Snow was gently falling as I moved through the dark woods towards the treestand on a ridge near the edge of an expansive spruce bog. The excitement of the impending hunt wasn’t the only reason I could feel my heart racing. Walking alone conjures up childhood visions of creatures of the night on the prowl, though many may not admit it.
A pack of coyotes broke the silence, their excited yipping confirming that I was not the only hunter on the move.
With the gathering light, shapes and eventually images became visible. Two inches of fresh snow covered the forest floor. I felt as though something memorable could happen this day.
The first few hours were uneventful save for the regular visits of some of the neighboring red squirrels and blue jays.
Looking down the ridge I saw a shape that seemed out of place. I noticed a quick flash of white. With the flick of its tail, the deer, which carried a small rack, began to walk across the ridge and down towards the bog.
A couple of grunts from my grunt call stopped the buck’s descendent. He turned and began walking towards me.
I raised my bow and got into position as the buck closed the distance. At 15 yards his head went behind a large maple and I came to full draw. Concentrating on his chest, I instinctively lined the bow up with my target. My fingers released the string and in an instant the arrow disappeared into the buck’s chest with a thud.
The deer bolted forward about 20 yards and stopped. He began to walk off as if nothing was wrong and for a moment I wondered if I’d hit him. His tail flicked wildly and his legs began to quiver. He lowered his front legs and brought his rump down as if bedding down for the night. 30 seconds later he lay down on his side and never moved again.
I sat back to say a prayer. A red squirrel ran down the limb above me and a chickadee noisily hopped from one branch to the next. Everything seemed the same as it was 5 minutes earlier, but something inside me felt very different.
Walking the short distance to my buck I noticed large splashes of crimson in the snow. My eyes met the blank gaze in his soft brown eyes.My legs begin to tremble. As I knelt beside the deer tears welled up and began streaming down my face.
It’s been 5 years now since that November day. I’ve not filled a tag since but not for lack of opportunity. I still love every part of the hunting experience except the killing. In “Jack and Diane”, John Cougar Mellencamp sang about life but for me the hunt goes on long after the thrill of killing has gone.
The trail we’re on as hunters leads us into many places we never expected to be. Maybe I will pass through this phase or maybe I will continue to hunt by the mantra that author James Curwood suggested when he wrote, “The greatest thrill is not to kill but to let live.”
Next season as another buck walks past me down the ridge on a steely, cold November day my bow with arrow nocked will remain resting on my lap. With that I am at total peace. That may be the lasting legacy of the buck in the balsams.