Every deer hunter who cares more for the chase than the meat carries in his head the vision of an ideal day afield. It is a hard day, requiring skill and discipline. It ends with a clean kill in which no luck is involved.
The suburbanite had formed his idea of such a day over six years of trying to learn how to hunt deer. There had been some bad days and some good days, but never one in which the chance he got had not been at least partly a matter of chance.
This season had started badly for him. He had been impatient and distracted and had blown two fair shots because he had been blundering over the ground, trying to impose himself on the deer rather than fitting into the pattern of their movements. He put his rifle away and went back to the office, determined that when he went out again he would do it right.
A storm front was due to hit the area Thanksgiving Day; it says in The Book that deer feed more heavily and move around later in the day as bad weather approaches, so the hunter went out the day before. The Book is The World of the Whitetail Deer by Leonard Lee Rue III (Lippincott), and the man reread it the night before to ease himself into the proper frame of mind: alert, passive, patient.
He was on the ground three hours before legal shooting time and spent two hours walking half a mile to the stand he had chosen in a point of woods a cornfield and three converging hedgerows. He could have slept later and driven closer, but the point of the long, slow, painstaking prelude was to gentle himself down from a workaday to a hunting pace.
The moon, just past full, gave enough light to let him pick his steps along the shadowy woods edge. A doe and two fawns were feeding in one of the fields, and he watched them through the telescopic sight until they crossed in front of him and into the trees. Later some small creature squeaked and fled almost from beneath his feet. Behind him, downwind, several deer snorted as they caught his scent.
By the time he reached his stand it was clear that the moon had spurred the deer to feed early and retire to the woods to lie up well before first light, but he sat unmoving beneath a cedar for several hours anyway, watching the sun wake up the world and hoping for a straggling buck. Then, sun-warmed, he nodded off for half an hour.
It was nine o'clock. He planned to spend the next six hours stalking the narrow, two-mile belt of woods, then take a stand in late afternoon in hopes of intercepting deer coming out early for their evening feeding. He knew that the best hunting hours were gone and that he was unlikely to see another deer all day. He accepted that but tried to act as though they were all around him all the time.
He moved to windward through the brushy woods, three or four baby steps at a time with pauses of a minute or two, listening, looking. Growing bored, he forced himself to move even slower. At the end of an hour he had covered barely a hundred yards, and knew he was timing it right because he saw and walked up to a long-eared owl perched in a scrub pine. It did not fly away until he was almost within arm's length.
Turning his head in slow motion to follow the owl's flight he caught the flicker of a deer's tail fifty yards away as the animal reacted to the low-flying bird. In another half-hour he had worked slightly closer to what he now could see was several does with their fawns, browsing idly along nearly the same line he had taken. Then something, a movement of his or an eddy of the wind, alerted them and they were gone in a chorus of the gracefully bobbing tails that are so shocking bright in the dun winter woods.
Their flight had not been panicky, and they seemed unlikely to go far. After waiting fifteen minutes he began to circle wide to the south of the gentle ridge hoping to intercept their track from a new an unexpected quarter. He had seen no bucks with them nor any drifting along in their wake, and tried not to let himself hope for one. But he wanted to see the does again, both to watch their strong, delicate movements and to confirm his method of hunting. He had walked up on unknowing deer before, but never on the same group twice.
Rounding the ridge at the same glacial pace, he did see them again, although not where he had expected. They had either stopped almost the moment they were out of sight or backtracked. The group was larger than he had thought, three does and four fawns, but among them was the same cinnamon-colored, oddly angular fawn he had noticed before. It was to the hunter a considerable coup; he grew overbold in his approach and spooked them quickly.
This time their flight was faster and farther, but he still sensed some reluctance in it. He thought he was probably in the area where they wanted to be bed down, and they might return if he could find a tree to climb so as to get his scent off the ground.
He cut across the ridge to a spot roughly between the two spots where he had seen them, an inched his way up a windfall oak that was leaning on another. He would give it an hour, he thought. The hour passed, with nothing moving around him. He elected to stay a little longer, cramped as he was in a fork of the rotting tree, and was rewarded by a pileated woodpecker that passed a few feet above his head.
Well, Diana, he thought. You have sent me an owl and a woodpecker and three times you have let me see your deer undisturbed. I am beginning to think you have forgiven me for all that stomping around I did last week, and I thank you. He is not really an animist, but there is a spirit in the woods he tries to share, or a spirit in him that the woods encourage. He thinks of the effort and discipline involved in observing wild things as paying his dues; he was content with what he had seen already that day, and had the bonus of a whole afternoon before him.
No sooner had he relaxed into satisfaction and let go of further hopes or expectations for the day when the deer came back, picking their way suspiciously upwind forty yards away, the cinnamon fawn lagging behind. It was smaller than the other fawns and did not move well; the hunter did not think it would see the winter through.
They moved across the slope casually, browsing here and there on honeysuckle and greenbrier, until they reached the track he had taken to the tree. His scent was old by then, but the does grew less casual, and soon the last of the family was out of sight.
I should have taken a picture, he thought. But the click would have sent them flying, and anyway he had the picture, one that would stay with him for life.
Then the buck came, trailing the does but somewhat off the one side, as it says in The Book. He was only sixty yards away, a fine big eight-pointer, carrying his rack so steadily that if it had held a brimming bowl of water he never would have spilled a drop. But he was sticking to a belt of brush that obscured the vital area low in his forequarter, and the hunter was unwilling to try a neck shot because his rifle, while carefully slighted in, was new. It takes more than holes in the center of a paper target to give him the confidence required for a tricky shot at a living animal.
He tracked the buck in the scope, finger trembling near the trigger, but always the sight picture included twigs and branches, and finally he was gone.
Damn, Diana, he said to himself as he began to breathe again, that was cruel hard. But the moment of frustration passeed, and he began to smile. He thought it was time to go home, before he did some dumb thing to spoil his best day ever of deer hunting, but it was going to be dicey getting down the tree and he put it off.
Then came the little three-point buck, silly with rut, dancing along in the open in the track of the does. Given a choice the hunter would have taken him over the big buck, because the younger animal's flesh would be finer; and as he squeezed the trigger he realized that he had been given a choice, and a reward.