My first deer season was 1980. My dad was reluctant to take me with him until he was sure I was old enough to handle the cold weather and endure sitting on a stand all day. There were several years when he and his friend would go to deer camp and I had to stay home. I grumbled about it, but was assured when I turned 12, I would be allowed to go. Looking back now, Daddy was a wise fellow. Funny how that becomes more and more evident as I get older because there were times 30 years ago I thought the guy didn’t have a clue about anything.
When I was finally allowed to go to deer camp, I didn’t have a rifle. I didn’t need one.The second step in my dad’s process of teaching us to hunt was mentoring. Instead of being turned loose on my own in the vast National Forest tract where we hunted in Bland County, Virginia, I walked to the stand with him. I sat by his side from well before daylight until well after dark. Throughout the day there would be long stretches of time we didn’t speak, just sat and looked around. I would strain my eyes and ears to be the first to hear or see a deer. Other times, we chatted non-stop in hushed tones so as not to spook any incoming targets.
We shared a lot in those whispered conversations. He explained to me all of the things I should pay attention to in the woods. He showed me how to read sign and how to judge the wind. He talked about scent, mast, food sources and how other animals interacted in the forest makeup.We discussed guns, calibers, proper shooting technique, bullet weights, powder charges, and those rascals in Washington who wanted to take them away. The conversations weren’t exclusively about hunting. We discussed football, school, grades, work, girls, cars, farming, music, and whatever else came to mind. You have a lot of idle time from daylight to dark while you wait and this was when smartphones were science fiction. I learned a lot in those conversations, but probably the biggest thing I learned about was my dad. We grew much closer in those tree stump conversations.
It was always cold and in those days there was no such thing as Under Armour, GoreTex, or high tech weather gear. I was geared up with the M-65 field jacket bought from an Army surplus store, blue jeans, a pair of $25 Brahma boots from K-Mart which were nowhere near waterproof, and cotton long johns. I remember thinking to myself I couldn’t have been colder if I was hunting naked. I tried not to complain, but it was hard. Daddy was just as cold as me, but never showed it. He never complained and never even acted like it bothered him. I admired that and tried my best to emulate his example. Looking back, I’m sure it was what he counted on.
I learned more about woodsmanship sitting beside him hunting that I ever could have learned on my own. There weren’t many deer anywhere in those days. In fact, it was several years before my dad ever killed a deer. The law in Virginia allowed for only a buck. Eventually you were allowed to kill a doe, but only on designated days of the season. I can recall many times watching my dad glassing up a doe with his rifle, only to bring the gun back to his lap, sigh, and and say he couldn’t shoot her until tomorrow. He was adamant about following the law by the book, especially when he knew I was watching his every move.
Several year later, when I had graduated to hunt by myself, Daddy was mentoring my little brother and Daddy killed a small buck. My brother shared the story when I was home for Thanksgiving last week. While Daddy was field dressing the buck, several more deer came wandering in across the hollow. Daddy grabbed his rifle and peered through the scope at them. There was a buck with a substantial rack in the group and he could have easily gotten him, but he lowered the rifle and whispered to my brother to enjoy the experience. You weren’t allowed to kill two in one day. The unselfish act had a profound impact on my brother and me. The simple decision to not shoot the bigger buck after already killing one served as a lifelong lesson about hunting according to the rules. It also taught us a lot about character. My dad never killed a wall hanger buck in his life. But he was okay with that.
Eventually, I killed my first deer, it was a one-point buck–literally. It was a spike with one antler missing. Daddy had nothing but praise for the skill to take the animal which I did all on my own. He couldn’t have been happier if he had killed a 10 pointer himself.
All of these memories came flooding back to me again this morning as I read the story of Tucker Grove’s buck submitted by his dad to our Ram Trucks Trophy Room. People who don’t hunt often ask me why I’m willing to sit in the cold, miss Thanksgiving dinner, and endure the misery which sometimes comes with hunting. The answer is hard to explain in words. Sure, all of us want to kill a big buck. But it’s much more than that. It’s the memories of time spent with a loved one or a close friend and the experiences which create those memories which last forever.