The best day of my life happens to be at 11 years old. It was my first hunting trip with a deer tag. I’d been around hunting camp before so I had the opportunity to walk around on some hunts prior to this one. Those times where different though (I wasn’t allowed to shoot at big game species yet). I was always the tag along, but being the tag along was cool and fun. Prior to this hunt, I’d follow the adults and see vast canyons with foliage that covered every spectrum of the color wheel. Rocks big enough to swallow a whole truck if it fell on one. The soil wasn’t sandy but more like a littered field full of oblong sized stones, rocks, and some flat spots. The sky mixed with clouds surrounded us. Some clouds where so close, almost like you could touch them. On other days, not a single cloud could be seen in the sky. That’s what makes the outdoors so intriguing to me. Days are never the same as the last when you are in the outdoors. Sometimes the sky would be filled with contrails from high-flying commercial jets, traveling to Vegas, Hawaii, or who knows where. Hunting camp was always great. 15-20 people in total, all of them brought their camper trailers, tents, and a very large wall tent used specifically for poker. This trip was going to be different because I actually had my own deer tag. This meant I had the opportunity to harvest a deer and feed my family. Wait, feed my family? At 11 years of age? Hunting wasn’t just about everything that the amazing outdoors has to offer. Hunting was an opportunity to build friendships, get closer to life outside the city, and also feed your family. I grew up learning how to hunt at an early age. I also learned how to field dress an animal and eventually help my dad butcher the animal once we got home. We didn’t waste a thing. These days some trendy people refer to it as snout-to-tail. With all the tools and experience under my belt; my dad, brother, and myself set off to our hunt. We hopped in a blue Ford Bronco that was hooked up to a double-axel camper trailer and drove off with my mom waving and wishing us luck.
Arriving at camp that afternoon, my dad backed the trailer into the perfect spot. The spot was completely covered by shade with a very large alligator juniper on the right and ponderosa pines as far as you could see. The trailer was in position, which meant it was time to unhook the trailer. That was the plan, but my mind was elsewhere. All I could think about was going hunting that evening. Once the trailer was leveled and setup we set off to hunt. We where headed to one of my dads favorite spots. The drive wasn’t bad with the exception of the last 15 minutes which was so rough. It was chockfull of large unmovable rocks and boulders. I felt like a real, live bobble head. Finally we made it. Before we had even got out of the truck, I was so excited. I felt like I drank 5-6 Red Bulls (even though Red Bull didn’t exist back then). Some hunters refer to this as “nerves” or “buck fever”. Even just seeing a buck, I’d get “buck fever”. Yes it does happen at a young age. If you don’t know what buck fever is just Google it or ask anyone who’s ever hunted. I’m sure they’ll have a few stories to tell about their buck fever experience. Google defines buck fever as “nervousness felt by novice hunters when they first sight game”. Well I was 11 years old, which puts me in the novice category. Even though, I’ve seen some of the most seasoned, experienced hunters (far from novice) have buck fever too. In my case, at 11, I’d say I was definitely novice. I was the buck fever kid. I had been a spectator on several hunts but never did I have a deer tag to fill. On the first evening, I missed three bucks, all within a 45-minute window. I blew every opportunity. What happened? BUCK FEVER! We crossed over a fence and a few minutes from the truck, I had already missed my first deer. About 5 minutes later, I missed yet another deer. Every time my reaction was the same. “Dad, did I get it?” “No you missed, shoot again”. The best part about being young is missed opportunities are easily forgotten. I had missed all three bucks. For me though, I had chalked it all up to a great day of hunting. In hindsight, missing three bucks (as an adult) in one day would make me go bonkers but being a kid, things are much more simple.
When we got back to camp in the evening, I got to hear all the other hunters tell their stories about what they’d seen, where they’d been, and how their experiences went. My story was pretty simple; “I missed three deer and used up a lot of my dad’s ammunition.” The cool thing about it was not a single person in camp gave me a hard time. There was comradery between all of us that made the camp feel like family. A very large pit fire lined with rocks kept the majority of us warm that evening. It also helped cook the food for the camp and dry out our wet boots. Note: “don’t put your boots to close to the fire or you’ll melt the soles off the bottom”. I learnt that the hard way, but I’ll save that story for another time. A section of the fire pit was designated for an extremely hot bed of coals in which a large metal concaved disk with handles was placed. Once hot the disk was used to make everything from steak, chicken, vegetables, sautéed onions, potatoes, fajitas, tortillas, beans, etc. You name it, it was cooked on the disk. Once the food cooked, it was portioned out and served to everyone. This process took quite a bit of time so there was plenty of opportunity to share stories; ones that were so colorful and detailed, you felt like you where there.
The following morning, my dad, brother and I hunted the same area. That morning hunt wasn’t nearly as fruitful as the evening before. I found that odd because in my experience, morning hunts seemed to be the most productive. I thought to myself. “Maybe I scared all the deer out of this area. I hope I didn’t blow my chance”. While we where walking back to the truck in thigh high grass, I could see sparse pinions and junipers sprinkled into the landscape like fresh pepper shaken onto a mountain of mashed potatoes. We continued to walk through the terrain and came across a small rock outcropping. Brown rocks with a tinge of dark red protruding from the grass, extending about 25-feet above the foliage below. As we got closer to the outcropping, a young buck jumped up out the grass in front of us and headed straight for the canyon located directly to the east of us. The buck never stopped. Like a bolt of lightning, he disappeared into the tree line at the top of the canyon. Everything happened so fast, I felt like there was no chance we’d ever see that deer again.
What’s next? Without saying a word my father, a life-long hunter, had already devised a plan. He told my brother to stay where we’d seen the buck so he would have the high ground, in case the buck doubled back my brother’s way. My dad and I walked to the head of the canyon then began towards the opposite side of it. We’d position ourselves in a spot where we could see my brother and use our binoculars to glass the side of the canyon that the deer headed into. We had sat down in an area that offered some cover but also had a large rock in front of us that could be used as a solid rest in case a shot presented itself. As we began glassing, a large storm began heading our way and within minutes was directly above us. The clouds hanging low with dark grey accents began to push down on us with large snowflakes. 20- minutes into glassing the canyon through the snow, my mind began to wonder. I thought, “There’s no way this deer is in the canyon, there’s no way he’s even on the side we’re glassing, but this snow is awesome!” Then within a few moments my dad says, “There he is!” My response was, “what?” My dad then said, “He’s right there on the other side of the canyon under a juniper, next to some yuccas.”
We found the deer!!! But yuccas? I knew they were a type cactus but visually, I wasn’t exactly sure what it looked like. I was thinking about an upright, branched out cactus. That cactus in the southwest is known as devils rope. My response to dad as he told me where the deer was while the snow fell went something like this. Dad: “Start at the head of the canyon.” Me: “Ok”, Dad: “Now move down the canyon and you’ll see a break in the trees with a dead cedar in the middle.” Me: “Ok, I see that.” Dad” “Now go down midway and you’ll see two-yuccas and a juniper with the deer directly under it.” Me: “Ok I don’t see it”. My dad and I repeated this conversation in its entirety for about 10 minutes. Every time he said the same thing, and my answers where the same. I just never saw the deer. Then my dad asked me if I knew what a yucca was. By this time, I doubted my knowledge of what it really was and I said “No” so my dad provided a detailed description of what a yucca looked like. Within a few minutes, I had the deer in my sights. I rested the rifle on the rock and couldn’t seem to get a steady rest. There was a portion of the rock that wasn’t stable and made it hard for me to make the clean ethical shot that I wanted to make. My dad used his hands to create a solid foundation at the weak point of the rock. He rested his hands under the gunstock. Once I had a solid rest, I had the feeling (not buck fever), but the feeling this was the perfect time to kill my first deer. I took off my gloves off and took a deep breath. Time stood still. The snow seemed like it stopped falling. Everything went in slow motion. I slowly squeezed the trigger and “boom!” This time I didn’t ask my dad if I got it. I saw it through the scope, I got the deer. I was so excited that I yelled and clapped my hands so hard and so long I couldn’t feel them once I stopped. I even told my dad “I can’t feel my hands!”
The feeling that ensued after was indescribable. I was so proud of myself and proud of my dad and brother for the help that they gave me. That moment in time was almost 25-years ago, but for that one moment regardless of the years that have passed in my life, I’ll always remember that day like it was yesterday. I hope all of you have had the opportunity to have a moment imprint on your life that when it all comes down to it you can say… “That’s was the best day of my life, and this is why.”