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Dumb luck and the deer hunter

Though it's been a few years since I've donned the blaze orange and trotted out in the snow chasing deer, the annual hunt still brings back a lot of memories.

I had a pretty regular group of hunters with me: my stepfather, my uncle and my grandfather made up the core group, while some of their friends and acquaintances would occasionally join in, usually after a particularly successful year which led to some bragging on our part.

We were usually pretty successful hunters, though I don't know that anyone other than my stepdad would be considered "good hunters." I shot a lot of deer, but most of it was dumb luck.

My memories always drift back to my teenage years. I had a mobile DJ service so I was almost always out until 1-2 a.m. just before the hunt, sliding into bed around the time my uncle's pickup would show up a couple of hours early in my driveway, prompting my stepdad to rouse my tired bones. My uncle was always gung ho for hunting, and wanted to be posted in his favorite spot at least 60-90 minutes before the first ray of sunrise. Some of our party would have doe scent on them, or some special soap they used, or a new rifled shotgun slug barrel. I had a more plain view of the whole affair: if a deer happened to walk within 20 feet of me, I'd probably shoot it. If one didn't, I wouldn't. That theory was almost universally proved by our party.

The first deer I "shot" was actually one my stepdad had shot -- with his fancy, extra-accurate new barrel. He shot it in two legs, the belly and the neck, and that only slowed it down a little as it jumped fences, eluding him. He brought me along to flank it. I don't know how much ammo my stepdad was carrying, but I remember that day wishing I had bought stock in the Remington company. He fired a lot of shots. Finally I was close enough to get a shot. I swung my 12 gauge goose gun down off my shoulder and put a slug in the center of the back of its head from about 40 yards away.

"The trick," I told him, smiling, "is to shoot them in the head. You don't have to go through all of this 'tracking' stuff."

It began a long tradition of deer hunting trash talk and general smart alec behavior.

My stepdad got the best of it, because he seemed to actually know what he was doing. There were times he'd shoot five deer and fill out five tags for all of us.

"What have you guys been up to?" he'd ask innocently.

The first deer I actually shot on my own was a nice 10-pointer. Despite my uncle's example of getting out in his stand early, picking his shot and generally doing everything right, I took a different tack. As I woke up from a nap in a drainage ditch, I fumbled through three layers of clothing to find my Marlboros, which I was hiding from my stepdad. I blazed one up, and heard something rustling in the field in front of me. I snuffed out the cig, fearing it was my stepdad coming over to check on me and my nap. Instead, a nice buck led about six deer out of the unplowed area into a plowed area, giving me a clear shot. The first shot missed. The second knocked its jaw off. The third was a quick mercy shot, and I had some antlers to mount.

The deer was the pride of everyone that day, of course, with me at the top of that list.

Another time that sticks in my head -- and since I'm writing this column, it's going to be about one of the few times I outhunted my stepdad -- is when I shot a large doe shortly after sunrise. I knew I hit it well, and was giving it 10 minutes to lay down before I pursued. When I decided to set out after it, I turned around and saw an even bigger doe standing right in my path, looking at me. I downed it with one shot, field dressed it, and then went to check on the other one, which had died about 10 feet away in some tall weeds. I gutted that one, and dragged each back to the pickup. Around 10 a.m., my stepdad came back, dragging a very small doe. He looked at mine.

"Hey, do you want me to gather some rocks and put them inside your deer so it doesn't blow out of the back of the pickup?" I asked him.

I will never forget the look he gave me. Then he burst out laughing.

That's deer hunting to me.