Although I primarily hunt with a bow, I’m not as hard-core as some guys I know. I still like to take the old Remington 700 in .270 out every once in a while. As a matter of fact, I have sort of made it my own tradition to take the old rifle out, at a minimum, on my first day of hunting during the general (rifle) season. In California, you can hunt with rifle or bow during the general season. You see, our hunting seasons are a combination of a long split archery season that starts in early September, takes a break for a month towards the end of October for the rifle season, and then picks back up shortly thereafter and continues until the end of December. A hunter is allowed two deer tags and I usually get one for the archery season (either sex) and one for the general season (buck only). Although there are some zones in California that can offer up trophy mule deer hunting, here in San Diego, we typically have a smaller breed of the California mule deer which tend to be on the smaller size in comparison to their northern and more western species. From my experience, a doe will typically weigh in at around 100 pounds and a mature buck usually tips the scale at around 175 pounds. Also, either due to the high pressure or simply to the limited terrain, we just don’t have that big of a herd. As far as antlers go, I would guess that in my 12+ years of hunting our local mountains and valleys, I’ve probably only seen a dozen or so bucks sporting more than forked horns on public land. So, I guess I have succumbed to hunting the “forkies” and made it my mission to try to harvest the biggest that I can find.
My hunting partner lives in the back country and is fortunate enough to be able shoot on his property. He had an issue with his rifle scope during the 2004 general season, and therefore needed to dial his rifle back in prior to hunting in 2005. So, we met up one Saturday morning at his house in the fall and had plans of getting his new scope dialed back in. I brought my rifle along for some plinking. It wasn’t long before he had the scope hitting right where he wanted after shooting at 100, 200, and 300 yards respectively. My job was to spot for him and call out the marks and necessary corrections. Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t include what ends up being a very important piece of information here. We had targets set up at 100 and 200 yards, but for the 300 yards target, we were using an old previously burned tree. There were two of these trees standing side by side about 18 inches to two feet apart. The trees’ bark had fallen off at some point after the wildfires in 2003 and therefore left a nice bright white surface in which to aim. It essentially reacted very much like one of those wax style targets; when a round hit the white surface of the tree, you could see a black dot. So, after getting him back on his mark, I figured I would throw a little lead at the 300 yard target myself. Not that I am bragging or anything, but this rifle hadn’t had to be adjusted since I started using it in 1994. It was just one of those guns that always stayed accurate! We switched assignments and it was now his turn to spot for me. So you can probably understand my frustration when, after my first shot, I heard my buddy say "way right." Of course I couldn’t believe it and doubted his spotting ability just a little, so I sent another round downrange. He gave the same reply; “way right”! Reluctantly, I unscrewed the cap for the adjustment on the scope and made the necessary adjustments (rookie mistake!). After a few more rounds I finally heard what I needed to hear; “dead on”. Just to make sure, I fired two more rounds and both met their mark. After returning home, I put the rifle back in the safe where it would stay until opening day of the 2005 general season. Up until that season, I had only harvested one local buck with my bow and a nice doe that we had fooled with a “silent stalk”. Needless to say, I hadn’t seen very many bucks throughout the years and the ones that I had seen were not what you would consider “big” forkies.
So, on opening morning of the general season, we had a game plan in place that included me going to a spot that we both though was a good escape route for the deer that would be pushed by the large number of hunters that were predicted to be in the area, and my buddy and his son would be about ¾ of a mile away on another hillside that had been productive for him in the past. As I crept up the hillside using nothing but the light from the stars, I heard the unmistakable sound of deer hooves hitting the ground as they retreated. I admit that at that point I walked the rest of the way to my vantage point with just a little disappointment and a feeling that I way have just spooked my trophy into the next county. Being just a little superstitious, I tried to consciously burn the negative thoughts out of my mind with different scenarios of how bumping those deer would actually help my cause. I guess I just can’t stand to be in the woods with negative thoughts in my head. I am, after all, doing what I love to do and there isn’t anything negative about that!
About thirty minutes later I finally reached my little rock outcropping that I had picked out and as slowly and as quietly as I could, I started strategically placing all of my “stuff” around my position. I put my range finder and binoculars to my right, my pack to my left, and my rifle straight in front. It was at that point that I started to enjoy my favorite time of a hunt. There’s just something about sitting in my spot an hour before shooting light that I really enjoy. I guess I just find some sense of peacefulness sitting in the dark and listening to all of the noises from the creatures of the night. As first light slowly creaks in, I caught movement through the bushes to my right but I couldn’t identify what it was. Of course this put my mind in overdrive and I started looking for paths in the general area and hoped that I would eventually see a big ole’ buck come out at some point. A few minutes into burning deer shapes into the bushes with my eyes, I caught movement straight in front of me at about 200 yards. Deer! I count one, two, three, and finally four does cautiously weaving in and out of the brush and headed directly towards me. I just knew that at some point a big old bruiser buck would eventually come lagging behind.
I must have watched the does for 20 minutes though my binoculars when all of a sudden they all stopped and looked to the right (my left). I slowly brought my binos down and switched my gaze to the left also. There he was! I had been so focused on the does that somehow a big forkie had come across an open field and was now standing on the hillside opposite my position. He could care less about the deer in front of me, and more importantly had no idea that I was there. I slowly lowered my binos down to my right and, without taking my eyes off the prize, I brought my range finder up to my eye. To say I was happy to see that this buck was only 135 yards out would be an understatement! Once again, I slowly returned the rangefinder to its spot to my right and then painstakingly repositioned my rifle in the direction of the buck. Because there was no pressure to hurry a shot, I just put the crosshairs on his vital and waited for him to put his head back down to eat. I took a deep breath, calmed my nerves, clicked the safety off, and then effortlessly applied pressure to the trigger. Booooom!!! Through the scope, I saw the deer drop in its tracks! And that’s when the fever hit me. I don’t know if it finally hit me that it was in the high 30’s that morning, the fact that I had just shot the biggest local deer that I had ever seen, or a combination of the two, but I started shaking like nobody’s business! It was then that my radio buzzed. It was my buddy. “Was that you?” he asked. “Yeah”, I said. “Whadya shoot?” “Just a forkie” I replied. He said that they hadn’t seen anything in range yet but they would make their way over to help me out. I knew he was just as excited as me because it was only 30 minutes into opening day and he was leaving his favorite spot to come see what I had shot.
I packed up all my gear and made my way down the steep hillside, through the ravine that separated the hill that I was on and the hill that my buck was on, and slowly started identify landmarks from my previous position. Of course, due to my new vantage point, everything looked completely different and for a brief minute or two, a since of panic set in. Where is my deer? I looked back to where I had been sitting and saw that I was off a little on my current position and had to adjust. A few more feet of walking is all it took and there he was! I was amazed. This really was the biggest forked-horn buck I had ever seen! He was outside of his ears and tall! Aside from the antlers, his body dwarfed the does that I had been watching earlier by at least double. It was then that I noticed something odd. There wasn’t any blood in his chest cavity. As a matter of fact, I didn’t see any blood at all! I rolled him over and still, nothing! I rubbed my hand all over from his front shoulder all the way back to his stomach and there wasn’t a drop of blood. Now my mind was really racing. “What? Did I scare him to death?” I asked myself. And then I just happened to look at his head again, and there it was. I drop of blood had formed ON HIS NECK! My round had hit about 18 inches to the left! In hindsight, it was a good thing that I had waited until he had his head down or I would have made a clean miss.
My buddy and his son finally made it over to me and they were equally amazed at the sight of my buck. We high-fived and took plenty of pictures and then I field dressed the buck and started dragging him down towards my truck. As we were dragging, I told the story of how everything had gone down and I then told my buddy about how my rifle had hit so far left. He was just as amazed as I was and so we made plans to meet back at his house to see what had happened. A couple of days later, I met him at his house to check the rifle and this time had decided to actually staple some real targets to the tree at 300 yards so we would be able see without a doubt where the round was hitting. I made the long walk down the hill beside his house, across the creek and through the ravine and then back up the steep hill to the trees that we had used before. That’s when it all came together! The tree on the right had two bullet holes side-by-side in it and the one on the left had several scattered around. After stapling the target to the tree and returning to my buddy, I asked him which tree he was looking at when I was shooting. He said he was looking at the same one he was shooting; the one on the left! So, because I was shooting at the tree on the right (and didn’t make that clear to him, and he was spotting the same tree that he had been shooting, I adjusted my scope to hit 18 inches to the left!!!
I know I call it a “rookie” mistake in the title and in the context of this story but, in all seriousness, that was a STUPID mistake and one that I am truly embarrassed to have made! It is also one that I vow to never make again. I am not putting any blame at all on my buddy because I am the only one that is responsible for what happens when the safety is taken off of my gun and pressure is put on that trigger. To this day, I still can’t believe I was irresponsible enough to let that happen! Luckily for me, the bullet hit the deer’s neck and dropped it in its tracks; otherwise, my stupidity could have injured that deer.
The mount hangs on the wall in my house, not only as a trophy, but more importantly as a reminder to me to always be responsible for my own actions.