Up until this year, I’d never considered my gig writing for TTAG a luxury. That is until I tried to remember the last time I’d actually killed a deer. Luckily for me, everything I’ve ever written is archived here and after a short spell, I’d found the pictures and dates to help me recall that the fall of 2013 was the last time I’d put one through a deer. If you look closely, you can see the neat indentation in my forehead from my very first scope bite. Naturally, I lay the blame for that on Nick. Somehow.
The reasons for my killing hiatus are various and many. I could probably wax poetic for hours on the variety of reasons I got a hitch in my step. Ultimately, I soured on the killing part. That’s not to say that I didn’t do some hunting. Matter of fact, the last three years have been some of my best and voracious hunting years to date. I’m no Jon Wayne Taylor but I definitely got a couple solid days in over the last few seasons, and I centered the crosshairs on a great many animals.
Making the “not killing” easier was my discovery of what I thought to be a pretty workable compromise. Namely, I would take people hunting, usually for the first time, and keep half of what they killed. Most people don’t enjoy the gutting, quartering, skinning, and breaking down of an animal whereas I genuinely enjoy my time breaking an animal into its component pieces and cooking delicious food from it.
Last year, I took four people hunting and ended up recovering two wounded deer with two gone to suffer a painful death elsewhere. I covered a decent amount of it here, so there’s no need to rehash things further, but suffice it to say, I became disenfranchised with the aforementioned model. Micromanager that I am, I came to the sudden, blinding realization that I needed to own the whole process from beginning to end. I started with the gun part.
This year, I’ve shot well over 2500 rounds through various rifles – almost all of them calm, methodical, and focused on fundamentals like breathing, trigger press, and sight alignment. I started reloading earlier this year, and in a hilarious bit of mockery, put together a handload that duplicates the factory load my hunting rifle liked. Different brass, different primer, different powder, but it still sends an 80 gr Barnes TTSX within 30 fps of the much more expensive Barnes factory load. It’s just about as accurate to boot. During the load development process, I rediscovered my love of my hunting rifle. I’d forgotten how good the Timney trigger feels at the break and how much adding a cheek riser helped with achieving my consistent head position. While Ruger no doubt tried to cut costs when they designed the plastic stock on that rifle, I’ve shot it for so long that it just feels right. The addition of a silencer on the end certainly hasn’t hurt either.
Opening morning, I woke up early and had coffee with my dad. We talked about the news, the election, and what he had planned for the day, but never really touched on the elephant in the room. For the first time in four years, I was doing opening morning solo. Just me, my rifle, and all the time in the world, or at least until Sunday when I had to go back to Austin and the real world.
Declining his invite to use a brand new UTV he had on test, I loaded up my gear walked in on foot back to a little spot I like. It’s where Nick got his very first kill so many years ago. There’s an open meadow surrounded by scrubby oak trees that rim a shallow ravine. The scrubby oaks are so thick that its nearly impossible to get a shot that’s longer than about 80 yards, and in some places, you’d have to thread the needle with a bullet to hit a deer 100 yards away.
I took up a position sitting at the base of an oak tree with some low hanging branches at the edge of the shallow ravine. My back facing almost due North, I get a decent look at the sun as it crests a small rise to my left. Even though I got out early by my standards, I still managed to scare up a little doe who spent a few seconds staring at me while I got myself situated and decided I was enough of a threat for her to beat feet.
Half an hour later as the stillness of the woods had taken over, the bleak smear of gray on the horizon let me know that I would soon be able to see a bit more detail on the vague shapes that had been moving back and forth in front of me. No sooner had the light started to break the horizon that three noises happened almost simultaneously. The first was the report of a rifle shot several hills over. Taking a quick peek at my Timex, it read exactly thirty minutes before the published sunrise time for the day. As usual, the Texas Hill Country’s hunters were like a Swiss watch.
The second noise was the mechanical whirring to indicate that the feeder was throwing corn at the prescribed time. The third, and easily the least expected, was the unnaturally loud braying of a miniature donkey. I’ve referenced this several times prior, but it’s worth repeating that my mother started rescuing equines of all shapes and sizes when I left for college. The herd, now numbering in the teens, largely sticks to the front of the ranch this time of year thanks to a bumper crop of grass.
But one of the newest additions, a miniature donkey, is quite smitten with the neighbors jenny. So he hangs out in the back where I found myself on opening morning. Based on his enthusiasm and screams, it seems his only sustenance is derived from the twice daily corn feedings as he’s wont to keep his girlfriend within eyesight.
I had assumed that his rapid intrusion while bellering at the top of his tiny little lungs would be enough to scare off all the deer for miles, but I had neglected to consider the adaptive nature of the whitetail deer. At this point, his morning feedings have become routine and they paid him no mind. He did present a bit of a challenge for me though as my mother would skin me alive if I accidentally shot one of her donkeys.
By this time, there was enough light to make out the shadows that had been darting back and forth, and I was pleased to see several deer already at the feeder or milling about. Content to watch them for some time, I took an inventory of who had come to visit the feeding machine that morning. I spied several young eight points, a very young six point, and a few does of indeterminate age.
As I’d committed over the months prior to only shooting cull deer, I didn’t concern myself with the larger animals though I’d be lying if I said that my heart didn’t skip a beat or two when I watched a big bodied nine point well outside his ears lumber slowly down the hill towards me.
Before long, I spied my prize in the form of a spike buck with lengthy tines that indicated, sadly, that he would not be growing much larger. I’ll pause here to explain my rationale for those who might be wondering why I’m so intent on killing a lowly spike deer.
Simply put, it’s a question of economics. Every ranch that surrounds ours supplements their income by leasing their land to out of town hunters who pay big money to get a chance at big deer. As we have low fences between all of our places, our deer are their deer and vice versa. With the exception of one stupid teenage business venture gone horribly wrong, we’ve never taken a dime to have people hunt out at our place.
That said, we understand that everyone profits when the out of towners shoot big deer. And every doe that procreates with a genetically inferior spike is spawning the next generation of inferior deer. Culling spikes early in the season, hopefully before the first rut, ensures that the bigger deer get a better shot at the prize. Nothing against the spikes, but they live in an economy that prizes big antlers, and their meat tastes just as good as any other.
With the first quasi cold snap underway, the boys were feeling frisky, but not yet so interested as to pass up corn. As they bounced back and forth from doe to doe, I adjusted my body, my tripod, and my rifle so that I would have a rock solid shooting position. I wrapped my sling around one of the legs of my tripod to provide that last bit of tension to make sure that where the crosshairs were placed is where they stayed. Keeping my left eye on the lookout for a rogue donkey, I let my right eye find my spike in the crosshairs. He’d moved to the right of the feeder and had started to point his body slightly downhill towards me.
As he moved closer, I oriented my body and rifle so that the crosshairs aligned with the position of his head at full attention. I checked the safety one more time to ensure I was on fire, and gently placed my finger on the trigger. He took step to get to a new spot of grass and corn. My left hand rotated a bit more pressure on the sling wrapped around the tripod and I slowed my breathing.
Eyes locked in the space where I knew his head would be, I let out a loud crisp puckered kissing noise. His head popped straight up and he stared directly at me as I made the minute correction to bring the crosshairs in line with the intersection of his upper and lower eyelids, just a shade outside the midline of his forehead. I exhaled and increased the pressure on the trigger until recoil took over. In what seemed like an instant, my sights were back on him as he lay on the ground. I watched for several seconds and then slowly extracted the bolt, catching a still warm Lapua case as the ejector popped it free. I slowly ran the bolt forward and locked it back in place and watched for another full minute while all signs of latent nerve firings ceased. I pocketed the case as I stood and made the walk over to my first deer in three seasons.
As I always do, I nudged his eye with the muzzle of my rifle. No blinking and an eye starting to cloud already was all the confirmation I needed that he had already passed on. Setting my rifle down to the side, I brushed the hair on his belly flat and gave thanks for the gift. A quick moment for pictures, and then I shouldered my gear and made the walk back to the barn to retrieve the previously offered UTV.
The gutting and skinning went quickly, though I was a bit clumsy with the knife after a year without practice. I managed to poke a hole or two in the hide, and as it goes, I punctured the stomach during the gutting. My first time doing that in at least ten years of gutting animals. Luckily I was near a hose and the work went swiftly after that. The hide arrived last Friday in Owatonna, MN where it will become a set of house slippers for my wife. The tongue, heart, and liver went in the cooler along with the shoulders, hams, backstraps, and tenders.
After making the long trip back home, the primal cuts were broken down further, sealed into bags, and placed in the freezer. The liver and shoulder pieces will be cooked down for another round of Thanksgiving boudin. The tongue and heart await a date with a good friend of mine who likes the wobbly bits. One of the hams will yield a nice little pastrami while the rest will be trimmed and ground down for dried sausage and jerky. I imagine that the backstraps will get a bit of time in the hot bath cooked sous vide with duck fat and spices. A few minutes on a blazing hot grill and served medium rare with a full bodied red. But the belle of the ball will be the venison stock I plan on making with the leftover trimmings and bones. If we’re lucky, there will be enough leftover ground to make consommé, just in time for the holidays.