By Glen Wunderlich
Member Professional Outdoor Media Association
New Year’s Eve is celebrated by many and, while amateur-night revelers made plans to toot their annoying plastic toy horns, we made plans to bolster the freezer stock with nature’s finest organic fare: venison.
My friend, Joe Reynolds, is a country boy ensnared within Lansing’s city limits. But, during this final 2008 deer hunting session in the frigid December elements, he would be far-removed from his invisible urban tether in nearby Shiawassee County. The late antlerless season, his trusty muzzleloader, and his determination were all the elements necessary to give it one last try.
Behind him was the blown opportunity only a week prior, when he hastily snapped his safety back and forth after pulling the trigger on a mature doe. But, as Joe quickly learned, it’s much better to slide the safety to the fire position, before engaging the trigger – kind of like engaging the brain before the lips. Oh, the infallibility of hindsight.
Our half-mile march to the seductiveness of the heated shack across the pristine snow would place us in familiar territory. My role in this hunt would be that of spotter – an extra set of eyes, if you will – to avoid taking a buck that had already shed his antlers. We wanted to harvest a mature doe and nothing else. It was to be Quality Deer Management in action one more time.
My Knight Revolution muzzleloader was not along for this mission; instead, I opted to tote my tripod and Alpen spotting scope with its huge 80mm lens and 20×60 variable power. Target definition? We had it!
Confidence? We had that, too. But, it was justly borne of much hard work afield and at the shooting bench, where we had aptly prepared. The brassica food plot had already paid huge dividends this season and we had reason to believe good fortune would continue.
Only 100 yards away, fresh, nourishing greens and veggies sown in August could still be seen protruding above the unspoiled snow-covered setup. Yet, the clock struck five and nothing. But, I remained vigilant and trained the clear glass on the primary travel route, never doubting for a minute.
The chilling west wind quieted with less than one half hour left in our holiday hunt, when the unmistakable movement of deer materialized. I hadn’t yet identified a target, but Joe readied his Ruger muzzleloader. With its #11 percussion caps and 90-grain load of Triple Seven powder, it had not the horsepower of today’s more modern smokepoles. But, with the Powerbelt Aerotip projectiles, it was as accurate as any.
We concurred on the absolute appearance of a matriarch amid the small whitetail clan but a button buck blocked Joe’s sight line to the vitals at 120 yards. We watched and waited. The youngster then cleared and Joe muttered that he was holding dead on the adult. In the brief instant beginning with the trigger squeeze and subsequent rousing report of the Ruger, my powerful optics allowed me to confirm a direct hit to the right front shoulder, as the entire group of deer scampered away.
Joe instantly began jamming a patch down the bore before reloading and managed to get it stuck on top of the breech plug. Consequently, he was out of business, and since my firearm had been substituted for an optical advantage, we were collectively out of back-up shots, if any were needed. But, since I was sure of the hit, we went to the scene in search of clues. A short while later, we temporarily suspended the tracking effort, after following spotty blood and tracks that had gone beyond typical distance for the seemingly fatal shot.
Back at the ranch, we had a secret weapon that was ready, willing, and more than able, as we were about to learn: Joe’s dog, Cocoa. Although the chocolate Lab mix had been untested in tracking, my experience had shown that domestic dogs – any of them – were suitable, if given a chance to help.
Oh, how she was ready! The leashed canine was put on the trail and forcefully yanked Joe through some wild rose, thus creating a secondary blood trail, which had emanated from Joe’s own protruding snout. It was impossible to keep up with Joe and Cocoa, as she guided him along the difficult path chosen by the desperate deer. And, then Joe barked, “It’s right here!”
Cocoa was totally nuts by now, doing her best to chew the expired doe to bits before we had a chance to enjoy the moment. And, as we dragged the deer away, I had to fend off Cocoa over and over, as her usefulness evolved into a struggle between her direction and ours.
As we toasted the tenderloins in the cast-iron skillet over the wood stove that New Year’s Eve, Cocoa joined the organic protein party that was uniquely different from any Times-Square, ball-dropping, horn-tooting shenanigans. We had worked our plan to perfection and it was time to celebrate in our own rural ritual, which no king would ever be able to top.