A 9-point salute to our deer-driven dad
Chaff wasn’t the only thing floating through the crisp air as I slowly walked, stopped and walked again through a densely overgrown field on the opening day of rifled deer season.
So were the memories – the bittersweet moments shared with Dad while hunting over the past two-plus decades.
They flooded through my mind with each step along this small deer drive – as impossible to avoid as the countless dried pre-winter stalks of golden rod, pigweed and other central Pennsylvania fauna.
This was the first hunting season without Dad. He died in February, leaving behind two outdoor-savvy sons and a lengthy hunting resume.
For decades, Dad would make annual treks to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York in pursuit of the elusive whitetail. He harvested them with rifles, slugged shotguns, bows and muzzleloaders. He fed our family with venison from literally hundreds of deer.
As my brother, Jim, and I came of age, however, his legacy changed. He no longer needed to be the one pulling the trigger or releasing the bowstring – in fact, many times he left the firearm at home.
Instead, Dad devoted his time to helping Jim and I hone our hunting skills.
He taught us patience and the importance of staying still even when other hunters were too cold to sit in one place any longer. We learned quickly that as others started walking around the woods and heading back to their trucks for a cup of coffee, the deer would start moving and we were in the best position to take advantage.
He demonstrated the fine art of driving for deer. While other hunters would walk quickly through a woodplot, yelling and making a lot of noise along the way, he practiced a slower pace and more natural sounds. A few steps, and then stop. A few whacks on a tree branch with a walking stick. Repeat.
Deer drives seemed to take forever to anxious teenage boys hoping to bag a buck, but we soon realized that deer were more likely to leave the safe confines of their thickets if they thought they were spotted with each pause in Dad’s stride. And the slower pace made them less likely to react in full panic mode and run at full speed when they got to where we were standing.
Dad also taught us to read the land and carefully look for signs. We were always on the lookout for buck rubs recently scraped into the bark of young saplings and for piles of raisin-shaped scat that were fresh enough to mash with the end of a walking stick. The size, shape and overall stride of a deer track can tell quite a story, too.
So many lessons. So many lasting memories created with Dad and Jim.
They flooded my mind as I slowly drove out the small hollow on the family farm we purchased nearly 30 years ago near Turbotville. Dad was so happy at the time to be able to hunt deer on his own land.
Shooting a deer on our property had become a special rite of passage whenever we were fortunate enough to seal the deal – creating a little more nostalgia and pride than harvesting something from the nearby public land.
My mental train of thought was suddenly interrupted by the sight of a small vertical streak of white in the midst of a patch of staghorn sumac. A buck rub, and a fairly fresh one at that. I imagined a nice-sized buck trying to rub the velvet off his impressive set of antlers.
A few steps further I noticed two piles of pheasant feathers surrounded by random piles of fox droppings in the middle of a tangled patch of briars. Not a sign of deer, but still an interesting find. The fox and other predators definitely enjoy this habitat – and the wildlife it sustains.
For a few moments I was completely still, my mind for once not thinking about deer or drives or Dad.
The crack of gun fire changed all that in a hurry. A few moments later came a second shot. Both were from the direction where Jim was posting – both sounding very much like shots from the 30-30 that Jim was using. It was a rifle that Dad had given me one Christmas morning an eternity ago.
Sure enough, at the end of the drive, Jim led me to an impressive 9-point buck that he shot just yards away from where he was standing.
It wasn’t our first buck, the world’s biggest buck or even the first deer we shot at the farm … but this one felt special, nonetheless.
It was a fitting tribute to our deer-driven dad, and to the legacy he leaves behind.