I killed my first deer as a teenager in 1963 – a little forkhorn buck – and the night before the hunt I was so excited I couldn’t fall asleep.
Last Friday night was the same way. Opening day of deer muzzleloader season was the next morning and – after over a half-century – I still had trouble dozing off.
I had set the alarm clock for 4 a.m. I finally got up at 3, brewed a pot of coffee and checked my gear for the umpteenth time.
Muzzleloader, cleaned and ready to load. Check.
“Possibles” pouch (what frontiersman called the leather pouch in which they carried their muzzleloader equipment including bullets, flints/cap, patches, picks and so on.) Check.
Pyrodex pellets in waterproof plastic tube (replacing black powder carried in a powder horn). Check.
Sheath knife and pocket knife. Check.
Florescent orange cap and vest. Check.
Finally I had fidgeted all could fidget. I loaded my gear in the truck and headed off to the Giles County farm I’ve hunted on for 25 years.
It was pitch-dark when I arrived. I sat in the truck; sipping coffee and watching the stars glitter overhead. The Big Dipper looked exactly the same as it did when I was a kid – and exactly the same as it did when gazed on by prehistoric hunters thousands of years ago.
Off in the distance an owl hooted sleepily and a coyote yipped.
Shortly before daylight I headed out across a pasture that borders a steep hardwood ridge. I was headed to the top.
The going was slow and rough in the dark. Saplings had grown up since my last climb up the ridge back in January, and hickory nuts and acorns rolled like marbles underfoot. That was a good sign – a heavy mast meant the deer would be feeding in the area.
By the time I made it to the top, a flint glow paled the eastern horizon and I could make out the large gum tree that had served as one of my favorite deer stands over the years. I’ve killed some 20 deer from that tree, including two last year.
I eased up to the gnarled trunk, leaned my muzzleloader against it, and as quietly as possible brushed away the dead leaves where I would be standing. Shifting your feet in dry, crunchy leaves can cost you a deer.
Next I hung a small strip of cloth soaked in doe scent from an overhanging branch. Doe scent will sometimes attract a buck during the rut, and also helps cover human scent. (As for the “experts” who say never hang a scent-rag too near your stand, tell it to the big 8-pointer that walked within a dozen paces of where I stood a couple of years ago.)
I pulled on my face mask – the same one I use for turkey hunting – and checked my scope against the glow on the horizon. The cross-hairs were clear and solid.
Finally I double-checked the percussion cap on my pre-loaded muzzleloader, and settled down to wait.
Gradually the woods awoke. A cardinal twittered, a crow cawed in the distance and chipmunks rustled about. The sun gradually crept high enough to cast its first rays into the woods, glistening off golden foliage.
Suddenly, through the leaves came the distinctive “crunch, crunch, crunch” of a deer.
Pulse pounding, I eased up my muzzleloader, took a rest on the gum tree, and cocked the hammer with a faint click.
I could see the deer mincing its way toward me. My heart was racing and my hands were shaking, just as they did 50 years ago when I set the sights of my then-new 30-30 on my first whitetail.
Later, dragging the field-dressed spike buck back to the truck, it occurred to me: if you ever stop getting excited, that’s when you know it’s time to stop deer hunting.