December 16, 2019
I’ve beenhunting Oklahoma whitetails for 35 years, but the most exciting deer hunt of my life didn’t result in me killing a buck. In fact, I didn’t even have a gun with me that day.
Our hunting lease near Pawhuska, about 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, consisted of 1,050 acres of mixed pasture and hardwoods, with several creeks, ponds and draws. A group of six of us—mostly 40-somethings with kids in grade school and junior high—had found and leased the property five or six years earlier. Since that time, we had extensively scouted it, hung stands in prime locations and killed many deer there.
To the kids, deer camp at the lease was like a dream come true. It was the place they could go to get away from the hassles of school, eat potato chips for breakfast, search for cow skeletons, play in the fire when nobody was watching and skip brushing their teeth for the whole weekend. My three boys—Josh, Jake and Caleb—had learned to deer hunt there and still consider it one of their favorite places on earth.
Some years, we’d even set up three or four tents, and leave them up all fall and winter. Some of our most memorable experiences are yipping coyotes running through camp in the middle of the night, and strong thunderstorms nearly blowing and washing away every bit of equipment we owned.
My daughter, Rachel, felt the same away about the deer lease. She always loved going there, even before she was big enough to carry a gun.
Our tradition was for me to take all the boys to the lease on opening weekend. It was always a memorable experience, and usually resulted in a lot of fun for the kids and a lot of work for the dads. Unfortunately, Rachel was always left out of the opening-weekend festivities.
Rachel had become a competitive gymnast when she was 4 years old. And every year since then, she had a gymnastic meet scheduled on the opening weekend of gun season. She had begun deer hunting when she was 9 but for the first two years had chosen gymnastics over whitetails.
We had an arrangement, though, that worked well for both of us. I would take off work on the Monday after opening weekend so she and I could hunt together. Unfortunately, the day after opening weekend didn’t usually yield good results, since people had been tromping all over the property the previous two days, killing, gutting and dragging deer down the trails.
The season when she was 11 years old could have been even worse. Her favorite stand—a double ladder stand we called “Shorty” because it only put us about 12 feet up a scraggly blackjack—had been hunted heavily over the weekend. On opening morning, the nephew of one of the lease members had killed his first buck from the stand. The next morning, another young hunter shot a doe from the stand and then a few minutes later killed a buck that had been following the doe’s trail.
Since the kids had begun hunting with me, I had always let them choose their stand. It made them feel like they were making a grown-up decision. In truth, I let them choose so if we didn’t see anything, they wouldn’t be able to blame me for picking a bad spot.
As you might have guessed, Rachel chose “Shorty.” I spent an hour of the drive to the lease trying to change her mind, but she wouldn’t listen. It was her favorite stand so she wanted to sit there—to heck with all the reasons it seemed to be a poor choice.
We did have one thing going for us, though. In a rare occurrence, the chase portion of the rut had coincided with opening weekend that year. I couldn’t simply count “Shorty” out, since the stand was set along a major travel route. Rachel had seen a few nice bucks there in previous seasons but was never able to get a shot at any of them.
Finally, I relented, but not for the right reason. In the end, I figured that stand was an easy walk from where we would park. I was tired from hunting the two days before, so if she didn’t kill anything, it’d be less work for me. And if she did get a deer, we would only have to drag it about a quarter of a mile.
Walking to a stand in the predawn darkness with Rachel has always been an adventure in itself. She’s halfway scared of the dark, and always thinks a coyote or cow is going to find some way to kill or severely maim her before we climb into our stand.
This morning was fairly uneventful. We quietly followed the trail right to the stand without taking a wrong turn or having to turn on a flashlight. When we were finally settled in, it was still about 30 minutes until shooting time.
The sunrise came with a light breeze rustling the leaves. Exhausted from taking my sons hunting the two previous days, I was in a sound sleep when Rachel whispered, “Dad, there’s a big buck walking right behind us.”
You have to know about our past experiences to understand my less-than-enthusiastic reaction. Rachel always “sees” lots of big bucks, even when I don’t see anything. On many occasions, when other hunters would ask us what we saw, I would say “nothing” but Rachel would say she saw 17 deer. To her, everything looked like a deer—especially in the low light of dawn and dusk.
That’s not surprising; we’ve all seen something that looked like a big buck, only to have the sun rise higher and discover it was just a fallen log with branches sticking up. But Rachel seemed more prone to these spells of visual elaboration than most.
Awakened from my slumber, I slowly turned my head to look. Of course I didn’t see anything, and said so, albeit in a whisper just in case I was wrong.
“It’s just right over there about 60 yards away in those trees,” Rachel replied. “It’s stopped. Now it’s walking a little. Can’t you hear it?”
That question was a sore subject. I had taught all of my children to hunt by having them sit right beside me in double ladder stands, and each had killed multiple deer that way. Consequently, I’d had high-powered rifles shot right next to me so much that my hearing wasn’t the greatest.
“It’s stopped again,” Rachel whispered with a noticeable tremble. Nobody gets shakier about deer than Rachel. When she shot her first deer, we were sitting in a rickety double ladder stand we called “Leaner,” and after the shot she had shaken the entire tree!
Realizing that she must really be seeing a buck, and not caring about its size since it would be her first, I whispered, “Shoot it if you want.”
As deer will often do, this one—if he really existed—had chosen the worst spot for shooting. I was sitting on the right side of the stand, with Rachel on the left. The alleged deer was behind us and to our right.
After much ineffective jockeying for position, Rachel finally climbed onto my lap, putting her high enough to use the stand’s side rail for a rest. When she said she had the buck in her scope, I reached over and cocked the little .243 single-shot that looked like a toy, but had brought down its share of deer over the years.
“Remember, when you’re ready, squeeeeze the trigger,” I whispered. Seconds crawled by. I was just about to again tell her to shoot when she was ready, but the thunderous boom came first. In the aftermath, I heard running through the leaves, followed by thrashing and kicking, then quiet.
“I got him!” she yelled. And for the first time, I was in agreement that she had, indeed, seen and shot a deer.
I spent the next 30 minutes explaining why we had to wait 30 minutes to start tracking the deer. After all, Rachel believed she had heard it fall. I thought I had, too, but had learned the hard way that not waiting can cause big problems in recovering a buck. So, we waited, both impatient, both wanting to hurry over and find the deer.
Finally, when we reached the spot where the deer had been standing, no tracking was necessary. The big buck lay only about 30 yards away, its huge rack sticking up so far above the ground that neither of us could believe our eyes.
The buck was a typical 12-pointer that, later, measured 152 inches—the biggest deer anyone in our family had ever taken up to that point.
It was so big that getting it to the truck, even with a deer cart, was a monumental task. And loading it into the back of the truck took ingenuity as well as a lot of hard work.
Since it was a Monday, we were the only hunters on the lease. Our biggest quandary was finding someone to show the deer to. The best we could do was flag down an oilfield worker driving through the property and let him see the trophy. Later, on our way through Tulsa, Rachel talked me into stopping by my office, where several coworkers came out to admire the buck.
When Rachel’s brothers got home from school that day and saw she had killed a buck bigger than any of them ever had, they tried, in typical big-brother fashion, to find a way to downplay the accomplishment. But about the best they could come up with was, “You should never have killed a buck that big for your first one. Now, you’ve ruined yourself. You’ll never get another one that big.”
So far, at least the last part of that silly statement has held true. Rachel continues to hunt with me every year, and nearly every year she gets a deer or two. And while she’s killed a number of bucks since then, she’s never taken one that has measured up to the trophy she shot the day after opening weekend from an overhunted stand called “Shorty.”
This article was published in the November issue of Game & Fish Magazine