Through the early morning darkness, I gazed intensely into my scope to see the small food plot in front of me. Steam from my breath was trying its best to fog up my lens, and every few seconds I took my head off the gun stock to attempt to look with the naked eye. I was deep into an argument with my inner-self, and my brain was having a tough time believing what my eyes were seeing.
No. No. It can’t be…
But it really looks like a…
As any hunter knows, Mother Nature likes tormenting us with oddly shaped stumps, branches, and leaves that look like deer. Or at least what one would imagine a deer to look like, if one actually stepped out. Our brain has an idea of what to look for, probably thanks to reading one too many Field and Streams, so every time that weird leaf moves, we suddenly think DEER!
But alas, 99% of the time, it’s just some stump that looks exactly like a 10 point buck, or a blowing leaf that looks like a twitching ear. Low light conditions are the worst for these situations and I’ve lost count of the number of defenseless branches I’ve nearly poached over the years. It’s not uncommon for the same stump to fool a hunter 8 or 9 times in the course of a few hours. Eventually, however, the mind grows weary of being wrong –all- the time, and the thought process changes from: DEER!?!...No. To: Stump?...Yes.
So as I sat there in my stand in the low light of dawn, something caught my eye and my first thought was Stump? But there was a problem. After peering through the scope, it –really- started to look like a deer. More so than usual. In fact, it was even moving around. But since I hate to be wrong…especially when arguing with myself…I wasn’t completely convinced it was a deer. Maybe it was some weird shaped tumble weed or something.
I come by my reluctance in accepting that a deer is in front of me thanks to hunting years of Florida public land. Seeing a deer on Florida public land is a lot like a seeing a Unicorn, but probably less common. But I wasn’t hunting Florida public land. I was actually hunting a Southern Georgia quail plantation that’s been –extremely- well managed. So after what felt like an eternity of internal debate, I decided to take a chance at being wrong and guess I was actually looking at a real live deer.
I had decided before the hunt that I wouldn’t shoot any does. This particular plantation is one that I work on during the deer study. My job is to tranquilize does and I figured killing one would be the opposite of job security. So I kept my finger off the safety and watched the little doe eat. About 15 minutes later it became light enough that upon closer inspection, the little doe was actually a button buck. I was suddenly –very- thankful that I had not shot him right off the bat. By this particular plantation’s rules, I was allowed to shoot any does, and one “freebie” buck. After that, I would have to play by the rules of no bucks younger than 5 ½ years old. I definitely didn’t want my freebie to go to this little guy.
30 minutes later something caught my eye back behind me. I spun around in my stand to catch a glimpse of a deer, not a weird stump, as it slipped behind some cover. I readied my rifle, and watched the opening that it was heading for. Slowly, it poked its head out to reveal a tiny 5 point buck. Though this guy was admittedly bigger than my 6 point from last year, I decided that I didn’t want him to be my freebie either. I watched him for the next 15 minutes as he worked within 60 yards of me, walked out into the food plot, ate a bit, then moved off into a creek bottom. This whole time the button buck was still munching away and I timed it at right at a full hour before the button buck finally walked off.
Another 30 minutes passed before something else caught my eye in the same area I’d seen the 5 point originally. I quickly grabbed my binoculars (as it was now light enough to use them) and looked.
I don’t actually remember the process of putting away the binoculars and getting my rifle onto my shoulder, but I imagine it took about a millisecond. I found the buck in the scope and took a good hard look at him. He definitely wasn’t 5 ½ years old. He -might- have been 2 ½ , but his antlers were nice. An 8 point, and he was coming closer every second. The safety was off and my crosshairs darted from antlers to chest, antlers to chest. I had upwards of 5 minutes to shoot this buck, but finally decided at 70 yards out to not shoot him.
And before you toss me into the category of obnoxious trophy hunters that look at a 170 class buck and go “Meh…I’m really looking for something a bit bigger”, give me a second. He was admittedly small. He might have weighed 125-130. It was a young deer. And though every fiber of my inner Florida public land hunter was screaming “SHOOT HIM”, I let him walk. I know that I’ll get to hunt the area again in the coming years, and he’s going to be a very big deer. 140-150 class deer aren't uncommon on this plantation.
I climbed down about an hour later after not seeing anything else and walked back to the Jeep. While walking back I had a shot on two does that were standing in a field, but again, I decided to not shoot them. I didn’t need the meat, and I’d personally rather see a radio collar on them in a few months. Once seated in the Jeep, I couldn’t help but notice the big ol’ grin on my face. What I’d just experienced was, in fact, my best hunt ever.
No. I didn’t actually harvest anything. But that doesn’t matter. Too often we measure the success of an outdoor venture on what we shoot, or how many we catch. For me, I prefer to measure success in what I’ve learned or how much fun I’ve had. I had an absolute blast on this particular hunt. Seeing deer when you aren’t used to it has that effect. And at the end of the day, I wasn’t crammed behind a cubicle, or pages deep into my studying. Instead, I got to experience a fantastic hunt and enjoy a passion of mine. The whole thing was exciting and will remain a hunt that I’ll never forget. So to me, I call it successful.
It sure beat staring at stumps.