I once knew a man who had a small horizontal sign above his front door frame, up against the ceiling. If you looked up, you saw it just before you stepped outside: “You never know.”
The more time I spend in the woods, the more sense the motto makes.
Four years in a row, I was genuinely surprised when I killed a deer: the first time because I had begun to think it might never happen, the second because it had happened again so soon, the third because it had happened twice in a row in the same spot near home, the fourth because it had happened a third time in that spot and in the first hour of the season.
Each year, I thought, “Well, I guess you never know.”
By 2011, though, taking a deer in that spot had begun to seem almost inevitable, even with limited hunting time. So last fall I set out with something like an expectation, almost like I knew it would happen again. (Foolishness.)
Through rifle and muzzleloader seasons, I doggedly hunted that area. I didn’t see a single deer, let alone a legal buck. When snow finally came, I could see why: there weren’t many tracks. On the last day of muzzleloader season, I finally went to what my friend calls his Hundred Acre Woods, where I had taken my first buck. There, I saw more tracks, plus a deer in the distance. But I ended the season without any venison.
This fall, I told myself I would hunt smarter. As rifle season approached, the woods closest to home showed few signs of hoofed traffic. So I decided to take the extra time to go to the Hundred Acre Woods. On opening morning, my friend and I were both there.
Serendipity struck early. At sunrise, I heard the sharp report of his .300 Savage. The season had barely begun and he already had his buck. He said that had never happened before. But you never know.
While he hiked out to deposit his rifle and pack at home and fetch my drag sled, I sat and waited. I didn’t expect to see anything. Soon, though, three does and a fawn traipsed by within twenty yards. You never know.
The next morning, I was thrilled to watch a young black bear pass within fifteen yards of where I sat. I had never seen a bruin in those woods and never expected to. But you never know. (Though a bear tag came with my license and the season was open, I never considered raising my rifle. Even if I wanted to hunt bears, which I don’t, it wouldn’t be right to kill one in the Hundred Acre Woods.)
Five days later, I hiked back in at first light and sat down at the base of a maple, exactly where I was sitting when I took my first buck five years earlier.
After an hour or so, I glimpsed a deer seventy yards south of me, crossing the little valley I sat in. The light breeze was in my favor. Through binoculars, I thought I saw more than ears. But were there two points on one side, making the animal a legal buck? I couldn’t be sure. I blew a grunt call. The whitetail paid no heed. At a steady walk, the deer passed the few reasonable openings in moments and moved behind a thicker screen of branches and blowdowns. Soon, the animal was far up on the ridge behind me.
Forty-five minutes later, another deer appeared, following the same path as the first. I could see a gleaming arc of antler and knew in a flash that this was a legal buck. My rifle came up. As the buck stepped into an opening, I blew the grunt call. But the whitetail kept moving, walking even faster than the first deer had. As he crossed another narrow opening, my finger hesitated on the trigger. He was walking fast. I didn’t like the odds.
Soon, I was watching him through that same screen of branches and blowdowns. I blew the grunt call louder and louder. He was trotting by the time he ascended the ridge.
As he vanished, I wondered: Should I have taken a shot through one of those first openings? I wanted venison in the freezer this winter, and I would only have a couple more mornings in the woods during rifle season. What were the chances of getting a better opportunity in what little time I had left to hunt?
On the other hand, I really didn’t want to wound a deer. I had been thinking about my post on not-so-clean kills. I did not want to turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I decided to sit there for another hour, then head home. I had plenty of work to do. And I’d already had all the luck I could hope for in one morning. That was one thing I knew for certain. (Foolishness!)
Half an hour later, I heard leaves crunching behind me. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw a deer less than fifty yards off. More astonishing, I saw forked antlers. Guessing he was going to cross behind me, I risked a slow pivot on my woods stool and braced my left shoulder against the tree behind me. Seconds later, he stepped into an open spot twenty-five yards away.
I made a grunting sound in my throat. He stopped and looked right at me. I squeezed the trigger.
He ran, but not far. The copper bullet had taken him in the heart.
Kneeling beside him, I took a few moments to say prayers of thanks and apology and to let the startling, unexpected event sink in.
Six weeks later, I bought my 2013 hunting and fishing license. Slipping it into my pack, I tucked a note in with it, a reminder in case I forget: “You never know. Beware of thinking you do.”
© 2013 Tovar Cerulli