“The rut is a beautiful thing,” my cousin Madison told me. “Bucks’ll come in with their nose down, lookin’ for that pussy, and sometimes you gotta say somethin’ to ’em to get ’em to stop.”
“Say something?” I asked.
“Yeah, just make a noise, like, ‘Ey,’ a sound that’ll get their attention. ’Cause they got a one-track mind.”
We were flying down Interstate 85 in his mom’s SUV at around midnight after Thanksgiving, heading down to his home in Gold Hill, a tiny town in Rowan County halfway between Salisbury and Albemarle. We were fulfilling the second year of what’s become a new tradition: Gorge ourselves and watch football with the family in Beaufort, then drive halfway across the state to hunt deer in the morning.
This would be my fourth deer hunt, and I’d only ever seen does. And I didn’t want to kill Bambi’s Mom for my first deer.
Our alarms failed to stir us on Friday morning, so we woke up late — 7:30 a.m. We saw nothing.
We went out again at about 3:30 p.m. and stayed in the woods until dark. Still nothing.
And then, under my own power, I somehow woke up at 6:50 a.m. the next morning. I practically shouted at Madison to rouse him. Things aren’t looking up when you have to wake up your guide.
Again, no dice.
I’d been out three times in two days and not seen even a doe. And while the weather was cooler and cloudier than originally forecast, it was still unseasonably warm for late November.
My chances at punching my big-game tag were not good.
After lunch, I had a conversation with my uncle Darrius outside the town antique shop.
“I figure I might go out there again, just myself,” I told him.
“Yeah, they’ll be moving,” he said. “You just gotta keep going out there ’til you get lucky.”
“Right. The law of averages.”
He laughed and returned to the shop.
I struck out around 2:30 p.m. Despite the clearing clouds, the temperature was slated to drop starting around 4 p.m. Heading out in the midafternoon granted me plenty of time to prep and settle.
It would be my seventh time out for deer this weekend.
I drove the Gator — Madison’s decrepit ATV — out to a meadow behind a farmhouse across the street. Along the meadow’s left side was thick hardwood forest surrounding a creek bottom. Madison had installed a two-man stand 15 feet high on an oak, overlooking a game trail leading into the woods which served as a shooting lane. One of his buddies said he’d seen a large spike — a young buck with single-tined antlers — pass right under the stand a few days prior.
I spread estrus — doe piss — in a 50-yard radius around the stand, then climbed the ladder to the stand, a narrow, metal seat with arm rails.
Under my camouflage, I was sweating in the relative warmth. Estrus stank all over my hands. I rubbed it in my hair, beard and chest. The rank, musky stench caused a headache, but I was desperate to remain concealed.
Deer hunting is counter-meditation. Your mind clears, sure, but you become hyper-sensitized to the point of paranoia. Every stirring leaf, every cracking branch, every rustle in the woods might be your deer, so you move in extreme slow motion and mute every sound. Even turning a rifle’s safety latch turns into a four-second ordeal.
I sat in absolute silence for an hour before I heard crashing to my left. I began slowly craning my neck over until five does literally high-tailed from the meadow into the woods, bounding with reckless grace towards the creek bottom.
I certainly hadn’t spooked them. So I figured a buck must be on their tails.
Back in sniper mode, I scanned the meadow periodically.
About 45 minutes after the does’ dramatic entrance, I looked left 90 degrees and halted when I spotted movement about 100 yards away, at the crest of the hill.
A lone deer. Likely a buck… maybe a buck.
I’m unashamed to admit I was so nervous I could barely zoom in my scope. I breathed sharp and heavy through my nose. I could barely keep a steady view for shaking.
But I couldn’t pull the trigger. Pine needles obscured the deer’s head and shoulders, so I could neither confirm it was a buck nor take a clean shot.
Eventually, I lost track of it in the treeline across the meadow, disappointed yet glad I stuck to my principles.
I breathed easy for another 45 minutes.
Then, I heard a clack like a muted clave tap, slightly behind me to my left.
I watched through the oaks, pines and hickories as the spike buck re-entered the meadow about 50 yards away, nose down, just like Madison said.
The geometry proved difficult. The buck was quartering toward me, but heading behind me.
I unlatched the rifle’s safety and brought the scope to my eye, following the deer’s path through tree trunks.
When I spied the buck’s left shoulder through a few trees, I was turned about 135 degrees left, my back and core muscles aching after holding this position minute after minute.
He wasn’t stopping. So I said something.
The buck stopped.
I took the shot.