The Christmas Buck


The sound of the gravel lane leading to one of my favorite hunting spots is soothing to my ears. I wave to Charlie, the live-in groundskeeper of the farm. He’s around 80 and I’m not sure he even knows how old he is. Lean and ramrod straight from a lifetime of work, I stop and chat a few minutes as he enjoys a smoke.

Charlie jokes he could use a young deer this winter. I tell him if I’m lucky, it’s his. I have given Charlie deer in the past over the years. He’s always grateful and always chides me for shooting the shoulders out. “Why don’tcha’ neck shoot ’em, so’s ya don’t waste so much meat ….” The bantering continues as Charlie wishes me luck as I ease away.

The late muzzleloader season is my favorite. The orange army has retreated to the warmth of their homes and the woods have quieted down. The bare trees take on a gray ghost appearance, while the cold afternoon air reminds the worst of winter is yet to come.

This time of year, deer feed at night, back in their beds before sunrise. Afternoons and evenings are more productive. I’m on top of a favorite ridge, overlooking two benches to my rear and a thick, nasty tangle of mountain laurel to my front — perfect buck habitat. Past experiences have shown deer like to come from my front, meander down the two benches, then graze in the large winter wheat field.

Fighting vanishing light, you must head the deer off before darkness. You know where they’re going. It’s just a matter of time, and luck, to guess where they’ll creep in. Sitting against an ancient oak, I start relaxing, melting into my surroundings. I take in the early winter beauty while keeping a sharp eye for movement.

Before long, I hear the unmistakable sound of crunching leaves. To my left, four does are playing tag with a chunky buck, and he is “it,” chasing them merrily around. They are about 75 yards away, in the thickest part of the woods.

Instinctively bringing my muzzleloader up, I cock the hammer. Peering through the sights, I find the buck. His head and neck are exposed as he hides behind a tree. I usually frown on neck shots but put the sights there, knowing I will only shoot if it feels “right.” With sights settled … BOOM!

The explosion startles me. When the smoke clears, all is quiet. The buck is either dead in his tracks, or it’s a clear miss.

The Follow-Up

I reload the front stuffer with shaking hands and wobbly knees, the effects of adrenalin dumping through my body. I start toward the deadfall the buck was standing behind. I get there, and … no deer? Damn! An empty, sinking feeling kicks in. I look around farther, replaying the shot. It sure felt perfect. Twenty yards out, there he lays.

It has been a good day. After admiring the buck and giving thanks, I tag, gut and drag him down to the field. I walk back to my Tahoe, stowing my gear and drive to where I left the buck. After loading him up, I turn back onto the gravel lane.

Making a turn, my headlights illuminate Charlie. He’s leaning against his fence. “How’d ya make out? I heard some shootin’.” I tell him about the hunt with the smell of wood smoke in the air from his ancient potbelly stove.

Merry Christmas

Charlie tells me his family is coming tomorrow, for Christmas Eve. He’s excited to be seeing them. With a straight face, I ask if his grandkids and great-grandkids like smoked venison. “That they do; know where I can get any?”

Together, we drag the six-pointer out. Charlie examines the gutted gift and says, “Shame ya’ shot him in the neck, ruined a few roasts.” I laugh; some things never change … “Merry Christmas, Charlie,” as I get in the Tahoe, feeling good. Charlie tells me how he plans to smoke the hams for Christmas and fry up some back straps for dinner tonight — his voice fading as I pull away.

The heater feels warm as Christmas carols play on the radio, and it’s starting to snow. All is right with the world heading down the gravel lane, the soothing sound making me glad to be headed home.

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