For most deer hunters, the definition of a trophy changes as we age.
As a youngster, I devoured my uncle’s outdoor magazines. He was a chemical engineer, a machinist, a shooter and a gunsmith — and I hero-worshiped him as only a kid can. A patient man, he catered to my incessant questions pestering him with queries about guns, hunting and every other aspect of the shooting sports I could think to ask about.
He also let me borrow his magazines. He had subscriptions to all the major ones — Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, Field and Stream and some of the shooting mags.
So I grew up reading about hunting and shooting, and branched out into the literature of the genre as I grew older. This led me to Hemingway, whom I read because teachers recommended him. But I truthfully didn’t come to appreciate Papa until later in life.
But early on, I discovered Robert Ruark.
Ah, Ruark. If ever anyone writing about hunting captured its essence, and the essence of the hunter, that person had to be Bob Ruark.
Something of Value, The Old Man and The Boy, Uhuru, Use Enough Gun — the list goes on and on. To a boy, completely immersed in shooting and hunting, Ruark was a god.
In so many ways, before it became one big game park, Ruark captured the spirit and times of Africa and hunting its varied terrain and wildlife like no other before him, or since.
And he imbued a sense of what a hunter was supposed to be in the mind of an impressionable youngster…
I could see myself ensconced at a bar somewhere outside Mombasa, bamboo the dominant décor, a heavy brass footrail supporting my hobnailed, low-quarter hiking boots. Hanging shutters propped open grasping the breezes moving in from the veldt, bringing the rich smells of the grasslands — the stink of hippo and elephant and crocodile, and the throaty rumbling of big cats, Simba hunting in the dark.
My rifle, a double, of course, would be propped nearby. I would be clad in bush jacket, walking shorts, my worn, crushed, wide-brimmed felt hat tossed carelessly on the bar, a frosty gin-and-tonic wrapped by my hand, a slim, sloe-eyed, dark-haired and exotic young beauty dressed in diaphanous muslin at my side, her scent reminiscent of orchid, her hand resting lightly on my arm as she listened in wide-eyed amazement to the day’s exploits facing down the man-eaters, the rogues, the destroyers of villages.
Carrying on the breeze through the open windows would be the native chants, faintly heard in the distance. My name would be the only recognizable sound, sung in sonorous awe after I had killed the beast that had terrorized the kraal for so long.
Ah yes, such are the faint imaginings of youth. I remember when I dreamed those dreams, comparing them to the reality of today — sitting on a deer stand in wintry Louisiana, breaking out in hives of excitement as my 15-year-old daughter actually manages to sit still long enough to see and get a shot on a whitetail doe, let alone connect with the target. Where did I ever imagine all that stuff to begin with? And I hate gin.
And so changes our aims and perspectives on life as we age. But one thing we do as hunters and shooters is appreciate fine equipment, either aesthetically pleasing or its perfection as a utilitarian tool.
And fine quality equipment and tools can come in many forms, both animal and solid. My daughter, in one glorious hunt, came to appreciate much of what we crave and boast about in talking of this sport we love.
It had been a long, hard attempt, almost an odyssey, getting Jessica to the point of commanding a true, clean and killing shot on a deer. Some three years, in fact.
It started when she was 12.
“Dad,” she stated one day, out of clear blue nothing, as she is often wont to do, “I think I’d like to try deer hunting.”
Be still my beating heart. A child of mine, actually asking to be taken on a deer hunt. The boys, her much older brothers, had gone along, mainly to humor dad, until they got old enough that they could turn me down without worrying about hurting my feelings.
Oh, they enjoyed it well enough. Deer camp was just that — high-end camping — and what boy, or girl for that matter, doesn’t enjoy camping?
But neither one really ever got the fire in the belly about hunting or fishing that I had nurtured since an early age. Once they reached their late teens, they pretty well lost interest in outdoor sports, and I, to my great surprise, slowed down on the hunting also.
I mean, just how many deer can you kill in a lifetime? How many hours can you spend on a deer stand? I still hunted occasionally with special friends, but the last few years, I gained most of my enjoyment bringing the boys, trying to put them on deer and imparting a lifetime of knowledge of woodscraft and hunting.
Once the boys lost interest, I realized I just didn’t have the thrill anymore, and I backed off from it. The general perception of me was such, it was four years before people stopped automatically asking me how many deer I had killed each fall.
But I still went occasionally. And I fished, and as my daughter grew older, I took her on jaunts to the coast for speckled trout and redfish. And she loved the fishing.
And, it seemed, she remembered going to the deer camp as a child on work days and playing with her older brothers. And being nearly a tomboy (Dad having a lot to do with encouraging that!), she decided that maybe she’d like to try hunting, too.
Needless to say, she only had to ask once. I immediately called a friend, Jeff Lewis, who owns a large farm in Tensas Parish, and has lots of does, and doe permits. The invitation to come up and shoot a doe was quickly acted upon.
Pat Blake, owner of Accurate Firearms and Police Supply, grandly volunteered to rectify the “small girl, need small rifle” problem with the loan of a classic Model 70 Winchester carbine in .243 Winchester.
Mounted with a quality scope, it was the perfect size for my growing daughter. We traveled to North Louisiana, to Lewis’ Agriana farm, and let her test-fire the rifle a few times. She was already a relatively skilled shooter, having trained on Daisy air rifles, .22s and pistols.
Rox Routon, Lewis’ farm manager and biologist, and one of Jessica’s favorite people in all the world, asked if he could take her out for her first evening hunt, apologetically asking if I minded if she took her first deer with him.
They came in well after dark, giggling like children, Jessica aglow as she described being forced to low crawl great distances across open fields, dodging from bush to bush, to get within range of grazing does.
Rox took up the tale, relating lying on his back, offering his .30-30 lever-action Winchester to Jessica, allowing her to take a rest across his upraised knees, then closing his eyes and covering his ears, waiting for her to take the shot.
Finally he opened his eyes to see Jessica holding the rifle in perfect position, peering down the barrel, looking through the open sights, frozen in place.
“Jessica,” he whispered, “Hurry up. Shoot.”
“I can’t,” she whispered, almost wailing.
“I can’t hold this position forever,” he said. “What’s the matter?”
“I can’t shoot this,” she said, her voice quivering. “It doesn’t have one of those seeing things like my dad’s…”
Not that I raised a shooting snob, nosiree. I just raised a daughter with a tasteful appreciation for fine shooting optics.
It was on that trip she got her first shot at a deer. And her second. And her third.
She would periodically go out to the field where Rox had taken her the first evening, and “Indian hunt” like he had shown her. Of course, she had no idea how to judge distance, and would stop to shoot entirely too far away. But she had fun. Lord, did she have fun.
She also showed great sportsmanship on that and later trips by refusing to take easy shots on yearling deer.
“Oh, go ahead,” I would say, frustrated. “All these grown men have shot big yearlings by mistaking them for does. You’ve never killed. Let’s get the pressure off. No one will mind.”
But she steadfastly refused. It would be a full-sized doe, within the management plan of the plantation, or nothing at all.
Our hunting times were limited over the next couple of seasons. Each year, we would practice, sighting her new Model 7 Remington.
I mounted a 3×9 Leupold compact scope on the little stainless bolt rifle, and discovered that it loved Remington Core-Lokt 140-grain loads. The little 7mm-08 was an absolute tack-driver. Each hunting season, I would think, “This is the year. Jessica’s going to finally take her first deer.”
But it was not meant to be. We would make the trips, sit on the stands and either not see deer, or she would choke up on an easy shot, and miss. At times, I swear I think she closed her eyes when she pulled the trigger.
But hunting and missing breeds training and experience. Her mother’s initial collapse into near hysteria (“You did what? You let that child drive a 4-wheeler? You gave her a high-powered rifle?”) gave way to pained acceptance when I told her the girl was more scrupulously careful in handling firearms than the boys ever were.
This was brought home to me during that first hunt, when sitting on the stand with her, I watched her miss a doe from about 65 yards, and then open the bolt, remove the spent shell, and press the next live round back down in the magazine to close the bolt on an empty chamber before ever turning to me and asking, “Do you think I hit it?”
The first year or two, she was too green to shoot carefully and correctly, but there was absolutely never anything wrong with her firearms safety and etiquette.
And so we came to this most recent and passed season. Having moved into a new, rural home on our own land, hunting time was at a premium. She did go through the state Hunter Education Course, and we did make a youth hunt for does on the pre-season hunting weekend designated for kids. Of course, we saw nothing.
We both waited excitedly for the opportunity to travel to Agriana, where surely, Jessica would finally get a deer.
A cold, damp Friday evening found us sitting in a box stand together, overlooking a grass field. We climbed in the box at 3 p.m. and sat for two hours, watching the birds and wildlife and nary a deer on this stand that had not been hunted this season.
I had her take the rifle with an empty chamber and practice sighting and dry-firing on different targets at varied ranges. I stressed over and over to rest the rifle on the window sill of the stand, center the crosshairs on the shoulder of the deer when it came out, hold her breath, squeeze and don’t jerk the trigger.
Remember, I told her, the two most important sighting fundamentals are sight alignment and trigger squeeze.
At 5:15, she touched my knee, breathing excitedly. “Dad. A doe.”
I looked across the field in the dimming light, and saw what appeared to be a full-sized deer crossing about eighty yards away. A broadside shot, enhanced by the thoughtfulness of the deer to stop and offer a perfect shot at her left shoulder.
Looking through my binoculars, I said, “It looks like a full-sized one, not a yearling. And it is a doe. Go ahead and take it.”
In a smooth, professional motion that I watched, and will carry its sight in my memory until the day I die, my beautiful, lithe, long-haired woman-child pushed the gun out the window of the stand, pulled the stock hard into her shoulder, got a perfect cheek-to-stock weld, centered the crosshairs and pulled the trigger. The form and function of the shot were perfect.
I looked toward the doe to see her fall hard on her right side, kick, then jump up and run into the woods.
“You got her,” I exulted, almost cheering. I slapped her arm in excitement.
“What?” she asked. “How do you know? She ran off!”
“No, Jessica. You knocked her down hard on her side. I haven’t seen that happen very often. I know you got her! You mean to tell me you didn’t see her fall?”
“No, Dad. I just saw her kick and run in the woods. The rifle kicked me back for a second.”
“Well, rest assured you got her. When they go down like that, she didn’t go very far. The woods are too wet this time of year, but generally, if you listen close right after they run off, you’ll hear ’em go down and thrash. But she’s down, I guarantee it!”
“I was really upset,” she said, gaining excitement. “I thought, ‘Oh, no. Not again.’ But the shot really seemed right this time. The crosshairs were right on her shoulder.
“And,” she grinned, a dry hint to her voice, “I didn’t close my eyes this time, Dad.”
She ejected the spent shell, and closed the bolt on an empty chamber, and we began climbing down. She was getting excited now, and hurried me climbing out of the stand.
We had parked the 4-wheelers by the stand in the brush. I thought she was going to explode by the time we rode to where we thought the doe had fallen. In the near-darkness of the wet field, it was impossible to locate blood.
We took the headlights of the ATVs and shined them in the woods, but this was palmetto slash-thick and primeval — green even in the dark and dead of winter. You could pass a dead deer, or a dead water buffalo, and miss it in 10 feet.
We couldn’t find it, and we couldn’t find blood. Another hunter, Jeff Smith, showed up with his small son. They had been hunting another stand down the road, heard the shot and came to help.
Ten minutes of searching by flashlight, and Jessica was getting paranoid.
“Are you sure I got it, Dad. You really saw it go down? I can’t not get this deer. This is so frustrating. I can’t stand this!”
“C’mon,” Smith said. “Let’s go back to the camp and get Ronnie and Rebel.”
Ronnie Liotto, a friend of Lewis, had decided to train himself a blood-trailing dog. Traveling to Monroe, he had bought a pup from a man who raises an off-brand breed known as a yellow black-mouthed cur.
Rebel had grown into a large, gangling rope of a dog, looking for all the world like a skinny, short-haired yellow Labrador retriever. Or a golden retriever that would freeze if you tried to use it for ducks in icy waters.
And he did have black jowls and lips. I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to him, and that should have alerted me that Rebel was more than he seemed to be. I assumed he was some sort of Labrador mix.
Since he spent most of his time quietly staying out of the way, generally laying about the porch of the camp, I should have realized he wasn’t much Lab, since they generally have to be up in the middle of everything around the camp, if not in your lap. This dog kept to himself, unless spoken to — definitely not the slap-happy personality of a young Lab.
“Eight for eight,” Ronnie said. “We’ve used him on eight blood trails, and he’s found every deer, so far.”
I stood by the edge of the woods, the headlights of the ATVs piercing the darkness, and watched Rebel try to pick up the trail of Jessica’s deer. I didn’t figure we had done him much good with all the tromping around we had done, trying to pick up the blood trail. Not to mention, I was suffering with a leg sprain, and couldn’t walk, so I had driven the 4-wheeler into the palmetto, trying to pick up the trail before Smith had arrived with his son and offered to try to find blood.
I was thinking Rebel had his work cut out for him, when suddenly, he struck off in a straight line, and Ronnie said, “He’s on something.”
Whatever the something was, Rebel veered off to the left, and ended up coming out in the back of the field, then circling around within 50 feet of our stand.
“I don’t know what he’s trailing, Ronnie. But that deer didn’t go that way. We would have seen it.”
Calling the dog over, Ronnie walked back over to me. I was sitting in the Kawasaki Mule that belonged to the plantation.
“Show me,” he said, “best you can figure exactly where that deer went in the woods.”
I pointed to a big water oak on the edge of the field.
“Near as I can make it out, she went in right there.”
Ronnie led Rebel over to the tree, and stood as the dog began casting about again for a scent.
Jessica, of course, by this time was experiencing the familiar frustration and fear of being sure of having made a good shot on a deer, and now having the doubts licking the back of your consciousness. Maybe, just maybe you won’t find this deer. Maybe you didn’t do as good as you thought you did. Maybe you’ll spend all this time searching, and it’ll all be for naught.
I couldn’t help thinking that for her first deer, she was getting the gamut of the hunting experience — so much more than just shooting a deer, and watching it fall over in place. No, she made what appeared to be a great shot, only to have the deer run off, then experienced the frustrations of trying to blood trail in the dark, and now she was getting to watch something I had seen only a few times in my life, a skilled dog trailing a wounded deer. For her first deer, assuming we found it, she was getting a full plate.
Rebel had hit what appeared to be another trail, and this time took off in the direction I thought the deer had run. The entire crowd, now consisting of Smith, Liotto, their kids, and Jessica were in hot pursuit of the dog. I was too crippled up to walk and had to stay on the Mule, listening to their voices fade in the smothering stillness of the dark palmetto slash.
The voices were muffled, almost out of hearing. I was frustrated not to be with them at the moment of discovery of my daughter’s deer. If they found it — if Rebel was as good as they said he was, and not off cold-trailing some other deer that had meandered through earlier in the day.
The voices started growing louder. I saw flashlights bobbing, and the two grown men broke into view, dragging a full-size doe. Rebel trotted alongside of the body, worrying it, chewing on the hide every chance he got.
“Nine for nine,” Ronnie said proudly. Rebel began chewing on the flank of the doe. Jessica looked quite pleased with herself, smug, even.
Always interested more in the ballistics than the hunt, I asked them to turn the doe over. I found Jessica’s entry wound — a pencil-sized hole slightly above the center of the shoulder. Flipping her over, the quarter-sized exit wound was almost exactly in the same spot on the other side. The 140-grain Core-Lokt had performed excellently, leaving a large exit.
“Look at that,” I said. “You’d think with a hole that size, there’d have been a blood trail.”
They all grinned at me.
“There was,” Jeff said. “You drove right over it with that 4-wheeler. She was laying about 30 feet beyond where you drove over the blood trail, and once she started bleeding, it looked like a highway in there.”
The doe was loaded on the Mule. We carried ourselves and the two heroes of the hour, Jessica and Rebel, back to the camp, where Rebel feasted on choice flank meat, and we barbecued fresh deer loin for supper.
And Jessica was a real sport about the deer blood we smeared all over her face. Didn’t even complain very much when a little got accidentally dripped in her hair, and Dad wouldn’t let her wash any of it out for about an hour — so everyone could see it, and plenty of photos could be taken.
After all, this was the only time we would ever be able to experience her very first deer. It was a long, long time in coming. When it finally happened, the full experience made up for the frustrating wait.
She’ll be 16 this year, with her very own first big-game license.
I think I’ll frame it after the season.
I can hardly wait.