This story ran in the Wilmington Star-News Oct. 15, 2000 and in the Tabor-Loris Tribune. It received the first place 2001 SEOPA Excellence in Craft Award for the best Daily Newspaper Column or Feature.
In the stillness of the weakening light of imminent sunset, the doe stepped out of the bushes overhanging a shooting lane to graze on a planting of rye. The silence was breached almost imperceptibly when her fawn shouldered through dog fennel leaves to stand beside her to feed.
This scene unfolded in a trophy management territory, where does are weeded out with vigor. Still, there was a long wait until the darkness that would close out legal shooting time at half an hour after sunset.
A muzzleloading rifle is a very effective arm. In fact, it seems flatly untrue to call such a marvelous hunting tool “primitive.”
I was holding a new Knight Bighorn rifle that shoots a modern, copper jacketed, .44-caliber handgun bullet held against the rifling by a .50 caliber plastic sabot. The bullet is propelled at high velocity by two 50-grain pellets of Pyrodex ignited by a standard shotgun primer. A 1.75x scope completes the rig, which has proven to possess tack-driving accuracy.
With plenty of daylight left, I decided to wait for the possible appearance of a buck with a set of rocking-chair anglers. If none, showed, the doe was destined to head home with me. This particular tract had produced several 2 ½-year-old bucks with 14-inch, eight point racks the previous season and I had let several in that category walk away to grow larger for this season.
Others in my group had taken such bucks, which was perfectly in accordance with the club’s rules. Still, I was determined to wait for the “BIG ONE.” The wait, it seemed, was to be short.
A large-bodied buck stepped out at the far end of the lane, perhaps 70 yards away. The doe and fawn swiveled their heads to watch the new arrival, I watched as well, heart pounding, as the buck thrashed an overhanging pine limb with his antlers, then turned to look at the doe.
Between the fawn’s curiosity – looking my way then back to the buck – and the buck’s gaze flickering toward the pair and directly at me, I had to move very slowly to raise the rifle without alarming them. By the time the crosshairs aligned on the buck, his head was back up in the trees.
Suddenly, he dipped his head to the ground to feed and I saw antlers as wide as his ears. As he showed his profile, I counted four points on one side and an equivalent mass on the other.
Instinct took over as my arms began to tremble with the fatigue of inching the rifle to my shoulder. The crosshairs bounced around a bit, then settled on the buck’s ribs. Brown hide was obscured by white smoke. All of the deer disappeared behind the cloud. The report echoed off the surrounding woods, then silence settled as I climbed down from my stand with jittery knees.
Tracking the deer, I found him a few yards into the heavy brush and marveled at his mass. He would later weigh 150 pounds on the hunting club’s scales. However, his headgear sported but seven points and was no larger than that of several deer I had allowed to walk away the previous year to grow larger racks.
I pondered what had gone wrong, even though this deer would be considered a “Good Shooting Buck” by most hunters in southeastern North Carolina.
Reviewing the notes of several gurus of the deer hunters’ trade uncovered these tips for judging the trophy quality of a whitetail buck:
1. Compare the antlers’ width to the ears. If they are wider than the ears, they are at least 15 to 16 inches wide. If they stick up over the ears equal to the length of the upturned ears, the antlers are about 14 inches tall. This is the kind of buck that earns taxidermists their fees.
2. Look at the overall size of the buck. If he is thick through the chest and has a pot-bellied appearance, he is at least 3 ½ years old and of trophy quality in spite of his headpiece.
3. Look for a gait that swaggers from side to side as a good indication of a trophy on the hoof. If the antlers look too heavy to be held up by the neck while the buck is moving, the deer is probably a trophy.
4. The big ones always look big. There is absolutely no question.
I had hesitated for a tiny moment prior to tugging the trigger and should have listened to that little doubting voice. However, adrenaline makes a hunter, or even a finely honed athlete, make some misjudgments at the moment of truth.
Even so, I had the memory of a great hunt, one of the heaviest bucks that had been taken from the tract and some fine venison. Rather than condescension from my fellow hunters, there was good-natured humor and much handshaking as we gathered to share stories at the skinning pole after darkness fell.
So, what constitutes a trophy? I don’t believe it is found in the size of a set of antlers. It is found in intangible things that are difficult to quantify – the glorious gold of a fall sunset, the whisper of a leaf scraped against a deer’s hide and the snapping of a twig as he steps into view.
The sledge-hammering of a heart set afire with the fuel of adrenaline, a puff of smoke, a perfect shot and the scent of burnt powder wafting in the wind are the talismans that lure hunters into the woods each fall. It’s not really the deer that they are searching for.
Trying to describe the allure of the hunt with words is as elusive as attempting to describe the concept of the human soul.
Nevertheless, it is the hunt that bonds hunters together tighter than brothers in primeval ritual, for in the depths of each hunter’s eyes there is an understanding about a shot missed, a lost deer or a trophy that didn’t measure up to someone else’s definition.
Each whitetail taken by a hunter is his personal trophy, never to be forgotten, always hanging above the mantle in the trophy room of his memory.