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A Coming of Age Hunting Story - Time of Long Shadows
Remembering first hunts
Time of Long Shadows
Finally, it is here. Archery season has arrived. This is the time I wait for, I prepare for every year. The time I get to go into the woods and pit myself against that most worthy opponent: the Whitetail Deer. This year, I have placed my stand on the edge of an oak flat, deep in the woods. It takes me about a half an hour just to walk in to this stand. I am surrounded by thick undergrowth, and the oaks are raining acorns on the forest floor. As I sit in my stand on the first evening of the new season, I think back on days gone by, of seasons past. Of memories made, and those yet to be. The sun is creeping slowly across the afternoon sky, and the shadows are growing longer. While I wait for that first deer of the season to make its way past, I remember.
I think back on my first hunt, some thirty odd years ago. How I woke in the pre-dawn morning with such great expectations of the day to come; how I hurried in the darkness to get the final preparations done,; and of my father driving me to meet Mel, a friend of ours, who would be taking me for My First Deer Hunt. As we drove, all I could think of was how big my first buck would be: would he be a trophy worthy of the wall? There were no thoughts of whether I would even see a deer; no, I already had shot that buck a thousand times in my dreams, and expected this morning to bring those dreams to reality. When we arrived at the predetermined spot, I was confused. Mel was nowhere to be seen. We waited, and nobody came. I worried that he had gone on without me; that we had arrived too late. My father did not hunt whitetail, only mule deer in the mountains of Colorado. I asked him to please drive me to where Mel had said he would be hunting. Somewhat reluctantly, he agreed.
Around thirty minutes later, we arrived at the hunting grounds. This was public land, so cars and trucks of every make were there. Young and old, grandfathers, fathers, and sons, all were getting ready to begin the day. We found Mel’s truck, and he was about to leave in order to get to his spot. He was happy to see me, and told me about what the day would bring. No explanation of why he hadn’t met us was offered; I was too excited by the prospects of the day to come to bother asking. My father even decided to go along, “Just in case we needed some help”
We walked into the woods, and found the spot Mel had decided on. The sky was beginning to lighten, and we could begin to make out the area. We sat on the edge of some woods, with a seam of open land stretching away left and right. As the sun rose, we could hear the first shots ring out. “Keep your eyes moving”, Mel said. “One could come sneaking in any time, now.” Waiting; watching; always looking down the seam in hopes of seeing something. Then, after what seemed an eternity, but was probably only fifteen minutes or so, I saw something. There, on the edge of the seam. I looked closer, and saw a small fork horn, making his way cautiously along the edge of the brightening woods. I poked dad, and he told me to get ready. Raising the Remington Model 700 30.06, I held the crosshairs on the shoulder as I had been taught. I held my breath, and squeezed the trigger. The rifle kicked, and the buck was gone. We went to where he’d been, and found nothing. No blood, no deer, nothing. I had blown it. My first shot; my first miss. “Well, that’s the way it goes, sometimes.” Mel said, smiling. “We don’t always get what we come for.
I’m startled back to the here and now. I hear leaves crackle underfoot of something. What’s that? Oh, just a squirrel, poking through the leaves under the trees, searching for acorns. Better pay attention to what I’m doing here. I have seen a lot of deer here in the past, and one might slip up on me if I’m not careful. Boy, that sun feels good and the breeze is rocking the tree I’m in so gently. It’s almost as if I’m on a boat. I’ll just close my eyes for a second.
October, last year. My wife and I had bought our son a tree stand for his October birthday. I had driven some 60 miles to where we would hunt, and hung both of our stands a couple of weeks ago. Then, on his birthday, I had taken Payton to his football game in Nevada, Mo. After the game, which they won, we had about 2 hours to hunt, so we went to our stands south of town. We walked through the woods, and I led him to where I had hung his stand. It was gone. I couldn’t believe it. I had locked it up with a chain, but there was nothing there. Everything was gone; even the safety strap I had positioned for him. I was sick. He put on a brave face, saying, “I hope whoever took it needs it more than I did”. I thought to myself, what are we going to do now? I asked him if he would like to hunt in the same field that I had my stand overlooking. He said, “Sure”, so we walked through the woods to where my stand was, and then I walked him about halfway down the field. It was a cut cornfield, and had a lot of good sign. The field had some standing corn along the edges of the field, and I positioned him just inside the edge of this, advising him that he needed to keep a close eye on the northern edge of the field. That was where I thought the deer would be coming in from, as there was a good amount of rubs and tracks, leading into the field. “They could come in any time, so you need to stay focused.” “Okay,” was his only response. Then I walked back to my stand.
From my stand, I could see the entire field. Payton was about 100 yards away, in the edge of the cut corn. I waited, and watched. About 5:30 P.M., I saw movement. There, on the north edge of the field. One; no wait, two deer emerged. One was a decent 8 point. My mind yelled, “Payton! Look to your left! Can you see them?” I sat still, quiet, waiting, barely breathing. The buck edged out into the field, about eighty yards from where Payton sat. The buck stood still in the field, looking cautiously around. Then, after only a few moments, he decided this wasn’t the place to be, and turned back into the woods. My heart fell, for I had been hoping to get to see what few fathers get to see: watching their son take his first deer on their own, without being right there beside them. I guess it wasn’t to be, not yet.
As the shadows lengthened, reaching farther out into the field, I saw movement in the field. I guess I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, because suddenly, there was a doe right in front of Payton! I don’t know how long it had been there, or how it even got there; but there it was. I could just barely see him, crouching in the remnants of the corn left standing on the field’s edge. The doe fed closer, and closer. Then, that sixth sense kicked in. The wind was from the North, and that doe was East of him, but somehow, she knew something wasn’t right. She snorted, stomped, stared. I watched this dance continue for about 20 minutes. To his credit, Payton never flinched. I couldn’t have contained myself for that long. But he, a 12-year-old man that day, did. That doe paraded in front of him left and right, forwards and backwards, never taking her eyes off where he sat hidden. Then, finally, she settled down. As she began to feed, I watched as he slowly drew his bow back. I measured the distance. Twenty yards, about the farthest I would let him practice at with his 40-pound Bear bow. Sitting on the edge of my seat, I was pulled into this time-honored drama. Holding my breath, waiting for the moment to come. Then, suddenly, he released! The doe spun into the shot, dropped, and away she went. I waited a few moments, then climbed down and crossed the field to where Payton sat. We went together to look for his arrow, and to see if there was any sign of a hit. Payton went straight to his where his arrow lay, in the cornrows. Together, we looked the arrow over, broadhead to fletching. Nothing. He explained to me what he was feeling at the moment he released the arrow. How he was scared and excited at the same time. What the doe did in reaction to the shot. Then, suddenly, I was transported back to my first shot. What I felt, and what a man now lost to this world told me those many years ago. “Well, Payton, that’s the way it goes, sometimes. We don’t always get what we come for” But I knew that I’d gotten exactly what I came for: a first hunt with my son. Another wonderful memory for me to think about in days yet to come. Another special hunt, another time precious to me, to remember in the Time of Long Shadows.