The Perfect Doe, The Perfect Hunt

The sky was intensely black when I arrived at my hunting area, which surprised me. I knew the moon was waxing toward full, but it had obviously set before I arrived. I hadn't expected that. The stars were brilliant, startling, hanging in the sky like suspended jewels, as bright as I've ever seen. In the southeast, Orion The Hunter and his faithful dog Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, were already on the hunt, so sharp and clear you could almost hear the baying. Jupiter was as big as an egg, absolutely majestic. Although I was anxious to get to my hunting area I stood and watched a short while, letting the sensation of the vast universe spread over my head soak in a bit. Medicine for the inner man. Nothing makes a man more acutely aware of his small place in the scheme of things than seeing the Milky Way spread out before him.

My moccasin-clad feet were wet to the knees before I had walked a hundred yards through the field, the chill, heavy dew dampening and deadening the sound of my movement. Nothing pleases me more than hunting in my colonial garb, but it does have its disadvantages. Wet feet is frequently one of them. The sense of anticipation was high as I approached my intended spot. First day of a new season, unlimited possibilities.

After a quarter mile I arrived at the area I had chosen and sat on the ground with a cedar trunk at my back and a thin but effective screen of hanging cedar branches in front of me, a small cluster of persimmon trees close at hand on my right front.

I've seen many a deer in that spot over the years. I had arrived early, ninety minutes before sunrise, so I settled down and just watched the light ever so gradually build and the world wake up. A light, misty fog lay over the fields, with vague, dark shapes of trees rising out of it, and as sunrise approached the scene spread before me was worth the trip. Slanting yellow light broken into millions of beams as it passed through the trees, a rosy glow developing on my left above the new sun, the chill, crisp fall air, and the total quiet... well worth the trip.

When legal shooting time arrived I primed my flintlock because deer so frequently move right at daybreak. I always load my gun at home the evening before the first day of a hunt, saving myself all that fumbling in the dark and allowing a few more minutes sleep. I choose to hunt on the ground primarily because I am trying to experience the hunting methods of my ancestors in this country, but also because I prefer the view from that vantage point. And it adds to the challenge. Getting down among them and hunting them where they live, where they can see and smell you, is real deer hunting, to my way of thinking. It's all part of the package for me, colonial clothes, colonial gun, colonial methods. Works for me, every time.

Sitting there soaking it all up, I hadn't realized how much the light had built until I became aware that there were two deer standing 50 yards in front of me, calmly feeding, a doe and her large fawn. It's pure magic the way they can materialize like that. They meandered around in that area for twenty minutes, feeding close, the doe as close as twenty yards at one time. The wind was blowing from me to them, but not directly. Directly enough, though, because after a bit the doe perked up and began looking me in the eye, then turned and trotted slowly away. She never stamped her foot or blew, didn't raise her tail, but she knew something wasn't right and stopped seventy-five yards out, turned and stared for a while. The fawn continued feeding, but then became suspicious, also, turned and trotted slowly away, tail up and waving from side to side. Its tail looked as tall as it was. It went to its mother, turned and helped her stare for a few minutes, then they both moved slowly off and disappeared into the woods on the other side of the field.

I was hunting a fat doe for my winter meat, which is what I always hunt, instead of bucks, and I realized I might not see another deer that close today, but I knew from the beginning that this wasn't to be the one. I could never get turned to cover them, they were too close, too far to my right and there was not enough screen between us. After years of hunting deer on the ground I've learned what I can get away with and what I can't when they are close in. I never even tried to put the move on that one.

Five minutes after they left, two big tom turkeys fed in from stage left like the next act of a vaudeville show. Full-bodied birds, moderate beards, twenty-five yards out and beautiful in the early yellow light with their burnished copper iridescence. They didn't fool around, just fed steadily to the right and then disappeared behind the persimmon trees. Quite a parade, this morning.

After a bit I heard a rustling in the trees to my right and spotted a big fox squirrel moving toward the persimmon trees. They were loaded with fruit, and squirrels use them heavily when they are. I watched him for some time, moving about in the top, collecting and eating the fruit. We made an appointment for a later date, since I was otherwise occupied, today.

After an hour of inactivity I decided to shift my ground and move a hundred yards to the northeast, just inside the southern edge of a large thicket of cedars. On my way there I passed a small pond in the woods and spotted about twenty-five wood ducks paddling around or sitting on a downed tree out in the water. Arriving at my spot, I sat facing north, looking into an area of heavy brush and second-growth trees, with an open area to my back. I've had good hunting there over the years, and the light northerly wind was right for it this morning.

I snugged down on the ground again, scrunched up against the early morning chill and nodded off to sleep for a bit. It was getting to be mid-morning, by now, and I liked the look of things. I stood to stretch my legs in about an hour and had a Cooper's hawk streak across in front of me not ten feet away, three feet above the ground, wings set and going like a shot through the dense brush, blue-grey death on the wing. He was gone in three seconds. How do they do that? Rather, how do they do that and survive? Time must run very slowly for them.

For some time all was quiet. I sat and watched, listened and ruminated, just enjoying being there. Dressed in settler's garb of 1778, with moccasins, leather leggings, breeches and linen rifle shirt, armed with a 20 gauge flintlock fowler, carrying a powder horn and leather shooting pouch over my shoulder, I was a time traveler in the most pleasant sense of the word. There was nothing I would rather be doing this morning, no other place I would rather be. I'm no longer a young man, and I don't know how many more years I'll be able to engage in the annual fall hunts I've enjoyed so very much for most of my life. They have been a sustaining influence on me for a long time. I cherish each one now like the last bottle of a wine of perfect vintage, anxious for each new taste, but knowing full well it won't last forever. Hunting in the old way, with the old guns and wearing the old garb has added a spice to my life which is impossible to describe to any but those who have already experienced it. Sitting there waiting for whatever was to come next, I was content. It couldn't be any better, whether the deer showed, or not.

Squirrels were out and about that morning, and first a fat grey and then a big fox squirrel passed through the tree tops nearby. I haven't been squirrel hunting for a while, must remedy that soon.

I sat for nearly two hours with no activity, and was thinking of interrupting the hunt for a snack. Then I saw the tell-tale twinkle of deer legs moving past the gaps between trees in a small thicket about seventy-five yards away. There is an open lane between my woods lot and the next, and the deer seemed to be moving along it, possibly headed in my general direction. It seemed to be a single deer, and the impression I got from its body size and gait was that of a buck. That makes the old pulse quicken, doesn't it? I don't trust the rascals, so I got ready to shoot. I was hunting with my Jackie Brown Carolina Smoothbore, 46" barrel, flintlock ignition, 20 ga./.62 caliber. My load was 80 grains of FFFg Goex, a 1/8-inch hard card wad, a 1/2-inch lubricated cushion wad and a .600-inch home-cast lead ball patched with a .017" ticking lubricated with my home-brew lube, 60% lard-40% beeswax. I always prime with Goex FFFFg. I eased the gun up onto my knee, and got casually down over the sights, all the while watching intently for any additional movement. To no avail, though, it apparently wasn't coming my way. Nothing happened for thirty minutes. Then there was that peculiar twinkling, again, in the same spot. This time there was definitely more than one deer, maybe three or four. Waiting again to find out if I was on their track, I had about decided I was not when I saw an ear twitching only about thirty yards in front, behind a dense area of brush and downed trash.

For what seemed a very long time I caught glimpses of deer moving around over there, but never the whole deer. A twitching ear here, a moving leg there, the vague impression of a deer body or bodies. But, how many, what kind? Maybe three, one larger than the others, does? A doe with two large fawns? I just couldn't tell. Never a clear view, like watching a striptease through a venetian blind. I guess I shifted a bit, trying to figure it out, because suddenly, thirty yards out, up shot a doe's head, ears fanned wide, eyes as big as dollars, obviously standing on tippy-toes and about to bolt. As luck would have it, she had popped up right on my sights. I didn't have to shift the gun an inch to zero in on her. But... and it was a big but... I could see nothing below her head and maybe four inches of neck. I put the tip of the blade of the front sight, the only one on the gun, right between her eyes... and everything stopped. It seemed that time stood still.

She absolutely wasn't going to be there long. If I was going to shoot, I had to do it right now. But I had never shot a deer in the head, before. I'd been tempted, but had always shied away, afraid of wounding a deer, killing it, but not knocking it down. A head is a much smaller target than a chest, after all. She was facing me straight on, maybe I should shoot for the centerline of the neck right below her nose. My mind was racing, weighing the factors pro and con. Loud and clear came the thought that I had spent a long lifetime shooting squirrel heads much smaller than that with a rifle, frequently a flintlock, many times offhand and at greater distance. Besides, I was in a rock-steady position with a rest on my knee and braced solidly by the tree at my back. What more could I ask? Her right ear twitched as if to let me know it was now or never, and she seemed to get light on her feet as if about to explode into motion. When I decided she really was almost on her way and that I had no other choice if I were going to shoot, I squeezed off the shot. Instant ignition, let's hear it for flintlocks! Sometimes the cloud of smoke from the shot obliterates everything immediately, but not so this time. Before things disappeared I thought I saw her go down like a stone.

However many other deer there were, they all left, and in a noisy hurry. I was aware of several white flags bouncing away through the brush and trees. Did they all go? Had I collected my deer? I sat and stared, listened with bated breath, tried to look through the brush. Was that something white down there which hadn't been there before? I stood up and reloaded, then eased forward, on the alert. Yes, it was something white, the belly of a big, fat doe, dead as a stone, shot absolutely between the eyes.

So I had made meat once again. And it was that fat, healthy doe I was looking for. I sat down on the ground beside her and spent a few minutes just enjoying the moment, contemplating life, death, the predator-prey relationship and other non-trivial things. Such moments are important to me. Important to me only for what I make of them, of course. As Clifford Geertz said, "Man is an animal suspended in a web of significance he himself has spun." I agree, such moments are significant to me only because I choose to make them so. That is such a big part of our life, though, isn't it? And so, I do choose to make this, for me, a significant event, a memorable day, a model of how a doe hunt should go.

That's the fourth deer I've killed within fifty yards of that spot, all with the flintlock fowler, all in period costume, all hunting on the ground as the old boys did. After a day like this one, I have no plans to quit. At least, not voluntarily.

If there's a downside to the day it is that my deer hunting is finished for the year, and it's only October. I truly do enjoy hunting them more than killing them, and I'll miss all those early mornings, watching the woods come alive. But, when the frigid winter wind is howling through the deer woods this year, I won't be out in it as usual, freezing my butt. I'll be snug and warm in front of the fire, eating venison seasoned with black powder smoke, the best eats to be had. I'll enjoy it even more because it was collected on one of the best hunts I've had.

Copyright © 2005 B.E. Spencer All rights reserved.

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