The sun had barely cleared the eastern horizon when my chilled body was jolted to attention. As I turned to my left, I couldn't believe my eyes. Walking my way at a steady gait was a nice white-tailed buck. In an instant I shouldered my grandfather's Remington Model 11. I easily located the moving buck in the gun's sight and squeezed off a shot. When I saw dirt fly just beyond the buck, I thought I'd somehow missed, so I touched off a couple more hurried shots as the buck ran into the brush. The whole thing was over in the blink of an eye.
I reloaded and sat there feeling sorry for myself, knowing I'd once again blown my only chance for the season. A year before I'd missed another nice buck in this same area and was starting to wonder if I'd ever kill a deer. A few minutes later I was looking into the cover where the buck had run when I noticed something white in the fallen leaves. It didn't take long to convince myself it might be the white belly of my buck. Like most 16-year-olds, patience wasn't one of my strong suits, so I climbed down from my stand to get a closer look. I still wasn't certain I was actually looking at a deer, so I started my walk slowly at first. It was still early in the morning and if this wasn't my buck, I didn't want to spook any deer that might possibly be nearby. With each step I took, the shape of a fallen buck became clearer, and by the time I'd cut the 100-yard distance in half, I knew I'd finally killed my first buck. I quickly changed directions and ran toward my dad's stand.
Dad was nestled in the corner of a picked corn field when I burst into the field 100 yards or so from his position and yelled, "I got one!" Dad told me to get back to the deer and that he'd be right there. We were hunting on public land and he was afraid someone might try to claim my buck. I did as I was told and in a flash I was standing over my buck. I was holding the rack for the first time, my smile stretching from ear to ear, when Dad came running up. I can still see the excitement in his eyes as he said, "He's just beautiful, Don." Looking back, I think he was even happier than I was.
That hunt took place more than 25 years ago. A lot of things have changed since then, and that 16-year-old kid is now a man in his 40s. Even so, I remember the details of that hunt as if it happened yesterday, and some of the hunting lessons taught to me by my father serve as the foundation for the hunter I am today.
Somewhere along that journey I became obsessed with whitetails and they became a driving force in my life. I've since tagged a number of bucks much larger than that first 9-pointer, but none more special. And that's largely due to the fact that this was the only buck I ever killed while hunting with my dad. Due to my fascination with whitetails I also became an outdoor writer and recently published my first book about deer hunting. I doubt my dad realized at the time what an influence those first hunts had on me.
Probably the most amazing thing about my dad's influence on me as a hunter is the fact he really isn't much of a deer hunter himself. In fact, he's never killed a deer. Even so, he certainly is skilled as a father and mentor. He took me deer hunting because that's what I wanted, not because it was what he wanted. He didn't drag me along on his hunts, we went into the woods together—neither of us knowing much about deer hunting. My first deer hunt was also my dad's first.
A Silent Sacrifice
I didn't truly appreciate the sacrifices my dad made to take me hunting until years later when I was older and had a family and job of my own. Every year, Dad would use some of his limited vacation time from his job to take me deer hunting. I'm sure deer hunting never excited him as much as it did me, and he would have probably rather been doing a number of other things. Even so, I could count on him to take me hunting every year without question until I was old enough to go on my own. At that point, he never ventured into the whitetail woods again.
The most important things my dad taught me on those first hunts really had nothing to do with killing deer. He taught me to be an ethical hunter when I was a rowdy teenager and not too receptive to his lessons. Even so, he planted those seeds and eventually they took root and grew. Today, those lessons are the foundation for my own hunting ethics. I clearly remember one time when my dad stated to me matter-of-factly that game laws were put in place for a reason; to protect the game from over harvesting so we'd always have game to hunt. Not following game laws was never an option with him.
While game laws are black and white and not debatable, hunting ethics are those personal principles that guide our actions as hunters. For some hunters anything that's legal is OK. For many of us, however, game laws are simply the beginning and our ethics take over from there. I see too many situations today where young hunters are taught that game laws are simply rules to be worked around, and as long as you don't get caught breaking them, there's no problem. In those circles, hunting ethics on any level are simply unheard of. That's really a shame.
It's no coincidence that the best hunters I know are also the most ethical. When we accept the added challenges that our own conscience demands of us, we're forced to become better hunters. I certainly don't have all the answers concerning this issue. But I do know right from wrong, and I have the utmost respect for whitetails. To me, the biggest buck in the woods means nothing if it isn't taken legally and ethically. I guess I owe that to the man who taught me to be a deer hunter … and he really isn't a deer hunter at all.