Till Next Year
In the last days of the Black Hills Deer season, I become anxious.
As an outdoor writer, I am expected to harvest a deer, even if the buck I am chasing never shows. But the shot itself has become less a focus of my hunt. Today success is measured more by the amount of quality time I get to spend in the field with my kids.
Some seasons that can mean that I never harvest a deer. Despite my great love of venison, I’m fine with going years between shots taken and deer processed for the freezer.
Over the Thanksgiving break, I got the chance to enjoy the part of hunting that now matters most. Son Lane drove the six-plus hours from Brookings, then got up at four to drive me back to the prairie. The mule deer we were seeing near the Red Water were young and needed a few more seasons. We were hoping to discover a hidden giant along the Cheyenne.
The deer were very cooperative, and we put on several stalks that brought us within range of contenders, but after closer inspection, we passed them all. A defiant five by five gave us the last challenging taunt of the evening before we packed it in for the two-hour drive back to the Hills.
Lane had an any-buck tag for our home place, and the next morning, there were more mule deer bucks tending does on the alfalfa than I had counted all season. Two were mature animals of four years or better; one a grizzled veteran. He would flair up all of the guard hairs on his body as he advanced threateningly towards a rival, doubling his apparent size. He knew how to intimidate the younger buck while putting on a show for the does.
Even though he often came into range, he never offered a profile that would have ensured ethical shot placement. Lane let him walk.
That evening the mule deer again paraded down from the timber with five bucks posturing for attention. An unexpected dominant whitetail charged out of a draw and put them all on the run. Even though smaller in body size, the whitetail owned the field through his aggression and impressive brow tines. Lane quickly switched his sights and ensured that he had enough meat to last till Christmas.
At the time, I was on another hill a few miles away, watching a veteran through my scope, one I hadn’t seen all season. Two years previous, he had been a great buck and been wounded by a neighbor. Last fall his rack had been weak on one side, but still strong on the other. The weaker side showing the damage of his previous wound by running without tines passed the tip of his nose.
This year, he took my breath away. Research has shown that such bucks can make it back if given enough time. This year he would be a six or seven-year-old animal at the peak of his potential. His antlers spread beyond his ears with tall balanced tines of 10 to 12 inches. Not only had he regained his antler balance, but his main beams reached several inches past the end of his nose with small tines protruding from both sides near the tips.
We saw each other at the same moment, I through my rifle scope. I could have taken the shot, but there was still light enough left to get closer. I couldn’t guarantee my accuracy at the first distance and he deserved assurance. I would never forgive myself for wounding such an animal a second time. I slipped my finger from the trigger and began to crawl.
Fifty yards later I once more had him in my sights but now the light was dimming, and more bucks were dashing through the field trying to steal his doe. He was becoming uneasy and I had the impression that he knew I was approaching.
Did he dare stay exposed for the last few moments of light? If I hurried, I could stand and knock off eighty more yards.
My last move allowed the old magician to trade places with a beautiful buck that I had been watching all season. I convinced myself that the tines I saw waving in the tall grass were the old master’s. Only a twilight stalk up to my trophy revealed the mistake.
Lane and I were blessed with food and memories and I have a buck burned into my mind to carry me through till next season.