Late in Rhode Island’s muzzleloader season I was perched on a 10 foot ladder stand when I glanced over my left shoulder and saw the biggest buck I’ve ever see in this little state sneaking up the hill behind me.  I slipped off the safety and quietly spun around on the wooden platform for a right handed shot.  As he went behind some brush I raised the muzzleloader and waited.  Head lowered as if following a scent trail, the buck approached a six foot opening about 40 yards away.  I pulled the butt of my in-line to my shoulder and waited.  As he emerged from behind the last bush I found him in my scope.  I thought cross hairs behind the shoulder, and I exhaled as I waited for them to rest just right.  When they did, I squeezed the trigger and held the rifle steady as a cloud of blue smoke surrounded me.

            When it cleared the big boy was stumbling up hill.  At the top he looked left, stumbled again, and turned right, lumbering into a thick row of bushes at the crest of the hill and then disappeared away from me.  Everything looked good so after a short wait I climbed down, reloaded and set out after him.  I found a single drop of blood where he stood when I shot.  Over the next half mile I found two GPS sized puddles of red and a trail of drops, some of which I had to find on hands and knees, that led me into a thick swamp and vanished.  For the better part of two days I searched that little piece of woods but I never saw that buck or any sign of him again.

            I’ve replayed that shot at least a thousand times but there’s nothing about it I’d do differently if I had it again.  I had plenty of time to think and I did what I thought was right.  All I can say about that giant is that I have no idea why he’s still out there.  Unfortunately, though, I can explain why a lot of other deer still roam around New England.

            There’s a world of difference between hunting and bringing home meat.  Part of that world includes mistakes, misjudgments and just plain old bad luck, all of which I’ve endured over a couple of decades in the big (and not so big) deer woods.  One positive thing about my miscues is that I’ve never made the same one twice so anyone who studies my failings should be able to avoid them, too.  Or put another way, they’ll be burdened with finding new and different reasons to come home empty.

Buck Fever

            Buck fever is a disease that jumps the mind from see deer to pull trigger.  No matter how soundly you plan all the necessary steps in between, if the fever hits, your brain doesn’t hear the sounds.  The only good thing I can say about buck fever is that it’s like the mumps.  If you survive it once, or maybe twice, you should start to build some resistance.

Not surprisingly, my initial bout of buck fever came the first time I hunted in Maine.  I was still hunting a small section of thick woods trying to end my deer virginity when I thought I was being attacked by a bush.  As I passed it branches started rocking and rolling as if they were trying to explode away from their roots.  I jumped behind a tree to get out of the way when suddenly a deer’s head rose from the bush and fell back into it.  When it rose again I knew it was busting out and would pass within feet of me.  That was see deer.  When it was in the clear about five yards away I pulled the trigger on my 30-06 as hard as I could pull but nothing happened except the deer ran across a clearing behind me and I pulled some more.  Then it turned and ran back into the clearing and I pulled again but the deer turned and vanished to my left.  To this day I can’t believe there could be an easier shot on my favorite game.  Unfortunately, buck fever said see deer, shoot deer and it made my brain skip right over take off the safety.

Unlike other diseases, don’t expect sympathy from your hunting buddies when you explain this illness.  I never forgot to flip the safety off again and over the next ten years I took several deer with firearms. 

To extend my season I took up bow hunting because in Rhode Island you can send arrows after deer for four months.  But when I carried the compound into the field it never occurred to me that my immunity to buck fever only ran gun deep.

One morning I was sitting on a 12 foot ladder stand when a doe slowly walked towards me on a groomed trail.  At twenty yards she had to turn and pass behind a bush, emerging to give me a broad side at a measured and practiced distance.  I had a good twenty to thirty seconds to anticipate what had to be one of the easiest shots in archery, but I had the fever and didn’t know it.  With the fever in control, my brain said see deer, raise bow and draw.  But I sit with my bow in my lap and the fever blocked, put arrow on rest.  So when the arrow snagged behind the rubber coated prongs, it pulled loose from the string and that was all the doe needed to hear.  A week later I arrowed another deer from that stand, so I’m assuming my immunity grew a little stronger.

Equipment

I’ve heard hunters complain about their equipment but the truth is that equipment rarely fails without human error helping it.  And I readily admit that I’m the human error behind several deer that got away.

Though I never suffered from buck fever hunting with a muzzleloader, I found other ways to miss.  A long time ago I bought my first smokepole from a mail order catalog and I didn’t think it was unusual that I had to file the front sight almost flat to hit a pie plate at 40 yards.  But after I missed three deer at 30 yards or less, I began to think it might not be me.  Of course it was me because I’m the one who loaded conicals into a muzzleloader with a 1 in 60 twist.  Had I read and followed the directions instead of second guessing the manufacturer, I would have learned that that twist was too slow to stabilize anything but roundballs and it wouldn’t have taken me four shots to bag my first buck with that rifle.  The real mystery was how did I ever connect with the pie plate in the first place.

Being a slow learner I had to miss another deer before my archery equipment functioned properly, too.  This time I was in a climbing stand on a short rise when a large doe came over the lip and stopped dead fifteen yards in front of me.  Apparently she knew that was the safest place to stand.  When I attached the release she didn’t move and she didn’t move when I slowly started to pull.  And she didn’t move when the release popped open and my arrow arched up into the air.  In fact she stayed dead still until the Gamegetter landed behind her, then she trotted off, probably deer laughing all the way.  Again, if I’d read and followed the directions I’d be eating stew instead of writing this because I would have known to lock the set screw in place.  A dab of clear nail polish fixed that problem forever.  It just fixed it one deer too late.

And I’ve missed deer by failing to obey even more common sense directions.  For example, the second time a deer chased me behind a tree occurred on election day in 1996.  Early that morning I blew once on a grunt tube and a monster came ripping through the brush slashing his antlers at every shrub in his way.  About twenty yards from me he stopped and spun once like a bull in a ring, searching for his competition.  When his head vanished behind a tree I swung my sidelock up and held on his vitals.  When I pulled the trigger the cap fired, the muzzle rose and after a painful pause the powder exploded sending the bullet flying over his back.  It took the monster all of five seconds to race across the border into Connecticut as I realized I’d suffered my first hangfire and I had no one to blame but myself.

The prior Sunday I’d shot a small doe but I had to go to a wake that night so I never cleaned the muzzleloader.  Tuesday I just grabbed it in the dark, reloaded it and jumped in the truck.  Had I just run a wire through the nipple…. 

Believe me, when it’s your fault, you relive the shot over and over again, which might explain why you have to invent new mistakes every time you screw up.

Circumstances

            Sometimes it’s not so much a screw up as circumstances that let the deer run.    One opening day in New Hampshire I was in a climber overlooking a field that ran about 200 yards long by 60 wide.  Just before 11 a.m. another hunter entered it from my west and started to walk through it.  I waved my orange hat to let him know I was there and when he saw it, he politely turned back.  But as soon as he turned a deer jumped out of its bed twenty yards in front of him.  It was a gimme shot from the stand and I instinctively grabbed my rifle.  But the other hunter was only twenty yards behind the deer so I lowered the gun and whistled to get his attention.  I figured he had a safe shot at it from the ground but there was no way I was going to fire down with him in the field.  He never turned back.  The deer stood silently between us until he finally seemed to figure out that my whistling was not a good thing, then he bolted.  I’ve never regretted letting him go.

            I let one go during Rhode Island’s bow season, too.  I had permission to hunt a very small piece of woods in a heavily residential area when a doe surprised me by appearing out of no where between the road and me.  It was a tempting shot and to this day I don’t believe it was possible for my arrow to reach the road but I let her walk.   There were a lot of ifs in if I missed and if I was wrong about how far the arrow would fly and if someone was coming around the corner just then, but they all justified taking a pass and they taught me to never hunt that land from the ground again.

It may not sound like it, but I have shot more deer than I’ve missed.  I don’t deny my mistakes and I don’t repeat them.  Someday, if I’m lucky and the hunting stars shine on me just right, I’ll have made every error one can make in the field.  Then if I’m still alive, I’ll be deadly.  But until that magic day comes, I’ll just enjoy the outdoors and try to do what’s humanly possible to eliminate mistakes, misjudgments and just plain old bad luck.  Sometimes I’ll succeed.