By Chris Ellis
For The Register-Herald
My brother and I have hunted Thanksgiving week together since we were children. In fact, when we first started hunting I was too young to carry a gun for the first few seasons. My job back then was to sit quietly alongside him watching patiently for a buck to wander into our view. Rarely did we even see a deer.
To be brutally honest, we had no idea how to hunt deer. We had received permission to hunt my grandfather’s old homeplace by his cousin who tended the farm. He raised a modest head of cattle and kept the fences up but he was not a hunter and therefore no help to two greenhorn boys. When asked where we should begin our search for deer to hunt, he would point his weathered fingers toward a ridge on the back of the farm. We were certain he was more clueless than us and only allowed us to hunt the farm out of a family obligation and respect for our grandfather. Nonetheless, we had passion and permission and weren’t about to let him or anyone else dampen our drive to become deer hunters.
The first few years were lean. We learned where to sit to see deer with some regularity but couldn’t make the connection to an antlered deer. We considered bucks as ghosts and marveled at the hunters who met after dark at the local store dropping their tailgates to show off their trophies. We would listen intensely to their stories for clues that might unlock the mysteries of how we might become successful deer hunters.
And then one year, it happened. My brother and I chose to hunt separately that day. I heard the loud crack of a gunshot and knew it was from my brother’s rifle. I couldn’t sit on stand any longer without knowing the outcome, so I walked briskly to our meeting spot at the gate. As dusk fell and the cold air came rushing across the ridges, I could see the dim light of his headlamp approaching. His face was radiant from the pride of his achievement as he told the story of his first buck. We now were hunters — real hunters who return home with more than cold feet and worn out legs. We hung the deer in the barn and rushed home to tell a house full of relatives of our accomplishment.
But it wasn’t until I put my hands on the antlers of a buck of my own did I really understand the magnitude of emotions. The following year, I sat on a small knob overlooking a grassy flat. Looking down on the flat, I saw a deer feeding toward me several hundred yards away. As he got closer, I could see his antlers. A buck was walking my way and I was, well, coming unglued. I shut my eyes to try to contain the raw energy that was causing my hands to shake and my stomach to knot. I opened them to find the buck within range and steadied my rifle to make the shot. When the trigger broke, I jerked my head to see my first buck folded on the flat. I couldn’t breathe, let alone walk. I had taken my first buck and when I finally put my hands on his antlers, I still couldn’t believe it to be true.
This past Thanksgiving week, I got to recall those feelings again as I watched my son steady his rifle and try and calm his nerves as a buck walked into range. After the well-placed shot, we walked down to see his first buck. I watched him, knowing exactly the emotional connection to the natural world that was flowing through his veins. As we bent down to touch the buck’s antlers, I closed my eyes and gave thanks.