of hunting, but I was as proud and excited as if it had been a lifelong goal.
When I got home, I got what I was looking for. I found Boyfriend working in the garden, but he came to me immediately to give his stinky, bloody girlfriend a big hug. He was proud of me - I'd done it on my own.
I kept grinning through the rest of our work breaking down the deer, and wondered why I was so taken with the experience.
"I think we're just hardwired to hunt deer," he said. "We've been hunting deer since before we were 'we.' "
Maybe it's that. Maybe it's the odds. I'd gotten my Second Chance buck on my sixth day of deer hunting ever. Statistics say it takes 33 days of hunting to get one. Phillip had told me it'd taken him four years to get a blacktail.
Maybe it's the antlers - the thing that allows you to instantly measure your quarry. This was the first antlered animal I'd killed.
Maybe it was the fact that I'd done it myself. Sorta. While I was alone at that moment, the reality is that every action I took was influenced by what I'd learned from people like Boyfriend, Phillip and even random TV shows. But I'd made all the decisions. I'd spotted the antlers in the grass. I'd taken the good shot.
I don't know. I probably won't figure it out tonight. I may not figure it out ever. But for now, I'm just happy.
© Holly A. Heyser 2009