It's about more than the harvest
As I hunkered down trying to keep warm for opening morning of the Southern Zone big game season, I could see and hear my breath beneath a huge hemlock that stood tall in the middle of Rock Creek State Forest in Greenwood, Steuben County. If this tree could tell stories, our dad would be a big part of that history. I thought about that as the light slowly filled in the darkness, remembering many of the deer hunting stories we were witness to; and many of the memorable hunts we’ve heard about on more than one occasion.
This hemlock is where our dad stood for nearly every single opening day for the past 50 years. There were two exceptions to that up until this year. In 1986 we were stranded on a runway in Detroit on Sunday night returning from a bass tournament in Arizona when our airline failed to make a connection. We still made it there by Monday night, but the magical first day was missed that time around. Another time was last year, when health problems kept our 80-year-old father indoors. This year, he felt comfortable enough to hunt the same woods, but not at the tree. He passed the tradition – and the spot – on to number one son … me.
The forest itself must have sensed the passing of the tradition baton. One of my personal favorite spots was a crooked pine tree that rooted itself some 200 yards from the hemlock. This was going to be the third year in a row that I would not hunt at that favorite spot – an area that's a collective joining of game trails, an edge to the hardwoods and an edge to the thornapples. It was a favorite thorofare for whitetails as they traveled the countryside.
When we joined up at lunch for a cup of homemade soup and a sandwich in the canopy of the forest, hunting buddy Don Starkey of Lockport pulled out his phone. “Here’s a picture for you to take in. It’s the end of an era. I have bad news …” As I looked at the picture, it was jumble of splintered wood. The crooked pine was no more. It had started to die the year before, but this year it came crashing to the ground. There was nothing left other than some fond memories. Many a buck and doe were taken from this stand over the years. The most memorable, though, was the one that got away.
It was the year that thunderstorms plagued opening day. Lightning and thunder filled the skies as it poured down rain like there was no tomorrow. When lightning hit the ground just 50 yards away from me, it was a sign that told me it was time to leave. To my surprise, I was the last one back to the car. After an early lunch – and changing out of wet clothes – we decided to stick it out. The sun came out and brightened our spirits. The crooked pine was a very comfortable spot as I sat back and soaked up the warmth. As I gazed down the hill, movement caught my eyes. The only thing I could see was a huge set of antlers glistening in the rays of the sun.
My heart was pumping out of my chest as I slowly moved into position. I could still only see the rack, what appeared to be a monstrous 12-pointer. It was clearly the biggest deer I had ever personally encountered in my life. As it moved into my woods, it stopped perfectly broadside at 40 yards. I think it heard my heart pounding. As I squeezed the trigger I waited for the muzzle blast. Instead, it was a very distinctive “click.” My mind started racing. Was there a shell in the chamber? What had just happened? I slowly tried to eject the shell with my pump – yes, there was a shell and it had misfired. I needed another shell in the chamber. As quickly as I could perform that task, I did. It was not fast enough. The buck was off like a ghost, faster than I’ve ever seen an animal run. I did get a shot off, but it was in vain. I found a sapling with a perfect round hole through it as I carefully inspected the surroundings. This buck haunted me for many years – from the crooked pine that was no more.
It was the start of a new era. It would have been fitting to add a nice deer to the long list of successful hunts from the majestic hemlock, but it was not needed. It was still a successful hunt, in part because Bill Hilts, Sr., was part of our hunting party once again. In part because brother Dave and friends Starkey and Thure Larson of Amherst were part of the hunt. The hunt continues … and it was good.