Many years ago, I thought that the ultimate thrill was to actually get to take a deer. I grew up watching neighbors bring home all varieties of big game. I used to watch in fascination when they dressed these animals. I would gaze on the antlers of these animals and dream of the day when I could have a set on the wall and know that I had successfully found, harvested and brought home meat and had a trophy to remind me of it.
As I grew older and our Air Force family moved back to South Alabama, I started hunting squirrels, doves and the occasional quail. It was nice to bring home a mess of squirrels and have my dad help me clean them and then eat them. I always tried to keep a "trophy" of my successful hunt. Mom finally got tired of squirrel tails all over the place and told me no more. All the while, as I shouldered a .22 rifle, I was thinking of big game hunting. With the faithful "family .22," I may have been actually shooting at squirrels but in my mind I was stalking elephants and cape buffalo in Africa and bull elk and mule deer in Wyoming and whitetails in Alabama.
When I was seventeen or eighteen, I was invited by a man at our church to go deer hunting. My dad gave his permission and we inquired as to the weapon needed, dad was thinking shotgun, I was thinking rifle. We found out that we would be stalk hunting and that rifles would be the order of the day. When we got home, dad got down his .30-06 rifle. All of my life it had been the epitome of hunting. The bullets were hand-loaded 200-grain boat-tailed bullets that were capable of killing anything on the North American continent. From that moment on, taking a deer became my quest.
In the meantime, I had to get an education, earn a living and generally be a contributing member of society. All of that was so that I could be able to hunt. Life went on and soon I bought my own rifle and learned more and more about deer hunting.
Finally, I got my f irst deer and have been fairly successful since. When I got that first deer, I felt as though I couldn’t be any more thrilled. Years later, as I harvested more and more, a buck with at least eight-points was the unattainable goal. Finally, through the generosity of landowners and good friends, I was able to put that eight-pointer on the wall. When I killed my first "racked" buck, I was told that now I had to shoot a bigger one and to let all others walk. A couple of years later, I finally got the buck that we all dream about. When that big ten-point buck hit the ground I didn’t think it could be better, but I was wrong.
As I have written about in the past, my daughter Savannah has been deer hunting with me since she was 5 years old. She has weathered wind, rain, cold weather and disappointment with me many times, as is the way with hunting. Over the years she has learned why it’s called hunting and not shooting. She has been diligently practicing with her B.B. gun waiting to get physically big enough to handle a center fire rifle. In the meantime, I bought her a .410 shotgun to get her used to recoil and learning how to aim. She wasn’t thrilled about recoil. I had decided that when she felt she was ready, we would try to take a doe with a .410 slug and very close quarters. I had many conversations with her about killing a large animal. I wanted to be sure that she knew that she was going to take the life of another of God’s creations and that it wasn’t a trivial thing.
This year I got a muzzleloader. Muzzleloading has always intrigued me, plus in Alabama, muzzleloaders get a jump on gun season. We went out to sight it in and she shot it a time or two and we both found out that it didn’t kick nearly as bad as we thought.
On the way home, she told me that she thought she might be able to shoot a deer this year with the muzzleloader. I said that it was up to her but if she wanted to, we’d try.
Opening day of deer season we went in the afternoon. We sat in the shooting house and waited. Soon a very large doe came into the food plot and had I been by myself it would have ended right there. But Savannah hadn’t quite psyched her self up yet so we waited.
Within a few minutes a pair of fawns that had just lost their spots came in behind the big doe. I don’t consider myself too tenderhearted, but my conscience will not allow me to kill a doe if she has fawns at her side. I know that the fawns can survive just fine at this stage in their life and pretty much figure that within a few days they will have forgotten that they ever had a mother in the first place, but I’m just not going to do it. So we waited for something else.
When it finally became too late, we figured out that the old doe and the fawns were not related and we lost the chance that day. All the way home, she regretted not "taking a poke" at the doe. The next afternoon found us back in a shooting house. About four-thirty in the afternoon, does started coming into the pasture. Soon a young spike joined the crowd. I looked at him in the binoculars and whispered to her that if she wanted to shoot one, it was time. She took a couple of deep breaths and said o.k.
I handed her the rifle, put on her hearing protectors and we waited for the deer to present a solid broadside shot and to clear the other deer. It was probably the longest ten minutes of her life. Finally he presented her with a shot. I helped her cock the rifle and told her to shoot when she was ready. She steadied herself and squeezed the trigger.
This is when we found out what happens when you load a muzzleloader incorrectly. There was a slight delay from when the hammer fell to when the gun went off. In the millisecond delay, Savannah shifted and her bullet went wide. To say that she was a little miffed is an understatement. She was a little angry.
I told her to calm down that there would be another chance. About five to ten minutes later, there was. We re-loaded the rifle, correctly this time, and she took aim. I lifted her earmuff and told her once again to shoot when she was ready. She steadied herself again and squeezed. With a roar the .45 cal. front loader went off and through the smoke I saw the deer drop. She was unable to see the deer go down what with recoil and smoke. She looked at me and asked if she got him. When I told her ‘yes, he was down,’ the look on her face was the biggest thrill I have ever had hunting. I now know the meaning of the phrase, "priceless."
Congratulations Savannah, on your first deer, now you can only shoot one bigger — love, Dad.
Ralph Ricks is the manager of Quality Cooperative, Inc. in Greenville.