The last day of hunting season was upon me before I knew it. The days that had passed since my last expedition had done so in a blur and I found myself wondering whether or not I would in fact get a deer this fall.
The night before the last day of the season, after Owen was in bed, I sat with Kelly on the couch drinking some Jim Beam and Schweppes Dark Ginger Ale thinking deeply. I recalled every step, missed opportunity, close call and twisted turn of fickle fate that had comprised my deer season so far. I wasn’t feeling nearly as nervous as I had been the previous nights before a hunt, honestly I didn’t think that there was much of a chance I’d be bagging a deer. With that mindset I decided that if I wasn’t going to get a deer I might as well go full broke bespoke on this last outing especially since the weather was supposed to be a mild minus ten Celsius.
I went to bed after a relaxing evening of TV and slept quite well. When I woke I had a leisurely coffee and toast and got dressed in a nice pair of jeans and plaid longsleeve dress shirt which I wore over my classic waffle long johns. Over the shirt I put on the dark brown hand knit wool sweater Kelly had made for me and paired it all with my brown leather upper, rubber soled winter boots. For accessories I was wearing a vintage gerber folding knife my Grandpa had given me as a youngster and a leather cartridge holder on a well worn brown leather belt. It was a nice mix of fashion and practicality that I’d like to think any hunter from the fourties or fifties would have been proud of.
The drive up was, as always, unremarkable except that instead of having my rifle in the trunk it was riding beside me in the passenger seat. I had given up on the Remington I had carried with me on the last two occasions as it was apparently bad luck rand brought my sporterized Greek 1903/14 Steyr-Mannlincher instead.
A quick note about the rifle. The Steyr is a true classic and if you can find one, spend the money on it, you won’t be disappointed. Despite being designed and built at the turn of the beginning of the last century, it is still one of the smoothest actions you will ever handle. Not only this but it is loaded with features that you just can’t find on modern massed produced rifles. The actions from these rifles were used to build the very high end Mannlicher-Schonauer rifles that can cost in excess of five-thousand dollars. I managed to get my rifle for a song and although it was chambered in 6.5×54 MS, a round that was expensive to buy, the look of the stock, shape of the barrel and how it handled was worth that small inconvenience. An added plus was the historical factor as the round and rifle were both favourites of Ernest Hemingway and WDM Bell, a prominent ivory hunter.
After parking the car in the same approach I had used on the last two trips and donning my blaze orange safety gear I set off into the woods on the north side of the highway where I had seen the does the previous weekend. After an hour or so of seeing plenty of tracks but no deer I decided to head back to the south side of the road where I had first seen my buck.
I walked casually, not overly concerned about my pace, the direction of the wind or the sound I was making. I was quite content just to be in the woods but I would stop every so often and listen or look at what appeared to be fresh sign and then continue. As I walked I heard the tell tale snort of a deer alerting to my presence and as I looked to my right I saw its flagging tail heading deeper into the woods.
With a renewed energy and purpose I decided I’d take a long wide loop around to the far side of the tree bluff in the direction the deer was headed. I thought it would be unlikely that it would want to risk running out onto open terrain at the end of the trees where I was headed and was more likely to stop in the deep cover of the trees and listen to see if I was following. I made my way along the route that I had been able to visualize in my head from having walked the area so often before and quickly found myself at the spot I wanted to start looking for the deer I had seen.
The crunch of the snow under my feet seemed to crash and echo around me. It was as if an elephant and not a man was walking as stealthily as possible through the narrow birch trees. My breath and every step was purposefully slowed yet I willed my eyes to dart as rapidly as possible to assess curious shapes, odd shawdows and the sudden movement that always seemed to be snow falling off branches. Somewhere out there in the tree grove I was stalking were deer, I had seen them and it made the tension palpable.
Leaning against a tree I stopped to listen to the sound of the woods. The creak and sound of branches swaying gently high up in the trees were just barely audible over the rhythmic “whoosh, whoosh,whoosh” of the blood pulsing in my ears. The silence was deafening, I thought it best to stay put to listen and watch for a while as I had a good line of sight in all directions. Being careful to move my head slowly to scan the terrain I noticed an odd shape, something about it didn’t fit with it’s surroundings. Staying focused on it I saw it move, just ever so slightly, but enough to be certain I was looking at an animal of some sort. I brought my rifle up to my shoulder and used the tree as support to steady my aim. Looking down the barrel over the sights I saw the head of a doe pop up chewing contentedly on some old grass.
At the realization it was a deer I could feel my heart rate quicken and attempted to will it slower by taking deep calming but quiet breaths through my nose. The deer was oblivious to my presence and continued to eat and move a few feet in no particular direction. I looked around trying to see if there was a buck in the area but it appeared there were only two other does in its company. I looked down the barrel and took aim at the deer, changing my point of aim as it shifted. I was content to wait and watch it in case a buck did show up but resolved to shoot if I got the sense it was going to run. As if it heard my thoughts the deer noticed something amiss in my direction, whether it was the steam from my breath, my scent, or a glare off my glasses it froze staring directly at me and everything seemed to slow in that moment. My peripheral vision shrunk so all I was focused on was the doe and I knew I only had a second or two before the deer bounded away. I took a small breath, slowly exhaled and squeezed the trigger.
The rifle, bucked against my shoulder and sent its 6.5mm lead soft point bullet hurtling towards the deers vitals. The doe jumped and it’s friends ran from the rifle report but I couldn’t be entirely sure of whether I had hit it or not. The shot had been just less than 100 yards with only a few branches obscuring my line of sight. I felt good about he shot but I waited, not moving my rifle or doing anything to give my position away. As I stood in silence waiting to make sure my prey was dead I became more aware of my surroundings. The first thing I noticed was the pounding heart in my chest and the flush in my face from the excitement of finally having been able to take a shot at a deer and possibly fill my tag. As my excitement settled the tension I had been feeling was gone and the serenity of the woods on the cold morning with its softly falling snow left me awestruck at how lucky I was to be a hunter.
Ten minutes passed and I could hear the other does, not to far off in the woods, snorting their warnings and looking for there missing comrade. As I stepped off I ejected my spent casing and put it in my pocket and chambered another round just in case I needed to finish the job I started. The other deer finally saw my movement and bounded off deeper into the woods while I approached the area where I thought my deer would be.
I had made sure to draw a mental map of where I thought the deer had gone down but as I walked the terrain looked different and I started to get nervous that I had missed it all together and I was going to be going home empty handed again. I kept walking and stopped to reassess thinking I may have gone to far. Turning around to look back at where I had come I spotted it. The doe was lying peacefully on its side just behind a fallen tree which had hid it on my initial approach. My heart and spirit soared, I had done it! The third time out had been the charm and all the near misses the fickle fate and preparations had finally paid off. I gave the deer an appreciative pat in thanks for the life it had lived and the sustenance it would provide.
I field dressed it where it lay, which took me longer than I had planned because I was a little rusty, and then left the carcass spread open to cool while I walked to the car to get my butchering gear. Even though the doe wasn’t huge, bringing it home to hang in the garage wasn’t an option because I wasn’t going to be able to put it in the trunk of Kelly’s car. I had never quartered an animal before let alone done it in the woods when it was minus 10 Celsius out so I was nervous but excited. To be honest it went relatively well for the first time and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to novices so long as some time is spent reading about it and watching a few videos online. I was able to harvest the majority of the meat save for the areas damaged by the path of the bullet which had entered just in front of the right shoulder, pierced both lungs and exited high behind the left shoulder below the spine.
I put the meat into game bags then onto my pack and walked back to the car leaving the hide and carcass for the wild to dispose of. The walk back was through some deep snow and with the extra weight made it significantly more challenging than I expected. I can understand now why people often hunt in pairs when going for moose or elk, the weight of those quarters would require multiple trips out of the bush.
At the car I transferred the meat into a large Tupperware storage container and then put bags of ice all around the meat to let it cool and rest. I drove home calling anyone who would answer the phone to tell them about my successful stalk through woods.
After getting home I left the container with the ice and meat in the garage for 24hrs before processing it further. When I did process the deer I was less than thrilled with my finish butchering abilities compared to my field skills from the day before. I’m confident I will get better with time and experience. It was surprising how much fat, tendons and gristle has to be pared away to get at the nice lean meat. When it was all said and done I had 35 pounds of very nice dark lean double wrapped venison packages for the freezer.
As I put the last package of meat in the freezer and closed the lid I couldn’t have been happier. Sure I didn’t get the big buck I wanted but I also wouldn’t have had the awesome experiences if I had. I can’t wait to do it again next year.
Until then, all the best.