Outdoor Adventures: The shot not taken
The first three days of the rifle season pass with boring sameness: day after day after day of too-warm, too-dry days, nondescript days that offer no charm. If these days were men, you would pass them in a crowd without a second glance; nothing about them stands out; nothing unique catches either eye or imagination. They are drab, weary days.
We see deer those days, nonetheless; mostly does, a few bucks. We hunt together, two of us, as we have for over a decade. It works well; we can cover ground visually, two sets of eyes are, for this, better than one. But on the afternoon of the third day I hunt alone.
I do not see much. The woods are calm and quiet as a church on a weekday. It is warm, 50 degrees or so, too warm for late November, too warm for a deer hunt. The day lacks any sense of urgency or drama.
Light fades in late afternoon; clouds build a thick web and the waning afternoon lacks clarity. Detail smudges in growing shadow, color bleeds to monotone, nothing is distinct, there is no sharpness. Trees merge to gray, pine-green goes to dark, grasses blend tan to blurred brown. Color drains as if thin watercolor washes sweep the world.
Two does walk across the opening in front of me. I can see them as they move. When they pause, they blend to cover and I lose them. Their coats match background and they hide in plain sight. Then a tail flicks, an ear moves and I see them again.
I watch their back trail in the glooming. Nothing. Then something shifts at the edge of cover as sound sometimes comes at edge of hearing; your hear something but can’t quite figure it out; you see something but only barely. A form emerges: another deer. I raise binoculars, bring focus, hold steady. Buck. I watch the buck and tell myself, “Small eight.” I’ve killed small eight-pointers; I pledged this year not to kill another, pledged to hold for a big one.
It is growing dark, but ivory horn gleams. Smallish from this angle, the rack. My rifle leans in the corner of the blind; I keep binoculars to eye. The buck moves his head and the waning light shows more antler than I thought; good fork in front, more there than I’d seen at first. And I have a passing doubt: How big is he?
If he moves as the does ahead of him had, he will pass to one hundred yards and the light will be better. For now, he is partially screened by saplings. It is not a good shot, no matter how big or small the buck. Doable, yes, but not certain. I want certainty; I want open shots, I want 99 percent certainty. I will not take a shot without that.
In the darkening day, all things stand still: deer as statues, trees as backdrop. Then things happen fast. A doe snorts in alarm, then bolts, and the buck turns away from me and I see in a gleam of late light how big he is. I now see the rack and know that he is a very good buck.
He walks casually straight away and then stops and turns and looks back as if he forgot something. The rack is wide; it is high. He is too far and he does not give me good shot angle and I do not consider taking the shot. Then he is gone in the shadow and the darkness and into my memory.
It all happens in the time it takes to read about it.
I watch the edge of the field where it meets the tree. I wait for the buck to come back, even though I know that will not happen. The light is mostly gone to dusk now; the chill of evening begins to sink toward the ground like a mist. It is very quiet.
I leave the stand and walk back to the shack; the sky to the west holds smudged remains of daylight. I turn on the gaslights, I stoke the wood stove, I sit back with cheese and sausage and a glass of wine. The radio is on and the DJ is carrying on about the Packers. Apparently their kicker has missed a field goal in their last game and the DJ has problems with that. He seems unusually unhappy and goes on at some length. It does not bother me. People make mistakes. I wonder what it’s like to kick field goals in the NFL when 60,000 people are either cheering or booing like hounds under the full moon. I wonder about that.
I wonder, too, about the big buck. I relive it in my mind. Should I have done anything different? Should I have raised the rifle, forced a shot that I did not believe in? No, of course I should not have. That much is clear. Could I, should I, have done something else? I ponder that, but there are no answers.
You do that, you think about things and not just with hunting. You do the “What if” routine: “What if he’d come out earlier? What if the light had been better, if he’d turned his head earlier and I’d seen the expanse of the rack, what if he’d been in the open, had been with the does? What if. What if.
But no, it had not happened that way. Thinking won’t change it. It happened as it did. Hunting turns the malleable ore of possibility to hardened metal of reality. “What if” becomes “what was;” expectations become experience; experience becomes memory. You can wish for something but the hunt will even things out; wish all you may, it matters not. The day of the hunt may dawn on optimism but it will certainly set on reality.
Big bucks get big by dint of smarts both accumulated and hard-wired; deep in genes like the will of a heart to beat. But they also get big by luck! Charmed to move right instead of left; to hold in cover, the one step back shielded them from view. Sixth sense, luck, smarts, call it what you will. The big ones have it all.
The small shack warms with the heat of the fire; the glass door of the wood burner shows orange ember; flicker of flame. I know then that I will wait only for the big buck to come out again, that I will not take a shot otherwise. And I know with certainty that it will probably not happen. The big ones don’t come around much; I’d seen him once, I’d be unlikely to see him again. I know on Monday evening with days left to hunt that I will not likely kill a deer this season.
It will be all or nothing; big buck or no buck at all. I am comforted by the clarity of this thought. I find some peace of mind in that.
Then I get up and start to cook dinner as the wood fire burns steady and the gaslights put out their feeble heat, and I tend to the simple task of cooking even as I think again of the hunt of the afternoon.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNOW.com.