I know I’m not alone when I say any hunting experience is made better when it’s shared with a hunting partner. In my case, my special hunting partner is my son, Nathan, and today I’m watching him stalk what we both hope will be his first white-tailed buck—a buck that’s just standing in a pasture, several hundred yards away.
Nathan and I have been together in the outdoors for most of his life and for what has surely become the best part of mine. I remember those early days, wondering if I could nurture a passion for the outdoors in my son just as my dad had done for me.
Our camp has changed dramatically over the years and I’ve changed as well. I’m to a point now where I don’t need to shoot a deer every year, because I get just as much pleasure from watching them and my son match wits. And my knees aren’t what they used to be, either. They’ve slowed me down more than I’d like to admit, but they haven’t affected my hunting as much as my bifocals.
What’s changed the most is Nathan. Such a short time ago, he was a small child full of the wonder of the outdoors, and now he’s matured into a more than competent outdoorsman capable of making a stalk without me. When I asked if we should try to move in on that buck in the pasture, he responded “Yes, but you wait here, Dad. You’ll just slow me down.” Most people, when confronted by their hunting partner’s awareness of their bad knees and expanding waistline, might be offended, but I know Nathan’s seen the changes in me and has always responded in the way he knows best, with abject ridicule. The average outsider might think Nathan’s words would cut his dad deeply, but when I look into his eyes, I know what’s in his heart, and I love him for what I see.
Only a dad who’s lived these days in the field would understand the pride I felt as I remembered the first time Nathan “stalked” a squirrel in the cool, crisp October woods. I watched him glide between the trees in a manner born from many days of practice at my side. As he moved ever closer to that elusive bushy tail, his head moved from side to side as he plotted out his next steps until a successful end to his stalk was marked with the report of his .22 rifle.
The following spring brought Nathan’s first opportunity to shoot a wild turkey in our home state of Wisconsin. With his long spurs and paintbrush beard, that old longbeard made this dad and his son two of the happiest guys in the woods that day.
A Rite of Passage
Today, squirrels and turkeys are out of our thoughts, but those lessons learned are more valuable than ever. Nathan shot his first deer, a doe, at the age of 14. It was a great day and made for great story telling and celebration around the campfire after dinner. A hunter’s first deer is a memory that will not fade. Today’s deer, 2 barren years later, is a big buck standing with a doe in a pasture several hundred yards away from Nathan. My son chose to stalk this deer alone, leaving me, with my binoculars, at the truck to watch him apply the years of lessons and practice. Because the land between us and the deer was mostly open, Nathan needed to do this alone; two guys would only double the risk of discovery. The open land stalk would also force Nathan to choose his path carefully or his efforts would be nothing more than afternoon exercise. With some unnecessary last-minute advice and a few words of encouragement from me, Nathan was on his own.
I was fortunate to be able to watch Nathan’s stalk from a distance, but my heart was pounding just as hard as it would have been if it was me moving quickly up the shallow ravine toward that buck. After what seemed like hours, but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, I could see both my son and the buck through my binoculars. Nathan carefully and methodically worked his way to within 200 yards of the deer and was able to rest his old scoped Remington on a fence post. When he took his first shot, he missed and I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest! The doe ran for cover, but the buck stood his ground while Nathan shot three more times, emptying his clip. Nathan would later admit that big bucks are much more difficult to hit than paper targets. From my vantage point, I saw that the buck was hit, but I didn’t know how seriously. I watched him run behind some brush and waited for him to come out and head for the woods.
After a few minutes, I simply couldn’t take it anymore so I grabbed my rifle and got to Nathan as quickly as I could, only to find him wandering the pasture looking for signs of a hit. I assured him the deer was hit and that he should be ready for action as we approached the brush where I last saw the buck, and behind that brush, we found the beginning of a blood trail. I kept reminding Nathan that a wounded deer was likely to lie down and then jump up in front of us as we approached and because of this, I told him to turn down his scope, move slowly and quietly and to be ready! Nathan got on that blood trail and followed it with a determination he normally only uses when trying to get out of cleaning his room. With the trail as visible as it was, I began to wonder why we hadn’t already found his deer. And then it happened. Just as we were rounding a large rock outcropping, the buck jumped up in front of us and tried to climb up the rocks. With practiced ease, Nathan raised his rifle and finished what he’d started in the pasture only 30 minutes before.
For us, the deer was more than just the biggest buck to be taken off that farm in more than 30 years; it was a culmination of sorts. It was a culmination of the lessons Nathan had learned during his days in our hunting camps, living the life, if only for a weekend at a time, of an outdoorsman. It was a culmination of what Nathan had learned to do; it was his stalk, his nervous shooting, his tracking and his final shot that made this hunt more memorable than any of the others. When I get a chance to brag about this hunt to friends or co-workers, I tell them it was all him and that all I did was follow alongside him and whisper advice and encouragement. And that’s all true, but it’s what Nathan and I did together all those years leading up to this hunt that made it special.