It was the last hour, of the last day, of our first hunting trip to Nebraska. It was so cold, it was hard not to shiver if you weren’t moving. We had been crouched behind a thick cedar for about 10 minutes and the cold was really starting to sink in. We’d heard a couple of shots from our hunting partners over the ridge and knew the deer would be coming right through the draw we were hunkered down in. The anticipation was killing my 11 year old son.
It started out as a fun hunt for our Colorado hunting group to take all of our kids on. One of our hunting group members made a trip to Nebraska for a family funeral. Kind of a sad occasion, but was treated to seeing many of his family members and friends for the first time in 5-10 years. It was during this time of visiting and catching up he learned of a contact for his grandfather’s old homestead near Franklin, Nebraska, in the Republican river valley. After following up, he was able to set up a hunt for our group on several different ranches and farms for the last anterless-only season from December 26 through January 18th. Our group decided to hunt the week between Christmas and New Year’s with our kids.
I have to give the state of Nebraska some props here for making youth licenses and tags so accessible. Even a non-resident can purchase a youth tag for $6...yes $6! And each tag we purchased was good for 2 deer! Price is not a factor in deciding on hunting in Nebraska.
We had been hunting for 3 days now, this was our 4th and last morning. We had chased deer all over the hills and breaks just above the Republican river valley. The weather had been unseasonably warm up until a couple of days ago and most of the small finger draws still had running water in them; the cold had not yet frozen them. Thus, the deer weren’t forced into the river valley and the blind hunting on the fields in the bottoms was super slow. The deer just weren’t moving in the bottoms. We had sat in blinds for 2 straight mornings and an evening and had not seen a single deer. So we decided to do what any self respecting Colorado hunter would do, we went into the hills and did some still hunting and spot and stalk hunting.
It was this style of hunting that fit our group and certainly me as an individual best. I’ve always liked to hike and move when I hunt--it makes me feel more in control of my hunting destiny. Not sure that’s always the best tactic, but in this case our entire group decided we’d like to move into the hills from the blinds in the bottoms. When the cold front came through and chilled everything down to a blistering 20 F for high temps, making the jump to the hills seemed like a great idea to everyone.
We’d been chasing the deer and pushing them from one draw to the next and somehow, no matter how well we strategized, were always one step behind the deer. We’d anticipate they’d go down the draw and inevitably they’d go up. We’d block both the top and bottom exits and they’d exit stage right into the next draw. It took us a morning and a couple of afternoons, but we began to understand how, when, and where the deer were holding and moving. They were still much smarter than we were, but our chances were going up after each encounter and stalk.
Our group had already taken several deer by the last day. I’d already bagged 2 deer filling my tags, both on moving deer at about 200 yards. I was really wanting to get a set up for my son since this was his first deer hunting trip where he could actually carry a gun and shoot at a deer. But we had yet to have the deer present a good stationary broadside shot for him. And here we were on the last day, the last morning of our hunt. My son’s attitude was still great and he wasn’t about to give up, even if the cold was numbing. Just one chance, that’s all he wanted.
As we rested for a moment about half way up the draw, we heard 2 shots ring out from the other side of the ridge. I could see the spark of anticipation in my son’s eyes immediately. A quick check of the wind, it’s still blowing straight down the draw, perfect for our set up. “That’s our group, they just pushed some deer out on the other side of the ridge,” I told him. “We need to get set up in the narrow part of this draw, the deer will come right down this draw and we can be waiting for them.”
We quickly made our way toward the cedars on the edge of the draw where the width of the draw as only about 60 yards. There we crouched and waited behind a nice thick cedar bush--he would have a good view into the narrow part of the draw here. I walked uphill about 20 yards directly beside my son to get a better view of anything making their way down toward us. I could see them at about 100 yards moving steadily right at us. I eased back behind the bush that was my cover and motioned to get my son’s attention. I gave him 5 fingers, representing 5 deer, and carefully pointed where they were coming from. An overexaggerated lip sync of “GET READY”, and he was intent on finding the deer.
At this point I am only a spectator. It’s up to the boy now. I can hear the deer approach through the dried leaves and left over snow that had been thawed and frozen again. Then I could hear them breathing, only 20-30 yards from me. The deer still had no idea of our presence. I’m watching my son as I hear the deer. My son is doing his best to find them from behind his cedar tree when finally I see the expression on his face change from wonder to an intense focus. The deer are about 40 yards from him and have stopped right on a small bench just above the narrowed draw. He cocks his gun, a 30-30 Winchester model 94 that is the same gun I used to bag my first deer when I was 10. The stock comes up to his shoulder and he slowly slides out from behind the cedar tree. The boy is still moving slightly up, then down trying to get a clear shooting lane through the trees and brush. Finally, in what was probably seconds but seemed like hours to me, BANG, he fires the weapon. I hear deer scatter and then 2 does and 2 yearlings exit the draw on the far side going straight away from us.
After I watch the deer vanish over the horizon, I look back at my son. A huge smile and big thumbs up tells me he’s made his shot count. “Did you hit one?”, I ask him. “Yes, but it is still moving,” he answers. I make the hand signals to crank the lever and get another round ready to fire if the deer gets up and makes a run for it. I quickly make my way over to him so I can see his deer and determine if we need another shot or not. As I approach, he looks at me and says in a loud whisper “I want to do this forever! That was awesome!”
Of all the hunting memories I have, those comments from my excited son right after he made his first kill will stick with me forever. “I hope we get to do this forever too!”, I answer back to him. I reach his side and have him point out the deer to me. Sure enough, it’s right in the bottom of the draw. We watch for a couple more minutes. Not moving--it’s dead. We walk slowly down to the deer and sure enough he has placed his shot perfectly behind the front shoulder hitting the deer in the spine and dropping it in it’s tracks.
It was a great end to our hunt! The memories of that experience will live with both of us forever. And the fact that my son was able to use the same gun I used as a boy meant that much more to both of us.
The drive home seemed longer and the weather deteriorated quickly, turning into a blizzard by the time we reached the Colorado border making a long drive even slower and longer. But we had a lot to talk about so we didn’t mind.