By Shelby Byrd
Every year it starts just like this: I’m looking at the clock and its only 2 am and I am desperately trying to fall back asleep. 3:17 am looking at the clock again, doze a little until 3:50 am. How do you explain the excitement of an opening day of Whitetail Deer gun season? The hope, the anticipation, all the unknowns of a season on the brink. The rolling hills of Western Kentucky offer a sportsman’s paradise I consider second to none. Normally when we hit the woods the day before the season starts, to install seat cushions in stands and pull camera cards, we are greeted with rut signs on every trail. This year it seemed the bucks were going to be a no show. I didn’t see the usual scrapes and massive rubs leading the way down the ridge to my old but steady ladder tree stand. The only indication deer actually roamed these woods was a single rub found 30 steps behind my stand. The single rub was an attention getter due to the size of the tree and the height of the destruction exhibited on the tree.
3:55 am and it's 27 degrees-I decide to put on extra layers of clothing. I’m running down a quick inventory of my Sitka Stratus jacket pockets: Flashlight, gloves, neck gaiter, ammo, orange hat, vest- all there. Now moving on to the backpack: skinning knife, grunt call, snacks, and oh yeah don’t forget the toilet paper. It is now 4:10 am so I grabbed the Browning and headed out to the trucks. We trailered the side by side ATV’s the night before so after a quick safety check we start the 45 minute trip north to begin the hunting season.
We arrive at the hunting lease an hour before first light. After unloading the Pioneer and Ranger we split up and head to our hunting areas. I drop two of my friends, Joe and Jeff, at their respective stands and make my way across the property to a dimly cut gas line where I park the Ranger. As I leave the Ranger I always make sure to apply plenty of cover scent before hitting the long descending trail to the bottom of the ridge. It's apparent the ridge road I’m traversing once lead to a small cabin, many decades ago, if the pile of stacked stones and foundation corner rocks still visible are any indication. On this dark morning I’m the only person within a quarter of a mile and only visible due to the small hand held light illuminating my path. 30 yards into my trek down the ridge I find a fresh scrape that was not present the previous day. At that point I could have turned off the hand held light and my smile would have been sufficient to light my path.
Seated in my stand and all I have is a gray/black view. I can just make out the tall ridge that stretches the length of my view across the bottom in front. I hear a rooster crowing in the far distance, then another rooster answers just across the ridge in front of me. I think to myself this setting will make a great story to tell Emily my 11 year old daughter. Each night she begs to hear a bed time story. I want to remember every detail so I can bring this excitement back to life for her. I look at the dark sky and see very few stars, and I’m blowing cold smoke with every deep breath. I hear soft steps crossing the ridge 30 steps behind me: Is it a doe searching for a good bedding area? Maybe a coyote sniffing out a rabbit?
The gray dawn is adding more colors now, I can clearly see the old fence row that surrounds the 600 acre ranch in front of my stand. I can make out individual leaves on the hardwood trees that surround my location. I hear a dog barking across the farm in front of me. Then I hear a lone coyote crying out down in the bottom to my left. I now hear the sound of stretching wire, I know the sound, and it’s a deer jumping the square wire fence down in the bottom to my right just out of view. It’s shooting light now and my complete attention is focused on this area. Will the deer come out of the bottom and on to the ridge or head deeper in to the bottom and away from me? Two minutes later I have my answer, a basket rack 8 point with 8” tines is making his way up the ridge. The young buck is walking a trail that I know will bring him to a crossing at 20 yards directly behind my stand. My first instinct is to reach for my cell phone and get a video of the beautiful young buck. I start the video and the buck is directly to my right, before the video is complete I’ve had to swap sides of the tree as the deer has crossed behind me and is now on my left going away.
As the young buck is leaving my visibility I hear another sound back to my right. Same path but different sound. This time the deer jumping the fence did not stretch the wire. It cleared the fence with no problem but landed with a deep crash in the crisp leaves on the other side. I stopped my video and started shifting around for a view to my right side. Instantly I spot movement in the thick young hardwoods and see the flashes of a mature deer with a heavy rack. As quietly as possible I maneuver the Browning around and obtain a shooting position to my right. As a right handed shooter it’s as hard of a shot as I’ve had to make from a tree stand. Before I was able to find the buck in the scope he had progressed 50 yards or so up the hill from the fence row and was in jeopardy of getting out of sight. I found one opening in the hardwood thicket and pulled the trigger when he appeared. The 7 Mags report echoed across the hillside and barrel smoke rolled in the cold air. I lowered the rifle and watched as the big bodied deer disappeared with long lunging leaps heading straight away from me.
Time stops in moments like this, and so many thoughts rush through my mind: should I give chase? Rational thought wins out and I sit still and quietly in my stand for what seems an hour. I revisit the shot in my mind, did I hit an obscure tree branch and deflect my Hornady 139 grain bullet away from the buck? An hour into the first hunt of the season and I’m either sick over a buck that got away or I’m in jubilation over a big buck down, only time will tell now. My phone buzzes in my pocket, no time for that at the moment too many thoughts going through my head. How big was the rack? How long have I been waiting, it seems like an hour, maybe 10 minutes? I will give him at least 10 more minutes.
Phone buzzes again, "Did you shoot?" At this point I’m climbing down the ladder stand. I fight my way through the young white oaks and approach the spot where the deer made an abrupt turn in the thick leaves. I can see his tracks in the dense foliage and search the area for blood. I could qualify for CSI at this moment. I’m flipping leaves, checking on limbs and trees but no blood. I look back in the direction of my ladder and have a sick feeling when I see how thick the limb clutter is between my current location and the stand. This might explain why I don’t see any blood and didn’t hear the sound of the deer crashing in the distance when he left like he was shot out of a cannon. I walk the direction of the disturbed leaves, maybe 10 more yards and still no blood. The buck is now quartering downhill towards the fence row. If he crosses the fence I fear he is gone for sure. Another 20 yards still following the deep imprints in the leaves and still no blood on the ground. I scan the now thinning hardwoods and I’m feeling pretty desperate and depressed. I’ve now covered at least 40 yards and no sign of blood and the buck is still heading to the old fence. Ten steps straight ahead I see a spot on a 10 inch diameter tree. The spot is about 3 feet off the ground and a major direction change appeared on the ground in the leaves. The spot on the tree is blood. It’s now clear the buck ran into the tree, I’m sure the life poured back into my face on this discovery. I have conformation the buck is indeed hit and all hope is back. I’m following the blood trail and see another tree covered in blood as if it was side swiped by the running buck. I begin heading straight down the hill towards the fence row with 30 yards to go and only a fallen tree laying between me and the fence. As I approach the tree I see my buck laying just across the fallen log and 20 steps from the old fence. I see the antlers and know I made a good decision and now have a little more to add to Emily’s bed time story. The buck was a beautiful main frame 8 point with 12” rear tines. His left G2 was sporting a 2” kicker. It took 3 men to drag him out and get him loaded on the Ranger.
As I currently reflect on this hunt I realize the allure of a hunt is the unknown, it’s what keeps you going. What will the sound of the next snapping limb or rustling of leaves materialize into? Often it’s a squirrel hiding the last acorns covering the ground. Sometimes it’s nothing other than a cold wind blowing through but every once in a great while it’s the buck of your dreams. I did finally answer the text messages and as of last night Emily has heard her bed time story.
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