Listen. Did you hear that? Was it a pack of hounds in the distance? Yes, I can hear them better now. I think they’re on the Ridge Club, but they seem to be heading in our direction. Then -- boom -- a single shot sounds out, muffled by the big timber south of Ridge Road. The pack goes silent.
Ridge Club got started earlier than us, and I think they’ve already got one down. Our dogs aren’t out yet. But here they come. Four truckloads headed down Middle Road to their release sites. I wave at the drivers from my tower stand 10 feet above the wide sandy road. I can see the next stander in a tower at the edge of the big pines, 300 yards to the west. His orange hat stands out against the deep green pines.
Soon the dog drivers are heard whooping encouragement to the hounds, and our hunt is on. It doesn’t take but a few minutes and the dogs are baying throughout the pines. A big pack is heading right toward us on Middle Road. Another pack is coming from the Upper Swamp. There doesn’t seem to be any wind, but if I squint into the rising sun, I can see a fine mist above the small pines, flowing to the north.
Most of the drivers have dog handlers with them that stay with the truck. Some are girlfriends or wives. In the distance, I heard one of the ladies shout, “Big buck, big buck, headed to Middle Road!” That got my undivided attention. I’m on full alert now. Minutes tick by but no buck appears and no shot is fired down the road from any of the other standers.
The dogs eventually move on and the woods get quiet. I sit down on the bench in the stand and soon let random daydreams steal my focus. Boom! A nearby shot jolts me back. I snap around to my right and see a big deer leaping across the road, just as the stander in the tower to the west fires another shot. The deer seems unaffected and disappears into the small pines. Probably a clean miss.
The stander shouts out to anybody who can hear, “Big buck, that was a big buck.” I hear the excitement in his voice and I know that feeling.
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There aren’t any hounds running in the immediate vicinity and I wonder if the buck is slipping out, or if the dogs are just way behind the deer. I don’t sit back down and stand ready for a while. Now I can hear a small pack coming from the southwest. They are either way behind the big deer or they’re on another one. We’ll see.
This hunt was unfolding during the opening weekend of last year’s deer season. It’s that time again, and hunters will be hitting the woods soon. Deer season is almost here! Now, back to the hunt.
I’m standing there ready and a nice buck leaps out into the road about halfway between me and the other stander. He is too far away, but turns and heads down the side of the road straight toward my stand. I’m going to let him come. I’ve got the gun up, but I wait. I can feel my heart pounding with excitement. The buck keeps coming, running and leaping through the tall grass along the road.
I have not moved and I don’t think the deer has seen me in the elevated stand, but he turns sharply to the right toward the thicket of small pines. Instantly, I decide he is close enough, take aim, and pull the trigger. He disappears into the sea of green. “Did I hit him, or miss” I wonder? There is no sound in the pines. “Is he down?”
The other stander yells “did you get him?” and I answer truthfully “I don’t know.” The hounds are coming, and I wait in the stand to see if they go on, or stop in the pines where the buck vanished. They overran the track where the buck turned down the road but circle around and pick up the trail. There are three beagles running this buck. They go through the small pines and into the hardwoods of the Middle Swamp. They keep going toward the river. I know now that I missed, and I decide to get down.
My hands are shaking so bad I have trouble fastening my gun to the rope that is connected to the stand to raise and lower our firearms. I climb down, get my gun in hand and walk down to the spot where the buck turned into the pines. I noticed a small sweet gum at the edge of the brush with a twig that is clipped – probably by one of my buckshot pellets.
There is a wide path there plastered with deer tracks. I can see the buck’s running track in the sandy earth. I search but find no blood. It was a clean miss.
Back at the clubhouse I paid the three-dollar miss fee. The tradition is to get your shirttail cut, but the three dollars was set back when you could buy a shirt for that price. I also had to sign the miss board. Name, date, stand number and reason for miss is required. I write “too fast, too far, and too bad.” I wasn’t the only one to sign the miss board that day.