Sunday, October 18, 2009

The great shock: I finally got my first 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.


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.


"A rabbit."

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.

Where I saw antlers

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


native said...

I can't express my Pride and Happiness for you enough Holly Go Lightly!
The only regret for me (And Phillip I am sure) is that we were not there with you.

Next time though!

SimplyOutdoors said...

Holly, that is completely awesome. And that is one respectable buck, I don't care who you are or where you're from.

It made me relive the experience of killing my first deer, and it is something I will never forget. It is such a great feeling.

Congrats again. Awesome!

Stacey Huston said...

Congrats to you Girl!! So very proud of you!

Phillip said...

Holly, like I said yesterday, I'm completely stoked for you! I don't think this could have worked out more perfectly for you... not only that you got a deer, but that you did it solo, on your own terms, and you got through all the stuff you were afraid you'd have trouble with.

But I still can't help thinking either, what a perfectly "Holly" hunt this must've been... what with houseboats, fountains, and marble statuary in your hunting ground. Not many hunters will contend with whether or not their shot is safe because it might take the arms off of Venus or something.

You done good, girl!

Cat said...

how very exciting! i remember my first deer, and each one since. it's incredible and yet somehow sad, to take the life of the animal. i give thanks each time. i harvested my first deer with a bow this past weekend; a truly thrilling hunt. my husband has taught me most of what i know of about hunting deer. i'll be forever grateful to him for teaching me the respect for the animal, and the skill to take one.

congrats to you!

Marian Ann Love said...

Congrats Holly - I was so excited to see that you had gotten your very "first" deer. A memory you will never ever forget. I'm so proud of you Holly! You Go Girl! :)
PS: Love your picture with you deer! It's priceless! :)

Barbara Baird said...

Congrats! Great reading and you had me on the edge of my computer chair.
Thanks ...

Jules said...

Congratulations Holly! That's a very nice forked horn, and I know from experience that getting him all dressed out and loaded isn't easy.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks everyone! It's really gratifying to be able to share my story with such a fine community of friends.

At the end of the day yesterday, I realized how much adrenaline had pulled me through the whole thing. At 5 p.m., I realized all I'd had to eat all day was half a bag of Sunchips. My back started feeling incredibly sore. This morning, my hamstrings are killing me. It didn't feel like I'd worked that hard yesterday, but I guess even that limited dragging - he was maybe 140 pounds - was a little workout. I never could've done it alone where Phillip and I hunted the weekend before.

And yes, Phillip, hunting amid statues and houseboats was classic Holly. There was a Stonehenge too - crazy stuff! It was quite the playground, a mixture of the wild and the very civilized. Perhaps you can help Boyfriend and I come up with a strategy for helping with the pig problem.

But for now, I am sated - a feeling I don't often have while hunting.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

I'm so delighted for you. As a long time reader of your blog I know just how much commitment you've shown to get to this moment.

European bleached skull mount on a stone shield, handbag and matching loafers?

Oh and I hear there's a chap who lives near you who's quite the wild food supremo!


sportingdays said...

Wow....congratulations. What an accomplishment to get a deer by yourself and haul it and field dress it, too. That deer, btw, will be absolutely delicious. What a way to head into duck season!!

Anonymous said...

Holly, Congratulations! It's so nice to hear about first time hunting experiences. Really enjoy your columns. Keep up the great experiences.

Holly Heyser said...

SBW, we're in the process of doing the skull mount now - probably something I'll write about because the process is icky and the photos are priceless and why not?

Sportingdays, you nailed it - this was an amazing way to spend the weekend before duck season.

Unknown said...

NICE BUCK, HOLLY!!! Congratulations!!

Ken and Joanne said...

Hay Holly, That's a tall rack for a two pointer. Are you sure there wasn't a knob on one side or another? Fritz would bust his buttons with pride. Following in the old man's footsteps.


Anonymous said...

Holly, you're my new hero! As a beginning huntress, I am far from deer hunting. Your recount brings all my fears of big game hunting to the forefront but knowing that you did it and did it by yourself gives me confidence that some day, I can do it too!


Holly Heyser said...

Joanne, thank you so much for saying that - I thought of Dad yesterday too (and not just when I was cursing during the field dressing!). I figured this was one of those moments that would've made him proud. No other knobs on the antlers, but that's OK - I know this is a really nice forkie.

And Renee, you'd be surprised how many people are with you when you hunt alone - your mentors are all there with you in your head. Unfortunately, they're not with you in the body cavity. But I did OK. Somehow I failed to get half of the liver. But the meat was all OK when I brought it home to my personal chef (Boyfriend), and that's what mattered.

And THANKS, Pink Camo Gal! I'm still stoked :-)

fern tompkins benson said...

congratulations to my cousin the hunter! too bad you didn't get more excited!

Anonymous said...



I don't understand the wanting to parade it around, either, but cave paintings tell us it's been part of what we are for a very long time.

Outstanding work. I am grinning at my desk because of your success.


Holly Heyser said...

Oh, Jean, me too! Ever since my first big game kill with a botched shot (gut shot to a wild boar), I have been really fanatical about practicing as much as possible and not pushing myself to do any shots that I don't absolutely think I can make cleanly.

I know it will happen to me again - it's inevitable. But after watching the first one go wrong, I am so grateful every time a shot goes where I want it to. In fact, the whole thing yesterday was a series of things gone miraculously right - spotting the deer, not spooking him, waiting for the perfect shot and getting it. Lucky, lucky day.

hodgeman said...

Good show Holly. Congratulations!

Anonymous said...

My heart was pounding as I read this, remembering being with my niece last year when she shot her first deer. Congratulations!

Josh said...

Congratulations, Holly!

I can't stop smiling for you.

The Hunter's Wife said...

Holly, Congratulations! From start to finish.

lralph said...

Congratulations, Holly. I'm happy for you.

HELLEK said...

Congratulations, Holly! I'm not surprised that it was a clean shot after seeing your work at the range.

Unknown said...

Congrats Holly! That is a great buck.

Anonymous said...


First a BIG Congats that this worked out so well. (I'm sure as it would have in a dream?)

Then, you go Girl!

You did this one ALL on your own!

All those worries and doubts are now behind you. (oh, I'm sure some might linger in the future, but)

You now have this one under your belt and the next one is just around the bend.

Bill C.-Orygun

Jon Roth said...

Way to go Holly; good times! Congrats on your success.

Terry Scoville said...

Well done Holly! Congratulations.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, Terry!

Amanda said...

Holly this gave me chills!!! :) So exciting! I think you need to write a book as well, I was captivated!

Blessed said...

Congratulations Holly! I'd be excited too :)

gary said...

Congrats Holly, I know all the feelings you talked about as you went along, as its been just three weeks since Sue took her first solo buck and I got to observe those feelings first hand. She was still pumped the next day. Lots of feelings that are unexplainable but we can't deny them either. Enjoyed every detail of the hunt.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, Gary! My desire to parade around with my kill is the weirdest one. But I see examples of it all around me in the animal world, so I can't help but think it's just natural. (Lord, you should see my cat when she has successfully stalked her mouse toy - she struts up and down the hall with the thing in her mouth like she's the queen of the world.)

suzee said...

I'm so happy for you!!! I have been too busy to check out blogs for several days... can't believe Gary never told me!... I'm going to give him a bad time about that!...That is a beautiful deer... so glad it worked out for you to experience it "on your own"... but really appreciated what you said have all the information and examples of those who've mentored you, going over in your head the whole time!Loved the picture of where you shot the deer... with the boat in the forground! My deer hunt was very similar, only it was chickens and horses I had to watch out for instead of marble statues and boats!Thanks for sharing your awesome experience Holly!

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks Suzee! I still can't believe how lucky I was.

And re the boat: It was literally a shot across the bow! OK, not totally - I was never in danger of hitting the boat. But I liked the imagery...

Wasn't yours an archery hunt? I'm so not there yet. I loved Gary's story about it, how you just wordlessly went out and did your thang!

FRAZIER said...

Felicidades por tu venado cazadora
it almost takes the excitement out of the duck season opener sat hu? almost lol good job thats a nice looking buck and i kno what you mean those bladders are like ticking time bombs especially with shaky hands lol
p.s. this is kevin karinas husband your "former"lol student the one who helped the hen and brood across the street lol

Holly Heyser said...

Muchas gracias, Kevin! I was wondering how to say deer in Spanish and hadn't gotten around to looking it up, so thanks for that too. And yes, that bladder scared the HELL out of me. It was like a test that you can't afford to fail.

But I'm ready for ducks now. I feel like I've satisfied the big-game itch, and with all this meat in the freezer, we don't have room for much more than ducks now either. It really feels like I've graduated, which I haven't felt probably since my first kill.

Glad to see you here - I've told the story of Karina watching you help the ducklings many times.

Give tu esposa mi amor!

sportingdays girl said...

Yes! What an awesome day! I got a message on my email, "Holly got a deer!" MUST READ!! Great story telling, you had me at hello. I have a feeling you're still living in the afterglow.

Terri Lee said...

Way to go Holly! I shot my firt deer with a bow last year and had the same feeling of doing all by myself! I would love to share your story on my site.

Mike Hawk Huston said...

Great job lady... nothing like your first..I am sure many more deer will fall to your well placed shots. good eating too, great story and killer photo....happy hunting Hawk

EcoRover said...

Beautiful. I've been hunting many years, but was never so happy as when daughter Emily killed her first deer in a perfect hunt in a wild place. If you're ever in Montana, let me know if you need a good spot for antelope or mulies.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks! And boy, would I LOVE to hunt antelope and mulies in Montana. But my teaching schedule makes that tough - hard for me to get away for more than a three-day weekend once school starts.

But I love antelope. And I love Montana.

danontherock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
danontherock said...

Misspelling sorry!
Congratulations on your first deer. I remember my first big game animal as if it was yesterday.
Great blog. I really enjoy your writing

Albert A Rasch said...


Congrats on your deer! Which I would have known sooner! You did it all, from spotting to gutting, darn fine job. Hope to see more!


Bill said...

Great job on the deer and great story too. I just wrapped up my third season of deer hunting as well, but alas, no buck for me yet. Hopefully next season.

Holly Heyser said...

If anyone would like to see what Boyfriend did with the shanks of this deer, click here. He braised them 'til they were falling off the bone and served them with a to-die-for Portuguese sauce. It was amazing - all you could hear at the table was little happy sounds and the clinks of forks against plates - no knives needed.

Bpaul said...

I gotta ask, what hunting sticks do you use and how do you like them. You use actual sticks or a bipod?

Thanks ahead of time.

And huge congratulations, great story.


Holly Heyser said...

I use a Vanguard bipod, telescoping legs, with a u-shaped swiveling gun rest. It's OK. Nothing against this particular model, but I really need a tripod - I am not that steady on my own (I would never shoot offhand), and I need the most stable rest I can get.

Bpaul said...

For my airgun hunting (which ends up being like taking shots at big game with a 'real' rifle at 2-300 yds or more) I use a really cheap camera tripod for a base. But I'm regretting it. It's too cheap.

It's a little different for an airgun, because you still must (for a spring-piston airgun at least) use your hand for a rest. Not the tripod.

But I am looking for a tri- or bi-pod for my 30.06, which (I pray) will be getting drug down to roughly your neck of the woods in pursuit of boar in the not too distant future.

Anyway, thanks for the response, I appreciate it.