A deer hunting story by Jerry O’Dovero
It’s 6am on the first day of deer season in Marquette Michigan. For those of you that are not from the Upper Peninsula it’s dam near a holiday. School classrooms in some of the towns are near empty because young boys and some girls have an excused day or days off. Many businesses are short handed and some close down for a few days. For many boys it’s a ritual to becoming a man. I’m 16 years old and I haven’t shot my first deer. The previous couple of deer seasons I believe our entire family only shot one deer each year. I’m 0 for two years of hunting. Sometimes the bucks seem to know when to hide for a while. My grandfather would say the smart bucks (the older ones with the big racks) would stand still in one place, under a tree or in some concealed spot all deer season. He’d say you could walk right by them and they would blend in and never move. Was that true, who knows, but any deer hunter will tell you that the big ones tend to disappear as soon as deer season starts.
I’m tired as I crawl into my brothers old beat up dodge colt little piece of crap winter beater of a car. Another tradition in the Upper Peninsula is to by a $100 rust bucket of a beater for the winter and park your nice car. The winters are long, cold with a lot of snow so they put a lot of salt on the roads. Salt will rust out a car quickly, so you either wash your car often so it doesn’t turn into a $100 beater or you buy a $100 beater.
It’s an hour ride up to camp. I’m half asleep and not very talkative. As we near the camp, my brother takes a couple of puffs off of his pipe. He hands it to me. It’s the last thing I need right then. First of all, it’s not even 7am yet, or 7pm for that matter. It will put me to sleep as soon as I sit down in the blind. I’m already tired. I get up at 6am every morning to do my homework before school. I then take a full schedule at school. Afterwards works 3 to 4 hours at my father’s construction company. Then a few hours with my friends before I crawl into bed around 11 or 12 at night. Second of all, I’ll be dumber than a box of rocks, but sleeping in the blind sounds like a good idea, so I take a puff.
After a quick stop at the camp so I can grab a riffle and we’re off to the blind. I didn’t have a riffle of my own when I was 16. I owned a single shot .410 shot gun and a single shot .20 gauge shot gun that I used for bird hunting, which I did a lot of. I also owned a .16 gauge pump shot gun. It was too big for shooting partridge, a grouse type bird common in the Upper Peninsula. But it was great for clay pigeons. .12 gauges have a bigger pattern when shooting trap, but a .16 gauge makes you a better shot and it hurts less after dozens of shots.
The deer rifle I used when I was 16 was the camp gun that was handed down from somebody a generation or two older than me. It was an old .44-40 Winchester lever action rifle. It was a heavy gun if I remember right. If you want to know what it looks like just watch an old western movie. The lever action Winchester is in all of them. What made the .44-40 so popular was the cartridge. The Colt gun company made the .44 caliber single action army revolver. The other gun you’ll see in the westerns. Single action means you had to pull the hammer back each time to shoot the pistol. A double action revolver will pull the hammer back and fire the gun when you pull the trigger. The .44-40 Winchester lever action rifle and the Colt single action army revolver were so popular because both of them used the same cartridge. Plus you shoot something with a .44 caliber piece of hot lead and it drops in its tracks. Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movies used a .44 magnum.
My brother drops me off at the deer blind. I had never been to this one. My grandfather had constructed it earlier that summer. My grandfather forgot more about hunting deer than most people will ever know. He was known as ‘’one shot Benny.’’ It wasn’t because he loved his Ten High Bourbon Whiskey, which he did, but because he never missed. My father used to say if you gave him one rifle shell he’ll come home with one deer. If you give him two, he’ll come home with two deer and so on. I remember him telling how he shoots the deer so as to ruin the least amount of meat on the deer. My grandfather had a big impact on me. I used to spend half of my summer breaks on his farm as a child growing up. My grandfather put Ten High Bourbon Whiskey in his coffee from his first cup in the morning to his last cup before bed. While most grownups looked happy after an alcoholic drink or two, to this young boy that I was, my grandfather didn’t. For the most part he stayed on his farm by himself. It didn’t look fun to me. So I made a promise to myself which I’ve kept to this day, never drink alone. To this day I never do. I talk about partying and joke about it all the time, but I never sit at home alone and drink. Not even one beer on a hot day or one glass of wine with dinner. I tend to let people think I party a lot, but it’s because I’d rather have people think I’m out doing stuff and having fun then sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. I’m often told by people, especially people I meet for the first time that they admire me for being out doing things. Even though I’m doing simple everyday things like you, I guess some people have the stereotype that people with disabilities stay home and never get out. I still feel the prettier a woman is the less likely she’ll date me, so I guess we all have some stereotypes to some degree.
My brother drivers up to the deer blind. Even though it’s only 30 feet from the road, if you didn’t know it was there you’d probably drive by without seeing it. My grandfather made it mostly out of trees and natural materials. It didn’t have windows, a TV or a heater. It was as simple as they come. My grandfather believed the smart bucks (the bigger older ones) paid attention to changes in the woods. He’d never build a blind a week before deer season. I tend to enjoy listening to the older generation. You can learn a lot from age and experience.
My brother points to where the bait pile for the squirrels and chipmunks is and drives off. It had snowed since the last time anyone had been to the deer blind, so it wasn’t easy to find the entrance to the blind. Once inside I lean the rifle against the wall of the blind and got comfortable. I look for the bait pile, but it’s under snow and I’m not exactly sure where it is now. But its nap time and I’ll worry about that later.
I wasn’t there for more than ten minutes when I hear a crunch … crunch … crunch. It had warmed up since the last snow fall, but then froze again. The thaw then freeze made the top two inches of the snow brittle. Instantly my heart starts pounding. Is that a deer? Is it my brother checking up on me or playing a joke? Is it a hunter from Lower Michigan who somehow found the deer blind and is coming to try use it? Crap, if it is, do I chase him away with my gun? Is it a bear? It hasn’t been that cold yet. When do they hibernate?
The deer blind is made so there is only one opening to look out and it’s small. If a clock from 12 all the way around to 12 is a 360 degrees of view, then this blind has at best a view from 12 to maybe 2 o’clock. There it is again, crunch … crunch … crunch. My heart is pounding so loud I swear people in Florida can hear it. I know from the past that sitting in a deer blind for hours gets chilly, so I’m wearing a down jacket and a down reversible hunting vest. The vest I made in a sewing class in school. My buddy Steve and I were the only two guys in the sewing class. There are two things about down filled jackets that you need to know. One, when you’re active in them, they are very very warm, especially when you’re wearing a down vest over a down jacket. Second, nylon is the noisiest material known to man when sitting in a deer blind trying to stay quiet. I instantly knew why real deer hunters wore wool. Crap, I couldn’t breathe without making more noise than Ted Nugent in concert.
Crunch … crunch … crunch, suddenly I seen something move off to the left. It’s a deer! I can see just the head now. My mouth was so dry. I couldn’t swallow. I was afraid to move. I was afraid to even breathe. The deer was only 40 feet away and soon to be broadside to me. My gun is two feet away. What was I thinking not having the gun ready. I’ll never keep quiet reaching for the Winchester .44-40 Rifle. A gun I’ve never shot before. I’ve fired off hundreds and hundreds of shells hunting and skeet shooting, so aiming a gun was second hand, but we only had 4 shells for the gun, so I didn’t want to waist them practicing.
Slowly I reach for the gun. But the deer is looking at me? A deer’s eyes aren’t just on the front of its face, but out on the edge too. I’m reaching in supper supper slow motion. The deer takes a few more steps forward. He’s a buck with short horns. His not a spike horn, there is a small fork or Y if you will at the top. Barely, but he’s a 4 pointer. It’s taken five minutes but I finally have a hand on my Winchester. Another five minutes and it’s up to my shoulder. Oh crap! I never chambered a round. The Winchester Levered Action Rifle carries the ammo in a tube under the barrel. When you lower the lever the gun breach opens and lifts a cartridge up level with the camber (barrel). This action also pushes the hammer back. When you pull the lever back up it pushes the cartridge into the barrel and the gun is ready to fire. Now having the cartridge in the camber is fine and safe to a point. You should never leave a cartridge in the camber unless you’re going to or at least might be shooting it soon. The safety on this type of gun is the hammer. The rifle is designed that when you push the lever down then back up cambering the shell, you also push the hammer into firing position. Unless you’re going to fire the rifle right away, to make it safe, you hold the hammer back while pulling the trigger then gently lowering the hammer.
I forgot to do that. Now, do I pull a John Wayne and quickly lever down, lever up, aim and fire, or do I do it slowly? This little buck knows something is wrong. I’d bet a $1,000,000 if it was a big buck he’d been gone 20 minutes ago. My sweet little venison dinner finally lowers his head to nibble on the goodies left for the squirrels. Ever so slowly I camber a round. A couple of times tiny dancer lifts his head quickly and looks my way, but my fear of scaring him away because of being noisy has now turned to excitement. The last few little metal clicks and the rifle is ready. For a brief second I thought about my grandfather and to shoot at a small area on the deer to try to save as much meat as possible, but my tiny little dancer turned and looked right at me.
He dropped right there.
I quickly walked up to the little guy. What a feeling that was. I did everything wrong, but then everything right too. I shot my first deer. The first deer of deer camp, which meant I won the pool. Everyone at camp threw in $5 for the first deer and $5 for the biggest. He wasn’t very big, but he was the first and he’ll taste just as good as the bigger bucks maybe even better, to me anyway.
I’m just about to set the gun down when I’m finally realizing I never brought a rope with me. I never brought a hunting knife with me. I never brought a soda (pop) I was thirsty as hell right now. When all of a sudden the deer moved his head – he’s still alive.
I only have three shells left, but I don’t want to shoot again and ruin any meat, but I don’t have a knife and I don’t have a rope. I stand there looking at the brown little guy and this isn’t right. I rechamber a shell and shoot. He blinks again. I’m sorry buddy. I did leave with one .44-40 cartridge.
I don’t have a rope, but I do have a belt. In less than a minute I’m a proud hunter bringing home dinner. My guess I’m three miles from camp, but hey, I got my first deer. After about a mile I’m thinking I want to gut my first deer. When spending my early childhood at my grandfather’s, I spent many a Sunday mornings at the slaughter house at my uncle Freddy’s farm next door. That part of the process didn’t bother me a bit. Although I don’t want to do it near camp. Wolves will find them. But I don’t have a knife, so I stash dinner for four just off the road and start running back to camp for a knife. I’m about a mile from both my deer and the camp when I start to think my dinner for four might be four wolves. Now I’m running instead of just walking fast. It doesn’t take long to run a mile when you’re 16 years old and you’re afraid someone or something is going to enjoy your first deer.
At the camp I get rid of the down jacket but keep the reversible down vest that has the bright orange showing and not the forest green. I grab a knife and a can of soda or as Uppers call it, pop and I’m out the door. Maybe an hour or so later we were back at camp. Then the long 5 or 6 hour wait for someone to show up so I could show off my first deer.
I never did get that nap. I was too excited. Too proud.