No More Apologies

 In Whitetail
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n the Neale family, there are just a few holidays that matter: Resurrection Sunday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Opening Weekend of Whitetail Firearm Season. It is time with my family and time in the woods that I have come to cherish. This year I planned to head up a day early to duck hunt before turning my attention to three days of concerted tail chasing, but to paraphrase Robert Burns, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” The duck hunting went fine, and I’ll give a full (if not brief) account of it soon, but Friday night the train came off the rails.

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or those of you not familiar with the Missouri Department of Conservation and their hunting seasons, the firearms portion of whitetail deer season always begins the second Saturday of November. Duck season usually opens up a week beforehand and closes for a few days when deer season opens (in the middle zone where we typically hunt). Well as I mentioned already, I went out for a short (and unproductive) duck hunt Friday morning before heading back in to the cabin for lunch with Grandpa and a nap. Dad came late in the afternoon and we set to preparing dinner. Around 5:30 we got a call that Anna’s (my wife who happened to be 15 miles away in the nearest town) car was making a funny noise and producing white smoke. Awesome. I loaded up and drove to town. When I got there, I could find nothing wrong with the car, but we decided to transfer everyone over to my grandma’s car and deal with it in the morning. By the time we got back, dinner was ready and everyone else had already arrived. We enjoyed some spaghetti and conversation as we all caught up. Bedtime came early as I knew wake up also would.

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 rolled out of bed at 4:45am and shuffled downstairs for some coffee. Grandpa, Dad and Uncle Mike had already been at it for about an hour or so.  No one was in a big hurry to get moving as the temperature was hovering around 28 degrees. We finally got trucking at 5:30 with a half mile walk ahead of us and crept as slowly and quietly through the woods in sub-freezing temperatures as we could manage. Halfway through the trek we cautiously crossed a power cut that our neighbor Tyler is often setup over and then stalked the remaining few hundred yards to our chosen location; the shoulder of a hill looking over a small triangle of bottomland one way and a primarily oak forest the other way. The morning hunt was slow and short with the highlight being a bobcat right at sunrise.  My sister put a bead on a mature doe, but chose not to take her in hopes that a buck might show up on her trail. I captured a few frames with the 5D before heading back to the cabin.

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hat usually happens next is a bit of breakfast and then back to the woods for sitting and stalking for the rest of the day. What usually happens did not happen, though. As soon as we got back to the cabin, we doffed our weapons and packs and got in the truck to head to town. Not only did we have the mystery ailment of the car to deal with, but we had also received word that Temple (my oldest) had acquired her own mystery ailment which led to a sleepless night of puking. By the time we reached town Anna had began puking as well. We decided to ditch the car at one of the two service stations in town. They promised to get to it first thing Monday morning, but at the moment Joe was out deer hunting (can you blame him?). We stopped off to see the sick and dying before heading back to the cabin for a breakfast that had, by now, turned into lunch. Shortly thereafter, I began to feel a creep in my joints and a chill in my bones. I decided what I needed was a little rest and then some solid time in the woods. Upon waking up, I knew two things with certainty: Puking was not a matter of if, but when and if I was going to feel terrible, I’d just as soon do it in the woods.

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 headed out just after two. Not twenty minutes or two hundred yards into my stalk I busted a bedded doe at twenty five yards. If that doesn’t get your blood pumping, I don’t know what will. It never gets old for me. The excitement was palpable and with looming sickness and elevated heart rate it was nearly, enough to make me puke right there where I stood. I decided that I was in no shape to shoot a deer, much less clean it, but wasn’t ready to head back in yet. I found a grandfather oak with a flat stone at the base of it to park my sorry keister on. After a little less than an hour, with hope and energy waning, a young six came trotting south through the woods toward me. He slowed up about fifteen yards north of me and changed direction. Though he was quite interested in me, he couldn’t entirely tell if I was a threat or not until he winded me as he moved from east to west into the trail of my scent. It was just as well as I had no plans to shoot him and decided it was time for me to prostrate myself before the porcelain throne. I spent the rest of the night in the upstairs bathroom listening to the rest of the family celebrate my Mom’s birthday. The storm lifted around 9:30 pm. I went downstairs to say goodnight and inform the crew not to expect me for the morning’s outing.

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 woke up Sunday morning about 7:30 and sauntered down into to the kitchen. I had just enough time to sit down to a cup of coffee before the mighty Nimrods came trickling back in. Dad arrived around 8:00 and we commenced our now all too familiar journey back into town to check on the women and children and drop off the dog. Everyone seemed to be on the mend and we headed back to the cabin. Dad and I decided to do a slow stalk through some bottomland before posting up in a couple of stands for the evening. We loaded our day packs and headed down there. We began to stalk around 11:30 and I moved about 500 yards the first hour. It was an agonizing creep and I was out of energy. I hadn’t really eaten anything in the previous 24 hours and what I had eaten the 12 hours before that, my body had rejected. At 12:30 or so I climbed into a little bucket stand overlooking what should have been a bean field, but was instead a banner crop of cockleburs. I ate a leftover steak sandwich and drank half a highlife (the other half I knocked over) before climbing back down and beginning the trudge again. Just about the time I started walking I spotted Dad’s blaze orange vest and jones cap. We gave our status reports as we crossed paths. I hadn’t seen much, he’d seen even less. It was coming up on one at this point and Dad said that he was going to push on to his evening roost. I decided to follow the north edge of a pond en route to the same field he’d be watching over, but I didn’t make it that far.

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ou know how when you’re out in the woods during deer season and you become gullible? Sure you’re aware of it, but it’s almost as if you don’t care. That dark stump in the woodline at the edge of the field is definitely a monster buck just waiting to come out and get it. That leaf that’s about to drop, waving in the breeze, is obviously a doe’s ear flapping around, swatting at her neck. And of course, we all know that that squirrel tramping around in the dry leaves couldn’t be anything other than the number one buck on our hitlists. Well, at around 1:15, as I stalked along an overgrown ATV path running the perimeter of that pond, I glanced over and saw a branch that looked uncannily like an antler right next to the waterline. I am no fool and wasn’t about to be taken by a branch, but thought that I should probably keep an eye on it anyway.  About 15 yards and 15 minutes later I had come to the conclusion that the branch was moving around far to much to be anything other than an antler, and the deer head attached to it was also suspicious.

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his guy had bedded down right on the opposite bank of the pond I was walking, surveying his domain. He was a bit younger than I would have liked, lacking some mass and length, but I could tell he had the genetics to be a really killer buck in a couple years. I stood there watching him, weighing the pros and cons of taking him, enjoying the opportunity to peak behind the curtain of this creature’s life, and I stood there another buck started blowing just to the north of me. He knew I was there, but I couldn’t see him through the thick undergrowth. I decided to see if anything would come of it, and directed all my attention on where I thought he might show up.  I watched a doe he had been pursuing walk around and graze on some acorns, I heard him blow a few more times, and after 20 minutes or so, the woods had gone quiet. The whole time this was going on, I was making deals in my head about the young gun to my south: “If he’s still there when I turn around, I’ll take him.” “If I can walk 20 more yards without spooking him, then I’lll shoot him.” I knew that this was the buck I was going to harvest, but for some reason, I was having a hard time getting to the part where I pulled the trigger. I was in the middle of this inner conflict. He was a good buck, but not of the caliber I had harvested the previous few years. If I let him go, he might grow into a truly stunning deer in a couple years, or I might never see hime again. I knew that the season had not gone to plan, and really I only had a few hours of hunting under my belt at this point. Certainly, this deer was nothing to sneeze at, and would go a long way towards filling the freezer, but I was still hesitant.

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s I turned around, I couldn’t see him any longer. I thought that had spared me the decision and took off while I waffled back and forth, but as I pondered my next move, He showed back up. He was standing just to the east of where he had been bedded. I could now see his impressive body as he stood broadside to me, still lazily observing his surroundings. I made one final wager: I decided if I could get over to a sapling about 10 yards closer to him to use as a gun rest, I would punch my tag on this buck. As I crept up on this young oak, he was looking right at me. I moved slow and steady, lifting my gun and placing the bead on his chest just behind the shoulder blade as I’d done a hundred times before. Then I squeezed.

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hy do I feeling the need to mitigate? In retelling this story, both here and in conversation with friends, I continue to make excuses for this deer. “He was a good YOUNG buck…he WOULD HAVE been a monster.” I have thought about this a lot. What’s strange is that I’ve never heard my grandfather apologize for the quality of his deer’s hardware. Why is that? Is it the pressure of social media? I don’t think so, or rather, I don’t think its social media in a vacuum. I remember this culture existing long before that at the Float ’n’ Tote where we used to have to go to check in our deer before the advent of Smart Phone Apps that allow you check your deer remotely. I remember observing as the older men, gathered in bunches, hunched over the bedrails of their trucks, would listen patiently, nodding or grunting occasionally as one of their own alternately took full credit for the hunting skill that produced such good looking set of antlers or equivocated and explained away why they ended up with some raghorn. I have grown up in this culture and I’ve chosen to participate. The more I think about it, the more I realize it has very little to do with the quality of the deer and everything to do with the quality of the hunter. I wonder how much that history of whitetails in Missouri plays a part in demeanor of the hunters of my grandfather’s age. He was born and grew up in a dark time for Missouri’s whitetail. Over hunting and poor habitat management led to the near extinction of deer in Missouri. He has told me the story about going out for his first Whitetail season in Missouri when he was 18 or 19 and seeing nothing but hunters. This was only five or six years after the inaugural Whitetail season where nearly eight thousand hunters produced  just over 500 deer. Fast forward to today with half a million hunters producing nearly three hundred thousand dear. I wonder if that early scarcity produced a stream of gratitude in our elders. I wonder if we’re spoiled for choice. I wonder if it’s just man’s nature to turn everything competition. I wonder if it’s all of those or none of those and I wonder if it matters at all – the outcome is the same.

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irst came the crack of 7mm Rem Mag, then the sound of heavy hooves in soft earth as he bolted and crashed through what sounded like a dead tree that had fallen over, then silence. I walked back around the tip of the lake towards him and found a log halfway there. I was exhausted and shivering – I don’t t know if it was from the illness or the adrenaline – probably both. I had the rest of my steak sandwich and a cherry coke while I texted Dad. “That you?” “Yup. Stay where you are.” After ten or fifteen minutes, I finally got up, figuring he’d expired by then, and headed to where I’d last seen him. I quickly located blood and followed it ten yards before looking up and seeing him laid out in front of me. All it took was rolling him over in preparation for field dressing to get me to swallow my pride and pull out my phone. I was worn out. I shot a text over to dad. “Nevermind, looks like I’ll be needing some help…” or something like that. I ditched my spare gear and walked up to grab the side by side. By the time I’d returned I could spot dad walking back down the path. I waited for him and took him in to where I’d left my dear. We mad quick work of the dressing and Dad hopped up in the bed of the ATV to pull the body in with help from me on the ground. We loaded up and headed back to the cabin. We still had CWD testing to complete before skinning and butchering this creature. Then, like this majestic brute I had just felled, a long a dark sleep.

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