THE TO­TAL OUTDOORSMAN

When you find the pa­tience and will to stick it out in your stand un­til the last sec­ond of le­gal light, any­thing can hap­pen

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By T. Ed­ward Nick­ens

In the very last sec­onds of a white­tail hunt, any­thing can hap­pen.

By T. Ed­ward Nick­ens

JUST LIKE AL­WAYS, I had set my cell­phone alarm be­fore I climbed the tree lad­der so it would vi­brate at the ex­act end of le­gal shoot­ing hours. The alarm keeps me hon­est. And fo­cused. Like now.

I knew the mo­ment had to be close. Any sec­ond my phone would start buzzing like a cricket in my pocket. I stared through the scope, the crosshairs puls­ing with each heart­beat, as I silently watched the big­gest deer I’d ever seen in the woods feed on bram­bles just in­side the edge of a swamp. The buck wasn’t 75 yards away. I could see the long curve of its main beam, a creamy slash in the twi­light. Tine tips tot­tered high over­head. But a glimpse of neck, a flick of ear, a tease of antler—that’s all I could see.

Step out, I silently begged. Please. I kept the crosshairs pinned to where I imag­ined the buck’s shoul­der would be, and I held the shot. The sec­onds ticked away. Just one step. Please. I watched for 15, maybe 20 sec­onds. Please.

Br­rth, br­rth, br­rth, br­rth.

I knew the mo­ment was com­ing, but I still jerked when the phone buzzed. Time’s up. A shot now would be il­le­gal, un­eth­i­cal, and dan- ger­ous. But I kept my eye in the scope, be­cause as sure as I knew the alarm was im­pend­ing, I knew what would hap­pen next: Ten sec­onds later, the en­tire an­i­mal emerged into an open glade. I watched the buck prance in pale light for five full min­utes un­der the stars.

THE MAGIC HOUR

Un­less I tag out early, I hunt un­til the bit­ter end, ev­ery hunt, ev­ery time, un­til the le­gal-light alarm chirps in my pocket and the let­ter of the law bids me to un­cham­ber the firearm. It’s all about the math. The later it gets, I fig­ure, the bet­ter the chances. Each sec­ond holds im­mensely more prom­ise than the sec­ond be­fore. We all feel the pres­sure as the shad­ows lengthen and then dis­ap­pear al­to­gether, and the evening cool falls like dew. But it’s the near-in­fi­nite hope held in those last few grains in the hour­glass that drives us crazy. And keeps us in the woods. There is both magic and mis­ery in the last few min­utes of le­gal shoot­ing light.

On cloudy evenings or on new­moon hunts, it seems crazy, that much I ad­mit. In the last few min­utes of le­gal light, there are times I can barely make out the trunk of a neigh­bor­ing tree. I’ve passed my hand in front of my eyes, just to com­pare the rel­a­tive dark­ness. But then I look through the scope at 30 yards dis­tance, and the deer trail emerges from the dark like a sil­very lane of moon­light on wa­ter, and I imag­ine a whop­per stand­ing there, calm and quiet and still. Could I make

the shot? That’s the im­por­tant ques­tion to ask. Not whether or not it is likely to hap­pen. Not whether or not I want to drag an an­i­mal out this late in the black dark. I’ve worked hard to sneak out of the of­fice, drive to the woods, and walk the long way around to move into the wind. I’ve climbed and suf­fered and let itches go un­scratched. It seems nuts to fold the tent with three min­utes of le­gal light left. As long as there is any chance at all, I’m go­ing to re­main in my stand un­til

the clock says I can hunt no longer.

One hunt long ago locked me into this pat­tern. It was a cold sit, colder than nor­mal for the rut in my neck of the woods, and I shiv­ered dur­ing a late last hour of noth­ing. Deer should have been run­ning through the woods like Pac-Man, but all life seemed to have been sucked out of the for­est. It seemed point­less to stick it out, and in the dark, the doubts grew. The voices started grum­bling in my head: You could be halfway back to the truck by now. The kids are bent over home­work, and you’re wast­ing time in the dark. A deer would have to be broad­side at 15 yards for you to shoot, and what are the chances of that?

The voices won, so I slipped my re­lease into a pocket and un­nocked the ar­row. That’s when the white­tail buck stamped, un­nerved by the move­ment. He stamped twice more and then bolted—his snort an in­dict­ment of my weak­ness. In the near dark I couldn’t tell his size, but I could tell this: Had he not seen my move­ments, his tra­jec­tory would have car­ried him broad­side to my tree­stand. At 15 yards.

TICK, TOCK…

Two days after my cre­pus­cu­lar nearmiss along the swamp edge, the sea­son ended. A few days later, I back-trailed that deer from the spot where he’d won our twi­light show­down, and fig­ured out where he had come from and where he was go­ing and where I would am­bush him the next sea­son with time and day­light to spare. I had lit­er­ally dreamed of that buck in the shad­ows, and I vowed to hunt him the next year till he fell or I’d lost the house to the bank.

In­stead, my club lost its lease on that farm. I’ve never had a sec­ond chance, and all I’ll ever have of that vam­pire buck—still the largest I’ve ever seen from a stand—is that sin­gle, late-light en­counter.

I think about that deer more than any other white­tail I’ve ever seen in the woods. The mem­ory of that buck keeps me in the stand long after the sun­light has melted away and I can barely see the ground, and stars wink be­tween the den­dritic fin­gers of the over­head canopy. When I don’t think there’s a prayer of see­ing a deer, that white­tail qui­ets the voices in my head and helps me tough it out: Sixty sec­onds longer… Just 30 sec­onds more… Not yet, stay down… It can hap­pen any sec­ond… Have faith… Ten sec­onds longer, and you can call it quits…

Now, count to 20.

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