The October Fork Horn

By Leif HerrGesell

Hunting firsts are common to us all, usually shared and rarely or never forgotten. For instance my first shot on game at age eight was fired from a little Remington rolling block .22 that dated back to the turn of the century. It was my uncle's coon hunting gun and the crack of that pint sized rifle will forever ring in my memory.

Crisp autumn evenings for the ten years between eight and eighteen were spent listening to the bugling of an off suit pair of hounds, Blue and Babe, or alternately Jack and Speck. Blue was, as expected, a bluetick, and Babe was as also, but Speck was some ribby, cat footed variety of Treeing Walker and unknown hound. Jack was a hammer headed black and tan.

For a boy and later a youth, autumn cornfields wet with rain, woodlots redolent with the strong peppery smell of new fallen leaves and the distant chop of the dogs signaling a treed coon, wove some arcane and masterful sorcery on the senses. That was my entre pot to hunting. The rustling leaves of a field of corn on an overcast autumn night still bring a smile and a phantom thrill. I want to breathe deep the damp air and strain my ears to hear the dogs baying up a coon far across the fields in a vine covered old willow.

Other firsts followed. First squirrel, first deer, first buck and so on. Each and every one of them is also a warm memory; the smell of freshly spent shot shells and the sweet aroma of pipe smoke still transports me back in time. My Uncle Bill always kept a Missouri meerschaum clamped in his teeth glowing with Half and Half tobacco. If the weather were dry he'd pull out a pouch of Redman chewing tobacco and tuck a wad in his cheek. I thought it was all about the coon hunting and didn't realize he was trying to stay awake after a long day or reading meters and didn't want to set the woods on fire with his pipe.

As the trees change colors from deep green to scarlet, gold and flame orange, memories float before my minds eye like leaves fluttering to the ground. They tumble and nudge my memory, each one flashing and merging into another. I recall excitedly walking my trap line in the gloom on that first overcast morning, hoping to find a coon or a mink in one of my sets and then that vision melts away and a squirrel barks from an oak as I grip my old Higgins 20 gauge single barrel. I burn up time these days reflecting on such things while I wait for a buck or doe to materialize or I randomly recall them as I go through the more mundane deeds of the day.

Not long ago I started training two new hunters and that gives me greater satisfaction than I could have imagined. I want to introduce them to the magic of the squalls of autumn when skeins of geese are winging overhead and the Adirondack pines bend before a chill wind as flurries scud across the ridge tops.

My daughter came of hunting age first and she and I enjoyed a great hunt for deer one year when she was still only old enough to hunt small game. She stood at my side and listened and learned as only a girl will, willingly and with trust and no sign of an ego. I was fortunate that day, as I got the drop on a big doe while Emily was at my elbow, thus testing her mettle and finding out first hand if she was going to be good with seeing a gorgeous whitetail harvested.

We were still hunting in open hardwoods, when a haram of buck and does exploded on us from a stand of pines 75 yards away. A big doe had veered off from the herd, leaving the two and a half year old eight point and four other antlerless deer to navigate on their own. The buck and does were thirty yards away when they finally scattered, a couple of the younger deer nearly running us down. I had already filled my buck tag a week earlier and I watched as the 8 point broke to my left. The big doe to my right stopped suddenly less than forty yards away and gave me a broadside. Emily and I had taken a knee as I whispered to Em that I was going to take her. The doe dropped to the shot.

Emily handled it well and I let her choose whether we kept the deer or donated the meat to the Venison Coalition. She decided another family needed the meat more than we did since we already had a whopping 130pt B&C buck in the freezer. I was prouder by far of her reactions and decisions than of my shooting prowess or the buck, which I had shot a week earlier.

We had some good years together, father and daughter, but as you would expect social life and school took front seat and I quietly acquiesced to her desire to do other things. We still go out now and again just for some one on one time.

By this time my son, Andrew, was small game hunting and he showed every sign of being my newest and most eager acolyte. True to adolescent form he often rolled out of bed late, then mumbled some before once again growing silent and then drank his coffee (heavily laced with creamer) in a half awake state. Once we got into the field he always did as I instructed him on each hunt. Squirrels came first, but turkey evaded our efforts. He tramped the Adirondacks with me on several occasions and he missed a good chance at a snow shoe hare one afternoon when it literally bolted out of some ferns, passed between his feet and vanished in a blink.

He is good natured though and never slowed or faltered in his interest. He accompanied me, unarmed of course, on numerous forays for a buck, and I knew he was quietly biding his time watching and absorbing- until it would be his turn to draw a bead on a whitetail. A year before he came of hunting age, I had dropped a little doe with him tagging along.

It was a bitterly cold afternoon and I doubted I'd have many more chances to fill my permit while he was along. We had been in the woods for perhaps half an hour when two "young-uns" stepped out. This time it was his test. I was sitting on my bucket pack and Andrew was hunkered between my knees shivering in the sleet laced wind. I took the second of the two young deer in the pair and as it dropped Andrew gave a shout.

We had only been a few hundred yards behind our house and I gave him the job of sledding it down to our backyard on the thin coat of snow. It was a small deer, for which I was grateful because he was able to carry out a task, which let him feel an integral part of the hunt and of which, I am sure he was justly proud. He had smiled and dragged that deer like it was his and the biggest buck in the woods.

For days I bragged about his accomplishment to anyone who would listen. The hardest part about that hunt had been knowing it would be three more years before he could take to the trail himself.

That time came this past fall. In New York we have three day youth hunts for several species and both the pheasant and deer hunts fell on Columbus Day weekend. Andrew is slight for his age, rawhide tough, but built like a rail. I am a firm believer in embracing recoil and making it your friend, but I'll admit that slender folks can get beat up quick by heavy calibers or gauges.

Andrew's deer gun is a very nice condition older 12 gauge, Remington Wingmaster 870 that I bought at a local shop. The 30" modified choke barrel serves well for a variety of applications for a young shooter.

I wanted him to have a better sighting system than the big silver egg that perched over the muzzle. The bead had been adequate for squirrels and other upland game, but left a little to be desired for accurate deer shooting. A family member gave me an unused Bushnell Trophy Red Dot and I mounted it up on a Weaver type saddle bracket. I sighted the gun in and was certain that in his capable hands he could hit well with it if I could get him a shot. He was significantly better armed than I had been back in the mid and late seventies.

My slug gun back in those days had been a 1950s vintage, Mossberg bolt gun with a poly choke. Not much to look at and it certainly didn't function any better than it looked. The Mossberg engineers back then had missed the classes on both form and function. Opening day of deer season in 1979 was a dandy November morning and I lowered the boom on a huge doe with that old goose thumper, my first deer. Andrew, however, was remarkably better equipped than his old man had been in those days of yore.

Rifles are now legal for deer in most New York counties, with a few exceptions, but I hold that there are things like deer rifles that should be earned or received as a significant Christmas gift. Rights of passage don't come all in a bunch nor do they fall like manna from heaven; they are earned by the passage of time and hard work.

The three day youth firearms hunt began on the Saturday of the long weekend and I had prepared carefully, hanging out our coats and pants days in advance to freshen them. I had constructed five gallon bucket back packs a few years prior for Emily and me to use hunting. The packs are essentially a pack basket that can be upended and used as a seat. Handy items like pruning saws, rattling antlers, drag rope and thermos bottles fill them and free up pockets for shells and a grunt call and snacks.

The drive from my home in the vineyard covered hills of the Finger Lakes to my brother's place is only twenty minutes, which is fortunate given that it is like pulling teeth to wake up a teenage boy. He did finally rise from the dead and emerge from his tomb, ready to down some breakfast and get in the jeep.

We were blessed with heavy overcast skies, which slowed the arrival of safe shooting light as we drove north. We were barely out of the jeep and leaving the yard and Andrew had just loaded up when a deer had gotten up out of the goldenrod. He had been unsure whether it was a buck or doe and it was gone, disappearing into the tall weed field and the gray dawn like a ghost.

It was legal shooting light as we entered the willow lined swale behind my brothers house and it was bright enough to shoot in the open, but the woods were another story. I whispered a few reminders to Andrew and had him step out a stride ahead of me as we crossed the dry creek running through the cattails. We turned right and the path widened and we walked side by side. We moved quietly, but steadily, down the edge of the bush hogged path that paralleled the far side of the swale.

As we reached the end of the weed lot a little doe squirted out of the drought dried swamp, "scratchin" gravel and waving good bye as she streaked up the hill in front of us. His 870 was almost to his shoulder. I could sense Andrew's excitement mounting and I told him I thought it was a good sign. In reality, I had hoped to be on stand fifteen minutes earlier, quietly waiting as deer wandered through their morning movement. We were still ten minutes from sitting down.

We crested the small hill that the doe had raced up, going slow and ready to come face to face with a mossy horned old buck. About half way up I caught sight of three flags bounding through the gloom of a neighbors little woodlot immediately to our right. I could see they weren't running hard and no doubt they would stop and regroup in the brush north of the little patch of oaks. Our path followed the edge of the weeds and a convergence of the oaks and a brush lot, separated by an old fence line that ended at yet another small woodlot that was once my Dad's, but which my brother had kept in the family after our parents passed.

The woods served as a transitional area between dense cover and crops and had been a deer highway for generations. Many deer had been taken over the decades. Some of the deer taken were harvested by my brother's-in-law, my uncle, a cousin, friends and, of course, my brother, Dad and myself.

Deer hunting stories from that little wood lot abound, some of which defy logic and no one would believe, and others that are just fond memories of family and friends. I could write a supremely entertaining article just about deer shot in that little woods.

It was the natural place for Andrew to start his journey as a big game sportsman and a seeker of deer. The silent, smiling spirits of my father and my hunting partner, Charlie, invisibly accompanied us as we slid down the fence row and stepped into the dim light beneath the canopy. The morning temp was between 45 and 50 degrees, so our breath, as we walked along an old log trail, was like those October ghosts, unseen.

Typically that trail was covered with a pavement of acorn hulls, but the deep summer drought had erased any hope for mast this year and our trail was nearly bare and, thus, nearly silent. I had chosen an old coon den tree as our spot to sit. The tree overlooked most of the small woods and Andrew had a clear shot north, east and west, but as a right-hander, he was best positioned for a shot to the west or northwest.

New York State requires that the young hunter remains on the ground, wearing at least 250 square inches of blaze orange (the adult must also wear orange) and the hunter must remain within reach of their mentoring adult during the youth hunt. All of this was as I would have had it, anyhow. I gave up tree stands years ago and have never owned a tent blind, preferring still hunting and standing beside a tree, as I was taught over 35 years ago.

We dropped our packs and unloaded the gear against the backside of the tree. I quietly directed Andrew to position his bucket so that he had an easy shot into the shallow dry runoff 75 yards north of us. I hoped for a shot of less than 50 yards and I had said my prayers for him the night before, asking for a little divine assistance in those matters I couldn't control, such as the vagaries of weather, other hunters, deer that come in from blind spots behind you and, most important, bucks just showing up while you're on stand.

We had only been sitting for a few minutes when a deer materialized in the gray woods about 100 yards to our left front, walking steadily across the woodlot without stopping to browse or check the wind. It was a four point. He slowed his pace and continued to close the gap and, when he was still around 75 yards out I whispered to Andrew to get ready, but to wait and not shoulder just yet.

I was confident the buck was going to come closer, but I was wrong. At 55 or 60 yards the young buck turned ever so slightly in his travels and took a line away from us. The light level was less than ideal and he was steadily putting ground between us. With mature trees obscuring him with every third or fourth step, it was poor shooting.

An older, experienced hunter would have had no problem getting ahead of him and squeezing off a kill shot, but it would require a calm hand and steady thinking. A missed shot is deflating, but a gut shot can ruin a new hunter, as well as the deer. I reminded Andrew to wait. I grunted a few times on my tube, trying to turn back the buck, but it appeared he was deaf to my challenge, or perhaps he preferred to avoid what he perceived as an older and bigger buck. He vanished at about 80 yards, swallowed up by trees and tall weeds as he drifted into the brush lot.

I whispered to Andrew, "It's okay. Still early and we're in the prime movement time. We'll see more." Andrew nodded and I could sense he was a little deflated after the long seconds of tension while the buck had approached and then moved off.

Its amazing how time distorts in the deer woods. Seconds become minutes and minutes are devoured as deer come and go, squirrels rummage about, bird song rises and falls and the clouds march onward. We had taken up our watch at a little past seven-thirty and it was already past eight as we settled down again, carefully scanning and trying not to move.

"Dad, a deer!" His whisper was full of excitement. We live in the middle of deer country, they are a daily occurrence, but with tags and a slug gun in your hands, a daily occurrence becomes an adventure. I turned my head ever so slightly and sure enough a lone deer that looked little to my experienced eye was walking in fast from our nine o'clock. It slowed just a bit as the distance halved. The woods is only 150 yards wide, so it takes mere seconds for a deer to appear and then be in your lap.

"It's a little one bud, we'll let it go." I had barely uttered those words and just for the record, I was dead wrong. I misjudged the deer's size as it angled toward us, visually shortening its apparent body length.

"It's a spike!" Andrew barely hissed. The deer was about fifty yards away now and angling across our front and closing the distance swiftly.

"Go ahead and take him." I sensed more than saw the long spikes as the buck vanished briefly behind a tree. I had to trust his young eyes. He could legally harvest a deer of either sex.

Andrew had the 870 to his shoulder. The buck took a few more steps and was ever so slightly angling toward us when the Remington barked. The young buck hunkered and shied at the report and then went into high gear dashing past us to our right and continuing along his original line of travel. The wood's edge 25 yards to our left was bordered by a stand of transitional ash with a patchy understory of blackberries and red twig dogwood.

Andrew chambered another round and was starting to swing for a follow up shot, but I could see the deer would be nearly straight away and in the brush before a slug could catch up to him. I told him to hold. There was a crashing of brush and, a second or two later, the sound of a body hitting the ground hard. I was still registering all of the information as the deer disappeared. It had all happened in less than four seconds. Andrew later told me he had seen the deer take down a dead sapling as he plowed into the brush.

"Wait! Check your safety." We both stood up. Andrew was beaming, but I was mentally assessing the situation.

"I got him!"

I hadn't seen the deer fall and though his tail was clamped, he had seemed in fine shape as he blasted by. Still the loud whump of a falling body was a very encouraging sign. However, I am cautious as I get older. My hearing is poor and I trust what I can see and touch and I never forget that meats not meat until it is in the pan.

Andrew and I walked the short 22 yards to where the buck had been when he fired. There was no hair that I could see and blood was non-existent. I explained that it was time to begin looking for the blood trail.

The first 25 yards to our right, where the deer had hightailed it, were mature trees with only last years leaves and a couple of logs covering the ground. We walked slowly. That is not easy for a boy who has just shot a deer and wants to run after it like a young lion. I couldn't see a drop of blood. We came to the edge of the transitional growth.

I had a very excited, but now slightly more collected Andrew ahead of me and instructed him to stop and scan the brush ahead for a deer and then, using just his eyes, to search in closer for blood and not to move until he either located blood or assured himself there was none. A minute ticked by as we carefully edged forward and searched for the telltale red. I peered into the brambles and brush, hoping to see that buck in a heap.

"Dad look!" He took another pace and there it was, the first blood splash.

"Yup, you hit him. That's decent blood, but let's go slow and find some more." A good collection of dime sized drops. I thought anxiously of countless stories we've all heard of deer lost as blood trails ran out. It was deep red and there was no gut material in it.

Sure enough, just as you would want, the splashes grew closer together and more copious. I quietly told Andrew to be on the lookout for a patch of brown, a bit of white and when he saw it to be ready to shoot again. The hardest part was slowing him down and encouraging him to be methodical. Truth be known, I was as excited as if it was my first deer!

If I had ordered a perfect first hunt for him it would have included just such a blood trail. I guess I had ordered just such a hunt the night before when I requested that the Almighty provide what I couldn't. A teachable moment as they say; clear and unambiguous, but with enough mystery from which to both evaluate and learn.

We had followed the red painted brush for 20 or so yards through the light growth and I knew we'd have a deer down in short order. Andrew's natural desire to kick into high gear was returning. I cautioned him that this was the critical time that required stealth and pinpoint focus.

I expected to see the deer lying ahead of us less than 50 yards out, somewhere between our ten and three o'clock relative position. For whatever reason, as the blood trail wandered slightly to our left, I glanced over my left shoulder back toward the woods where we had been sitting and there was a deer piled up, just 20 yards away. He had blindly doubled back as he ran out of gas, going no more than 75 yards before collapsing. The buck was clearly as dead as Napoleon's ghost, but I wanted Andrew to approach with caution and not learn to take such things for granted.

More than a few "dead" deer have gotten up and not been seen again. It's never happened to me and, if I can help it, it won't happen to Andrew. He touched the buck's eye with the muzzle. The smile on his face was my favorite moment. We rolled the year and half buck over to begin field dressing and it was clear that Andrew's foster slug had punched squarely through the right shoulder and exited the deer's left side, midway along the rib cage.

The spike turned out to be a shallow fork horn and he's the most important buck that I have ever seen shot by any hunter on any continent. I can envy my friend Neil his big wapiti bull or my friend Doug Turnbull his monster Alaskan brown bear, and I especially enjoy reliving my own successful hunts, but there will never be another buck like Andrew's fork horn.

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Copyright 2016 by Leif HerrGesell and/or All rights reserved.