Sitting With Deer

It was about halfway through the deer season when I was in the 4th or 5th grade, so around mid-December, 1964. Although it can get pretty cold in southwest Texas that time of year, it wasn’t too bad. I was wearing long-johns, blue jeans, flannel shirt, and faded jean jacket. It was morning, still dark.

The farmhouse was mostly surrounded by large, cleared fields that were planted and harvested annually. Grandpa also had a separate piece of land less than a mile away that we called the pasture. It had some small open areas but was mostly uncleared land. Cattle would graze there sometimes. We rode in the old pickup down the gravel county road to the gate to the pasture and followed the dirt road that ran roughly the perimeter of the 300+ acres of land. In the photo below, you can see it running parallel to the fence line.

a deer trail crossing a neighbor’s open field at edge of the pasture, which was covered with mesquite trees, brush, and cactus

There were a handful of spots where deer usually passed and where we usually hunted. It was already a couple of weeks into the season and I had not tagged a deer. I wanted to try a fresh place.

I asked Dad to drop me off at a dry creek crossing at the far end of the pasture. We had seen signs of deer there at times but it was a denser area with more brush, cactus, and mesquite trees… obstacles in seeing and shooting your target.

Dad let me out at the crossing and said he’d come back in an hour or two. He drove slowly down the road to one of our usual hunting places, two headlights bouncing along the rough road.

I walked quietly up the dry creek bed with my rifle, a Savage .250–3000 lever action, held in front and pointed down. It was still dark but a partial moon revealed enough. There was a little clearing amid the overgrown brush and mesquite trees scattered everywhere. I found a spot where a big tree branch had broken off and was laying next to another tree positioned toward the open area. Sitting down on the dirt with my back to the tree and legs alongside the fallen branch, which I could also use to brace my arm when holding my gun, I tried to blend in.

Hunting requires patience and discipline, the very things still under development in most kids. It is hard not to fidget and move around… but it makes noise. Your clothes rub together. You breathe too loud or cough. Wild animals are alert for sounds and, if you make noise, you may not even get to see them.

I sat there as the sun started to rise. Deer typically forage for food in the early mornings and late evenings. I, too, was alert for sounds and movement.

An adult doe (female deer) poked her head out from an opening in the overgrowth of brush about 50 feet away. I watched as she slowly walked out into the clearing, took a bite of grass, started chewing, and looked around. I started to get excited since this is the way most deer operate. She was the scout.

There’s this thing called “buck fever” that hunters, especially novice ones, get. It’s an adrenaline rush that makes you tremble with excitement. Precisely what you do NOT want when hunting. The prospect of seeing a big deer can bring on this affliction. This is why you sometimes read stories about a stupid hunter who shot his buddy, who was wearing a dayglow orange vest,claiming he thought it was a deer.

The doe flicked her white tail a bit now and then. Deer can communicate with each other in semaphore; the Navy stole the idea from them. A certain little twitch of the tail means it’s OK for the kids to join mama. Shortly, a couple of fawns joined her in the little grassy area. These were yearlings and no hunting tags are issued for them.

I knew a buck (male deer) was probably hiding in the brush somewhere nearby, watching. (Yes, this is their modus operandi… the female is exposed to potential danger first, and then the children. That’s nature for you.) If the doe “told him” it was okay, he would join them and I’d get a chance to shoot. I was already positioned with my rifle pointed toward the doe… waiting.

The three deer kept eating, looking up now and then, meandering slowly closer to me, flicking their tails at each other. I was frozen, trying hard not to move or make a sound. The doe seemed comfortable but wasn’t giving the “all clear” signal. Maybe she smelled me? I kept looking in the brush behind her for movement.

Then I heard the crack of a small branch breaking BEHIND ME.

I was sitting with my back against a tree, the rifle crossing my chest, pointed in the wrong direction. Turning my head hard left gradually, I leaned ever so slowly to look around the tree.

Standing about 10 feet from me was an 8-point buck, a fine specimen. He was looking toward the other deer and miraculously had not noticed me. I guess he had circled around but was now as close as I’d ever been to a live deer. Wild ones, that is. I did know some folks who had a pet deer.

So close, in fact, that I realized there was no way I was going to be able to get a shot off!

If I made any move at all, he would bound off in a blink along with the rest of them. My gun was pointed in the wrong direction. The buck would disappear before I could move it, much less take aim. All I could do was watch them.

So I did.

As the sun rose, it got lighter and I’m sure he saw me at some point but never really indicated it. I held perfectly still, breathing shallowly, trying not to blink. Maybe he saw me all along and purposely stayed on my blind side, knowing about guns and all. Deer are semi-smart. He looked at me but didn’t react.

After a while, all of them moved on — faded into the brush — and I didn’t see any other deer. Later, Dad picked me up and, since we didn’t hear any shots, knew the other had no luck. I told him about the buck as we slowly drove back to the farm house to get some breakfast.

Back in the day, farmers were usually hunters out of necessity. There was a deep respect for hunted animals that shared the land and provided food for the table, but an arms-length attitude toward emotions surrounding the circle of life. On the one hand, we could look at a deer running across the road and think “dinner!”… and, on the other, be fascinated with their muscular prowess*, social behaviors, and natural beauty.

I think there is a symmetry to nature that “speaks” to farmers, and ranchers, and people who work the land. Or those who, at the very least, respect it.

*I have seen deer clear a fence twice as tall as them with a single hop. No running start. Just jump. It looks like it happens in slow motion and with room to spare. Spiking it on the other side with their springy legs. They seem to have a little attitude about it, like elite gymnasts.

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