The buck, the bullet and the sapling


The date was Saturday, Nov. 7, 1998. My brother, Tim, and I had made a few short pushes that morning before deciding to still-hunt one of the bigger mountains in our hunting area.

This was well before our FRS/GPS radio days – and for Tim, a wristwatch.

Our plan was to hunt our way to the top of the mountain and meet up there at noon. When I got there, Tim was nowhere to be found (he forgot his watch) and after waiting about 30 minutes, I decided to still-hunt back across the top of the mountain.

It was getting later in the afternoon on a gray, drizzly fall day and as I eventually approached the opposite end of the mountain, where there is a scenic lookout, I expected Tim to be there waiting for me. That’s when I made the mistake of letting my guard down.

The sound of a deer blowing startled me, and I watched as a dandy buck and doe ran downhill from me toward the lookout. The doe went left, the buck to my right. I thought I had seen him stop but in these dark woods I could just barely make out his horizontal form against a pair of big pine trees.

With my little Winchester M94 Trapper .30-30 in my left hand, I shouldered the rifle and grabbed a grunt tube with my right hand (I’m left-handed). At the sound of the call the buck whirled his head in my direction and I could see his front shoulder in front of one of the big pines about 60 yards away.

‘Gotcha, or so I thought.

When I shot, the buck took off and was out of sight before I could lever in another round. I followed his big track 100 yards or so before deciding to go back to where he was when I shot and see if I actually had hit him. When I got there I found a striped maple sapling about 3-inches around with a fresh bullet hole in it. I just did’t see the sapling, which saved the buck’s life. I was both disappointed and relieved.

Over the years I have passed by this spot many times both in and out of hunting season and have checked the sapling and told the story of that hunt to hunters and non-hunters alike. The sapling seemed to be unaffected by the bullet.

Fast forward 22 years.

On Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020 we had a good hunting crew making a deer drive on this very mountain. On this sunny, Indian Summer day, by comparison, it turned out I was covering the top of the mountain. I eventually would top out at the lookout where I’d missed that nice buck exactly 22 years earlier, to the day.

This time the striped maple sapling was ailing; broke off about seven feet off the ground. Rot had spread around the area where my bullet had struck the little tree more than two decades earlier.

Not knowing the condition the sapling would be in on my next visit – or when that would be – I decided to try to retrieve my bullet after all these years.

Following a few minutes of “whittling” I was able to pull the bullet from where it was imbedded in the sapling. It was fully intact but now has some nicks on it from my hunting knife.

As I looked out over the valley below, I felt some sense of finality to the long-ago hunt.

Although it would’ve memorable to get such a nice buck in such a special place, I’ve learned from this experience that sometimes good memories can also be made from the ones that get away.


Categories: Bloggers on Hunting, Dan Ladd, Whitetail Deer

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