Updated: Dec 1, 2021
The late November woods released a shadow. It came fast, covering the barren ground like a
ghost. Snapping twigs and shuffling leaves accompanied its form as it took shape. Patches of white appeared around its eyes and on the neck, and the big-bodied buck came zigzagging into range through the naked timbers like a pro-bowler shooting through gaps in a defense.
Top-heavy for such precision, it carried an awareness quite unlike the nervous deer passing earlier. It stopped. A handsome whitetail by all counts. Except above its ears, instead of a stately rack was a worn grapevine stump near a lone nub. The hunter flipped off the safety, settled on a patch of hair and squeezed.
His earliest dreams were to take home a mature buck. Grandpa’s stories of chasing cedar-swamp bruisers on Drummond Island, coupled by years of subscriptions to Field and Stream, rich with colorful copy showcasing hunters and their bucks from across the country had set the spark. At twelve, the boy earned his hunter’s certificate. Each fall, stories from schoolmates came trickling in between classes, while he continued to learn as they detailed their exciting success taking first bucks, and sometimes second. There were bucks that came in on a grunt call. Bucks that came following doe, and those which their dads, uncles, and brothers had shot. Many of those days were spent listening.
By his late teens, he was skillful with both bow and rifle, practicing after school - often into the night, for his day of hopeful glory. He’d begun hunting too, learning mostly by mistakes. Arriving late, leaving early, busting deer with sound, busting deer with movement, busting deer with scent. The curve was steep. He grew tired of certain stories, where despite low-arrowed, gut-shot, or even lucky-shot scenarios, bucks had been tagged, their prized racks adorning the walls.
From October through Christmas, deer hunting consumed him. Friends, schoolwork, sports, girlfriends. Resolve drove him into the woods, eventually stealing from his passion. Each time he returned empty-handed, his desire intensified. A few years went by, he considered it a prolonged sweetening to a hard-earned success story. It was inevitable. It had to come..
While in college, during calls home he sometimes got details of “so and so”, some distant-colleague of his father “brought home a really nice 10-pointer”. It churned at him. Social media popularized, and so did the hunting pictures which hardened his reality. Hunters, often much younger, hovering over gargantuan bucks, gripping massive antlers. They might as well be shoved in his side.
Still, he was lethal. With his amount of time in the woods, it had to be. Proven by the half-dozen doe and other game he’d taken off the property, his grandpa knew of the lethality the young man possessed, and this buck-less streak ate at him, too. In those years, his encouragement came regularly.
“Woods are always open.” “You should get back out there this Saturday.”
He was generous, giving the teenager access to his 40-acre darling of hardwoods, just 15 minutes outside the city. Other hunter’s requests were often batted back in hopes of improving his chance at scoring a bruiser amidst all those funnels and ravines. Grandpa had been gone nearly a decade now, and with his passing, so went the property. Yet his words “very good deer hunter” kept the hunter from quitting.
When the man married and had a family of his own, it bothered him that his disappointment had undeservedly become theirs. Numbers rose for those awaiting that one big, satisfying return home from the woods. It raised the stakes, too.
Tonight he tallied the full cost and figured, season on season, he’d been at it for over twenty years. There’d been many close calls, including bucks fatally hit and painstakingly tracked, but never recovered. So, he remained the buck-less hunter. Despite all the hours, and weather, and effort, and fervor to strip the label, the woods simply refused to cough up its antlered quarry.
When the deer stopped, he’d already made up his mind. He flipped off the safety, found his patch of hair, and squeezed. The bolt careened out of the blind, finding its mark slightly high inside the kill zone, through both lungs. The buck bolted in a line, head low, tail half-erect. A faint crash followed. The woods returned to stillness. All quiet, except for his powerful pulse tugging on each eardrum.
The dump of adrenaline caused uncontrollable shaking, this was anticipated. So was the smile seizing his cheeks. He felt this same elation with the prior bucks, before the tireless tracking, and crushing let-downs. The crash was new, though. It secured him. He dug up a headlamp, a knife, and a bright colored kill tag, and poured a small cup of tea, still steaming from the thermos.
On the floor of these woods, just beyond view, laid without contest, the most long-standing prize he’d ever pursued. “That rack, though”. The thought entered quickly, and lost just as soon, amidst the swirl of other emotions. He wanted to share this. He quietly laughed. It was too big a moment to allow a damper. He sipped, beating back the urgency to run from the blind to claim his prize. Years of self-doubt began melting away with each mouthful. He poured another.
With this purging ritual complete, he flung the remaining drips and twisted the cup to the thermos. The shot was straightforward, and all evidence pointed to a quick recovery.
“The rack couldn’t have been that small.”
Moments later confirmed a clean kill. Everything went right. Yet, if ever there were reason for disappointment with the state of antlers, or lack thereof, this was it. His hands went to work with tagging and gutting. It was the ghastliest part of an intimate collision between life, death and hunter, a final hurdle to a clear conscience. He’d known, when the complexities of killing meddle, everything gets left behind with the guts. Free from guts, any deer is simply venison. Not this time.
Thoughts raced far and uncharted. He landed upon the coming holidays. Loved ones he’d left behind for twenty seasons would certainly deem this a cause for celebration, and in full detail. Just as surely they’d frown with confusion from the very question he’d eagerly anticipated “How big was he?” What could he say? Of course they’d still celebrate for him, but also for reasons far beyond personal interest in hunting. Tonight was proof to a model they all held close.
He was one of them, raised to know the basics of work ethic. Success isn't cheap, and payoff comes when honest, disciplined, and hard work is applied over time. All those empty-handed returns presented an uncomfortable outlier to the theory. It couldn't stand to reason, to work that hard, or spend that much time, or give that much, and not get paid. Regardless of size, it didn’t have to be a wall-hanger. Any tall-tined eight point would’ve done just fine. He could've even settled for a six pointer.
This buck pulled at more than just emotions, it was pulling at foundations. It usurped the contract he’d entered into all this time. Instead of glory, it offered only confusion - humiliation, even. Here was the Cinderella Man, finally clutching his title belt, and it came horribly tarnished! For such a lousy prize, he wouldn’t, no he couldn’t hold it high. He hated the deer for making such a mess of things, how it tethered him to pending embarrassment.
As he took a moment to collect himself, the dimming eye of the beast made him honest above-all-else, sobering him to one of life's absurdities. He became aware of the gaps within man's system of points, and how paper-thin the promise of glory. All this was foreign to the deer. It would have no part of it. He became ashamed. Not for his hunting or killing, but for years of idolizing what was trivial. For ignoring what was truly appreciable, now irreversible.
No. The deer gave everything,” he reminded himself, “and it’s a fine buck.” He fastened a drag line and hauled it from its native sanctuary into a foreign world, a thankless one, given to dizzying speed and endless comparison.
Weeks later, he stopped at the processor’s. A tote slid across the counter, yielding fifty-three pounds of trimmed protein. They said it was over two-hundred pounds, a three-and-a-half year-old deer. These details realigned his heart. The processor asked if he wanted to “keep the, uh... rack?” “Yes, please” He said, “I spent over twenty years chasing that buck!” holding a half smile. Her inquisitive look turned warm, and then came a hint of mutual understanding from the aging woman in the stained apron, filled to the edges like a collage from season's past. She handed him the rack, which fit neatly inside a plastic grocery bag, and rang up the order.
“Congratulations,” she said, “on your fine trophy.”
It fed his family through the winter months. It fed him too, in ways even a record-book buck never could. The buck pulled him free from an obsession turned-unhealthy and forced an honest look into his worldview.
One night, he pulled those gnarled antlers off a nail in the basement stud and held the awkward, twisted rack up close again. He remembered the hunt, the flood of confusion, and the personal growth. A life-lesson he’d hold onto forever.
It sits on display now, serving as a caution. A constant reminder of just how far he’d drifted off course. How ignorant he’d been towards much of life's goodness, often right around him during those times in the woods. A world-record buck couldn’t fix any of that. If anything, it’d probably have worsened his sickness. These antlers brought him a closer working knowledge of the world, and its obsession with points of every kind. Most of all, he became aware of the hopelessness in assigning glory to places where it simply cannot exist.
Wisdom belongs to the hunter who pursues his game free from these trappings. It’s dangerous out there. Next time you lace up the boots, you’d be smart to carry a compass.