The Savage Spoke and the Monarch of the Forest Fell
. . . or something like that. It sounds kind of goofy when you put it that way. Saturday morning started out colder than most, and definitely quieter. There was the constant drone of ATVís and an occasional truck gate slamming, but this year it was much further off. A lot of the landowners had been cracking down on slobs, so it was just us and the families out for opening morning.
I took a slightly different way to the stand, across a fallow field. Although it was only about fifty yards away, the road would have taken me through the dense cover of the cedars, and this way I was walking almost directly downwind to the stand. That left the cedars to the deer, and most mornings I had bounced one or two does on my way in.
Halfway across the field, I realized I was starting to crack a sweat, so I stopped and took off my hat and dumped some heat to the wind. There was no big rush; it was over an hour early. I dropped my duffel, doused the flashlight and knelt. Instant solitude. If someone had been watching, they would have been sure some overly precious refugee of the New Age was performing his makeshift hunting ritual. As it was, I looked up and saw I was facing Orion. Yeah, I probably am a refugee of the New Age, but I donít wear crystals, and I generally leave my antlered headdress at home. It still is good to see that friendly tableau. The Dog, the Hunter, the Bull. Some things never change. About that time I felt the first bit of chill, and I knew it was time to keep going.
If the constellations above had been looking out for me, they certainly did not do a good job. I muffed it in the dark and missed the corner of the field by about 65 yards. I ended up about 50 yards from my stand going the wrong way, and probably walking over a couple prime trails. A lone deer busted me and took off without snorting. My season was rapidly beginning to swirl. A rotting ladder stand on a cedar finally showed in my light, and put me back on track.
Campground is a tube steel ladder stand down the way from the oak grove where we camp in the summer. It overlooks several white oaks all squatty with age. My attention was drawn to this site by the profusion of rotting wood nailed to the sides of the trees. As best I can tell, at least two generations of hunters had spent their seasons here. It is prone to a lot of midday movement, and most deer donít show up until at least two hours past sunrise. I had mistakenly hunted the area the first year as an afternoon stand and seen nothing. The biggest asset to Campground is that it overlooks the lee side of a saddle that interconnects two large creek systems. My site allows me to look to the bottom of the saddle on one side and out into the field on another. It made a good rifle stand and after sweetening the spot with a salt lick it has become a passable early season bow stand.
After early Youth and Muzzleloader seasons back to back, the deer fled a lot of the surrounding land. It is always heartening to listen out among the surrounding ridges and hear ATVís burping along on their single-minded and determined goal of chasing deer onto my land. I loaded up, slipped the rifle sling over the peg, slipped into my bibs and coat, zipped up tight and sat back. I had been treated to a lot of good times at Campground. A few weeks earlier, a perfect ten-pointer had followed in a herd of does. He stayed out at sixty yards crosswind to the stand. After the does had walked through, I gave him a single snort-wheeze. He responded by staring, stamping and grunting for several minutes before walking over and menacing a small oak sapling.
Weíd met up a week later at The Dump. Heíd come up after sunset, and I had misjudged his distance in the gloom. My arrow had sailed under his legs, and I had been treated to a real show as he challenged the arrow, and then a neighboring stump before finally huffing off into the dark.
It was shortly after first light, but you would not have known it where I was. Out of the blackness came a distant scritch. . .scritch scritch. . . of hooves on fallen oak leaves. Shortly thereafter a shot rang out on a neighboring ridge as someone decided to get an early start on the season. Silence, then the steps continued, over the top of the saddle and down the gully. Crunch. A large branch had broken. The gentle hooves quickened their pace. Crunch. . .thunk. . . and then the darkness erupted. A drunken hunter had come up the front side of the saddle, and was fumbling around in the darkness. The deer were fleeing in front of him. I was so mad I could just spit. Staggering, moaning. At one point I thought I heard cursing as the git fought his way through the cedars towards me. The first thing I saw was a couple of white tails flitting down the gully below me in the moonlight. It was still too dark to shoot. I put my back to the tree and hoped the dim-bulb didnít decide to open up on one of them with me in the way. I wasnít sure if he passed out or finally found a stump to sit on and let the cold sober him up. It finally got quiet again.
About fifteen minutes later, the light had come up. I turned around and looked for the orange hat passed out down the hill. Thatís when I heard the first real grunt. Iíve heard tell of guys who try to put their stand up on the towers beneath high-tension wires. Iíve seen squirrels make contact on transformers. That grunt had about the same effect. As my own lightbulb lit, I realized that I hadnít been hearing a drunk at all. It had been bucks fighting at the top of the saddle. The looser had been one of the white flags Iíd seen bounding down the hill. The winner was now camped out in the cedars behind my stand.
I found my hands clutching a rifle in a death grip. How it got off the peg I am not quite sure. I was shaking with buck fever for which I had thought myself immune. I was frozen.
"Settle down." I said out loud, and in hearing it, I relaxed. The buck must have heard me too, for he started slowly moving my way. I cupped my hand to my mouth and threw one short contact grunt towards the largest of the oaks, downhill from me. Although you cannot see it, there is a well-traveled trail that comes out of the cedars and runs from one of the great white oaks and runs downhill to the other. It is exactly 42 yards from my stand to the closest approach to that trail. With a bit of grunting as he went, the winner of the match emerged from the curtain of cedars. He plodded past the first oak and then turned downhill towards the second.
My Savage 99 came up on the far side of the tree and leveled on the deer. The largest rack I had ever seen through that scope appeared beyond the crosshairs. When he made his closest approach he was broadside.
He froze. My right eye was blinded in the muzzle flash through the scope, but my left could follow him as he leapt once and then turned towards the bottom of the gully. I heard three bounds, a crash of brush, and then silence. It was 0650 on opening day. Twenty years of work had come to fruition, and a great buck had finally fallen to my hand.
I found him collapsed under a dead cedar next to the gully. Heíd taken it through the lungs and heart; taking ribs on both sides. I did not want to disturb the area any further, so I decided to drag him up without gutting. The buck and I spent the better part of two hours tied to each other. As the morning wore on, a dozen deer took turns crossing the saddle. They would stop, snort a salute and thunder off. It was as though the whole neighborhood was coming to pay its respects. Weíd get a few feet and then Iíd stop to rest on a stump or a rock, and I told him stories.
"I hope this isnít going to be a ĎOld Man and the Seaí thing." I said to the glazed eyes. "Thatís all I need is a pack of coyotes to fight over you. Oh well, where was I? Oh yeah, so now thereís me and the dog and Iím waiving this Coleman lantern and yelling for the guys to stop, and then I get this funny feeling that Ė hey wait a minute, maybe these guys actually ARE trying to shoot at me and . . you ever have that feeling?"
I gutted him out on the front porch. It took forever to get the deer back into the truck for the trip to the processor. Iíve got a crew cab with a short bed and he just would not fit once he stiffened up. We stopped at the grocery and also rolled over to Roosters to show the guys there. When we got to Lennoxburg, they dragged him out and put him on a hook. It had been a slow day-óonly 25 or so had come in. Normally there would be five times as many, stacked like cordwood, but everyone was saying how the full moon and cold weather had kept the deer bedded down.
Up until then it had just been a personal thing. I knew I had not bagged the biggest deer ever, but he was the biggest Iíd ever had in my sights. He wasnít going to be a state record, but he had undoubtedly been the biggest up on the Saddle that morning. Somebody came up puffing on a cigarette and started talking to the guy that was caping mine out.
"Slow day, huh? Any big ones?"
"Big ones?" said the guy with the knife. "We just got this one." With that, he lifted the hide and showed the local my deer.
"Yep." said the guy. "That sure is big."
The "Monarch of the Forest" is back from the Taxidermist. The Taxidermist did an excellent job except for a minor flaw in positioning one eye. When viewed from the right angle the deer looks drunk. Oh well, I guess that's sort of fitting, considering the story behind him.
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