Gerald Almy: Hunt for whitetail deer finally leads to success

Gerald Almy

Deer season update: preliminary reports show a dramatic increase in the deer kill throughout the state and also in our own Shenandoah Valley. Regional biologist Fred Frenzel said “the deer look especially healthy this year. Some deer that you would think were 2-year olds turn out to be just yearlings when you look at their teeth. They found a lot of food somewhere.”

Like many hunters, my season started out slow during bow hunting because of hot weather. But finally during muzzleloader season my luck changed. This week and next I’ll tell the tale of that hunt, with a shocking end to the story that I have never experienced in many years of deer hunting.

It had been a slow season for bow hunters, yours truly included. The weather was unseasonably hot and dry. October, the paper said, was the hottest ever on record for that month. Crops were strong and acorns reasonably plentiful, so deer didn’t have to move much.

And every time it seemed that I had a few hours free, the wind was blowing wrong for my favorite early season stands. Then when I finally had chances and a doe walked into range, I foolishly passed it up in hopes a mature buck might be coming along after her. That never happened. The rut was still weeks away and mature bucks were staying in thick cover. Several small bucks did amble past my stand, but I let them go.

The venison in the freezer from last year’s deer supply was running thin. When early muzzleloader season for Virginia came in, I finally decided enough was enough. I needed to get serious and try to harvest a doe for the freezer. I could worry about antlers later when the rut kicked in hot and heavy and rifle season arrived.

Does are legal throughout the two-week season in Shenandoah County on private lands, where I mostly hunt, so decided this day I would finally bring home the bacon. Or rather, I would try to bring home the steaks, roasts and burger that I would get from a corpulent doe.

It was Veteran’s Day. As I sat on the stand wiling the minutes away, I said a silent thanks to our country’s armed forces. My mind also drifted back to the greatest veteran I knew, who I’d lost too many years ago, my father.

Then I thought about deer. And precisely, I wondered why weren’t they showing up?

This was a natural transition corridor they used moving from daytime bedding areas in the mountains as they headed down toward alfalfa and clover fields in the lower elevations. The wind, for a change, was perfect. But where were the whitetails?

Finally, with the sun sinking lower in the west, a fawn appeared, then another, then two deer that looked like mature does. Food had been so abundant the fawns were almost as fat as the does. I scanned particularly close to make sure I targeted a doe at least 1 ½ years old or more. A dark gray-coated one with vivid white circles around her eyes looked like she fit in that category, probably a 2 ½ year old.

Aiming carefully with the .50 caliber rifle, I settled the crosshairs behind her shoulder, calmed my nerves, made sure no fawns or other deer were behind her, and squeezed off.

The cap fired, then a split second later, the 120 grains of Triple Seven pellets ignited and the sabot bullet was on its way. Even though there is little smoke with these pellets, I couldn’t be sure how the deer reacted. It was a close shot–maybe 60 yards. I didn’t know how I could miss. But anything can happen in hunting — a flinch, a twitch, a sudden move by the quarry. It wasn’t likely, but maybe the scope even got knocked out of alignment.

Lowering the rifle, I climbed down, then reloaded, and went to look at the spot where the deer had stood. A few puffs of hair, and a tiny speck or two of blood. I rarely get good blood trails or instant kills with muzzleloaders, even though I take mostly close shots. But fortunately, I do end up retrieving the deer.

Hopefully that would be the case this time. But I decided to hold off for an hour before beginning my search. After the hour’s wait, I began looking for what I hoped would be an expired doe lying serenely in a bed of leaves ready to be field-dressed and retrieved.

Next week: Part II —  chilling conclusion to the author’s muzzleloader deer hunt.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.