A Measure of Success

By T.W. Batzel, Jr.

It�s Thanksgiving Day and I thought it was high time I recounted the year�s hunting adventures. Normally I would be at my ancestral home (which I guess is a writer�s way of saying: where my parents live) finishing Thanksgiving dinner after a good Grouse hunt. I would also be lying awake on the coming nights waiting for the opening day of the Pennsylvania deer season. That is my favorite time of year.

Unfortunately, I�m not there this year, although I have been fortunate to be there for the last five years running. This year was a short hunting year. I only had September and October. I tried to make the most of it while balancing my work and time with my wife and 18-month-old son. It started out with great expectations, followed by searching for something I couldn�t seem to find (including deer), and finishing with stumbling across the best buck I have ever gotten.

It all started with a contact I made in South Carolina who happened to have an abundance of hunting areas in Jasper County. Jasper County is along I-95 in the low country of South Carolina�s best deer hunting area. I had almost committed to an eleven hundred dollar, three-day hunt about 20 miles from the place. I thought this was a better deal, because I could hunt with a new friend rather than strangers, and it would keep my wife off my case about my hunting budget. And I was a little uncomfortable about hunting out of a stand someone else built over a pile of corn that someone else put out, basically pulling the trigger on something that I didn�t earn.

Everyone is more than ready to speak of the virtues of hunting for hunting�s sake and not worrying about actually killing the game we seek. I agree with this wholeheartedly but I still carry a gun when I hunt. I mean, if we really didn�t care about killing the damn thing then why would we spend over a thousand dollars on a gun and scope, 250 on a state of the art climbing stand, a couple hundred between scentlock suits and other scent masking paraphernalia, then, of course a few extra hundred on what I tell my wife is "consumables" and then not care whether or not we accomplish the mission we set out to do? In my business, that is the business: accomplishing the mission.

I wrestle with these two demons constantly. "Hey, it�s supposed to be fun, right?" Or, "That�s great, but I really would like some venison this year." Or "At least it was good to be out in the woods on such a fine day." Or "What, God, do I have to do� to not be the worst hunter? Ever?" Anyway, as you�ll see, I had some enlightenment on both ends of the spectrum concerning the answer to the question: Is success measured by the quantity of game I bag or some more esoteric means?

So it all started on my five-hour journey from my home in North Carolina to the other Carolina. Unfortunately, when I got there, I found out that my buddy was recently placed on a multi-county drug task force (he�s in Law Enforcement, you see) so I didn�t even actually see him the whole week I was there. He explained to me, over the phone, where to go and hoped that he would get time to take me to the "plantation" later in the week.

So I found myself all alone, hunting in a new area. I would wake up at the Ramada Inn every morning, take a shower with my overpriced scent-free soap, load my gear into my truck and take to the woods surrounding the small southern town. But I saw deer and that was cool, since I had done it pretty much on my own. I thought, well, by Thursday I can shoot does and probably won�t have to because I would be hunting the "plantation."

Well, to make this overwritten story a little shorter, let�s just say that I found out that the $175 non-resident hunting license I had bought didn�t include doe tags. You could get them. Through the mail. It was too late. The plantation was a definite slight possibility for Friday afternoon, but I left with a bit of disgust early on Friday morning and decided I would be further ahead by driving home then hoping against hope I could hunt the "plantation."

Incidentally, I could have bow hunted with a good friend on his grandfather�s farm in Maryland. Not high enough odds for me, though. I had to go to South Carolina. I realized that the measure of success was not the kill by itself. I would have had a good time had I been with friends in a camp and practicing the traditions that I had been brought up with.

So, not content to call it a year, I organized a hunt with several of my buddies at work. It was going to be a two-day hunt at a small hunting lodge about 75 miles away in North Carolina. It was paying to hunt, but it didn�t seem easy enough to feel like cheating.

As always happens with these things, I lost about half of the guys that were definitely going to do it, and ended up with three guys, including myself. But we had a great time. The anticipation the night before was just like I remember it at home on the weekend after Thanksgiving. The weather was supposed to be cold and clear, the deer rutting (which I still don�t believe), and it was the second week of gun season. I made chili the night before, we swapped lies from over the years, and we hit the road in my truck packed with Cabela�s gear and high hopes.

One of the guys killed a real nice 6-point the first night, big bodied and real pretty. He got that at about 30 yards from stand No. 1. At roughly the same time I was on a whole other farm in the driving rain running about a half a box of .270 shells through my Ruger No. 1 trying, without results, to scare away the smallest whitetail doe this side of the Keys who was contently feeding on corn about a mile away. Again I was disgusted, but we all got caught up in the excitement of the great success of our friend. I fried heart and tenderloins while the other two guys wrung out our soaked firearms. The beer tasted great. It was a success.

I decided that the true measure of a hunt was a combination of things. Not any one thing can determine the success of a hunting trip. But all else being equal, I would take a hunt with my friends and family, done the way it�s supposed to be done, than a hunt from a hotel room by myself with a Boone & Crockett buck to show for it.

But wait, that�s not the end of the story.

Two days later I was back at the same place with a couple more friends and we were hunting released pheasants over dogs. Again, a great success on the camaraderie side but a dismal failure on the hunting side. Oh, don�t be mistaken, we killed birds and I couldn�t miss. That part was cool, I guess, but it wasn�t real. The birds flew well, after the "guide" removed them from the mouth of the pointer. I have done better hunts at home when we released the birds ourselves and hunted with our own dogs. Overall, a good time, but I will forevermore be critical of these types of hunts. Again, I know they can be done well, I have done them well myself. But I will still be critical at the suggestion of doing it again.

Well, Saturday I was back at home. We were going through our normal Saturday morning routine of me watching the Outdoor Life Network with my boy alternating between sitting on my lap watching with me and systematically destroying the house, while my wife made the weekly family breakfast. All the normal stuff with, most importantly, real Maple Syrup.

My wife informed me that she was getting her hair done and I would have the boy for a couple of hours. She�s always suspicious of my ability to care for him for two hours, unless he�s napping. Then she�s only worried. I suggested that I would take him to the State Game Lands I just recently discovered and deer hunt for a couple of hours. She thought I was nuts. I said that I was mostly just going to scout for next year, since this was my last Saturday in the States until next summer.

So I wrapped an orange vest around the yuppie backpack carrier we have for him. She dressed Jack in his best Old Navy corduroy shirt in the color of orange and gave me six weeks� supply of diapers and snacks and juice. I threw on my old brush pants, a flannel shirt, and some hunting boots and topped us both off with blaze orange hats. His a knit one and mine a nice shiny ball cap with "South Carolina Deer Camp 2005" emblazoned on it. Whatever.

We set out and about 15 minutes into the hunt Jack was sleeping peacefully in the backpack and I was fighting the wait-a-minute vines with a 30-pound brick on my back. They say he�s "about 30" pounds. Whatever. I stopped to listen to the dogs running the swamp out in front of me for a while. I have never liked deer dogging, although I have tried it. I think it was the people I was hunting with rather than the version of the sport.

I, of course, through my superior hunting prowess, was looking the other way while a deer was standing broadside at less than 50 paces wondering what sort of idiot would try to hunt deer with a large orange ball attached to his back. I actually got the damn thing in my scope after it snorted and bounded on it�s way and out of deer hunting legend forever.

I was mad at myself for not being alert enough but couldn�t stop telling Jack (who was still sleeping) how cool it would be if we got a deer together on his first time out. I knew it was an impossible dream. There�s those demons� creeping up on me again.

So we trudged on toward another area that I wanted to check out which coincided with where I thought a deer might emerge with a dozen mongrels hot on it�s trail. Hey, I�m not that bad of a hunter! Well, Jack arose from his slumber and started to jabber. Every five steps, with an outstretched arm, it was "Dee" "Dee". He�s working on the �r�, but the boy knows what a Dee looks like. Of course he was just having fun with his old man, but I thought it was great and I was getting him to whisper his half-words a couple at a time before he would go back to normal volume.

I was standing still in an area, studying what little terrain we have in coastal North Carolina, and he started to get fussy. I had to move to keep him settled and since we were about a mile or more from the truck I figured on heading out. We got to the sand trail and I looked up wondering if I should go "just a little further" in the opposite direction. I asked the boy, since anything I do ultimately has to be approved by my wife and she was getting her hair done, whatever that is, and I figured he was a suitable representative. He said "yeah" with the appropriate head nod. He hasn�t gotten "yessir" yet, either.

We headed up the trail in the opposite direction of the truck. I heard the dogs coming our way from the swamp to the right, so I moved cautiously. Enough to keep the boy from yammering too loudly, but slowly enough.

I caught movement in the young Pine trees to my right. Another deer! Holy cow, I couldn�t believe it. For all my previous effort in North Carolina and all the gear, the hiking, getting up at zero-four and all, and here I can�t turn around without running into deer. The deer saw us or something and all I saw after that was her white flag laughing at me. But wait, another one. Oh man, must be the youngin�, blindly running the trail. One bound into the trail. One more bound and he�s outta here. It�s now or never. Bang! The young button buck drew up its front legs just after hitting on the second bound, and bolted down into the swamp.

Of course I have recounted this story a few times and everyone wants to know if Jack cried, or if he was scared, or if it hurt his ears. You know what he said? "Dee!" Yep, that�s right, he pointed and yelled "Dee." I said, "yeah, buddy, that�s a dee, and I think we got him." I�m not saying that I cried, but if I did, I�m not ashamed.

I broke one of my general rules that seriously restricts me from shooting at running deer. But I had a fast .270 that I usually shoot well, the range was not any longer than an Olympic swimming pool length, and I was damned desperate. The desperation mostly fueled by the thirty-pound pumpkin on my back. I gave Jack his first lesson on blood trailing. I�m pretty sure he could have tracked it himself given the spoor the Nosler bullet had put through the slats.

Now, I haven�t shot a button buck in years. I can�t remember the last one. And this fella was, by far, the smallest whitetail I have ever killed. But, let me tell you, this was my best trophy in over twenty years of trundling around the woods with a weapon. I think I have found my measure of success, and I have a lifetime ahead of me with my favorite hunting buddy.

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Copyright 2006 by T.W Batzel, Jr. All rights reserved.