The excitement of filling a first buck tag can overwhelm a young hunter. Perhaps what he needs at such a moment is a second chance.
By Enrique Mandas
My dad’s and my hunting grounds lie north of Bear Butte on private property. Ever since I was 11, he would take me hunting on those plains, and I always came back home with a buck or a doe. To hunt next to such sacred land was a privilege, and one we did not take for granted. For the past two deer seasons, however, I haven’t been able to hunt. The first time I fell ill, and the second time I was too caught up with school. I’ve missed hunting, and to this day I continue to long for another buck like the one I shot two years ago.
It was the last day of hunting season, and the evening was supposed to be cold, so my dad and I decided to pack our coats and balaclavas in the truck, just in case. I always enjoyed the drives to Bear Butte. As the classic rock music hummed through the radio, I liked to watch the pine trees and protruding rock formations that ran along the hillsides, as they always set the tone for our evening hunts by surrounding us with a naturalistic atmosphere. I looked calm, but this was only my second season with a buck tag. Inside, I was nervous; I wanted to fill my tag more than anything in the world, and that night was my last chance. I hoped to God that I wouldn’t catch Buck Fever.
It was almost impossible to tell if there were deer out, even with our binoculars, but we searched nonetheless. The waiting game had begun.
My dad started taking me on his hunts when I was eight. At first, it was exhausting. He towered above me, and my tiny legs barely kept up as we walked through the forests. But I managed, and I always did as he told. When we hunted, it was like he was one with nature. He knew the intricacies of the forests and plains and always found the best spots to set up his gun and wait for deer. Three years later, I shot my first doe. I never forgot the adrenaline that coursed through my veins as I finally hit a deer, and ever since then I loved to hunt.
It turns out the forecast didn’t lie; it was cold as hell. I slipped on my orange balaclava and loaded my Remington .243. The air was cold and stung as I breathed, and my glasses fogged up to the point where I was practically blind, but I didn’t mind. After we put on our coats and gloves, we activated our hand warmers. I had two hours until sunset to shoot and kill a buck, so we had to make every step count. We hiked for about 30 minutes before we reached a barbed wire fence. The sky was ash-grey and clouds overshadowed the mountain on the other side; it was almost impossible to tell if there were deer out, even with our binoculars, but we searched nonetheless. The waiting game had begun.
When I was 12 I took a hunter safety course. It was easy for me and I passed with ease. On the last day of the course, parents were invited to join us as we received our hunter safety certification. Afterwards, the instructors allowed us to practice on the gun range. I walked over to a .22 long rifle station that had clay pigeons lined up against a dirt hill. One of the workers loaded the gun for me, and then I was free to shoot. The parents behind me were astonished, because I hit every single one of my targets. But my dad only stood there with a smile that said, “That’s my boy!” I felt great, but three years later I would experience something even better.
We were not allowed to shoot over the barbed wire fence, because Bear Butte was on the other side. We saw many deer walk towards it but then change direction. The hand warmers were starting to wear off, and my face felt like it was encased in ice. I sat and waited and hoped. The deer pranced and teased and ran. Finally, 25 minutes before sunset, a buck leaped over the fence and into our hunting grounds. When it landed, it was as if everything had gone silent–even the cry of the wind and the singing of the birds. My dad scoped the deer out with his rangefinder; however, it was over 200 yards away–a shot I couldn’t hit. My dad told me that we could either wait it out or try to get closer. We decided to wait ten minutes, but the buck didn’t move an inch.
I was losing hope, as the crosshairs would not stay on target, but I decided to take the shot because I knew I didn’t have much time.
Luckily, my dad devised a plan: we were going to crouch for 50 yards and then army crawl for another 50. The task proved to be exhausting. We crouched-walked for about five minutes, moving slowly to make sure the buck couldn’t detect us. Then we started to crawl, eventually creeping up on the deer. After seven more minutes, we made it into a good range for my gun; but I was out of breath and nervous. My heart felt like it was going a million miles a minute. I scoped into my rifle for what seemed about five minutes as I tried to steady the crosshairs just below the buck’s shoulder, where the lungs were. But my breathing was heavy, and the harder I had tried to calm myself the more nervous I grew–I had caught Buck Fever. I was losing hope, as the crosshairs would not stay on target, but I decided to take the shot because I knew I didn’t have much time. I missed, and the buck jumped back over the fence.
It is axiomatic among hunters that one can hunt 30 minutes past sunset, which meant I had 25 minutes left. The buck stood a few feet beside the other side of the fence, probably asking itself what had happened. Fortunately, my dad was one with animals. He produced a mating call sound that peaked the buck’s interest. It stood still trying to figure out where the noise was coming from, and sauntered closer to the fence. About 10 minutes later, it hopped back onto our hunting grounds.
This was my last chance. My heart was racing even more, because I knew I didn’t have a lot of time. I had to focus more than I had ever tried to in my life. Suddenly, my dad’s words of advice started creeping into my mind as I went into a zen mode. Steady your breath. My breathing slowed, and I had more control of the crosshairs. Aim just under the shoulder. The buck was standing in the perfect spot, I would have no problem hitting the lungs. Exhale and take the shot. It was like time slowed as the bullet whizzed through the air and right into the deer’s body. The buck took one last leap as it ran for a few yards before falling gracefully on the sacred ground, and after my dad whispered, “Good job, Rique,” I knew that I had filled my buck tag.
Photo: Bear Butte and contrails by Lars Plougmann on Flickr