My First Deer – Year 1973
By Harold Stephens
I am 51 years old and I can remember that weekend as if it happened yesterday. It was one of those days when you’re young, you feel like you're immortal and nothing in the world is wrong. I was 13 yrs old. It was 1973 and deer season. I was in camp with my dad and his friends and their children.
Camp consisted of a cook shack with cedar posts as corners, reclaimed 2-by's for framing and old tin each member could scrounge over the years. The kitchen was used cabinets from an old house and the sink drain plumbed to outside, kerosene lanterns and 12 volt electric lights illuminated the inside. The heater was an old pot belly stove. Our main luxury at the camp was the butane refrigerator that my dad took in as trade on some side work. We carried water up each weekend in Igloo water coolers that were used all week long on the construction site. The bathroom was any tree nearby and an old cane bottom chair, minus the cane bottom and the pointed nose shovel by the door of the cook shack with the TP on the handle. Our sleeping quarters were an old green canvas army tent and cots. If you got cold you pulled over another blanket or just shivered all night. Outside the cook shack was the fire ring that was used for all meals except breakfast and the storytelling sessions when not out hunting.
I can still see in my mind the tree stand my dad and I hunted from, nothing fancy or expensive or protected from Mother Nature for that matter. Our shooting position was a couple of 2 x 6's nailed up in the upper branches of the tree and 2 x 4's nailed to the trunk for the ladder up. In the morning your rear end got wet as the ice and frost from the night before melted underneath you. The wind felt like it was cutting right through you and at that time no one even thought about safety harnesses, so there was the occasional pucker factor as your tree swayed. The thing about it though, I thought I was in heaven in those days. Today I would give anything to set in a stand with my dad, just to see his smiling eyes and his concentration trying to find that deer so I could become the hunter he wanted me to be.
On this day it was a Saturday evening hunt. It had been the perfect day since before sunup. The morning hunt: watching the sun rise, and the world coming alive. This is still my favorite time to hunt. I love seeing the world awaken before me and guess what the strange noises from the brush and surrounding trees are. After the morning hunt, I waited for camp breakfast of scrambled eggs, biscuits and milk. There is nothing like deer camp food no matter where you are in the world. Then came the wondrous midday exploring of the surrounding woods with the other camp kids and the excitement of readying for the evening hunt.
On this particular day, my dad and I had sat in our tree with only the birds, rabbits and armadillos keeping our attention. As the last light faded, my Dad emptied his rifle and lowered it to the ground with a rope and began his maneuvering to get down from the tree when I exclaimed, "Deer!"
The look on my dad’s face is still etched into my memory as a cross between excitement and grief as he uttered, "Buck or doe?"
I whispered back, "Buck."
His reply: "Are you sure?"
My reply: "Yes, sir."
As he scrambled to get back to his seat, pull his gun up and get it reloaded, I kept the first deer that I had ever seen through a scope in my cross hairs. Once my Dad was settled again (to a kid it seemed like it took forever), I began directing him to where the deer was so he could confirm if it was a shooter or not. Back then that meant if it really had horns or not. Once he FINALLY located the deer, he gave me the go ahead. The deer was crossing behind a clump of oaks and I was told that once it cleared the brush I should take it.
My heart was pounding, my eyes were coming in and out of focus and the world became silent at that moment. As the deer cleared the brush, I came to a stark and frightening realization that although I had been told to always shoot the deer behind the shoulder, I was never actually shown a picture of a deer or had seen a deer shot before. As I looked at this deer through my scope, I realized that there was a lot of area between the shoulder and the rear end.
So here I am looking at the first deer I had ever seen through a scope and I was moving the cross hairs back and forth, up a little and down a little while my dad set there waiting. After the deer was several feet from exiting the trees my dad whispered, "Shoot." I was still wondering how far back, how far up or down. Then in a louder whisper, "Shoot," Dad says.
I still was unsure of where to hold the cross hairs and I was sure my head was fixing to explode. Even though this event was only seconds long my Dad turned his head and loudly exclaimed, "SHOOT!"
The deer stopped, threw his head up towards us and I pulled the trigger. BOOM! The deer does a back flip and stumbles back into the clump of trees he had just came out of and falls to the ground. I chamber another round and keep him covered. My dad turns to me and with some concern and asks, "Where did you hit him?"
I proudly respond, "Dead center."
Dad: "Dead center the shoulder?"
Me: "No, sir. Dead center of the body. Halfway between the shoulders and the rear end, and halfway top to bottom. But it is behind the shoulders just like you told me."
At the time I didn't understand his shoulders slumping and the frown that came upon his face, although he tried not to show it, I saw the concern on his face. What I knew was my first deer was down and we could see it. I soon realized what the consequence of gut shooting a deer is. As I walked up to my deer with my dad, he was truly as excited for me as I was. It was a 3 1/2 year old, five point buck that was my finest trophy and still is.
We dragged the deer back over to the truck and I came to the stark realization of the concern my Dad showed earlier. As my Dad prepared the buck for gutting he looked me square into my eyes and told me to hold those back legs and don’t let go. My dad had a bad gag reflex condition when it came to foul odors and between his gagging and the smell, I forever made it my goal to make my shot placement more concise in the future years.
I am now trying to pass on these traditions to my children and grandchildren. As I prepare to take my grandson hunting on youth weekend, I have been diligent in showing pictures of deer and pigs from different angles and discussing shot placement. We discuss angles and off side shoulders, what is in front of and in back of your target. I am sure at some point that one of my grandchildren will have a bad shot and will gut shoot an animal. I am certain that they will be standing there holding those back legs while I gut their prey, and thank goodness I did not inherit my dad’s gag reflex condition to foul odors. I hope that doesn't change as I get older.
Harold Stephens has been hunting and fishing from a very young age. He has mainly hunted in the great state of Texas, except for one successful hunt in New Mexico for mule deer. Harold primarily hunts feral hogs and whitetail deer, but has had the opportunity to take a couple of Axis bucks and a Black Buck doe. Dove hunting rounds out his shotgun experience and plinking cans with a pistol keeps him occupied while sitting around camp.