By Jeff “Tank” Hoover
Driving down the gravel lane to one of my favorite hunting spots, I wave to Charlie, the live-in grounds keeper of the farm I’m about to hunt. Charlie is 80 years old, give or take, I’m not sure if even he knows, or cares. Lean and ramrod straight from a lifetime of hard work, I stop my ‘98 Tahoe and chat with him for a few minutes while he enjoys a smoke.
Charlie jokes he could use a young deer for meat this winter. I tell him if I’m lucky enough to score, it’s his. I have given Charlie several deer in the past over the years. He is always grateful, and always chides me for shooting the shoulders out. “Why don’t ‘cha neck shoot ‘em so’s ya don’t waste so much meat?” The bantering continues until Charlie wishes me “good luck” and I thank him as I ease away.
The late muzzleloader season has always been my favorite. The orange army has retreated to their warm homes and the woods are quiet, almost returned to normal. The trees are bare and the woods take on that grey ghost appearance reminding us of the impending winter.
During this time of year the deer usually feed at night and are back in their beds before sunrise. Morning hunts are usually for naught, with the afternoons and evenings more productive. It’s a time to be able to sleep-in on a day off, or catch a hunt after work — if you hurry.
Today found me on top of a favorite ridge, overlooking two benches to my rear and a thick, nasty tangle of mountain laurel, grape vine, wild rose and thorn bush, to my front, simply perfect buck habitat. Past experience has shown deer like to come from my front, meander down the two benches, then graze in the large field of winter wheat. During winter, fighting vanishing daylight, you have to head the deer off before dark. You know where they’re headed. It’s just a matter of time — and luck — to guess from where they will be creeping in.
A Short Wait
It was 2:40 pm when I was all settled. Sitting against an ancient oak tree I start to relax and melt into the environment. I take in my surroundings, appreciative of the pre-winter beauty with a sharp eye out for any movement.
Today, it didn’t take long. A little before four, I heard the unmistakable crunching and scurrying of leaves to my left. I could see four or five does playing tag with a chunky buck, and he was “it” — chasing them merrily around in a tight circle. They were about 75 yards off, give or take, and in the thickest part of the woods.
I instinctively brought my TC Encore muzzleloader up to my eye as I cocked the hammer. Peering through the Leupold 3X9 scope, I found my buck. The only problem was his head and neck were the only thing exposed as he hid behind a large tree. I usually frown on neck shots, but put the cross hairs on his neck anyway, not knowing if I would shoot — unless it felt right. The cross hairs stayed on his neck, perfectly still, as if they were tattooed there. Then I surprised myself.
I hardly realized I had fired. It was as if I’d been on auto-pilot for that shot. I guess my trigger finger knew best at that moment.
The explosion of 150 grains of triple 7 behind a 250 gr. shock wave bullet in a ribbed sabot startled me, as I subconsciously tripped that trigger. When the smoke cleared, all was quiet. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing. Either the deer was dead in his tracks, or it was a clear miss, and he snaked his way through the thick maze of vegetation without sight or sound of him.
It’s amazing, no matter how calm, cool and collected we are prior to, and after the shot, I kinda’ go to pieces afterward. I made this shot off-hand, sitting on my rump. My hunting jacket has shrunk, as have most of my clothes over the years, and is a tad snug. Whenever bringing my arms up to the shooting position, that snugness adds immensely to the stability of my arms, whether shooting rifle or sixgun. Guess it is kinda’ like a shooting jacket, without the straps. Or at least I like to think so.
With shaking hands, I reload the front stuffer, getting up on shaky knees. Amazing, after all these years, I still wobble after every shot at a game animal, be it groundhog, deer, elk or other varmint. I start the walk toward the fallen tree I thought the buck was standing behind. I get to where he was — and no deer.
That empty sinking feeling kicks in. I look around, replaying the shot. It felt perfect though. I keep looking, my heart thumping, anxiety beginning to take hold — “How could I have missed” I keep thinking —then there he is. Twenty yards further out, there he lays. Amazing how those roller coaster feelings can change so quickly.
It has been a good day, after all.
After admiring my buck, and giving thanks for him, he is tagged, gutted and dragged down to the field. I walk back to my Tahoe, stow my gear and load up the buck.
As I ride back, there’s Charlie, illuminated in my headlights, leaning against his fence. “How’d ya make out? I heard some shootin’” he says. With the smell of wood smoke in the air from his ancient potbelly stove, I tell Charlie about the hunt. Charlie tells me about his family coming tomorrow, Christmas Eve, and how excited he is to be seeing them. With a straight face, I ask him if his grand kids, and great grand kids like smoked venison. “That they do, know where I can get any?”
We drag the 6-pointer out of my Tahoe. 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 start to pull away, feeling pretty darn good. Charlie tells me how he plans on smoking the hams for Christmas, and frying up some back straps for dinner tonight, his voice fading as I drive away.
The crunch of the gravel lane sounds soothing as I head for home.
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