So, my buddy Charlie texts me with this idea about having our current deer hunting party members creating blog posts centered on the stories surrounding our first deer harvests. He also mentioned having guys share yarns about their first buck kills as well. Fortunately for you, dear reader of Mookie Fantana, I will be able to cover both topics in this singular post.
The hunting season was 2001. I was 25. There was a lot going on in the world. 9/11 had left its mark on the world only weeks prior. There were Anthrax attacks happening via the US Mail that year. Anthrax! Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, and Tiger Woods were huge names in sports. Aaliyah, Shaggy, Train and Matchbox 20 all had popular songs on the Billboard Charts. So did Uncle Kracker. It was an interesting time in the world to say the least.
At that point in my life, things were moving fast. Too fast. We were living in Pulaski. I was in marriage number one. Yes, number one Brawner Uncles. I had a newborn son. I was teaching sixth graders in Pulaski and finishing my master’s degree program. I was coaching middle and high school runners. I was honing my craft as an expert skeet shooter during our weekly league. We would bird hunt on the weekends. Life was hectic; confusing.
There was also the annual deer hunting trip in the fall but with a twist. Starting two seasons prior, I had begun hunting with my two uncles on my mom’s side of the family after spending the first years of my whitetail career with the Brawner group.
- Note: The actual number of years spent with the Brawner’s is still being verified by historians. There is some confusion on the number of years spent in Florence before the single year of hunting at the cottage.
My two uncles had been hunting with friends of theirs on a private, 300+ acre defunct farm in Crawford County, WI. It was creatively known as The Farm. I knew that they had hunted there for a few years and that the group, as a whole, had experienced success in not only seeing deer but also in shooting deer. Big deer. Lots of deer. If you’ve followed this blog, you know that just viewing a deer in the wild during hunting season while in Florence County was considered a success. Hearing about all of these deer roaming around the coulee country of Crawford was appealing at that point in life. Charlie and the Brawner’s had made a move up to Polk County to hunt with Uncle Ron and Aunt Jo. It seemed like the right time to hunt with my family.
Hunting in Crawford County was an entirely new experience from what I had known in my virgin hunting years. There was no shack. No outhouse. No trippe and jutt. We stayed in a hotel in Boscobel. We would meet in Steuben (near Prairie du Chein) with the rest of our hunting party on the Friday night before for dinner. Steuben had maybe, MAYBE, 125 people. There were two bars and a post office. It was scary. It was like the setting of Deliverance. In the bars, people would tell us “outsiders” to leave. That really happened. We would eat a ton and we drank even more. This fact plays in to my first kill story, as you will soon see. We would meet up with the rest of the group from The Farm and talk about who was all coming, who was sitting where, and look at pics from trail cameras that some guys were starting to hang around the property. TRAIL CAMERAS! It was incredible how advanced that concept was to me. Incredibly pixelated, grainy, green pics of deer in those woods was fascinating.
That hunting property was composed of vast rolling hills. People called it coulee country. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds magical. There was a creek that ran through the property and food sources (in the form of corn and bean fields) on the property and on the surrounding farm properties. My stand was an old, homemade wooden platform in the crotch of a gigantic tree. It was no wider than my shoulders and maybe 3’ long. My guess is that someone made it for bowhunting many years prior. It’s amazing how unsafe it was. Equally amazing is how I didn’t care about the lack of protective features of that stand. Not at the time, at least. It also was easily 25’ up this tree. OSHA would not have approved.
Our opening morning routine was consistent. My uncle Todd would drive up through the trails of the farm fields and drop me off at the top of a hill well in advance of daylight. I would walk south through the gate, down the hill into a small bowl/valley that was surrounded by hardwood, then enter the woods on the west side and, after hopping over the old barbed wire fence, follow the Night Eyes reflective markers to the creaky wooden ladder leading up to the stand. I’d climb the stand, load my gun, get situated, then wait for the action. Easy stuff.
During my first couple of trips there, I had seen plenty of deer. I had witnessed does and their yearlings come crashing through. One of the years I think I even saw a buck. For some reason, I never shot at the does those first two years. After years of “If it’s brown, it’s down” mantra in Florence County, I am not sure why I didn’t shoot those first couple years. I know part of the reason was that the family who owned the Farm was practicing a form of QDM. They didn’t want to shoot small bucks and I was worried about what to shoot and not to shoot so I was conservative. Guys in that group didn’t seem to be interested in shooting does. I didn’t want to be that guy, so I let them walk.
That 2001 season was different though. During dinner that Friday night, we had discussions about “thinning out” some of the doe herd. Apparently, there were too many of them roaming around the property. Again, an entirely foreign concept. Too many deer in one area? What! That’s a thing? Who knew? This guy didn’t. After a long night of drinking and eating, and very little sleeping, the alarm went off and it was time. Cobwebs and a foggy brain greeted me.
After the annual, unceremonious drop off by my uncle, I started the walk down the hill. During that walk in the dark, I kept thinking that this year might be the year. We were given the green light to shoot does. Lots of them. I felt like bullets would be flying as if we were storming the beaches at Normandy. As I walked farther and farther down the tree line, it all of a sudden dawned on me: wasn’t I supposed to be walking into the woods by now? I couldn’t have missed the marker. I’ll keep walking.
Walking. Walking. Walking. Pretty soon it was evident that I had gone too far. No big deal, I can turn around. I have tons of time. Back up the hill hugging the tree line. In the dark. I don’t know how to best explain it, but for some reason this felt entirely foreign to me. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, felt or seemed normal. I couldn’t have drank that much, could I have? Am I still drunk? It was bizarre. Trekking back up the hill, I had gone too far. Again. And now, slivers of sun light are appearing off to the east. Damn it. This is bad.
Heading back down the hill a bit, I figured I was close enough and would just have to make the turn in to the woods and I’d eventually find my stand. I couldn’t be that off. About ten steps in, I tripped over the downed barbed wire fence. Off came the backpack. My thermos? It went flying. Some type of guttural noise came out of my mouth followed by a fairly audible, “What. The. Fuck!” During the fall, I had done my best to keep the rifle from hitting the ground. I stood up and grabbed my stuff and started walking again. I hope I didn’t bump my scope. More sunlight. I have to be close.
I’m not sure if it was the fall or the light but some of the fogginess disappeared. Things looked more familiar. I remember looking to my right and all of a sudden, I saw the ladder steps for my stand. Sweet Maria! I walked quickly to the stand, tied my gun to the rope I used to hoist it up, and was up in my seat a few seconds later. I brought the gun up, loaded it, and quickly unzipped my gear. By this point, I was lathered in sweat from the hike in. I sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity, cursing myself for ruining opening morning before it even began.
Not five minutes into myself loathing, I heard a sound. Crashing to my north, the direction I was facing. I brought up my cheap binoculars and low a behold I spot a doe. She was on a ridge, heading my way. Not running. Not really walking either. She’d trot a few steps then stop. What luck. After having done essentially everything wrong, I had an easy shot at this deer and with the green light to thin the herd, her time left in these coulees was down to seconds. I raised the Browning .308 with the Redfield scope and found her trotting towards me again. One, two, three steps. Stop. One, two, three. Stop. Only now she was looking behind her. I watched this all with the crosshairs on her front left shoulder.
After another trotting sequence, I wondered what the hell she was looking for behind her. I slowly lowered the scope away and at that exact moment heard more crashing from the direction she had come from. Everything from this moment on was at lightning fast pace. Out of the corner of my left eye I see the doe start to trot again. Up over the ridge, more crashing and this time a grunt. For a second, I froze as the buck came into view and began trotting down the hill, obviously in pursuit of that hot doe. His tarsal glands? Dark. Stained. I can only speculate on the amount of rose-colored urine carpeting the floor of the woods.
I immediately noted that his rack was wider than his ears, the unspoken rule of shooting a buck on The Farm. His neck was fully stretched out as he ran, nose seemingly at ground level. I could hear the doe trotting away to my left as he came down. He was moving from my right to my left. Wake up, I thought. He’s not going to stop. Just like that, the .308 was shouldered. Its shiny wooden stock was against my shoulder. I found him in the crosshairs, but now he was at a weird angle, quartering away from me. I fought to keep the crosshairs on his left shoulder area. More trotting on his part, more panic on my end. Did I just blow this? If I did, no one will ever know this all happened. Thank God Jim’s not here.
As fate would have it, this buck made one slight turn to his left. That was all I needed. Vital shot window has been opened. Exhale. Slowly squeeze the trigger. Keep your eyes on the deer through the scope. Smell the gunpowder. Lever another round in the chamber. I heard the casing hit one of the ladder steps on the way down. Through the scope, I saw his front-end slump. He didn’t run more than 25 yards before he crumpled to the ground.
I had always heard to wait for a bit before getting down from your stand after shooting a deer. Fuck that. I saw him go down. No way am I waiting. I grabbed my gutting gloves and knife, lowered my rifle on the rope and was down that ladder as quickly as I had climbed it that morning. I was shaking with excitement. I had marked him before coming down, so I slowly made my walk over to the majestic pile of fur and antlers lying in the leaves. I approached slowly. No movement on his end. I got closer and nudged him with my boot. Nothing. His spirit had left him.
I remember kneeling down next to him and admired my kill. I checked out his antlers. He was a very unique 10, with his 11thbroken off in what one can only assume was a testosterone fueled battle royal for mating rights. I remember his eyes being open. For lack of a better description, I basically pet his neck and shoulder fur and gave him a sturdy pat on the shoulder, like you would to a dog. I felt he deserved my thanks and appreciation. Dumb and corny, I know. It also felt appropriate at the time.
He had come to rest on his left side, so the exit wound was visible. It was a perfect shot. I’m sure I sat there for longer than necessary and realized I needed to drag him out. I started the cleaning and gutting process. One of the other members of the group heard my shot and walked my way, so he and I finished gutting that deer together. My shot had pierced this stag’s heart, obliterating the muscle into a bloody pile. In my excitement of the moment, I inadvertently poked that buck’s guts with the knife and my moment of serenity and joy was quickly replaced by dry heaving and retching like I had never experienced before. Once his insides were out, we drug him to the logging trail, tagged him, and waited for the 6-wheeler to make the rounds and pick up my deer.
Our group shot three bucks and doe by 10AM that day. Mine was the smallest of the three bucks, but I didn’t care. I had done it! I had not only shot my first deer, but I had shot a buck. A nice buck. In many ways, hunting changed that day. I felt like I had accomplished what I was supposed to do as a woodsman. I’ve shot does since then. I’ve shot bucks since then. Now, seventeen years later, I still get just as excited for our hunting trip. I’m back with the Brawner group. We hunt in Polk County. It’s how it should be. We see deer each year. Typically, I see a buck. None have been big enough to shoot, although there have been a few that have been close. I’m sure someday I’ll be fortunate enough to punch my tag on another buck. I wonder if it will ever feel the same as my first time?