“JUST PICK ONE!” Those were the words my father frantically whispered many years ago as I was swinging my rifle back and forth, trying to find the deer I wanted to take. Just seconds before, 5 does had come barreling down the ridge which was sounding like a freight train coming through. When the deer started to make their way to our hiding spot, they came within 10 yards before they spotted us. Each of them started to dart away from us in all directions. I raised my lever action Marlin 30-30 and began looking for the deer I wanted. My father was beside himself with the anticipation and impatience that most fathers feel the first time they take their son for his first hunt. I finally spotted my deer. I centered my sights, controlled my breathing, and pulled the trigger.
The rustling of leaves from a frolicking pair of squirrels brought me back to the present. It had been almost exactly 21 years since my Pop and I enjoyed the joy of a hunter and his first harvest. I still found myself in the same woods as that novice hunter of my youth, but this time it was different. I was sitting alone, in my Pops tree stand, and with his rifle. The rifle was the same rifle I had learned to shoot with and had taken my first deer with. Besides the countless memories, that same rifle served as one of the few possessions I had as a remembrance to my late father. Just months before and after a lengthy fight, my father and hunting buddy had succumbed to illness.
As I sat in his stand, thinking back on all our memories together, I began to become emotional. This was the first time since his passing that I had sat in his stand with the rifle of my youth and it was becoming too much to bear. In addition to knowing this hunt would be one of the hardest I would ever do, I dropped my rifle pulling it out of its case. So it’s safe to say that my morning started off in a rough way. I had prayed that the sights were not damaged in any way as I continued into the woods. Later, I would find that out at the worst possible time.
It was around 8:30 a.m., and I was mentally and emotionally done with hunting that day. With tears filling up my eyes and my heart literally hurting, I climbed down out of the stand. The walk out to the cabin was a tough one, spent thinking back not only on memories of pop and me hunting and the past couple months hunting without him, but also hunting with my own son and the lessons that were taught and learned. As I started up the trail, my mind drifted back off to just a few months before.
The September heat of East Tennessee was in full effect as the opening weekend of archery season was upon us. My Pop's passing was only weeks before and emotions were still raw. I made my way to the cabin after working a night shift. The plan was to catch a few hours of sleep and get in the stand by early afternoon. I had never had any luck with archery season, but it felt right to get out there for Pop. I was second guessing myself not only as a hunter, but as a father. Did I actually pay attention to all the lessons Pop had taught me about hunting? Did I have what it takes to be a single father, without having one to guide me along the way? Those questions plagued me as I crept into the woods filled with oaks and walnuts.
I climbed into my Pop’s stand and hung my bow on a branch off to my right. The stand overlooked a decently used game trail and I was hoping to see a deer on its evening feeding route. As I waited silently for any sign of deer, thoughts of Pop leaving became heavier. I pulled out my iPhone and began texting my buddy Cody, who had been in the woods that morning. We began texting for several minutes about what was seen that morning and what had been on cameras for weeks leading up to the hunt.
Suddenly, as if whispered in the afternoon breeze, I heard Pop saying “Look up. Stay present in the moment.” Shocked at the moment, I looked up from my phone. Even though I was 15 feet in the air, the ridge came down in front of me from the right. Two deer were walking down the trail about 30 yards away, foraging for acorns and anything else they could find. I immediately made out that one was a doe and the other was a nice spike. My body froze. The deer were not startled but were cautious, stopping every so often to look up and survey their surroundings. As I focused on the pair, I also consulted Cody on the situation. I offered the situation but said I was unsure what to do. On one hand, I had never harvested a deer in archery season and definitely could use the meat in the freezer. But on the other hand, I usually had steered away from harvesting spikes before. However, I decided to take a shot at the spike. One problem.
I’m right handed, sitting in a stand, with a deer at eye level, and my bow was on a branch to my right. So, I started the terrifying game of inching my way to a shoot stance but also stopping every few seconds when the deer would look my way. What seemed like an absolute eternity. I was finally standing, bow in hand, and with the spike now just 10 yards broadside of me. As the spike lowered his head again to eat, I pulled the string back on my bow. I pulled the string into its final resting position, and then started to shake. The thought of taking a deer in archery season and in Pop’s stand was starting to overwhelm me, and as if right on que, I heard a whisper of Pop’s words from years of hunting with him “send it.” The arrow found its mark and the spike didn’t run a full 50 yards before succumbing to his wound. Tears of joy and loss overcame me at the bottom of that ridge. The lessons learned that day? Whether it’s hunting or spending time with loved ones, stay present in the moment. It’s all too easy with heavy things on one’s mind or the devices we seem to be glued to, to lose touch with the present.
As I crested the top of the ridge and made my way down to the cabin, my thoughts drifted away and I came back into the present. The feelings of sadness and doubt were still present from getting out of the stand just a few minutes before. I started doubting myself as a father and as a hunter. Did I have what it takes to show my children what it is to be a good human in this world? Did I have what it takes to be a good hunter now that my mentor and hunting buddy was gone? I walked up to our family’s wooden deck at the cabin, which sat up on the ridge overlooking the lake bottom below. The deck was 50-60 yards from the bottom. I laid the Marlin down on the railing and overlooked the property that had brought me so many memories growing up. Those thoughts stirred my brain back to October, when I would take my son on his juvenile hunt.
My son Wyatt and I made our way to the car, sleepy but energized of what was to come. The morning of his juvenile hunt was finally here and we were anxious to get into the woods. As we drove the hour long drive from our home to the cabin, we let the sounds of Garth Brooks and Chris Ledoux fill the air as we navigated the winding roads. It was a small tradition that started with Pop and I, and now I was passing those same traditions to the next generation of hunters. We arrived at the cabin a little too early, so we decided to take a nap. We woke up about 30 minutes before the legal shooting light and made our way down to our spot.
After walking maybe 200 yards to our spot which was just on the edge of the dry lake bottom, we got settled in. There we sat in the still darkness, listening to the breeze. Suddenly there was a rustling about 30 yards away from us. We could just barely make out the silhouette of a doe. It was only 5 minutes before legal shooting, but I want to raise my children to be ethical hunters so we abide by the law as governed for hunting and we only harvest what we intend to eat. In addition to that, Wyatt has been taught to make the cleanest shots possible so the animal suffers little to nothing. So with that, we decided to pass.
The notion that deer were present and moving, really got Wyatt's spirits high. But we all know that's how it goes with hunting, and spurts of highs are followed by long stretches of boredom or frustration. Wyatt maintained his spirits but we made the decision to pull out of where we were and go make us some lunch. It was around 11 a.m. and we made our way back to the cabin for some sandwiches and a cold Pepsi. That was my fathers staple when hunting as I was growing up, so it felt right for us to keep it going. After about an hour, we decided to try the back side of our property. We crept into the woods and made our way to the tree stand where I killed the spike earlier in the season. Wyatt was apprehensive about getting in the stand, so we decided to park it at the base of the large white oak. Wyatt was leaned up against the tree facing up the game trail. We were about 50 yards from the crest of the ridge. I was facing him leaned against another tree so I could watch the lake bottom below. The bottom was around 120 yards away.
We sat there for a half hour and then I spotted some movement of a deer down by the lake bottom. I motioned to Wyatt and he crawled to my position and leaned against me. He raised our family’s 30-30 rifle and tried to locate the deer in the scope. I could hear his breathing getting louder and frantic. He couldn’t find the deer. I told him “take a breath, it’s ok, and just keep looking.” By this time, whether it was the adrenaline or the rifle starting to fatigue his arms, he began to shake. I told Wyatt to lean against me and to start controlling his breathing. Finally he had the deer in his sights. I cocked the hammer back for him and told him to keep his finger off the trigger til' he was ready to fire. Then, I helped him steady the gun and told him to take the shot when he was ready. The sound of the rifle going off sent ringing all throughout my head. I looked down the ridge and Wyatt had made the 120 yard shot and dropped the deer where it once stood, a perfect and ethical shot.
When we finally made it to the deer, we both realized that it was a barely legal spike. Wyatt was ecstatic. We hugged and celebrated his first spike. Then, Wyatt became concerned.“ Dad, how are we going to get this back to the cabin to clean?” By now, we were several hundred yards and at the bottom of a steep ridge from the cabin. It was at this moment I remembered how my father taught me to preserve and taught me about true grit. So (wanting to pass this wisdom on to my son), I picked up the deer and placed it on my shoulders. The look of relief and shock was mixed on Wyatt’s face. Even though the climb was tough, the lessons and memories of that moment will last a lifetime. The main lessons taken from this hunt, set the calm example. In life and hunting, so many things go wrong and are out of your control, so we should set a calm example for our children so they know how to handle the stress and chaos of life. The other lesson to take away is we must show the next generation how to persevere and what it takes to get through tough hunts or tough spans of life.
I smile to myself as that memory fades and I find myself back in the present, still overlooking our family’s property. I can’t help but think of my Pop and how I wish he was here with me, like so many hunts before. I took note of the Marlin still resting on the railing. What a beautiful gun and what fond memories were stored in that dark wood finish. I then looked back towards the lake. I was looking at the dried up bottom and the bank that rose up and was met by the pines at the wood’s edge. Suddenly, there walked a buck. At first it appeared to be a 6 point. I was in shock. Not only was this thing decent size from my point of view, but it was the first buck I had seen on our property through my many years of hunting. Others in the family had killed plenty of 6 and 7 points on the land, but I had never been that lucky. I had only ever been presented with does and spikes on our land, and my Pop’s first deer as a kid was a 7 point buck that he shot just 50 yards from where I was standing. That mount of his first buck is now proudly displayed in my home.
As I picked up the Marlin 30-30, the buck moved from the right to left at a slow and casual place. I raised the scope to my eyes, found the crosshairs on his shoulder broadside, exhaled, and fired a shot. The report from the rifle broke the silence of the moment. The buck cranked his neck quickly in my direction, but didn’t move otherwise. “Oh no!” I thought I had missed, but I knew my sights were on target. My worst fears were confirmed, and my sights were off due to dropping it earlier. I had seen dirt behind him fly up when I made the shot. Steadily but hurriedly, I chambered a new round. My best guess in the heat the moment was that the sights were good left to right but was shooting low. I raised the sights 6 or so inches above his shoulder and sent the round down range. I instantly saw the infamous jump/kick a deer gives when it’s been hit. The deer darted off quickly across the lake bottom and up a drainage ditch into the wood line. I walked down to where I had shot the buck and again, my gut was punched.
A few clumps of hair were on the ground, but no blood. I couldn’t believe it as I was sure that my second shot was a hit. Disbelief and shame had flooded me at this point. It was as if this was the culmination of the season and Pop had sent me this parting gift and I blew it. Through my emotions, I lost all sense of letting deer have time to die and not pushing them. I raced across the bottom to the drainage ditch and went right into the woods. My fears were being confirmed more by the second. No blood. No kicked up trail. No crashing sounds in the woods. Nothing. I pushed further and my internal battle raged. Sporadic thoughts of “you’re a failure, Pop gave you this opportunity and you blew it, I’m sorry pop, I tried to make you proud, and I’m completely done with this!”
I’ve never been the most religious person but grew up in church and believed there was a God. I facetiously tell people it had been so long that I forget what day to go on, but in that moment of complete shame and sadness, I heard Pop. He said, “Rog. It’s ok. Go back to where you saw the deer last.” I couldn’t believe what my brain was hearing. I know this part sounds crazy, and I argued with the inner dialogue. “I blew it, Pop. I let you and Papaw down.” I heard his wise words again, “Rog. Take a breath and go back. You’ve always been too hard on yourself. Go back.”
I begrudgingly and reluctantly went back and thought, “Ok I’m here, still nothing, Pop.” Once again, I could hear Pop telling me to take a breath and look. Shaking my head, I turned and faced the woods toward where the buck had run. I looked at the drainage ditch and looked off to the right of it, where I ran to. Nothing. Then, my eyes traced back to the left of the ditch where there was a log laying across the leaves and just inside the wood line. Laying on top of the log and staring directly at me, was that buck. He had been silent and still the whole time. I could not believe my eyes. I noticed the buck was still alive and now was unsuccessfully trying to get up and run.
It was obvious that the deer was wounded badly, but was suffering. I made my way across the bottom and into the wood line with the buck. The deer was frantically kicking his legs to get away and I raised my rifle and fired one final shot. At that moment, the deer was not suffering anymore. My emotions flooded me. My knees became weakened and I just sat down crying all the tears and emotions pent up from the season and my fathers passing. I sat there and admired the deer and finally noticed it was actually a large 8 point with some nice tiny kickers on each brow tine. He was a magnificent buck, and as I sat there my thoughts went back to everything leading up to that day and in that moment I realized what this was. It was a gift from Pop.
The buck was something to put in the freezer and on the wall to remind me of this hunt and the lessons to take away. What I learned that morning was that we must trust ourselves and the work we put into our hunts. The work will usually pay off, you just have to keep grinding and trusting yourself. Secondly, when moments of chaos or doubt arise in hunting or in life, take a breath and look. Look for those moments of beauty that keep us grounded and keep us moving forward. And lastly, but probably the most important lesson I’ve learned, those that are closest to us are never really gone. They are still guiding us and beside us at every moment. They make it known from time to time that they are here with us and that it’s ok to miss them, but we must continue to live our lives. We must live our lives not focused on mourning them, but remembering all the time we did have with them. We should live the life that they didn’t get to live because they were taken from this Earth much too soon.
The sun seemed to really shine a little brighter as I got to work on processing that special buck on our land. However, that work seemed to not feel like work at this time around. As I packed up the car and the deer, I stopped and looked back at the beautiful cove. Whereas earlier I felt heavy and beat down at all the memories I had felt before, now it was replaced with a serenity and the longing of memories to come. As I turned to leave, one final thought crossed my mind, “Thanks Pop.”
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