Earning My Chops

One hunter returns home and is reminded that deer camp isn’t really about deer.
Earning My Chops

Notes from Dyer's Journal:

November 29, 2010. Columbia County, Pennsylvania

It’s funny how life works out. The only daughter (out of three) who doesn’t hunt with Dad grows up, moves far away from home and lands a job where hunting is part of the job description. Sweet home Alabama is where I’ve laid my head for the past decade, but here I am again in a homemade wooden tree stand in the woods of Pennsylvania, waiting for a deer that’s long overdue.

The opening-day rituals have been done — the packing of the lunches the night before, the one-more-layer-should-do-it donning of the clothing at 5 a.m., the daybreak rapid-fire gunshots in the distance from the overeager shotgunners over on the state game land. Now there’s nothing to do but watch and wait and try to stay warm.

I’ve sat here many times, watching these trees, scanning these woods, praying for some movement beside the does I’m forbidden to shoot on Dad’s property. No dice. The herd isn’t what it used to be.

If you measure hunting success in terms of numbers, the side of this particular mountain is not the place to be. But everyone raised in Pennsylvania’s old-school hunting tradition knows that deer camp isn’t really about deer, anyway. It’s about people.

That’s all well and good, but you can only live on tag soup for so long. Sure, I’ve taken deer before — but not here in PA, and not with this new 7mm08 I am just dying to christen, and not in recent memory. It’s been several years, in fact, and the pressure to earn my home-state chops is pushing me toward desperation.

The crumbs from a nearly frozen turkey sandwich are still on my lap when opportunity comes stomping through the woods.

Antlers? Check.

How many points? Enough. Don’t look at them again.

Gun up. Safety off. He still hasn’t seen me. It’s a 50-yard chip shot.

Bang, flop, kick. Still.

Buck fever, for me, always hits after the shot — and I’ve got it bad. I’m too shaky to climb down right away, so out comes the cell phone. “Dad, it’s Hil. Buck down!”

Not long after, we’re standing over a fine 8-point together, Dad wearing the biggest grin I’ve seen on the man in all my 30 years. He pulls out his knife and gets to work gutting. I could do this myself, probably, but he’s in full-on Proud Dad mode and there’s no stopping him.

The drag down the mountain is long and rocky, but there’s a 6-year-old little girl back at the cabin who will want her picture taken with Mommy’s buck, and we’re burnin’ daylight.

It’s clear he’s not a monster. Lord willing, I will likely kill much bigger deer in my life, each with its own story. But a year later, looking at the photo of a beaming father, a modest buck and a back-home-again girl, I’m not sure that a smile could get any bigger.


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