I arrived at Deer Camp around noon on Friday, November 21. It was a beautiful fall day in Kentucky: sunny and clear, around 55 degrees. After I got my things settled into my room, I toured the facility and met the other deer campers as they arrived. We had 10 people total at camp, but only a few of us were hunting. The rest were just there for the fellowship, the tradition, and the outdoor experience. Those hunting included Zach’s uncle, a very experienced hunter who had taught Zach to hunt and track deer; Sarah, the 14-year-old daughter of Zach’s best childhood friend, who had taken her first deer a year earlier at the Camp, and me, the absolute newbie on his first hunt.
After everyone got settled, we spent some time sighting in our rifles at 100 yards. The minimum standard was to make sure we could hit a 10-inch target from that distance, but we wanted to get the rifles sighted as close as possible to their specified MOA. The MOA, or Minute of Angle, is the rifle’s accuracy under ideal conditions for a group of shots, typically measured in inches per 100 yards.
I was using a Remington 700 bolt-action rifle with .270 Winchester rounds. Yep, that same caliber cartridge that resulted in a sliced and bruised forehead years ago. I took a few shots at 100 yards, then moved in to around 50 yards, as the woods around my stand would allow for no more than about a 40-yard shot. After sighting in and taking a few shots to get comfortable, I was ready to go. Zach set me up with camouflage outerwear, a blaze orange vest and beanie, headphones as ear protection, and a seat cushion.
My first stand was called The Hickory, as it was close to a huge Hickory tree that once dominated the tree line. Unfortunately, it no longer stands in the area, the victim of a lightning strike. The stand was about 15 feet above ground. Since it was higher stand and it was my first time, Zach had me use a safety harness. The harness fit around my shoulders, waist, and thighs, and was connected via a mountain-climbing strength carabiner to a safety rope that was tied to the tree. The harness and rope would catch tight to keep me from hitting the ground in the event of a fall. While I’m not terrified of heights, I’m not a huge fan either, so the harness made me much more comfortable in the stand.
From the Hickory stand, I had an open field on the other side of trees to my left, a corn feeder about 25 yards in front of me, and a ravine to my right. Deer could come in from either direction. I had been warned that the feeder would go off around 5:00 and that the sound would startle me. I got into the stand around 3:00, which meant I had about three hours of hunting, as state law allowed us to hunt until 30 minutes after sunset.
Zach’s instruction was to call him if I shot anything, for two reasons: First, most hunters, especially newbies, get the shakes after shooting a deer, and it’s not wise to try to climb out of a stand in that condition. Second, for wounds that are not to the heart or lungs, the deer will take longer to die and will be capable of running for miles. As long as the deer is not pressured by the hunter, its instinct will be to lay down and die, likely not far from where it was shot. However, if pressured by the hunter, it will run until it dies, which could be a great distance from the place where it was shot. This means significantly harder tracking and an increased potential for either never finding the deer or having to cross over onto neighboring property to find it. At that point, even if the deer is found, it will have been subject to unnecessary suffering and could be much more difficult to drag out for harvesting.
As I began my hunt, I couldn’t help notice the perfection of the day. Sunny, almost no wind, and fairly warm. The ground was covered with fallen leaves, which meant I could hear every movement around me. It was beautiful.
After about an hour in the stand, I heard movement to my front right, past the feeder in some thicket. It continued for quite a while, but I never saw anything. Around 5:00, just as promised, the feeder went off, spraying corn on the ground in every direction. Shortly thereafter, several squirrels came out to play. They’d eat, then get spooked and scamper off in different directions and up a tree. Every noise got my attention and my sensory awareness was kicked into overdrive. But there were no deer to see.
Around 5:30, I heard movement on the other side of the ravine to my right. Something was coming. It was making its way slowly down the ravine, stirring up the leaves as it moved. After 10 minutes or so, I heard it getting closer, moving up my side of the ravine. As long as it kept moving, it would be within sight very soon. I had been going over my shooting checklist the entire afternoon. E-S-S-B-S was the acronym that I used: Ears, Safety, Sight, Breathe, Squeeze. I kept my ear protection on top of my head rather than over my ears in order to be able to hear the movement around me, so my first step was to slide the headphones over my ears. I kept my safety on, so I needed to quietly slide it off. At that point, all that was left was to sight the deer, take a breath and exhale partially, then squeeze the trigger evenly until it fired.
As this movement got closer, I slid my headphones on and positioned the safety off, so that I’d be ready when the brute showed itself. And moments later, it showed itself alright. It was a squirrel. A bushy-tailed gray squirrel that had kept me on high-alert for a good 10-15 minutes. I wanted to shoot it for leading me on. But I figured that was a “me problem”, plus it would end any chance I had to shooting a deer that evening. So I let the little bastard live.
I did hear a gunshot that evening, presumably from the direction where Zach’s uncle was hunting. I was encouraged by that, hoping that someone had seen and taken a deer. By dark, I still had not seen anything, so I climbed down from my stand, unhooked the safety harness, and started the walk back to the cabin. Once I reached the open field, I saw a light off in the distance. As I walked closer to it, I saw that it was the headlights from Zach’s ATV. It looked like someone had killed something. As I came upon the light, I saw Zach’s kids loading a dead coyote into the back of the ATV. That gunshot I heard had nailed the coyote right in the neck, and it was long gone.
So, the evening was not without excitement. I make the long walk back to the cabin in total darkness, not bothering to use my flashlight. The darkness was beautiful. The quiet was beautiful. I soaked it all in. Men need dark. Men need quiet. There are few places that we can find either any more. In fact, there’s an interesting book on the lack of darkness in the United States. There is a scale that’s used to measure darkness (the Bortles scale). It measures darkness over nine levels, with Level One being the darkest and Level Nine being the lightest. At least one expert has concluded that most Americans spend their entire lives at around Level Six or Level Seven, never really experiencing the darker levels. The darkness that I experienced in that stand and as I walked in that night was sublime.
As I made it back to the cabin, Zach and his uncle took the coyote to the “hanging tree”, which was a tree about 100 yards from the cabin that had a rope and a pulley that was used to hang kills high enough so that other coyotes couldn’t eat them while they waited to be skinned. So I watched Zach cut slits in the lower parts of the coyote’s hind legs, put the ends of what looked like a metal hanger through those slits, then raise the coyote about six feet off the ground, and then tie the rope.
We all unpacked our gear on the porch, leaving our outerwear outside to air out and limit the amount of scent on it. Unfortunately, no one saw much in the way of deer that day. Uncle John had seen a couple of does off in the distance, but Sarah and I hadn’t seen anything. After an excellent meal and conversation about what we’d seen (or hadn’t seen) that day, we turned in. All in all, a great first day at Deer Camp.
The alarm went off at 5:00 Saturday morning. The hunters got up, had coffee and some breakfast, and then plotted our strategy. Saturday’s forecast was unusual, calling for rain, 40-MPH winds, and a 20-degree drop in temperature throughout the day. Zach and I decided that I would hunt the flats that morning, an area deep in a ravine along a meandering creek. The hills on each side would protect from the wind. The Flats Stand was a shorter stand, only about eight-feet tall, so I wouldn’t be using the safety harness and rope.
I got my gear together, which included a few extra layers and a camouflage Gore-Tex jacket to protect against the rain, and loaded up onto the ATV to head out to the mouth of the woods. When we turned into the woods, the headlights of the ATV cut through the dark enough to see that there was a strong drop off to our left and deep ravine. We kept going down, down, and further down, well over a hundred yards on a pretty steep decline. Once we reached the stand, I got set up. Zach told me that when I headed back to the cabin, to go slowly and quietly, keeping my gun up, as there was a strong chance to see deer on my way out.
I was in the stand by 6:30, hitting my goal of being there around 30 minutes before daylight, to allow the woods to settle before “shooting time”. Sitting in the stand in total darkness is quite the sensory experience. You’re up in the tree, but you can’t see the ground or much around you, so you could be 100 feet up or sitting out in space for all you know. The wind would only sweep through the valley every so often, but you could hear it beyond the hills like a giant wave moving through. This made your vision a much higher priority, as you couldn’t hear every little sound because of the wind. Once daylight broke, I could see that tall ravines to my left and right, and a flat area with a creek running beside it directly in front of me.
About 30 minutes after sunrise, I got my first taste of action, as two small, gray does came running by the flat area to my left. Both were moving too fast to take a shot, plus I was looking for bucks anyway. Still, it was exciting to see deer, and it put me on high-alert for the big buck that I hoped was following behind them. The last advice I had gotten from one of my baseball coaching buddies was “don’t shoot the lead doe”, so I let them pass while looking for the following buck. And I heard him coming. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the big buck I was looking for. Instead, it was either a small doe or fawn running along, presumably following its mother that had just passed.
Around 7:45, I spotted a deer making its way down the ravine to my left. It was in some thick woods and moving back behind me. I could tell it was a doe, so I tried to snap a quick picture with my phone, but the woods were too thick. I quit watching it as it moved back further behind me. After a few minutes, however, it came walking down the flat area that the three prior deer had traveled. I went through my checklist, just for practice. I slid my headphones on, positioned the safety off, and was now watching the deer in utter silence and stillness. It stopped about 20 yards away to my immediate left, at about eye-level with me, and looked right at me. From there, it walked down the hill until it was right in front of me, about 15-20 yards away, standing broadside. I sighted it up, and had the perfect shot. All I had to do was pull the trigger and that deer was mine. But I passed it up, and moments later the doe hopped on down the flats, just as the others had done before it. It was early on Saturday, so I was holding out for a buck. I was pretty pleased with how calm I was. My heart wasn’t racing and the sight was steady on the deer’s lung area. At that point, I knew I was ready to take a deer.
Until that moment, I wasn’t sure how I would react when it came time to shoot a deer. I knew I was going to be nervous, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to steady the rifle on it. After sighting that doe and staying calm, I knew I could take a deer. All that was left was to get the opportunity.
Unfortunately, that opportunity didn’t come on Saturday. I did see another doe go running down the same path as the others, but that was it for the rest of the day. Around noon, I got out of the stand, hunted my way up the hill and out of the woods. I headed back to the cabin, had some coffee, and got a lesson in skinning a coyote from Zach, his uncle, and his son. Around 3:00 that afternoon, I headed back to the stand in the Flats, but never saw any more deer.
No one took a deer on Saturday. Sarah’s father had seen a doe running by at a distance, but it never slowed enough for Sarah to get a shot. So, we had a great meal of deer tenderloin wrapped in bacon, and talked into the night, discussing and solving various problems in the world. Then it was off to bed, preparing for one last morning of hunting.
We started our Sunday at 5:00 with breakfast, coffee, and strategy. The thought was that Sunday morning was going to be full of active deer. The forecast was for a cold morning with only slight wind. After being bedded down to escape the wind on Saturday, we were hopeful that the deer would be out looking for food on Sunday morning. I decided to try a new stand on Sunday called Three-Ridge Station. It was located near the Hickory Stand, but further away towards the back of the farm.
I loaded up on clothes, including two sets of gloves and heavyweight wool socks, and headed out to the stand. Again, I was in the stand around 30 minutes before daylight. This was a 12-foot stand, but very sturdy. Still, being up there in complete darkness was a bit unnerving, as I didn’t use a safety harness and the darkness made it seem like I was much higher than I actually was. There was very little wind, so I got to hear the woods wake up, which was very cool. All manner of birds, squirrels, rabbits, bobcats, coyotes, and deer are around at various places. At one point after sunrise, a beautiful brown-and-white owl swooped into the tree over my head.
I was brimming with anticipation. There was a path that ran in front of me, and I was certain that a big buck was going to come strutting down it any second. But, I had decided that, on this last day of the hunt, I was going to take any deer I could get. A freezer full of deer meat would be fantastic, and we wouldn’t care when eating it this winter if it had had antlers or not.
Almost immediately after sunrise, I heard a shot coming from the direction of the Sniper Tower, which is where Zach’s uncle was holed up. What’s more, the entire area sounded like a war zone, with shots ringing out in the distance. This was the next-to-last day of gun season in that area, so I knew lots of people who had been holding out for a nice buck would be taking deer that day. And the plethora of gunshots told me my theory was right.
But the minutes and hours drug on, and I saw nothing. And it was cold. I hate wearing my headphones unless absolutely necessary, because I love being able to hear movement around me. On Sunday, however, the cold pushed me to wear my earphones for 20-30 minute increments in order to warm up my ears. As the time passed, I knew my hunt was coming to an end. At noon, I would need to get out of the stand and head back to the cabin, as people would be beginning to leave camp. At 11:00, I reminded myself it was now or never for this season, and took off the headphones to make one last one-hour push before ending the hunt.
I kept telling myself that it had been a fantastic weekend, regardless of whether I took a deer or not. And that wasn’t just positive spin or looking at the bright side; it was completely true. I had had a wonderful time with kind, interesting, and successful people, had learned a ton about hunting, had spent meaningful time in nature, and had pushed beyond my comfort zones.
But then it happened. Around 11:30, with only 30 minutes left in my hunt, a big doe came skipping down the path from my left. I knew this was my last chance, so I scurried through my checklist, lowering my ear protection, taking my safety off, and trying to sight the deer. However, the pressure of the moment and the fact that I needed to move quickly because the deer was moving at a decent pace forced me to rush. I found the deer in my scope, but couldn’t get it locked on. I told myself that if it paused enough for me to get it sighted, I was going to put it down.
As luck would have it, the deer slowed down about 15 yards in front of me and began walking. I was able to sight it in as it passed two trees. Just as it passed the last tree and moved directly in front of me, it stopped and turned to face me. That’s all I needed. I squeezed the trigger purposefully and fired, sending that .270 Winchester bullet right through the lower part of the deer’s throat on the left side. The deer stopped in its tracks and fell. It kicked its legs violently and tried to get back up, but never made it. Within a minute or so, it was dead, no more than 15 yards in front me on the path.
Zach had heard me shoot and texted me, asking if the shot had been mine. I called him, but couldn’t get him. I snapped some pics of the deer from the stand. I remembered his advice, but after a couple of minutes I knew both that (1) the deer was dead and (2) I was composed enough to climb down from the stand. I finally made phone contact with Zach, who told me to come on back to the cabin and warm up and that we’d get the deer later. At that moment, as I stood there with a .270 rifle, I remembered back to the scope incident nearly 20 years ago and smiled. My, how things had changed.
I returned to the cabin to find a dead and dressed doe on the back of the ATV. It turns out that the shot I’d heard just after sunrise was Zach’s uncle killing a doe. He and Zach had already tracked it, dragged it out of a ravine, and field dressed it. As I went inside, there were congratulations all around. Everyone wanted the newbie to get his first deer, so everyone was excited. We drank coffee and said our goodbyes to several of the Camp guests.
As it turned out, Sarah still had not seen anything, so Zach planned and organized a “deer push”. Sarah and her dad had taken position in the Sniper Tower. Zach, his wife, his kids, and I were going to spread out through a wooded area adjacent to the Sniper Station. We would move through the woods in hopes of pushing the deer out into the field towards Sarah, where she could pick one off. While Zach spooked a couple of deer during the push, neither made their way to the field.
So, we all loaded up on the ATV and headed to get my deer. While we were there, I was able to find the casing of the bullet I’d fired, which I kept as a memento. We hauled the deer back to the cabin, cleaned ourselves up, packed our stuff, then had lunch. After lunch, we said our goodbyes to Sarah and her dad, then Zach gave me a lesson in field dressing deer. We found a large bullet fragment in the lung, which confirmed that I’d made the shot I wanted to make. Once gutted, we took the deer to a local processor to turn it into steaks, tenderloin, and ground venison.
As a formerly avid fisherman, I am poignantly aware that not all hunts and fishing trips have happy endings. This one did. In less than a month, I went from no knowledge of hunting to having killed a deer in its tracks that will supply plenty of meat for my family this winter. Yes, it was an easy shot (that deer may been suicidal). But there is no easy shot when it comes to your first kill, especially when you’re down to the final minutes of your hunting season.
Men have always hunted. They braved the weather. They took risks. The developed skill with weapons. They learned the movement patterns of their quarry and learned to stalk. And they learned to kill animals that would feed their families. I was honored to join this tradition shared by millions of men throughout history.
While some will enjoy hunting more than others, I encourage every man to give it a try. Learning to handle guns is almost mandatory for men today. And rifles are a great place to start. Learning to hunt will help you develop your primal, masculine virtues. You will connect with nature and be forced to deal with uncomfortable situations, which develops toughness while at the same time providing peace of mind. In a society that seeks to confine us to comfortable, soft, indoor settings where everything moves 1,000 miles per hour at the push of a button, there’s nothing better than walking out into woods on a cold, rainy day seeking to use your wits, toughness, and skill to provide food for yourself and others. That is the man’s life.
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