The kid in the picture is me thirty years ago. There are certain events in your life that you never forget and that day was one of them. I remember every minute of that hunt like it was yesterday. I’ve never met another hunter who doesn’t clearly remember his first deer or his first buck. It was a day or two into the season and my first hunt that fall. The previous winter I killed my first deer late in December, a fawn, and my biggest wish in the entire world was to finally kill a buck. It was hot as I jumped off the school bus and ran up to the house. Inside I opened the refrigerator and slapped two pieces of bread around a chunk of bologna and chewed that down while I pulled on my green army camouflage pattern coveralls. My Darton bow was quickly in hand, and I stuffed my pockets with my bow rope, a small flashlight and a knife, which was everything I needed in those days. Out the door I went.
Across the road I walked the edge between cornfield and alfalfa field and along the edge of the front woods until I arrived at the first fence. I jumped the fence and crossed the eighty acre cow pasture behind it. I climbed back over the pasture fence in the opposite corner where it connected to the bigger more central woods in the section, and carefully followed the edge of the woods for about another two hundred yards. I was about in the middle of the section and to my right the woods stretched for a couple miles, and to my left was about half a section of head high grass and small brushy potholes. My tree was a giant sprawling white oak that was practically drooping under the weight of acorns that year. Arriving at the tree I tied my bow rope to my bow and climbed the twenty feet up the spikes nailed into the wide trunk until I got to a big crotch in the branches. My stand consisted of merely branches: one to stand on and one to lean against. I pulled my bow up and hung it on a nail.
Bowhunting was a lot different back then. The first big difference is that there weren’t nearly as many bowhunters and permission was super easy to come by. I measured my hunting area basically in how far I could walk from my house. There weren’t any other bowhunters in the three sections around my house. All this land was gun hunted hard, but bowhunting was still a fringe form of hunting. The other big difference was in equipment. There were no treestands (or at least there were no safe treestands I think the Baker treestand had just recently hit the market), or tree steps, and the first commercial camouflage patterns were just starting to appear. We hunted in those days either from the ground or standing on branches, or if we wanted to set up a stand it meant nailing lumber to a tree.
After about an hour on stand I remember watching the wind flow across the tall grass and thinking it looked like waves on a lake, when I noticed a deer in the grass. With my attention now focused on that deer I noticed antlers. I reached for my bow immediately. That one buck was followed by four others, all yearlings. They moved steadily closer coming straight towards my oak. The first buck stepped under the outstretched branches and began crunching on acorns. The other bucks were behind him, but selectivity wasn’t on the radar in those days. That buck took a few steps forward and was ten yards away in the only spot I could shoot to. You just didn’t have as many options for shooting lanes when you had to balance on a branch. It is a wonder that deer didn’t hear me, since I was probably hyperventilating and I was shaking so bad my knees were most likely knocking together. Somehow I managed to keep my balance, draw my bow, aim, and shoot. At the shot the buck took off on a dead run and was out of sight in about two steps. Actually, I heard him crash a couple seconds later, but since I was so young and inexperienced I didn’t know what I had heard, and thought it was just the sound of the deer running through the woods. In fact, I wasn’t sure I had even hit that buck, because my arrow was sticking out of the ground right behind where it had been standing. I thought I saw the arrow connect, but wasn’t sure. I was shooting a forty pound bow and didn’t think it could pass an arrow through a deer. After the shot I was a complete mess, and didn’t know what to do. Did I miss? Should I try to shoot another buck? What should I do? The other bucks were just standing there seeming a bit puzzled about why their buddy had just run off. Fumbling around a bit I eventually spooked the other deer and had them snorting all around for about an hour. The woods eventually quieted down and I decided to climb down and at least pick up my arrow. When my feet hit the ground I was genuinely surprised to find my arrow covered in blood, and to find plenty of blood on the ground. Wow, I actually hit that deer! I had strict rules not to track any deer I hit by myself, so I popped my arrow back in my quiver and started the walk back home. I made it about fifty yards before nearly stumbling over the dead buck which was lying in some ferns a few yards away from my path.
Despite having killed many rabbits, squirrels, and other small stuff I just stood there in a state of shock for a few minutes. I had finally killed a buck. The biggest dream and goal of my childhood had come true. Now what? I ran home in a blur of adrenaline, more proud than I had ever been.
Killing that deer changed nothing and changed everything. In our hunting group killing your first buck, although this certainly isn’t explicit or structured, is the real coming of age moment for boys. One day you’re a boy and the next you’re considered a man. Thirty years ago I killed my first buck and it is one of the defining moments of my life. I’m sure many of you out there feel the same. A lot has changed in bowhunting over the past thirty years, some things are good, some not so much, but the excitement of arrowing a buck has never diminished. I hope that magic never fades……and that in thirty more years I still feel like that young boy balancing on an oak branch.