Before Christmas, I said with good cheer,
I’d like to go hunting some deer.
It’s not a trifle
With a front-stuffer rifle,
It’s kinder than a car or a spear.
I am sitting in a deer blind with Jason, a man who knows the county and knows deer, and above all, knows the farm we’re hunting, across the Des Moines River from Keosauqua.
This afternoon we watch from a blind inside the tree line, a hundred yards from the river. In front of us stretch oats and soybeans, four acres of buffet for deer. Two hundred yards to our left a creek runs into the river; during the floods of spring a fifth of the soybeans got flooded out.
The blind itself has a six-year tenure in this location. Stays have parted company with hubs; locally grown wood verticals and cross-braces keep the structure upright and useable. It maintains a footprint five feet by five feet, the roof doesn’t quite permit me to stand. The door zipper works well, the window zippers run a spectrum of functionality.
We slipped in silently before two in the afternoon, whispering. The deer will probably come, he said, through the timber on our left, to the fence right in front of us. Or they will come up from the timber between us and the river. You watch left, and I’ll watch right.
Through the afternoon we listened to six dozen geese on the far bank and watched eagles cruise glide over the water. A light breeze blew from the river.
A piliated woodpecker caused a frightful racket in back of the blind, then perched two feet in front of us, peering through the window till I smiled.
From behind us I heard feet moving in leaves and my heart raced till I discerned, not the measured four steps of a deer but the chaotic hop-hop of a squirrel.
Shortly after four Jason nudges me and whispers that he sees two, maybe one deer on the right, come up from the river just as he’d predicted. I strain my eyes in the cloudy pre-dusk, then I can see her back about the level of the oats; her head down while she eats.
Too far to shoot, we agree. He tells me to watch as the deer make their way to our left, the shot will be easy.
I resist the urge to stare, but my pulse quickens and my senses waken.
After ten minutes he nudges me to tell me I could have a shot. I slowly ease my Savage .50 caliber, loaded with a 295 grain solid copper Power Belt over 47 grains of 5744 from the corner and poke the barrel out the window.
In the scope the scene sixty yards away jumps to life. The deer in front has two small dark circles on his forehead. “He’s a button buck, should I take him?” I whisper.
“No, let him be, he’ll keep coming back,” he says.
Later, “That second one there, you’ve got a good shot.”
But in the scope I can see the ears of another deer behind the doe in front.
“Not a shot,” I say, “I could wound one on the off side.”
A few minutes more, then I say, “OK, she’s stepped forward. I’ve got a clear shot. The one in front.”
“Go ahead and take her,” he whispers.
I slip the safety off. My heart pounds so loud I am sure the deer will hear me. I steady my left elbow on my left knee and I slow my breathing. I go through my litany of questions: Is this a good shot? Can I make this shot? What is on the other side of the target?
Breathe, relax, aim, stop, squeeze; the rifle kicks in my hands. “I don’t see her,” I said.
“You got her,” he says, slaps my shoulder and laughs,“She’s down,” as the dozen suddenly obvious deer flee towards the cover on our right.
“Should I reload?” I ask.
“No, man, you got her, she’s down. Where were you aiming?”
“Right where the neck meets the spine,” I say, as he zips the door to the blind open.
We slap high fives.
We walk through the gate into the oats. I shiver with intensity.
The doe lies on her left side in the soybeans, the bloodless bullet wound showing on the front of her shoulder. We slap unrestrained high-fives again.
And she is a very large doe. I slip off my blaze orange coat and I don latex gloves, breaking out my field dressing hardware while Jason calls his dad, Doug, to bring a four-wheeler.
With my doe in the soybeans. Note muzzleloader across my lap.
I use a good but imperfect tool called a Buck Buster. I have ideas for improvements: change the angle of the handle, put in a groove here and a curve there, shorten and lighten the whole assemblage, but for the time being I have the best tool for the job in my hand.
Jason watches me work. “You look like you might have done this before.”
“Yeah, a couple dozen times. If it looks like I’m going too slow you just say, ‘No lawyers,’ and I’ll speed up.” While I work I tell the story of painstakingly gutting one of my first antelope, and after forty-five minutes one of the observers said, “You know doc, I don’t think he’s going to recover, and if he does you’re going to have a bigger problem on your hands than you got now.”
The deer’s chest cavity, full of blood, shows the course of the bullet. Hitting the spine, it exploded and fragments severed the aorta. She died instantaneously, and probably never heard the shot that killed her.
Doug comes up on his four-wheeler. By the time the field dressing is done, the day has passed from dusk to overcast night. Jason and I haul the doe up and pour the blood out of her body cavity.
Then they are gone to pick up Jason’s four-wheeler with its trailer, and I am alone with the deer. I talk to her, and I thank her for coming to feed me and my family. I peel off the latex gloves to find that both sides have leaked deer blood onto my hands. I wipe my hands on weeds as best I can, and I put my coat back on after the blood dries. I call my brother to tell him the news, and hang up as the two sets of headlights approach.
When Jason and I lift her into the trailer, I realize how much bigger this deer is than 80% of the bucks I’ve shot. Even without her thirty pounds of innards she weighs close to two hundred pounds.
Jason goes ahead and I ride behind Doug.
While the exhilaration of a good shot and clean kill runs through me, I remember other hunts; Cuba, Arkansas, and Louisiana; doves, ducks, quail, geese, pheasants; elk in New Mexico; warm weather, cold weather, wind, snow, rain and glorious sunsets.
Two miles up the hill, Doug, Jason and I prepare the doe for skinning by making certain cuts before elevating her on the hoist. We work in Doug’s machine shed. He built it with an eighteen-foot ceiling instead of fourteen-foot, and reinforced key places so that raising deer on his hoist would not be a problem. With the vigor of youth, Jason helps me skin and between the two of us, the job finishes in minutes.
With the hide gone I look for the exit wound and I do not find it. I can clearly see where the projectile shattered the spine, but my probing finger doesn’t find a bullet.
I have never shot a deer before and not found an exit wound.
Jason takes off down the hill and I start working on the deer, in a process called quartering. I remove the forequarters, tenderloins, then the backstraps, then I trim meat from the carcass and the neck.
I find two and a half inches of fat covering her rump.
Doug complements me on how clean my work looks. I remark that it used to be a lot better but it used to take me all night. Doug shows me how to use pruning loppers to detach the bony hocks, and I file the tip away for future use. The cleanest meat, which doesn’t need further editing or washing, goes into a cooler with freezer packs. The hind quarters, which always carry a taint of blood, go into garbage sacks. Miscellaneous trim goes in with the back straps. I point out to Doug the four ounces of meat along the sacrum, and I highly recommend it and I think about cooking it up tonight.
Before six-thirty the useable meat has been detached from the axial skeleton. As I put the two coolers into the car I estimate one weighs sixty-five pounds and the other weighs fifty-five pounds.
Driving the five minutes back to the duplex, two does try to wreak suicidal revenge on me by running right in front of the car.
No one can deny that the country has too many whitetail deer. This county shelters more deer than any other county in Iowa, and the population continues to grow yearly despite liberal hunting season and limits. My permit allowed me to take antlerless deer only.
At the duplex I shake flour into a plastic container, add the only spice I have at hand, Mrs. Dash’s, and heat a generous amount of oil in a fry pan. I dredge the thumb-sized chunks in the spiced flour, shaking off the surplus, and sear the meat till brown on each side. I sit down with a piece of bread and I eat and I relive the eperience.
I change out of my clothes and drive to the hospital to make late rounds on a mother with a new baby. Contrast is still the essence of meaning.
Back at the duplex I start the process of removing flesh from bone and sealing the meat into cryovac bags. I decide to name the deer Sally.
I come across a bullet fragment in the backstrap; had this been a beef animal, the piece of metal would have been in the ribeye.
Muzzleloader bullet fragment extracted from the backstrap of my deer; paperclip shown for size comparison
I rarely find bullet fragments in the animals I’ve shot.
Hollywood misrepresents firearms; whole rifle bullets do not lodge in anything weighing less than a ton, and can never be used for ballistics testing.
I cut, package and freeze meat till midnight, and I start the clean-up process.
Packages I have had cooling on the back porch come in to beds of foil in the refrigerator. Knives get washed and sharpened. I realize I will work with a paucity of cutlery.
Buzzed from the hunt, I can sleep no more than three hours before I waken to cut some more. In a rhythm learned through years, over the next four days I place cryovac bags in the freezer labeled chuck, backstrap, tenderloin, best trim, trim for stew, top round, sliced round for jerky, and chunked shank for stew.
I work in two hour segments, washing the setup thoroughly and sharpening knives before moving on to the next anatomic area. Every two hours I take the best looking small pieces at hand, dredge them in spiced flour, and fry them. Names of muscle groups, like supraspinatus or tibialis anterior, come to my mind as I work and as I eat. I relive the moment over and over, from the time I first saw her to the time I pulled the trigger.
Call takes up all of Friday night and Saturday.
Monday afternoon the last package goes into the freezer before I go to work. I clean the counters and I start rinsing the refrigerator shelves.
The euphoria of a good shot well made courses through my veins while I work.
In a small town, word gets around. People drop into my office and ask me how I like the deer hunting here. (I like it a lot.)
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have bought two anterless tags; I had plenty of work from one deer.