January 25, 2023
Standing in a long, lush food plot on a dark, clear night in Georgia, it was hard not to smile. Because standing a few feet away, photographer Tess Rousey was shooting the last-second success of my outdoor-writing friend Darron McDougal, who had downed a solid Peach State whitetail after several days of hunting, SEC football talk, mild temperatures, and the food and hospitality for which the Deep South is renowned.
While Josh Honeycutt, who like McDougal, is a regular contributor to Outdoor Sportsman Group publications such as Game & Fish, and I chatted with host Scott Tanner, guide Brian Johnson, and trip organizer Amanda Popp, formerly the marketing director for Arcus Hunting Brands and now in the same position for Beretta Firearms. With so many nice folks in camp, and being out again, I couldn't help but look heavenward as the afternoon faded into twilight.
And smile, whispering a prayer of thanks to the keeper of the stars, and reflect on a hunt that meant more than most. Orion, the great heavenly hunter whose image blazes silently every night in the winter sky, twinkled overhead with his bow at full draw, presumably offering his approval of our photo session below. Ah, yes, the trials and tribulations of a post-rut deer hunter in December, when the bucks and the does are holed up and licking their wounds, and the weather is mild, the sky is crystal clear, and the charm and beauty of the South is on full display in comfortable weather.
The hunt that I was enjoying was a last-second affair, one that I didn't see coming. Just like the heart attack that struck out of the blue a few weeks earlier, when I was watching a football game one moment, and then wondering seconds later whether my time on earth was done. With a history of health woes—genetics are tough to overcome—it wasn't entirely a surprise when I felt a flaming meteorite strike me in the chest at 100 mph, but it was still something unnerving as I sat in the emergency room with my wife and wondered what lie ahead.
As a middle-aged empty nester in his mid-50s, a stent fixed the problem in my heart, but not necessarily in my head. Even though the doctor assured me that there was no damage to my heart, that it was functioning quite well in the aftermath, and that I was under no physical restrictions going forward, my head was difficult to clear of the what-ifs that such a moment can generate.
Sure, I went dove hunting … once. And duck hunting … once. But deer hunting, the act of traveling, climbing up 20 feet into a tree, and feeling my ticker's pulse accelerate, was something else in the fall of 2021 when all of this occurred. Too much physical effort, too much uncertainty, too much being alone in the middle of the woods after an event I wasn't sure how to handle.
Back in the Saddle
Finally, a good friend—my boss, actually—said enough was enough and pushed me through the proverbial front door and on toward Georgia when a sudden need arose to go on a writer's hunt for the company. I pulled my old Ruger 30.06 out of the gun safe, went to my friend Jimmy's shooting range, and fired a few precious ammo rounds to ensure that everything was OK.
With the gun, that is, and not necessarily me. After making sure that the scope was where I wanted it—two inches high at 100 yards—my bags were packed with camo and I was rolling down the road toward the airport, heading for a hunt that my head said to go on even if my heart suggested otherwise. Soon enough, though, I was out of Dallas, touching down in Atlanta, and collecting luggage and a rifle case that seemed none the worse for wear after my first airline travel since the pandemic.
Within the hour, Amanda was driving toward Thomaston and the Georgia Piedmont as talk filled the air with post-rut hunting strategy, the challenges of business amidst pandemic supply-chain issues, and the excitement in the Peach State after an Atlanta Braves World Series win in 2021 and the coming SEC showdown between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide that weekend.
Ready or Not
Later that evening, however, and after sampling some quail taken over the bird dogs that Brian trains and hunts up the road at a Georgia wingshooting plantation, I drifted off to sleep, wondering if I was ready for what lay ahead. Hours later, I found out that in some ways, I wasn't, as I stared at an empty brass casing after a shot that airmailed a doe, and one that produced a lengthy search that never found any signs of a hit in the pineywoods of Georgia. The morning was chilly, the shot opportunity was quick, and I knew almost instantly that I wasn’t going to be cleaning any venison at the skinning shed that morning.
A swing and a miss, deep in the heart of Georgia, under skies that were painfully blue days after the rut had wound down. What followed that missed opportunity was a lot more hunting, and emptying the bag of every trick that we had, from spraying down with Dead Down Wind to employing the use of Tink's 69 scent to lure in a crafty old buck looking for one last opportunity to breed before the coming winter.
The mornings were foggy and quiet, an eerie mist in the mix of pine and oak dotted the landscape near the Flint River, a renowned fishing hole for Georgia's famous shoal bass. After the fog burned off at mid-morning, the afternoons were mild and the late-fall colors were spectacular, even if the deer were laying low. Still, like how country music star Luke Bryan croons about his own Georgia hunting, we were hunting everyday.
There were some close calls—Honeycutt found along a creek bottom as he still-hunted an area that contained 100+ rubs, and McDougal had sightings on the edge of the woods that kept his hopes buoyed to the end—but none produced any filled tags. I passed on some younger does who came out to feed in the green fields at last light, and also watched as a bruiser buck pushed a doe around in the final minutes of shooting light. He was in range for just a moment, perhaps, but my earlier shot had convinced me to accept nothing less than a point-blank opportunity a football field away.
When the big buck and the doe he was courting heard the approach of a UTV coming to get me from my stand, they perked their heads up, stood their ground for a brief moment, and then melted away into the riverbottom as I peered through the binoculars and wondered what might have been. And in the end, there was a lot more football talk, some great eating, and the joy of simply being in a deer camp again with old friends and a few new ones.
On the last afternoon, as the hunt wound down and the sun sank slowly toward the western horizon a final time, I whispered a prayer of thanks along with a final request that one of us in our group might find success in the closing moments of the game.
Less than a half-hour later, the stillness of a December evening in Georgia was shattered by the roar of McDougal's rifle—after bowhunting for two and a half days with his Mathews bow and a Ramcat broadhead, my Wisconsin friend reluctantly traded in the compound for his so-called "longbow"—and I punched the air with my fist, thanking the Creator for what I knew was venison on the ground, a story to tell, and the privilege of being in a deer stand again.
Yours truly might miss, but I knew that McDougal wouldn't. He's a real pro at this, and I'm just some wannabe who can stitch a few sentences together from time to time. And besides, as Orion and the rest of the Milky Way began to twinkle in the gathering darkness of a pre-Christmas deer hunt that didn't go quite as planned, it was plain for me to see what matters most.
And that's just the simple joy of being alive, being with friends, and being in the deer woods, even if the skies are crystal clear and the deer hunting is a little bit slow. A week later, I was reminded of that truth again when news came of the horrors of a devastating tornado outbreak that swamped portions of the South and Midwest, including Honeycutt's hometown of Bowling Green. And a few days after that, my own family received its dose of somber news, losing my father-in-law Pat after a long fight in the hospital.
All of that confirming once again, that whether you swing and miss in some setting like the Georgia deer woods, the point in life is to get back up, keep on living, hug the ones you love the most, cherish the times together with family and friends, and relish every single trip you get in the batter's box of hunting and life. Whether you ever get a hit, or not, the point isn't the hit, it's getting up to bat once again. And to me, that's the lesson of a Peach State deer hunt that didn’t notch a tag, and the real reason why Georgia is always on my mind.