By Thomas Walton
I believe most hunters would agree that the memories we make with our hunting friends are often the more cherished trophies rather than the animals we harvest. For this hunter, that could not be truer. I have been blessed with the opportunity to hunt with and learn from some amazing people. Without these friends, I would not have seen success or likely appreciated the experiences in the same way. When I think of a recent hunt where the memories made with my friends outweighed everything else, a mid-season whitetail hunt comes to mind.
We were going to Jason’s cabin way up in northern reaches of the Idaho Panhandle, dang close to Canada. Everyone had tags, and we were looking forward to some mid-November whitetail action. I already filled my regular deer tag during an earlier hunt, and I was hoping to fill a controlled hunt doe tag I was lucky enough to draw for the unit we were hunting in. I was excited as ever, like a kid before Christmas. This was only my second hunting season, and so far I had been blessed with great luck mixed in with just enough missed opportunities to make me earn my successes.
The pick-ups were loaded down with ATV’s, coolers, and a full array of gear and guns. I hung up the unleaded gasoline nozzle after topping off the truck and 4-wheeler. I climbed into the driver’s seat, put on my favorite driving tunes (Jamie Johnson radio on Pandora) and headed north. I was following my buddy, Justin, and his two sons, one of whom was 13-year-old CJ.
Justin and Jason are the kinds of friends who would do anything for you. Over the previous two years, both had shown me the ropes of hunting. I made my first big game harvest, my 2019 archery spring black bear, thanks to Jason. I took my first deer during the previous hunt thanks to advice from Justin. Justin and CJ are an incredible father and son hunting team. CJ has made some amazing harvests during his young hunting career but remains the humblest 13-year-old I know. Every time I’ve hunted with CJ, he always offers others the first shot. Knowing I was a very new hunter, he would say, “You haven’t gotten a deer before, so you get the first shot.” He was never worried about his own success.
Justin, his boys, and I arrived at the cabin mid-day. Jason and his son would be up later that evening. The cabin could’ve been on a postcard. Made from logs, it sat along a river’s edge nestled in a grove of tall cedars and white pines. Just offshore was primo fly fishing, which Justin was eager to get after despite the frigid November water. As soon as we got out of the trucks, we could see deer tracks, scrapes, and tree rubs everywhere. We were in the deer woods, and my excitement could hardly be contained. We quickly unloaded the trucks and jumped on the ATVs for some scouting.
The sky was cloudy and everything was wet from a morning rain shower. The air was cool and damp. The four of us started up the mountain, passing several signs warning us we had entered grizzly country. As we gained elevation, the vistas were jaw-dropping. We were surrounded by steep, forest-coated mountains. Misty gray clouds hugged the mountain peaks and filled every drainage. You could see for several miles, and we watched the river flow through the valley far below. We continued our climb, spending our time sightseeing and scouting for deer. We passed through several clearcuts before making our way into the snow line. We came across an eerie streak of bright red blood leading through the fresh snow and up the mountainside, crossing over several of the switchbacks we were winding along. We never found the terminus of the blood trail, but we imagined it was a wolf kill as the wolf sign was plenty. Eventually, we reached the top of a high pass. It was snowing and, despite my ski gloves, my hands were painfully cold from gripping the unheated handlebars of my 4-wheeler. After admiring the lonely silence of the snowy wilderness, we headed back down into the valley.
After reaching a trail leading down to the river, we split up. CJ and I rode towards the river, while his dad and brother went to check for some other trailheads. We rode through the thick cedar forest and stopped at a well-traveled game trail. It was the kind of trail that immediately gets you excited. I told CJ, “Man, this looks like a deer highway!” CJ agreed and we dismounted the 4-wheeler to investigate on foot. We quietly followed the trail through the woods and ended up at the edge of a large meadow.
Three sides of the meadow were lined with trees while the side farthest from us was the river bank. Cold mist occasionally pushed across the meadow, and the edge habitat was picture perfect. There were rubs and deer beds everywhere. CJ and I were excited and had to fight the strong desire to keep tromping around hoping to see one of the many giant deer we assumed must be calling this place home.
It was now mid-afternoon, and it definitely wasn’t getting warmer. We decided to mark the spot for later, and we headed back to the cabin to warm up. We met the others back at camp, and by now everyone was there. We grabbed some chow and spent time just relaxing in the beauty around us. CJ and I were excited to tell everyone about the suspected honey hole we located during our scout.
Now, I will admit this was no hardcore backcountry camp. In fact, we had a warm cabin and even a hot tub. The younger boys eagerly jumped in the hot tub and were eventually followed by their fathers. I asked Justin what his game plan was. He replied, “I’m going to hang out in the hot tub and warm up.” The general consensus was the hunting could wait until tomorrow. I, on the other hand, was too excited. I knew there was no way I could sit still in the hot tub and relax while the deer were out there waiting for me. I was here to hunt.
As I started gearing up, CJ asked if I was going to the spot we found earlier. “Heck yeah!” I said. CJ jumped up and eagerly advised he was going with me. I was excited to have the knowledgeable young hunter join me. While the others sat in the hot tub sipping pop (or whiskey), CJ and I donned our warmest waterproof clothes, slung up our rifles, and headed into the woods. Just before turning the key to start my 4-wheeler, I said to CJ, “How cool would it be if we came back with some meat while these girls are just sitting all cozy in the hot tub?” CJ replied, “We are definitely going to get a deer!”
I will admit, even though CJ had demonstrated competent outdoorsmanship, I was anxious to be responsible for my friend’s son’s safety while hunting in grizzly country. After a frigid ATV ride to the trailhead we’d previously marked, we dismounted and started our slow walk in. We agreed to still hunt our way down the trail to the field. It was getting late, and the cold mountain air felt alive. It may have just been us getting each other pumped up for the hunt, but I swear you could feel the woods teeming with critters. Everything felt perfect. I mean, if I was a deer, I would be out looking for dinner before the rain started up again. CJ and I agreed I would get the first shot at a doe since I had the doe only tag, and he was hoping to find a buck.
We walked about 50 yards into the woods when it happened. To our surprise, a beautiful doe flushed like a quail out a draw to our left. The deer ran through the timber right in front of us. I was in the lead and raised my rifle. My heart pounded. I couldn’t believe there was a deer in front of us already. But I needed the deer to stop running. I took a move from the many hunters I’d watch on TV and made the best attempt at a deer grunt I could. The deer stopped immediately and was now situated perfectly between the many trees giving me a clear shooting lane. What luck! I placed the crosshairs of my old hand-me-down scope over her vitals. As I was taught in the Marines, I exhaled until I reached my natural respiratory pause and applied a slow and steady squeeze to the trigger. My .308 cracked, echoing through the trees and off the mountains around us. I saw a bright flash, and the doe vanished.
I was sure I hit the deer, and CJ and I fought the urge to run over and look. We waited about 30 minutes hoping the doe bedded nearby and expired. CJ was electric with excitement. “Dude! That was a huge doe!” CJ repeated several times. The fact that this young, but fairly accomplished, hunter was so excited over me shooting a doe instantly made the trip. His enthusiasm and willingness to hunt was infectious. He is a heck of a hunting partner.
We walked over to where the deer was standing when I shot her. CJ told me he saw her turn 180 degrees and run off. Upon inspecting the ground, we found some blood and what looked like stomach bile. I instantly got sick. I started replaying the shot over in my mind. “There is no way I gut shot this deer,” I said despairingly. Maybe I jerked the trigger, or struck a tree limb I didn’t see.
It was getting dark fast. CJ and I regrouped, got our lights, and started tracking. There was so much deer sign, following tracks was impossible for novice hunters like us. There was no blood trail. CJ began suggesting we go back to camp and bring help in the morning. I told CJ we owed it to the deer to make the best effort we could at finding her, to which he agreed. Although, I knew he and I were both thinking about the grizzly bear warning signs we saw earlier that day.
It was pitch black out and I was losing hope. After about 45 agonizing minutes of grid searching the area, I decided to take a walk down the main game trail, something I hadn’t done yet for some reason. I only took about 10 steps before I saw the miraculous sight of brown fur and hooves lying peacefully on the trail. It was her. Relieved, CJ and I reveled in our shared success. We shouted, laughed, and exchanged some high-fives. We also took a quiet moment to appreciate the doe’s sacrifice, something we both thoroughly understood. After snapping a couple of quick photos, it was back to business.
Upon further inspection, we determined the round hit both lungs and a rib bone fragment tore the stomach. Knowing the rest of our party was probably getting worried, we quickly dressed out the doe and loaded her onto the 4-wheeler for an easy pack out. We drove back feeling proud of our accomplishment. CJ and I put in the work and went out despite the temptations of the warm cabin and hot tub. More importantly, we accomplished our mission as a team.
As we rolled into camp, everyone was standing in the driveway apparently considering forming a search party. We came to a stop and threw our hands in the air in an uncontrollable gesture of excitement and pride. Justin took a few photos of our victorious arrival, and everyone congratulated us for our deer. The guys jumped in and helped with skinning and hanging the deer. In short time, we were sitting around a fire sharing the story, joking, and laughing.
This may not have been a physically demanding pack-in hunt, and my doe was no trophy whitetail, but it was extremely meaningful and gratifying. For me, it wasn’t the deer that made the hunt amazing; it was sharing the excitement and experience with CJ. It likely wouldn’t have gone the way it did without his unwavering motivation and knowledge. As we move into the 2020 seasons, CJ reminds me of our doe hunt and that we need to do it again. There is no doubt he and his dad will be lifelong hunting companions.
Maybe it’s because I’m new to hunting, but I feel every hunt is special whether a harvest is made or not. The memory of the days hunting and spending time with great people is the best kind of trophy. I am looking forward to future hunts with my dear friends.
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