feature By: Jason Books | January, 18
One early mid-November morning I sat in the front seat of my father’s truck while we drove up a mountain. I was 12 and had a special permit that allowed me to hunt for a mule deer doe in a unit a few miles from our home in northcentral Washington. As we came around the bend in the road I saw a doe up on the hillside as my dad pulled the truck over and set the parking brake.
While making my way along the sage-covered slope, the deer showed its nervousness and bounded uphill. Being a young hunter with the adrenaline overtaking any common sense, the rifle came up to my shoulder, and I vaguely remember the loud boom. To both of our surprise I hit the mule deer, and it instantly fell. This was my first deer and a memory that is etched in my mind, but the thing I remember most was how cold my hands were after I field-dressed the doe, the warm blood almost instantly turning to ice. It’s funny what we remember about our first hunts.
As I grew older over the next few years, I took to hunting the backcountry. I wanted more opportunities at mature mule deer bucks and became obsessed with finding the biggest buck on the mountain. At age 16, I remember waking one morning as my father built a fire. We wore cotton blue jeans back then and our pants were frozen solid, so the fire was made warm enough to melt the ice so we could put them on. It was the following year that my brother stopped coming to deer camp. Turns out he was pushed too far, though at the time I didn’t know it. It would be nearly 25 years later that I would learn this lesson myself.
When my oldest son, Adam, was old enough to hold his own head up, I would put him in a child-carrier backpack and take him for hikes. From his viewpoint he often pointed out hawks and other birds flying overhead. He grew older and soon was carrying a Red Ryder BB gun on our hunting adventures. I just knew he would be a hunter like me. His little brother was born two years after Adam, and as I focused on my first born who could talk, hike and enjoy the outdoors with me, Ryan kind of fell to the side.
At age eight, Adam took and passed his hunter safety exam. Though this is a very young age I was overly excited at the chance of Adam being my hunting partner. For the next few years he took grouse and other small game with his .410 shotgun. All the while his younger brother’s passion to join us grew stronger. Then when Adam was 11 he drew an antlerless black-tailed deer permit for a unit just a few miles from our western Washington home. Thinking back to that hunt so many years ago when my hands froze from the warm blood hitting the cold winter air on that sage-covered slope, I was ecstatic for Adam’s doe hunt. Ryan was young and became upset when told he would stay at home; I feared that he would become bored, rambunctious and interrupt the hunt.
Loading the truck and heading for the mountains, making sure to bring ample snacks, drinks and other items to keep an 11-year-old happy – or so I thought – the adventure began. Blacktails are interesting deer with a very solitary lifestyle. Preferring to feed at night, the first few minutes of daylight is the best time to locate them. Just like before, we spotted some deer as we came around the bend of a road. They were feeding on the edge of a clear-cut heading to a stand of Douglas Fir. The lead doe was about 100 yards away, and once again adrenaline began overtaking common sense. Adam tried an offhand shot and missed. The deer bounded off out of sight. Tromping through the slash and ending up having to cross some low-lying blackberry bushes, Adam’s legs were cut and scratched.
Once back at the truck we drove around the rest of the day, glassing all of the openings looking for more deer. Adam began to complain about the cuts on his legs and how bored he was. I offered snacks and tried to console him, but it was no use. We headed home. The following weekend was the last opportunity to fill his doe permit. He told me that he did not want to go hunting. I felt uneasy and confused about this. He was my hunting partner, but now he didn’t want to go hunting.
The following year it was the same story; Adam decided he did not want to hunt. Feeling like I had let him down, pushing him and making the hunt feel like a failure if he didn’t get a deer, he lost almost all interest in hunting. Ryan still held his passion, but I was cautious, taking him out a few times to look for animals on scouting trips and camping trips. He desired to hunt but I held off another year. This fueled Ryan and finally at age nine he took his hunters safety class.
Opening day of mule deer season was fast approaching, and Ryan kept talking about how excited he was for the hunt. Unlike his brother, Ryan wanted to go for deer right away instead of chasing small game for a few years. The plan was to join my father for the weekend back home in northcentral Washington. We had talked to a family friend who would let us hunt his wheat fields, along with several other hunters, but I knew we would see deer and this would keep Ryan’s interest going. Adam chose to stay home.
We pulled the truck over at the edge of the field near the corner post marking the land we could hunt. Deer were out feeding in the wheat near a coulee about a half mile away. Other hunters were in the coulee, and we knew that the deer would either be pushed to them or to us. Using the edge cover of the field, the distance could be easily closed and soon the deer were pushed by us at 200 yards. This time I forced myself to remain calm and made sure Ryan was on his shooting sticks, but the buck would not stop long enough for a shot. As it bounded over the hill we tried to catch up to it. When climbing out of the sage coulee, we heard a single shot. Ryan and I continued over another hill and found a father with his two young boys standing over the buck; both boys were thrilled with excitement at their father’s success. I instantly missed Adam and wished he was with us.
It was a long walk back to where we parked. The truck was loaded up and we decided to head to some other nearby mountains, where the mule deer would take refuge in the shade of pine and spruce trees. Ryan was tired and disappointed at his missed opportunity but wanted to keep hunting. Soon paved road turned to dirt as the fields adjoined forest service land. It was mid-afternoon on a warm fall day, so we decided to glass a slope above a natural spring. A good buck was lying in the shade and I knew it was a gift.
Ryan grabbed his rifle and I took his shooting sticks along as we made our way up the slope to get even in elevation with the buck. Soon the buck was within range and the rifle was rested steadily on the sticks. The deer jumped up out of its bed from the shot but stood still because the bullet landed high and above it. The second shot found its mark, and Ryan had killed his buck. When we returned home the next day Adam came out and I saw a smile come across his face for the first time in a few years during deer season.
Over the course of the winter Adam began talking about hunting again. That spring he was drawn for another doe permit. This time it was for a mule deer in an area near his grandfather’s home, and within the same unit where Ryan had taken the big buck. We made a few phone calls and a landowner was excited to have Adam help him with some problem deer that kept tearing down his fence to get into his pear orchard. On opening morning we walked around the orchard but couldn’t find any deer. Then as we pulled open the gate to leave, there were three deer on the outside of the fence getting ready to push against a weakened post. Adam made the shot, and as I looked over at him he started to shake a little. I knew he was coming around to that young child I remembered that got excited when a hawk circled over-head.
The next year both of the boys drew doe permits again. Adam got an early August mule deer damage permit, and Ryan had a blacktail permit for a special youth hunter season. Both boys jumped with excitement when the permits came in the mail, and opened the envelopes. My father once again joined us for Adam’s hunt, and three generations took to the field together. The hunt was short, just right for Adam, as he still would become bored after a period of time, though he woke each morning excited to go find deer.
Ryan insisted on finding, stalking and shooting his deer alone. So when his hunt started I drove him to the top of a ridge where he started to hike out to a point. A few minutes later I heard a shot and found Ryan standing over his doe. He asked me for a knife as he wanted to field dress it himself. After the chore was done and the doe was loaded into the truck, he told me how cold his hands were. I turned on the heater as he held his blood-stained hands up to the vents. Both of my boys were hunters.
The following year I took Ryan to the backcountry. Adam elected to stay home but only if I promised him to take him hunting behind the house the following weekend. Dur-ing the backcountry hunt it snowed on us and we cut a lone wolf track, but Ryan refused to stop hunting. He added that he wanted to find a mature, high-mountain mule deer buck, but the snows were becoming too deep and the following morning we headed for home. That next weekend Adam and I went out for blacktails but only found a blue grouse and some chanterelle mushrooms. He was all smiles.
In the last few years the boys have continued to grow into their own as hunters. Ryan has taken a few more deer, including a mule deer with a muzzleloader, and is now expanding his hunting style. He kept the sinew off the back of the deer to use for an obsidian blade knife with a bone handle, and often joins me on backcountry hunts. Adam prefers day hunts so he can return home at the end of the day.
As a hunter I have a passion to find mature mule deer bucks, but as a father I have a desire to share the hunt with my sons. Sometimes in the fast-paced world, we forget that we owe it to our children, as well as ourselves, to allow them to find their own way in the woods, even if at times it is boring, or a buck is killed out from under them, or even when a deer hunt becomes a grouse hunt. It’s not the biggest buck in the woods that I pursue anymore, it is my hunting partners that I chase after now.