The opening day of the Lowcountry’s early deer season seems to ignite a particularly unbridled passion among whitetail hunters. The social media posts of a number of folks I know suggest that these sportsmen lead an unfulfilling, indeed purgatorial, existence from January 2 until August 14.
My son Ned and I had a different experience on this year’s opening day. I am still recovering from major spine surgery, which currently prevents me from climbing a ladder or shooting a gun.
I dropped off the boy at the deer stand and I drove to the campsite and cook shed, assured of success at the killing of time. Though I often disparage technology and the temptation the cell phone creates in a deer stand, the device has its benefits regarding communication, which ensures safety. Once Ned texted that he was securely in the stand with a .270 bullet in the chamber, I mentally planned my evening. I surveyed items neglected for several months — cookers, camping chairs, firewood and a wooden table I carved my name into a couple of decades ago.
I practiced my slowly-improving walking skills, aided by a cane fashioned by “Deacon” John Hope. Soon sufficiently worn out, I sat down to resume reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, as ambitious an undertaking as the Old Testament.
My sabbatical from hunting and the witty musings of Augustus McCrae, the novel’s protagonist, led my gaze towards the hunt-camp’s fire pit and I became nostalgic. Throughout the years, the fire has kindled tales, lies and unrestrained teasing that whet the prerequisite thick skins of all sportsmen who dared to remain around the fire. My short-term physical condition made me unusually contemplative and empathetic. Youth Day stories of successful mobility-impaired hunts were all the more special and my vicarious enjoyment of my son’s hunt sharpened a creative vision with a panoramic view from the deer stand.
Always ready and willing to hunt, Ned was particularly interested in deer hunting this year. His summer job on Kiawah Island brought him within petting range of protected and nearly tame bucks boasting monster velvet racks. This experience added to the excitement of the upcoming deer season.
Our early season gives us an excuse to get in the woods during a time of year when most people are still on the beach and in boats. For the first month, you can only shoot bucks, so you tend to spend more time observing, a condition that invites reflection. The heat and these diminished odds keep many hunters at home during this early part of the season.
We managed to squeeze in two hunts the first week of the season. Ned penned his thoughts on his time in the woods and I finally wrapped up Lonesome Dove.
“I went hunting twice the first week of the season,” he writes. “Both hunts were unsuccessful, but the experience was like none other. While I didn’t see any bucks, I saw several does on both trips.
“It's pretty cool to watch deer in their natural habitat. Different groups of them would walk out the woods and into the corn for a couple minutes and then I’d see them walk back out and into the woods,” he says.
The teen sportsman matter-of-factly describes an unfortunate, though inevitable experience that often causes undue feelings of embarrassment and shame.
“On my second hunt, a lone doe appeared by the corn right in front of me. She was probably about 20 yards from the bottom of the stand. After a while, she got scared by something, most likely me. She stopped and stared directly at the stand.
“Then, she started stamping her feet, one after the other. After a couple solid minutes, she darted off again towards the woods, snorting and blowing, as does do when alarmed. It actually was pretty awesome to see in person, even if she alerted deer in close proximity. Anyway, it didn’t ruin the hunt; another doe and a fawn showed up a few minutes later,” Ned explains optimistically.
Aside from tangible quarry, my son considers the bigger picture of a still hunt. “Being in a deer stand by yourself with nothing but a rifle is quite an experience. It’s nice to get away and be in the woods with nature. Getting to see and hear things that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else is amazing. I often take having access to areas like this for granted.
“I thought many times of when I shot my first deer from that same stand and I remember how exhilarating it was. I’ll never forget that first one. I remember how my father used to tell me to be quiet and then he’d show me where to aim. ‘Right there in the shoulder,’ he’d remind me, bringing up a picture on his phone. I look forward to the hunts to come and hope they’re just as good, if not better.”
If I pushed him on the matter, my son would admit a mistake in referring to his first two hunts as unsuccessful. He is aware that any hunting trip has its own successes, despite the results of your primary objective.
For me, hunting with my son is an intrinsic reward in itself. As my back continues to heal, I am inspired by the confidence that I’ll be back in my own deer stand again very soon. In the meantime, I will try to refrain from interrupting Ned’s hunt with texts full of questions and advice. I’ll save that for in-person conversation with Dodge’s Chicken on the ride home.
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.