I had just crawled up into my tree stand for my first deer hunt in Missouri. I had recently moved to the state to start a career with the Department of Conservation, and I had never hunted deer from a tree stand.
As I settled into the stand, I opened up a granola bar. Granola bars had come a long way because they used to be nasty, hard and uninviting snacks. This one happened to be chocolate-covered, chewy and delicious. I pulled a paperback book from my coat. If I had to be perched up in a tree, I might as well catch up on my reading.
My eating and other preparations for the deer hunt were suddenly interrupted by a noise. I looked down. There was a deer directly below me. How could this be? I hadn’t been in the stand for 4 minutes.
The deer was too close for me to shoot, and I didn’t even have my gun ready. I panicked. My only thought was to remain perfectly quiet and motionless. The deer moved away from me, so I twisted in my stand and gradually raised my gun.
The movement pushed my gloves off the deer stand and they spiraled to the ground. I watched their descent as if in slow motion, thinking that if I concentrated hard enough I could stop their fall through mental telepathy like I had seen so many times in Star Wars movies. It didn’t work, and the gloves hit the ground with a noise like a bomb. Surprisingly, the deer didn’t flinch or notice.
As I continued to raise the gun, I realized that I had quit breathing, and the situation was critical. The granola bar was still stuck in my mouth. The chocolate was melting and dripping off my chin. I spread my lips around it as wide as I could and inhaled greedily. As I brought the gun to my cheek, the darn granola bar got in the way again. I had to lip it to the left.
The deer was walking directly away from me, and I was surprised by how thin a deer could look. There was not much of a target. Then I remembered someone telling me that grunting at a deer would make it stop and take notice. I croaked out a grunt as best I could with a granola bar stuck in my mouth. The deer stopped, turned sideways and looked up. I pulled the trigger and had my first Missouri deer.
I hunted deer many times after that first deer, but the memories of my first one are the most vivid. Almost 15 years later, my oldest son, Tim, decided that he would like to deer hunt. We got out my old rifle and, for reasons I can’t fully explain, added a scope. I installed it myself.
We have a safe shooting area on our land in Moniteau County with a shooting bench. I had never shot a rifle with a scope, although I had been on a shooting team as a youth. On the first shot, I had my forehead much too close to the scope. The recoil drove the scope into my forehead between my eyes, leaving a superficial half-circle cut that bled profusely.
I walked back to the house. Jen, my wife, was in the garden in the back yard. I could tell that she was alarmed by my condition. It was at that point that my Little Voice popped up in the back of my mind screaming, “No, don’t you dare!” But I had a lifetime tradition of not listening to the sound counsel from my Little Voice, and I was not about to start now.
I placed my hands over my heart, dropped to my knees and bleated out, “I’ve been shot!” Then I fell face down on the grass. The last thing I remember my Little Voice saying was, “Now you’ve done it.” Jen’s reaction was predictable and everything I had hoped for, but I had not thought through the full consequences of my actions. Once she figured out that I was fooling around, she stormed inside the house and I could tell by her body language that I'd better not follow.
Fortunately, I keep my favorite chair in the garage. Here I can retire to lick my self-inflicted wounds, both physical and mental, and figure out how to recover from my poor decision making, often with help from my Little Voice.
I knew that I would have to endure a Level III lecture. As a matter of fact, it was so bad that Jen called her mother, who immediately came over to our house to give me a piece of her mind and soften me up for the main event. I was worried that my final punishment would be a lifetime shooting ban.
After a period of negotiation and groveling, Tim and I finally resumed preparations for his first deer hunt. We put up deer stands and scouted for sign. The season arrived and we poured ourselves into the hunt. I hadn’t realized how little time we would have for these outings, due to football practice, scouts, homework, and all the other activities that compete for a young person’s time.
Success eluded us. It got down to the last afternoon of the last day of the season. It was raining hard, and the temperature was in the 30s. I just did not have enough hunting passion left in me to hunt in the cold rain. Tim did.
Jen and I were in the horse barn as Tim disappeared into the fog and rain wearing a leaky blue plastic raincoat with a blaze orange vest overtop. He had more hunting drive than I did. Thirty minutes later we heard a shot. I thought, “Oh no!” and was filled with dread. The only thing worse than hunting deer in a driving rain is cleaning a deer in a driving rain. We just hoped he had missed.
Ten minutes later, Tim was back at the horse barn. He looked like the last survivor from the Titanic; there wasn’t a dry square inch on his body. I could tell by the smile on his face that he had his first Missouri deer.
The entire family put on rain gear and followed Tim into the woods. He jabbered almost incoherently about what had happened. The rain let up, fortunately, and I offered him my knife and talked him through cleaning his first deer. He did it all. We drove to the check station together and he continuously recounted all of the details of his first deer kill. I knew that he would remember his first deer just like I had a special memory of my first Missouri deer.
Adventures in wing shooting
My first pheasant is as vivid in my memory as my first deer. I was walking through the woods in northwestern Missouri watching my feet to make sure that one foot was successfully placed in front of the other. I wasn’t even thinking about pheasants because I obviously was not in pheasant habitat.
A pheasant popped up in front of me out of nowhere—surprising me so much that I was almost paralyzed. I was able to recover enough to shoot that bird because the trees were so thick that the pheasant couldn’t make a hasty exit.
More than ten years later, I was pheasant hunting with my youngest son, Kirk. We were walking along a field border to join some other hunters. Kirk had never been pheasant hunting, so I was recounting tales of my past pheasant hunting trips and embellishing (ever so slightly) my own shooting skills. Suddenly, a rooster popped up in front of us.
Kirk raised his gun instantly and shot. The bird dropped. He turned, looked at me with a big grin and said, “Dad, did you shoot?” Of course I didn’t shoot. That bird was flushed, shot and retrieved by our Lab before my neck quit snapping back and forth from the shock and awe. I realized that, at age 14, my youngest son was quicker than me and probably a better wing shot. This was a humbling experience.
As we walked on, Kirk described in detail—several times—how he had shot this first pheasant. He encouraged me to be more alert, explaining that a successful hunter was always ready. He even offered pointers on how I should carry the gun so I could react faster.
This tendency to gloat after their first kills, usually at my expense, was characteristic of all three of my sons. After Tim shot his first turkey, he just had to take me on a turkey hunt. He concluded that his hunting skills and woodsmanship obviously exceeded mine.
I accommodated his enthusiasm and we went hunting. I was the only one carrying a shotgun. He called for me and directed my every move. He did an excellent job of leading the hunt and we had a great time. I didn’t shoot a turkey that day, although I came very close, and I am kind of glad that I didn’t get one because I would never have heard the end of it.
Still more to come…
My sons are grown now and have left home to make lives for themselves. Yet we still have several firsts left to complete. Two of my sons have not shot their first turkey. None of my sons have shot a giant Canada goose from a Missouri River sandbar, despite their efforts.
I took lots of pictures of our hunting trips as my sons were growing up. I am converting these pictures to computer files and assembling them into digital slide shows. One of these slide shows I titled “Firsts” because our first kills were very memorable and special. They are the subjects of stories that we continue to retell and share with each other.